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[Detail] Illustration of the shield of Virginia, from the eighteenth century

Letters and Journals

Letters and journals provide some of the best sources of information about women's lives in earlier periods of history. According to Margo Culley, editor of A Day at a Time: The Diary Literature of American Women from 1764 to the Present (New York: The Feminist Press, 1985), diaries or journals in the 18th and 19th centuries served as family and community histories and were often intended to be read by others. At the end of the 19th century, according to Culley, "diary keeping in America had become associated with gentility, and keeping a life-record among a 'lady's' accomplishments." In the 20th century, the diary came to be seen as a "'secret record of an inner life…the life of personal reflection and emotion." Not coincidentally, men in the 20th century became less likely to keep journals than in previous generations.

The Capital and the Bay presents a number of journals, letter collections, or reminisces written by women. Browse the collection's author index (seeing the relatively small proportion of female authors will be instructive in itself), looking for evidence that diary keeping in the late 19th century was associated with gentility (a substantial portion of the works by women could be classified as reminisces published in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Focus on the earlier work, "The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith," which contains letters written by Mrs. Smith, a prominent Washingtonian, as well as excerpts from her notebook. Compare the letters and notebook excerpts.

  • Are the content and style of Mrs. Smith's letters and notebook similar or different? Give evidence to support your answer.
  • What do these sources tell us about the lives of women in the educated classes?
  • What do these sources tell us about the relationships between men and women?
  • What can we learn about women's involvement in the new nation's political life from these sources?

Investigate whether women's diaries or reminisces are still published today. Cite examples and suggest reasons why the genre might remain popular today.