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Keeping Women's History Alive

Barbara Goda as Rosa

Women have been left out of the history books for centuries, she says. “I would like to put them back into history.”

“History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.”
– Mark Twain

Mark Twain

by Amy M. Buzinski ’03

it's an Her gown was simple, yet feminine, its petticoat creating a bell shape as it hit the floor. Twirling her parasol and gazing confidently over the spectacles that sat at the bottom of her nose, Rosa Muhlenberg Nicolls, organizer of the first Ladies Aid Society in the country during the Civil War, came to life.

It was author, historian and lecturer Barbara Rittenhouse Goda ’59 who brought her to life. In fact, she has breathed life into many historical local women.

Goda has spent much of her life conducting research on and teaching about local women and the historical contributions they have made. In fact, even while she was a student at Albright, Goda put a lot of thought into her major. She majored in history with a minor in English. “I was encouraged to have an English minor because it was very hard for women, back then, to get jobs in just history,” she says. Before retiring in 1993, Goda taught high school history and English for 30 years in Berks County. “When I started teaching, women’s history amounted to no more than a mere mention – a few paragraphs in a textbook,” Goda says.

A blessing came in the late 1970s and 1980s with the introduction of the Women’s History Project, a national program that promoted the importance of women’s history in public education. “You were able to purchase materials about women from them that you couldn’t find anywhere else. They were a valuable source,” says Goda. The project offered teachers a selection of posters, bulletin boards and curriculum units for all ages. “They would offer biographies of little known women but the best part was that they included all women, of every race and background. It made it a lot easier for the teachers,” says Goda.

Barbara GodaThose experiences, she says, are what developed her interest in the history of local women. With the support of her principal at Schuylkill Valley High School, Goda began to teach elective courses on the lives of women throughout history. “I remember one of our projects was researching old high-school yearbooks of the 1930s to give students an idea of what was offered to women in those years,” she says. Through those projects, Goda helped the history of women come alive for her students. “I recall Mrs. Goda as a very patient and extremely knowledgeable teacher who always brought relevance to the information she presented,” says former student Louise Mohn Gabel.

But years of teaching about women in history sent Goda on another path, one which has culminated with the recent release of the second volume of her work, Ladies of Readingtown.

Goda’s first edition, Ladies of Readingtown…and Beyond, was published in 1998 for the 250th anniversary celebration of Reading. The second volume is available now for the yearlong 250th anniversary of Berks County. “I tried to time the release of the books so they would be available for the anniversary celebrations,” she says.

A narrative, Ladies of Readingtown details the lives of 12 important Berks County women. What are the requirements for inclusion? “They have to be dead. They have to be from a broad range of professions such as the arts, business and education.” And finally, she says, “I wanted to include minority women.” The last criterion was the hardest for Goda because, “it is really hard to find historical documents which included minorities, let alone minority women.” Yet, Goda felt it was critical that they be included.

Some of these women are familiar, she says, but people probably have never heard of many of them because they were often left out of local history. Goda however is in awe of their accomplishments. “It really amazes me when I think of some of the things these women have done,” she says. Hannah Callowhill Penn effectively served as Pennsylvania’s first woman governor when she administered Pennsylvania from 1712-1718 because of an illness that struck her husband, William Penn. Lilith Wilson, a Socialist from Berks County elected to three terms in the state Legislature in the 1930s, helped to open doors for women to the political arena.

In the 1730s, Sarah Finney lived alone in the wilderness, after the death of her husband and two sons, providing an important frontier outpost for travelers. This key piece of real estate eventually became the heart of Reading. And Elizabeth Scarlett aided runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad in 1837.

Goda’s article on the women’s suffrage movement in Berks County will be published in 2002 in the Historical Review of Berks County. A chronicle of the local fight to give women the right to vote, the article points out the important roles of various women’s organizations to the suffrage movement in Berks County. Goda is also working on a book with her daughter Anne on the history of the Stahl Pottery, a traditional Pennsylvania German style of pottery. The book is due out next year.

Barbara GodaIn addition, Goda recently was the guest curator of the Historical Society’s exhibit, Fashion Through the Years. “The exhibit displays vintage fashions through different periods of time,” she says. The show, which runs until Aug. 31 at the Historical Society, includes men and women’s fashions, military uniforms, wedding dresses and children’s clothing. “The oldest piece we have is a men’s hand-woven frock coat from 1790,” says Goda. While the exhibit houses fashions through the 1950s, she notes, there is always room for more. “We need people to contribute vintage fashions from the 1950s and 1960s because we don’t have a lot,” she says. The exhibit is one of many put on by the Historical Society for the 250th anniversary of Berks County.

Also popular on the lecture circuit, Goda speaks locally on a variety of topics including The Ladies of Readingtown, The First Ladies, Women in Early Education, and Women in China. And, occasionally, she says she likes to lecture while wearing one of her several period costumes. “It allows me to make history approachable,” she says.

She is also involved with the Berks Genealogical Society, serving as the organization’s president. The society houses a library containing materials needed for genealogical research, hosts monthly programs, annual banquets and picnics and publishes a quarterly journal and newsletter for its members. “Our next program is a workshop called Discovering Your Female Ancestors. The information in the workshop will help guide people on how to search for women in their family histories,” says Goda.

Mark Twain once said, “History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.” Barbara Goda has dedicated her studies to those acts of the small. Although she is no longer in front of the classroom, she continues her journey through history. Women have been left out of the history books for centuries, she says. “I would like to put them back into history.”

reporter contents : : albright college