Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Audience Discussion

The first question from the audience raised the issue of black churches in Philadelphia and how many older congregants who have personal collections refuse to release them.  How should researchers and archives acquire these collections?  A second attendee added that we know so little about the lives of black women because they take their husbands names (such as Mrs. Charles Johnson).  How can this challenge be overcome?  Margaret Jerrido responded by citing her personal experience working on an oral history of black women in Philadelphia.  She explained that in this case it was necessary to speak with descendants and other family members who gain possession of the collection after the death of the subject and convince them to turn the documents over before they are trashed.

Next, an attendee noted that many of the children of such subjects move out of Philadelphia and never return.  Marion Roydhouse responded that if a researcher can record an oral history of a subject, then that act instills a level of trust which provides a level of access to the community in which they are researching.  She explained that establishing this trust is the basis for all future research along with access to new documentary evidence.

An attendee asked where she might locate the records of the Philadelphia Normal School, to which Margaret Jerrido responded that they are not found within the collections at the Urban Archives.  She suggested that the questioner might try the archives at either Swarthmore or Bryn Mawr Colleges.

Another person asked why so many children of powerful women leave the city, which prompted larger questions of content for the Encyclopedia.  Charlene Mires, one of the editors of the project, suggested a range of approaches to the content, including the migration of people, various networks of people, ethnic groups, and demographics.  Howard Gillette, another of the editors, added that the project has not yet touched the area of arts and culture, which represents a new frontier where women are a driving force.  He also suggested examining sites and their meaning, such as making visible locations that may no longer exists but where women played a crucial role in their creation.  Furthermore, what happens when women tied to Philadelphia’s ethnic neighborhoods move to New Jersey and the suburbs?  Gillette stated that the Encyclopedia should examine these issues in order to identify ourselves and our community.  Marion Roydhouse added that perhaps the project should use images and other visual materials for subjects that lack more traditional documentation.  Also, she argued that the particular politics of Philadelphia made it harder for women to become political leaders but not the heads of arts and cultural institutions and organizations.  Lastly, Cindy Little mentioned that the influence of women over the arts and culture of Philadelphia is a relatively recent trend and she questioned how much of this is locally-grown versus a more national movement.

The next audience question noted how most histories are only drawn to famous individuals or positive stories and that the Encyclopedia should also examine the lives of the infamous, such as prostitutes in the city.  It was also mentioned that this is an example where raw statistics and data exist but the stories are nonexistent.  Cindy Little responded that the project could view women as the face of poverty in Philadelphia and see how historians write about poverty when women are at the center of the story and not on the margins.

Another attendee suggested that Philadelphia’s role in the equal rights movement was a topic that should be considered for the Encyclopedia.  Additionally, the successes and failures of the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment should be included.  Kris Myers added that New Jersey has a similar story that is related to Philadelphia’s experience that bears inclusion as well.  Cindy Little mentioned how in the post-World War II period women were the foot soldiers in these movements, but they rarely get mentioned in the histories.  Marion Roydhouse added that the history of historical preservation in Philadelphia is similar in the way that women started the movement but the official history may not recognize this.  An audience member suggested that the project should also strive to define Philadelphia as a success in terms of volunteer associations to which Cindy Little responded that, since 1970, the city has been the national leader when it comes to women and philanthropy (with such organizations as Women’s Way), but the depth of this story has never been told.

An audience member observed that much information exists in the area (via archives, libraries, etc.), yet the community has an extremely short attention span.  To this end, it was suggested that the Encyclopedia should speak to the community; it should relate what has been learned and suggest how the community can use that knowledge to move forward.  This participant summarized this by asking what about the history of women in Philadelphia will help the community improve the lives of women?  Charlene Mires asked those in attendance for opinions on how the project should speak to the community of non-historians.  An attendee responded by suggesting that perhaps inspiration could be drawn from the 2010 U.S. census (such as door-to-door surveys).   Mires then asked how the project should go about delivering the information to the community?  The importance of technology and new social mediums was mentioned along with the idea of collaborations with other organizations, such as PhilaPlace (www.philaplace.org).  The editor then mentioned how it is often the spaces in between traditional organizations where the real history usually happens.  Another attendee pondered the idea of using geographical maps to show trends in local culture and society.  Finally, Howard Gillette stated how the shift in social networking has moved from print to electronic mediums and that the rapid advancement and change of technology will prevent the project from capturing mass audiences.  Instead, the Encyclopedia should work to build a body or groundwork of information, such as using the story of how lives have changed over time to help plot the new trends for the future.  In this way, small topics should be used to create larger topics.

An attendee then suggested city parks and gendered space as a whole remain important parts of life in Philadelphia and should therefore be included in the Encyclopedia.  Another audience member agreed, adding the subject of women’s roles in design landscapes, such as gardens and horticultural societies during the early twentieth century to the list of topics.  Furthermore, an attendee explained that this is a case where there was a large amount of cross-organizational membership existing throughout these societies.  Cindy Little responded that these women played an important role in raising awareness and lobbying for environmental legislation and greening projects at all levels of government. An attendee suggested that these women should be used as role models for their diligence, tenacity, and other characteristics, to which Little added that these women need to get credit for their achievements.

The final question of the evening raised the issue of how to approach and capture how women were viewed in certain social constructs (such as women employed in “male-oriented” jobs).  Charlene Mires commented on how struck she has been throughout the discussion by the frequent references to “stories.”  She said that this is just one way to deal with the above problem and that talking in terms of “stories” will allow the project to develop useful patterns.  Cindy Little suggested that the Encyclopedia make use of the book Invisible Philadelphia, edited by Jean Barth Toll and Mildred S. Gillam, which she said is invaluable in telling the history of women in voluntary organizations.

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