History Lab Brings Controversy to GDS

“History is complicated because people are complicated. What makes GDS special is that people have always appreciated those complexities,” said History Department Chair Lisa Rauschart. But GDS is complicated too, and, like at any other institution, change often brings with it controversy. At GDS, this change is coming in the form of a history lab made from a collection of influential American women’s autographs.

A former GDS parent and current GDS grandparent, Michael Horowitz, has a collection of autographs from eighty female American activists and reformers who lived between the late 18th century and the early 20th century. According to Michelle Cobb, Studio Arts Department Chair at the High School, Horowitz is friends with Kevin Barr, Associate Head of School, and originally approached Barr. Barr then reached out to Michelle Cobb, who agreed to take on the project, and more faculty members became involved.

Now, a group of GDS faculty members —Carlos Angulo, Michelle Cobb, Rhona Campbell, Lisa Rauschart and Jon Sharp— are working to turn the collection into an interactive experience called a history lab.

Angulo and Sharp are also leading a minimester devoted to working on the design of the lab by having students think of questions to pose, write bios for the women, and develop the physical display of the history lab. The minimester is called Women Who Shaped The World.

The autographs will be displayed some time in the spring alongside photographs and descriptions of the women. The teachers working to put up the history lab do not yet know when or where the lab will be.

A majority of the women in the collection are white, so in addition to the collection, fifty to sixty other women—women of color and other white women—could also appear in the history lab. These women are being added in order to “round out the story and to point out some of the complexities and intricacies of the relationships and experiences of American women in history,” as Carlos Angulo put it.

Julia Pastreich, a student member of the minimester and a junior at GDS, said, “Women of color are vital to the history of women’s activism. [Women of color] are a necessary part of history, so adding them tells a more accurate story,” and, thus, adding women of color to the history lab creates a more diverse and intricate depiction of American history that includes the complexities of the experiences of historical American women that Angulo mentioned.

And some of the featured women are, to say the least, very complex. For example, women in the collection include Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull. All three of these women worked tirelessly for the promotion of women’s rights, but Sanger and Woodhull were avid promoters of eugenics. Stanton dedicated much of her life to promoting both women’s rights and abolitionism, but she began to vilify her former abolitionist allies and appeal to racial and ethnic prejudices when the 15th Amendment did not guarantee suffrage for white women.

Pastreich worries that hanging autographs and photographs of these women, “regardless of intention, can seem celebratory. The title of the minimester is ‘Women Who Changed The World’ and some of  [these women] did do great things, but a lot of them did pretty terrible things. And I think not acknowledging that is dangerous and it doesn’t acknowledge the pasts and histories of lots of different people.”

Katherine Dunbar, an English teacher, first heard about the history lab during a department meeting around a month ago. In the meeting, she and other faculty members raised questions about who was missing from the plans for the lab, whether that be women of color or other important female change makers who are not in Horowitz’s collection. There then was a follow-up meeting with the faculty members working on the history lab; Marlo Thomas, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at GDS; and faculty members who, in Dunbar’s words, “were wondering about the gaps, and if there were gaps, and there would naturally be gaps in almost any collection, and how these gaps would be addressed.” Dunbar was one of the attendees of this meeting.  

But, weeks after this follow up meeting, Dunbar still posed the question: “So if you’re a casual observer and just sitting in the library and glance over to the wall and see, why am I not reflected in this museum show, in this curated exhibit? I think that could be dangerous, and we, as viewers of the world, have some obligation to become active viewers. [The show] is for us to interact with it, but I think there is a risk that not everyone will have the time or moment in their lives to actually connect with it, or to see the gaps, or work with the gaps.”

At the same time, Pastreich said, “If we can rewrite the bios of these women that we were given and really critique [the way the women’s stories are portrayed], then I think that could be a good exhibit about how we need to critique history, and it could display a positive way of showcasing controversial figures.”

Rauschart said, “So, for example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is one of the images and autographs that [Horowitz] has, and that will actually be one of the labs. [Students] will see the image of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and then there will be her speech that she gives at Steinway Hall in 1869 where she’s talking about the 15th Amendment. We’ll see what Frederick Douglass had to say when he heard that she said that.” Stanton’s display aims to convey enough information to give viewers a chance to come to their own conclusions about Stanton’s legacy.

Rauschart said the history lab should make students wonder: “How do the documents answer the question that we pose about the interaction and intersectionality with race and gender?”

“I think,” Angulo said, “the lab, the display, the project, is all about asking questions about these people and sort of saying: They did good things. They did bad things. How do you reconcile that? How do you really fill out this picture of American history and this picture of women in American history in a way that stimulates people to think about it more, rather than presenting one side of the narrative or just giving them information and saying, ‘this is what it was’?”

Although she has some fears about leaving important women out of history, Dunbar has hopes for the history lab, and she thinks the faculty members in charge of it are “going to make it as powerful as they can to honor who we are at GDS, which is an inclusive place that honors every individual. And if there are big gaps, it’s not doing that. So, I have hope and faith that that will happen if people engage it in the way I think they will be invited to engage with it.”

Angulo and Rauschart are also excited about the history lab’s future and hope that it can inspire students to further question and examine American history. Rauschart said, “I think it’s because we are not presenting it as an exhibit, as a showcase for his collection, but rather as an opportunity for students to really interact with a range of sources that I think strikes at the heart of our mission, both for equity and social justice, but also what it means to be a student: to question and challenge and make connections.”

Abby Murphy ’20