June 9, 2015

The First Step for Putting Women Back in History

Gerda Lerner, a pioneering scholar of women’s history, looked back on several decades of research in women’s history and divided it into four phases, each building on the other to reach a complex understanding of the history of women. Lerner saw historians of the 1960s doing what she called “compensatory history"—that is, looking for women and inserting them into male-dominated history. She compared historians of that period to Diogenes with his lantern, seeking simply to find the women.

Today, many historic sites are still wandering with their lanterns, trying to find the women’s stories represented there. Here are some suggestions to help you illuminate the lives of women at a historic place that matters to you, whether it is a historic site or your own home.

A women and man at work in a carpenter and joiner shop in Colonial Williamsburg.

photo by: C Watts/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Two interpreters demonstrate at a carpenter and joiner shop in Colonial Williamsburg.

Every single historic site is a women’s history site—including the ones you don’t think are. If you think not, look again, and think about what prejudices you might bring to the process.

Consider this: National Park Service historians once had a list of sites they thought lacked women’s history. On further research and thought, however, the list shrank until only Alcatraz, the former federal prison in the middle of San Francisco Bay, remained. But no, the wardens’ wives and daughters lived there; the prisoners had female family members; and some of the inmates’ victims were female. Not all were present at the site, but their stories are there.

Many years ago, on a visit to Hagley Mills, a gunpowder works in Delaware, the interpreter there assured us that no women worked on the site. With a little prodding he acknowledged that, yes, women did sew bags for gunpowder and, yes, they did run boarding houses. He was well-aware of these facts, but as we left he was still assuring us that no women had worked at the site. A woman working was just not in his schema. Think about whether or not similar assumptions could be coloring your conclusions.

Always put the women and girls at a site into a wider context of history. With this approach, you begin to incorporate women and girls into your narrative even before you find specific stories pertaining to the women who were there.

For example:

  • You can discuss girls’ education and women’s close friendships with other women. With the Cult of Domesticity, women were supposed to be in the home. However, the more research we do, the more we find that women played essential roles in family economies and societal ones, from growing The Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash), to feeding threshing crews, to making munitions during wartime.
  • In the pre-industrial era, most people lived on farms, so look for women and girls in families. Then, in the industrial era, look for women and girls working in low-paying jobs in often unsafe environments.
Mary McLeod Bethune leads a group of girls in her school in Florida.

photo by: WikimediaCommons/Courtesy Florida State Archives Collection

Mary McLeod Bethune with girls from the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida, circa 1905.

Share how expectations for women varied by culture and time. Think about all women. For example, enslaved women did a great deal to build this county, yet they get very little credit for all their hard work. Immigrant women worked “downstairs” in the homes of the wealthy. Wealthy white women patronized the arts, founding museums, the historic preservation movement, and more. Overall, women were essential to the economy but not always visible, so tell the whole (and often untold) story.

Make use of resources connected to women. Want to discover the women at a historic site? Start by looking around! Assess what you already know about the women of the household. Make a list of all the women you know of who lived and worked there and what documentation you have for them.

Search for new sources of documentation—census records, wills, journals, letters, newspaper articles, slave lists, descendants, and more. Don’t assume you have already unearthed everything. If you are near a college or university, find an enthusiastic intern to help.

photo by: Ron Cogswell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Avoid stereotypes. Women were—and are—multi-dimensional.

See women both independently and as part of a greater whole. As you begin to add women, think about them not only in relation to men, but also as independent actors. Historic places were complex and interconnected, just like human relationships. Show those organic relationships in your interpretation as well.

Avoid stereotypes. Do interpret needlework, cooking, and other “typical” women’s endeavors, but look beyond them too. Women were—and are—multi-dimensional. For example:

  • Charlotta Drayton, of Charleston, South Carolina, is best known as the owner of Drayton Hall, now a National Trust site. But, she was also involved in the suffrage movement, animal welfare, and many other social causes.
  • An enslaved woman named Sarah and her owner, Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, baked cookies on Edisto Island, South Carolina, and sold them in Charleston to raise funds for a Baptist Church where the only white congregants were Townsend and her daughter.
  • Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), now known as one of the country’s most important poets, lived much of her life as a virtual recluse in her home in Amherst, Massachusetts. During her life she seemed like a dutiful, but rather eccentric, daughter. And yet she left us beautiful words, such as from “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers:”

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all. . .

Let the women speak for themselves. Use direct quotes from the women or from their contemporaries. Add well-documented stories to your narrative. You don’t need to make anything up or rely on legend; the real story is always more interesting.

These tips were produced in partnership with the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites.

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