Living, loving history with Emma Guyette

MOHAWK SENIOR Emma Guyette was one of 25 accepted into Smith’s summer women’s history program. “The girls I stayed with bonded immediately because we had so much in common,” she says.
MOHAWK SENIOR Emma Guyette was one of 25 accepted into Smith’s summer women’s history program. “The girls I stayed with bonded immediately because we had so much in common,” she says.

BUCKLAND—Mohawk senior Emma Guyette has just accepted an offer to attend Smith College, where she plans a double major in American Studies and Government or International Relations, with a potential minor in the Study of Women and Gender.

For this BSE alumna, the path forward starts well in the past, and it is a story always in need of discovery, retelling, and relearning.
Here is an excerpt from an interview she gave the Flow this August on her then-recently completed two-week summer residential session at Smith: Hidden Lives: Discovering Women’s History.

Flow: What was the allure for you in attending summer at Smith?

Emma: There were four options. I chose history. Discovering Women’s Lives. I want to be a history major and I love Smith College. I’m applying for early decision in November. I’m applying at Smith and at nine other New England colleges.

Flow: Why history?

Emma: I decided that I might want to be an archivist — they preserve historical and digital paperwork — or maybe go into politics or become a history teacher. I just love being part of something that can change the world. Archivists preserve the world, politicians shape the world, and people who write history textbooks give history personality and bring it to people.

Flow: Is there an aspect of history that speaks to you above others?

Emma: I really like U.S. history — how our country was formed — but then I also really love European history and history in general. It’s so fascinating.

Flow: What’s the passion?

Emma: I just love learning about everything that’s come before me and shaped my life. Especially learning about women’s history: all these women who came before me and gave me everything that I am lucky enough to have today. It’s really important to learn from the past to learn how the future will be shaped. It’s so interesting that it’s recorded: what people have done before you. It’s set in stone but you can still interpret it your own way.

Flow: How does understanding the past shape what we’re doing in the present or what we  could be building toward in the future?

Emma: You look at the past so you don’t repeat it. I think that history is a very powerful way of learning from people’s mistakes or extreme failure so you don’t repeat it. It’s really interesting to look back and say, “Oh, nope, that didn’t work.” You know it didn’t work, so let’s reshape it and use it this way. Otherwise you’d just keep making the same mistakes over and over again. There’d be no progress.

Flow: Do you see history as a tool in some way to help shape the future? Particularly through a gender lens?

Emma: Women’s history isn’t taught a whole lot in high school. I know Mohawk is trying to get one [the curriculum] in place because it’s such an underrepresented part of history, and that’s what Smith wanted to teach us: all this great women’s history that gets ignored. Women’s voices are silenced a lot. It was taught a bit through a feminist approach but it wasn’t in-your-face feminism, which can scare some people. They don’t understand the movement enough to understand it.

Flow: OK, then what is feminism, in your view?

Emma: I think that feminism is equality between men and women, not one being higher-standing than the other — which isn’t everyone’s view.

Flow: Is that how it still is or have things changed?

Emma: I don’t think our history books focus [exclusively] on men in history but I would say, in my experience, teachers have been very good at including a variety: Yes, it was male-driven, but look at all these women who also participated.

At Smith we touched the letters, diaries, photographs and manifestos that chronicle personal and political revolutions over the past 150 years. We touched the lives of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, Alison Bechdel and Sojourner Truth. I was so excited!

Flow: Sometimes people think of history as something that’s over and done with and dead in a way, and dry, but I suspect you think of history as being very much alive and interesting.

Emma: I constantly make connections between different historical periods and today, much to my parents’ dismay. Like, I’ll tell them at the dinner table, “So! Do you want to learn about this historical figure?” And they’ll be like, “Probably not.”

I like to connect today to the 1920s. I think a lot that went on then is relevant today in regard to people and how they acted and completely changing from their parents’ generation. WWI was the catalyst for changing that in the 1920s and I think the Internet is what did it today. There are a lot of parallels. I mean, we don’t have flappers but there’s a pretty big divide between generations. Their parents never did anything. When you think of the 1920s you think flappers and Prohibition and crazy, wild parties. But when you think of the generation just before, the 1870s, post Civil War, it’s not like that: It’s very prim and proper … and then their kids came along. Their parents just didn’t know what to do with them. I feel it’s similar to now when everyone’s on their phones and everyone’s on Facebook and their parents are like, I don’t know what to do with these kids!

Flow: Women weren’t given the vote until they demanded it relatively recently and now they’re still not being paid fairly. Social issues are still resonating. Is that what you mean by connections from the past to the present?

Emma: You can definitely draw those lines. You can take slavery and follow it all the way to the present with how a big part of it was how African American people had extreme economic disadvantage even after slavery and have had to work so hard to overcome that and are still not even there yet. So it keeps going. And you can draw other lines. Women’s rights go way, way back. Women are still fighting for equality. In the Sixties it even branches off because women were very empowered then and it keeps going through today. Honestly, I think we’re very close to equality. I’ll maybe see it in my lifetime.

Flow: For young kids, what is cool about history?

Emma: They shouldn’t think of history as something that’s dead and in the past. It was kind of presented that way to me when I was younger, and I was always, “But that sounds like it’s so much fun to learn about.” Why present it like it’s written in stone and not try to think about getting more out of it? Just think of it as something you can use to benefit the future. And think of it as a living part of society.

My biggest thing is that people touched this 200-300 years ago and now I’m touching it, so it’s like a little bit of a connection to them through just touching the same paper.

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