An Interview with Kathy Jankowski, author of "Agatha Tiegel Hanson: Our Places in the Sun"

By Angela Leppig Date: September 14, 2023 Tags: author interview

Kathy Jankowski is a former dean of Gallaudet University's Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. She was previously the first Deaf and first female superintendent of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Central North Carolina School for the Deaf. Her new book, Agatha Tiegel Hanson: Our Places in the Sun, illuminates the life of a seminal figure in Deaf history.

A smiling white woman with shoulder length dark blonde hair

GUP: What was your goal in writing this book? What do you hope readers will take away from it?

KJ: Years ago, I came across Agatha’s Presentation Day speech, which was on the topic of women’s equality. It was presented in 1893 and yet it was so powerful that it still applies today. I was intrigued. Here was a Deaf woman who was the first to receive a BA degree from a college for Deaf students after years of not admitting women, and she had presented such a powerful oratory to a mostly male audience during an era when women were expected to be demure and docile. While Agatha is a well-known historical figure, most knew just the basic facts of her achievements. There is so much of our history that is not known. This was proven when interesting details about her life, successes, and struggles were uncovered. Not much has been written about the daily lives of Deaf women in history. I wanted to bring Agatha to life, along with the historical events of the world and the Deaf community during that time. I hope readers will appreciate the compelling history of a Deaf woman’s journey, and those around her, as much as I did.

GUP: What was your process for uncovering the details of Agatha’s life? What part of your research yielded the best information?

KJ: I love reading mystery books, and the process I used was like how a detective sifts through an abundance of evidence to find clues. This was a process where one thing led to another until finally you had more answers than questions. In looking for clues, I might see that Agatha had gone out of town, but where or why was the question. I would then look through other documents close to the date to find answers. To begin with, I had to work with what I knew was available. Since I was aware there was a collection in her name at the Gallaudet Archives, that was one of the first places to start. This led to finding many letters, photos, and some articles. There were a great many letters, hundreds of them, and these had to be read to both get a sense of who she was and to determine what should go into the book. It was necessary also to check other collections. Her husband, Olof Hanson, had a collection, and many things that added to the story of her life were found there. There were other collections, such as that of Gallaudet’s first president, where letters from her were found. The Deaf newspapers were critical too. There were searches to find out what Deaf newspapers were available from that time and where they were located. Reading through these newspapers to find information on Agatha was one of the steps. Looking through local newspapers, both Deaf and mainstream, in her area was another step. Reviewing ancestry information to get a verification on timelines, important dates, and family relationships was important as well. Contacting libraries and cemeteries in Agatha’s area was part of the process. Identifying living descendants and interviewing them added to the story. All this information added up, but if I had to choose the most important, it would be the letters and the Deaf media because they really gave a sense of her thoughts and activities.

GUP: Agatha created new pathways for women in higher education as one of the first female students at Gallaudet. She was a bold advocate for equal opportunities and urged women to push forward in society “till all barriers crumble and fall.” However, later in life, her stance on women’s suffrage seemed to contradict her earlier activism. How and why did her views evolve over time?

KJ: When Agatha was in college, she keenly felt the suppression of women and their equality, and since she was young and idealistic, she felt free to express the passion she felt about this inequality. Outside of college, life happened. She was on her own and had to fend for herself. Her priorities shifted to what was most important in her life. She watched Susan B. Anthony spend much of her adult life fighting for the right of women to vote. Being a practical person, Agatha saw this as not the best use of time. She thought it was more realistic to focus on battles that could be won. She also believed voting was not a priority for women at the time with all else they had to do. However, some of her comments and conduct showed she did enjoy the right to vote when women were finally allowed to vote. She gleefully related that the mayoral race in her town gave the nod to the better man, chiefly due to women’s vote.

GUP: What do you think is Agatha’s greatest contribution to the Deaf community?

KJ: Prior to 1887, women had been banned from attending Gallaudet and there was a dominant perception among Deaf men that women could not compete academically with their male counterparts. When Gallaudet was forced to finally open its doors to women, it was only as a two-year trial. Women students stayed at President Gallaudet’s house on campus, which was a temporary arrangement, presumably based on the anticipation that women would not make it through. And many women, upon entering the 1887 and 1888 classes, did end up leaving. Despite that, Alto Lowman from the first group prevailed and was the first to graduate. However, her degree was not a BA, as she had foregone the math requirements. Gallaudet did announce after Alto’s graduation that women were from then on allowed admittance. Yet, there was still doubt. When Agatha became the first to graduate with a BA and had achieved the highest scores on several challenging exams, there was no doubt that women could perform equally to men, if not better. Agatha cemented this equal educational opportunity for women for generations to come. And for the rest of her life, she promoted the idea that Deaf people needed to give back to society—and she walked the talk.

GUP: What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this book? What did you most enjoy?
KJ: The biggest challenge and the most enjoyable are sort of tied in together. I would have this notion of why something happened or was said or done and then would discover new information that changed my perception. Then there would again be new information which changed that perception further. I had to change the narrative each time that happened. I wanted to present to readers the most precise information possible, so it was necessary to be thorough in researching the specific topic or incident. And that was also the most enjoyable because it brought on aha! moments to these situations. There were gaps in the narrative until new information was found, and that was the most fun because it added to the big picture. For instance, I saw early on that the Hanson addresses were in the Midwest, but I could not understand why there were different addresses when all indications were that they lived in Seattle. But when Olof’s letters were read, I got my answer.

GUP: As a historical figure, there is a certain amount of mythology that surrounds Agatha, yet you succeed in documenting the day-to-day activities and struggles she and her family experienced. You also do readers a service by contextualizing her lived experiences within the larger scope of current events and attitudes of the time. Was it a conscious choice on your part to “humanize” Agatha in this way?
KJ: Agatha was well-known in the Deaf community, so much so that her granddaughter related to me that when she visited a Deaf gathering, a Deaf woman teared up when she learned she was Agatha’s granddaughter. The granddaughter was stunned, not realizing the impact Agatha had on people, long after she was gone. Indeed, Agatha was “larger than life.” Given all her achievements that were generally known, I had wondered what she was really like. The picture that emerged was very different from what I had originally thought. I did not feel a story about her life would be authentic without bringing her as she really was to readers. And readers need to see that even with all her success, she struggled, thrived, despaired, exalted, just like we all do. And to give an even better sense of what prompted the twists and turns throughout her journey, an understanding of her environment and the history of her time was crucial. I wanted to bring people she interacted with to life as well. The Deaf community has a fascinating history and much of it is buried. I wanted to bring out a piece of that treasured history for posterity.