Fresh Takes

Honoring the stories of ordinary, extraordinary women

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Maggie Lemere interviews peacebuilder Wai Wai Nu from Myanmar for the Georgetown Institute of Women, Peace and Security Profiles in Peace Oral History Project.

A s an oral historian and documentary filmmaker, I’ve been deeply fortunate to hear the stories of truly remarkable women from many different walks of life—from Rohingya refugees to Smithsonian Institution research scientists to global activists.

Through this work, I’ve come to realize just how much is missing from our written and collectively imagined histories, which favor those who hold power most conventionally—at the exclusion of women and other marginalized people. As a result, we often don’t hear from those who have shaped their families, communities, and countries in profound ways.

A woman sits in the corner of her kitchen being interviewed. A camera on a tripod is in front of her, with another woman sitting in the foreground holding a notepad.
The author/oral historian Maggie Lemere interviews Stella Aslani on the Greek Island of Lesvos about her life, and how it has intersected with the refugee crisis for her work with Rhiza Collective.
Oral history is the practice of collecting in-depth, first-person life stories through audio or video recordings in order to preserve the accounts of people who have been under- and mis-represented in history. Oral historians collaborate with interviewees (called narrators) to tell their stories fully from their own perspective; interviews function more like empathetic, open-ended conversations oriented around gaining deeply layered understanding than solely a fact-finding mission. Narrators are given the rights to fully approve their story before it is ever archived or published.
Oral history recognizes the full lives and unseen contributions of women, makes them visible, and honors them.
For women, this means that instead of being expected to politely listen, they are the ones we listen to and learn from; women are the experts. In a dominant culture that often reduces women to labels and experiences like "mother," "wife," or "victim/survivor," women are invited to be their whole, messy, dynamic selves.

In an oral history with Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work to bring an end to the Liberian Civil War, Gbowee made it clear that she was not just one thing, but many: a young girl, a survivor of war, an abused woman, a single mother, a refugee, a trainer, and a world leader.

Oral history recognizes the full lives and unseen contributions of women, makes them visible, and honors them. This has been true historically with oral history projects like The Black Women Oral History Project and the Family Planning Oral History Project, and it is true today, from family oral histories to concerted efforts to capture perspectives largely neglected from mainstream discourse.
Their voice remains theirs alone; oral history provides a space for these women to tell their version of events, to witness their own lives.
The work of oral historian Fanny García, for example, pushes us to think beyond simplistic stereotypes about the journeys of Central American women detained at the U.S. border. She asks refugee women about their decisions, the specific ways in which they contemplated choices, and how they express their power as women. García explains that for women in detention, from whom so much has been taken, their voice remains theirs alone; oral history provides a space for these women to tell their version of events, to witness their own lives, and document their experiences for future generations to learn from. Instead of extracting sensational stories at the most newsworthy moments, García creates a critical context and understanding of how these experiences impact and shape real people and communities long-term.
A woman stands in the center of a room with a group of women sitting in a circle around her. A screen showing a photo of her family is behind her.
Oral historian Fanny García teaching a workshop at Trinity College on how oral histories can support movements for social change.
Photo by Erica M. Crowley
Oral historian Sara Sinclair has been documenting the stories of Indigenous Americans through her upcoming book with Voice of Witness, How We Go Home. She documented the story of Jasilyn Charger, a Cheyenne River Sioux woman who was one of the first people to camp and create community at Standing Rock. Despite being credited as one of the youth who launched the Standing Rock movement, Sinclair writes, Charger found that her voice was largely absent from a New York Times article about her. The journalist relied heavily on things that other people said. In contrast, Sinclair’s oral history interview gave Charger a meaningful opportunity to tell a more nuanced story about her life and family, and why she went to Standing Rock, and what has happened since.

Georgetown University’s new Profiles in Peace Oral History Project shares the stories of women peacebuilders on the frontlines of conflict around the world, including Leymah Gbowee, whom I talked about earlier. Gbowee shared how it was only once she began to process and understand her own story, that she could begin to more deeply understand the stories of other women, and organize them. This is a critical point: The more we listen to women’s stories, in their own words, the better able we are to understand each other and build power together.

“Women do not need capacity, they need visibility,” Gbowee reflected. Through her own in-depth oral history, in which she discusses overcoming abuse and trauma, we see her not as an exception––not as an unrelatable, prize-winning, world leader––but as an ordinary, extraordinary woman who worked with many others like her to impact her society.

The great power of oral history is that it is within everyone’s reach. We don’t have to wait to be told that our stories matter, or to have someone in a position of power recognize us—we can recognize each other. Oral history is not about mastering complicated recording equipment and getting expensive history degrees, it’s about genuine curiosity and a commitment to listen. In a culture that’s obsessed with telling, listening allows us space to reflect more deeply, understand our differences and commonalities more profoundly, and honor people who change our lives and our world while educating ourselves and others.

What ordinary, extraordinary women do you want to honor, listen to, and learn from? Check out these resources from the Oral History Association and get started today.

Posted: March 11, 2020
Edition: Women's History Month