Pain and suffrage

PSU’s Ooligan Press celebrates Oregon women’s right to vote with author Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s novel, Blue Thread

In Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s case, historical fiction seems to be very much in the moment. And Ooligan Press, Portland State’s in-house publishing company, is celebrating the momentous Oregon Suffrage Centennial with the release of Feldman’s novel, Blue Thread.

PSU’s Ooligan Press celebrates Oregon women’s right to vote with author Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s novel, Blue Thread

In Ruth Tenzer Feldman’s case, historical fiction seems to be very much in the moment. And Ooligan Press, Portland State’s in-house publishing company, is celebrating the momentous Oregon Suffrage Centennial with the release of Feldman’s novel, Blue Thread.

Ruth Tenzer Feldman poses at Central Library in full “Votes for Women!” regalia.
Saria Dy / Vanguard Staff
Ruth Tenzer Feldman poses at Central Library in full “Votes for Women!” regalia.

To honor the celebration, Feldman’s book will be featured in three separate events throughout February and March: “Petticoat Postcards!” taking place at Central Library Monday, Feb. 26; “Book Fan Friday: Down the Rabbit Hole,” held at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing Friday, March 9; and “Author Talk: Ruth Feldman on Blue Thread” at the Oregon Jewish Museum Sunday, March 18.

“We’re very excited at the Oregon Jewish Museum to bring author Ruth Tenzer Feldman and fiber artist Diane Fredgant together for an afternoon of exploration,” said Judith Margles, director of the Oregon Jewish Museum. “The combination of Ruth’s book…with Diane’s artistic skills is certain to provide adults and students alike with a great afternoon of creativity.”

Blue Thread commemorates the women’s suffrage movement by transporting readers back to Oregon circa 1912. The novel follows the life of 16-year-old Miriam Josefsohn, who discovers a long-lost family secret that gives her the courage and drive to seek a different life for herself and for all women.

Feldman’s novel has already received quite a bit of praise—Portland Monthly proclaimed it to be not only “a story about the past, but a call to renewed action”—and continues to collect largely positive reviews. Eliza Canty-Jones, editor of Oregon Historical Quarterly, believes the publishing of Blue Thread to be an excellent way of highlighting the celebration.

COURTESY of Ooligan press

“This year’s centennial of woman suffrage in Oregon is a significant anniversary, and Blue Thread does a magnificent job of bringing to life the history of women working to gain the vote in Oregon—and working to gain rights thousands of years before there was a place called Oregon,” Canty-Jones wrote. “Our support for this book is also an opportunity for us to say ‘thank you’ to PSU’s Ooligan Press, an important regional publisher that both puts out good work and trains new professionals in the world of publishing.”

Among the biggest supporters of the Oregon Suffrage Centennial is the Oregon Women’s History Consortium, which has created a project titled The Century of Action to raise awareness and promote women’s history beyond 2012.

“The Century of Action celebrates 100 years of Oregon women’s right to vote and advances the understanding of women’s citizenship in Oregon’s history,” said project director Janice Dilg. “We are raising awareness of the centennial through our website, our current exhibit at Central Library, and a series of programs offered in conjunction with the exhibit.”

Feldman is an award-winning author of books and articles primarily for children and young adults. Throughout her career she has written and published 10 nonfiction books focusing on history and biography. Blue Thread is her first work of fiction.

In this exclusive Q-and-A with the Vanguard, Feldman discusses her work, the centennial celebration and tasty vegan pastries.

Vanguard: How long have you been writing?

Ruth Tenzer Feldman: For eons, it seems, even if you don’t include a 17-year stint writing federal legislation. My first published piece as an adult was an article in 1992 about the Makah Nation in the Pacific Northwest. I published my first books—a biography of Thurgood Marshall and Don’t Whistle in School, about the history of public schools in America—in 2001.

VG: When and how did you become interested in history?

RTF: In 1963, my history teacher in high school—I am ancient!—had us debate whether the Rev. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent demonstrations advanced or hindered the cause of equal rights for African Americans in the United States. I was picked to argue the “hindered” side. First I was furious, and then I got down to work. What arguments could I draw from history? Which “facts” should I include and which ignore? What is “history” anyway? Don’t get me started!

VG: How do you choose your subjects when writing?

RTF: Many of the topics for my nonfiction books and articles were semi-selected for me by publishers or editors. I could choose a topic within a broad theme, such as “U.S. presidents” or “turning points in history.” I usually picked a specific subject based on how little I knew about it. That way I’d have few preconceived notions. This was especially true of the biography of Chester A. Arthur. Before I wrote the book I had no idea how little Arthur wanted to be president. The process for Blue Thread was completely different.

VG: What would you be doing if you weren’t an author and historian?

RTF: That’s a tough question. Part of me wants to study oceanography. Part of me wants to write poetry and become a learned practitioner of mediation.

VG: What do you do in your free time?

RTF: Walk with the dog, walk without the dog, knit socks, do crossword puzzles, sample vegan pastries, read, spend time with my husband—not necessarily in that order. One of my favorite activities is working with Viva Scriva, the best writers’ critique group in the galaxy…okay, I’m somewhat biased. That’s not free time exactly, more like free-ing time.

VG:As for Blue Thread: why did you choose to focus on women’s suffrage? On Oregon?

RTF: The first part of Blue Thread that started to take shape in my mind was in the Biblical end of the story, about five sisters who stood up for what they thought should be their inheritance rights. They are known in English as the daughters of Zelophehad. While researching another book, I discovered that leaders in the woman suffrage movement drew inspiration from the Zelophehad story, so I did, too. The tie was both real and potentially fantastical. Oregon was a natural, too. I had just moved here—this was about six years ago—and wanted to get to know the history of my new home. I learned about the 2012 centennial, which was perfect, and I had something familiar in my writing life—a deadline!

VG: Did you discover aspects of the movement that surprised you?

RTF: My biggest surprise about Oregon’s woman suffrage campaign in 1912 was the heavy involvement of college students. Birdie Wise and others formed the Oregon branch of the College Equal Suffrage League in the spring of that year and organized a ton of activities, from a float in the Rose Parade to suffrage day at Oaks Amusement Park. The 1912 vote was the sixth time that woman suffrage was on the ballot, and it’s possible that the College Equal Suffrage League helped take woman suffrage over the top to win.

VG:Are you excited for the celebration?

RTF: Definitely! “Celebrate” comes from a Latin verb that roughly means “assemble to honor.” The celebration honors all those women and men who strived to bring full citizenship rights to women. While we celebrate, we also encourage ourselves to continue to pursue justice for women and really for all of us.

VG: What events do you have coming up? When are they?

RTF: A lot! On Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. and 2:45 p.m., I’ll present “Petticoat Postcards” at Central Library. I’ll talk about a famous anti-suffrage card from Oregon and give voters and voters-to-be a chance to design their own pro-vote postcard. The presentation is in the same room as the suffrage exhibit. Come on over. It’s free.

On Feb. 27, 5 to 7 p.m., Ooligan Press launches Blue Thread at the Oregon Historical Society. I’ll give a talk and do a reading and signing, of course. Plus, there’ll be a licorice tasting. Yes, licorice. If you read Blue Thread, you’ll know why.

On March 1, several authors, artists and I will gather to sell and sign books during the First Thursday reception at the Pearl District branch of Albina Community Bank to celebrate Women’s History Month.

On March 8, PSU instructor Michelle McCann and I will lead a young writers’ workshop on time travel and world building. It’s at Powell’s at Cedar Hills Crossing from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Know any kids eight to 18? Send them over. But we won’t turn away folks over 18.

On March 18, fiber artist Diane Fredgant and I are offering a multigenerational program on the transformative aspects of a prayer shawl, and that’s at the Oregon Jewish Museum at 2 p.m.

Okay, one more: I’m on the faculty this July at the Oregon Coast Children’s Book Writers Workshop.

VG: How has the public responded to Blue Thread?

RTF: What has amazed me so far is the age range of people who have enjoyed the book. I wrote Blue Thread with young adult readers in mind, but I’m hearing good things from 40- and 50-somethings as well. The latest issue of the AARP magazine has an article about “why the best new fiction for adults is written for teens.” Who knew?

VG: How many books have you written? Published?

RTF: I’ve published 10 nonfiction books before this one. There are another few fiction manuscripts resigned to the back of my virtual desk at the moment.

VG: What makes Blue Thread different from those?

RTF: Blue Thread, unlike the other published books, is the first one in which I’ve intended to go beyond the truth. I’d like to say I’ve knowingly “ficted,” which would be the act of committing fiction.

VG: What can we expect from you next?

RTF: When I finished Blue Thread, I couldn’t let all those characters go. So you can expect to see another historical fiction/fantasy wrapped around Miriam’s granddaughter. Think 1960s America and 11th century France.

VG: Is there anything you’d like to add?

RTF: I’d like to express my thanks to about a zillion and a half people, opportunities and creatively entangled synapses. But in the interest of time and space, I’ll settle for a single thank you to the expert and enthusiastic staff of Ooligan Press.