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It is said that the baby of a poor family froze to death in Evanston in the frigid winter of 1883-84. One Sarah Blanchard, the story goes, was so troubled by the event that she took out a small ad in the local paper to propose a gathering of concerned women in her home. Records show that in January 1884 Mrs. Blanchard founded the Benevolent Society, the first local charity not affiliated with a church.
Now a group called the Evanston Women’s History Project is leading an ambitious effort “to document and celebrate,” they say, stories of women like Mrs. Blanchard. Their 19th- and 20th-century lives and principles are woven into the fabric of our 21st-century city, though the memory of their names and dreams has frayed with time.
Three years after it set to work, the EWHP is putting a public face on its efforts with the exhibit “Lifting As We Climb: Evanston Women and the Creation of a Community,” opening on March 19 at the Evanston History Center.
The exhibit, featuring 30 women and organizations that helped to shape our community while boosting one another, will showcase artifacts, photos and costumes, along with some of the many books authored by Evanston women through the years, says Lori Osborne, EWHP project director and archivist for the EHC, where the project is headquartered.
The exhibit comes after years of research by interns and volunteers. Aided by Ms. Osborne and the staff at the EHC, their sleuthing has brought to life more than 300 women and organizations they first encountered as mere names on lists submitted for the project.
“We have never heard of these women. And we should have,” says volunteer Gayle Moline-Wilson. The work of piecing together their lives from resource materials in the Evanston Public Library and the basement of the Dawes House is “like a mystery,” she says.
En route to a master’s degree in history at Northwestern University, intern Kelly Bush says she has become fascinated with Sarah Blanchard. Like other EWHP researchers, Ms. Bush has brought an array of tools to bear in pursuit of the woman she refers to as her “pet project.” She has consulted phone books and city directories and tracked the increasing size of the Blanchard family using census data from the online resource www.ancestry.com. She is hopeful she will also uncover records of the Benevolent Society in EHC files.
But her most gratifying discovery to date is a bit of evidence that verifies part of the Sarah Blanchard legend, an unassuming newspaper ad inviting women into the Blanchard home to “do some sewing and talk” — an act the intern calls “not too subversive.”
“The stories of the women are what make it fun,” Ms. Osborne says of the EWHP. “You can see yourself in them. You can be inspired by them.”
Ms. Osborne says she is “amazed at the depth of [women’s] leadership and commitment … and the breadth … from the beginning of Evanston history.” She continues, “Even in the midst of traditional Evanston, it was not considered out of the ordinary for women to speak out in public.”
Long before the 19th Amendment granted American women the vote in 1919, Evanston women were voting for the first time in the 1891 election that sent the first woman in office to the School Board here, says Ms. Osborne.
The EWHP never saw their research as an end in itself. From the beginning the intent was to “take [our] research and make it useful – to see stories come to life and have some longevity,” says Ms. Osborne.
At the outset in 2007 the EWHP met with representatives from organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the Evanston Public Library, the YWCA, Shorefront, Northwestern University, the Woman’s Club, the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the Evanston History Center, the Frances Willard House and the Evanston Community Foundation to formulate a collaborative strategic plan and ensure funding.
Phase one of the strategic plan focused on research efforts. Phase two, beginning with the upcoming exhibit, is intended to heighten community awareness of historic women. Over the next year the project will launch a new website with access to an online research database.
Three other components of the plan focus on education and leadership. First, the EWHP is designing a women’s history curriculum for schools. Second, it is working with existing leadership programs for girls with an intent to “reconnect, but not to reinvent,” says Ms. Osborne.
And third, the EWHP is creating walking and bus tours with maps. “We want Evanston residents and visitors to know that important history happened here,” says Ms. Osborne. The hope is to establish eventually a thematic, not geographical, historical district.
As the home town of the prominent suffragist and temperance advocate Frances Willard, Evanston has long had a place in the story of American women’s coming of age. The EWHP is recognizing the important part played by lesser known individuals and organizations.
The EWHP knows of no other town the size of Evanston undertaking an effort the size of theirs. In other words, says Lori Osborne, the EWHP “is making our own women’s history.