restricted access 10. “Every Woman Has a Story”: Donna Joy McGladrey’s Alaskan Adventure - Sandra K. Mathews
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197 10 “Every Woman Has a Story” Donna Joy McGladrey’s Alaskan Adventure sandra k. mathews Historian Sandra Mathews titles her article “Every Woman Has a Story” and describes how she uncovered the story of her aunt, Donna Joy McGladrey, an extraordinary woman who sought adventure in Alaska but went searching for it as a teacher, a traditional female role. In Alaska, she developed a community with fellow teachers and other local people. McGladrey died in a plane crash, but when Mathews went to Alaska, she found a community that still remembered her aunt and the work she had done there. Through her research, Mathews shows how oral history can re-create the social and community context in which people live their lives. She also shows that oral history gives a voice to ordinary women and provides a context for understanding, as historian Susan Armitage explain, “their coping strategies.”1 in 1991, noted historian Elizabeth Jameson declared to her Western Women’s History students, “Every woman has a story.” She then encouraged her students to look for letters, journals, or diaries of our female relatives. As I listened, I remembered some letters that my grandmother had copied and sent to me in the mid-1980s written by her daughter, Donna Joy McGladrey. In the letters from 198 sandra k. mathews the 1960s, Donna had meticulously described what she perceived as a unique experience that needed to be recorded for posterity: a young white woman from south Chicago moving to the “last frontier ”—Territorial Alaska—to teach music in the remote village of Dillingham in the late 1950s. Donna expressed to her mother emphatically : “Please save my letters in your chest . . . I want to write a book someday.”2 Verna diligently saved all of Donna’s letters and, after Donna’s death, transcribed and copied them for family members . Because Verna had removed some of Donna’s descriptions during transcription, I located all of the original handwritten letters and transcribed them in their entirety, and a story began to emerge. Women’s history tells historians that sometimes women tend to filter their story to their parents, so after much research, I located Donna’s former best friend from high school, June (Swatosh) Delahanty , hoping that she had kept letters as well. Fortunately, June had saved all of the letters Donna had sent to her (as well as the envelopes in which they arrived). Finally, Donna’s sisters discovered letters that their father had sent home from Alaska in 1960. Once all of the letters were completely transcribed and assembled chronologically , Donna’s story became captivating. Conducting archival research and oral history interviews to fill gaps in her story provided the next logical step to corroborate the information that Donna had shared about living in Alaska and as the first band instructor in Dillingham during the 1958–59 school year. Donna was born in Mora, Minnesota, twin to Dorothy and sister to Joan. Her older sister, Joan Eik (then Engelsen), told about the conditions in which their parents raised their daughters. Donna’s sisters explained the difficulties of living in south Chicago during the Depression, during World War II, and as impoverished daughters of a Methodist minister who worked as an insurance adjuster on the side to make ends meet. They remembered car trips to visit relatives before the war: dorothy: The old-time cars, the electrical equipment or the batteries weren’t as good as they are now so when it was raining . . . the windshield wipers would go slow or fast depending on whether you’re going uphill or downhill so we would sing, ah, “Every Woman Has a Story” 199 with the windshield wipers being the metronome and we’d be singing really slow and the windshield wipers were going slow ’cause we’re going uphill then we’d go real fast ’cause we were going downhill. And we’d just laugh and laugh, laugh so we couldn’t hardly sing. joan: I remember one occasion we were traveling . . . anyhow, we were singing hymns . . . one of dad’s favorites was, what? [I think?] Earl Marlott’s “Are Ye Able” . . . “Are ye able said the master,” and uh, there’s a part where it says . . . dorothy and joan [singing]: Yea the sturdy dreamers answer. joan: And he sang out . . . dorothy and joan [singing]: Yea the dirty streamers . . . joan: We laughed all the way to the next state.3 The girls obviously enjoyed a fun childhood. But Dorothy and Joan also explained...


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Subject Headings

  • West (U.S.) -- Social life and customs -- 20th century.
  • West (U.S.) -- Social conditions -- 20th century.
  • Interviews -- West (U.S.).
  • Oral history -- West (U.S.).
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