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The women of Portland
For some young people, it might be difficult to grasp the scope of just how long and hard women have had to work to reach equality to men in many areas — a struggle that, although much progress has been made, still very much exists.
It can take decades of simply being alive and experiencing life before a sense of "real" history comes into focus beyond the oftentimes sanitized and simplified versions taught in school classrooms.
And as time chugs along and major historical events become more distant, it's up to independent educators and historians, such as Tracy Prince, to help keep a more "real" narrative in focus. Prince, along with her 13-year-old daughter, Zadie Schaffer, together released a new book called "Notable Women of Portland." Prince is a scholar in residence at Portland State University.
"Our book goes into the messy parts of history. History is messy, and I don't believe in cleaning it up," Prince says, with a serious tone.
The book is easily recognizable; it's part of the "Images of America" collective, with a sepia-toned historical photograph on the cover. The publishing company, Arcadia, has worked with local writers and historians from around the nation to release the books, which use only photographs and corresponding captions with up to 75 words per caption to tell a focused story on a particular community and topic.
"Notable Women of Portland" ($26.99) gets the job done in 127 pages and "well over 200" photos.
"I might get more acclaim from a university press," Prince says, "but I'll get more reach with a press like this. I've done writing for an insular group of academics, but doesn't really reach a lot of people outside of that."
You can easily find "Images of America" books at Costco or Powell's.
The project actually began with Prince's equally defiant teenage daughter. At their synagogue, children are required to do a project, a mitzvah, Prince says. Schaffer wanted to do a project about the "important women of Portland."
But about a year into the project, Prince realized her daughter could use some help.
"And I could see — she's brilliant — but I could see it was a big project. It was overwhelming. And the further that we got into it, the more I realized that my publisher would be interested in this," Prince says.
She previously authored another book in the "Images of America" series about the Goose Hollow neighborhood, where she lives and is very active. The 51-year-old met this reporter for lunch before testifying at a City Council meeting about saving a historical building, working in part with her neighborhood association.
And if there's something that gets Prince riled up, it's certainly history, and it's easy to tell "Notable Women of Portland" has a mission. It's not just a coffee table book; the first sentence on the back cover has something of a bite.
"The story of Portland, Oregon, like much of history, has usually been told with a focus on male leaders," it reads. "This book offers a reframing of Portland's history."
Prince was baffled — and empowered — when her daughter, a Portland Public Schools student, knew of only one of the women selected for the book (and Prince said selecting all so-called "notable" women was not an easy feat): It was Abigail Scott Duniway — featured on page 22.
Duniway fought for women's right to vote in Oregon. Her brother was Harvey Scott, an editor and owner at The Oregonian during the 1860s and '70s who used his influence to defeat women's suffrage five times, according to the book.
Further intriguing to Prince was when she asked her daughter to pick out 15 women she was most drawn to.
"She chose the raunchier gals," Prince says.
A so-called raunchy gal who Schaffer enjoyed learning about in particular was Mary Gysin Leonard (page 26) — the first woman admitted to the Oregon State Bar, who fought for women to practice law in the state. That's the sanitized version of Leonard's fight. She wasn't perfect.
In 1878, she spent 11 months in jail, and later was acquitted for attempted murder of her husband. She also ran a boarding house that catered to prostitutes, and was "known for her courtroom skills, hard drinking, and offering free legal advice to ladies of the streets," the book says.
Looking at the black and white, grainy photograph of Leonard, in a top decorated with beads, looking fierce and hair done in a bun, you might not peg her as a woman with a drinking problem, offering legal advice to prostitutes.
Those choices didn't take away from her integral part of the fight to advance women's rights. Textbooks have the tendency to paint historical figures in a way that reduces them to something of caricatures, tales of only heroes and villains — but life isn't so simple, Prince argues.
"It's messy. It's real. It's one of my daughter's favorites. I think that's a more accurate way to tell history," Prince says. "Not everybody is a saint. Not everybody is a sinner. There's something in between."
The book has more familiar names, too, such as Arlene Schnitzer (page 114), whose name is attached to Portland's concert hall and who dedicates her life to the arts.
Readers will even find a photo of Carrie Brownstein, of "Portlandia" fame (page 113). The book is broken into sections, starting with Native American and Pioneer Women: Pre-1851 to 1870s; Progressive Era Women: 1870s to 1920s; Women of World War I and World War II: 1914 to 1945; Postwar to Contemporary Women: 1945 to Present; and Women in Politics: 1920s to Present.
Prince is proud of the book, and her daughter, who is photographed with a bold smile next to Gov. Kate Brown, the second female governor of Oregon, on page 127.
Prince and I strolled along a walkway on the Columbia River on Washington state side, so she could show me two statues dedicated to early women in Oregon: a bronze statue of Ilchee, daughter of Chinookan Chief Concomly, and a steel statue celebrating the women in local shipyards. She wishes there were more statues and landmarks celebrating women in Portland.
But it's always a work in progress. Just releasing this book, in the "Trump era," Prince says she was worried about so-called Internet trolls and those who feel empowered to be hateful.
But, there was only one person, she says, who, writing on her author Facebook page, said she should have "put a tranny" on the cover to sell more books (meaning transgender). Though women have come far, some gender identities still have far to go toward acceptance, Prince says.
Instead, the book cover features another defiant woman, standing above Prince and Schaffer's bylines: Margaret Vale Howe, the niece of Woodrow Wilson. Pictured in a white dress with the American flag over her left shoulder, Howe holds a shield with the name "Oregon" on it at a Washington, D.C., march for women's suffrage. Oregon recently had become the ninth state to approve women's right to vote in 1912.
Looking at the photo, one is reminded of the massive Women's Marches that took place across the United States when Donald Trump became president of the United States more than a century later. He has made disparaging remarks about women in the past, as has been well-documented, provoking fear in some that progress could be set back.
Nonetheless, Prince remains empowered by the very females in her book. She's a wealth of information, proudly boasting the accomplishments of long dead ladies who've had important impacts on Oregon history, but often are forgotten in studies.
"As an academic, I've spent so many years reading histories of places that are so male-centered. It was so thrilling to me to dig in and to try to find the women's perspective of Portland history," Prince says.
Equally satisfying? Seeing her daughter soak in the knowledge of these women's battles.
"Having discussions with my daughter, who doesn't conceive of the world (yet) and these arguments that we were put up against, like women's right to vote, and talking about the first female attorney in Oregon and first women medical doctors, it's really been thrilling," Prince says. "It's thrilling to see her knowledge — that it sunk in."
Tracy Prince and Zadie Schaffer will speak about the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 27, at Annie Bloom's Books, 7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, and 7:30 p.m. July 17 at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.
Proceeds from book sales will benefit homeless women at Transition Projects Inc., where Prince once served on the board.