By AUDREY FISCHER and DONNA URSCHEL
Women have "always been central to the history of the U.S.," historian Susan Ware said during the Library symposium on "Resourceful Women."
"Women make a difference," said Ware, who is the editor of the "Notable American Women" series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. With that observation, the audience was given a glimpse into various methodologies used by biographers, historians, museum curators, filmmakers, educators and children's book authors who spoke about their research into women's public and private lives. Many cited the significance of the Library's collections to their research.
"The Library of Congress is a wonderful treasure trove," said A'Lelia Bundles, whose young adult and adult biographies of her great-great-grandmother Madam C.J. Walker have won numerous awards.
Bundles grew up hearing the "rags to riches" story of her great-great-grandmother—the first African-American millionaire—in a household filled with many of her ancestor's belongings. But it was her own historical research that yielded many of the pieces to the puzzle that was Walker's life. According to Bundles, the Booker T. Washington Papers and the NAACP records in the Library's Manuscript Division are particularly rich in correspondence between Walker and other notable African Americans. The Geography and Map Division's popular Sanborn fire insurance maps helped Bundles locate the plantation in Delta, La., where Walker was born during the Civil War. And the Library's newspaper collection provided Bundles with insight into the events that occurred in Boston on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918—a time and place in which she could locate Walker.
"In many ways it was a curse," joked Bundles, referring to the abundance of resources that prevented her from beginning the task of writing. "I really needed not to do more research."
George Washington University history professor Allida Black also found herself "drowning in sources" in the process of writing several books about Eleanor Roosevelt.
"Eleanor Roosevelt wrote 27 books, 556 articles and 8,000 newspaper columns," noted Black, who serves as director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers. "She also wrote 150 letters a day," added Black, who noted that she and her staff consulted 963 collections in 50 states.
Black's favorite photo of Roosevelt is located in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division collections. In the photo, the six-foot-tall Roosevelt is kneeling in order to be eye level with Mary McLeod Bethune, the African- American educator.
Black also located a unique audiotape in the Library's collection. "It may be the only time Eleanor Roosevelt displayed anger in public," observed Black. "She is pounding her fist on the table and shouting, ‘Sit down,'" noted Black.
Despite the voluminous resources surrounding the famous first lady—many focused on her personal life—Black believes historians have just scratched the surface in documenting the accomplishments of "one of—if not the most—important women of the 20th century."
Joanne Passet, assistant professor of history at Indiana University East, finds herself "drawn to lesser known people" and thus suffers from the problem of having no personal papers to cull. Passet is currently working on a study of the life and times of 19th-century spiritualist, political activist, and water-cure physician Juliet H. Severance.
"Most anarchists don't leave papers behind," joked Passet.
Nevertheless, by visiting the places where Severance lived in upstate New York, Iowa and Wisconsin, and conducting research in a number of institutions, Passet has managed to amass a wealth of material on her subject. She even located a photograph of Severance's first husband, John D. Stillman, in a book in the Library's collections.
Artifacts are also key sources for the study of women's history, according to Esther White, director of archaeology at Mount Vernon, George and Martha Washington's Virginia home.
"History is not just what's around us—it's also what's beneath the ground," said White.
According to White, by digging beneath the surface—both literally and figuratively—details emerge about slave life, the Washington family's daily life, evolution of the plantation, and various plantation activities such as farming and blacksmithing. One such detail is that the slaves most likely hunted and fished to supplement their meager daily rations.
Barbara Clark Smith, curator of social history at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, also relies on artifacts to study the past. "Artifacts act as a source of connection to our visitors," said Smith. "They are palpable pieces of the past."
According to Smith, artifacts do not always speak for themselves. A case in point is the museum's popular "First Ladies Gowns" exhibition. Over the years Smith has learned to "take them more seriously" as historical artifacts. "Like peeling back the layers of an onion," Smith looked beneath the mounds of purple velvet that comprise Mary Todd Lincoln's gown and discovered the life of its seamstress Elizabeth Keckley, a slave who bought her freedom and achieved her goal of sewing for the White House.
Like historians, filmmakers rely on photographs, personal papers, and diaries as well as moving images in telling the story of women's history.
Virginia Yans, a professor of history at Rutgers University, discussed the benefits of moving images as historical documentation. "There is a methodology you can use in film that print doesn't offer—and that is juxtaposition," said Yans, whose documentary film about anthropologist Margaret Mead appeared on PBS television. She showed clips from the film that juxtaposed Mead's field work in remote villages with the anthropologist's own home movies following the birth of her daughter. Yans served as an adviser to the Library of Congress for its recent exhibition "Margaret Mead: Human Nature and the Power of Culture."
Kristy Andersen discussed the process of making a film about novelist, playwright and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston, beginning with the Library's Zora Neale Hurston finding aid.
With funds from humanities councils, Andersen researched Hurston in eight states. Her research was instrumental in assisting the Library of Congress in finding and identifying films that Hurston recorded in 1939 at the Church of the Living God in Beaufort, S.C. The films were part of a body of work that Hurston produced, under the auspices of the Federal Work Projects Administration, about folklore from the "Gulf States." Arlene Balkansky, a cataloger in the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, helped Andersen locate the audiotapes that accompanied the moving images.
"Biography is a large puzzle," said Andersen. "When you find a missing piece, it's very exciting."
Lisa Ades, an award-winning documentary filmmaker from New York, highlighted the importance of visual materials as primary sources. "The Library's Prints and Photographs collection is extensive," said Ades. "It was my first experience in the joy of discovering the perfect images with which to tell a story on film. When you uncover an exquisite unpublished photo of Walt Whitman—as I did here—or a photograph of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as it was unfolding, there is no greater satisfaction," she said.
"Since ‘Coney Island' [one of Ades' films], I've come here for every project I've worked on. No matter what the topic, we come here—often first," Ades said. "It's crucial what we find, and we spend a lot of time looking for those key visual materials."
Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, a professor of history at Howard University, talked about the sources that helped her make "Freedom Bags," a PBS documentary about African American women domestic workers. "One woman had an extensive diary from 1914 to the 1930s, and another women kept a log from the 1930s to the 1940s of assigned jobs and what she was doing."
"These are the kinds of resources that unfortunately are not being collected in the standard archives, manuscript collections, etc., but are available, readily available, in many women's homes," she said.
Valerie Matsumoto, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, also expressed concern about the abundance of resources in private possession. Her research of Japanese-American youth culture during the Jazz Age and Depression suggests that photographs and other memorabilia documenting the nearly 400 Japanese youth groups that existed during the 1930s to 1940s are in women's homes.
"What I thought was a molehill turned out to be a mountain," said Matsumoto. She urged historians to mine this material before it is lost to posterity.
Teenage culture is also a subject of interest to Kelly Schrum, assistant director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. Rather than focusing on the popular 1950s, Schrum has found voluminous material suggesting that teenage culture emerged decades earlier.
"Teenage girls displayed their own culture long before they were targeted as consumers," said Schrum, citing from her dissertation, "Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1950," which she is revising for publication. "Without the resources that I found at the Library of Congress and other places, I could never have told this story," she said.
Children's book author Valerie Tripp uses a reverse approach to her work on the popular "American Girls" series. Rather than research the life of a particular girl in history, she thoroughly immerses herself in the history and culture of the period, and then places a 9- or 10- year-old girl at the heart of the story. She begins by weaving "a silky ribbon of connection" between the young reader and the protagonist by describing familiar activities such as school, chores, and family relationships.
"I want my character to be an active participant in the story while being historically accurate," said Tripp. "Her problems are girl-sized versions of historical conflicts." By her own admission, Tripp wants her stories to instruct as well as entertain. "Neither spinach nor potato chips, " joked Tripp. "Just some vitamins in the chocolate cake."
Making history accessible to children is Gail G. Petri's lifework. As both a classroom teacher and a school librarian, she has used historical resources to instruct and entertain for more than 30 years. In recent years Petri has harnessed the power of the Internet as a learning tool. In her current position as a curriculum consultant to the Learning Page, a Library of Congress Web site for educators, she is a self-described "cheerleader for education and publicist for what the Library has to offer children and educators."
Nancy F. Cott, Harvard University history professor and director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, delivered the symposium's closing remarks. While describing the last 30 years of the women's history field, Cott, too, stressed the importance of relevant documents.
She quoted from a letter written by historian Mary Ritter Beard to Dorothy Porter, the renowned librarian at Howard University. Beard had said, "Papers, records, these we must have. Without documents, no history. Without history, no memory. Without memory, no greatness. Without greatness, no development among women."
Audrey Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office. Donna Urschel is a freelance writer in the Washington area.