In Women and the Historical Enterprise in America, Julie Des Jardins explores American women's participation in the practice of history from the late nineteenth century through the end of World War II, a period in which history became professionalized as an increasingly masculine field of scientific inquiry. Des Jardins shows how women nevertheless transformed the profession during these years in their roles as writers, preservationists, educators, archivists, government workers, and social activists.
Des Jardins explores the work of a wide variety of women historians, both professional and amateur, popular and scholarly, conservative and radical, white and nonwhite. Although their ability to earn professional credentials and gain research access to official documents was limited by their gender (and often by their race), these historians addressed important new questions and represented social groups traditionally omitted from the historical record, such as workers, African Americans, Native Americans, and religious minorities. Assessing the historical contributions of Mary Beard, Zora Neale Hurston, Angie Debo, Mari Sandoz, Lucy Salmon, Mary McLeod Bethune, Dorothy Porter, Nellie Neilson, and many others, Des Jardins argues that women working within the broadest confines of the historical enterprise collectively brought the new perspectives of social and cultural history to the study of a multifaceted American past. In the process, they not only developed the field of women's history but also influenced the creation of our national memory in the twentieth century.
About the Author
Julie Des Jardins is professor of history at Baruch College, City University of New York.
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Women and the Historical Enterprise in AmericaGender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880-1945
By Julie Des Jardins
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2003 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Feminine Refinement to Masculine Pursuit, 1880-1920
In 1921 a writer for the New York Evening World asked the question, "Why was it left for women to write the most authentic histories of New York?" Several men had attempted to write authoritative histories of the great metropolis before, he noted, including the likes of William Smith and Washington Irving. Yet the accounts written by women over the preceding fifty years seemed to him the most accurate. There was Mary Louise Booth's History of the City of New York (1859), for example, as well as Alice Earle's Colonial Days in Old New York (1896), Ester Singleton's Dutch New York (1909), and Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer's History of the City of New York in the Seventeenth Century (1909). Of all the New York histories, however, the one that impressed him the most was History of the City of New York: Its Origins, Rise, and Progress, a massive, multivolume work written by "Mrs. Mary Lamb" between 1877 and 1881. Sources told him that Lamb "accomplished her labor under most discouraging conditions.... At her own expense she ran down important historical clues." While her dedication did not lead to instant wealth, it paid off in the long run, for her book continued to be relied on for details about New York's major figures and events. In honor of her impressive feat and lasting impact, this journalist wished to raise Lamb from the depths of obscurity to make the seemingly anonymous historian a subject of history in her own right. Unfortunately for Lamb, this correspondent for the New York Evening World could not recollect the past with nearly the same accuracy he attributed to her, for the woman to whom he kept referring as Mrs. Mary Lamb was really Martha J. Lamb, once the esteemed editor of the Magazine of American History.
Lamb had stumbled onto history writing relatively late in life. As a young woman she served as a math instructor at a polytechnic institute, leaving to marry and establish an orphanage in Chicago. Eight years later she moved to New York, only to be virtually bedridden from the moment she arrived. Under doctor's care she began reading about New York's local history. Her fascination led to avid note taking and the manuscript of History of the City of New York fourteen years later. Once the publisher A. S. Barnes introduced Lamb's two volumes to the public, reviewers overwhelmingly sang its praises: "The style fully equals that of Macaulay, or Froude," wrote one scholar. "While the theme is the most spacious and splendid in American local history, her enthusiasm for it has matched its greatness, and her treatment, on the whole, has been ample and brilliant," wrote another. One reviewer went so far as to conclude, "This woman has written the most complete history ever published of any city in the world."
History of the City of New York would not be an isolated success; Lamb went on to write two other books to favorable reviews, The Homes of America (1879) and Wall Street History (1883), along with dozens of smaller historical works. By 1883 she had become such an established historical authority that she was chosen to be the editor and financial manager of the Magazine of American History. She devoted herself tirelessly to the journal from 8:00 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon every day, again to the admiration of most critics. The New York Times reported in 1888, "Mrs. Lamb never published an uninteresting number of this periodical," and the New York Recorder announced that under Lamb the magazine was "more read and esteemed among those who mold the national mind than any other periodical of the day." It was not long before Lamb's reputation had earned her remuneration and privileges that most women writers could only imagine. When she first researched volume 1 of History of the City of New York, she was said to have nearly begged for more than the $50 a month she received for it. However, when she closed her deal for volume 2, A. S. Barnes agreed to give her sole control over the disbursements for engraving and electrotyping. Two years later Funk and Wagnalls agreed to give her a relatively high percentage of the royalties for Wall Street History. That same year when the Historical Publication Company bought the Magazine of American History, Lamb and her nephew set up the new share structure of the company over which she now presided.
By the time she died in 1893, Lamb had written hundreds of historical articles and essays and been inducted as an honorary member into over a dozen historical societies and associations in New England and New York. Commentators frequently remarked that Lamb had mastered the historical craft as well as any man of her day. In 1881 the women's literary club Sorosis honored her with a lavish New York reception, where she received letters of congratulation by the presidents of several historical societies, universities, and even former U.S. president Rutherford B. Hayes. In 1886 President Grover Cleveland hosted a dinner party for Lamb and invited the legendary historian George Bancroft to take part in the honors. Upon her death the New York World reminded readers that Lamb's histories had won her acclaim as "one of the most advanced women of the century." Another writer eulogized that she "was the one woman who has written history successfully." "Not only did she take interest in historical matters," he added, "... but she won respect and admiration of eminent and erudite historical scholars on both sides of the Atlantic, and came to be recognized as an authority on historical matters."
The woman whom the writer for the New York Evening World wanted to snatch from obscurity in 1921 had in fact not always been so obscure after all. By all accounts Lamb had arrived as a respected historian in her own right. Thus this fact can only beg the question, Why was she so little known to New York journalists by 1921, only forty years after she first came to prominence as a great "lady historian"? More curious yet, Why was a journalist in 1921 so surprised to discover that at least three other women had written histories of New York since Lamb had published hers in 1877? Perhaps most baffling of all, Why would her eulogizers insist that Lamb was the only woman historian of influence when she died in 1893?
Certainly the reason was not the lack of women writing commercially successful or widely read histories at the time. Alice Earle and Sarah Bolton, for example, published most of their local histories and historical biographies between 1885 and 1900, albeit to far less fanfare than Lamb enjoyed before 1881. Ironically, at this time women were gathering influence as the writers of "collective biographies," compilations of historical sketches-usually of dignitaries, leaders, martyrs, and generals-that presented the public men of history as universal role models for young readers. As a genre the collective biography allowed women to disseminate their prescriptions for national manhood to mass audiences as never before, although late in the nineteenth century these prescriptions did not differ much from those of nearly 100 years earlier, when Mercy Otis Warren first recorded the history of the American Revolution. Whether Pilgrim ministers, Founding Fathers, Union soldiers, Horatio Algers, frontier pioneers, Cavalier planters, or American statesmen, great men had always made up the substance of women's nineteenth-century historical writings. Bolton, the most widely read collective biographer of the time, compiled works such as Poor Boys Who Became Famous (1885), Famous American Statesmen (1888), and Famous Men of Science (1890). Poor Boys alone sold more than 50,000 copies in its first few years of print, much to the pleasant surprise of publisher Thomas Y. Crowell, who then contracted with Bolton to write more sketches of famous "leaders," "authors," and "givers." Through her writings she reinforced men's place in the past as the public and noteworthy realms of politics, letters, science, commerce, and religion-and women's by omission as the unremarkable private sphere.
Just as women remained anonymous in Bolton's histories, so did she as a woman historian. Whereas men such as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman had won esteem as "gentlemen historians" in the nineteenth century, women rarely enjoyed the corresponding distinction. Martha Lamb seemed to be an exception, but only for a time, for by 1921 even her reputation as a lady historian had to be recovered. In the decades after she published her books, other women wrote history prolifically and marketed it widely, though few won recognition as lady historians. Bolton's sketches of great men had turned into popular history of mass proportions, yet she never regarded herself as one of the great writers or intellects of history, a distinction she reserved for the male heroes in her books. Perhaps Bolton perceived anonymity for herself and all women custodians of the past as a necessary cross to bear; women did not make history but recounted it for the benefit of younger generations.
Bolton spent the better part of the 1880s reconstructing the lives of history's great men, yet a good number of them were not all that historic in the sense that they were still alive when she wrote about them. In fact some were, if only peripherally, part of her same Boston social circle; Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for example, were men about whom she wrote but with whom she had also been socially acquainted. The familiarity with which she privately wrote of them suggests that she may have perceived herself as part of the same universe of historically significant movers and shakers. Although she kept a low profile as a woman biographer, she was prominent publicly as a moral reformer and temperance advocate. Through this feminine work Bolton had always believed that women could achieve great social influence-and eventually historical significance, it appears. For not long after writing exclusively about male subjects, Bolton began inserting women into her volumes of historical heroes. Her Successful Women (1888), Famous Types of Womanhood (1892), and Leaders among Women (1895) promoted the traditional domestic ideal but also depicted women as agents of national progress. One of Bolton's exemplars of "famous womanhood" was Susanna Wesley, mother of theologian John Wesley, whom Bolton praised for giving her son his early religious and civic instruction. "Her courage, her submissiveness to authority, the high tone of her mind ... were visibly repeated in the character and conduct of her son," Bolton explained. "What John Wesley would have been with an ignorant mother, it is difficult to conjecture.... It is a blessing to the world that Susanna Wesley ever lived."
According to Bolton, John Wesley's dutiful mother did more than act as an agent of moral progress; she directed the path of a heroic man and thus changed the course of national history, much like Bolton herself hoped to do by recalling the deeds of heroines in the past for potential heroines of the future. Like Poor Boys, Poor Girls sold more than 50,000 copies in its first few years of print and went through some two dozen editions. "Better than notices of the press," Bolton reflected, "have been the scores of letters received from women in various parts of the country, telling me how my book has inspired them to try to do something in the world." In the 1880s and 1890s other women authors made a career of writing about "Eminent Women," "Famous Women," and "Women Worthies." Moral reformers Frances Willard and Mary Livermore compiled over 1,500 sketches in Women of the Century (1893), a work undoubtedly intended to be both inspirational and prescriptive for young American girls. To no surprise, in this year of her death Martha Lamb was included among these 1,500 noteworthy women. Phoebe Hanaford's Daughters of America (1883), Louisa Moulton's Our Famous Women (1883), and Frances Willard's Women in the Pulpit (1889) served much the same dual functions as history and instruction on the ideal feminine character.
Examined collectively, these works reveal the growing inclination of women to present their contributions to national progress as distinct from yet equal to those of remarkable men. Bolton and her contemporaries were not the first to depict historical women in this way, however. In the 1850s Elizabeth Ellet had compiled similar works about aristocratic, pioneer, and revolutionary women and had won a popular following as a historian. Nina Baym suggests that such history in biographical form may have been the least defiant yet most effective way female authors could make a case for women's historical agency. In the mid-nineteenth century, women were more acceptable as subjects of biography than of history, in part because they were deemed better "objects to be contemplated rather than subjects of activity" and agents of historical change.
By the 1890s the market for these works had reached mass proportions; along with collective biographers such as Bolton, several popular writers of colonial history shifted their emphasis from Founding Fathers, male soldiers, and heads of households to ordinary women turned role models in early American society. Alice Earle and Anne Wharton, perhaps the most prolific female writers on the colonial era, considered the exploration of the domestic experiences of women in the colonies and the early republic as necessary aspects of their work. In Through Colonial Doorways (1893), Wharton insisted that "to read of councils, congresses, and battles is not enough: men and women wish to know something more intimate and personal of the life of the past." Likewise in this passage from Colonial Days and Dames (1894), Wharton sought to reveal the private women behind publicly renowned men: "Although Mary Washington and Abiah Franklin are chiefly known to later generations as the mothers of great sons," she prefaced, "it is evident that both of these women were possessed of strong character and distinct individuality. Firmness, moderation, and deep religious sentiment were leading traits of Mrs. Washington; while Mrs. Franklin, thrifty and hard-working, having at two-and-twenty undertaken Josiah Franklin with his brood of little children, which her own contribution of ten augmented to the goodly number of sixteen, still found time, to reflect upon theological questions."
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What People are Saying About This
A thoroughly researched overview of women's role in shaping the interpretation of history and the historical profession during 1880-@1945.The Historian
Julie Des Jardins's Women and the Historical Enterprise in America: Gender, Race, and the Politics of Memory, 1880-1945 is a meticulously researched and argued book about the very nature of history and history making. . . . This study is well worth reading for both academic and public historians.Public Historian
By demonstrating the richness and complexity of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women's historical thought and practice, Des Jardins makes an important contribution to our understanding of both women's history and the history of history.Journal of American History
Richly textured and comprehensively researched. . . . This study of the emergence of postmodern historical sensibilities is a triumph for its originality, exhaustive research, and for the insight it provides present-day historians.Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Des Jardins's narrative, which traces 'the politics of memory,' continues the rich tradition of scholarship and advocacy that she so beautifully chronicles.Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography
This book is valuable for highlighting the work of women outside the academy in making social and cultural history possible.American Historical Review
Integrating the contributions of black and white scholars, academic and popular historians, librarians, archivists, and activists, Des Jardins recasts our understanding of women's roles in preserving, writing, and disseminating American history. She provides a particularly rich analysis of the early ideological and intellectual struggles to shape narratives of women's history and feminism, struggles that have left their imprint on today's scholarship. . . . A wonderful read, a brilliant intervention in the history of History, and a fascinating introduction to the development of women's history in the decades before World War II.Nancy Hewitt, Rutgers University
A truly heroic account of an uphill battle to overcome prejudice about the very definition of history and herstory.Choice