WASHINGTON — Louise van Tartwijk’s voice was pleasantly dancing in the air as she explained her current passion; telling the stories of women who played major roles in their communities and society in general down through the generations.
“I love history,” the Washington resident exclaimed. “There are a lot of incredibly strong women throughout our history and I love telling their stories. I try to make it as local as I can because that makes it much more personal and relatable to my audiences.”
The idea for the “Herstory” lecture series (the undertaking will eventually become a book, van Tartwijk said) came about when she was asked in 2017 by the Washington Garden Club, of which she is a member, to give a talk about notable women in Washington’s history.
“I was happy to do this, only once I got started, the project that I had expected to perhaps center on six women just grew and grew,” she said. It is still growing and is a work that is very much in progress.”
“Herstory of Washington: Part One” was given in October when van Tartwijk spoke about three groups of women who each have important links to Washington in different ways.
“These were the Native American women who lived here for thousands of years: the oldest evidence of human inhabitants in Connecticut was found in an archaeological site located in Washington; the Dutch women who came before the British colonists to Connecticut with their trader husbands to found the New Netherlands. Descendants of these early inhabitants of New Netherlands came to Washington from Brooklyn in the 1880s and helped shape the town as we know it today; and the first Puritan British women who came to the New World with their husbands during the Great Migration of the early 1600s to help found a religious colony that would be a ‘beacon on a hill.”’
Van Tartwijk spoke about how the cultures of these groups of women converged in Connecticut in the early 1600s. “I pointed out that what happened at that pivotal time was more than just the dramatic and very significant clash between the Native Americans and the Europeans over land and ideas of ownership, but was, when viewed from the separate standpoint of three separate cultures of women, the realization that when the English Puritan culture became the dominate culture in Connecticut and New England, women lost out. Both the Native American and the New Netherlands Dutch cultures gave women many more freedoms, rights and powers than did the Puritan British.”
“Herstory of Washington: Part Two” was held in December, and van Tartwijk spoke, among other things, about Native American women in romantic legends, and about the growth of the Stratford colony and the religious dissention that caused a young group of settlers to head inland and found Woodbury and later Washington.
“I discussed witchcraft and the fact that that the first person to be hung as a witch in New England was in Windsor, Connecticut, and in Stratford, they had their own witch trial and hanging. I also touched on the fact that equally disturbing to the Puritan status quo were Quaker women who had a right to ministry.”
Van Tartwijk is highly inquisitive (she laughingly calls herself an information “sponge”), which isn’t surprising, given her academic background. At the University of Pennsylvania she was an American Literature major and American history minor. She met her husband, Hans, in college and wound up moving with him to his native Netherlands for 25 years. The couple has four grown daughters. While in Holland, Louise Vantartwijk wrote non-fiction books about the European Union; “Europe on the Road to Unity” and “The European House of Cards”.
The van Tartwijks moved back to the United States and settled in Washington in 2010, to allow their children to attend American prep schools. “I wanted my girls to have a well-rounded education that included sports and other extra-curricular activities, which is not the case at high schools in Holland.”
After she and her husband restored an historic home in Washington, she launched herself into a broad quest for knowledge of the history of her adopted town, eventually creating Washington’s first historical publication on behalf of the Gunn Historical Museum called “The Wash Conn Chronicles.” She also began a museum membership called “Friends of the Gunn Museum,” and in 2014 was asked to be the director of the Gunn Historical Museum.
“It was during that time that the museum received a $100,000 grant to create a Washington history exhibit,” she said. “Stephen Bartkus, the museum curator, and I had discussed several ideas for the exhibit. I wanted to tell Washington’s story through the voices of the people who have lived here and made Washington through their life activities. Different from most exhibits, for every male story of a certain time period and topic, there would be a woman’s story from that period as well.”
She left her post at the museum two years ago, but the idea of telling a history that included women’s experiences and stories stayed with her. In 2017 she was serendipitously asked to tell those stories by the Washington Garden Club.
“I have come upon so many fascinating women whose stories have been under told or not told at all,” said van Tartwijk. “I began with the very first settlers and Native Americans and I’m working my way up to modern times. This is a very big project and I’m very meticulous with my research.”
She noted that women played a very different role in our early days as a colony and nation but it was no less important to their families and society than the roles of men. “Women’s roles have changed over the years, of course, but I believe we need to understand that there were very strong, influential women many years ago that we just don’t know that much about, often because they worked behind the scenes or they did not seek publicity,” she said. “I want to bring these stories to light.”
She called the series of talks her “gift to the community,” done in recognition of two of Washington’s organizations that were started by women — Rumsey Hall School and the Washington Community Fund. Each talk is being filmed and will be made available to the public. She is also recording podcasts to go on a “deeper level “into some topics and the lives of certain women.
The next “Herstory of Washington” talk will be in March, and will include Washington’s first female settlers — Jemima Wilkinson, the first woman to start a religion in America; female patriots and loyalists; and Jane Mallory and her family, victims of America’s first mass killing, which happened in Washington. The talks are held at The Rumsey Hall School’s Maxwell A. Sarofim Performing Arts Center.
Visit www.rumseyhall.org for the exact dates of the talks.