How to Lecture for Community Groups Discussion (Feb. 1997)

How To Lecture for Community Groups Discussion (Feb 1997)

Query From Heather Munro Prescott 05 Feb 1997
I have just been asked to do a lecture in honor of women's history month for one of our local Social Services offices. The audience is the office staff--I presume most of them are women--not welfare clients. I was told that this is part of their staff enrichment program (they are doing something for black history month in Feb.)

The organizers were not very specific about what they want--basically they want me as the women's history rep. They're also inviting women from health professions and other areas related to social services. I'd rather not try to fit all of women's history in the 20 or so minutes I've been allotted, since it would be impossible to do and probably confusing and/or not very interesting.

I've never done something like this before, so I was wondering if list members could share their experiences with doing this kind of lecture for a general audience with no background in women's history (and who might be required as part of their professional development). Thanks for any help you can provide.


>From Antoinette Burton 05 Feb 1997 Have you ever seen Adrienne Rich's essay "Resisting Amnesia", which is from Ms. Magazine a few years back? On occasions when I've been asked to speak in women's history month *as* the women's history person I've found this a useful frame, esp. because if I remember correctly, she makes links to Black History month as well--which opens up a space for a critical engagement with feminist history, etc. Hope this is helpful.

>From Lauren Coodley 05 Feb 1997

I did a lecture for a dinner meeting of local AAUW that worked very well. I picked two little-known women from California history, and described their lives in great detail, as examples of who has been left out of the master narrative. I discussed Clara Shortridge Foltz and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, quoted from their letters and journals, emphasized both their impressive public work and private choices that made it possible.

>From Holly Iglesias 05 Feb 1997 Last year I was asked by the Florida Dept. of Corrections to give a presentation such as you're describing for Women's History Month; and also felt confounded and overwhelmed. Fortunately I was joined by two other presenters(also, like myself, from the Florida State U Humanities Dept.) and each of us had our favorite speciality areas in the arts. I think you could do this in any discipline: find something you're passionate about, however small and niched, and share it in a compelling and engaging manner.

My colleagues spoke on (and had video accompaniment, as well) women painters in the Renaissance and early 20th century French women filmmakers. I wanted to speak on contemporary women's poetry--obviously a huge and rich subject. Rather than present like an academic and speak of topics and writers remote to the average office workers experience, I simply did a poetry reading for 30 minutes. While all of the poems addressed women's roles and modes of expression in one fashion or another, I made sure the large bulk of the poems were by local poets. This more than anything else greatly impressed the audience; the subsequent discussion was quite lively--and I feel that this was in large part due to the fact that I was reading (and they were listening) to the very vital and vibrant words of women who lived in their community. So: my advice is to keep it close to home: make it meaningful and moving to your audience.

>From Katherine Burger Johnson 05 Feb 1997

when I spoke to a general audience on women's history I started by talking about the kind of history that is taught in schools (not so much anymore, but when most of us were in elementary and high school.) A lot of people say that they hated history because it meant memorizing names and dates. Then I talked about who wrote the history that was studied. I went into the difference between military/political history (which is the basis for what is taught most of the time) and social history. Taking this direction got their attention and acknowledged their experiences in the classroom. I used examples of what can be learned by studying the lives of women and how it validates our own lives as valuable. This seemed to me to be more effective for a short presentation than trying to cover centuries of women's history very briefly.

I also remember a handout that was used when I was an undergraduate which was a quiz on women. we quickly filled in our answers and then the professor went over it with us. Most of us were amazed at things like archaic laws about women using their birth names for legal purposes (unlawful in some states at the time), the late date at which military women got full dependent benefits for their husbands, etc. With 20 minutes, one can only do an eye-opener talk. I think dispelling myths is always a good thing to do.

>From Darlene Wilson 05 Feb 1997

I've done a few speaking engagements like this and would love to have your proposed audience--what a great opportunity to present some of the new literature (even in broad summary-statements) in the history of women (gender) and work. Relates to the staff, first as working people (predominately women, I bet!) themselves, and allows you to wind-up with pointed commentary on the historical ('ad nauseum') recycling of welfare 'reform' movements.

My experience is that so-called lay audiences such as this are uninformed but rarely deliberately so--they're pressed for time like all working people. Some of the neatest questions and/or commentary come out of these sessions, I think, 'cause they are apt to express their queries in contemporaneous terms and highly personalized, situational dilemmas. But then, I'm an old post-radical presentist (nay, futurist)...

>From Miguel Juarez 05 Feb 1997

Not everyone has a background in women's history so essentially you'd lecture as if this group were your family. Personal experiences on why the topic is important using layman's language is appropriate. Remember working people do not want to be talked down to. Sometime humor is essential. You want to leave the audience with a sense that it was uplifting listening to you. Many times, we're so wrapped up in our inner intellectual worlds that we forget that there are people out there who may be looking for answers, or moments when they connect or realize specific truths. Make it lively, and if I may suggest, entertaining. Make it not a chore, but a challenge to yourself to keep them invigorated in your topic. Share a bit of your life, your struggles, obstacles which you over came to do what you do. Place yourself in their shoes and the rest will be easy.

>From Helen M. Bannan 07 Feb 1997

It is interesting how popular I suddenly get every March! I have gotten to really enjoy these little public talks, and do have a few suggestions:

  1. Focus on something that your audience can relate to: regional/local women, history of women in their profession, etc.
  2. "Women Worthies" are useful, again highlighting some tie to the group you are addressing. The motivational aspects of hearing about someone who made a difference are really positive.
  3. Keep statistics to a few really remarkable ones, and avoid heavy rhetoric or buzz words.
  4. Tell a personal story or anecdote: how little you learned about women's history in school, how excited you were when you learned x,y,z, how your class or your child or your teacher responded to something. E)Don't read a formal paper, but prepare an outline or notes to talk from.
  5. Encourage questions, and exploration of the women's history most close to home: listening to, and recording , history of your own family, workplace, volunteer organization, etc.
  6. Emphasize the extraordinary accomplishments of so-called ordinary women that have not received the recognition they deserve--every audience will be able to come up with examples of people they know who fit that description.
  7. Enjoy yourself!

>From Jenny Lloyd 07 Feb 1997 My experience with community groups is that they have very little idea of what women's history is--they think it is about famous women, and so wonder how there can be very much. So I go back to basics--explain how and why women's history came into being, and give one example of the difference it makes. I often deal with the ethos of domesticity for the middle class, since so few people understand that the "traditional" family is a historical construction. All the groups I have spoken to have found this approach very interesting and there are lots of questions.

>From Kriste Lindenmeyer 07 Feb 1997

I have a "dog and pony show" I put together several years ago on the history of American women through costume. It takes a little effort to gather the pictures for slides, but audiences looking to be entertained, including students and scholars, seem to respond to my generalizations about women's history accompanied by pictures

>From Charlotte Borst 10 Feb 1997

...I had an experience last March that was certainly different: I was asked to give a women's History Month lecture to the US Army at Ft. McClellan, Ala. (Women's History Month, I was told was one of many "ethnic" holidays the army celebrates!) Intrigued, and desiring to spread the gospel to anyone who will listen, I agreed. I decided to focus my lecture on mothers and political activism--essentially the suffrage league and how ordinary women who were mothers, etc. campaigned. I thought women worthies interesting, but I wanted to get across the point that this was a real movement that was not confined to exceptional women. Interestingly, the army folks were extremely receptive--the general had several female aides--and the experience was quite positive. (And I don't think I'll ever again give a talk where I walk in to a live brass band welcoming me!)

>From Sara Tucker 10 Feb 1997 A request, now almost 10 years ago, to talk during March about "something to do with important women in history", got me started on a lot of the things I now like doing best. As with many of you, I was determined not to follow the expectation that I'd spotlight some "important" women; that is women earning status by having somehow managed to act like men. So I decided to talk about what it was to be a housewife a hundred years before, in the late 1880s.

So I read some books to get the topic up to speed, and put together a talk that included details of cleaning cast iron stoves, hauling water, and killing chickens. Well, my talk and I were a run-away success here in Kansas! Many of the women in the audience spoke up in the question and answer segment, saying "it wasn't just 100 years ago that we did that - I did it too, on the farm after the war."

Since then, I've joined my state Humanities Speakers Bureau, with the lead speech being "Grandma May Have Been A Lady, But She Worked Like A Dog", and have given that speech all over Kansas, now many dozens of times. My hope is that as I do this I demonstrate both the ideas that a) women have always been a part of history-we just need to notice us, and b) college professors are indeed useful, approachable people-not ivory tower radicals (BTW, I do indeed identify myself as a feminist in my closing remarks, and often get the comment that feminists can't be so bad, if we appreciate housewives' work!) And as a bonus, connections coming from those speeches have recently let me go back and collect oral history interviews from many women: topic, women's work before electricity and plumbing.

>From Martha George Withers 10 Feb 1997

I am curator of a historic house museum and a grad student in history. I tend to be asked to do this sort of talk regularly for civic groups, high school students, garden clubs, etc. When I have given this kind of talk, people generally want to know about the daily life and activities. What did women accomplish and what strategies did they use? How was life different in any given time period?

Slides help a lot, if you can find some that are appropriate. You don't have to give an illustrated talk, just take 3 or 4 relevant slides and use them as a backdrop for your talk.

Don't try to give an overview of the whole of women's history. Be selective and talk about something you're really interested in (The subject of your current research?) You might try to tie in to their work responsibilities, e.g. how women took over the secretarial profession from men or how social work/social welfare ,moved from the volunteer sector to the professional. Be passionate and be positive!

One caveat, I have found that much emphasis on the institutional obstacles women faced frequently causes a non-academic audience to label the presentation as "radical feminism" and then they dismiss what they hear. Good luck!