Why Oral History?
The practice of oral history is based on the fact that today, much of the history we tend to accept as the truth is actually a one-sided and often incomplete narrative. Perhaps the only truth in history is that the form with which we are most familiar has been primarily written by the privileged, the documented, and the victors. One of the goals of oral history, then, is to create a historical account of the perspective that does not yet exist and to tell the stories of those whose stories would otherwise go untold. Oral historians do not rely solely on interviews, however they use interviews to fill in the gaps. Though traditionally researchers would transcribe their interviews and use those paper documents as primary sources, the rapidly evolving nature of audio and video technology affords today’s historians the luxury of sharing interviews in their original format. That one can now hear the inflections, pauses, stutters, and hesitation of interview subjects, and in some cases even see their body language, allows for a more accurate and more holistic transmission of information and history.
Previous scholars who have documented the women’s movement in Durham have not made sufficient use of oral history or its associated technologies. Consequently, there are gaping holes within the existing scholarship. Our research serves to fill these gaps. For instance, in an article published in the 30th volume (2009) of Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies called “‘A Dynamic Force in Our Community’: Women’s Clubs and Second-Wave Feminism at the Grassroots,” Melissa Estes Blair writes that “It is impossible to know how many consciousness-raising [cr] groups existed in Durham, since c-r groups were so informal, seldom took notes of their proceedings, and did not appear in local media reports about feminist action in the city.” Estes’ argument is understandable and has truth to it: certainly cr groups tended to be informal and most do not have as thorough notes and records as other historical groups. However, many Durham and Chapel Hill groups did leave valuable records behind. Nonetheless, Estes draws false conclusions from the fact that “few” traditional records exist. A lack of documents does not signify that women were not organizing at a grassroots level–it merely suggests the existence of people whose actions are not recorded (except that, as we establish on this website, there are records!). Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, she fails to see a way around the “lack” of documents. Had Estes employed oral history techniques she would have gained a more accurate understanding of the local women’s movement. Although oral history cannot tell us precisely how many cr groups existed in Durham, it can get us closer to an accurate number than Estes’ traditional approach, and can give us a better idea of what happened in these groups. This, then, is one place where our research is helpful.
Sources: Melissa Estes Blair, “A Dynamic Force in Our Community: Women’s Clubs and Second-Wave Feminism at the Grassroots,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 30, 3, (2009), pp30-51.