I knew fairly early on in my graduate training that I was not going to follow a conventional academic path. I’d started UW-Madison’s PhD program in women’s history in 1985 on fire with feminism and ready to change the world. By early spring of 1987 I knew I wanted to be “out there” rather than sitting around a seminar table. When I told my professors and peers that I had decided not to continue on for the PhD, most were flabbergasted. “What else can you do?” they asked me. “I’m not sure,” I replied. “I guess I’ll find out.”
A few months later, I was in Seneca Falls, NY, wearing a Smokey the Bear hat, and working as a park ranger (we preferred “interpretive historian”) at Women’s Right’s National Historical Park. I did two summer seasons in Seneca Falls, giving tours of the restored Elizabeth Cady Stanton house and walking park visitors past the laundromat that once had been the Wesleyan Methodist Church where the first women’s rights convention was held in 1848.
Once I got over my public speaking anxiety, I loved giving my spiel to visitors, whether they were feminists on a pilgrimage or Mom and Dad America cruising down the Interstate in their Winnebago, seeing the National Park signs, expecting a campground and maybe some deer or a bear. Imagine their surprise to find me and my ranger buddies, on fire with the history of American feminism….
Working in Seneca Falls was an amazing experience and it taught me a lot of things. I eventually went on to finish my PhD but I’ve spent 30 years hopscotching between university and “out there.” But that’s another story, for another post.