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Journal of Women's History 12.1 (2000) 160-164
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Women's History in the New Millennium: The Next Generation of Scholars
Susan K. Freeman
Mabel Gardiner Hubbard Bell and Margaret Sanger are two historical figures that have captured the imagination of young scholars of women's history. While in sixth grade at Farnsworth Middle School in Albany, New York, Elizabeth A. Picker became an expert on the woman who was more than inventor Alexander Graham Bell's wife: she was a deaf women who was a "collaborator and confidant; patron of scientific research, patents, and inventions; plant and aerial experimenter; women's rights advocate; [and] promoter of education. A woman of impact, influence, and change." 1 During her junior year at A. C. Reynolds High School in Asheville, North Carolina, Serene Myers focused on Margaret Sanger as well as other twentieth-century women who were activists for or against birth control and abortion. Rather than treat the subject as a moral issue, Myers considered whether technology improved or weakened society and humanity. 2 Picker and Myers both entered the individual performance category for the National History Day competition, enacting ten-minute, one-woman shows. They won the women's history prizes for 1999.
National History Day is an annual event that judges papers, exhibits, performances, and documentaries produced by elementary and secondary school students in the United States. Students compete for awards and scholarships at the local, state, and national levels. Last year's overall theme was "Science, Technology, and Invention in History: Impact, Influence, and Change," and an estimated fifteen hundred competitors related their topics to women in science, technology, and invention. Women's history prizes went to submissions from junior and senior high school students.
Picker's and Myers's inspiration and selection of topics stemmed as much from their life experiences as the classroom. Picker's summer 1998 family vacation took her to Nova Scotia, Canada, where she visited the Alexander Graham Bell historic site. Curious about the woman the exhibits depicted, Picker read a biography on Mabel Bell that she purchased from the museum. When it came time to select a topic for a history day project the following school year, she quickly determined to learn more about Mabel Bell. Further travel with her family took her to the Bell family archives at Fairchild Gardens, Florida, and she conducted much of her research on-line, via e-mail, and on the telephone. The internet was helpful in locating out-of-print books on the Bells, and her on-line searches produced three two-inch binders worth of information. 3 [End Page 160]
Myers was already passionate about women's history when she selected her topic, "Motherhood by Choice." She wanted to examine something controversial because discord among opposing viewpoints was ideal for creating a dramatic performance. At first, the prospect of focusing on science, technology, and invention did not excite her, but she realized that studying contraception would allow her to consider the social and global implications of birth control technologies; she discovered that "science and technology served as a catalyst to a profound social movement." 4 Having lived in Papua, New Guinea, during her childhood and having traveled in recent years to Honduras and Micronesia, Myers's cross-cultural experiences shaped her decision to study a topic that surprised many of her peers. Although she and a number of her friends consider themselves feminists, she pointed out that many in her generation take women's rights and birth control for granted. 5 Yet, "whatever the race, wealth, gender, or age," she noted, "everyone [is] affected by contraception." 6
Each of the performances consisted of the students playing roles of historical women, based on research in primary and secondary sources. [End Page 161] Picker took the stage as Mabel Bell, giving a speech in 1923 to members of the Young Ladies' Club, in the garden at her home in Nova Scotia. The lecture revealed Bell's impact on science and change. Picker included a narrative about Bell's...