It is amazing—the power of change that comes with choice! Such is the case of a decision that was made by an Oberlin College graduate who headed up a project in 1979 to interview Oberlin, Ohio residents about life in that small town. As he and a number of volunteers began to collect these oral histories, the stories that came forth were absolutely captivating. Soon the small endeavor caught the interest of other Oberlinians and the project evolved into what is known as the Oberlin Oral History Project. But by 1988 the project came to a close as volunteer participation dwindled.
Fortunately in 1993, Patricia Murphy was hired to direct the Oberlin Historical and Improvement Organization (now known as Oberlin Heritage Center) for the purpose of developing "a plan to revitalize and professionalize the organization." While exploring its collection, Murphy discovered "an array of oral history files...that contained a wealth of information about the community's history." That serendipitous event and Murphy's choice to recruit several volunteers and student interns led to a series of events that has changed the course of history in this little town. Further ignited by Eugenia Poporad Vanek's proposal for "a publication based on stories from the interviews," Bonnets to Boardrooms was birthed.
Compiled and edited by Vanek, Bonnets to Boardrooms features the memoirs of fifty-two Oberlin women who were born between 1895 and 1959. Their recollections cover the changing times from the early to mid 1900s and address a multitude of topics, which Vanek painstakingly and meticulously categorizes and aggregates into seven aptly formatted chapters. Topics range from women's roles in and out of the home and racial tension amid diversity to peace and justice issues, feminism, and community involvement.
Vanek deftly captures aspects of each woman's recollections by alternating their stories and then tying them all together with other pertinent historical information. Bonnets to Boardrooms opens with glimpses of Oberlin, "as seen through the eyes of girls growing up there," who recall what life was like in the early part of the twentieth century. A small tight-knit community laced with dirt roads and few motorized vehicles, Oberlin back then was home to the simple life of friendly neighborly gatherings, silent movies, and was a time when women's roles were set within the confines of the home.
Unique to Oberlin's history is the entrepreneurial spirit of Oberlinian women pre to post World War II and of the present. While Vanek includes stellar examples, such as a nursing home and restaurants that once played significant parts in Oberlin's history, she makes a point to recognize those businesses that have survived the test of time and are still owned and operated by women, such as The Carlyle Shop. Equally important are the women who have dedicated themselves for the betterment of their beloved community. Vanek includes the stories of those whose contributions have made what Oberlin is today. Examples include the reorganization of the Oberlin chapter of The League of Women Voters, the incessant raising of funds to establish a town hospital, the involvement in School Board meetings (at a time when "outsiders" were not welcomed), the beautification of the town in various ways, and the philanthropic role in the area of the arts.
Throughout the changing times, Bonnets to Boardrooms chronicles Oberlinian women who have fought the good fight for peace, justice, and gender equality. While Oberlinians will greatly appreciate the many behind-the-scene narratives, Bonnets to Boardrooms not only offers an intriguing read to lovers of history, but also a testament to the fortitude and courage of women.
Eugenia Poporad Vanek sat on a number of regional committees and local boards, including the Lorain County Board of Health, Oberlin City Council's Design Review Board, Oberlin Seniors of Neighborhood House Association, and the Oberlin Heritage Center. Currently retired, she splits her time between Ohio and Florida.
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