Archive for July, 2010

July 10th 2010
Tales from the archives

Posted under American history & happy endings & jobs

Sister Agnes asks: "what are you waiting for?"

I know, I’m becoming tiresome for always nagging you to get your sorry behinds into the archives and start digging, as opposed to relying on on-line databases and published sources for your historical research.  But, here’s why, friends:  Barbara Austen, the Florence S. Marcy Crofut Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society, has an interesting essay at Common-Place about her efforts to apply “More Product, Less Process” (MPLP) in making the CHS collections more accessible to researchers.  When she arrived at the CHS in 2004, this is what she found:

Armed with a pad of paper and several pencils, I systematically inspected every shelf in the manuscript stacks—43 ranges with approximately 1,276 shelves—which took a year to examine, record, and put into a searchable database of more than 18,000 records. That was while still doing my regular duties—answering reference questions and arranging and cataloging newly acquired collections. For the inventory, I opened every box and every volume to record very basic information, like the call number, the creator (author) of the collection, a brief title with dates (such as “Diary, 1750″), whether there was a record of this being a gift or a purchase, whether or not there was any organization to the collection, and a brief note on the size or extent (1 box; 30 volumes; 10 cartons). I also went through all 24 volumes of our accession records looking for manuscript gifts and purchases. Then I checked our card catalog and the online catalog (which has items added to the collection since 1984) to determine if researchers could find the collections using the tools already at hand.

What I found during the inventory both fascinated and appalled me. Some collections with obviously early documents had never been touched! The papers were still folded into little tri-fold bits, tied together with string or ribbon. Who knew what they contained? I was also fascinated at how carefully certain collections were cataloged, down to the item level—each letter had been individually described in the card catalog and sometimes in the online catalog. These records were for letters or documents related to individuals like Silas Deane, Oliver Wolcott and other great white men. Other important collections had no catalog record at all. This lack of access astounded me, even though several cataloging projects had preceded me, such as reporting collections to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, adding 96 finding aids (narrative guides) to Chadwyck-Healey’s National Inventory of Documentary Sources, OCLC (the national online database of library holdings) and 30 finding aids available on our web site using special encoding, which was completed in 1999. Continue Reading »


July 9th 2010
Female SciProf told: “Thank you for not reminding us you’re a woman.”

Posted under American history & bad language & Gender & Intersectionality & publication & race & unhappy endings & women's history

Go read this account of reading the reviews from a recent grant application, in which Female Science Professor was thanked for not including the fact of her sex in her BI (Broader Impact) statement:

In one review of one of my recent proposals, I was thanked by one reviewer for not mentioning myself or other women involved in the project as a broader impact. The reviewer was very happy to see that my proposal was therefore not obviously biased against men.

OK… you’re welcome.. but you know what? Even if I wrote in the BI section that the proposed research involved female investigators and therefore in some way helped broaden the participation of an underrepresented group, this does not demonstrate bias against men. It would be stating something that is part fact (I am the female PI whether I mention it in the proposal text or not) and part opinion (my involvement in research broadens the participation etc.); no men were excluded or oppressed to produce this proposal.

So the message is, “don’t tell us how we should think about your sex.  We saw your first name, we have our own ideas, and we can use that information however we like.  We don’t like having our privilege checked, don’t’cha know!”

This reminds me of reading the reviews of my NEH grant application (unsuccessful!) for my first book project, Continue Reading »


July 8th 2010
The value of college: great for me, not so much for thee!

Posted under American history & class & Gender & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students & women's history

Is anyone else skeptical of this current rash (h/t Corrente) of “is college really worth it?” (h/t RealClearPolitics) articles, now that women are the majority of college students, and black, brown, and first-generation college students are gaining more of a purchase in post-secondary education?  It sure seems like an interesting coincidence to me. Continue Reading »


July 7th 2010
Women’s historian attends West Point Summer Seminar! (Alert the MPs.)

Posted under American history & Gender & jobs & weirdness & women's history

Gee, I wish we were relevant!

A young, dissertating historian of the integration of the U.S. military, Tanya L. Roth, attended the West Point Summer Seminar in Military History this year, and has written a three-part series in which she describes some of her experiences, and discusses the tensions between “traditional” (e.g. strategy/operations/tactics) historians, and the “war and society”-typesIn part III, she offers some thoughts on being what she calls the “token ‘Where are the Women?’ person.”  One of the West Point Seminar’s great features is that the students get out of the classroom and take some tours of Eastern battlefields:

As we concluded our staff ride of Gettysburg about halfway through the seminar, the program leaders asked us each to share how we thought the staff ride experiences could help us in our teaching and research. When it was my turn, I broke it into two parts: as an American historian, I said, I thought there were a lot of things I could incorporate into my teaching, whether in surveys or upper-level classes. I think that this intensive study of a specific battle adds something to the experience of learning about big wars in American history.

But as a women’s historian, I continued, the staff ride experience had seemed utterly useless. After all, we dealt with only combatants’ experiences – and unless you want to talk about cross-dressing women serving as soldiers, then we’re essentially dealing with male experiences in the staff ride environment. All of the women were either in Gettysburg or behind the Confederate and Union lines as camp followers – and those were experiences we largely ignored, aside from a brief discussion of the impact of the battle on the local Gettysburg environs and people (in the aftermath).

I was pretty blunt. Note that I did not say that I found the experience completely useless – simply that from a women’s history perspective, the staff ride (as it had been conducted) was useless. Sure, I was going for impact with that statement. My main point was that gender was never a category of analysis during the staff ride, despite what I saw as a number of opportunities we had to discuss gender – not to mention the fact that when you’re talking about combat, gender analysis is always a useful tool (in my opinion).

Roth continues:

What I realized by that weekend was that the topic of gender and women in particular made people fairly uncomfortable.  Continue Reading »


July 6th 2010
Methodology: when “sideways” is the only way you can go

Posted under American history & happy endings & Intersectionality & jobs & students & women's history

In the discussion of Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America, a book about a woman who left no trace in the historical record that survived, Susan commented that “I think the whole issue of how we go sideways into a topic that does not want to reveal itself is fascinating. And since I think I’ve spent most of my career working obliquely, it’s one I think about a lot.”  Miller offered some more thoughts in a recent e-mail exchange on the question of why she wrote a biography of Betsy Ross, and sidles up to some of those “sideways” methodological issues:

On the “why not til now” question, I’ve given that a lot of thought.  Your theory about the masculine slant of early American history is certainly part of it — I’d never thought of it quite like that, but I think the point is spot on.  Also, of course, when women’s history emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, the antipathy toward Ross was palpable; undertaking any serious scholarly inquiry into her actual life would almost certainly have been a career-ending move.  I really think that it’s not til now (or at least lately) that she’s become “safe” for scholarly study.  And of course there’s the technological angle:  the appearance of powerful databases like Early American Imprints, America’s Historical Newspapers and even Google Books makes possible research that I wouldn’t have lived long enough to do, even five years ago.  I feel like I was just the right person in the right place and the right time — not just being someone interested in women’s and labor history, but having the intense interest I do in the nuts and bolts of early American craft skill, and also the public history orientation that helped me know how to approach the historic house museum’s resources.  The whole time, I felt like the project was a tremendous privilege.

Miller’s point about biographies and/or taking Betsy Ross seriously in the 1970s or 80s would have been seen as unserious is a good one.  Women’s historians in that foundational era were concerned with getting far beyond token women like Pocahontas, Betsy Ross, Sacagawea, and Mrs. O’Leary, who were seen as more appropriate for grade-school American history pageants than as subjects for serious study.  And as some of you old-timers may recall, this was the era of the rise of hard-core cliometric social history, in which articles were composed mostly of charts and graphs.  Continue Reading »


July 5th 2010
1776, &c.

Posted under American history & fluff & women's history

Second. Worst. Ever.

Famille Historiann spent this past holiday weekend in a nearby Colorado mountain town, and therefore I had access to a much better cable package than I have currently at home.  Flipping channels, I landed on an HBO marathon of John Adams, starring the shockingly ugly actor Paul Giamatti and wasting the talents of Laura Linney as Abigail Adams.  (And you all remember my opinion of John Adams, right?) 

The whole thing is played like history is just a costume party with wigs.  All Linney does in the two episodes I saw is look worried and cry and say to her kids, “I wish your father were here,” or hear her kids say, “I wish father were here!”  (Plus lots of hugging for the eighteenth century.)  And apparently, Abigail Adams kept the farm going in Braintree and raised four kids without any household help.  At one point, she’s so upset about John being away that she starts washing windows obsessively in the middle of the night–as if clean windows were a priority in colonial huswifery.  (Having windows in the first place was the limiting step for most folks.)  The scenes in which Adams inoculates her kids with smallpox was pretty satisfyingly gruesome.  However, they all broke out with the pox (one daughter rather seriously), but magically, their skin cleared up and they bore no scars.  (Kind of like the invisibility of the household help!)

I’ve never thought that much about Abigail Adams one way or the other, but I never thought of her as a neurotic stay-at-home mother.  Linney is a great actor–but roles like this one seriously diminish both the historical person and Linney.  (And please don’t get me started on the squirm-inducing sex scene she does with Giamatti.  Ugh!  It was so unwatchable we had to turn it off.)  Continue Reading »


July 3rd 2010
Stars & Stripes Forever: Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & women's history


I’ve written a long post for this Fourth of July holiday weekend.  It’s a really long one, so feel free to go get a snack and a refill of your festive and patriotic cocktail.  Consider this a follow-up to my latest foot-stamping tirade about the So-Called “Founding Fathers” and the endless production of trade biographies thereof.  Here’s a biography that, while not exactly about a person you’ve never heard of, managed to be the first serious biography of its subject.  

Betsy Ross (1752-1836)–how many of you have thought about her seriously since elementary school?  In Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010), Marla Miller is candid about the challenges of writing a biography of a person whom most of us–especially professional historians–have long since relegated to the kiddie lit/grade school play bin without a second thought.  Trained as a professional historian in the 1990s, I assumed Betsy Ross was half-myth, half-misguided Colonial Revival fantasy that romanticized colonial women as spinners and seamstresses.  (This is an important theme Miller explored in her first book, The Needle’s Eye:  Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, 2006).

Miller writes in her introduction to Betsy Ross, “when I told people that I was writing the first scholarly biography of Betsy Ross, they usually expressed considerable surprise–surely there’s something out there somewhere?  No scholarly biography of Ross has ever been published; her legend looms so large that her life itself has been largely overlooked.”  There are no Betsy Ross papers–in spite of her half-century of work as an upholsterer and her care for dozens and dozens of extended family members, there are few records of these labors, and none in her own hand.  There are no letters or journals that might provide some insight into her inner life as she endured Revolution, war, and widowhood three times over.  What Miller says about Betsy can be said about most women subjects:  “her descendants saw no need to preserve the letters she wrote, the shop accounts she kept, or any other record of her thought or actions,” 13.

Nevertheless, Miller’s story about the woman known as Betsy, and variously as Griscom (her family name), Ross, Ashburn, and finally Claypoole (her third husband, and the name she kept the longest), is a beautifully written and absorbing tale of the different Bestys, her many families, and of their times in Revolutionary Philadelphia and of the capital city in the Early Republic.  She discovers as much about the real Betsy as can possibly be gleaned from archival, museum, and material sources in this impressive definitive biography.  Continue Reading »


July 2nd 2010
Where is “the BBC,” anyway?

Posted under fluff & jobs & local news & students & wankers

An e-mail alert I received yesterday from the Dean’s Office:

A Liberal Arts faculty member just reported to our office that an individual came to his office today who said his name was Mark D——.  He said he was a communication studies student and asked for donations to “get him to the BBC.”  Our office checked with Communication Studies, and they said they have no student by that name.  Certainly this solicitation is not authorized by that department nor the Dean’s Office.  If this fellow shows up at your office, please send him to the Dean’s Office.  If you need assistance, please contact us or the Baa Ram U. police.

Random criminals casing the joint and trying to shake down the faculty when they’re in their offices:  awesome!  Continue Reading »


July 1st 2010
Valley of the Dolls, Stepford edition

Posted under American history & art & Bodily modification & childhood & Dolls & Gender & GLBTQ & technoskepticism & the body & unhappy endings & wankers & weirdness & women's history

This creepy doll by Hans Bellmer, 1935

I can’t let the coincidence of this pass me by, since we’re talking about dolls and the objectification of girls’ and women’s bodies againSquadratomagico has a great post up on the off-label hormonal engineering of baby girl fetuses who have tested positive for (gasp!) Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, which means that they frequently have ambiguous genitalia, may possess a strong interest in softball, and “as a group have a lower interest than controls in getting married and performing the traditional child-care/housewife role.” 

(Well, what thinking woman doesn’t agree with that last bit?  Seriously:  if you dig scrubbing crusty surfaces and wiping snotty noses and bums, that should be a symptom of clinical depression, not normative behavior in any adult, male or female.  Most of us do that junk because we don’t want the state condemning our houses and taking our kids away.)

Click immediately on this link to join the discussion.  I left a comment over there, so I’ll be following that thread.  Something else I didn’t mention in my comment is the odd equation of childhood behavior with adult predisposition for motherhood among these alleged sufferers of CAH:  “As children, they show an unusually low interest in engaging in maternal play with baby dolls, and their interest in caring for infants, the frequency of daydreams or fantasies of pregnancy and motherhood, or the expressed wish of experiencing pregnancy and having children of their own appear to be relatively low in all age groups.”  What a stupid way to think about children or the importance of play.  Continue Reading »


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