Women’s History Month must include all women

Photo courtesy of Larry TompkinsAlvena Hitchcock of East Jewett sitting by her Glenwood stove in an undated news photo.

Alvena Hitchcock passed away this month at the formidable age of 103. Her obituary was an unwelcome sight when Patricia Morrow posted it on Facebook, because somewhere deep down I had the faint hope that one day I would have the chance to meet her. Instead this Women’s History Month marks the passage of a remarkable woman, and we are diminished by her departure. East Jewett has lost one of its matriarchs.

She came up in conversation at work the same day I read the news. Larry Tompkins, unknowingly mirroring her obituary, immediately remarked on his memories of seeing her seated next to the immaculate antique wood-fired Glenwood Stove in her kitchen. Mrs. Hitchcock’s obituary spoke of her sitting beside it reading her mother’s diaries. Larry and I contemplated in conversation the thought of her cleaning and keeping that wood cook stove burning well into her twilight years — a remarkable feat in and of itself.

That stove was not Mrs. Hitchcock’s defining feature, but it was an apt symbol of what she embodied. Over the years she assumed the roles of scholar, musician, historian, community volunteer, mother and wife — fulfilling the responsibilities entailed by each while at the same time carrying forward memories of the Mountain Top as she knew it a century ago. Through her those bygone days were still alive for all of us, stoked to life every time she put a log in the Glenwood stove and recollected to a neighbor the memories of their departed forebears. Those forebears and ancestors were people she had known in life, and they endured for those neighbors in her spoken recollections much the same way Mrs. Hitchcock’s mother endured for her through those old diaries. I’d like to think Alvena Hitchcock understood the responsibility Time had bestowed on her and that she relished the importance of it.

Women’s History Month as I knew it growing up didn’t celebrate women like Mrs. Hitchcock. In school we read about historical figures like Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Amelia Earhart and Nellie Bly to name just a few — but our grandmothers, mothers and sisters were not on that list; our family, neighbors, and teachers weren’t part of the curriculum. Perhaps this nuanced understanding was a bit much to expect from an elementary schooler, but that doesn’t mean we can’t strive now to reconcile that dissonance.

I have no doubt the list each of us could make for our revised Women’s History Months would be formidable in scale. My own would start with family, but it grows quickly to include a multitude of neighbors, friends, coworkers, mentors and predecessors in my given profession as an historian and archivist. The domain of local history in particular is populated with countless women chroniclers whose silent work collecting, preserving, and interpreting our community heritage goes unacknowledged with alarming frequency.

The scrapbook collections of the Vedder Library are a prime example of this. Cataloged and partially indexed, you can find wonderful bits of trivial information and anecdotes scattered among their crumbling pages. However, no catalog description fully explains that each volume is really a curated exhibit compiled by a local woman with an eye for posterity. Within a single scrapbook’s pages we get to experience the communities and lives of these often unnamed chroniclers as they saw fit to document in their time. What I mean to say is that by opening the pages of these crumbling tomes we modern observers get to have a conversation with these women again, reading of the past they quietly clipped from newspapers and interpreting their work for the present.

The scrapbook collections are only one small portion of the vast contributions women have made to the documentary heritage of this county. The Vedder Library itself, named for our first County Historian Jessie Van Vechten Vedder, serves as an indelible reminder of her monumental efforts — foremost being that she set a bar so high many of her successors, myself included, can only look on in awe in lieu of surpassing her achievements. And then of course there are some books resting on a shelf in the opposite aisle from our scrapbook collections; several histories by the late Elwood Hitchcock regaling us with bygone days of the Mountain Top. Alvena Hitchcock, Elwood’s wife, typed all his books up from notes during her free time in preparation for the publishers. Here’s to the memory of Alvena Hitchcock sitting beside her old Glenwood stove on this Women’s History Month.

Questions and comments can be directed to Jon via archivist@gchistory.org.

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