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Sara Evans

University Regents Professor and historian Sara Evans believes that those who want to make history must know their own story.

Putting women in the spotlight

Regents Professor Sara Evans has helped place more women in the history books

By M.J. Pehl

January 15, 2008

As a fourth-grader on the school playground, Sara Evans argued with her playmates about which side should have won the Civil War. It was 1950s South Carolina, and, Evans recalls, "I was the only kid who thought it should have been the North." Over her long career, Evans has often been an "only." She was the only historian of women in the history department when she arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1976, and neither women's history nor women's studies even existed as fields when she entered graduate school. People tend to think of history as taking place in terms of wars and politics, says Evans. "Women aren't even on that stage, and we had to redefine the stage." Even now, when she tells people what she does, people wonder what there could possibly be to write about. "Reactions aren't necessarily hostile," she says, "but it has met with guffaws." Evans grew up in the segregated South, first in South Carolina and then in Dallas for high school. She knew the playground debate was really about Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public schools. "The civil rights movement gave me a chance to act on the values I had, but I saw were being violated all around me," Evans explains. She majored in history at Duke University, then pursued political science and ended up in Chicago, a master's degree in hand. "I assumed someone would want to use my wonderful skills in research and writing, among other things," she laughs. Not so. "The only thing any employer was interested in was my typing speed." Evans worked as a secretary at the University of Chicago campus ministry, which happened to be housed in the same building as the radical student press. They discovered that Evans had been active in civil rights and war protest movements and told her about a women's group that had just begun. It was one of the first women's consciousness-raising groups in the country, she says, "and I just landed there."

"You need to learn the joy of asking a good question and finding out ways to the answer--that will lead you to your life's work."

Driven by the belief that people who want to make history need to know their own story, Evans went back to graduate school in American history at the University of North Carolina. Her son was just an infant at the time, so she and two other members of the women's group organized a child care cooperative with six parents taking care of three babies among them. In every course she took, she wrote about women. "I wanted to know--where are the women and what are they doing?" she says. For her, women's history is not necessarily about discovering the "great" women; by definition, those women were exceptions in their time. "I wanted to understand the daily life of ordinary women, and their historical agency," she explains. She points to the Richmond Bread Riot during the Civil War, in which women raided bakeries and other shops to protest the lack of food due to, among other things, the refusal of Confederate farmers to grow food on their cotton plantations. Right after receiving a doctorate, she landed at the University of Minnesota in one of the first jobs in the country advertised specifically for women's history. She joined others who were building a women's studies program and creating a new interdisciplinary field. "We had to make it up,"Evans says of the emerging field, "but there was this feeling that we were indeed doing something new under the sun." Today, the University of Minnesota has one of the top five women's history programs in the country. Evans' first book, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement & the New Left, is a classic in the field, and Born For Liberty, about how women have shaped public and private life over the centuries, has been published in nine languages. In 1997 she was named a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. In 2003, Evans was caring for her parents at their home in North Carolina when a call came from University President Robert Bruininks, telling her she'd been named a Regents Professor. "It meant so much to me to be able to walk in the door and tell [my parents] about the award," she recalls. Also, "It's a recognition of a lot more than just me--it's a recognition of how we understand history." Though set--technically--to retire from the University, she will be well occupied with kayaking, hiking, and traveling, her favorite pastimes. When it all comes down to it, "My current project is to figure out what my work will be in the next phase of my life," she says. Evans considers how far we've come--or haven't--over the years. She observes the difficulty her graduate students have in finding day care, working jobs and pursuing their studies. "The world doesn't make it easy, and our culture doesn't give the message, 'You could do this,'" she muses. "You need to learn the joy of asking a good question and finding out ways to the answer--that will lead you to your life's work."