The Women of the Oklahoma Legislature Oral History Project and Website

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By Tanya Finchum

Originally appeared in the May/June 2009 edition of the Oklahoma Librarian, official bulletin of the Oklahoma Library Association

The Oklahoma State University Library invites you to visit the newly created Women of the Oklahoma Legislature oral history project website. Between the years of 1907 and 2008 only 77 women have been elected to the Oklahoma Legislature. This oral history project explores and records the journeys of many of these women who have served or are currently serving in the Oklahoma Legislature. The website includes transcripts, audio excerpts, photographs and memorabilia collected as a result of interview efforts. Over the course of the project, photographs of all 77 women were located and are now included on the website. It is believed this is the first time a complete collection of photographs of all Oklahoma women legislators has existed in one location.

The oral history project was developed in 2006 and carried out over the course of two years. Goals of the project were to fill a gap in the historical record, complement and supplement the OSU Library’s Women’s Archives Collection, support the Women’s Studies program, and to create a resource for all of the citizens of Oklahoma. As of February 2009, 46 of these remarkable women have shared their stories as part of the project. Taken individually, these interviews reflect the careers and interests of the narrator; taken collectively they constitute a narrative of the role of women in the Oklahoma legislature over time.

As such, they form an invaluable part of the historical record of the Oklahoma government. Little has been written about these women other than the occasionally brief mention in the local or state newspaper during the time they served. To date, of the 77 women legislators, 20 are known to have passed away, three have not been located (Mary Helm, Judy Swinton, and Sue Milton), eight are yet to be interviewed, and 46 have been interviewed. Two of the 46 interviewed reside in the Washington, DC area (Hannah Atkins and Cleta Deatherage Mitchell) and the remainder resides in Oklahoma. Among those interviewed are a representative elected in 1966 (Anna Belle Wiedemann) and the first African American woman Oklahoma legislator (Hannah Atkins), elected in 1968.

In 1920 the first two women were elected, one to the Senate and one to the House of Representatives. These two pioneering women paved the way for future women to be viewed as legitimate contenders for legislative seats. The remainder of the 1920s saw six more women add their names in the history book for Oklahoma women legislators. During the 1930s no women were elected to serve in the Oklahoma legislature, perhaps due to the struggling economy at the time and again in the 1950s no women were elected to serve. The 1940s saw three women elected to the House and none to the Senate. The 1960s saw five women legislators elected. Moving into the 1970s and continuing on through the present the voices of women have been heard in the Oklahoma legislature but not in proportion to their numbers in the population. The majority of women legislators have been members of the Democratic Party and more have served in the House of Representatives than in the Senate. Two of these women legislators have gone on to become Lieutenant Governor of Oklahoma (Mary Fallin and Jari Askins) and one is now serving in the U.S. Congress (Mary Fallin), the second woman to do so from the state.

Interviews covered such topics as campaign strategies, issues championed, what a typical day was like, Election Day and swearing in day, and first experiences of presenting a bill on the floor. Many reflect on their thoughts as they viewed the Capitol building each morning and as they took their respective places on chamber floors. Reading is a major part of the life of a legislator. During sessions 300 to 400 bills cross their desks. Listening is also a major component from listening to constituents to colleagues, to lobbyists, to the News. An important lesson shared was not to knock on doors during Oklahoma State University or the University of Oklahoma sporting events.

The interviews last an average of an hour and a half with the narrators having the opportunity to edit their transcripts. Each transcript, viewable online, represents an average of 30 hours of labor. Gathering oral histories provides opportunity to pursue answers to questions left silent in what little archival materials exist for these women. It has been an incredible experience to really listen, not just hear, but really listen to these remarkable women and to have had the opportunity to conduct a little of my work in the place we call our Capitol. I have had a small glimpse into what it is like to serve the people of Oklahoma and now with the launching of the Women of the Oklahoma Legislature website others can share these experiences.

The Women of the Oklahoma Legislature oral history project is only one of the projects underway at the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program (OOHRP). The OOHRP was formally established in 2007 by the Oklahoma State University Library and will continue to gather the cultural and intellectual heritage of the state through oral histories.

The Women of the Oklahoma Legislature Oral History Project website (www.library.okstate.edu/oralhistory/wotol) was officially launched during an event at the Oklahoma Capitol February 26, 2009. In attendance for this historical moment were 15 former women legislators, all 17 current legislators, and special guests. The program included an overview of the project given by the project leader, Dr. Tanya Finchum, Associate Professor and Oral History Librarian at Oklahoma State University, and a demonstration by the website creator, Juliana Nykolaiszyn, Visiting Assistant Professor and Oral History Librarian also with Oklahoma State University.

Oklahoma Webpages

Women of the Oklahoma Legislature Oral History Project

By Steve Beleu

We’ve reviewed the excellent digitized resources from the Oklahoma State University Edmon Low Library before, and welcome this new website. Dr. Tanya Finchum, Oral History Librarian, began this project in 2006 to interview and preserve the histories of the remarkable women who have served or are currently serving in the Oklahoma Legislature. Between 1907 and 2008 seventy-seven women were elected to the Legislature; Tanya has conducted oral history interviews with 46 of the 57 known to be still living. This website provides transcripts of interviews, audio excerpts from the transcripts, and some memorabilia collected during the process.

  • About WOTOL – most important here is the “How to participate” link. If you know a woman who has served in the Oklahoma Legislature who hasn’t been interviewed yet, tell her about this link.
    Women Legislators – this is an A-Z list of our women legislators, from Bessie McColgin, 1920-1924, to women who are currently serving as Lisa Johnson Billy and Constance Johnson. Included are histories for women who have moved on to other political offices such as Jari Askins and Mary Fallin. When you click on the links you will choose either “View Interview Transcript” or “Listen to Audio Excerpts.” This is still a work in progress, and information for some legislators isn’t yet available, which is why the next link is important: it contains only completed interviews with full transcripts and audio excerpts from those transcripts.
    Completed Interviews – there are 37 of these that have been completed so far. When you click on either the name of the interviewee, such as “Hannah Atkins,” or her photo, you will access a record of the transcript that you can view by page number, or you can click on “Full Transcript.” You can print either the entire transcript or specific pages from it.
    Search the Collection – this is a standard search engine, but it allows you to search within the text for what either the interviewer or the interviewee said, and lets you search the interview transcript by keywords.
    Additional Resources – links to other internet resources that contain information about women in government.

Additional Oral History Links

OSU Current Oral History Projects

Included here are such collections as Inductees of the Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Centennial Farm Families, and O-State Stories.

Library of Congress. Veteran's History Project  

This is the search engine for this collection. Click “female” in the search option noted as “Gender?” for 3,822 hits. Each of these hits is or will be the transcript of an oral history, interview highlight clips, and the complete interview from women who have served in our military. Use additional search options to narrow your search to era, branch of service, or prisoner of war status (there’s currently one woman in this collection who was a prisoner of war). This is also a work in progress, and the button labeled “View Digital Collection” that appears after you’ve done a search indicates interviews that are currently available.

Library of Congress. StoryCorps

This is our national oral history project. Click on “Listen to Stories” then either listen to featured stories, search stories, or browse stories by topic. You can also subscribe to their podcasts, sign up for their e-newsletters, or access their blog. Everything posted on this website is complete.

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