Kent’s herstory

Allison Remcheck

Local woman recounts growing up as women gained more rights

A copper “washing machine” dating from the 1790s is the oldest artifact at the Kent Historical Society. It’s basically a big cauldron-like bowl, with a long wooden stick. And a woman used the stick to make the copper bowl a washing machine.

But not much is mentioned about the woman who would have used this machine – what her family was like, what her goals were, what she thought about – in fact, she is lucky to make it in the history books at all.

March is Women’s History Month, and a search at the Kent Historical Society showed that a huge gap is missing from history. The books are filled with, as Guy Pernetti, the executive director of the historical society, put it, DWG. Dead white guys.

Because women aren’t documented in the history books, a new search began to find out what women were doing when they were known only as wives. Mildred Bumphrey, who has now seen a century’s worth of history with her own eyes, spoke first-hand about what women in Kent were up to.

And the women were very busy.

Bumphrey, her mother and her grandmother all attended college.

“There’s not very many women who are 100 years old who had a grandmother who graduated from college,” Bumphrey said.

Bumphrey’s grandmother graduated from Hiram College in 1867, and she was atypical for the time.

“Grandmother was an artist, and Grandmother was a reader and Grandmother was a scholar – she wasn’t much of a housewife,” Bumphrey said.

In the early 1900s, Bumphrey, her mother and her grandmother lived together. Bumphrey said her home was the social center of town.

“My mother was very social and was very active in absolutely everything in Kent,” Bumphrey said. “She was always doing volunteer work for people and she had friends who were all doing the same.

“She was a splendid model – she was caring, she was tactful, she was intelligent, she was understanding – she was all the things you would ask for a woman to be.”

Bumphrey said she didn’t stop to think that she was being raised differently from other girls because of the other people she grew up with.

“I was always around the people who were amounting to a lot,” she said. “I’m spoiled. I’ve always been around people who were very smart and gifted.”

The first year the Kent State University School opened, Bumphrey’s parents opened their upstairs to three women, one who would later become immortalized at Kent State: “Miss Prentice.”

Miss Prentice was the principal at the University School when Bumphrey attended.

“So the first morning Kent State opened, Miss Prentice left our house and she took me to third grade,” Bumphrey said. “Miss Prentice was just a lovely person. She always was my friend. She was a typical principal at the time. She meant business.”

Bumphrey was a scholar throughout high school, and she attended Kent State for two years, studying music and taking all the art electives she could.

After two years, she transferred to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester where she focused on the violin, but continued to take art classes at Kent State during the summer – so many she actually earned an art minor.

After she graduated, Bumphrey became a music teacher in Rochester. When funding for the arts was cut in Kent public schools, Bumphrey was asked to come home. She became the supervisor of both art and music at Roosevelt High School.

“I was never sorry I came back,” Bumphrey said. “Never sorry at all.”

While she was working at Roosevelt, Bumphrey met her husband, Cecil. They were married in 1939, when Bumphrey was 34 years old.

“When I was teaching at Roosevelt,” she said, “the day I was married my contract was void. Because of the Depression, there could only be one bread-winner in the family.”

But Bumphrey didn’t see this as losing her job, she said. She saw it as her retirement and never worked again.

But she doesn’t regret having her

college degree.

“A woman always ought to have some way she can earn her own living,” Bumphrey said.

Bumphrey said the world has been slow in changing its ideas about women.

“Nothing happens overnight,” she said. “It’ll be years and years. Change comes slowly. We have a different attitude about women now; we have a different attitude about blacks.”

One of the biggest advancements women made during Bumphrey’s time was earning the right to vote.

“I remember it was very exciting when women could vote,” she said.

Voting was also important to Bumphrey’s family.

“They weren’t the suffragette type, but everyone knew where they stood,” she said.

Now, Bumphrey said it is much harder for women because of their own expectations.

“(Before) you got some education and you could cook and you married a nice fellow and you settled down,” she said. “They didn’t expect so much. They worked hard in the morning so they could go out and do things in the afternoon.”

Bumphrey said women have been left out of history because they weren’t promoted. They didn’t promote themselves and their husbands didn’t help them.

“I love her and she’s the mother of my children and she’s very talented – but she’s my wife,” Bumphrey said. “(Men say) she’s the mother of my children and look how smart they are, but it stops there. You need someone to promote you. Men are always afraid of women’s power.”

Contact features correspondent Allison Remcheck at [email protected]