Boston history world history, and your business

History Smiths

What happened in this story completely changed how I thought about my work in American women’s history, how I give every talk, how I write every book, and how I work with every client. It happened to take place in Boston, but the principals of historical connectedness and business opportunities for YOU could apply anywhere.

What happened is this.

Simmons College, my alma mater, was hosting a conference of international women economists and the organizers asked me to lead a walking tour of women’s history sites in downtown Boston. As someone who has led dozens of tours in Boston, I agreed, but I later realized that I was not at all prepared for this particular audience nor for their emotional response to the stories I told. Twenty women and one man, who was a colleague of two of the women, joined me for the tour. Only two women were American. One other woman, who was from New Zealand, spoke English as her first language. All of the other women and the one man hailed from parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. I was impressed that these prominent economists from all over the world, who had traveled to Boston to be part of serious work, were also interested in Boston women’s history. I was also mindful of the fact that for many Americans, “history,” specifically, our national history, is awfully recent compared with theirs. In fact, I joked about it while standing in front of the — to them — modern 1795 Massachusetts State House. Even so, as I led my walk participants through the busy streets of downtown Boston, complete with noisy traffic and construction, they hung on my every word. They also peppered me with questions, and it slowly but forcefully dawned on me that in some cases I was talking to the Lucy Stones, the Sarah Parker Remonds, and the Elizabeth Cady Stantons of their countries today. They wanted real information about how “our” women overcame obstacles to achieve woman suffrage, quality education, legal justice, an end to slavery, and equality. (We agreed, however, that America has yet to achieve full equality.)

For me, it was a powerful moment when I “got it,” and when they saw that I had. I could not even imagine the obstacles faced by some of these women in their countries. And yet, they were all determined economists who had no doubt risked everything from social isolation to violence to improve the lives of their families and communities. They still are.

Global impact

We sometimes forget that the ideals of the American Revolution — freedom, equality, and justice — inspired revolutionary activity throughout Europe in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later, labor movements on that continent spread over here. Today, despite wearying political games in Washington, two controversial “wars,” a troubled economy, and growing awareness of our problems with racism, poverty, and health care, the world still looks to America for inspiration and hope, and many of us look abroad for solutions. We can all learn from each other! Margaret Fuller, one of America’s first transnationals, wrote beautifully on this subject in her dispatches from Rome in 1850 during the Italian Revolution. She believed that America did have a special role, indeed a special obligation, to other parts of the world where the cause of liberty required support — not the support of heavy-handed governments and armies, but that of respectful friends with a common purpose and shared ideals.

We have seen the results of heavy-handed intervention play out for centuries, often disastrously, especially for poor people and women. But today, along the lines of what Fuller envisioned, we see an international movement, fueled with a whole lot of American money, to fund woman-owned micro businesses around the world and call attention to the status of women globally during International Women’s Day. Today, American leaders, like Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton, make women’s rights a priority in U. S. foreign policy and hold governments accountable for their actions. And with the Internet, we are more connected than ever. Whatever your politics, everything has shifted.

What are your business opportunities?

• If you are a global company, what do you know about the history of the countries where your offices are located? What do you know about the links between and among the countries you serve? This information is not only helpful for better relations among employees, but it could add real depth to your marketing vehicles and show, with appreciation on the part of your customers, that you respect their culture. You could host special events to showcase the histories of the nations your company represents, and that “event” could be online, on video, and made part of your Web site.

• If you are an American company and you interact with visitors from overseas who frequent your hotel, restaurant, or attraction, are there ways you could make them feel more welcome? Beyond multi-language publications and tours, how can you send a message of respect and interest? Individualized gifts in their hotel room? A special “welcome” flier? Tickets to a performance or history tour? If you are not sure about the right message to send or the historical information, work with your local historic organization or museum. They “get” these linkages.

• There really is a global movement underway to empower women. How can your business send a supporting message to your customers, employees, and the public? Could you donate to a particular organization? Fund a micro business overseas? Back the efforts of staff members who are involved in a worthy cause?

Naturally, be proud of and publicize what you do and why!

Like many Americans whose world history education was minimal, I am learning more every day about how the US and the rest of the globe interrelate. I really do see opportunities for businesses to reach out in a deeply thoughtful and respectful way to attract and impress customers through non-sales methods.

This is not small stuff by any means.

Understanding between cultures needs to play out on multiple levels if we are to make the changes we need. And your business could be a part of it!