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Using Oral History in the Classroom


We had the women students describe their own life story and then we typed it up and put them into mimeographed booklets. . . . Economics was a heavy word to most women working in industry, but they could understand tracing their lives from Russia across Europe and into a loft in New York City and give this wonderful word picture of that. I remember one woman who said, immediately upon hearing her own story [read back], never thinking that it had any importance, “My God, did I come West?” Finding herself in the whole world somehow as a result of this simple . . . [exercise].1

Oral history did not begin as a teaching methodology. That application was discovered in a variety of circumstances and settings ranging from high school courses in Rabun Gap, Georgia, that resulted in the famous Foxfire series (publications of students’ interviews with residents of their Appalachian community), to graduate seminars at major universities. Oral history was begun at Columbia University by Professor Alan Nevins in 1948. He wished to preserve for future generations sources for written history that he felt were being lost because twentieth-century men and women conduct business either by taking a plane and discussing issues in person or by picking up the telephone, instead of leaving a written record. While archival sources are voluminous with regard to the recent past, they often do not contain much of the real substance of how decisions are made or how personalities interact. Nevins felt that he might use technology to overcome the very difficulties it had created; that is, he might seek out those involved in the development of various institutions and events and reclaim their experiences via the tape recorder. In doing so, he was preserving what some have called “history warm.”

Labor historians found in oral history a valuable resource. First of all, industrial unions developed largely since 1934; individuals important to this development are still alive. Second, it has been a controversial history, and many primary sources for future historians are biased. Finally, those important in the labor movement typically have not written memoirs, kept detailed diaries, or to put into the record of their organizations the specifics as to how these organizations grew.

Thus, just as with black history and women’s history, so with labor history: often the only way of obtaining the information is to seek out the individuals who were there and ask them, “What was it like? How did it happen?”

Oral history is unique, in that it exposes the historian to a source that talks back. The oral history subject can remind the interviewer to ask the most insightful and penetrating question, can argue with the historian’s interpretation of events, and can even question other sources. Because of this dialogue, oral history enables us to revise and expand the nature of history itself.

Conventional labor history conditioned us to think of organizations from the top down. The leader saw a need, developed an organization to meet that need, and was responsible for the organization’s color, tone, and direction. But this view is incomplete and distorted. As we have developed a collection of interviews, it has become obvious that many individuals were responsible for countless important decisions and programs within organizations. Often their names and efforts have gone unrecognized. They sought out the leaders with ideas that the leaders adopted as their own. Their enthusiasm and dedication made possible organizations capable of both taking on the power of corporate giants and responding to the needs and aspirations of workers.

This is especially important in examining the contributions of trade union women. Women have often initiated the first tentative drive for organization around their kitchen tables or in the shops. They have passed out leaflets. They have marched, printed signs, participated in developing strategy. They have been on picket lines, made coffee, operated soup kitchens, set up first-aid stations, supervised ballot boxes, typed memos, run mimeograph machines. But all too often they are missing from the victory celebration picture in the newspaper. Because they were not credited with their efforts, were socialized to withdraw from positions of leadership, and bore the double burden of home and job, women were denied a place in the official histories (except, perhaps, for a passing bouquet to “those wonderful gals who worked so hard”). Thus women lack a past; their particular vision has not been preserved for their daughters. Without role models it is difficult for women to develop self-esteem, to understand how women of accomplishment planned their lives and managed all the demands on their time and energies.

Oral histories with trade union women are beginning to reclaim some of these remarkable lives. The summer 1977 issue of Frontiers is devoted to women’s oral history.2 Several articles are of interest to trade union women, including “Anna Sullivan: Trade Union Organizer,” an interview conducted as part of a major oral history project initiated by Joyce Kornbluh at the University of Michigan. The project uses a collaborative model that enlists the cooperation of oral history projects all over the United States to develop a collection entitled “Twentieth-Century Trade Union Woman: Vehicle for Social Change.” The collection admirably fulfills Lynn Z. Bloom’s rationale for a women’s oral history:

Every oral interview with a woman is a means of enhancing not only that woman’s individual place on this earth, but the significance of women generally. The oral historian can raise the self-esteem of the woman interviewed, for in talking about themselves women can recognize the worth of their roles, their efforts, their contributions, their lives. Through the medium of oral history, other women can identify with their sisters, mothers, grandmothers, daughters; men can come to know women better.3

One of oral history’s most exciting possibilities is its use in the classroom with women trade unionists. The concept of “everywoman her own historian” (to paraphrase Carl Becker) occurred to several oral history practitioners at more or less the same time but in different places. Becker meant to justify its value to professional historians. “Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities.”4

But understanding the past is not only for those who have purchased credit hours at an institution of higher learning. The oral history process unearths natural historians in diverse settings. Used as a teaching device, it can enhance a woman’s capacity to see the significance of her own past and to communicate it to others. It can enable a person to recover, preserve, and interpret this past, rather than have it interpreted for or imposed upon her.

Nancy Seifer summed it up in the preface to her book of oral histories with working-class women, Nobody Speaks for Me:

I wrote . . . a pamphlet, Absent From the Majority: Working-Class Women in America. The pamphlet apparently struck a sympathetic chord and began to fill a vacuum in women’s literature. I was being invited to speak at conferences . . . about working-class women. I felt ill at ease. It was one thing to advocate the needs of a group and to advocate coalition-building and quite another to assume the role of spokesperson for a group one is not a part of. Still, there was a great void. In the rush of new literature inspired by the feminist movement, there was hardly a mention of working-class women . . . . it occurred to me that a book of oral histories of the lives of working-class women would not only help fill the void in women’s literature, but it could provide an opportunity for women who would never write about themselves to be heard. They could talk about their lives.5

The resulting book rings true in a way seldom achieved in writings about working-class women. Excerpts from it might well be used to get trade union women started on an oral history project of their own.

Our labor history courses used to work laboriously through sources that often lacked reference to the lives of women trade unionists. In 1972, Ernestine Friedmann, a pioneer in workers’ education, described in an interview how she had made economic history come alive for her women students in the 1920s. We realized that this taped interview need not simply repose on the shelves of the archives awaiting the pleasure of a researcher, but could be used to teach men and women in trade union education classes. What was more, it would have immediacy and relevancy to our students.

As we began to use these materials, students began volunteering to add their own life experiences to the collection. We began to develop a workshop format in which younger students interviewed older members of their own local unions. In the process of researching old minutes, books, and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings gathering dust in local union files, history became not a subject to be endured but an affirmation of self and community.

This method has enlivened several education conferences for women unionists. It has enabled older trade union women to share their experiences and to talk about the actions and attitudes of their trade union brothers and sisters. They have also talked about their failures and what could be learned from them, and described the responses of husbands and children to their activism. We have discovered that the younger women often make excellent interviewers, asking questions that might never occur to the trained academic historian or sociologist.

Oral history, then, can be used in the classroom in at least two ways. First, transcriptions, tapes, and tape-slide presentations can be brought to the classroom as learning resources; second, a workshop approach can be organized to teach women unionists to collect these memories themselves.

Suggested Outline for a Labor History Course Using Oral Histories

In the first session, establish the class’s average generational span. In one recent workers’ education class, this span worked out as follows:

Your grandparents’ generation: 1877–1919. We provided the students with readings on the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877; the Haymarket Riots in 1886; the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892; the Pullman Strike of 1894; immigration and industrialization; the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909; the 1912 Strike of Chicago Clothing Workers; the Lawrence Strike of 1912; and the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

Your parents’ generation: 1919–1948. Here the topics covered were: the return to welfare capitalism after World War I; the Great Depression; the New Deal; the rise of the CIO; coal mining communities; miners and garment workers; World War II and women industrial workers; post-war reconversion; the Taft-Hartley Act.

Your generation: 1949-the present. The merger of the AFL-CIO; the rise of public employee unionism; the black worker; the woman worker; the United Farm Workers vs. the Teamsters; contest for union office; the United Steel workers of America; the United Mine Workers; the Landrum-Griffin Act; OSHA; pension reform; the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Students were asked to interview their grandparents and parents, wherever possible. We suggested that they interview their grandmothers and mothers separately from their grandfathers and fathers. The students were amazed at the wealth of material that they collected that related directly to the readings. They also reported that they discovered much about their families they had never known, but particularly about their mothers and grandmothers, some of whom spoke about their work experiences for the first time. One student reported that he had not known that, before and during World War II, his mother worked at the Cluett and Peabody Company, makers of Arrow shirts, and had participated in organizing the plant in 1941. Another found that her grandmother had fed strikers during the steel strike of 1919 and had fled from mounted police while trying to carry a cauldron of hot soup.

The students were asked to play segments of their tapes for the class. These produced lively discussions. Students found a great community interest in sharing these family histories. One student remarked: “My grandparents were Italian immigrants, my grandfather a stone mason, my grandmother a garment worker, my father worked for Westinghouse and my mother was a World War II steelworker, and I’m a public employee. Our family illustrates all of American labor history!”

Suggested Outline for an Oral History Workshop

1. Divide the group by local or international union.

2. Have each group identify sources within the group. It is often advisable to invite specific retirees to join the group on the basis of their knowledge, experience, and willingness to participate in the project. The teacher should conduct a pre-interview to assess topic areas that might be covered and to make sure that the older women understand the project and what will be required of them. They certainly ought not have such a project sprung on them.

3. Conduct a session for the total group to familiarize them with the tape recorder and how to conduct an interview.

4. Discuss sources available on the period under discussion. In workshops with steelworkers at Penn State, we have conducted several sessions in the archives, enabling participants to research the history of their own local before the interviews are begun. Where access to these kinds of sources is not realistic, provide excerpts from published histories of the union or outlines of union history and issues to guide the discussion. (See also the suggested guide to questions for trade union women published in Frontiers, pp. 114–18.) However, do not let the students simply read off the list of questions, or they are likely to get short-answer replies. Point out that they need to be alert to follow up with their own questions when the interviewee is particularly knowledgeable and to be sensitive to the interviewee’s responsiveness.

5. Discuss techniques for asking good questions. Willa Baum’s Oral History for the Local Historical Society contains a useful discussion on interview technique. One of the best questions is “Why?” or “Tell us more about that, please.” The questioner should maintain eye contact with the interviewee. If a subject obviously loses interest, that’s a sure sign of a poor interview.

6. Make arrangements, if possible, to transcribe the interview. See Oral History from Tape to Type by Cullom Davis, Kathryn Back, and Kay MacLean. If transcribing is too time-consuming or costly, at least make a copy of the tape to give to the local union. Either a copy of the transcript or a copy of the tape should be offered to an appropriate library. (See list of oral history projects, below.) Often the local library is collecting tapes on community history; don’t lose the opportunity to have the union’s history preserved where it can continue to benefit students and others in the community.

7. Make arrangements with the interviewee with regard to access to the tapes. Make sure that the interviewee understands exactly where the tapes and transcripts will be kept and who will have access to them. A release should be signed by the interviewee and the interviewers. This understanding should be read onto the tape. Tapes can usually be deposited in a labor archives with the stipulation that they be closed to access for a specified number of years or for the interviewee’s lifetime. This is an essential step that must not be overlooked. Without this release the tape should be destroyed, as it may subject interviewees or interviewers to possible legal damages or embarrassment and harassment. Sample release forms and advice may be obtained from the Oral History Association or from the Pennsylvania Historical Collections at Pennsylvania State University,

8. It is often possible to edit the tape to produce a short tape for use in subsequent classes. Thus, tapes can be made on such topics as child care, maternity benefits, health and safety, sex discrimination, etc. Such tapes, unless they are accompanied by slides, should not exceed ten to fifteen minutes in length. Most school districts have an audiovisual specialist who can help in such a project and often is willing to do so at no cost, providing a copy is made available to the audiovisual library of the school and blank tapes are provided.


A great deal could be said on the subject of equipment, and many brands and types of recorders have their ardent supporters. In general, cassette recorders are adequate to record speech, but the generally greater fidelity of reel-to-reel recorders makes them preferable for recording music. Also, reel-to-reel tape is easier to edit. Cassette recorders, however, are more portable and less obtrusive, and cassettes can be inserted with less manipulation. If recorded only on one side, they can also be cut and spliced. The cassette recorder’s fidelity can be greatly enhanced by using an external microphone instead of the internal mike built into the machine. The price of a high-quality microphone—from thirty to sixty dollars—will be amply rewarded in good sound. An omnidirectional mike is required to record multiple voices. If there are just two voices, however, lapel mikes will produce excellent sound and reduce the amount of room noise. Avoid stereo recorders, as they require two microphones, are more expensive and complicated than is necessary, and, moreover, produce tapes that cannot be spliced easily.

Listed below are some features to look for in a recorder:

1. End-of-tape alarm to warn you when the tape must be turned over or changed.

2. A jack to permit use of house current. House current, rather than batteries, should be used wherever feasible, as run-down batteries can impair recording quality. Having an extension cord may save you having to rearrange the furniture where you are recording.

3. Battery level indicator.

4. Recording level indicator and automatic level control.

5. Pause switch, to enable you to stop recording without depressing the off switch, which causes a click on the tape.

6. Digital counter, which greatly facilitates finding material on the tape.

7. Foot pedal for transcribing.

One final note: Buy polyester high-fidelity tapes of not more than 90 minutes in total length (30–45 minutes per side). Longer tapes are thin and easily become twisted and snarled.


Baum, Willa. Oral History for the Local Historical Society. 2nd. ed. Nashville, Tenn: American Assoc, for State and Local History, 1975.

Brownlee, W. Elliot, and Mary Brownlee. Women in the American Economy: A Documentary History, 1675–1929. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976. Pp. 226–40 contain part of an interview with Jenny Matyas, ILGWU leader, originally conducted by the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library.

Davis, Cullom, Kathryn Back, and Kay McLean. Oral History from Tape to Type. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 2, no. 2 (Summer 1977). Special issue on women’s oral history; this is an excellent source, with suggested interview questions, a note on equipment, and several interviews with working women.

Hareven, Tamara K., ed. Family and Kin in Urban Communities, 1700–1930. New York: Franklin Watts, 1978.

        , and Stephan Thernstrom, eds. Documentary History of American Cities. New York: Franklin Watts, 1978.

Hartley, William G. Preparing a Personal History. Salt Lake City, Ut.: Primer Publishers, c. 1976. A step-by-step guide to the preparation of family history.

Hoffman, Alice M. Preserving Your Local Union History through the Tape-Recorder Interview. Pittsburgh, Pa.: United Steelworkers of America, 1972.

Lynd, Alice, and Staughton Lynd. Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers. Boston: Beacon, 1973. Contains accounts of several women organizers.

Neuenschwander, John A. Oral History as a Teaching Approach. Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1976.

Oral History Association. Newsletter (published quarterly), and Review (published annually). Oral History Association, North Texas State University, P.O. Box 13734, NTSU Station, Denton, Tex., 76203.

O’Sullivan, Judith, and Rosemary Gallick. Workers and Allies: Female Participation in the American Trade Union Movement, 1824–1976. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975.

Siefer, Nancy. Nobody Speaks for Me: Self portraits of American Working Class Women. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976. An excellent source to inspire students to conduct their own interviews.

Southern Exposure. Quarterly journal of the Institute for Southern Studies. P.O. Box 531, Durham, N.C., 27702. Frequently publishes oral histories with southern workers, both men and women.

Terrill, Tom E., and Jerrold Hirsch, eds. Such as Us: Southern Voices of the Thirties. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1977. This is a collection of histories by the Federal Writers’ Project.

Tilly, Louise A., and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work and Family. New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970.

Union Maids. Filmed interviews of three union women, combined with archival footage and stills. New Day Films, P.O. Box 315, Franklin Lakes, N.J., 07417. 16mm; black and white; 45 min.

Wasserman, Manfred. Bibliography on Oral History. Rev. ed. Denton, Tex.: Oral History Association, 1975.

Wertheimer, Barbara M. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Westin, Jeane. Making Do: How Women Survived in the Thirties. Chicago: Follett, 1976. Includes an interview with Genora Johnson Dollinger, who organized the women’s brigade in the UAW strike at Flint, Michigan, in 1936.

With Babies and Banners: Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade. 16mm film available from the Women’s Labor History Film Project, 1735 New Hampshire Ave. #402, Washington, D.C., 20009. Color; 45 min.


California. Willa Baum, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California/Berkeley, Berkeley, Cal., 94720. Major Topic: the wine industry, trade-union women.

Georgia. Les Hough, Archivist, Southern Labor Archives, Library, Georgia State University, 104 Decatur St. S.E., Atlanta, Ga., 30303. Major topic: southern labor.

Hawaii. Edward D. Beechert, Director, University of Hawaii, Pacific Region Oral History, Department of History, 2550 Campus Road, Honolulu, Haw., 96822. Major topics: labor history of Hawaii, development of statehood, and social history of Japanese and Filipinos in Hawaii.

Illinois. Elizabeth Balanoff, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago, 111., 60605. Major topics: labor history in the Chicago area.

Iowa. University of Iowa, Center for Labor and Management, Phillips Hall, Iowa City, Io., 52240. Major topic: communication workers.

Michigan. Robert M. Warner and Joyce Kornbluh, Michigan Historical Collections, Oral History Program, University of Michigan, Rackham Building, Ann Arbor, Mich., 48104. Major topics: industrial unionism in the 1930s and 1940s; life and times of Frank Murphy; the University of Michigan and local history; and trade union women.

        . Philip P. Mason, Director, Wayne State University, Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Detroit, Mich., 48202. Major topics: unionization of automobile industry; civil rights movement; blacks in the labor movement; Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

New York. Louis M. Starr, Director, and Elizabeth B. Mason, Associate Director, Oral History Research Office, Columbia University, Butler Library, New York, 10027. Major topic: public affairs—literature, law, medicine, journalism, music, architecture, painting, sculpture, business, labor, and pure science are represented, in a collection designed to provide source materials on twentieth-century American life, with emphasis on its leaders.

        . Herbert Finch, Archivist, Cornell Program in Oral History, Cornell University, 502 Olin Library, Ithaca, N.Y., 14853. Major topics: innovation and diffusion of ideas, practices, and technology, institutional studies, family decision making, NLRB, railway labor.

        . Joshua A. Fishman, Director, Yivo Institute for Jewish Research, Inc., Oral American Jewish History, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10028. Major topic: history of the Jewish labor movement and Yiddish and Hebrew culture since the beginning of the century.

North Carolina. Jacquelyn Hall, Southern Oral History Program, Department of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, N.C., 27514. Major topic: southern labor.

Ohio. Dennis East, Division Chief, Archives-Manuscripts, The Ohio Historical Society, Ohio Historical Center, Columbus, O., 43211. Major topic: Ohio labor history.

Pennsylvania. Alice M. Hoffman, Director, Oral History Program, Historical Collections, Pattee Library, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pa., 16801. Major topics: steelworkers, printers, teachers.

. Frank Zabrosky, Curator, Archive of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pa. Major topic: electrical workers.

Tennessee. Charles W. Crawford, Director, Oral History Research Office, Memphis State University, Memphis, Tenn., 38111. Major topic: regional historical events.

Texas. Director, Division of Archives and Manuscripts, Library, University of Texas at Arlington, P.O. Box 19218, Arlington, Tex., 76019. Major topics: Chicanas, Texas labor history, migrant workers.

Wisconsin. F. Gerald Ham, State Archivist, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 816 State St., Madison, Wis., 53706. Major topics: Wisconsin history, biography and reminiscence, ethnic groups, industry, conservation and forestry, and Jewish archives; National mass communications, public relations, theater, civil rights, labor.


1. Ernestine Freidmann, describing her experiences as Director of the Barnard School for Women Workers, about 1928. Transcribed interview, Feb. 14, 1972, p. 6 in PSU Historical Collections.

2. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 2 (Summer 1977), no. 2. Special issue on women’s oral history.

3. Ibid., p. 2.

4. Carl L. Becker, Everyman His Own Historian (New York: F. S. Crafts, 1935), p. 252.

5. Nancy Seifer, Nobody Speaks for Me: Self-portraits of American Working Class Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), p. 25.

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