Study of History Opened the World for Alumna

Guided by steadfast determination, Rosalie Schwartz found her place as an academic

By Leslie L.J. Reilly

Rosalie Schwartz holding her latest book A Twist of Lemon

A thirst for knowledge and a dose of determination drove Rosalie Schwartz to earn a history degree — and a place in society — at the age of 30. The mother and wife balanced her family life while pursuing her interests and overcoming myriad challenges of the time.

“The experience of having an academic life was a minor miracle in my case. It was a choice that I had an opportunity to make. Opportunity wasn’t there early on, though,” she said.

Right out of high school, she went to work as a secretary, married, and had kids, She noted, it was “what was expected in the 1950s.” Later, Schwartz made the decision to go to college with the full support of her husband.

The year was 1969 and the campus at SDSU was bustling with activity. There were anti-Vietnam War protests, nationally-renowned speakers visiting campus, and plenty of activists participating in a plethora of student organizations. “The campus was throbbing with activity outside the classroom,” she said. Newly formed departments like women’s studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, Africana studies, and religious studies carved out a place for students to expand their knowledge base.

As a community college transfer student, Schwartz was thrilled with these new academic choices at SDSU. “It was like a banquet, where you could taste everything! I took literature, philosophy, and Latin American, Middle Eastern, and Southeast Asian history courses. It was such a rich offering — especially in the history department. I was like a thirsty person drinking everything,” Schwartz said.

“History opened the world for me,” she said. Schwartz received her bachelor and master’s degrees in history at SDSU and later a Ph.D. at UCSD.

Travel and Research Around the World

While doing research for her master’s thesis, she traveled to Mexico City — alone. A faculty member asked her, “Will your husband let you go?” It was 1973, and not many women traveled alone, especially to foreign countries, but Schwartz was focused on her research goals and nothing stopped her. Dealing with the bureaucracy to get into the institutions where she needed to do research was a challenge she overcame. She worked in the National Archives and the Foreign Relations Archives to obtain the material to write her thesis “Across the Rio to Freedom” about U.S. slaves in Texas who escaped into Mexico where they were protected. 

Later she lectured on topics of U.S. and Latin American history at SDSU from 1977-1997. “Being a Latin Americanist, I taught a comparative revolution course about the Cuban, Mexican, and Chilean revolutions,” Schwartz said. “It was a chance to analyze historical events and encourage the students to see the differences in Latin American countries.”

Beginning in 1980, she spent a year in Washington, D.C. as an American Historical Association (AHA) Fellow, working in the office of Lee H. Hamilton who was on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I worked primarily on Central American issues during the time when there were revolutions going on there,” she said. Her job was to do research and attend hearings to keep the Congressman apprised of what was happening in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

In 1983 she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for research in Spain, where she worked in the National Library in Madrid and the General Archives of the Indies, in Seville that houses colonial historical documents. The research led to her book on Cuban banditry called Lawless Liberators: Political Banditry and Cuban Independence, published by Duke University Press.

Schwartz received a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to write the book Pleasure Island: Tourism and Temptation in Cuba, about tourism between 1920 and 1960. She spent time in the National Archives and National Library José Martí in Havana for her research. Schwartz traveled to Cuba six times, twice as an academic in a tour group. “This wouldn’t have been possible without my life as an academic,” she said.

In Canada, she did research in Victoria, British Columbia to write about Mabel Walker Willebrandt's work in enforcing Prohibition for A Twist of Lemon, her most recent book published in 2010.

Inducted into the Women’s Hall of Fame as Historian of the Year

In 2021, Schwartz was among six women inducted into the San Diego Women’s Hall of Fame in a virtual ceremony. An honor she is grateful to achieve.

For the past 10 years, Schwartz has been busy doing research and writing for exhibitions at the Women’s Museum of California. “I have continued to use my history skills to bring women’s history to a larger public by writing biographies and doing research on women’s history for the museum,” she said.

Some examples of past exhibits she researched and produced include Women Inventors. “Who knew that a woman invented the windshield wiper,” Schwartz said. Another exhibit was Heroes on the Homefront in WWII. “Beyond Rosie the Riveter, it highlighted what women were doing at that time,” she said. “I did research at the La Jolla History Society to find out that women were observers at local beaches, looking for possible enemy plane flyovers. Women also trained as ambulance drivers.” In her historical research, she also accessed the YWCA papers in Special Collections and University Archives at the SDSU Library. “I lived during WWII and I have a special feeling for it,” Schwartz added.

History Students Can Move the World

Though retired from teaching, Schwartz is still passionate about the study of history in an ever-changing world. “Students now have an opportunity to make history as well as study it,” she said. “Majoring in history gives you not only perspective, but tools that are useful for research and writing. To know how to do the research is a valuable skill set.”

Schwartz, the historian and academic, believes in the value and importance of studying the past in order to make advances in the future. “Students can decide how they want to move the world,” she said.