Publication Date

September 1, 2022

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • United States


Public History, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

Women are missing from our history textbooks and public memory—and not necessarily because their stories haven’t been told. Sometimes it’s because of how their stories were preserved and told in the past. Understanding decisions earlier generations made that hinder our ability to find women’s stories can make it easier for us to rediscover and tell them today.

Isabella Graham and Catherine Ferguson are just two early American women whose historical narratives have been profoundly shaped by how they were written about in their own era. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.

As we do, writers in the past believed that whose stories got told, and how, mattered. Those aims motivated friends, family, and activists to preserve women’s written and spoken words. They also led authors to craft narratives and to edit women’s documents in ways that would be relevant or persuasive to their audiences.

Take the example of Isabella Graham. Born in Scotland in 1742 and married in 1765 to a British army physician, Graham followed her husband and his regiment to Canada, Fort Niagara, and, on the eve of the American Revolutionary War, Antigua. After her husband’s death there in 1773, she returned with her four children to Scotland. She moved for the final time to New York in 1789. There she opened a boarding school where George and Martha Washington and other prominent families sent their girls. Then she became a trailblazer in founding charities aiding women and children. Graham died in 1814, and over the following decades she was remembered as a philanthropist, an educator, and an evangelical role model. Well-known in the 19th century and remembered into the 20th, she is now unknown to most outside of early American historians.

Graham was spotlighted alongside several women including Catherine Ferguson, a well-known African American philanthropist in New York City.

Protestant evangelical reformers shepherded her memory in the 19th century, starting with her family and her pastor. John M. Mason, a Presbyterian cleric who had been Graham’s pastor for many years, published the eulogy he delivered at her funeral. Her son-in-law and daughter, Divie and Joanna Bethune, published a biography of Graham and collections of her letters and other writings. Periodically revised and issued in new editions, the books were bestsellers and, along with the eulogy, were advertised hundreds, if not thousands, of times in newspapers in the early to mid-19th century. Excerpts or abridged versions of her biography were included in other books and periodicals, including ones geared to young readers, such as Sketches of the Lives of Distinguished Females (1833) and Benson Lossing’s Our Countrymen: Or Brief Memoirs of Eminent Americans (1855). The latter mainly featured men, but Graham was spotlighted alongside several women including Catherine Ferguson. A well-known African American philanthropist in New York City, Ferguson’s story was shared nationally in articles and tracts based on an interview the abolitionist businessman Arthur Tappan conducted with her in 1850.

These authors had clear purposes for their works. Following in the long Christian tradition of nurturing faith by telling stories of exemplary believers, writers such as the Bethunes and Tappan drew out aspects of their subjects’ lives that advanced that goal. The Bethunes exercised firm editorial hands, as historians have shown by comparing Graham’s original manuscript letters and the published versions. In addition to standardizing spelling and punctuation and sometimes modernizing word choices, the Bethunes prioritized excerpts and letters that highlight Graham’s or her correspondents’ piety or offer spiritual counsel. Topics that didn’t fit that agenda garnered little or no attention. While living in Montreal and Fort Niagara, Graham imported and sold apparel and textiles, relying on her mother Janet Hamilton Marshall back in Scotland as commission agent, yet the Bethunes excised much of the women’s discussions about their business activities from the published volumes. Similarly, they largely excluded Graham’s observations about her travels through the remote St. Lawrence River valley. In Ferguson’s case, her widely reprinted obituary, evidently written by a white evangelical writer, ended, seemingly tangentially, with her denunciation of gambling. Ferguson may well have opposed gambling, but the non sequitur leaves the impression that this emphasis owed to the author’s, not the subject’s, concerns.

The women’s own insights or perspectives had circulated to their contemporaries before their deaths. Ferguson’s associates could have seen her—the sole woman—listed in an 1835 newspaper report about donors to a successful effort to raise funds to buy the freedom of Jack, an imprisoned fugitive enslaved man. For her part, the well-educated Graham was one of the first European American women to leave a record, in letters to her parents, of traveling through the St. Lawrence River valley. Following customs of the day, Graham’s letters would have been read aloud or handed around in her family’s circle. Yet had she been a man writing to another man in the republic of letters, her travel letters might have been printed, as were the letters of male philanthropists who were her contemporaries. While some women’s letters were excerpted in newspapers, it was more common then (and in later eras) for men’s letters to find their way into print and thereby gain wider exposure.

By the time early American women’s letters made it to professional archives, other decisions made it harder to find these sources. In many cases, these materials end up in collections cataloged under the names of men, often the woman’s husband, son, or male correspondents. While many primary sources can be found in edited documentary collections, decisions about funding such projects have also shaped access. The papers of the 18th-century South Carolina planter Eliza Lucas Pinckney and First Lady Dolley Madison are cases in point. For decades, there has been financial support for projects compiling the documentary record of men from America’s founding era, but only recently have projects on Pinckney and Madison been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

In many cases, these materials end up in collections cataloged under the names of men, often the woman’s husband, son, or male correspondents

As Lorri Glover notes in her 2020 biography of Pinckney, the early generations of academic historians turned to the papers and publications of male leaders because of greater accessibility and because the history that mattered to them was the history of the nation-state told from the perspectives of its most well-known leaders. That’s not to criticize those historians for making choices based on accessibility or interest—we all do—but to emphasize that their professional focus was another in a series of decisions that helped obscure sources about women’s history. Increasingly, archivists and museum staff are now adding women’s names in collections metadata. (Thanks to the leadership of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, such work is underway for records of objects and documents at Smithsonian museums and archives.)

All that’s to say that women aren’t missing from our textbooks and public memory because there aren’t rich sources for studying them or because earlier generations wholly ignored women’s history. True, white men born to wealth or prominence or who became wealthy or prominent left more records and have received greater attention. But in some cases, the ways a woman’s story was told in the past no longer resonate as widely as they once did and may, therefore, get overlooked. In the case of US history, 19th-century writers saw women such as Isabella Graham or Catherine Ferguson as relevant and particularly important for girls. Similar to today’s popular Rebel Girls series, with its successful formula of short pieces depicting bold women in a range of fields, 19th-century volumes such as the 1833 Sketches of the Lives of Distinguished Females followed a familiar Christian narrative pattern to present readers with strong, resolute women who modeled piety, benevolence, and other virtues.

Understanding the decisions editors, interviewers, writers, and cataloguers made about sharing women’s sources and stories not only helps us appreciate how women’s history was usable to earlier generations, but also helps illuminate the history of relevance as a guiding force in doing history. All that can help us recognize or hunt for what was left out. That knowledge, in turn, allows us to understand these women more fully and to bring their stories to more audiences today.

Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. She tweets @AmandaMoniz1.

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