A savvy storyteller is always popular in a bar, which makes Katie Thornton something of a watering hole superstar. She not only knows how to spin a enticing narrative — she’s won a Fulbright fellowship for digital storytelling — but she knows a lot about bars.
Thornton, a multimedia journalist, is the guiding force behind the oral history “A Brief History of Women in Bars: A Minnesota Story in Three Rounds.”
More than a run-of-the mill drinking story, this one includes a complex twist. Thornton argues that the presence of bars filled with men led to women getting the vote.
“It’s no coincidence that Prohibition and women’s suffrage were passed in pretty rapid succession,” she says in the documentary, noting that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of both.
Thornton argues that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, men drank themselves — and, therein, their families — into poverty. Women rose up in protest. Although excluded from politics, women were able to gain a foothold in the temperance movement by insisting that it was a family issue.
Their success in helping push through the ban on alcohol proved — both to them and to skeptical men — that they were capable of exerting powerful political influence.
“For many in the U.S., and here in Minnesota, anti-alcohol advocacy laid the groundwork for women’s rights,” she says.
But the story goes a lot deeper than that, which is one reason Thornton was interested in it.
“The simple narrative is that all women didn’t want alcohol, but that’s not accurate,” she said. Not only did some women frequent bars, but there even were women who owned and ran them.
“When we dig deeper, we learn about people’s stories and get a much more interesting and much more diverse history,” she said.
To that end, she also has a point to make about the suffrage movement that has been the subject of so much celebration of late. While she’s not minimizing the relevancy of the 19th Amendment, she feels obligated to point out that the movement that led up to it was steeped in racism. Most Black women — as well as Native Americans and immigrants — remained disenfranchised.
“I like to look at how we remember history,” she said. “We whitewash our history, and that’s not an accident. Our archives are made up of people who were in the newspapers, and those were usually wealthy and white.”
A varied background
Thornton made “Bars” for KFAI radio with support from the Minnesota Historical Society. It’s now available on her website, itskatiethornton.com, along with other audio essays about such diverse topics as a cemetery-turned-housing-project in Singapore and a Minneapolis amusement park that used premature babies as a sideshow attraction in the early 1900s.
If the breadth of those topics doesn’t demonstrate the range of her interests, her biography does. In addition to the tools of her trade that she’d be expected to have mastered — among them scriptwriting and audio editing — she’s experienced in curriculum design, bookkeeping, sewing and bicycle repair. She’s also available to translate Mandarin Chinese.
In short, she never outgrew her childhood fascination with encountering new things.
“I have a lot of the same sense of awe and wonder,” said Thornton, 28, who “grew up in Wilson Library” at the University of Minnesota. “I have an open mind about how many things there are to learn about.”
While she has done projects for National Geographic and the BBC, she continues to work out of her hometown. But “Bars” was unique in that it was the first time she didn’t have to shape a project to fit the requirements and expectations of an employer. This was entirely her project from start to finish.
“It’s the first time I’ve had total control over a long-form piece,” she said.
That meant that she could take as much time as she needed to tell the story. Freed from having to cram the piece into the traditional half-hour window, the project ended up being 45 minutes long.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever gone over [time-wise] and not had to scale it back,” she said.
A vast topic
She needed the extra time because the subject was anything but cut-and-dried.
“It was a challenge to create a linear narrative about something that is not linear,” she said. “It required a lot of focus.”
But she didn’t go into the project unaware of the hurdles. She did a lot of her research before seeking funding.
“I always do that before I begin,” she said. “A lot of research goes into my pitch. I like to lay out my plans well in advance and then be ready to have the whole thing go out the window” when the story takes an unexpected turn.
The early research ended up saving the project when the pandemic hit and the shelter-at-home orders were issued.
“I was very lucky with the timing,” she said. “I finished most of my research by mid-March, and the material I still needed had been digitized” so she could access it from her computer. She also had the equipment she needed to edit the project at home.
She is totally sold on the notion of oral histories, although she concedes that her opinion is not widely shared among the public. “The oral tradition is not as valued or taken as seriously,” she said.
One way to change that is to make the oral histories relevant. She hopes that when people listen to “Bars,” they’ll realize that just because the story it tells is 100 years old, its themes are the stuff of today’s front-page news.
“So much of history is so relevant right now,” she said. “It’s a chance to talk about how many different ways there are to make change.”