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Monday, October 19, 2020

Historic author Ella Higginson gets her time in the spotlight

Higginson resided where Mathes Hall now stands. A plaque has been placed on a boulder in front of the residence hall. // Photo by Jack Taylor

By Jack Taylor

Advertise with the Front

Revitalizing the fame of a deceased author is no easy task. Just ask Western English professor Laura Laffrado, who has spent the better part of the last few years working to ensure that Bellingham native author Ella Higginson gets her due.

Starting Friday, Nov. 2, a bronze bust of Ella Higginson will be placed in the Western Libraries’ Reading Room to honor her legacy.

Higginson, who began her writing career at the beginning of the 20th century, became best known for writing more than 300 poems as well as fiction and nonfiction works.

Laffrado stumbled upon Higginson’s work at the Washington State Archives while researching other topics and was shocked at how unknown Higginson had become after her death. 

“While I was looking, I looked at their list of holdings and saw that they had 12 linear feet of material about a woman writer named Ella Higginson,” Laffrado said. “It took me a quite a while to realize how prolific she was.”

While describing Higginson’s poetry as inspired by the Pacific Northwest, Laffrado commented that her fictional writing detailed the life of being a white woman during the turn of the century.

“Her short stories tend to focus on the role of white women in the colonization of the Pacific Northwest by whites, and how troubling and difficult their situation was,” Laffrado said. 

Laffrado elaborated on how Higginson’s depiction of white women motivated her to continue her research.

“Her treatment of white women was completely different than the treatment of white women in other American writing from other regions,” Laffrado said.

Laffrado mentioned how women in the Pacific Northwest were given more options and freedom than women back in the colonized East Coast who were often left widowed or poor.

“White women [in the Pacific Northwest] had many more choices to make such as to marry, to not marry or to divorce. And so Higginson’s writing about these women, I had never seen it before,” Laffrado said. 

Director of Heritage Resources Elizabeth Joffrion said she believes Higginson’s bust will help people put a face to a well-known name on campus.

“People know Higginson Hall, but they do not always know the fact that she lived right down the street,” Joffrion said.  

Joffrion also credits Laffrado for doing the tiresome task of reviving Higginson’s works.

“We have had the Ella Higginson papers for quite some time, and Laura Laffrado recovered those records years ago and that sparked her interest,” Joffrion said. “We have been working with her, and I think it is really Laura’s passion that has made this all to be.”

Laffrado is not alone in promoting Higginson’s work, either. Marielle Stockton, Laffrado’s research assistant, said she believes it’s important for society to honor and examine deceased women’s work.

“We have such a big emphasis in the culture now that we have to record women’s achievements to the same caliber that we record men’s,” she said. “And it is not really fair in my mind that we leave women whose careers happened in a culture that did not think that was important. We cannot just leave them behind.”

Stockton said she hopes her work will signify to the public that there are other forgotten female writers as well.

“There are other women that are out there that need this work to be done. If we are going to care about preserving today’s women, we have to care about preserving yesterday’s,” she said. “It is only fair if we are going to call ourselves a just society in terms of feminism, feminism cannot just exist in today’s culture.” 

Currently, a plaque honoring Higginson can be found on what used to be Higginson’s home between the Viking Union and Mathes Hall. Additionally, a plaque crediting her can also be found on the exterior of Edens Hall.

For more information on the upcoming ceremony, information can be found on library.wwu.edu.

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