By Lorrie Rands, Manuscript Processor
Over the last seven years working in Special Collections, I have had the opportunity to gather hundreds of oral history interviews from individuals from all walks of life. But it was not until our World War II oral history project and exhibit, All Out for Uncle Sam, that I started to notice a trend that, quite frankly, surprised me. Most of the men I interviewed were excited to share their stories, with war veterans being the one exception. They tended to be more guarded about their war-time experiences, but still wanted to share the stories surrounding the rest of their lives. Women on the other hand, tended to be more guarded from the get go; understanding this and working through their reluctance took some time and effort.
As I found women to interview for All Out for Uncle Sam, I was always taken aback by their common reply when asked if they would share their story: “Why me? I didn’t do anything of value. My story is not that important.” I found that I had to encourage these women to share their stories by explaining how important they are to history, and the impact they can have on the young women who are standing on their shoulders. This strategy seemed to work, and I was never disappointed by the stories that these women would share.
Fast forward to our Beyond Suffrage oral history project and exhibit. This issue surfaced again, but now I was only interviewing women, so the whole project hinged on helping them see the value of their story. So I looked at my own willingness to share my story, and I was surprised when I repeated almost verbatim what every other woman had said. I did not see the value in my own story. I decided, before interviewing more women, to allow myself to be the interviewee. I felt that I did not have the right to ask women to share their stories if I was unwilling to share my own.
I found that I was very nervous and reluctant, but I had trained the individuals who were interviewing me, so I had confidence in their abilities. That being said, it took me a good fifteen, twenty minutes to feel comfortable sharing, but by the end it was much easier to do. As I read my own transcript, I tried to look at it the way I would any other interview, and was surprised to realize that I was not disappointed. This led me to the realization that all stories have value, no matter who is telling them. The more willing we are to share our stories, the more we can learn as a society to accept all individuals. I know that I would not have shared my own history if I was not asking women to share theirs, but at the end of the day, I am grateful for the experience. After all, we are all individuals sharing a common journey of life, but we each experience it in a unique way. Why not share it?