Out of the Zoo: “Irene”

Annie and Irene

I interviewed Irene Stearns my junior year as part of a National History Day project on the Kalamazoo Gals. Irene worked at the Gibson guitar factory during WWWII coiling strings.

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her friendship with one of the “Kalamazoo Gals.”  Enjoy! –JF

If you’re from Michigan like me, or perhaps you’re a guitar aficionado, you may have wandered down Parson’s Street in downtown Kalamazoo to a run-down factory that used to house Gibson Inc. Even though Gibson no longer resides in my hometown, the instrument making will remain part of its history for many years to come.

Perhaps one of the most special eras of Gibson’s history lives on through Irene Stearns. Irene coiled guitar strings for Gibson in the 1940s;  she worked alongside numerous other women who the company hired during World War II. Aptly nicknamed “Kalamazoo Gals” by author John Thomas for Glenn Miller’s song “I’ve got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” these women received high praise for their quality work.  “Banner Gibsons,” which were crafted by these female luthiers during the war years, are some of the most valuable (and arguably some of the best sounding) Gibson instruments to date. The Kalamazoo Gals are often commended for their courage and hard work, alongside thousands of other women who helped fill the “arsenal of democracy” during WWII. We thank them for opening doors for women in the workforce and praise them for opposing the traditional roles women were expected to play back then. We learn about these women who worked during WWII and even paint them as revolutionaries.

I got the privilege to befriend Irene two years ago when I was compiling research for an exhibit about the Kalamazoo Gals. We spoke extensively about her work at Gibson and it didn’t take me long to realize that she saw herself as anything but revolutionary. Irene worked at Gibson not because she wanted to open doors for women of future generations, or even because she wanted to be remembered as a courageous Rosie-the-Riveter. She worked simply because she didn’t like her old job and wanted a new one. She never thought her story would make the history books–she was just going to work, doing what she had to do to earn little money. She never once thought she would receive any kind of recognition or praise.

We can learn a lot from people like Irene. The extensive human narrative we call history is filled with ordinary characters who never expected to be remembered. The parts of their lives that we find fascinating, or inspirational even, they saw as normal. It often makes me wonder: Which ordinary actions I take today could be seen as extraordinary tomorrow? How will my steps here and now affect the ones future generations will be able to take in the future?

I don’t know the answer to these questions; I probably never will. However I do know from Irene’s story that the little things matter. The way I work, the way I meet challenges and take opportunities will contribute to the way I am remembered. It’s impossible for me to know what future historians will think when they look back on my story–but I want them to see that I did what I could to make it the best one I could write.

The Social History of American Fundamentalism

To what extent were the leaders of the fundamentalist movement representative of the rank and file evangelicals in the pew?  Did the King’s Business and similar journals reflect the thinking and practice of ordinary fundamentalists?  How many theologically conservative church-goers saw the need to separate from mainline denominations during the so-called Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 1920s?

The students in my “History of American Evangelicalism” course keep raising questions like this as we work our way through George Marsden’s magisterial Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925.  They are good questions.  (For more about our reading of this book see my last three virtual office hours.  You can watch them here and here and here).

I think it goes without saying that Marsden has provided us with an intellectual history of the fundamentalist movement.  His narrative is focused heavily on ideas–common sense realism, Baconianism, premillenialism, dispensationalism, Keswick holiness, modernism, inerrancy, etc…

As I have been teaching this book, and my students ask questions about fundamentalism in the pews, I wonder if it is actually possible to write a history of fundamentalism from the bottom-up.  Where would the historian find sources?

I am sure there have been efforts to write the fundamentalist story, or at least part of it, from the perspective of social history or the history of everyday life.  Does anyone know of any authors who have made this attempt?  My work in early America has prevented me from keeping up with the most recent work on the history of American fundamentalism.