Northern Illinois University first lady Barbara Cole Peters recently published the first of a four-part book series called “Women at Northern: Our Witnesses to History,” the result of her research of student newspapers, essays, poems, letters and annual yearbooks from the archives held at NIU’s Regional History Center.
Volume I tells stories of the earliest years, when NIU was a teacher’s college known as Northern Illinois State Normal School (NISNS).
“The normal schools are what really made the opportunities for women,” Peters says. “A lot of the things that the women were doing were not considered appropriate for them to do, so they were pushing boundaries all the time … I think that must have really set a tone for that early campus.”
Peters says she never set out to write a book, describing the way the book came about as pure serendipity.
An avid collector of 20th century women’s fashion, she designed and presented an exhibition titled “Lady in Red and Black, Ode to Northern Illinois University” in 2006 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of NIU Women’s Studies. The exhibit featured red and black garments and historical information about each period that included facts about NIU and its campus life as well as stories about amazing women from 1900 to 1990.
When she began researching this history for her exhibit, Peters quickly became enthralled with what she found. The writings by these early women contained descriptive, personal and often emotional accounts of events of the day. They made the period come alive with stories of campus life, academic research, postgraduate education and career and service opportunities.
“I fell in love with the women; I fell in love with their stories; I fell in love with their writing,” she explains.
She was hooked, and thus began a labor of love. In the years since, she continued her research of these remarkable women involved in the events and issues of their time. Peters collected these stories of authors, championship athletes and debaters, faculty, homesteaders, performing artists, teachers and students and synthesized the multiple distinct narratives.
The finished product is more than 200 pages of compelling stories and photos that provide a glimpse of what life was like in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in and around NISNS through the eyes of those there at the time.
“The thing that made this different was the personal aspect of it,” Peters says of the personal writings she researched and collected for the book. “It’s one thing to read a text, but when you were hearing them, it was their voices. They were talking, and you really do get a sense – a personal sense – of what it was like.”
As the subtitle indicates, the subjects of the book are “our witnesses to history.”
“Women at Northern: The First Fifty Years” is available at NIU’s Holmes Student Center Bookstore and retails for $15.95. It may be ordered online or by calling (815) 753-9894.
Volume II of the series is expected to be released later this year.