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Bringing women in history to life

It’s not every day that Sacagawea walks into your classroom. It definitely raises eyebrows when close behind strolls one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century, and a Wild West gal with a keen shooting eye.

Are we in the right classroom? What is a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition doing hanging out with Annie Oakley and Babe Didrikson Zaharias? Keep in mind it’s 2002, and these women are quite literally history.

That history will come alive next week when nine island schools will learn just how much history these women, and others, have to tell.

Members of Whidbey Island’s Chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) will present ‘Profiles of Women in History’ to fourth and fifth grade students March 11 through 15. It will give a little insight on these famous females, and possibly introduce new stories of women who helped shape history.

“We speak to classes of boys and girls. We teach that what these people have done is important, and it would be important if they were women or not,” said AAUW member Milli Stanton.

The presentation of “Profiles of Women Past and Present” was initiated in 1987 by the Thousand Oaks, Calif., branch of the organization. This is the fourth year the Whidbey chapter has been active with this project. Each year the national headquarters of the AAUW sends out a list of recommended women from history, but the final decision on who to portray comes down to the individual chapters. Often the chapter members try to choose women they can relate to or who were active in that chapter’s state’s history.

Stanton chose to become Chinese immigrant and Spokane resident Pang Yee Ching, because the two have mutual backgrounds in seminary and education.

While previously portraying Emma Lazarus, a Jewish-American poet who lived from 1849 to 1887, Stanton realized her own love for writing and she continues to write poems today.

“Some of the teachers encourage their students to write letters of response, and one boy told me he could relate to Emma Lazarus because of the hardships she faced as an immigrant,” Stanton said.

Peter Rabbit, especially just before Easter, is a staple of childhood. The tales of the fuzzy little bunny and his friends lightly sweeten many a childhood memory. For Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of the Peter Rabbit books, writing was an escape.

“She came from what could be considered a ‘not so wonderful upbringing,’ but she was able to turn to writing and drawing,” Marj McNae said.

The mid-March presentations are in honor of Women’s History Month. They are about lives and situations to which people, regardless of whether they are male or female, can relate. Each time the AAUW women don the personality and dress of their characters — they can relate.

“We came from an era where women gaining an education wasn’t pushed,” Gervais said. “Now it’s much more accepted, and these women are the ones who blazed that trail.”

Apparently, the women are pretty good at getting into character. Last year, Helen Chatfield-Weeks played Annie Smith Peck, a mountaineer who climbed her last peak at the age of 82.

“One poor kid was petrified in front of me,” said Chatifield-Weeks, the Whidbey chapter’s president.

Normally, the small-framed woman with silver streaked, tiny curls brings images of cookies baking and grandkids nestled nearby. That day she must have invoked the strength, will and determination of the mountain-climbing tough cookie who at the first sight of the Matterhorn knew she wanted to climb. Or, it could have been the climbing equipment and ice axes that worried the boy.

“The boys love it. I think it’s great because it gives them new ideas of what women are capable — it’s enlightening for both,” Chatfield-Weeks said.

American Association of University Women promotes equity for all women and girls, lifelong education and positive societal change. For more information on on the organization and its chapters, go to www.aauw.org.

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