Matilda at the State Fair
Yesterday I manned (womaned?) the Gage House’s table in the Arts and Food Building at the New York State Fair. I got up early to drive to the special Orange Parking Lot at the Fair, making several wrong turns before I found the right area. It was Maple Syrup Day at the Fair, but it was also Women’s Day and International Day. Since the Gage House Foundation had only one shot at a tabling event, this was the best possible day. The beautiful weather made for large crowds and lots of traffic passed our table.
The table had plenty of pamphlets and a large choice of woman power stickers to peel off and stick on one’s shirt. There was a sign-up sheet available so people could get on our email list. As Sally Roesch Wagner recently was rewarded with a grant for upgrading technology at the Gage House, there will be many more woman-related events coming up at the house Matilda lived in for forty-four years in Fayetteville, New York. We volunteers and staff at the Gage House get together for “Mondays with Matilda” at the House in order to do some brainstorming for future projects and to share and compare notes with each other.
I loved engaging in conversation with the Fair-goers who paused at our table. There is so much to share about Matilda! But an obvious opening question to ask in order to draw them in is “Do you know who Matilda Joslyn Gage was?” A few locals know of her, but mostly in an incomplete hazy way. But the New York State Fair-goers who came long distances to experience the Great New York State Fair—which was the very first state fair and is still the biggest state fair—were not familiar with our heroine. Well, there is so much to say about Matilda that it is impossible to do more than scratch the surface. Fortunately, we were in a corner of the building and did not get as much noise and interference as other areas had. Also, we had for sale (just $5.00!) copies of Matilda’s booklet Woman As An Inventor. On the cover is written: “In history written by men, the women who have most largely influenced the fate of the nations are but alluded to. Many women are almost entirely ignorant of the deeds of their sex in the past.”
What’s a booth without an activity to incentivize people. We also had a big black trifold board on which our “customers” were asked to mount a sticky note onto it with the name of a woman (past or present) that also was/is rather forgotten by history. [My theory is that, unless you write your own autobiography or someone else writes a biography of you, you may be forgotten by history, even if you weren’t purposely “kicked out.”] As I researched Matilda, I discovered many lesser-known names that have been forgotten, even though they were not “lost” on purpose. But I am especially excited tonight about an amazing woman who, against all odds, rose to prominence and lived to be 108. My friend Joanne Verone just happened to send it to me as I started to write this article.
Her name was Clara Belle Drisdale Williams. I had never heard of her. Have you? And yet she has been mostly forgotten or never became famous enough to cross my radar. But, unlike Matilda who was purposely ignored in the history books until lately, Clara even had a street named after her. Read about her here:
Clara Belle Drisdale Williams [1885-1993] was the first African-American graduate of New Mexico State University. Many of her professors would not allow her inside the classroom, she had to take notes from the hallway; she was also not allowed to walk with her class to get her diploma. She married Jasper Williams in 1917; their three sons became physicians. She became a great teacher of black students by day, and by night she taught their parents, former slaves, home economics. In 1961, New Mexico State University named a street on its campus after Williams; in 2005 the building of the English department was renamed Clara Belle Williams Hall. In 1980 Williams was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws degree by NMSU, which also apologized for the treatment she was subjected to as a student. She died at 108 years old.
I would appreciate it if you would reply to me on this website where my blog offers a space for comments. If you know of someone who was mostly forgotten in history, please share it with me. Tell me what you know about her. I might get around to researching her more deeply and blog about her here.
The problem often is that it is not that women were written out of history but that they were never recognized in the history books in the first place! This conundrum coincides with “The Matilda Effect.” Named after our Matilda Gage, because she wrote a small book called Woman as an Inventor back in the year 1883, “The Matilda Effect” applies when a woman has invented or created something but a man gets the credit for it. As women could not sign contracts nor apply for patents, a man’s name went on most of these documents. Yet, even now, The Matilda Effect is still apparent among women scientists, artists and other areas of creativity. This seems to happen especially when women are part of a team. Even if they did most of the work or were the ones that came up with the solution, a man’s name is often identified with the project instead of any women participants.
I hope to hear from you so we can all get acquainted with additional unsung heroines!