Learning Ahead: Women’s History Month

Local Women & Local History:
Understanding New England Women’s Lives from the Past

Western Massachusetts Changemakers

Juanita Nelson (1923-2015) was an American social activist who made her home in Deerfield, MA.

Western Massachusetts is home to so many women changemakers who have dedicated their lives to enacting social change through the arts, critical inquiry, and learning. Still today, there are many women poets, writers, activists, artists, teachers, educators, and scientists that reside in Western Massachusetts and continue to work towards positive social change that fosters female empowerment, diversity and making women’s voices even louder in our globalized society and economy. Here, only a few women from history will be explored, however note the incredible number of talented women today in Western Massachusetts that continue to demonstrate the importance of women’s rights. March is Women’s History Month, a national observation that honors and pays tributes to those women who dedicated their lives to social justice, the environment, education, and  positive change for society. Their fortitude and perseverance as pioneers is honored during the month of March.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Poet Emily Dickinson’s works are considered to have revolutionized American verse. Originally from Amherst, MA, Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke College and devoted her life’s poetic work to serious intellectual inquiry, creativity and curiosity. As a result, she composed over 1,100 poems during her 20’s and 30’s.Her work was largely unpublished at the time of her death in 1886.It wasn’t until after her death that her work was brought to public attention through the efforts of family and friends.

The Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA provides the Western Massachusetts community the opportunity to explore Dickinson’s life, homestead and poetry. The museum’s mission “is to educate diverse audiences about Emily Dickinson’s life, family, creative work, times and enduring relevance, and to preserve and interpret the Homestead and The Evergreens as historical resources for the benefit of scholars and the general public.” The museum offers creative tours that present the story of Emily Dickinson’s life as well as dynamic public programming that weaves together poetry, education, and historic preservation. To learn more about the museum and Emily Dickinson, visit: www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Interested in reading Dickinson’s poetry? The Emily Dickinson Museum web site offers Tips for Reading Dickinson’s Poetry. Two of their suggestions, “Stay open to linguistic surprise,” and “Try ‘filling in the blanks'” are great guides for attempting to read Dickinson’s poems. Her poetry is often compact, and the images and language create a sort of dance back and forth,  encouraging the reader to read  the verses again and again. You often need to read her poems several times before starting to form a concrete interpretation or idea. That’s the beauty of Emily Dickinson’s poetry: the language surprises you, catches you off guard and invites you to dig deeper, even when there are not that many words to excavate. There are many ideas hidden beneath the surface of her words.One could argue that Dickinson intends for her readers to discover these ideas.

Read “Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314) by Emily Dickinson. A couple of things to notice while you read the poem over a few times: How does Dickinson utilize punctuation and why do you think she places commas and dashes where she has inserted them? What effect does it have on the way you read the poem? How does Dickinson create a play of images to convey single concepts or ideas? Notice how, through Dickinson’s various images that personify “hope,”  the concept of hope suddenly becomes more complex, rich, intriguing and even mysterious. This is the beauty of Dickinson’s poetry.

Elizabeth Porter Phelps (1747–1817) & Sarah Snell (1802-1824)

In her book Our Own Snug Fireside: Images of the New England Home, 1760-1860 author Jane Nylander looks at two women who lived in Western Massachusetts to demonstrate the domestic life of women in New England during the 18th and 19th centuries. Elizabeth Porter Phelps (Hadley) and Sarah Snell (Cummington) are two local women whose diaries and family papers have lent themselves to helping historians, such as Nylander, to construct more complete narratives of women’s lives in early New England. Sarah Snell was William Cullen Bryant’s mother. She raised her family in a two story colonial house which is now a part of the Victorian home that makes up the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, MA. A property of The Trustees, this historic site houses Sarah Snell’s diary from 1794 during the house’s tour season. This diary, as well as the Snells’ other diaries (currently at Harvard), detail her daily activity thereby providing a picture of the life of a woman running a small homestead in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the house, visitors can learn about Snell and see her portrait hanging in the historic home as well as see the original floorboards and the house in which Snell raised her family.

In Hadley, the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum, constructed in 1752, contains a rich collection of objects.The family’s papers, diaries, and important documents are now housed at Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections. The house is open May-October for house tours and special events such as community days and teas. Interestingly, the house was owned by three generations of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. Elizabeth Porter left the house to her daughter Elizabeth Phelps and Phelps passed it to her daughter Elizabeth Huntington. It was  103 years after it was built that the home was given to a son!

Another Western Massachusetts museum is the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, MA. The museum contains a unique textile collection that speaks to the intricate and skilled craftwork New England women accomplished. It demonstrates the domestic arts in a way that highlights the amount of skill required in quilting, fiber arts, and needlework achieved by women of the 18th/19th centuries.

Juanita Nelson (1923-2015)

Juanita Nelson was an American social activist who made her home in Deerfield, MA. In 1948 she co-founded the Peacemakers, a group of pacifists that advocated non-violent action against  war through tax resistance. Additionally, Nelson worked on desegregation campaigns and was an organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality. She also participated in early sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement while a student studying at Howard University. In her later years, Nelson and her husband chose to live on a reduced-income as a form of peaceful tax resistance. As supporters of local food and agriculture, they built their own home in Deerfield, MA and grew most of their own food.

Nelson was arrested several times for tax resistance and civil rights protests during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In 1974, she and her husband, Wally, practiced organic farming at Woolman Hill in Deerfield, MA, where they received a small plot of land, built a small home with no running water, and lived a frugal and consciously simple life as a form of peaceful protest.

In 1980, Nelson told The Recorder,” If you believe in something, it’s forever. If you can’t build on what you’ve done before, you’re not getting anyplace…Your life is your action.”

Nelson and her husband Wally were responsible for helping to found the Pioneer Valley Tax Resisters and the Valley Community Land Trust, as well as the Greenfield Farmers’ Market and the Greenfield Free Harvest Supper. Visit these events to see how belief in your actions to bring about social change can influence your community.

[Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield]


Download our March/April edition of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts for embedded learning opportunities found in cultural resources that exist within the geography, history, and cultural traditions of Western Massachusetts.

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