December 10, 2020

Preserving & Adapting Their World: The Women of Cliveden

At the start of 2020, the staff at Cliveden—a National Trust Historic Site in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—planned to celebrate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment with a new installation and exhibit in the Cliveden Main House. Featuring the lives of women who labored and lived on the site for over 200 years, the new installations were set to open in May, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans.

The resulting pivot, as so many other sites experienced, included developing virtual offerings as part of the exhibit roll out. During the summer, on-site installation occurred with the assistance of art handlers (at a time where cases of COVID-19 were lower), and the opening was moved to August to coincide with the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The new offerings for the exhibit centered around a series of twelve videos produced to give a sneak peak of the updated interiors, while also providing an easily accessible way to share the lives and experiences of the many women who are vital parts of the Cliveden story.

Logo for The Women of Cliveden

photo by: Cliveden

Logo for The Women of Cliveden Exhibition.

While Cliveden offered limited tours, the house is now closed due to the recent country-wide restrictions leading into the holiday season. The exhibit will remain installed through 2021 when visitors will hopefully be able to experience the full installation as originally intended. Visit Cliveden’s website to explore the exhibit for yourself or see all the videos in the playlist embedded below.

The Women of Cliveden

The women who occupied or worked at Cliveden over the centuries were enslaved and free, Black and white, upper class and working class, young and old. Although each woman’s relationship to Cliveden and the people around her differed, each shared a common interest in trying to manage and adapt to the world around them. Most importantly, each of these women from the past, like women today, played the lead role in their narratives.

The women of Cliveden provide a case study of the ways women exercised power and agency even though society constrained them legally, culturally, and politically.

The lives of enslaved women, limited by a lack of freedom and respect, show agency and initiative as they shaped their world in any way possible to protect and preserve themselves and their families, as Charity Castle did.

The lives of the women who worked at Cliveden illustrate their ability to change their situations as needed, including moving from their place of birth, as in the example of Almira Saunders.

The lives of the women of the Chew family illustrate their desire to reshape societal constraints by taking actions such as driving an ambulance in war-torn France during the early 20th century and fighting for women’s right to vote in America, as did Ada Knowlton Chew.

Common themes emerge through more than 200 years of women at Cliveden: the desire and ability to preserve their families, themselves, and their histories by adapting their world as necessary. The stories of these women are illuminated through legal, economic, and personal documents and images.

Some of these women’s lives are known only through records preserved because of their association with male members of their families, others through documents recording their legal status, and a few by their own letters and records. The lives of many more remain unknown, and work will continue to unveil their stories.

"Preserving & Adapting their World: The Women of Cliveden" is generously supported by The Haley Foundation, the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and Dr. Randall & Linda P. Miller in memory of Elisabeth Shellenberger (1921-2019), community member, preservation advocate, Cliveden board member, and guide.

Carolyn Wallace is an educator, program coordinator and collections manager with a background in historic sites. In her current role as Education Director for Cliveden of the National Trust, Carolyn engages visitors and the local community with Cliveden’s expanded interpretation to tell stories of the site and those who lived and worked at Cliveden over two centuries.

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