Maryland's history of women Book: A college professor and the state's first lady are among those working on a project to give women a place in the pages of history.

March 27, 1998|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SUN STAFF

When it comes to vivid teaching tools, Carolyn Stegman finds it hard to beat an old classic: the thick history text she was given as a junior high school student three decades ago.

"It has all the tragic events -- the wars and the famine and the settling of the West," said Stegman, an adjunct professor at Salisbury State University.

But when Stegman reaches for the book, it's to show her students what isn't recorded in the 400 densely worded pages. Tucked in between profiles of legendary characters and heroic tales are only a few short paragraphs chronicling the contributions of American women. A grand total of four women are mentioned.

"When I tell my students stories about women, they always say, 'I didn't know that.' And all I can say is, 'I didn't know it either, until a few years ago,' " said Stegman, who teaches women's studies.

This semester, however, Stegman is writing a new kind of textbook aimed at filling that historical void. The book, which is the brainchild of the state's first lady Frances Glendening, will detail the lives of Maryland women both famous and forgotten when it's published this fall. Stegman and Glendening say they have been stunned by the outpouring of more than 500 nominations put forth by churches, historical societies, colleges, businesses and libraries across the state.

A few are household names, like Harriet Tubman, who escaped a Dorchester County plantation before ushering some 300 slaves to freedom. Others helped to facilitate new lives in a different way, like Johns Hopkins researcher Georgeanna Seegar Jones, a co-creator of the process that produced the country's first test-tube baby.

But most nominees have slipped through the cracks of history.

"Some days I feel like a detective," said Stegman, who has scrutinized archives and hunted down distant relatives to glean details about some nominees who have been dead for decades.

Stegman's current favorite is Mary Elizabeth Banning, a woman she calls the Georgia O'Keeffe of mushrooms. Born in 1822 on the Eastern Shore, Banning was confined to a life spent tending to an invalid mother and sister. Whenever she could, she disappeared into the woods and created watercolor paintings of mushrooms. But no one was interested in her art or the scientific observations she recorded in her journals.

"For 100 years, they sat in the basement of an Albany museum, collecting dust, next to a stuffed chicken," said Stegman. The recently discovered works have been displayed in several cities, including Baltimore.

This month -- which, appropriately enough, is Women's History Month -- a committee of both men and women are whittling down the stacks of nominees to 250 or so who will make it into the book. To qualify, women must have lived in Maryland for at least 15 years. The book, titled "Women of Achievement in Maryland History," will be placed in every school and library in the state, Glendening said.

"This isn't anti-male at all," said Glendening, who produced a similar but smaller-scale book on Prince George's County women several years ago. "This is about filling in the gaps."

Although women's studies programs are still flourishing -- Stegman estimates that 500 campuses nationwide now offer majors and minors in the subject -- schoolchildren still generally aren't taught about history's wealth of female role models, Glendening said.

"When our son went to elementary school, every March during Women's History Month he was asked to write about three women he admired," Glendening said. "And he would always choose me, his teacher and some woman who was prominent in the news. It really irritated me that he had a lot of trouble finding information."

One vivid but little-known character with Montgomery County roots is Rose O'Neal Greenhow, aptly nicknamed "Wild Rose." Greenhow was a Civil War spy who hid messages to the Confederacy in inspired places, including a woman's hair coiled into a bun. She died fleeing a Union gunboat when her rowboat capsized and she was dragged down by the weight of the gold she was carrying.

Some contemporary nominees for the book are instantly recognizable, like Grammy-winning singer Toni Braxton, who departed Maryland for Georgia several years ago, manners maven Emily Post and 1996 Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes of Montgomery County. The ubiquitous Kathie Lee Gifford, a graduate of Bowie High School, is also on the preliminary list. Among the nuggets of information in Gifford's file is a list of likes and dislikes accompanied by a glossy photo (her pet peeve: littering).

But it's the quiet victories -- the women who have strengthened "the fabric of our society as important building blocks," as Glendening said -- that have captured the imaginations of project organizers.

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