For spending so much of her life as a historian, Rhoda R. Gilman maintained a remarkable sense of urgency.
Tasked with helping refresh Minnesota’s history curriculum for schoolchildren in the 1980s, the text Gilman produced captivated enough to merit a separate publication for a wider audience.
Her passion for political activism, meanwhile, helped give rise to the Green Party of Minnesota and produced an unexpected campaign for lieutenant governor when she was 75.
Years later, Gilman remained entrenched in the affairs of the day, steadying herself on a walker while hoisting protest signs in the Twin Cities throughout the months before her death May 9 in St. Paul, her family said. She was 91.
“She came to feel that knowing history was tremendously important for people who wanted to understand why we are the way we are,” said Carolyn Gilman, one of her two daughters.
Gilman, who was born in Seattle, moved to St. Paul in the early 1950s with her late husband, Logan Gilman, and soon began a decadeslong career with the Minnesota Historical Society. Her writing took on subjects like the state’s first governor, Henry Sibley, and brought to life sparsely told stories of women and members of minorities central to the state’s history.
Through it all, Gilman never let up on her drive for political activism, her daughters said. Gilman’s passions produced separate legacies that have persisted throughout her children’s lives. Carolyn Gilman followed her mother’s interest in Native American history by going on to work at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Betsy Raasch Gilman of St. Paul has spent the balance of her life in activism, beginning with a 1965 Vietnam War protest alongside her mother.
Rhoda Gilman’s work included a biography of Sibley and texts on Minnesota’s history of radical politics and protest. She also helped found the Women Historians of the Midwest and the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum and was a Quaker who kept active with the Twin Cities Friends Meeting and Quaker Universalist Fellowship.
She stunned her family in 2002 when she joined the Green Party’s gubernatorial ticket in her first and only foray into political campaigning. Raasch-Gilman still chuckles when imagining her typically reserved mother’s turn as a vibrant force on the campaign trail.
Ken Pentel, the party’s candidate for governor during the election, called his former running mate a “very thoughtful person who had a kind of radical nature about how the world should work.”
“She was a practical visionary in many respects,” Pentel said. “She’s got a lot of streams of history that continue to flow and into the future.”
Upon news of her death, the party Gilman helped found remembered her as “the grandmother of the Green Party of Minnesota” and as a woman who “exemplified the ‘protest tradition’ in Minnesota.”
Gilman only looked back so much. In a 2012 book about the state’s “protest tradition,” she predicted that gender equity and the health of the planet would be of great importance for years to come.
Raasch-Gilman said that her mother, in some of their final Sunday dinners together in St. Paul, would express happiness at her belief that people were “beginning to see the problems that our society is up against and see that we need to make some substantial changes in order to have a future at all.”
“She remained hopeful about that right until the end,” Raasch-Gilman said. “That, I think, is something I want to honor in her.”
Services will be 2 p.m. Saturday, June 2, at the Minneapolis Friends Meeting, 4401 York Av. S.