It only takes a mile to travel 100 years back in time.
On Thursday evening, I took that walk to the Museum of the Rockies’ lecture “Alcohol, Corsets and the Vote: A Conversation with Mary Long.” The lecture was hosted by local nonprofit Extreme History, which aims to present history to the public in fun and engaging ways, including workshops and walking tours.
True to the “extreme” portion of the group’s name, this lecture was not your everyday classroom drone-fest. Instead, Yellowstone National Park archivist Anne Foster shaped the lecture into a interactive reenactment with everything a history nerd like myself could ask for.
Foster ascended to the stage in a pinstriped skirt suit with a yellow ribbon, the emblem of women’s suffrage. She explained her first-person presentation by telling us that when she was wearing her hat, she would take on the role of Mary Long Alderson, a famous women’s rights activist from Bozeman. Foster fastened the black-feathered hat with a long hairpin, took a deep breath, and leapt into her lecture.
Foster’s presentation utilized a variety of methods, from primary sources to props, to present Alderson as a passionate leader and reformist in her dozens of clubs and organizations. Foster used Alderson’s writings to trace her feminist advocacy. These included her journalism in the Avant Courier, campaign for women’s rights in the Montana Floral Emblem Society and lead role in the Montana Woman Suffrage Association. Foster spoke from Alderson’s journals and editorials to paint a detailed picture of the woman behind the movement.
Alderson’s activism went beyond suffrage and into dress reform and temperance movements in Bozeman. In detailing the temperance movement, Foster included photographs of Alderson and snippets from her articles. During the dress reform section, she passed around an example of a 1910s-era corset and introduced models dressed in period-appropriate clothing to the stage. Foster closed out the presentation by leading the audience in a chorus of the popular suffrage song “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?”
Like all modern social movements, women’s rights didn’t spring out of nothing. However, Americans often separate themselves from historical heroes and events, deciding that these long-ago people and places have nothing to do with them. Foster’s lecture was an amazing example of what it means to connect history to the public.
Through physical artifacts and personal writings, the talk humanized Alderson and allowed the audience a glimpse into what life was like for women activists in the 1910s. This style of reconnection helps us to see how history makes an impact on our modern lives. Rather than a pile of dry facts, history becomes a living, breathing documentation of our past and the possibilities for our future.
For me, the lecture was both an insightful and intriguing peek into Mary Long Alderson and simply a fun way to spend an evening. When Extreme History premieres its next lecture on Oct. 11, I’ll be front and center to take another trip back in time.