2020 Virtual Issue: The Quest for Democracy

By Lauren Connors and Sydney Davies

The theme for this year’s OHA annual meeting, “The Quest for Democracy: One Hundred Years of Struggle,” calls on its members to explore and illuminate the relationship between oral history and democracy. 2020 marks 150 years since the ratification of the 15th Amendment granted the franchise to African American men and a century since the 19th Amendment granted suffrage for white women in America, but inequality, particularly toward people of color, continues to plague democracy in the U.S. and around the world. Oral history is rooted in the belief that a bottom-up and intimate approach to documenting the past provides a more democratic account than dominant narratives focused on the elite and powerful. By creating a more democratic history, oral history amplifies the different perspectives and provides a more full, holistic, and empathetic view of the past.  The study of history has as much to do with the past as the future, and when faced with a new issue, many look to the past for guidance. Dominant narratives, however, at times neglect the effects of past issues on marginalized communities.  By creating more democratic historical accounts, oral history methods can help reveal those blindspots,  informing our understanding of today’s problems as we continue the ongoing quest for true democracy. 

Democracy is a system in which citizens have a say in their government.  In theory, democracy offers an equal opportunity for every voice to be heard. But in the United States, access to democracy has varied depending on socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender; this lack of access leads to silences in the way we understand and interpret our collective past. One of the fundamental goals of oral history as a discipline is to create a more democratic history, one that includes diverse voices, perspectives, and experiences. As a tool, oral history is capable of deconstructing the systematic oppression perpetuated in the United States and elsewhere, by documenting the stories of those who have worked for change.  

This virtual issue examines access to democracy through the works of scholars of political science, sociology, and oral history, but more importantly, through the voices of change-makers who fought for their ideas of democracy. In bringing these articles together, we invite our readers to ask such questions as: who has access to democracy, and why; how can the democratic promise improve the lives of everyone, rather than just those who can access it; and why are some voices included in our understanding of the past and others silenced? 

The articles in this issue collectively push us to consider the impulses that drive our “quest for democracy” and the challenges that emerge in our efforts to document that quest. Carole Nichols and Joyce Pendary’s “Pro Bono Publico: Voices of Connecticut’s Political Women, 1915-1945” and Scott C. Seyforth and Nicole Barnes’ “In People’s Faces for Lesbian and Gay Rights” bring forth the previously silenced voices of those working behind the scenes for democratic change The oral histories these authors conducted highlight personal connections to activism: what made people join movements, mobilize, and fight for change.

In “Bring Your Whole Self to Work,” Catherine Fosi and Lara Kelland, address the expanded use and interdisciplinary nature of oral history, stressing the importance and role of intersectionality in oral history work. Daniel R. Kerr, meanwhile, dives deep into the grassroots democratic impulses that led to the emergence of oral history as a discipline, highlighting the field’s ability to create social change in “Allan Nevins is Not My Grandfather.” Kerr notes that many of the founders of the field were erased from the historical record after they were blacklisted within academia and government. And Susan Armitage, in “Making the Personal Political,” reviews a series of works that sit at the intersection of oral history and women’s history, demonstrating the equal importance of subject and methodology in accurately capturing the personal aspects of the women interviewed in order to clearly draw the connection between their lives and their political aspirations and goals.  

The final articles in this section address the democratizing role of access in oral history, highlighting how technological advancements have opened up the field to allow for more voices to be documented and heard. Timothy Lloyd’s “The Civil Rights Oral History Survey Project” discusses the various uses of digital tools and open access sources to produce new collaborations in research and to allow greater use of and engagement with recorded testimonies. Hannah Gill et al, in “Migration and Inclusion Transnational Heritage,” discuss web-based interfaces for advancing inclusive oral history. Here, the authors outline the development of a bilingual website, offering immigrants access to stories from their countries of origin, and documenting their experiences in their new homes. Finally, Abby Mills et al expand our understanding of democracy in “Global Stories of Citizenship.” The authors examine a crowd-sourced web-based project that collects and hosts interviews of political activists around the world.

Oral history can incite change, and it can document the process of change from the perspectives of the people whose stories are often overlooked. Oral history has the potential to be an equalizing discipline; despite the systematic inequality of access to democracy, oral history provides an avenue to make the voiceless heard and to bring attention to issues that plague marginalized communities. Advances in digital technology make oral history more accessible to public audiences, who can potentially experience and learn from it, and perhaps even inspire others to political activism.  Although equality is lacking in the world, oral history can provide a step in the continuing quest toward greater democracy.

Carole Nichols & Joyce Pendery (1983) “Pro Bono Publico: Voices of Connecticut’s Political Women, 1915-1945”, The Oral History Review, 11:1, 49-74.

Scott C Seyforth & Nichole Barnes (2016) “In People’s Faces for Lesbian and Gay Rights: Stories of Activism in Madison, Wisconsin, 1970 to 1990″, The Oral History Review, 43:1, 81-97.

Catherine Fosl & Lara Kelland (2016) “Bring Your Whole Self to the Work: Identity and Intersectional Politics in the Louisville LGBTQ Movement”, The Oral History Review, 43:1, 138-152.

Daniel R. Kerr (2016) “Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States”, The Oral History Review, 43:2, 367-391.

Susan Armitage (1989) “Review Essay: Making the Personal Political: Women’s History and Oral History”, The Oral History Review, 17:2, 107-116.