Alumni Profiles - Kristen Gwinn
Ahead of her time
In the early 1900s, activists founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to unite women working for peace, social reform and human rights. Among its founders were Jane Addams and Emily Greene Balch, both of whom received Nobel Peace Prizes for their work.
They were later joined by Eleanor Roosevelt, whose dedication to social work, women’s rights and humanitarianism earned her the role of U.S. delegate to the United Nations from 1945 to 1952.
Over the years, the group has protested wars, lobbied governments and promoted disarmament around the globe.
Historian Kristen Gwinn is drawn to the lives of these women who were ahead of their time. In her own way, Gwinn was too.
The Levant, Maine, native graduated from the University of Maine at age 19. Now an independent historian working in Chicago, Gwinn researches and writes about history, and designs and develops biographical and historical databases and websites.
“These women’s stories are less known in our history,” Gwinn says. “Yet their lives contain important lessons and I’m lucky to be a part of sharing their stories.”
Gwinn moved to Bangor her freshman year of high school. She graduated from Bangor High in just three years and began her coursework at UMaine at age 16.
“It just happened,” Gwinn says. “It wasn’t part of a plan to get a Ph.D. by age 30 or anything, I was just very absorbed in my studies and my life here, and I progressed quickly.”
A third-generation UMaine student, Gwinn says the reason she came to UMaine is different from the reason she stayed at the school.
“I chose to attend (UMaine) because it was my family tradition to do so and because I was quite young.” she says. “I chose to stay, however, because I discovered a rich scholarly community here, particularly in the history department and the Honors College, and I realized that these would provide the foundation I would need to succeed.
“The whole college experience is an opportunity to grow into your professional and personal self, and the University of Maine was a great place to come of age,” says Gwinn, who graduated from UMaine in 1997.
UMaine’s history faculty helped cultivate Gwinn’s love for the discipline. Especially influential was the late Marli Weiner, whose specialties included women’s history and history of the American South.
“She showed me that scholars don’t have to be solitary, quiet people locked up in libraries or offices,” Gwinn says. “She demonstrated how faculty could be involved and active in their community. My decision to pursue graduate study in history resulted in part from her encouragement.”
When Gwinn graduated from UMaine with her bachelor’s degree in American history, she went to Trinity College Dublin in Ireland, where she pursued a master’s degree in international peace studies.
“In the 1990s, peace studies was an emerging field,” she says. “I knew that I was probably going to become a historian, but I wanted to explore other fields. I was keenly interested in Irish history and studying that history in the context of present day conflict in Northern Ireland seemed organic.”
She spent about a year and a half in Ireland before moving to Scotland and later San Francisco. “I did all kinds of things — the things you do when you leave college and you’re not sure what you want to be,” she says.
In San Francisco, she pursued an interest in technology, managing Web content for the nonprofit Legal Community Against Violence. Today she uses the skills she gained during California’s dot-com boom to design and create websites on historical and biographical topics.
Gwinn earned a graduate research fellowship at George Washington University in 2003, working with the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers project and, later, teaching seminars in modern European history and 20th-century Europe.
She completed her doctorate in history in 2008, with specializations in 20th- century U.S. history, American women’s history and peace history. She also began writing her book, Emily Greene Balch: The Long Road to Internationalism, which will be published this December by the University of Illinois Press.
“Balch was a woman involved in all kinds of exciting things,” Gwinn says. “Perhaps only a handful of people know her name today, yet she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. The most important thing to take away from that fact is to do what you love, do what you’re passionate about, and it will be recognized in some way.”
For her research on Balch, Gwinn traveled to 16 archives in the U.S. and Britain. She also compiled an oral history by interviewing Balch’s great-nephew, Si Balch, who currently resides in Wilton, Maine.
In coming years, she hopes to write about 20th-century women who ran for public office prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women political rights on a federal level. She says she may complete another full-life biography, which would likely center on an individual woman politician or a Progressive Era reformer.
“It’s a really exciting era in American history,” she says. “These women were part of the first generation to receive a college education and, later, to receive the right to vote. They did so often in the face of great challenges. Learning how they faced those challenges teaches us how to overcome obstacles in our own lives.”