The Evanston Community Foundation is in the midst of a three-year collaborative effort to document and celebrate women who have made and continue to make significant contributions to society. The objectives of the Evanston Women’s History Project (EWHP) are to bring the history of remarkable Evanston women to life and to make Evanston a destination for women’s history for tourists and scholars.
The project is funded through the Evanston Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls and several key donors who have made the project possible by agreeing to become funding partners. The project is headquartered at the Frances Willard Historical Association. Partners of the EWHP include the Evanston History Center, Shorefront, the Woman’s Club of Evanston, the Evanston/North Shore YWCA and the Evanston Public Library.
A National Story
Since Evanston’s founding in the 1850s, local women have not only played key roles within the community, but have also had significant impact on a national level. From Frances E. Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to the current City mayor, Lorraine Morton, Evanston women have made tremendous contributions.
“When it comes to women’s history, most people think of Seneca Falls, N.Y., where the U.S. woman suffrage movement was launched in 1848, but a national story takes place in our town as well and it needs to be told,” says Stella Ress, the project’s research assistant. “Evanston has produced and continues to produce strong women agitating for change.”
Lori Osborne, a local public historian and archivist and coordinator of the EWHP, foresees Evanston becoming the Center for Midwest Women’s History. As Ms. Osborne and her team began research for the project, she says a story of Evanston women began to unfold.
“We started to see a pattern. We saw women breaking the traditional mold again and again and we saw a community that supported it,” says Ms. Osborne. “In fact, it was Frances E. Willard who first said, ‘Evanston is a paradise for women.’”
Goals Focus on Knowledge, Leadership and Tourism
The ultimate goal is to create a community that revolves around the Frances E. Willard House and provides public access to the significant story of Evanston’s women.
In order to achieve that goal, the project will focus on three areas: increasing public knowledge, building leadership, and growing Evanston’s reputation as a tourist destination.
The research team is working to create a comprehensive database of significant Evanston women. The list currently holds the names of 246 women, and Ms. Osborne says they are nowhere near the end of that list.
“We want to tell the broadest story possible,” says Ms. Osborne. “Our hope is to build an ongoing list of economically, racially and ethnically diverse women.” Criterion for making the list simply requires that the woman who has made an impact has lived in Evanston.
The EWHP is also in the process of establishing a national historic district organized around women’s history. They hope to have a project outline to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency by the summer of 2009.
“One thing we didn’t want to do was create a historic district and a database and then put it on a shelf,” says Ms. Osborne. “We want to make the information we collect available and accessible.”
One way the project hopes to reach the community is by participating in programs that empower women and girls. The team is working to use the history they uncover to inspire future leaders. They are also creating a Women’s History Month curriculum for schools.
Ms. Osborn and Ms. Ress both express enthusiasm for being a part of this project. “It is a great example of the community working together with the right people at the right time,” says Ms. Osborne.
Ms. Ress says she is inspired to make history accessible to the public. “I believe it is my duty to make history interesting and available, so that it can live on. The stories of these women are worth sharing.”
Others Can Assist
The EWHP is seeking help from the community in all areas of the project’s work. They are particularly interested in uncovering the hidden stories of women who have played a behind the scenes role in Evanston history. Anyone can contact the EWHP if they know of a female, past or present, who has helped the Evanston community in a significant way. For more ways to participate call 847-328-7500 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.