Women and girls are sharing their journals to create a herstory of the pandemic
Updated May 2, 2022 at 9:10 AM ET
On an angst-ridden night in the spring of 2020, Lori Ann Terjesen lay in bed worrying about the "imperative" to give voice to single mothers, hourly wage workers and other women bearing the brunt of traditional caretaking roles during the pandemic.
Severe restrictions were in place across the U.S. at the time, including stay-at-home orders, and no vaccine was yet available.
Women have been disproportionately impacted by a pandemic that exacerbated inequalities, according to the Pan American Health Organization. They have accounted for the overwhelming majority of health care professionals, caring for COVID-19 patients and facing an increased risk of contracting the virus: 72% of all cases among health workers across the Americas, according to PAHO data from January 2020 to January 2021.
Terjesen spearheaded a call for women to submit their journals and other physical and digital items to the National Women's History Museum, where she serves as vice president of education. She sees the project, which includes and reflects the myriad experiences of women, as an opportunity to create a more holistic picture of the time. She notes that history that is taught in schools in general is still male-dominated.
"The very act of saying there is an immediate, urgent need to ensure that women's voices are heard and collected and remembered in the retelling of this history and really calling that out as an action in itself is important," she told NPR's Morning Edition. "It's my hope that we will remember that there are voices that have traditionally been left out and that we immediately respond, saying, 'Your story has value. Please don't lose it. Please record it. Please share it with us.'"
The effort is known as "rapid response collecting," when museums acquire objects related to a major moment in history as it unfolds.
After nearly two years, the online museum, whose offices are based in Alexandria, Va., has received more than 500 submissions, some of which are exhibited online. There are handwritten journals, but also hand-sewn books, large canvas paintings, movies, audio recordings, quilts and even memes.
"We defined 'journal' very loosely and just asked women to journal their experiences in whatever medium made them feel the most comfortable," Terjesen said.
One thing they all had in common was how deeply personal the reflections were.
A security guard wrote about how she had to check the temperature of everyone entering a distribution plant and make sure they used hand sanitizer and wore masks. But despite being on the front lines, she wasn't provided with a mask.
An oncologist composed poems about the loss of a patient whose cancer was in remission but who died from COVID-19.
Terjesen recalled getting an email from a non-binary teenager saying "I'm a Gen Zer – my generation doesn't communicate with letters and journals... A lot of times, we just send memes to each other. And I said, 'Great, give me the memes.'"
Months later, that diarist ended up taking up paper and pencil to express their frustrations to a future reader. "That was a very memorable journal, and all it was is one letter," Terjesen recalled.
She expects the records will be invaluable to historians in the future as they document a pandemic that saw women double up on traditional caretaking roles, with schools and workplaces shuttered.
That sleep-deprived balancing act of working women is a familiar one for Terjesen, the mother of three young children ages three, six and eight years old.
But for all its pains, the pandemic has also taught some valuable lessons. Terjesen said it's changed her outlook on life.
"Another aspiration I would have for this project, as well as all conversations and considerations around women's roles, really is that we can be flexible, we can learn in different ways, we can work in different ways," she said. "There are ways to exist other than the 'go, go, go' kind of culture that we had before."
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