Teaching Innovations

Historical Societies and the Teaching of U.S. Women's History

Sarah Gordon, January 1994

Baldwin, Noyes, Linsley, Putnam, Darling, Jerome, Barnes, and Foote are the names of some of the Connecticut families that settled New Haven, Hartford, and Old Saybrook, intermarried, founded Yale, went into business, farmed, left beautiful clapboard houses as museums, and built the Hartford Turnpike, the Farmington Canal, and the Housatonic Railroad. Yet for the most part their wills, inventories, and histories are treasured only by the amateur historians, genealogists, and volunteers who staff historical societies throughout the state.

These family names emerged in a new context recently when I asked a group of undergraduate students to research and write short biographies to fulfill the out-of-class written assignment for "Women in America, 1775–1920," a course required as part of the new women's studies program at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Connecticut. The wives and daughters of these families left diaries and letters which became the focus of our course and served as a point of departure for comparing local "case studies" to national themes in women's history.

In designing the course, I had to bear in mind that most students would have no more history background than a required survey course. Since they would probably not be prepared to appreciate the abstract language of historical theory, which is often far removed from historical experience, I sought to create a required reading list which excluded books about spheres, networking, bonding, and demographic studies.

I also avoided textbook history since I had once used a women's history text and found that it tended to encourage rote memorization of the "facts." Furthermore, in a field as new as women's history, the opportunities for going beyond the level of textbook knowledge seemed more worthwhile. I hoped my students would do original research from which they would develop new skills as well as historical insight.

I focused on women's diaries—because of their simplicity and immediacy—as a good starting point for developing the skills that would lead to writing a biographical paper. A search for published women's diaries uncovered two excellent anthologies: Margo Culley's A Day at a Time (Feminist Press, 1985) and Lillian Schlissel's Diaries of the Westward Movement (Schocken, 1982). While Culley's book includes an excellent bibliography of other diaries, few of the titles listed are currently in print. Nevertheless, these two titles sufficed to give the students a familiarity with diaries as a historical resource.

I then added two more books to the reading list: an excellent biography which draws on rich primary sources, Gerda Lerner's The Grimke Sisters (Schocken, 1967), and Jane Hunter's The Gospel of Gentility (Yale, 1984), a group biography of missionary women that makes use of diaries and correspondence. With these I hoped to demonstrate the bridge that biographers create between the personal and the historical perspectives. That is, I wanted the students to proceed from reading the diaries in Culley and Schlissel to studying how diaries and letters were used by Lerner and Hunter to create a historical narrative. I hoped their research would then follow a similar progression from the careful reading of a woman's diary to the construction of a biography based on it.

I called area historical societies in order to locate a sufficient number of women's diaries which would be accessible to students. According to the archivists, some diaries were included in family papers while others were cataloged separately as part of a conscious effort to improve access to historical resources on women. These diaries told stories about women who founded schools and libraries, taught school, and became ministers. As I continued to make calls, it became increasingly evident how much of women's history did not take place on a national stage, but rather at the state and local level. The Grimke sisters and others who reached national prominence had hundreds of counterparts who pursued similar goals close to home. It seemed possible that my students, given sufficient guidance in interpreting these diaries, could shed more light on the historical contributions of local women, and could determine the extent to which their contributions paralleled the work of women who achieved national recognition.

During my telephone calls to the librarians and archivists I also explained my purposes so they would be able to provide assistance to students who had no previous research experience. Most looked forward to the opportunity to help, since in general historical societies do not get the recognition or patronage they would like. "As long as they don't all come at once," they cautioned. But this would not be a problem since each student would be working independently.

After about two hours of calling all New Haven–area historical societies, as well as the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, I had located over 150 diaries. I wondered, not incidentally, how many diaries there might be nationally, waiting for historians to read them.

As I reviewed the plan for the course, I decided to add another book to the required reading list, Linda Kerber's anthology, Women's America (Oxford, 1991), which is composed of articles on all periods of American women's history. While having some of the virtues of a textbook, such as its chronological organization, it also includes a great many short, interpretive essays based on diaries, letters, inventories, and other sources similar to those which the students might use. It could provide general information on the period covered by the course, but could also offer a number of specific models for students on the uses of historical evidence: a quality I had not found in any women's history textbook.

When the class first met, each student received a syllabus, which incorporated the required readings, and a list of area historical societies and their holdings of material on women. The primary written requirement for the course was a ten-page research biography based on the diary of a Connecticut woman. Anticipating panic among the students, I made it clear that class time would be used to teach the techniques needed and to provide individual assistance.

During the first class, we went to the reference department of the college library, where one of the reference librarians spoke on locating and using reference sources pertaining to women's history, and on cross-referencing so that the students would know that a name could be traced through sources other than just a diary. She also drew their attention to the Connecticut collection in the library, which included many state and town histories.

For the second class meeting, the students read diaries from the revolutionary era in Culley's book. Many observed how scant the information was in some diaries, consisting only of work and travel records or births, illnesses, and deaths. They pointed out that if the diaries they chose were similar, they might not have sufficient material for a ten-page paper. What these fears indicated to me, however, was that they had not clearly understood the reference librarian's discussion of cross-referencing.

Fortunately this concern was addressed by the next reading, an article in Kerber entitled "The Ways of Her Household" by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Through analysis of sources used for this short piece, the students came to realize that the author had located the names of her subjects in more than one source. Many members of the class subsequently followed her example by consulting wills, inventories, and genealogies in addition to diaries. I also alerted them to town directories, which might serve a useful purpose in tracing a woman's life.

In a class of twenty women and two men, all but two—who later caught up—were able to meet the first deadline I had set: deciding on a topic within three weeks. They had been asked to prepare oral presentations of no more than five minutes in which they would describe the steps they had taken, the problems they had confronted, and the solutions they had found in their searches for a topic. During the fourth class, the students gave their required progress reports.

I think we all shared a fatalistic attitude toward the first progress reports. I feared the course might fail in its purposes if the students proved unable to get beyond the diary in their research. For their part, the students didn't know if they "were doing the right thing" either. The first to report shared graphic descriptions of finding no information, of wandering from archive to archive, and of being "all but frisked" by archivists. I had almost begun to lose hope when a young woman abruptly altered the tone by presenting a report that included her successful consultation of probate records, genealogies, and a town history relating to the woman whose diary she had chosen to study. Other students also made it clear that with an archivist's or librarian's help, cross-referencing had been possible. The example set by those who had been most successful helped the rest to develop their research skills.

Who were the women under study? Where did they come from? Most lived in farming communities such as North Haven, Hamden, Cheshire, and Prospect. Many had names which recalled New England elites of the colonial era, names now identified with streets, parks, and institutions in the area: Putnam, Barnes, Darling, Linsley, Brockett. We had uncovered an aspect of New England elite family history that has not seemed to merit the interest of most professional historians.

In general, the women being studied were white, married or single, and closely tied to a community of church, family, women's circles devoted to self-improvement, and sewing groups. Some lived at the time of the Revolution; some lived into the 1930s. Every generation of the period under study, 1775–1920, was represented among the women selected for topics. We then proceeded to read and discuss The Grimke Sisters to trace some of the steps between personal experience and biography. This took our thinking beyond the local to the national level, providing the students with a basis for comparing the lives of their subject women with the lives of the Grimkes.

The book also proved a good source for understanding some of the cultural restraints on middle- and upper-class women before the Civil War. We focused in particular on the issue of women appearing in public. Though the Grimkes were portrayed as breaking down barriers for women in public life, articles in Kerber, notably "The Pastoralization of Housework" by Jeanne Boydston, indicated that women were more isolated in their homes than earlier generations had been. Could this apparent conflict be resolved in the students' research? Were their subjects in "retreat," or were they "emerging" in public?

We continued to use each reading to raise questions that students might address in their own research. What did the diarists have to say, directly or indirectly, about wealth, social standing, religion, education, and the changes brought about by an agricultural community evolving toward an urban and industrial environment? This close reading of texts and attention to their connection with students' research resulted in great clarity of focus in the final papers.

The second progress reports, presented during the ninth week, five weeks after the first reports, had clearly profited from class discussions. They described the standard of living and social and church activities of the twenty-two women we were "getting to know" historically. Students were also able to help one another when research overlapped by town or by era. Those who had been more adept at finding documents exchanged notes with those who thought they had come to a dead end.

I contributed advice to students who did not know what their next step would be, or who thought they had found all the available information. One student could find no records of her subject after 1900. I suggested she look for a newspaper obituary, and also consult church records. Another student had too much information, having chosen the nationally known teacher Prudence Crandall. I suggested she focus on a particular set of letters which had never been published. I also pointed out to all the students that the historical record was partial and that it could not answer every question they might have about their subjects.

By this time it had become clear that the students had gone well beyond my expectations in gathering information. They had visited historical societies, as I originally had hoped, and they had used more than just diaries in their research. But they had also made expeditions throughout the region, to museums, town halls, and libraries, and they had compiled their own small archives of information ranging from photographs of houses to photocopies of letters from well-known individuals. One student who submitted a paper on Lydia Sigourney appended copies of her correspondence with Edgar Allan Poe. Furthermore, the students had begun to enjoy and take pride in their work: "This is the best assignment I've ever had." "This is the best class I've ever taken." "How am I going to get all this information into just ten pages?" "The historical societies want copies of our papers."

I called the head of the history department at Quinnipiac and asked if the papers might be bound together and deposited in the library, since much of the work was original and might therefore provide a useful avenue for further research, or at least for comparison with the work of future classes. He agreed to fund the cost of binding, and I duly reported this decision to my class of budding historians. The binding of the papers led me to consider them as a group, rather than as individual efforts, and that led me to the idea of drawing the students' findings together in other ways as well. The idea seemed a good one partly because the students had already begun to group themselves: Those working in the same historical societies shared notes, and the information shared during the first two progress reports indicated that a number of the diarists were closely or distantly related to each other. Even though the topics had been chosen independently, it seemed possible that grouping them could expand the students' insights beyond their own work.

For the third and last progress report, due a month after the second report, I decided to divide the class into groups according to the geographical areas in which they had done their research: a North Haven group, a New Haven and Hamden group, a Prospect, Cheshire, and Southington group, and an eighteenth-century group for those doing the northern towns which were settled earlier. Students were expected to have completed their research when they gave this report, only three weeks before the end of the term. The groups, therefore, were to write background statements on the towns in which their subjects lived: on the economy, churches, roads, railroads, and other aspects of the towns, based primarily on the students' own research. I introduced that class session with a historical statement regarding Connecticut towns, indicating that three settlements—Wethersfield, Old Saybrook, and New Haven—had been the nuclei of the many small communities in which the students had been working. Then, for reference purposes, I handed them three standard histories of Connecticut which I had located in the library. Within two hours, the groups completed one- to three-page statements, which provided a jointly agreed upon context for their papers. These, with my editing, would be included in the bound volume, to subdivide it into sections and to introduce each section.

All but one of the completed papers included a focused account of family history, occupations, religion, politics, travel, friends, and the subject women's attitudes and opportunities. During one of the final classes we compared these findings with the material in The Grimke Sisters and in The Gospel of Gentility regarding social and economic strictures on women's lives. Did these women, we asked, remark on the strictures in their lives, or did they appear to consider themselves subordinate to men?

The earliest biographies were of a woman in Hartford who was tried for witchcraft, and a North Haven woman who recorded her "spiritual journey" during the first Great Awakening. While both women had lived in fear, neither, according to the students, had mentioned social or economic subordination as a cause of their turmoil.

Two accounts of women in eighteenth-century America depicted the more prosperous lives of Abigail Darling of Woodbridge and Emily Foote of Colchester. Abigail's family were merchants and benefactors of Yale College. The Footes fought in the American Revolution. Neither the diaries nor letters identified a separate sphere for women, nor did they depict the diarist in a subordinate role within the family.

In the early national period and later, the evidence begins to conflict. Lydia Sigourney's husband felt ashamed that his wife supported him by writing novels. Prudence Crandall experienced public humiliation reminiscent of the Grimkes' when she tried to teach a young African American girl to read. Even women who remained in small, close communities joined groups composed exclusively of women. On the other hand, Caroline Dickinson of Hamden was a writer, and Polly Linsley of North Haven was a teacher, and there is no documented legacy of discrimination or subordination linked to their sex. By family, and by virtue of the institutions they and their families founded or attended, all these women were part of a community that was larger than a town, but still local in its interests. They witnessed the Revolution and the Civil War, but with the exceptions of Lydia Sigourney, Prudence Crandall, and minister Martha Culver Smith, they remained focused on the people they knew and the towns they helped to build.

It appears, therefore, that research on locally influential women and comparisons of their lives with those of women at the national level can provide a valuable first step toward a better understanding of women in American history. My students' discoveries and insights, as with any other historical research, can be complemented or expanded by similar efforts in other regions of the country. But even if nothing more comes of it, at the very least, this assignment succeeded in providing undergraduates with an experience that drew them into learning.

—Sarah Gordon has a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Chicago. She teaches history at the Gan School/Tikvah High School in New Haven, and at Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Connecticut.