These books — these ‘excavated gems’ — illuminate the course of women’s history [column] | Local Voices

It never ceases to amaze me to think that my mother was born into a “free” and democratic nation where her mother was not allowed to vote. The road from initial interest in suffrage to ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 to 1987, when March was first declared Women’s History Month by a special presidential proclamation, was long, arduous, and fraught with obstacles.

In a pioneering 1940 letter to Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter, historian, activist, and archivist Mary Ritter Beard noted: “Without documents; no story. Without story; no memory. Without memory; no size. Without size; no development among women.”

Bart was right; The documents, the history, the memory had to be exposed for real change to take place. Without a substantial paradigm shift, ideas—no matter how persuasive or useful—remain mere anecdotes, and paradigms shift only when marginalized voices and arguments emerge and are heard. As the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and ’70s turned into an academic endeavor, feminist scholars scoured the annals of history for writings on women’s concerns, opinions, and achievements. In 1970, after realizing to their dismay that only 3% of history was written by women, they turned to archival research and a treasure hunt for forgotten writings by and about women. Their intense efforts brought many rewards. Some of the excavated texts have become a central part of literature and related academic courses; others remain less well known. I would like to suggest some of the gems that have been unearthed.

— In 1972, Ivy League professor Nancy Cott and four co-feminists published a collection of archival texts entitled “Root of Bitterness: Documents in the Social History of American Women.” The second edition appeared in 1996 and the anthology grew to over 80 primary writings from 1630 to 1900. The texts are as varied as they are fascinating.

These include The Examination of Anne Hutchinson, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for helping about 60 townspeople understand the theological complexities of Sunday sermons at weekday meetings at her home; and the transcript of Susanna Martin’s 1692 witch trial (she was hanged on July 19 of that year). Also included are the reminiscences of Mah-i-Ti-Wo-Nee-Ni (Iron Teeth), a 92-year-old Cheyenne woman, of Native American resistance to reservation policies and the expulsion of the Northern Cheyennes from their homelands in 1877 and her grueling return in 1878, an ordeal that claimed the lives of three of her five children. The lyrics also include tales of escaped slaves and even a rare letter from an enslaved woman to her former playmate and lover, outlining her experiences of buying and selling.

— 1978, after very limited success during her lifetime (fewer than 5,000 copies sold and more or less out of print since 1960), Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel “Their Eyes Watched God” became a best-selling novel and a core text of American literature. Once again, Hurston, a Harlem Renaissance writer, was rediscovered — literally dug up — by an admirer, writer Alice Walker, when Walker traveled to Florida to find Hurston’s weed- and snake-infested unmarked grave. She provided a headstone and walked with salvaged Hurston works, including “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The protagonist of Hurston’s novel is Janie Crawford, a woman who lived in Florida in the 1930s. The novel is a riot of mixed discourse, the narrator’s controlled prose and the characters’ black dialect. As Janie grows into a self-actualized woman and her voice merges with that of the narrator, the novel takes on a universal quality that transcends place, race and time.

— In 1987, Jean Fagan Yellin published a new book-length edition of Harriet Jacobs’ long-forgotten slave tale, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave: Written by Her Herself.” Originally edited and published by Lydia Maria Child in 1861 and lost in history, Jacobs’s narrative tells of her master’s attempted seductions (which we would call sexual assaults); her escape from slavery to her grandmother’s attic and her stay there for seven years in cramped, cold or sweltering conditions; and their eventual escape to the north and freedom.

— Also in 1987 Toni Morrisons “Lover,” a novel about an escaped slave and mother named Sethe was published. The story was inspired by Morrison’s discovery of the trial documents and newspaper coverage of Margaret (Peggy) Garner. The enslaved Garner killed her young daughter and was on her way to killing her other children and herself when she was stopped by a group. She preferred death to slavery for all of them. In the novel, Sethe murdered her 2-year-old daughter to save her from the life of rape, impregnation, and kidnapping her children she endured. Morrison visited a cemetery famous for its ghostly interactions and was inspired by the ghosts she encountered there.

The texts recommended here are the diamonds, words that changed the trajectory of historical and literary thought. They reflect the ongoing quest for inclusion and equality by American feminists. They ask their readers to rate freedom, liberty, and opportunity. These American mothers are relentless in making us fulfill the promises of American fathers.

Carla Rineer is an Assistant Professor of English and World Languages ​​at Millersville University. Among the courses she teaches is The Woman Writer and Her World.

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