History teller: Sara Evans teaches the stories of women

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Even as a child on the playground, Sara Evans-who grew up in South Carolina during the segregation era-was a trailblazer. “I was the only kid saying it was a good thing the North won the Civil War,” she recalled. “I didn’t know any other white kids with those beliefs.” She credits her parents: her father, a social-justice-minded Methodist minister, and mother, “a gut-level egalitarian.”

“At school, they are going to tell you slavery was not the cause of the Civil War,” Evans remembered her mother telling her. “They’re wrong.”

Perhaps her mother’s words instilled the skeptical independence that enabled Evans to create, essentially, a do-it-yourself women’s studies program as a graduate student.

“In every class, whatever the subject, all you had to do is write a paper on women,” she recalled, chuckling. “You just create it.”

Evans-recently retired from her post as University of Minnesota Regents Professor-went on to create a career as one of the preeminent women’s history scholars in America. Under her guidance over the past 32 years, the University’s women’s history program became one of the top 10 in the nation, according to U.S. News and World Report-in such company as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rutgers, Yale, Columbia and Berkeley.

Over-educated secretary
Along with her parents, Evans cites Anne Firor Scott-among her undergraduate professors at Duke University-as a role model. Women’s history wasn’t yet a formal field of study in the mid-1960s, but Scott was already laying the groundwork.

“She was proof to me that there was something out there,” Evans said.

Scott is now 87 and retired; her 1970 book “The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930” has never gone out of print.

Evans headed from Durham to Chicago-with her husband, whom she’d married right after college, who was enrolled at the University of Chicago-ready for big things.

After majoring in history in college, she’d earned an M.A. in political science. She envisioned a research job, or a teaching post at a community college. “I was thinking I was credentialed to do interesting things,” Evans said. “But no one wanted to know about anything but my typing skills. Period.”

She worked as a secretary at a University of Chicago chapel-not the position she’d been looking for, yet not a dead end.

In the chapel basement was an offset printer, used to produce a local left-wing newspaper. There, Evans was able to “meet and chat with all these radical people,” she said. “And pretty quickly it became clear I was one of them.”

Hardly a wide-eyed neophyte-she’d been involved with SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, at Duke-Evans was receptive when asked, “There’s a group of women meeting-would you like to come?” “I was so primed to hear about feminism,” she recalled.

Thus, Evans joined what she thinks may have been the first feminist consciousness-raising group in the country. She’s still in occasional touch with some of the “brilliant women” she met there (and interviewed a few for her first book, “Personal Politics: The Roots of Women’s Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left,” listed by the New York Times as one of the best books of 1979.).

New questions
Consciousness on the rise after a year in Chicago, Evans returned to North Carolina in 1968. For the next year, she worked as a labor and community organizer-“and on the side, of course, I was busy organizing women’s liberation groups,” she said. In September 1969 she began grad school at the University of North Carolina in American history, emphasis on women.

So-what is women’s history?

“History is just change over time,” Evans said. “When I was in college, all the textbooks were written as if women weren’t there-or as if it didn’t matter that they were there, because they were not important to change over time.”

Thus, “we had to ask a whole new set of questions just to find them” she continued. “Most of us weren’t interested in just finding heroic women, but in understanding the lives of ordinary women” and all their components, even housework-“which turns out to have a very fascinating history.”

Women’s history, Evans said, demands rethinking what politics is. In the traditional view, it’s about government and elections. But the 19th century saw an “incredible upsurge of civic organizing, often headed by women,” she noted. Much of this organizing sought to address social needs, through the creation of settlement houses and orphanages.

Why does women’s history matter?

“Understanding the past is crucial to effective engagement in the present,” Evans said. “It’s crucial to understand that people like us have made a difference-we haven’t been on the sidelines, or always doing the same things the same way.”

From “Help Wanted” to highest honor
Evans’ son was an infant when she started graduate school at the University of North Carolina. Twelve years later, in 1981, she and her then-husband adopted a baby girl.

Between these two events, Evans was hired at the University of Minnesota. She had responded to an ad for a women’s history professor. It was 1976, and there were still very few such positions, so sifting through the Help Wanted ads didn’t take long. “By the 1970s, the old boys’ network had been rendered illegal,” Evans noted. No longer were professors simply calling their old friends, asking “Who’ve you got?” and hiring them sight unseen. Evans had offers from the University of Minnesota and Sarah Lawrence, a small liberal arts college in New York. She never regretted her choice, citing the chance to train Ph.D. students, as well as her belief in public education.

Many years later, in 2003, Evans’ parents needed her; she returned to North Carolina to care for her mother and father, who were both ailing.

It was a bittersweet time: While there, Evans heard from University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks that she had been named a Regents Professor. It’s the highest recognition a University faculty member can receive, the pinnacle of an academic career.

“It was nice to be able to share that with them in person,” Evans said. Her parents-her activist role models-died in 2007.

Evans’ latest academic honor came in 2008, when she was named Ada Comstock Distinguished Women Scholar. This award/lecture was created by the University of Minnesota Women’s Center to recognize the accomplishments and leadership of distinguished women faculty, and offer a forum for them to share their insights with the campus and broader community.

Evans’ presentation, “The Presidential Glass Ceiling is Broken: The Path from Victoria to Hillary,” focused on the legacy of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton within the context of the many women who have run for president, starting with Victoria Woodhull in 1872.

Her lecture was delivered exactly two weeks after Barack Obama, who defeated Clinton for the Democratic nomination, was elected president. As a longtime civil rights advocate, Evans found his campaign “incredibly inspiring” as well.

“I kept saying, ‘Pinch me,'” she said with a laugh, recalling the primary race. “I was unwilling to be for one in a way that would diminish the other in any way.”

History’s future?
Concerning the future of the women’s history field, Evans said, “There are big arguments going on now.” Some women’s studies programs have been renamed “gender studies,” or combined with the more recently emerging field of GLBT studies. (At the University of Minnesota, it’s “Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.”)

Just as when she was a child on the playground, Evans doesn’t shrink from the argument.

“I think there is and always will be a place for people who want to center their questions on women,” she said.

Retired after 32 years of teaching, Evans still seems to have no regrets. “I loved teaching women’s history, because people really wanted to be there,” she said, noting its status as an elective.

As for her own future, just as in her student days, it’s clear that she’ll just go ahead and create it. Having lived a life of the mind, she now chooses to spend much of her time in the great outdoors; she learned to downhill ski in her 50s. She credits this development to her 2002 marriage to her second husband, “an environmental lawyer and real adventurer.” In March they’ll be kayaking in Baja California.

Change over time, indeed.