By SHERIDAN HARVEY
In 2001 the Library of Congress will publish another in a series of research guides to its collections. In the tradition of African-American Mosaic and Many Nations, this new guide will explore the Library's rich multiformat resources for the study of another topic, U.S. women's history. The aim of the volume is to point to the Library's strengths in this field while emphasizing the need to search throughout the Library's many reading rooms for information.
The 12 chapters, written by Library staff, discuss different formats and collections, from manuscripts to law, newspapers to music, maps to motion pictures. This article is adapted from the chapter on the General Collections, which focuses on types of published books and periodicals; here, first-person and travel accounts.
Those who write women's history must learn to hear women's voices, voices that have often been silenced by custom, limited education, loss of records or disinterested listeners.
Women's words can be found throughout the general collections of the Library. They exist in the books and articles women write, in published diaries, journals, travel accounts, autobiographies and collections of letters, in testimony before Congress, in legal depositions and in letters to editors. Researchers can also uncover primary sources such as these in the Library's specialized reading rooms.
Filled with abundant details on all aspects of women's lives, women's writings provide the raw stuff of history. Just listen: "July 30 — Saturday — And now Oh God comes the saddest record of my life for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking." After burying her husband, Mary Ringo and her five children traveled five more miles before stopping for the night (The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo: A Diary of Her Trip Across the Great Plains in 1864. Santa Ana: Privately printed, 1956; 20).
African American Jarena Lee's vivid phrases bring her to life — she described her desire to preach "as a fire shut up in my bones." And talking of her health, she said, "I commenced travelling again, feeling it better to wear out than to rust out. …" (Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. Philadelphia, 1849; 15, 97) Another woman tells of her childhood tasks on an Arizona ranch: "By now castrating baby goats was fairly easy for me. …" (Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, A Beautiful, Cruel Country (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987; 177).
There are many different sources for studying women's words. When traveling, women often kept diaries and most wrote detailed letters to family at home. They occasionally reworked these documents for publication, sometimes as books, sometimes in newspapers or magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's. When these women speak, we learn more than a simple description of their adventures.
Why did they write?
Nancy Prince's object in publishing a tale of her travels "is not a vain desire to appear before the public; but, by the sale, I hope to obtain the means to supply my necessities" (Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince, Boston, 1853, Preface).
How did they respond to unusual experiences?
Mary Sheldon awoke to find a 15-foot python coiled around the top of her palanquin (an enclosed litter for traveling) and admits that she "came very near collapsing and relinquishing myself to the nervous shock; but there was no time for such an indulgence of weakness." (Sultan to Sultan, Boston, 1892, 312).
What were their political opinions?
Fanny Bullock Workman's travel account includes a photograph of herself holding a "Votes for Women" newspaper on an Asian mountaintop (Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram, New York, 1917, opp. 128). These personal writings provided a socially acceptable way for women to present their views to the public and to earn money; they also offer fascinating glimpses into women's lives and thoughts.
The Library's collections of missionary journals, such as Heathen Woman's Friend (Boston, 1869-1894) and Life and Light for Woman (Boston, 1869-1922), are an often overlooked source of unusual women's voices. These journals reveal that American women who journeyed far from home to bring their God to others often brought more than religion; including, for example, a desire to re-create among Native Americans an Eastern, Protestant concept of the division of labor. Reporting on the Dakota Women's Society, Miss Hunter asks, "Do you think it strange that in a Christian society the women should provide the wood for their families?" She describes the household duties of Dakota women and surmises that as the husband "grows in Christian character" he will assume more of the outside duties. (Woman's Work for Woman and Our Mission Field, New York, July 1886, p15).
In the past 30 years, many women's diaries and letters, some that had lain unknown in attics and archives, have been printed, microfilmed or digitized. More specific cataloging has improved access to recent works, but published bibliographies remain the primary means of identifying most older titles. Women wrote extensively for periodicals, but these articles, especially those produced before 1970, are often difficult to find. Periodical indexes, such as Periodical Contents Index (available at all Library terminals), are helpful. Oral histories, interviews, state historical publications and local histories also contain wonderful tales by women.
First-person accounts by women are not always readily identifiable. In most cases, the gender of the author is not part of the cataloging record. The subject headings for The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo, quoted above, are "The West — Description and travel" and "Overland journeys to the Pacific." The heading for most travel accounts by authors of either gender is usually the geographical location plus the subdivision "Description and travel." Researchers must look at all records under this term and try to select those by or about women. The name of the author is the main clue, but personal names can be misleading (as the author of this article knows).
One need scarcely warn a careful historian that sources are not always what they seem.
For example, the Library holds several volumes of memoirs by women who went to sea during the War of 1812 disguised as men. The publisher of one work, The Surprising Adventures of Almira Paul (reprint, New York, 1840), deemed it necessary "to assure his readers that [the foregoing narrative] may be relied on as facts as they did really occur, without the shadow of fiction." The Library originally cataloged this title as a biographical work, but historians now consider it most likely a fabricated autobiography, probably written by a man.
Historians of women's history, like all historians, must cast a questioning eye on all their sources. The crucial point is that writers seek women's own voices and let them speak for themselves.
Cline, Cheryl. Women's Diaries, Journals, and Letters: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1989).
Goodfriend, Joyce D. The Published Diaries and Letters of American Women: An Annotated Bibliography (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987).
Rhodes, Carolyn, ed. First Person Female American: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography of the Autobiographies of American Women Living after 1950 (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1980).
Briscoe, Mary Louise, ed. American Autobiography, 1945-1980: A Bibliography (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982).
Davis, Gwenn. Personal Writings by Women to 1900: A Bibliography of American and British Writers (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).
Tinling, Marion. Women into the Unknown: A Sourcebook on Women Explorers and Travelers (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).
Smith, Harold. American Travellers Abroad: A Bibliography of Accounts Published Before 1900, 2d ed. (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999).
Stuhr-Rommereim, Rebecca. Autobiographies by Americans of Color 1980-1994: An Annotated Bibliography (Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1997).
Ms. Harvey is a women's studies specialist in the Humanities and Social Sciences Division.