I recently had the opportunity to arrange a women’s history program in Hopedale, MA. This event was part of a series of civic dialogues set to take place throughout the Blackstone Valley. After successful sessions on climate change and black history, respectively, this last session was set to focus on the long fight for equal pay and women’s equality.
The day of the event, March 26th, turned out to be rather bleak. The sky was gray, rain was drizzling, and even the clouds seemed weary of the month. It was just cold enough to make one wonder if the skies would soon turn, with snowflakes rather than droplets falling on the greening ground. This is the type of March weather that often keeps New Englanders cozy in their houses.
Despite the weather, our turnout was great with one demographic: local Girl Scouts.
Last fall, I had worked with this same local Girl Scout troop on a project related to historic preservation. Pleased with the success of that program, in January, I asked their gracious leader if they would be interested in taking part in a public program related to women’s rights. My plan was to prepare excerpts from women’s speeches and other 19th century texts for these young ladies to read as an opener to the civic dialogue. All of the content would be from pieces written by women who had once lived or been associated with their hometown, the former commune known as Hopedale.
While we waited for the magic hour, anxious and hopeful that others would soon arrive, I watched as these young ladies gathered together, practicing and anticipating their big moment. At the start of the program, they lined up, one by one, ready to recite short speeches or lines from Hopedale Reminiscences, a book of “childhood memories” from the commune years, roughly 1841 through the early part of the Civil War. Though the audience remained thin, they seized the moment. One young woman shared the words of Worcester rebel Abby Kelley Foster, an abolitionist and key leader in the first national woman’s rights convention in Worcester. Reading Abby’s words, she asked, “Woman’s labor is as intrinsically valuable as any other, and why is it not remunerated as well?” This is a question, of course, that we have yet to answer.
Another scout shared the reflections of a young woman who grew up in Hopedale who had often observed “work being done mostly by women clad in bloomers.” Yet another read the words of Ida Smith, a resident of Hopedale who later recalled that “twenty-five women, all clad in bloomers, went in a barge to Worcester,to attend a Women’s Rights Convention. They attracted so much attention that the police were called upon to protect them.” Line by line, these young ladies told the story of how women from Hopedale created their own utopia while also reaching out to the “weary world,” engaging with radicals and activists near and far. Together, they painted a picture of a place and time that should seem far removed. Yet their words, when read aloud for all to hear through strong and youthful voices, remind us that this was a community aching with struggles so similar to those of our own time.
An early Hopedale hymn notes that the community was founded by “parents, sons, and daughters” who sought “To live a truer life.” The curiousness of Hopedale–a place where women worked openly in bloomers, where talk of abolition and women’s fair pay was commonplace–was a central theme of the day. The panel of experts assembled for the program, noting that our audience was primarily under the age of 12, deftly focused on that aspect of the community. Why was this place so peculiar? What was so alarming about the notion of equal opportunity? While providing important contextual information, these experts also let the young women take charge. Their questions drove much of the agenda. Above all else, this aspect of the program made me glad for those empty chairs.