Island women tell their stories

Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s oral history curator Linsey Lee will present Voices of Vineyard Women this month.


Linsey Lee is the oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Having conducted interviews with people on the Vineyard for more than 30 years, she has quite a significant collection of remarkable women connected to the Island. Luckily for us, the Chilmark library is hosting a Zoom program where we can watch her video interviews with many of them on Saturday, March 6, at 4 pm.

“Relying on their community and on their own ingenuity, Vineyard women have traditionally thrived and taken roles of leadership on what was often and can still seem today an isolated Island,” Lee says. “During the era of whaling and of coastal schooner trade, when husbands and sons were off sailing the seas for years at a time, women on the Vineyard managed businesses and finances, as well as the traditional responsibilities of caring for family and children. World wars, the Depression, and conflicts overseas continued the need for women to be resilient and resourceful. Since then, Vineyard women have made their mark as doctors, nurses, racial justice activists, business leaders, homemakers, writers, soldiers, teachers, sailors, politicians, actresses. With all its challenges, living on this Island inculcates strength of character as well as a creativity of spirit.”

Lee’s selection began with the tough process of whittling down a list to something manageable from her initial identification of some 60 women who came to mind. “I am trying to do a group who represents the incredible diversity of the Island,” she says. “I will likely play a video with June Manning, about the excitement of finally getting electricity in the town of Gay Head [Aquinnah], and of her close-knit Wampanoag family working together. Maybe Polly Murphy about her trip that she took down to Williamston, N.C., during the civil rights era with four other women. It was potentially very dangerous, but they got in a car and drove down to protest unfair labor practices, register voters, and to deliver food and other resources to the African American citizens of the town.”

Lee is considering too Caroline Hunter, who was a chemist, antiapartheid activist, educator, and leader of the exercise group for the Polar Bears. While working for Polaroid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Hunter and her husband founded the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement to protest its involvement with apartheid in South Africa. Also, there’s Anne Lesnikowski, who joined the WASPS (Women’s Air Force Service Patrol) during World War II and flew planes across the U.S., and dealt with not being recognized as part of the military until Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

For closer to home, Lee muses, “I think I’ll have Shirley Smith talking about her mother, who raised 13 children, and the struggles and strengths of getting through with a huge family when you live on a small farm in Martha’s Vineyard. And Alice Cleveland, whose great-aunt went on a whaleship with her husband who was a whaling captain, and her grandmother who set up different businesses to support herself and pay the bills while her husband was on a whaling voyage.”

Lee will not be looking only at the past. “People across the country, around the world, and on the Vineyard have gathered together to protest the killing of George Floyd and countless other African Americans, and to raise their voices to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’” she says. In this piece you will hear from five young women of the Vineyard who organized Black Lives Matter marches and rallies. Diamond Araujo, Saige Araujo, Danielle Hopkins, Jada Randolph, and Grayson Kirk share their thoughts, concerns, and continued commitment to working toward achieving understanding, justice, and equality among all people.

“There is always the agony of what to choose when I do a program like this,” Lee explains. “I’ll try to choose a representative group of women who talk about the variety of the experiences women have had on the Vineyard, and off, in the past 150 years, stressing the ethnic and experiential diversity, and the different types of challenges women have met and overcome. We will also talk about how isolated the Vineyard was, but how it’s remarkable that women did get out and work around the world … that it’s not surprising how unparochial it was then and is now.”

On the difference between doing oral histories with women versus men, Lee says, “I think women historically have different challenges everywhere, but especially on the Vineyard, of being isolated while their husbands go off whaling, and the same situation during World War I, and had to depend on their own devices and resources.

“It is important to make videos that are enjoyable to watch and have an element of humor, maybe, or a turn of phrase. To hear somebody’s personal experience always breathes so true.”

Whoever she ultimately selects, Lee is sure to give us a taste of what is in the oral history collection of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and share with us what an incredible resource it is.

“Voices of Vineyard Women” with oral history curator Linsey Lee takes place on Saturday, March 6, at 4 pm. Email to sign up and get the Zoom invite.