To honor Women’s History Month, we interviewed Portland State University Professor Patricia Schechter, to highlight three incredible Portland women of color, whose contributions and presence helped shape our city.
Patricia specializes in women’s, public, and transnational historical studies, both as a historian and instructor, to continue to share the stories of marginalized voices across time.
What follows is our interview, edited for length and clarity.
What is your subject of study as professor at PSU, and what got you interested in pursuing it?
I was hired in 1995 to teach US women’s history. At the time, PSU created the faculty position in order to support a major in Women’s Studies. The demand for the study of women and gender came from students, faculty, and staff activism. This activism had been ongoing since the 1970s, alongside the demand for Black Studies, Chicano Latino Studies, and Native American studies.
I got interested in social movements like these from growing up as the child of immigrants in downstate New York. I come from a family of extremely strong women, and their stories are defining for me. On my dad’s side, one of my great grandmothers immigrated alone from eastern Europe as a single mother with two children and made a life on the lower east side of New York before World War I. My mother also immigrated alone in the late 1950s, in order to work in the US and send money home to her family in Spain. Spain was struggling under a fascist dictatorship and economically was very troubled. So my work as a historian — school is the only thing I was really good at as a child! — naturally sits at the intersection of struggles for freedom in the US and how women navigate the world in circumstances not of their own choosing.
Who are three historic Portland women of color you’ve studied (and would like to highlight), who helped shape our city? What was significant about their actions and contributions?
I would like to spotlight three figures: Sara Winnemucca, Frances Maeda, and Avel Louise Gordly.
Sara Winnemucca (b. 1841)
Sara Winnemucca (📸: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Sara Winnemucca (b. 1841- d.1891) was the first Native American woman to publish a book in English. She was a member of the Paiute people, born near what is now the Nevada/Oregon border. She published “Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims” in 1882 and it is a critically important voice of advocacy at a time when Indigenous people struggled to protect their historic lands and hold the US government to its own treaty terms. Winnemucca and her sister worked on and off with white families and, with her father’s encouragement, they learned to read and write English.
Using her language skills, Winnemucca accompanied her father and relatives to Washington, D.C. on a lecture tour and even met with President Rutherford B. Hayes, in an effort to have the Piute restored to their historic lands in the Great Basin. Winnemucca taught school on a number of reservations and even opened her own school in the Pyramid Lake region in Oregon. Her grave is unknown and unmarked but is thought to be in Montana.
You can read a free online version of her book here.
Frances Maeda (b. 1912)
Frances Maeda (far right). (📸: Courtesy of YWCA of Greater Portland Archives held at Lewis and Clark College Library)
Frances Maeda was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1912, the oldest of four children of Japanese immigrant parents. Her family fostered her strong faith and commitment to education. She graduated from Jefferson High School, attended Willamette University and, in 1936, graduated from the University of Denver. Maeda had a long and distinguished career in professional Christian service with the World Council of Churches in New York City, where she worked from 1947 to 1977.
Right after college, Maeda became youth director at the Japanese Methodist Church in Portland and served on the Oregon Christian Youth Council. In 1938, she was turned down for employment by the National Board of the YWCA in New York City due to hiring restrictions against Asian American women. However, she became a secretary in the Girl Reserve Department (kind of like “Girl Scouts”) of the Portland YWCA, where she worked for two years. Maeda organized local Japanese and Japanese American girls into Girl Reserve clubs.
“It really meant a lot to them,” Maeda recalled in an interview. “They trained up a basketball team and went on to win. It was amazing.”
The Maeda family endured incarceration during World War II and while at Minidoka Relocation Center in Idaho, Frances did advocacy and casework for detainees. In 1942, Maeda accepted a job with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston and then eventually made her way to New York City. In the late 1970s, she returned to Portland to care for her mother.
You can learn more about Japanese American women at the Portland YWCA here.
Avel Louise Gordly, (b. 1947- )
Avel Louise Gordly. (📸: Courtesy of Richard E. Brown)
Avel Louise Gordly grew up in Portland and graduated from Girls Polytechnic High School in 1965. Her family had migrated to Oregon during the 1930s. The Gordlys were a church-going family. Gordly was the first woman in her family to graduate from college and while at PSU, she took courses in Black Studies and majored in the Administration of Justice. She went on to work at the Oregon Dept. of Corrections, Urban League of Portland, and eventually as an activist with the Black United Front. In 1996, Gordly became the first Black woman elected to the Oregon State Senate.
She made a number of important contributions in Salem, especially legislation in support of equal access to higher education, the advancement of culturally competent services in the mental health area, and protections for environmental justice and equity. After retiring from the Legislature, Gordly taught in the Black Studies Department at PSU and gifted her personal papers to the department and the PSU library.
During her long career in public service, Gordly won dozens of awards and recognitions, including a LifeTime Achievement Award from the Urban League. In 2011, Gordly published an oral memoir with Oregon State University Press called “Remembering the Power of Words: The Life of an Oregon Activist, Legislator, and Community Leader.” In 2017, Avel Louise Gordly received an honorary doctorate degree from PSU in recognition of her many accomplishments in the areas of education and social justice.
You can get a copy of Gordly’s book here.
It feels like much of the way history has been traditionally taught removes the voices and contributions of women of color — when you’re researching these women, what are some tools you use to learn more, and what are some challenges that come up?
Great question! An essential tool for my students and me is oral history. Understandably, the power and impact of women of color circulates within family story-telling traditions, community networks, and personal memories. Women’s legacies are very much alive but often not found in official archives or libraries. A challenge is that many families and communities have experienced violence and rejection in “mainstream” cultural institutions, so trust must often be carefully reestablished if materials are to move into libraries and historical societies for general access use.
Where can Portlanders learn more about Portland women of color and the great things they have done?
Another great question! The Burdine-Rutherford Family Collection held at Portland State University is, to our great good fortune, open to the public. This magnificent collection of documents and photographs about black life in Portland across four generations was amassed by the family and carefully stored in the basement of their home. In 2012, the collection was graciously donated to PSU by another outstanding graduate, Charlotte Rutherford. Some of the collection has been digitized and is available online. PSU Library is a public library, so once covid is over, anyone can make an appointment to see these precious materials. You can see an online exhibit and sample here.
Any upcoming events, lectures, or shoutouts coming your way that you would like folks to know about?
Yes! A very special musical-documentary film by a local woman artist, Alicia Rabins, and woman director Alicia Rose, is premiering at the Portland International Film Festival going on now! The film is called “A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff” and it explores the ethics of responsibility and community care after wrong-doing. The film’s message about accountability is as timely today as it was when the film’s events were taking place a decade ago. It’s also a funny and very beautiful film shot right here in Portland!
You can learn more about the film here.
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Have a historic Portland woman you want to highlight? Send us an email at [email protected]