College Librarian Dr. Ruth Shoge lectures on important role of women in Panama Canal Construction

By Ariel Jicha
Elm Staff Writer

Dr. Ruth Shoge enlightened members of the Washington College community last week when she gave a lecture on the important roles West Indian women played in the building of the Panama Canal. Shoge has been an associate professor and College librarian at WC for the past 22 years, a milestone that has not gone unnoticed; she recently received the 2013 President’s Distinguished Service Award for her dedication to the College.

Shoge conducted her research during a trip to Panama sponsored by the Faculty Enhancement Fund in July 2011. Shoge held interviews with 13 descendants of West Indian canal workers, many of whom were able to describe their childhoods in Panama with great detail.

At the turn of the 20th century, Caribbean migrants arrived in droves to work on the Canal. American leaders heavily advertised job opportunities to Caribbean people because they spoke English, unlike native Panamanians and their neighboring countries. Caribbean women migrated with their husbands and children and took jobs housekeeping, laundering, and running boarding houses for other migrants. Today, thousands of Caribbean descendants live and work at the Panama Canal and many of them are leading administrators.

Shoge’s grandparents were such migrants in the early 1900s and their stories, or rather, the terseness of those stories, intrigued Shoge years later. Shoge’s grandmother, Alice Gayna Mars, traveled with her husband and worked for several American families as a maid. Though she admired her grandparents’ “purpose and determination,” Shoge sensed that there was something missing. Her grandparents spoke very little about their time in Panama, and when they did, it was matter-of-factly. Shoge said that learning the story of her grandmother was the “point of departure to a critical understanding of West Indian migrants.”

During her research, Shoge noticed that the majority of records focused on “the men and the machines,” though she did find many personal accounts from American housewives who had hired West Indian women as housekeepers. She found, from these accounts and personal stories from her grandmother, that American women and West Indian women formed invaluable bonds, even separated as they were by class, race, culture, and prejudice. Though written accounts from West Indian female perspectives were almost impossible to find, Shoge could infer that their lives were much more stressful than they would (or could) have let on. Low literacy rates and high turnover rates meant that few, if any, West Indian women had the time or ability to write about their lives. American families were always coming and going, making the possibility of stable jobs impossible for West Indian migrants. These harsh circumstances inspired Shoge to tape interviews with descendants to gain insight.

“Everybody wants to be understood by somebody,” Shoge said.

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