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Narratives of Women and Girls: the Center for Applied Linguistics Collection

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For Women’s History Month, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some examples of interviews with women and girls in American English Dialects: The Center for Applied Linguistics Collection. This online collection is one of several dialect collections in the American Folklife Center archive. With a little digging, such collections can yield exciting examples of narratives found nowhere else.

Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of a plane.
Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of a Lockheed Electra airplane,1937. Prints and Photographs Division. Select the link for a larger view

The linguists who created the collection used a variety of strategies to record examples of speech: they recorded natural speech, they asked participants questions to evoke particular words, they had people read texts that had all or most of the sounds of English, and they acquired recordings of formal speeches, including two by famous women. One of Amelia Earhart’s most famous speeches is included to represent the dialect of an educated woman from Kansas: “On the Future of Women in Flying” [1] in which she speaks of the technologies of the future as liberating for women. Earhart presents ideas about women’s potential that would develop further in the feminist movement, so her talk sounds very progressive for its time.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech is an example of an educated woman from New York; it was a 1941 Christmas radio broadcast dealing with morale and rumors on the home front. The First Lady speaks plainly about the likelihood of the United States mainland being bombed. Though intended to inform and reassure its wartime audience, this speech is a chilling reminder of the experiences and fears of Americans at that time.

Although the prepared speeches are a fascinating glimpse of history, the most interesting items to folklorists are recordings of natural speech. Typically, these are interviews in which the speakers recount personal narratives, stories, or descriptions of local activities and events. Although recorded for dialect purposes, they are thus a significant corpus of oral history as well.

The interviewers frequently asked questions about the interviewees’ childhood, and also interviewed children about school, games, and stories. This makes the collection a rich resource for those interested in children at work, play, and school in America. Brenda Taylor, an African American teacher from Washington DC, was recorded in 1969 describing various games she played as a child, including the familiar “Cowboys and Indians” and jumping rope, as well as games that may have only existed in her neighborhood, such as “The Devil and Pie.” Notice that her dialect changes between her formal autobiography and her stories about games. The informal speech that reveals native dialect is exactly what the linguists had hoped to elicit. In another interview, an unidentified thirty-one-year-old white woman from Ewell, Maryland [2] described growing up on Smith Island, Maryland in the 1950s, a somewhat isolated community, with supplies brought by boat or even by helicopters in emergencies. She tells funny stories about her school adventures. When asked if she got caught misbehaving she says, “I got caught at everything I ever did!”

A conversation between collector Rebecca Bills and an eleven-year-old American Indian girl in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico, includes an exchange of scary stories. The girl says that a friend told her about supernatural creatures that were part man and part horse. (The girl’s tribal affiliation is not given, but is probably Tewa.) A twelve-year-old girl from the Arkansas Ozarks interviewed in 1983 gives a detailed description of helping to can food for her family. An account of school and childhood in rural Tennessee in the early twentieth century is given by sixty-two-year-old Ora Mae (no last name is recorded). She remembers walking three miles to school with classmates who had to walk farther. Towards the end of the interview she tells the story of mice in the history classroom. The teacher offered to give an “A” to any child who could kill a mouse with their shoe.  She tells what she did — but I won’t spoil the ending.

Some recordings provide historic “snapshots” of particular eras or events in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Emma Nagel of Mesa County, Colorado (Swedish American, age eighty-five) was recorded in 1977, recalling her family’s four-hundred-mile trip in a mule-drawn wagon from Potter, Nebraska to homestead on a claim northwest of Grand Junction, Colorado. She was two when the journey began in 1894, but recalls the beautiful sparks of a forge when the mules needed to be shod, and remembers that her father bought the family five apples to celebrate Christmas. An unidentified woman of eighty-five talks about transportation when she was growing up in a rural Massachusetts in the late 1890s and early twentieth century. She recalls going to school in a wagon the students called “the barge” and in a sleigh when it snowed. She remembers decorating “the barge” with flowers on the last day of school. She also describes Sunday carriages and the coming of “horseless carriages.” Luisa Landini, who was born in Montale, Italy in 1900 and moved to Fruita, Colorado in 1921, tells of growing up and working on the family farm in Italy.  She spread manure, cut hay, gathered chestnuts, and did many of the same jobs that men did in addition to cooking, washing clothes, and other tasks customary for women.

Zuni women carrying large ceramic pots on their heads
Zuni women carrying water, ca. 1903. Photo by Edward S. Curtis. Prints and Photographs Division. Select the link for  a larger view.

The recollections of older women provide insights into the lives of women in changing times.  Mildred Opacich, of Serbian descent, describes moving from Duluth, Minnesota to a “shack” just outside of Leetonia, Minnesota in 1926 as the fourteen-year-old bride of a coal miner. She also talks about her vegetable garden, explains how she made beer for her family during Prohibition, and talks about how well people in the community got along in those days, even though several languages were spoken.  An unidentified African American woman from South Carolina, born in 1895, talks about hardships in her youth and in her parents’ time (her father was a former slave and her mother was born free). She sees modern life as much better than life in the past and feels young people do not appreciate what their elders experienced. A Zuni woman from Zuni, New Mexico, age sixty-two, describes childbirth customs and the ritual care for a woman who had just given birth, a tradition that was no longer practiced when the interview was conducted in 1985. She says that one of the purposes of the ritual was to delay another pregnancy until after her infant was a year old.

These are only a few of the fascinating narratives by women and girls in the Center For Applied Linguistics Collection. Visit the collection to listen to some women’s voices from the past; perhaps you’ll find some from your part of the country.


  1. This speech was broadcast as part of a WNYC radio program on “Women in the Future” in 1935.
  2. Some individuals chose to allow their names to be recorded for the collection, while others did not. Sometimes people who did not give their names for the written record spoke part or all of their names at some point in the recording or were addressed by their name or nickname by the interviewer.

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