The best part of this project for me was when students were able to discover - and try to retell - some of those stories, from women who led the way in countries all over the world, to women who led the way in their own families. While many of the stories we uncovered were very different - the daughter of a Japanese POW in an American internment camp, a mother of four running for state government, a Wyoming postmaster - many also shared striking similarities. We were struck by how much more difficult life was for women even a generation or two ago, how much most women had to sacrifice over the course of their lifetimes, and how little we know about our own family history. We also laughed and despaired at our drawing (and tracing!) skills, and got pretty good at sifting through biographical details to weave together a compelling narrative. I enjoyed the project so much, I have made it a permanent part of my freshman speech curriculum, and look forward to many more years of stories!
MY OWN PERSONAL STORY –
My paternal great grandmother, Martha Williamson, was born in Staten Island in about 1890. Her parents, who were both from Northern Island, had been banished there by her mother’s parents, farm owners who didn’t approve of her falling in love with a lowly farm hand. They eventually returned to Northern Ireland when Martha was about seven… all she remembered about Staten Island was green fields.
When they returned, Martha’s grandparents gave the family a small farm with some land attached. Martha spent much of her childhood watching the cattle.
In 1914, despite not being married, Martha gave birth to a daughter. She was in service (a maid at a big house) at the time, but she never disclosed who the father was. The daughter, also called Martha, was given away, although Martha Sr. did still see her regularly.
In 1922 she married John Hillis, ten years her senior, who was a widower with four children, aged between three and seventeen. (The family had all had diphtheria, which his first wife died from.) John had also lost his mother in tragic circumstances - she went back in to get her purse from a house fire and never came out.
In 1923 she had a daughter, Emily (my grandma), followed by sons John and Jim in 1925 and 1926. The family lived just off the Donegal Road in Belfast, which was very divided - Catholics lived at the top end and Protestants at the bottom end. John Sr. was a tram driver, although they also kept farm animals, despite being in the middle of a city. When the children were small, they had written to Martha’s parents asking for a loan; instead, they were sent two cows! John was a farmer’s lad so they rented a field and got two pigs as well.
During the war, Martha was an air raid warden in WW2 in the Women’s Voluntary Services. Belfast was bombed extensively in 1941; my grandma remembers sitting on a hill overlooking the city, watching Belfast burning.
Although life was hard in lots of ways, there were lots of tales of strong women in the neighbourhood, particularly during and after the war.
One lady, Mrs. Coleman, ran a drapers and was a local councilor. On voting day she had taxis available to take voters to the voting station. Sometimes there were more children than adults and some of the kids went more than once because they’d never been in a car before. Coleman always won!
Mrs. Gallagher, a war widow, was also the local moneylender, although she always charged interest, and woe betide you if you missed a payment!