Making waves in Duluth
University of Minnesota professor Elizabeth Bartlett was concerned that the history of feminist organizations in the Twin Ports was going to be forgotten.
"What started to happen here in the 1970s and '80s was unique. And we felt like it needed to be recorded for posterity, as well as for future generations of activists. And that it not be lost," Bartlett said.
Bartlett's new book, "Making Waves," covers the histories of 10 grassroots feminist organizations in the Twin Ports area as well as a broader history of local feminist activism over the last 40 years. Through the voices of the women who formed and developed them, the book focuses on how these organizations began, their struggles and their triumphs, their lessons and their legacies. Organizations such as Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), Safe Haven, Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP), the Building for Women, etc.
"I think people don't quite understand what a unique feminist community this is in terms of the number of organizations which are doing really significant feminist work. There's the significance of the policies, the protocols and practices that have been started here that have had regional, state, national and international significance," Bartlett said.
The idea for the book started at a feminist conference at the University of Wisconsin - Superior which was centered around "Making Women's History Now: The State of Feminism in the Twin Ports." As Bartlett and her friend and colleague Susana Pelayo Woodward listened to a speech by DAIP founder Ellen Pence, they both said, "We have to write this down."
"It was one of those moments when it clicked. When we knew that this is such an incredible community and these stories of how these organizations formed are so important," Bartlett said.
A few years later, Bartlett and the rest of the Women's Studies department members began the process of developing questions and choosing which organizations to include and making lists of people to interview. But the project got stalled at various points as people got busy or moved away. After 10 years, in 2014, Bartlett decided to take a sabbatical to tackle the project.
"I ended up doing somewhere around 80 interviews and a lot of re-interviewing on top of what people had already done," Bartlett said. "We thought that we could identify just one or two main people in the organization and that would be sufficient. Everywhere I went, people would say, "Oh, but you have to interview." So the interviews actually turned into a snowball effect."
Bartlett said the interview process was the most enjoyable part of writing the book.
"People were so thankful. They were so glad to have their stories heard and recorded and the history preserved. They were so gracious, open and trusting," Bartlett said.
One of the main questions Bartlett was hoping to find by writing the book was the answer to the question, why Duluth?
"We see these movements in other places like Boston, Chicago and New York. But this city was the seat of an incredible feminist community. Why here?" Bartlett said.
Bartlett found that the answer included many pieces. It was partially due to the size of the city. People would run into other people and connections would grow and prosper. It was also partially due to the fact that many feminist organizations were housed in the same buildings or close to each other.
"I mean, some buildings hosted as many as three or four feminist organizations at once. That creates an atmosphere of support and encouragement," Bartlett said.
Bartlett also credits the Anishnaabe tradition and influence in the area, as well as Lake Superior.
"Lake Superior is something that brings us together as a community and acts as a restorative. It is such an awesome presence and energy here that I think it inspires us to do great things," Bartlett said.
In fact, Lake Superior also had an influence on the book's title. "Making waves," Bartlett said, can be interpreted in three ways: literally, as with the real waves on the lake, figuratively, by stirring things up, and symbolically, referring to the three waves of feminism.
Bartlett said the book could not come out at a better time. Her department, Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, at UMD is celebrating its 35th anniversary — and suffering the threat of budget cuts. Bartlett plans to retire in December and said she does not believe her position will be filled when she leaves.
"I think the administration doesn't understand the importance of this program," Bartlett said. "Its impact stretches not only the university, but into the community as well."
"Making Waves" is published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press and is available in Duluth at the Bookstore at Fitgers, Barnes & Noble, the bookstore at UMD. It is also available online and in a mobile format.