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Northland women 'making waves'

Beth Bartlett, professor of women's studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, finds inspiration in Lake Superior. Bartlett wrote a book published this fall titled "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior" that examines feminist activism in the Twin Ports over the past 40 years. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
UMD professor Beth Bartlett has written a new book about the key role Duluth and Superior have played in women's rights. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

There must be something in the water — or in Lake Superior at least.

"It's inspiring. It's restorative," said Elizabeth Bartlett, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor of 36 years who is retiring this month. "There's a connection there."

Lake Superior, the northern lights and pine forests — it's the Twin Ports' close proximity to the natural environment which fostered the Northland's feminist community that birthed grass-roots organizations in the 1980s still in existence today, an idea Bartlett argues in her recently published book "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior."

The book chronicles the histories of 10 grass-roots feminist organizations in the Twin Ports, detailing how they grew, changed over time and came to have a lasting effect on the community.

While feminist organizations around the nation rose and fell, local organizations not only survived, but have thrived for decades. Their histories have not been recorded in writing, Bartlett said, until now.

The Northcountry Women's Coffeehouse, for example, is the longest continuing lesbian coffeehouse in the nation, Bartlett said. Mending the Sacred Hoop, an organization that works to end domestic violence in tribal communities, continues to help Native American women and children across the nation.

Other organizations included in Bartlett's book are the Women's Health Center and Building for Women, Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), Aurora: A Northland Lesbian Center and the American Indian Community Housing Organization, among others.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the book proves that women who come together seeking opportunities for themselves and their daughters can make a difference.

"It's the perfect story of how you create change from the ground up," Larson said. "Seeing this history of action and impact — it really reaffirms that a different course is possible."

'This should be recorded'

When Bartlett moved to Duluth in 1980, she said she found a feminist community unlike any she had experienced.

A group of women from Duluth and Superior stand in support of the Equal Rights Amendment in Chicago in 1980. Beth Bartlett photoAt the time, feminism was nationally embraced in a positive way that it's not now, Bartlett said. The Twin Ports community was a hotbed for grass-roots organizing, which aimed to improve women's lives in the area.

"They had the enthusiasm of a new movement," Bartlett said. "It was just that solidarity of vision and action and friendship that energized the whole place."

In 2002, Bartlett was at a feminist conference at the University of Wisconsin-Superior when the idea for the book was born. The stories of initial efforts for feminist organizing in the Twin Ports, shared by local feminists, moved Bartlett and her colleague, Susana Pelayo-Woodward.

"I turned around to her and said, 'this should be recorded,' " Pelayo-Woodward recalled.

"There was a definite call," to write the book, Bartlett said.

That marked the beginning of her 14-year project.

The project was put on hold for four years, Bartlett said, because she was busy as head of the UMD Women's Studies department. She also finished one of her four other books during the 14-year period.

"It needed a lot of time, so it got stalled," Bartlett said of the project. "But it was always in the back of my mind."

Bartlett and five members of the UMD Women's Studies department collaboratively researched and outlined the book, Bartlett said.

"It was a group process to begin with," she said. "It took us a good year to strategize about how we wanted to do this."

Bartlett limited her field of study to grass-roots organizations that had existed for at least a decade and those that started in the Twin Ports, which ruled out local branches of national organizations such as the YWCA.

The cover of Beth Bartlett's new book "Making Waves: Grassroots Feminism in Duluth and Superior.They began interviewing one or two key people in each organization in 2006, some of whom were re-interviewed. Then they branched out with an effort to include diverse voices in the community.

About 100 people were interviewed during the research process, she said.

Pelayo-Woodward recalled interviewing Cathy Curley, a co-founder of Safe Haven Shelter and Resource Center. Curley died in 2010.

"It was a really fantastic way of learning about the process and what it was like for her to open the doors," Pelayo-Woodward said.

PAVSA executive director Candice Harshner also was interviewed for the book. She said that when many of the organizations formed, the women were so busy working that they didn't document the history.

Harshner said many of the young people she works with now don't have a sense for how much women of the past struggled to create the organizations. Without Bartlett's book, Harshner said, that history easily could have been lost.

"When you put something into writing, when you have that format, you don't lose it," Harshner said. "It was a really good opportunity for us to just tell our stories."

The book plays a larger role, Harshner said, in making sure the women who worked hard to improve the community are recognized.

"Women's work so often doesn't get the honor or the attention it deserves," Harshner said.

Duluth's unique qualities

In 2014, Bartlett began writing chapters on 15 organizations. But Bartlett's first attempt to publish the book was denied, she said, because it was too long.

"At that point, the book was 800 pages," Bartlett said. "At some point, we had to narrow it down."

When the Minnesota Historical Society Press decided it would publish "Making Waves," Bartlett said the editor wanted just 10 histories, to cut down the length. Bartlett said she incorporated the organizations she cut into other chapters in the published version.

Bartlett said she believes the Twin Ports' unique physical geography and cultural makeup have made the area a fertile ground for a lasting, effective feminist movement, a concept at the core of her book. Apart from the inspiring great lake, she argues Duluth has something special.

Duluth's size makes it easy for women to connect, befriend and organize with one another, she said, an issue at the crux of failed feminist organizations in the Twin Cities. Duluth's tradition of progressive politics also has attributed to the organizations' success, she said.

Bartlett said she also believes Anishinaabe culture was a primary influence on the Northland feminist community's women-centered approach.

In "Making Waves," Bartlett says that "the deep roots of women-honoring culture of the Anishinaabe are at work in the culture that supports feminist organizing in this area."

She goes on to say that the Twin Ports feminist community valued "the sacredness of women," a value that was crucial to their success.

Bartlett said she hopes the book can be used as a learning tool — not only for students, educators and feminists, but also for Duluthians who seek to learn more about how the Northland and its residents have made an impact far beyond the region.

"I would hope that people in this community would begin to know and understand the really significant ways this community made the world a better place," Bartlett said. "It'd be a tragedy if its history wasn't recorded."

Bartlett said it's a history whose work and goals may be thrown into jeopardy as a result of the recent election. With one party in control of the presidency and Congress, she said, many women's rights and federal funding for women's programs could disappear quickly.

For example, she said, the federal funding for the Violence Against Women Act could get cut under the oversight of a more-conservative Congress.

"Its funding might get cut, and gains made for Native women might disappear," Bartlett said. "That would affect feminism locally hugely, since agencies like Safe Haven, PAVSA and especially Mending the Sacred Hoop rely on federal dollars to serve and advocate for women harmed by sexual assault and sexual violence."

Regardless of what might occur on national and local political fronts, Bartlett said she remains hopeful that grass-roots activism working to better women's lives will move forward.

"On the other hand, this election has galvanized a national movement," Bartlett said, adding that local feminists met in action groups across Duluth the night after the election. "I see feminism locally going forward with great resilience."