“I ain't gonna be forgotten; I'm recording my story for the scientists of the future . . . In a million years, when kids go to school, they gonna know that once there was Hushpuppy and she lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”
While processing the Fran Buss oral history collection, I was reminded of this line from the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Through the lens of magical realism, this film depicts a hurricane’s impact on the fictional locale of “The Bathtub”—an impoverished, rural, mostly black community. At the time that Hushpuppy (played by then-five-year-old actress Quvenzhané Wallis) utters this line, she has taken refuge inside of a cardboard box in her father’s house to hide from a fire that she accidentally started. Her first instinct is not to run, but to document her short life with crayon drawings on the inside of the cardboard box whose walls she imagines will keep her safe.
Generally speaking, the poor have often struggled to be remembered, particularly to be remembered as individuals and not solely as a massive swath of the population that is frozen in time. Part of the reason for this struggle is that archives have historically been more interested in collecting the documents and histories of wealthy, privileged individuals, families, and organizations, particularly those of white men. Thankfully, many archives have been shifting their priorities in recent years in order to have a fuller, deeper representation of society. The Schlesinger Library’s prioritization of the “Work and family: low income and minority women talk about their lives” collection of historian and community organizer Fran Buss is just one example of this trend.
Among the 56 women included in the oral histories, no two stories are exactly alike. There are accounts from incarcerated women, community leaders, refugees who escaped Southeast Asia, and wives of striking coal miners. This collection is a microcosm of the variety of viewpoints and backgrounds represented in the Schlesinger Library’s holdings. Some of the women interviewed were feminists; some were antifeminists. They spanned the political spectrum from radical to liberal to moderate to conservative, and they came from cities and towns across the United States (particularly in the Southwest and Midwest), as well as countries as far-flung as El Salvador, Cambodia, and Laos.
Several of the topics that the women discuss in their interviews (which took place mostly in the late 1970s and early 1980s) are highly relevant to national discussions occurring today. For example, since the 2016 presidential election there has been a great deal of rhetoric in news articles, blog posts, and books stating that poor white people, particularly those in the Appalachian region, were being tricked into voting against their political interests. Scholars such as Elizabeth Catte (in her book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) have challenged this rhetoric because it ends up reinforcing negative stereotypes about Appalachian people and not considering the history of the region. Delving into the oral histories of Lily Barker* and other Appalachian women in the Fran Buss collection would be an instrumental step in learning more about this topic.
Those interested in immigration history can also find ample resources in this collection. One might compare the experiences of individuals who came here as refugees and were able to obtain citizenship and support, such as Sopath Chin Ngeth, with people who were undocumented at the time of their interview and who balanced their self-advocacy with efforts to keep themselves and their families safe, such as Ana.*
As is frequently the case with women’s history, I was astounded by the profound impact that certain individuals had on their communities. At the same time, I was dismayed that they were previously unknown to me. One such individual was Jesusita Aragón. Aragón was a midwife living in Las Vegas, New Mexico, who had delivered nearly 12,000 babies by her 60s. I was particularly intrigued by the way in which her role as a curandera, or folk healer, informed her midwifery work.
Another person that I found influential was Irene Pyawasit, a Menominee Native American woman who collaborated to create a directory of Native American women leaders called the Indian Women’s Resource Book.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Maria Elena Lucas Ortega, a farm worker who was active in union organizing. Her interview constitutes the longest in the collection, and it is replete with accounts of her struggle to gain respect and fair treatment, not only from agribusiness bosses, but also from the men in her union who, in her view, disrespected women’s leadership. She worked closely with César Chávez and the United Farm Workers of America, while also uplifting the work of Dr. Marion Moses, a physician who studied the impact of pesticide use on migrant farmers.
The oral histories found in the Fran Buss collection are approachable, moving, and illuminating. They illustrate the complex challenges that manifest at the intersections of race, gender, and class. For me, they raise questions of whom do we remember, and why? And what do we remember about them? I am excited to see what researchers learn from the stories in this collection, and how they will build upon our ever-shifting understanding of women’s history.
The Fran Leeper Buss Oral History Collection is available through HOLLIS. You can find the finding aid here.
*This is a pseudonym. This oral history is listed in the finding aid under the pseudonym.