From the Desk of Amy Helene Forss: Borrowing from Our Foremothers

Amy Helene Forss serves as Metropolitan Community College’s History Program chair and Social Sciences Department corepresentative in Omaha, Nebraska. She is the author of Black Print with a White Carnation: Mildred Brown and the “Omaha Star” Newspaper, 1938–1989 (Nebraska, 2014). Her newest book, Borrowing from Our Foremothers (Nebraska, 2021), is new this month.

The idea to merge the two fields of Material Culture Studies and History first occurred to me in the backroom of the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. I distinctly recall watching the curator pulling out tray after tray of artifacts, when I fixated on Alice Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) charm bracelet. Picking up (with gloves!) the chunky silver jewelry and placing it on my palm transformed how I will forever view history. The suffragist feminist’s sparkling strand served as a physical touchstone and it resulted in Borrowing from Our Foremothers: Reexamining the Women’s Movement through Material Culture, 1848-2017.

Writing Borrowing from Our Foremothers emerged as an exercise in academic growth. It took a gamut of sources and resources to contextualize thirty pieces of material culture created and designed by women seeking equality over a hundred-and-fifty-year time. What began as a construction outline derived from primary and secondary sources enriched by common and not so common artifacts from personal collections connected to an oral history adventure.

Besides researching a lengthy number of diverse foremothers for the manuscript, I also interviewed ninety-nine living foremothers, including (from left to right) First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Boston Marathoner Kathrine Switzer, Olympian Donna de Varona, Little Rock Nine’s Carlotta Walls, and Eagle Forum founder Phyllis Schlafly. Notice the objects associated with each one in the images above. It turns out combining two fields of study added up to one tangible perspective of the women’s movement. My hope is for college educators, students, and lifelong learners alike to use Borrowing as a tool to engage themselves and those around them in a uniquely guided study of women’s liberation.     

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