What I’m Listening To: Presidential Podcast
By Amanda Tewes
Chances are that if you remember anything about William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, it’s that he did not wear a coat to his inauguration on a bitterly cold day in 1841, caught pneumonia, and died a month into office, making his presidency the shortest in American history. Unfortunately, this memorable story about Harrison’s brief presidency is not true. His March 1841 inauguration day was not that cold, and modern physicians think that typhoid fever–thanks to a contaminated White House water supply–was the real culprit in laying Harrison low. So why have Americans perpetuated this myth about Harrison? This is just one of the many questions posed by Lillian Cunningham on the Presidential podcast, which she hosts.
Cunningham began Presidential, a forty-four episode (one for each president) podcast series, during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, which critics felt was historically divisive, even during primary races. Drawing from her experiences writing about leadership for the Washington Post, Cunningham took a different approach to the election. She uses Presidential to explore each American president as a way to understand which character traits and historical circumstances made for effective leadership. In short, how do we define a successful presidency and why?
The series is a fresh take on not only American history, but also on modern American politics. Cunningham creates memorable narratives about each leader, humanizing even the “forgotten presidents.” In examining each president’s personality, she also asks guest historians what listeners would have been able to expect on a blind date with these men (pro tip: don’t let your friends set you up with James K. Polk!). This informative and witty approach makes Presidential a not-so-guilty pleasure.
Listening to this podcast two years after it aired is an odd experience. In many ways, Presidential captured the spirit of the 2016 election, but it is also a good reminder that no political outcome is inevitable. William Henry Harrison certainly did not foresee the untimely end to his month-long presidency.
As an oral historian, Presidential has me wondering: when do contemporary politics become history? This podcast has made me more aware than ever how, as an interviewer, I help shape narratives about the past. I will be thinking about my impact on oral history, from which questions I ask to how I ask them, as I conduct my interviews in the future.
Summer Institute Alum Spotlight: Julia Thomas
Julia Thomas attended our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute in 2016. When she joined us, she was studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. She’s now working as a freelance journalist, traveling the world to document grassroots media, as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. We caught up with her recently to find out what she’s been up to since, and how oral history informs her work as a freelance journalist.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work, and how you use oral history.
Thomas: I’m a freelance journalist, just beginning my work after studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. My current research is supported by a year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, during which I’ve been learning about and documenting grassroots media from the ground up in Nepal, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador. I’ve been spending time in the field, working alongside, and interviewing journalists as they report on current stories in progress and the methods they use to present people’s voices on a mix of platforms.
Oral history has played a major role in this project and I’m continually adjusting the ways I use it. Sometimes, and especially in my most recent work in South Africa, I’ve used oral history in more formalized interviews about the organizing and establishment of a community newspaper under Apartheid, the housing crisis in Durban and Cape Town, and community radio practices. At other times, I’ve engaged with oral history as it’s being produced in the moment, in the form of podcasts and radio, by journalists in-country.
Throughout this project, one of my hopes is to incorporate oral history sensibilities into any conversation I have, regardless of whether the recorder is on, or the topic is related to journalism. Oral history requires slower and more deliberate attention to questions to allow people to open up and share. I’ve sought to use oral history as a means of understanding new places and explore its possibilities. How far can the discipline of oral history stretch? What recitations of sound fall under its umbrella? I’ve developed a habit of recording the atmosphere of places, such as buses or streets, and protests or songs performed at community gatherings. I do this both as a means to viscerally return later and capture the sounds around every day movement and life. I believe that this is oral history in a way, too, and that preservation of how an environment sounds unprompted – who is allowed to be heard or what kind of voices dominate – is just as important as difficult questions posed in conversation.
Playing with oral history in conjunction with understanding journalists’ work and how best to preserve it, is a lot of fun and a consistent challenge. The questions stay the same for a while, perhaps shaped by current happenings in place, and then they change drastically depending especially, of course, on lingual context and whether or not I can understand or communicate. Much of the time, I haven’t been able to do interviews in the first language of vernacular language journalists, so the practice of oral history becomes dependent on recorded sound and my own observations of context.
This then raises the question: how much can one truly translate or take away from such a listening experience? I am still figuring out how to present and connect the many stories this exploration has led to, but my hope is to create a collection of transcribed interviews, a podcast that brings community journalists focused on similar issues in different contexts into conversation, and a longer form written project that connects the media landscapes and current stories in the countries I’ve visited.
Q: What is the state of the project that you workshopped at the Summer Institute?
Thomas: The project I workshopped eventually grew into my undergraduate thesis, which traced the use of buses as a space in social movements throughout the twentieth century in Mexico and the United States. It also became a condensed long form piece, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that examined contemporary examples of buses as a site of protest and state control – such as phenomena of “busing” protestors in the wake of the 2016 election and attendance at the 2017 presidential inauguration as measured by number of bus permits secured. Both of these projects are more literature heavy than I anticipated when I went to the Summer Institute, largely because my workshop group helped me to think about this research on buses as a larger and longer term focus than what I could have accomplished in an single undergraduate academic year. My workshop group very much influenced my thinking about positionally, potential angles, and people to interview. Funnily enough, I am actually answering these Q&A questions while riding on a bus in Spain!
Q: What kinds of oral history techniques do you use in your work as a journalist?
Thomas: Whenever possible, I try to think about interviews as opportunities for oral histories and ask questions that bring out a longer history beyond the topic at hand. My hope is to make interviewees comfortable enough to open up in sharing their own stories. When I’m doing an interview in a journalistic capacity, I try ask more open-ended questions and step back rather than steering the interview according to a particular angle for a story. Staying focused on the individual narrative, rather than thinking of them as a certain voice that will speak a particular perspective, is a technique I always try to use. In journalism, it can be easy to ask questions oriented around a certain topic and shut off the opportunity to go deeper into someone’s story, but oral history makes you step back, take more time, and see each conversation as an opportunity.
Something I’ve started to ask people is, what kind of story would you like to tell or feel should be told about your situation, this particular movement, etc.? Oral history gives agency and power back to the person sharing stories from memory, in their own words and lived experiences. It also inherently requires more of an emphasis on context and an individual’s position within the issue being discussed, which journalism can always use more of. I try to think about my interviews as oral histories a chance to gain a deeper understanding about situational context as much as possible.
Q: How did the Summer Institute shape your work?
Thomas: Attending the Summer Institute was a very inspiring experience for me, particularly as an undergraduate student with a strong interest in oral history but no formal training in its methodologies. I developed a lot of new ideas and gained eye opening insights from fellow attendees. The people in our 2016 cohort came from such a wide variety of places and this in and of itself was exciting to see how academics, journalists, architects, activists, policy makers, teachers, were curious about using oral history in their unique applications. I learned a great deal about the logistics of carrying out an oral history projects as a freelancer though the mock interviews and techniques that were presented. At the time of the Institute, I was actually preparing my application for the Watson Fellowship and had a general idea of my project but couldn’t quite articulate what it was that I wanted to explore. On one of the last days of the Institute, it became clear to me that the practice of asking questions and capturing people’s voices is what really fascinated me. I remember it suddenly clicking in my head after a few days of being immersed in discussions of oral history that I knew this was what I wanted to learn more about in other parts of the world.
Q: How do you hope to grow your work in the future?
Thomas: I’m planning to spend the next couple of years working as a freelancer, and hope that the year following this fellowship will be spent writing long-form feature pieces about what I encountered in each place, and continue to report (hopefully abroad!). I’d love to return to the topic of buses and do some oral histories with transport unions and workers, activists, organizers of solidarity caravans, etc., particularly in Mexico. This year has also piqued my interest in radio programming and podcasting, so I’d love to break into that. Some broad topics of interest as of right now are individual experiences and social movements related to elections, land and housing rights, and music composition and performance. Graduate school of some sort is definitely in the future at some point, but until then, my hope is to keep learning, interviewing, experimenting, collaborating. We’ll see what happens from there!
For more from Julia, follow her on Twitter: @juliathomas317 and Instagram: @jthom317
Sauntering in the Sierra
by Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Deep into Sequoia National Park, a thin, wiry rider climbed a mountain trail atop a dusty white horse. He wore a dark business suit, per his backcountry custom, and from under his black felt hat, a bushy white beard spilled forth. Up the Kern River Canyon, a group of young Sierra Club members trekked through the high country. As the rider approached them, his piercing blue eyes surveyed the group from under his shadowy hat.
“Where are you going?” the rider inquired.
“We’re just hiking in to camp,” the hikers replied.
“Hiking is a vile word,” the rider returned. “You are going right past one the finest views in the Sierra. Now stop and look at it.”
It was the summer of 1908, and the young Sierra Club members heeded his command. For they knew the thin, dark rider was John Muir, famed mountaineer and co-founder of the Sierra Club.
“You know,” Muir said, “when the pilgrims were going from England to the Holy Land, the French would ask them ‘Where are you going?’ They did not speak French very well, but they would say ‘Santa Terre’ (Holy Land). That is where we get our word ‘saunter.’ And you should saunter through the Sierra, because this is a holy land, if ever there was one.”
When John Muir preached this parable of wilderness-appreciation in 1908, he left an indelible mark in the mind of C. Nelson Hackett, who recalled the encounter in a 1972 oral history interview. Hackett was born in the City of Napa in 1888. He joined the Sierra Club during high school and later earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Hackett worked at the Bank of California (now MUFG Union Bank) where he became vice president and headed its trust department. When interviewed at eighty-three years old, Hackett recalled, “I don’t know of anything in my life that has been more delightful than those Sierra Club outings.” In 1908, during Hackett’s outing, Sierra Club membership had just reached 1000. Today, with three million members and supporters, Sierra Club is the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States.
Hackett’s memory of Muir comes from Sierra Club Reminiscences II, 1900s-1960s, part of the Oral History Center’s extensive collection of interviews with Sierra Club leaders and longtime members. The roots of the Oral History Center’s relationship with the Sierra Club stems, in part, from a chance encounter on a long bus trip from San Francisco north to the dedication of the newly established Redwood National Park in August 1969. On that bus trip, Phillip Berry, then recently elected as the Sierra Club’s youngest president, sat next to Amelia Fry, an oral historian from the Bancroft Library. Fry had interviewed former National Park Service directors Horrace M. Albright and Newton Drury, and many others associated with natural resources and politics. While riding to Redwood National Park, Fry convinced Berry about the value of preserving the Sierra Club’s unwritten stories through oral history interviews. In May 1970, the club’s board of directors authorized the Sierra Club History Committee, which partnered with the Oral History Center to begin recording reminiscences of longtime club members in 1971. This interview series continued until the mid-2000s, during which the Oral History Center collected nearly one hundred Sierra Club interviews with former presidents and directors, including Ansel Adams, Edgar Wayburn (two interviews), David Brower (two interviews), Michael McCloskey (two interviews), and Carl Pope. Funding challenges brought a halt to the project, but the Sierra Club oral histories remain available online and preserved at The Bancroft Library. Today, the Oral History Center is planning to revive the series in conjunction with the club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.
If you want to donate to this important project , please contact oral history interviewer Roger Eardley-Pryor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Few Words from the OHC’s Director, Martin Meeker
Where we’ve been, and where we’re headed in the digital age
The Berkeley campus has a quiet buzz during the summer months. Fewer people mean a shorter queue at the coffee bar, slightly easier parking, and a general calm among the undergrads throwing frisbees on Memorial Glade. Yet the campus is not asleep, and that is especially true at the Oral History Center. We run on all cylinders in the academic off-season. In addition to wrapping up some big projects and planning for others, we are busy dreaming up plans for the future of oral history at Berkeley and are taking the steps necessary to realize those ambitions.
Sometime before the end of this calendar year, the Oral History Center will launch a new search interface for our entire collection of some 4000 interviews. In a future column, I’ll provide a step-by-step walk-through on this new build-out, but it will entail two important innovations for us: first, researchers will be able to conduct a full-text search across the entire collection and, second, some oral history audio and video will be streamable, and synced with transcripts using OHMS, or the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. We are beta testing the functionalities now and even as we work out the kinks, we’re excited to share our advances with you. They will provide scholars, students, and all those interested in the seemingly limitless topics covered in our interviews robust new tools to find and engage with the information, the stories, the remarkable first person accounts.
These steps forward aren’t always easy, and we’ve had to contend with our share of challenges. Funding is always tricky for us, but we found a great partner in the National Park Service who wanted to see our Rosie the Riveter/World War II homefront interviews — transcripts and original recordings — made more easily accessible. We don’t have the technical expertise in the office to implement these changes, so we needed to work with our Library Systems Office. The Systems Office has been a great partner and we work together to solve pressing issues around storage space (we always need more), programmer expertise (their time is precious), security (we have important obligations to our interviewees), and access (we take our mandate seriously).
While we were able to get most of the “hoped-for” functionality, compromises were made — and there are important pieces of the puzzle that will happen in the next, as-of-yet unfunded phase. These still “hoped-for” pieces include a portal designed expressly for high school teachers and their students. We think oral history interviews mesh well with common core standards so we’re just now starting to engage with teachers who will hope will help us build out this feature. And, although we’ll have a new search interface, we know that the structure of the OHC website itself breaks several “User Experience 101” rules (hello 3 search menus?!). Some problems are less a matter of funding, more of diplomacy with the larger institution!
As we plug away and attempt to build toward the future of oral history at Berkeley, we welcome dialog and partnership with our friends in oral history — and throughout the academy, journalism, digital humanities, information sciences, you name it. If you’ve got ideas, let’s talk.
We are pleased to release our oral history interview with MaryAnn Graf. MaryAnn Graf was the first woman to graduate the University of California Davis in Food Science with a specialization in Enology, which she did in 1965. She went on to work for commercial wine operations such as Gibson and United Vintners before being hired as winemaker for Simi Winery in 1973.
After leaving Simi, she established with Marty Bannister the company Vinquiry, which provided laboratory and wine consulting services to wineries throughout California. She retired from Vinquiry in 2003. In this oral history, Graf discusses her upbringing in California’s Central Valley, her undergraduate education at UC Davis, her early jobs formulating flavored wines, her move into varietal wines at Simi and work with leaders including André Tchelistcheff, and her establishing a consulting wine laboratory. She also discusses her unique position as a woman in the wine industry at a time in which most every job was dominated by men.
This interview with MaryAnn Graf represents just our most recent interview on the California wine industry, which has been a major focus of the Oral History Center for many decades. We are excited to report that more fascinating interviews in this area are currently in production and we are actively seeking partners who might help us by sponsoring more interviews. Please contact OHC director Martin Meeker for more information: email@example.com
The Bancroft Pictorial Processing Unit is proud to announce that The Edward A. Rogers collection of Cardinell-Vincent Company and Panama-Pacific International Exposition Photographs has been organized, archivally housed, individually listed, and made (substantially) available online. This work was accomplished over two years, thanks to grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and, of course, careful hard work on the part of many library staff.
In this blog posting, Project Archivist Lori Hines describes some of the most challenging (and rewarding) work; preserving and providing access to fragile and often damaged glass negatives.
Handling Glass Plate Negatives: A Lesson in Mindfulness
The Rogers collection of Panama Pacific International Exposition photographs, received as a gift in 2014, includes over 2,000 glass negatives. These fragile items required special handling and archival containers with padding. Hardest to work with were approximately 150 oversize glass negatives ranging from 11 x 14 inches to 12 x 20 inches. Antique glass can become brittle and, of course, is heavy. From handling to wheeling the negatives back and forth to the conservation department and the digital lab, one had to be very conscious of every move and step taken.
This first photo shows how the negatives were received in the library. Note they have no padding between the plates and there are only original, brittle sleeves to protect them. A stack of ten or fifteen is very heavy and getting your fingers under one, to lift it off the stack, is challenging. The weight of the negatives on top of each other is also a risk — the antique glass can easily crack under the weight.
This photo shows how the negatives have been housed by library staff; vertically with corrugated archival cardboard around each. Our library conservators designed the housing to limit box weight, to provide protective padding, to protect the plates from abrasion as they’re removed, and to make handling safer.
The largest plates, at 12 x 20 inches, needed another housing solution because it was impractical to store them upright, but the weight of one on another was a concern. The Library’s Conservation Department built custom trays to hold each 12 x 20 negative, with just three plates (and their trays) in an archival box that is stored flat on a cabinet shelf.
The negatives are handled on the long side of the glass to offer best support and, during the cleaning, housing, and inventory process, are rested on a piece of thin foam padding to buffer any impact with the work table.
About 10% of the negatives arrived broken. To be digitized, we had to re-piece the broken negatives together on a supporting sheet of glass, like a puzzle, then hand it off immediately to the photographer in the Library’s Digital Imaging Lab. The glass sheet with the broken negative on top was then placed on a light table, so it was lit from behind, to be captured by the digital camera. The light table and camera are visible in the background of this image.
The results were often quite satisfying, as can be seen in this example of a badly broken glass negative that was pieced together.
The finding aid describing and listing the entire Rogers collection, with more than 2,000 digital images, may be viewed at the Online Archive of California.
To browse examples of images scanned from broken plates, try searching the finding aid for “negative is broken”, and navigating through the results, or by browsing this Calisphere website search that retrieves just the broken-plate images.
Special thanks go to Christine Huhn and the staff of the Digital Imaging Lab; Hannah Tashjian, Erika Lindensmith, Martha Little, and Emily Ramos of the Conservation Department; staff of the Library Systems Office and the California Digital Library that worked with us to get the material online; to Gawain Weaver Art Conservation (contractors for preservation and scanning of panoramic film negatives), and to the Bancroft Pictorial Unit team that devoted much or their 2016-2018 work life to this effort: Lori Hines, Lu Ann Sleeper, and a crew of student staff.
by Steven Black, Bancroft Acquisitions
In quick succession, joy followed by tears, June 2nd and 4th, 2018.
At the Annual Meeting of The Friends of The Bancroft Library, Carla A. Fumagalli was introduced as this year’s awardee of the William S. Reese Fellowship in American Bibliography and the History of the Book in the Americas.
For a number of years Bancroft has been favored to host a Reese fellowship, along with other peer institutions, including American Antiquarian Society, the Beinecke library at Yale University, the John Carter Brown library at Brown University, the University of Virginia Library, the Huntington Library, the Bibliographical Society of America, and the Library of Congress .
Celebration, punctuated by grief and mourning, then, hopefully, more celebration (if not stoic acceptance) —is a rhythm we accept without relish. Closer to home, our mortal persistence was tested in February with the passing of eminent Berkeley bookseller, Ian Jackson, who was a familiar presence to many on the UC campus and in bookshops around town.
Bancrofters most recently saw Bill Reese in February at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena.
Looking back on decades of our working together to build the Bancroft Collection of Western Americana, brought to mind a special visit he made to the Library in February 2001. His talk was about major and minor colorplate travel and exploration books on the American West, using a small selection assembled for display on that occasion.
Here are some pictures of this informal exhibition, after hours in Bancroft’s Edward Hellman Heller Reading Room.
We are pleased to welcome Roger Eardley-Pryor to the Oral History Center. Roger joins our team as an Historian/Interviewer.
We wanted to get to know him better, so we gave him our Q&A treatment. For more, follow him on Twitter @Roger_E_P.
Q: When did you first encounter oral history?
I first encountered oral history in the Spring of 2011 at the Science History Institute (formerly Chemical Heritage Foundation) when doing archival research there as a graduate student. Rows and rows of hard-bound transcripts from their oral histories with leading chemists lined the shelves of their library in Philadelphia’s historic Old City. At that time, I focused on the dusty boxes pulled from their traditional archives. But those oral history interviews sparked my curiosity. Years later, after completing my PhD at the University of California Santa Barbara, I accepted a post-doctoral fellowship in the Science History Institute’s Center for Oral History. I conducted oral histories for their collection that, I hope, spark the interests of future researchers there.
Q: How did you use oral history in your graduate work?
While writing my dissertation, I drew from oral history interviews conducted by the United Nations Intellectual History Project (UNIHP) based out of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at CUNY. My dissertation analyzed the “global environmental moment” created by the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm, Sweden. The clashes between ecological scientists, international diplomats, and environmental activists in that moment laid the foundations for what later became sustainable development. But those clashes also entrenched the political patterns that still hamstring today’s efforts to solve global environmental challenges like climate change. The seventy-nine oral history interviews from the UNIHP offered first-hand accounts from UN diplomats, some who attended the Stockholm Conference and others who later defined the concept of sustainable development.
Q: Which interviewers have been your biggest influences, either in or out of oral history?
I love Terry Gross’s interviews on NPR’s Fresh Air. Even before I lived in Philadelphia, where Terry Gross lives, I’ve considered her an American treasure! In addition to solid research before her interviews, she has a knack for personal rapport with her narrator and her listeners. She goes beyond the particulars of past events and encourages narrators to share their feelings about those events, often in light of the narrator’s earlier family experiences. She, her narrators, and her listeners all seem to enjoy and learn something new from her interviews.
Q: What projects are you most excited to work on at the OHC?
I’m super excited to work on a renewed Sierra Club project at the OHC! I’m also co-developing with Shanna Farrell an oral history project about the intersecting communities surrounding EPA Superfund sites. And I’m keen to work with Paul Burnett on a project exploring Gender and Diversity in Silicon Valley.
Q: What is your dream oral history project?
An oral history project commemorating the first Earth Day would be dreamy! Earth Day was a nation-wide environmental teach-in held on April 22, 1970, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2020. Part protest and part celebration, Earth Day 1970 saw an estimated 20 million Americans at roughly 1500 colleges and 10,00 primary and secondary schools across the country organize their own particular Earth Day teach-ins and demonstrations. This unprecedented activity proved transformational for life-trajectories of many Earth Day participants and significantly effected legislative policies at local, state, and federal levels. In my wildest dreams, I imagine an Earth Day oral history project that reflects the original organization of Earth Day. I envision oral historians and institutions partnering to conduct interviews all across the nation but focused on the Earth Day stories and environmental legacies of their particular locations. I imagine high schools and colleges hosting 50th Anniversary Earth Day meet-ups for original participants to gather and record their own memories of Earth Day, which could be uploaded and digitally archived at a central organizing institution, perhaps through the Bancroft Library’s Oral History Center! I imagine hosting more formal and polished “Oral History Live” events where project interviewers re-create/re-visit some of the most interesting stories from interviews on stage with their narrators, which would be live-streamed online. At these live events, narrators could share their perspective on Earth Day’s legacies, reflect on changes since, and address new or unresolved environmental issues that demand attention and action.
Michael B. Teitz is Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also a Senior Fellow and Director of Economy at the Public Policy Institute of California, which he helped establish. In addition to a distinguished, thirty-five year career at UC Berkeley, and policy work that still continues at PPIC that still continues, he has served as a consultant to local, state, and national governments, both in the United States and Internationally. In this interview he discusses growing up in London during and after World War II; Coming to the United States for graduate school; the various events and changes he experienced at UC Berkeley between 1962 and 1998; developments in the fields of Planning and Regional Science; his consulting work for local and state governments in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia; and leaving Berkeley to establish PPIC and serving as its founding Research Director.
Out from the Archives: Rosalind Wiener Wyman
“They couldn’t believe that I could win,” Rosalind Wiener Wyman remembered about her unexpected election to the Los Angeles City Council in 1953. Over the course of several interviews in 1977 and 1978, Wiener Wyman shared her personal and political triumphs and losses, which culminated in her oral history, “It’s a Girl”: Three Terms on the Los Angeles City Council, 1953-1965; Three Decades in the Democratic Party, 1948-1978. Wiener Wyman’s memories as a woman politician at midcentury are part of the Oral History Center’s California Women Political Leaders Oral History Project, which documented “California women who became active in politics during the years between the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment and the…feminist movement.”
Wiener Wyman came by her passion for politics honestly. Speaking of her parents, she reflected, “I always felt their activities and interest in politics was steeped in me. In my baby book, at two, I’m looking up at a picture of FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt]. Most kids in their baby book are not looking at posters of FDR.”
While a student at the University of Southern California, Wiener Wyman and the campus Democratic Club worked on Harry Truman’s 1948 campaign. But her political work began in earnest when she met her “heroine,” Helen Gahagan Douglas, then a member of Congress representing California and running an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Senate in 1950. Wiener Wyman was disappointed in Gahagan Douglas’s showing on the campaign trail and confronted her about it. Gahagan Douglas replied, “ ‘If you know so much about a campaign, here, here’s a card. Come see this lady and get into my campaign.’ ” Wiener Wyman took up the challenge and threw herself into this work, hanging posters and driving Gahagan Douglas to her campaign stops. Laughing, Wiener Wyman recalled, “I remember once changing my hose in the car with her in a parade. She took mine and I took hers. Crazy things a woman candidate worries about.”
Wiener Wyman began her own political career fresh out of college. In 1953, she ran a grassroots campaign for Los Angeles City Council that relied solely upon door-to-door conversations with her constituents, without the benefit of media coverage or traditional advertising. Her victory over established, male candidates was such a surprise that she recalls from the night of the election:
As the bulletins were handed to [Joe] Micchice, [a local radio announcer], he said, “I’m sure that the votes are on the wrong name.” So, he, during the night, would give my vote to Nash. Finally he put his hand over the mike–we have this on a record which is so wonderful–and he said, “Is this bulletin right?” Or, “Who the hell is Wiener?”
After a runoff election, Wiener Wyman came out on top. Of this dark horse winner, the Los Angeles Times declared, “It’s a girl!”
Wiener Wyman stood out as the youngest member and only woman on the Los Angeles City Council from 1953 to 1965. Notably, Wiener Wyman did not see herself as a victim of gender discrimination; rather, she saw her break with other council members in terms of age and experience. This, despite the fact that other city council members voted to not allow her personal leave to enjoy her honeymoon. Additionally, Wiener Wyman had to contend with the fact that “the only toilet was off the council chambers and that was for the men.” She recalled, “That became an incredible issue that got around town. Where was I going to go to the bathroom? I thought I would die over that!”
During her time in office, Wiener Wyman famously led the charge to entice the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles, making it the first Major League Baseball team west of the Mississippi River. Although the displacement of Mexican American families from Chavez Ravine and the building of Dodgers Stadium was controversial then and now, Wiener Wyman defended her support for this civic boosterism and the prestige it brought to Los Angeles. However, she conceded of her leadership on this fight: “it probably cost me some of my popularity.”
Beyond her twelve years in elected office, Wiener Wyman’s political legacy perhaps best lies in her fundraising efforts for other Democratic candidates. During one memorable event in the backyard of her Los Angeles home, Wiener Wyman and her husband, Eugene Wyman, hosted a dinner for Democratic congressional candidates and charged $5,000 a couple, an unthinkable sum in 1972.
Rosalind Wiener Wyman’s life and career point to the many ways in which California women have and continue to engage in political life, as well as the rich collection of political history at the Oral History Center. As we approach the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, documenting the experiences of these women political leaders will become all the more important.
Amanda Tewes, Interviewer/Historian