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"Clarissa" Exhibition Opens 2011 Season

May 27, 2011

Newburyport Current


‘Clarissa’: A woman before her time  
Maritime Museum makes strong statement with inaugural exhibit

By Lynne Kettleson / Special to the Current
Newburyport Current
Posted May 27, 2011 @ 08:54 PM
Wicked Local photos by Nicole Goodhue Boyd 

Exhibition Curator, Alison Smith

Newburyport — Exhibition Curator Alison Smith, who assembled “Clarissa: Before Her Time” at the Custom House Maritime Museum, felt some kinship with Elinor Bachelder, the North Hampton woman whose donated SPARs memorabilia composes the core of this presentation.  

In fact, Smith, a Harvard graduate student/intern, models one of the Bachelder uniforms in the poster for the exhibit that opened May 18 and runs through June 30.    Comprising uniforms, accessories, keepsakes and photos from her World War II service, the exhibit provides a personal glimpse into the women of the “Greatest Generation” who volunteered for various wartime military postings so men could be freed up for combat duty. 

“This exhibit tells an important and often overlooked story,” said museum board member and Collections and Exhibition Chairman Cynthia Muir. “Alison’s quietly competent approach in her two years of research and preparation for this exhibition is a credit to this story and a valuable asset to our museum.”

Clarissa Exhibition OpeningThe SPARs were the women’s corps of the U.S. Coast Guard, and Betty Ricker of Rowley was among those who volunteered. “You had the feeling that you were helping out so that the men could go elsewhere to fight the war. It was the patriotic thing to do,” she said at the opening ceremony.

Elinor Bachelder was 31 when she volunteered for the SPARs. Her life already had given her serious challenges. Following her father’s suicide, she had taken over and was operating his livery business in North Hampton, NH.

Described as an independent woman who could be forceful and decisive, she also was a divorcee and a victim of domestic violence, curator Smith said. Following SPAR basic training, Bachelder was stationed in New York City, where she served as a transportation specialist – driving jeeps.

Smith said, as she learned more about Bachelder while assembling the exhibit, she began to sense a kinship. “Expectations then were that women would only aspire to being a housewife. One of the recruiting films of the time had a quote that, ‘You won’t be a commander, but you could be a secretary to one.’ That characterized the mindset of the time,” she said.

Clarissa Exhibition Opening“I loved that she was allowed to serve when she did, and it was wonderful to learn about this and to have this collection,” said Smith, whose thesis concerns the under-representation of women in modern history and history exhibits.

Betty Ricker was living with her family on Jefferson Street in Newburyport when she volunteered for the SPARs in September 1943. It was winter when she chose the SPARs over other services because its basic training was in Florida. Ricker was posted to Seattle, where she spent the remainder of the war in the personnel section, typing orders.

“Some of the girls were homesick,” she said, “but it was like any other job: either you liked it or you didn’t.”

When the war ended, she took advantage of an “early out” program to come home to Newburyport to care for her ill mother. 

Clarissa Exhibition Opening

Visitors to the exhibit will not only see preserved mementos of the wartime service, but also a large picture of a post-war reunion, hinting at the impact of this time in their lives on the trailblazing women of this generation.

“Alison [Smith] will share behind-the-scene details on the making of this exhibition during our June 3rd First Friday Social, with Betty Ricker as our Special guest,” said Muir.

PHOTO CAPTIONS FROM TOP DOWN: Curator of Exhibits Alison Smith at the Fresnel Lens, decked out in the actual winter dress uniform of former SPAR Elinor Clarissa Bachelder; Charlotte Lombardi, Caroleann McPherson and Mary Rash examine more closely a SPAR uniform in the “Clarissa” exhibit that chronicles the lives of women who joined the Coast Guard SPARs in WWII; The Custom House Maritime Museum exhibit highlights the roles of women who joined the Coast Guard in WWII; Betty Ricker, a former SPAR (from 1945-1947), looks at exhibit materials on display at the ribbon-cutting May 18th.
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