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Faculty Profile: Carolyn Howe

By Margaret LeRoux

Carolyn HoweRe-creating the first National Woman's Rights Convention was the original goal of the Worcester Women's History Project (WWHP) when Carolyn Howe, associate professor of sociology, joined the group six years ago. Since then, the Project has produced symposiums, presentations on women's history, and even commissioned portraits of four activist women from the 19th century that now hang in Mechanics Hall. 

The culmination of the project was a three-day event last fall that included a teachers' conference at Holy Cross, workshops, and a play that re-enacted that first Convention held in Worcester in 1850. Approximately 3,000 attendees were caught up in the spirit of the times as they listened to speeches by Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone and discussed many of the same issues-equal access to education, economic parity with men, equality in politics-that women debated 150 years ago.

What resonated for Howe, though, was the commitment these notable women made to racial equality. They first crusaded against slavery, and that struggle was as important as the battle for women's rights.

"In high school and college I was passionate about civil rights," she says. "When the women's movement came along, I saw the civil rights movement and the women's movement as two different things. I felt torn between the two, but my passion was always the struggle for racial equality."

"If I'd known then about women like Abby Kelley Foster and Lucy Stone, women who were abolitionists first, but who also, through their involvement in the process, made great strides for women's rights, it would have given me role models." 

Howe's association with the Women's History Project launched her on a personal odyssey that included developing a seminar on women's history in 19th-century Worcester and the creation of a permanent exhibit placing the women's rights convention into the larger context of American society in the 1850s. In the process, she began writing a book that examines connections between the abolitionist and feminist movements, and also developed some impressive engineering skills.

As a relative newcomer to Worcester-Howe and her husband, Jerry Lembcke, also an associate professor of sociology, came to Holy Cross in 1988-she joined the Women's History Project to find out more about her new home. "'Digging where you stand,' an idea from a Swedish sociologist, best describes this concept,"  she explains.

Howe connected her involvement in the WWHP with her classroom and research work at Holy Cross. By stepping back and taking a look at the big picture, she was able to give the event a context that added another dimension to its historic value.

"I also thought of it as a way of doing service to the community," she adds.

The inspiration to create the exhibit came to Howe two years ago when she visited Seneca Falls, N.Y., the site of several displays on the history of the women's movement.

"All of a sudden it hit me," Howe says. "We need an exhibit in Worcester." 

With assistance from Georgia Barnhill of the American Antiquarian Society who offered the use of the Society's archives, Howe  spent the summer researching and making drawings and models.

She wrote a small grant to the College's Hewlett Mellon Presidential Discretionary Fund to cover her initial research and to hire Susan Schmidt and Robert ParkeHarrison of the visual arts department to assist with the production of the display. She also consulted with two historians, John McClymer from Assumption College and Karen Moran, a social studies teacher who had done extensive research on the subject at the Antiquarian Society.

Howe decided to use the exhibit as the basis for a seminar for students in sociology and the women's studies program.

"I described it as 'the most amazing educational experience of your life.' It will be like putting together a giant puzzle, only you won't know what it will look like, and where the pieces will come from. You have to be willing to take a chance," she recalls.

Seven students signed up, including a graphic arts major and a student majoring in Spanish. They were: Joy Carroll '00, Erin Condron '00, Janel D'Agata '00, Jennifer Gallucci '00, Alesha Hughes '00, Elizabeth Thompson '01 and Emily Williamson '00.

When the seminar began, each student chose a topic to research, including the temperance movement and popular culture of the 19th century. Howe's research focused on the women's rights movements, the African American community in Worcester and the nature of work, education and religion in the city.

"To get into the spirit we had an 1850s dinner," Howe explains. "We each researched and prepared a dish from cookbooks printed prior to 1850."

The students also wanted to experience two of the religions that inspired the era-Quaker and Baptist-so Howe accompanied them to a Friends Meeting and a service at A.M.E. Zion Church.

As the students went through the process of looking up recipes, researching their own topics and finding graphics for the exhibit, they were learning how to do historical research. 

"I was always aware of the larger picture. My goal was to tell the Worcester story in the context of the larger issues of the time," Howe notes.

As the end of the semester approached, there was still so much to do that the students asked if they could continue meeting for another semester. Even though it meant a lot of schedule juggling for Howe, she agreed.

During the second semester, construction of the exhibit began.

"It was clear to me that the exhibit had to be more than just reprints of old photos mounted on boards," Howe says. "I wanted it to be a highly professional project." 

With input from the students and consultants, she created a miniature version of the exhibit. Gallucci made a computerized layout of the entire display, and it was printed by the E.B. Luce Co. in Worcester.

There were 10 large panels at a cost of $700 each. To finance the printing, the students and Howe both wrote grants to the College's Marshall Fund. The Greater Worcester Community Foundation and the Worcester Cultural Commission also provided funding, and the Luce Co. gave Howe a generous discount. 

Howe built the exhibit with help from Larry Haley '72, a Worcester contractor. The plastic photo panels are mounted on hollow core doors.

" We had to figure out a way to connect them in the shape I envisioned," she says, explaining her foray into engineering.

Howe also received help from Margaret Nelson, a technical specialist in the visual arts department and Meg Savage, a professional graphic artist, whom Howe notes "generously gave us several professional critiques until we got it right."

The final product "is everything I hoped it would be," she says.

The exhibit, titled, "Reclaiming our Heritage: Worcester Women's History 1850," highlights the experience of women in Worcester, including African American women, working class women and reform-minded middle class women. 

"We learned that to tell the story of women in Worcester meant telling the story of diversity," Howe says.

After a premiere at Holy Cross, the exhibit was displayed in Worcester at the YWCA, Tatnuck Booksellers, City Hall, Doherty High School, and Mechanics Hall. This summer, much to Howe's delight, it will be displayed at the Women's Rights Historical Park in Seneca Falls.

Howe's research on the exhibit inspired her to begin a book that connects the heroines of anti-racism and feminism in the past with notable women in the present.

" I believe that history is empowering," she says. "If you can connect to your past, it can strengthen you for the future."


Margaret LeRoux is a free-lance journalist from Worcester.


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