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Telling HERstory: History Center reopens July 11 with new exhibit on women's jobs 100 years ago

The History Center in downtown Cedar Rapids will reopen July 11 with a new exhibit, #x201c;HERstory: Women at Work,#x201
The History Center in downtown Cedar Rapids will reopen July 11 with a new exhibit, “HERstory: Women at Work,” highlighting the kinds of jobs women had at the turn of the 20th century. It also is timed to help commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote. (The History Center)
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The spotlight is swinging from HIStory to HERstory when The History Center in Cedar Rapids reopens July 11.

The new exhibition, “HERstory: Women at Work,” will showcase the jobs Linn County women held early in the 20th century, from switchboard operators and educators to doctors and dentists.

Closed since mid-March, the museum in the Douglas Mansion at 800 Second Ave. SE, will be open for self-guided tours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays in July. Prepaid reservations are required in advance at Historycenter.org/rsvp

All visitors must wear a face covering, practice social distancing and follow the one-way arrows through the galleries. Masks will be provided for guests who don’t bring one, and everyone is encouraged to use the provided hand sanitizer.

HERstory

Originally slated to open in April, the centerpiece exhibition also commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919, and was ratified Aug. 18, 1920.

“It was an interesting time for women,” curator Tara Templeman said. “They just got the right to vote in 1920, and that had been a long fight. It was proposed to the Iowa Legislature in almost every meeting of the General Assembly, starting in 1870, so it had been this really long fight to get just the right to vote. Then women had to go about educating other women about why it was important to vote and how to exercise that right.

“But it was also at a time when women, for the most part, did not own their own property (and) were not able to maintain a job after they married. Even if a young woman was trained in a profession, she was almost always expected to leave that profession when she got married,” Templeman added.

“So it was a time when they were given a right to vote, but it didn’t have so many practical applications for life until women also started to receive other rights, like owning property or being paid a fair wage.”

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A panel on switchboard operators shows an example of unfair wage practices. “Rowdy” teenage boys had been working the telegraph switchboards, but when telephones came on the scene, they liked to play pranks and mix up the calls on purpose. They soon lost their jobs to women, who were deemed calmer and better able to work the complicated equipment. Known as “Hello Girls,” they also were paid less than the teen boys.

While Templeman drew much of the display pieces from the museum’s vast collection, she was able to borrow a century-old switchboard from the Alburnett Community Historical Society.

Another section looks at women’s clubs, which Templeman said helped to “professionalize” women, by giving them the chance to hone their skills at writing and presenting papers — something men were taught as they prepared for their careers.

“They kept really detailed records of all of their club activities, so we have a wide variety of clubs that are on exhibit,” Templeman noted.

And she uncovered other information that surprised her.

“We have what you would expect to find — women who were involved with nursing, but we also have some very early doctors in Linn County. There were nine female physicians working in Linn County by 1900, and by 1920, we even had a dentist — pretty unheard of for a female dentist to be working at that time.”

Those displays feature a doctor’s bag, medications and vials used by nurses and doctors, as well as a wide variety of objects from the St. Luke’s Hospital nursing program.

Other sections highlight entertainers and business owners, including a performance dress worn by singer Helen Kacena Stark of Cedar Rapids in the early 1900s, and information on hat-making milliners, 95 percent of whom were women, Templeman added.

Absent from the center’s collection is much information on women of color.

“Unfortunately, the stories that are most available are stories about white women, and that’s work that we need to do. It’s deeper work,” Templeman said, “because the people who have the power record the history, so it’s absolutely skewed by who had power at any given time. All of the stories about people who did not have that power are difficult to find.

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“And, there is sort of a colonized history within museums where not everybody feels welcome in a museum space, so people of color sometimes are less likely to donate items to museums. ...

“Even our trailblazers had their own privilege, being white married women with the support of their husbands,” she added.

Other programs

Several popular programs also are returning this month, with a walking tour around May’s Island at 6 p.m. July 7 and another exploring Kingston Village at 6 p.m. July 21, and a North Route bicycle tour at 10 a.m. July 25, beginning and ending at Hall Bicycle downtown.

The Grown-Up Show-N-Tell program moves outdoors to the center’s lawn at 6 p.m. July 14. It’s a bring-your-own-seating event, with reserved spots to allow for social distancing.

“We invite community members to bring photos or letters or family mementos or objects that have a story behind them, and then they share that story with an audience,” program manager Jenny Thielman said. “It’s much like show-and-tell as it was when we were kids, but it’s a little bit more in-depth. The stories are usually pretty fascinating, very entertaining, sometimes emotional. It’s always a good time, and we’re very proud of that event.”

Like other staff members, Thielman has been working from home, and is looking forward to the museum’s reopening.

“It will be nice to be have people back in the facility, just to breathe life back into the building,” she said. “Tara has put in so much work with this new exhibit, ‘HERstory.’ It will be a great opportunity for people to come and see a new exhibit that she’s worked so hard on, and just get people back in the presence of history and enjoying their time at The History Center. It’s important to get back into it.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

If you go

What: The History Center reopening, 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays, July 11, 18, 25

Cost: $7 adults; $5 students; free ages 4 and under and center members

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Safety: Prepaid reservations required online at Historycenter.org/rsvp; groups up to 10 people allowed; face coverings required and will be provided to anyone who arrives without one; hand sanitizer available and encouraged; groups must remain six feet apart and follow a one-way path through the exhibits

New exhibit: “HERstory: Women at Work,” through Oct. 31, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote

July Walking Tours: May’s Island, 6 p.m. July 7, meet at 101 First St. SE, Cedar Rapids; Kingston Village, 6 p.m. July 21; $7 or $5 center members; limited to 10 people; face masks required; reservations and prepayment required at Historycenter.org/tours

July Biking Tour: North Route, 10 a.m. July 25, meet at Hall Bicycle, 419 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids; $7 or $5 center members, reservations and prepayment at Historycenter.org/tours; bring bike or call Hall at (319) 362-1052 to reserve a free rental

Grown-Up Show-N-Tell: 6 p.m. July 14, open for seating at 5:30 p.m., History Center lawn; $5 reservations and prepayment required at Historycenter.org/show-n-tell; masks required, bring seating and beverages or buy beverages on-site

Details: Historycenter.org.

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Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.