Hands-On History:
The Mildred E. Persinger Collection

by Maryke Barber

Mildred E. Persinger, class of 1939, spent her career working for women’s rights and human rights, racial justice, sustainable development and global disarmament. Her extraordinary record of leadership and advocacy speaks for itself. Thanks to the recent donation of her papers to the Hollins Archives at Wyndham Robertson Library, it will continue to speak through generations of researchers.

An International Mission

In 1975, 10,000 women gathered in Mexico, and Mildred Persinger was there. In her career as organizer and activist, she had already experienced some of the most significant efforts toward permanently protecting human rights in the United States: as a member of the National Board of the YWCA, she worked with the National Council of Negro Women on passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voter Registration Act. In Mexico, Ms. Persinger headed the organization and management of the NGO forum at the first U.S. World Conference of International Women’s Year. It was the start of the worldwide women’s movement, with issues on the table such as women’s rights and security, the world economy, South African apartheid and conflict in the Middle East; Mildred Persinger would continue to work on those same issues in a 30year career as the world YWCA’s main representative to the United Nations.

In 1976 she founded the Tribune Centre, to provide training, communications and support services to women’s organizations around the world. Presidents Nixon and Carter both requested her service, first as part of the President’s Commission to the U.N. in 1971, and in 1977 Carter appointed her to the National Commission on International Women’s Year. She helped organize meetings in fifty states and six territories as well as the National Women’s Conference, a meeting of 20,000 strong in Houston.

Like labels on an explorer’s trunk, the tags on the 25 boxes of the Persinger papers, which start in 1956, reveal the extraordinary range of her interests and involvement: World Conferences in Mexico 1975, Nairobi 1985, Beijing 1995; UN Decade for Women ’75’ 85, World Conference UN/NGO 1980 Copenhagen ; AIDS, civil rights, population, violence against women, family planning, racism.

Archive Means Access

Mildred Persinger

The boxes are already speaking. Some think of archives as dusty places, where librarians file old folders away to quietly slumber; not so at the modern university archive, where students and researchers visit regularly to encounter history in the
first person. Primary sources such as the Persinger papers have tremendous value for those who are studying the international women’s movement, and Special Collections Management Librarian Beth Harris worked with faculty to integrate the study of these materials into their syllabi. Communications Professor Jill Weber’s short term class “The Rhetoric of Women’s Activism ” chose the Persinger papers for exactly that reason. Calling the papers “an extremely valuable tool,” Weber
explained that her students used them as a case study in their class, which explored key moments in women’s activism over the past 175 years. In their first time using the archives, the students read through newspaper clippings, registration lists, programs and reports. Mildred Persinger wrote testimony, resolutions, policy papers, speeches; her decades of work for national and international women’s organizations provided them with the opportunity to see the changes and developments in women’s issues over time. Their research resulted in final projects such as a biographical profile for the collection, a Wikipedia entry on Persinger, and a video to promote the papers to other researchers. Weber, who has experience using archives for research, is excited about the opportunity her students had. Through the papers, she says, they were able to see the reality
behind the issues discussed in class as well as the direct impact one Hollins woman made in world affairs.

While the Persinger papers are of interest to those studying history, communications and gender & women’s studies, the Hollins Archives regularly host researchers from other academic disciplines. Materials from Hollins history have been used by scholars interested in everything from the school’s dress code to the development of the athletic program. Correspondence, records and draft manuscripts attract researchers in literature to the papers of Margaret Wise Brown (’32) and Henry Taylor (’66, Writer in Residence ’78). The Archives are also a place of education for student employees: three students are currently learning to process archival materials by working on the Persinger papers: Shannon Haluszczak (’12), Eileen O’Connor (’12),and Sarah Mann (’10).

Plans for the Future

Mildred Persinger has been a strong presence on the Hollins campus in recent years. In 2005, she was awarded the Hollins Medal. In 2006, a student in Dr. LeeRay Costa’s “Life Histories/Self Narratives” class was able to interview her as part of an ongoing project to record the stories of Hollins alumnae’s involvement with activism and social change. That same
year, Ms. Persinger spoke on the key note panel of Hollins’ first Women’s Leadership and Social Change Conference.  The Hollins Archives is expecting a second shipment of boxes from her in 2009, including Ms. Persinger’s reminiscences of her experiences with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Margaret Mead, and Betty Friedan.

The past informs the future: by studying the achievements of organizers like Mildred Persinger, a new generation of social activists can learn to work towards change for women everywhere. At the Hollins Archives, students and scholars will continue to explore, and the boxes will continue to speak.

Note: the Persinger collection continues to be processed for use by future researchers.
If you are interested in the collection, please contact Luke Vilelle at 540-362-6232 or lvilelle@hollins.edu.