NCWHS at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

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NCWHS Session on Historic Sites and Archives for Women’s History, Tour of Sagamore NHS, and Presentation by Stacy Cordery, biographer of Alice Roosevelt Longworth at the 2017 Berkshire Conference

Never been to the Berks (as it’s known)? Every three years the Berks brings together an international group of historians for a combination of rigorous scholarship and summer camp. Developed when women had scant access to the major history conferences, the Berks has fostered many historians’ lives and careers and is increasingly international. NCWHS has actively proposed sessions since 2008. NCWHS Board members who attended sat down to discuss the organization face-to-face there. 

From left Nancy Hewitt Lucy Beard Camesha Scruggs Nupur Chaudhuri & Lori Osborne at the Berks 2017 at Hofstra University New York (Photo by Heather Huyck)

This year, NCWHS proposed and developed a session “Powerful Women’s History Teaching Partnerships: Three Historic Sites and an Archive” for the 2017 Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Gender and Sexualities held at Hofstra University in Hempstead NY. Chaired by Nancy Hewitt, NCWHS Co-Chair, Research & Interpretation, the audience heard from Lucy Beard from the Alice Paul Institute, Elizabeth DeMaria from Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Heather Cole from the Theodore Roosevelt papers at Harvard University Library, and Sara Rzeszutek from St. Francis College, Brooklyn. 

The session had good attendance and dynamic presenters. Each panelist described the ways that she reached out from her position—as park director, NPS staff, archivist, or faculty member—to create educational and public programs advancing knowledge of women's and girls’ history and leadership. Lucy Beard talked about the Alice Paul Institute's program on civic engagement and leadership for middle-school and high school students, while Elizabeth DeMaria discussed the roles of wives, sisters, and daughters in the personal and political life of the Theodore Roosevelt. Heather Cole then discussed a project she initiated at Harvard that brings undergraduate students into the archives to work with documents and material objects related to a wide range of topics. Sara Rzeszutek wrapped up the presentations by demonstrating the ways that students in her U.S. History survey courses gained new insights into women's roles in the northern civil rights movement by working with the CORE collection at the Brooklyn Historical Society. A lively 30-minute discussion followed in which audience members both asked questions of the presenters and described their own efforts to work with local and national historic sites, advance women's and girls’ leadership, and engage students and visitors to historic sites. Many of the participants then joined Nancy Hewitt and Heather Huyck for a tour of the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. 

NCWHS has sponsored sessions and special tours at many conferences and welcomes members suggesting appropriate sessions for conferences. Please contact Research & Interpretation Committee if you are interested in proposing a session for a major conference.

Dr. Stacy Cordery speaking to NCWHS-NPS group at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site (Photo Heather Huyck)

On Friday afternoon, we left for the NCWHS-NPS sponsored field trip to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, home of Teddy and Edith Roosevelt (and the irrepressible Alice Roosevelt) included a bus ride to Oyster Bay, a tour of the park’s museum at Old Orchard including a special exhibit on The Roosevelt Women there, and a tour of the impressive home itself. Park staff interpreted the site to us.

Visitors enter a darkened hallway from the porte cochère, complete with a huge set of chimes surrounded by elephant tusks. To the right, TR’s study where he successfully negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in the process. To the left, Edith Roosevelt’s large and sunny room—a much different color palate than his study across the hallway, a sunlight feminine room with sofas, bookcases, and her desk in the corner. From here, she managed the farm, estate, and all other parts of their business, giving TR spending money daily (he claimed).

The house reflects its two major occupants’ tastes although the interpretation focused on objects. One woman on the tour said she was “kinda creeped out” by all the dead animals (polar bears, zebras, for example) on the floors and walls; TR has a personal taxidermist. The National Park Service interpreter explained that in the times before tranquilizer darts, research in animals required killing them. Theodore Roosevelt made major contributions of animals to museums in New York and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Edith Roosevelt, TR’s second wife, clearly ran the family’s affairs and business; TR, the country, his writing and his children. The house tour showed the family’s affluence although the Roosevelts often worried about having to sell it off. The dining room had a rug bought at a yard sale, its dining room table and chairs came from an older generation. Many of the impressive items were gifts from foreign leaders.

Upstairs, bedrooms of TR and Edith, of older daughter Alice Roosevelt [Longworth] by his first wife Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt and the children by his second wife Edith show their life stages from nursery on, personalities, and wealth. On the third floor were bedrooms for the Irish cook and maids. Gender distinctions—especially in colors and furnishings—show clearly throughout. In the kitchen, spring peas remind visitors of the season. The North Room—combination library, living room and private museum—with samurai swords, elephant tusks and waste basket from an elephant foot—give insights into TR. Various signs on the grounds explain more about the family. One of the favorite images is TR speaking from the front porch to suffragists gathered below—but he later commented he found them unclean (!). They don’t appear so from the famous photograph.

Stacy Cordery, a history professor and author of Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, From White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (Viking, 2007) spoke to the group which came from the U.S., India, Canada, and which enthusiastically took NCWHS bookmarks. The NPS did a great job organizing the trip, the special exhibit, and tour: thank you all!

Afterwards, many of the participants came up to us to thank us and say how very much they enjoyed the entire event. Next Berkshire Conference is in 2020 in Baltimore—not only home to Fort McHenry but also to Hampton NHS, another mansion/farm.

—Heather Huyck and Nancy Hewitt, Co-Chairs Research & Interpretation Committee