Archivist, historian, educator, and baker of all things chocolate, I investigate—and encourage students to explore—social trends, cultural stereotypes, and discrimination of various sorts throughout American history. I’m especially interested in how the mass media shapes and perpetuates our cultural construction of gender and gendered stereotypes. The ways we have used, and continue to use, gender to market and advertise food products fascinates me. I’m working on a book about gender, food advertising, convenience foods & cooking in the 20th century.
As an educator, I’m committed to preserving the past, teaching archival principles, invigorating teaching by using primary sources, and making archival materials accessible to a broad public audience. I’m a bit of a geek and I love collaborating with other local archivists to teach students how to create metadata for digital archives and design interactive online exhibits.
I worked as an archivist (2005-2014) Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard University while earning my PhD in American History. My research explores socially-constructed gender roles related to food, sports, and popular culture in America. I’m finishing a book, based on my dissertation, about swimsuits as cultural artifacts and the advertising of swimwear.
I was in the unique position to work with and create a finding aid for an unprocessed archival collection for my Capstone Project during my final semester at UMass Boston. For those who are unfamiliar with a Capstone, it offers an equivalent alternative to writing a traditional thesis in the History MA program. Personally, a Capstone was a better fit for my career aspirations as an archivist—the inventory and finding aid I created, along with the collection I processed, are both tangible objects.
MacDougall, known affectionately as “Rocco,” taught at Newton North High School in Newton, MA. He dedicated his life to collecting items that he felt documented popular culture in the US. MacDougall used items from his vast collection as integral part of his teaching to instill a love of music and pop cultural history for decades. His massive collection was donated by his wife, JoEllen Hillyer, to the Center for the Study of Humanities, Culture, and Society (CHCS) at UMass Boston in the spring of 2015.
A musician and lover of music, MacDougall collected all genres and styles of recorded music, from the eclectic and obscure to popular hits that topped 20th-century American music charts. The collection also hosts the various formats on which music was created and stored over time, including impressive quantities of CDs, vinyl records, audio tape cassettes, and phonograph cylinders. First used by Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, to successfully record and reproduce sounds, phonograph cylinders were small grooved cylinders made of ceresin, beeswax, and stearic wax. The sound recording format was popular in the late 19th through the early 20th centuries.
In addition to music recordings, MacDougall acquired extensive runs of British and American magazines, numerous trade journals and collectors’ guides. Titles included mainstream publications, such as Rolling Stone, Uncut, Word, and Billboard, as well as journals that are difficult to find and even more difficult for researchers to access. The collection boasts hundreds of issues of local Boston and New England regional publications, such as Broadside of Boston. Especially noteworthy is the breadth of magazines, journals, and newspapers devoted to jazz, blues, and folk music, as well as band and concert guides spanning the latter half of the 20th century. Included among the magazines is small but notable assortment of magazines about Elvis, Buck Owens, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles.
In addition to providing a wide range of music materials,the archive also houses more than 2,000 comic books and a wide range of popular culture ephemera, including hundreds of newspaper and magazine clippings organized by topic, ranging from individual musicians to major corporations, from cultural phenomena to social problems.
The comic-book collection includes an impressive selection of mainstream comic books from the 1960s and 1970s, many of them superhero comics. But it also includes dozens of “humor” comics, such as Little Lulu, Casper, and Walt Disney comics. Perhaps the most distinguished feature of the comics collection is the remarkable number of “romance” comics, of which there are more than 200 from a variety of publishers.
There are a notable number of books, VHS tapes, and DVDs as well. The sheer size of the collection combined with the small space it resides it proved overwhelming to me at first.
Luckily, I received help from two alumni of the American Studies Graduate Program during the semester, Andre Diehl and Scott Harris.
Scott provided the muscle—consolidating the collections and creating much needed “breathing room” in our location. Even though he worked with the archive for a short period, he played a pivotal role in my project. Andre knows the collection back and forth, up and down. He may have forgotten more about the collection than I’ll ever know.
Andre and others before him did an amazing job cataloging much of the magazines, journals, and comic books, as well as digitizing all the CDs in the archive.
Here are some numbers for you—as of spring 2017—that we have cataloged EXACTLY:
8,960 vinyl records—including sizes of 7”, 10”, 12”, and rare 16”
836 tape cassettes and another 500+ student-made mix-tapes
33 rare phonograph cylinders
A combination of 4,035 magazines, journals, and newspapers
2,277 comic books
110 VHS Tapes
If you are interested in learning more about the collection, reach out to CHCS!
Note: A few weeks after graduation, Connor Anderson became the new Public Records Access Officer/Archivist of the Town of Plymouth. Congratulations, Connor!
As a Public History student pursuing an archives certificate, I have spent countless hours in various archival repositories. The cardboard cartons, steel shelves, and chilly temperatures can give off a utilitarian feel that contradicts the richness of the records they contain.
Today, digitization projects have drastically changed the way researchers can access archival documents, enabling them to receive images of requested items via a website, zip drive, or email attachment. Thanks to technology, many researchers no longer have to travel to archives, such as the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site, where I started working as an intern in February. However, the beauty and history of the location of this archive infuses the records stored here with a context that informs their meaning in ways I did not anticipate before I began working here.
Who knew an archive could be so beautiful? Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who designed the site which now houses the archive, is widely recognized as America’s premier landscape architect. His accomplishments in park design, town planning, landscape architecture, and conservation have earned international acclaim.
In 1883, he purchased a home in Brookline, Massachusetts, for both his family residence and professional office. He deemed the property “Fairsted.” Over the next decade, he designed the building and grounds to match his aesthetic vision, creating a space to celebrate nature and offer an oasis amidst an increasingly urban setting.
Fairsted continued to be a hub of landscape design far past Olmsted’s retirement in 1895. His son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., and stepson, John Charles Olmsted, continued the business as the “Olmsted Brothers Landscape Architects.” During the first three decades of the twentieth century, the work volume and staff of the firm increased significantly.
By the 1940s, the volume of work had begun to decline; however, during the 1960s and 1970s, scholars, landscape architects, environmentalists and historic preservationists showed interest in the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. This academic and practical interest in Olmsted’s landscape architecture prompted individuals to collect and begin to preserve materials related to the firm’s history.
In 1979, when the firm’s landscape design activity formally ceased, Fairsted was acquired by the National Park Service (NPS) as a National Historic Site. The NPS became responsible for preserving and cataloging the documents, plans, and artifacts left behind by the firm and interpreting Fairsted’s history for the public.
The Olmsted archives contain more than 1 million original documents related to landscape design projects the firm took on between 1857 and 1979. The repository contains approximately 139,000 plans and drawings, as well as photographic negatives and prints, planting lists, lithographs, employee records, and office correspondence. Today, the majority of research requests the archives receives relate to the firms’ plans and drawings, which have been used for landscape restorations, academic publications, and historical exhibits.
In the early stages, the archives staff focused on preserving the plans, which were often brittle, dirty, and damaged. Next, the items were cataloged and made available to researchers, who, at that point needed to visit the site to view them physically. In recent years, reflecting archival trends and practices, a massive digitization project focusing on the plans and drawings began.
Initially, the plans and drawings were scanned into black and white tiff files. But the Olmsted National Historic Site is currently undertaking a four-year project to re-scan plans and drawings into high resolution color images that meet current industry standards and research expectations.
Working, as many archives do, without an in-house platform and hoping to provide widespread public access to the materials, the archives staff have been uploading the items to Flickr. The availability of scanned images has been extremely popular, so much so that it has greatly diminished onsite research visits. Staff members are currently working out a system to include visitors to the Flickr page to meet the annual visitation expectations of the site.
The shift, along with an option of offsite storage, has brought up discussions on the necessity of archival storage at the Olmsted site in general. Fairsted is made of wood and highly susceptible to fire and other environmental factors. The plans are stored in a protected vault, but many other items remain in the open. For that reason, storage of the Olmsted firms’ archival items is split between the Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site and the Springfield Armory National Historic Site.
For now, the items at the Olmsted site will remain there, due primarily to a consensus that their presence adds visceral meaning to the site as a whole. The visitors on public tours experience, that intangible feeling familiar to historians who physically interact with meaningful historical records. This feeling is even stronger at the production site, in this case a beautiful home among gardens and wildlife. The researchers looking at files on their laptops will miss this experience.
Is it really worth researchers travelling miles and miles for a feeling?That depends on myriad factors. But, after working at the Olmsted site over the past six months it is clear to me that seeing, touching, and interpreting the plans while in the historic office delivers a powerful impact. If Olmsted researchers are in Boston, I hope they will make a stop at Fairsted.
The group also facilitated community involvement in the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) planning and development process and orchestrated protests when MBTA service did not meet their community’s needs.
Three decades after the Coalition’s founding, the WSCC records provide a treasure trove for researchers interested in community organizing, grassroots activism, and resident resistance to development.
Along with three other collections, the WSCC records were entrusted to the graduate students of Professor Marilyn Morgan’s Archival Methods & Practices class in spring 2017. On the first day of class, I was assigned to process the WSCC collection. I spent the rest of the semester preparing it for researchers and preserving it for the future. To do these things, I needed to produce a finding aid that described the contents of the collection and the value of the story it tells.
The first time I set eyes on my collection, I confronted a single cardboard box with dividers and papers and spiral notebooks and more papers. Next to the box was a pile of bound reports, inches thick. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at, and I knew next to nothing about the WSCC. I had the urge to research my collection the way one would a person or artifact. But I couldn’t. Nothing had been written yet; the research materials weren’t in an archive or library. They sat in front of me, thousands of pages thick and unprepared for use by the public.
As a public history student and genealogist, I’ve learned how to interrogate a document from every angle, wringing every last drop of evidence. The urge to analyze is so ingrained, it’s practically instinctual. When faced with the WSCC collection, I wanted to pull up a chair and get to reading. However, I would not be assessing and describing every individual item in the collection. This would take too much time and prevent timely public access to the documents. It would be unnecessary and a waste of resources. Instead, I would be describing groups of documents.
To do this, I had to train my brain to work a little differently, to seek different kinds of information. Scanning each document, I had to consider intellectual content. Was it a letter, a memo, a map? Was there sensitive information? A date? What was it about? I also had to consider physical content. Did the document need to be photocopied, moved to the oversize folder, or rid of a rusty staple?
At first, this was an uncomfortable process for me. I couldn’t simultaneously assess the physical and intellectual content. But after practice, I began to see in a new way.
I scanned for the names and acronyms of key players, following the gist of their correspondence without reading every word, and understanding the general findings of reports without flipping through every page. By the end of the semester, I knew that the Elevated Orange Line train was a vital transport link which ran along Washington Street, through downtown Boston and neighboring communities.
When the MBTA moved the Orange Line to the southwest corridor and closed the “El” in 1987, community groups came together under the WSCC name to hold the MBTA accountable to their 1973 promise that they would replace it with equal or better service.
I learned that the WSCC had launched an extensive letter writing campaign in support of Light Rail Vehicles and worked with other organizations to hold community dialogues about replacement options. I also knew that the MBTA finally replaced the old Orange Line with the Silver Line, a Bus Rapid Transit system the WSCC deemed neither better than, nor equal to, Orange Line service. And as the Silver Line expanded, WSCC activity waned.
I was inspired and challenged by this collection. It was my first experience facilitating access to archival material, rather than mining the material, myself. The primary purpose of my investigation was to aid and encourage the investigations of others. This was a new goal for me, but, at the end of the day, it fit. As a public historian, I want to connect people to history and encourage historical thinking. Maybe, with a little more brain training, I can do this from within the archives, too.
The NEDCC, founded in 1973, was the first independent Conservation lab in the US dedicated to preservation and conservation of paper and film based materials. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities it has grown to encompass Imaging and Audio services as well. With the advent of new technologies, preservation and conservation will become ever more important in the archival world and the NEDCC is leading the way.
I took a behind the scenes tour of the NEDCC facilities during Professor Morgan’s “Archival Methods and Practices” course. That experience, and my lifelong interest in preservation, led to the opportunity to work with the NEDCC.
Digitization as Digital Preservation?
Since the 1990s libraries, archives, and similar institutions have digitized select special collections materials at an increasing pace. This push occurred partly because technology enabled it. Digitization and the internet brought hidden collections out of the shadows and made them accessible to a much larger audience. This brought with it a host of challenges.
At what resolution should items be scanned or photographed? What storage should we be using to store digitized materials? What platform is easily accessible to the public? How often should we do fixity checks? Is an internal or external IT department better? How much storage space will we need? What happens to the materials after digitization?
All these questions, and more, became commonplace when talking about digitization. Quickly, archivists began to ask, who could and should create and provide answers and establish best practices? The Library of Congress, Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, and the Smithsonian Institute are some of the bigger institutions and groups that have taken on the task of creating and distributing best practices and guides. These standards are helpful, but often filled with jargon and might not be useful in small- to mid-size institutions who have limited staffing and budget resources. It is with this thought in mind my internship took shape.
The main objective of my internship centered on assisting in the creation and distribution of a survey about the present-day digitization and digital preservation practices of small- and mid-size institutions. NEDCC hoped to use the information gleaned from the survey to devise educational classes and webinars on digital preservation and digitization techniques.
I worked with the Preservation Services team throughout the entirety of this process. In the first few weeks of my assignment with the NEDCC, much of the time was pulling together a list of possible institutions to target for the survey. Researching each state, I collected information about statewide museum and archive associations to get the information out to as many people as possible. Then, I targeted smaller and specialized institutions, especially those whose focus pertained to minority groups. After targeting individual institutions and statewide institutions, I moved to looking at listservs and social media pages that could be helpful in distributing the survey. In the end, I created a list of over 200 individual email addresses compiled for distribution, along with other 50 listservs and groups.
One of the most important steps was writing clear survey questions and making sure that the answers would give us the information we wanted. I have only made one survey before this project and it was a customer service survey. In a way, being new to preservation, digitization and digital preservation helped me to create questions hat were easy to understand, even for those with limited knowledge of the specifics of digital preservation.
I designed the survey in SurveyMonkey. This was the most creative part of my internship and I had a good time with it!
The weeks following the opening of the survey became about data analysis. SurveyMonkey has an analysis tool; however, we collected so much odd and individualized data, the results of SurveyMonkey’s analysis were not great. Therefore, my job became attempting to do basic data analysis. Having never done data analysis before, I spent time watching YouTube videos and doing research about how to do data analysis. I found out from this survey how incredibly difficult data analysis is! I was not surprised to find out that the NEDCC previously hired data analysis employees.
The work with the survey culminated in the presentation at the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) conference in New York. I presented with NEDCC’s Frances Harrell. I was very nervous about speaking to such a large group of people but, in the end, our presentation went well by all accounts.
Preservation Services Work
Along with the survey work, which took up most of the time, I was able to spend time doing other tasks for the preservation services at the NEDCC.
One of my favorite tasks that did not directly relate to the survey was reference work. I read and answered questions that came to the Preservation Services email address . This enabled me to do research on preservation and conservation practices. Because of this task, I also spent some time in the conservation lab seeing what they were working on and the techniques they used regularly. This part of my internship I enjoyed more than anything else.
The NEDCC Preservation Services team showed me how important preservation is to all collections and how vulnerable almost all collections are. This internship was informative, educational, and challenging at times. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know more fully that preservation and conservation are where my true passion lies.
When I entered the public history graduate program at UMass Boston, my experience in the field of history was strictly academic. One can only imagine how anxious I felt when I received the syllabus for HST 625, Interpreting History in Public: Approaches to Public History Practice. Under the instruction of Professor Jane Becker and in partnership with Joe Bagley at the Boston City Archaeology Program, my colleagues and I were tasked with uncovering the history of those who lived and worked at the Dorchester Industrial School for Girls (ISFG) during the 1860s and delivering those stories to the public in a way that was both appealing and accessible.
The ISFG was established in 1853 by several women who sought to educate and train destitute young girls in the field of domestic service. Once deemed ready by the staff, the girls would be placed in homes to work as servants. Our class was required to connect our biographical sketches with artifacts retrieved during Bagley’s excavation of the site in Summer 2015, and construct a website to ensure our interpretations could reach the widest possible audience. I was extremely intimidated by the project because, unlike writing a paper, we were working with a client (Bagley) and producing a tangible product. Who knew that the ISFG project would become the most exciting, informative, and meaningful experience of my entire academic career.
There were two main phases of the project—the first of which required each of us to conduct extensive biographical research on one staff member and one student. But how do we construct narratives for women who spent much of their lives on the fringes of society? And what does the middle ground of meticulous research and writing for a popular audience look like? These were just a few of the many questions we had to grapple with when we began producing these histories. We had to learn how to effectively weave facts and relevant context into a story that was both informative and accurate, as well as include elements that readers could connect with.
Like several of my classmates, the beginning of my research was defined by countless hours working with genealogy sites and other online resources. Once we made it through the initial frustration of uncovering subjects so elusive in the historical record, we found that each had a unique and captivating story to tell. Some narratives featured immersive details of mischief, international travel, and death, while others concluded with more questions than they started with.
While conducting my research, I was fortunate enough to travel to the American Baptist Historical Society, located at Mercer University in Atlanta. There I found a collection of letters written by the ISFG matron, Mary S. Daüble, while she served as a missionary in India. Whether working as a missionary in India or a matron at multiple institutions, Mary devoted her life to education and religious teachings. After some intensive genealogical investigation, I was able to shed light on Daüble’s life and experiences. I even located a blueprint of her home and added her to my own family tree on ancestry.com.
The story of Margaret (Maggie) Hasson was quite different. An Irish orphan who entered the institution at just 8 years old, Maggie found herself placed as a domestic servant in 10 different homes between 1860 and 1864. Mischievous to say the least, she ran away several times and even eloped with an African American Civil War soldier. After a police officer located and returned Hasson to the Industrial School for Girls, the school sent her to the Bridgewater Almshouse.
The second phase of the project was centered on group work. Our class was divided into three groups: website design and introduction, social media and marketing, and annotated transcription the ISFG’s 1860 annual report. As a member of the introduction group, I was responsible for contributing to the overall design of the website and drafting the text for the site’s landing pages.
Once again, we were met with challenges: How do we create an interface that is both informative yet engaging? How can we stand out against the plethora of webpages that characterize the digital age in which we live? Just as it was difficult to condense hours of biographical research into 1000-word narratives, our team struggled with determining what information was essential for each of the site’s main pages. These sections had to be brief enough to capture and maintain the reader’s interest, but also paint the fullest possible picture of the school, the archaeological dig, and the project.
This experience gave my peers and me the opportunity to develop and improve skills in biographical research and historical interpretation in a digital age. We also learned the value of collaboration—not only with one another, but also with our professor, our client, and other cultural institutions. And finally, the project prompted us to retrieve voices that may have otherwise remained silent, gave us the chance to tell history from the bottom-up, and helped us to see the extraordinary value in uncovering the “ordinary.” The ISFG project proved to be the perfect introduction to turning public history theory into practice.
Sarah K. Black is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She currently also works as an editorial assistant for The New England Quarterly.
UMass Boston News featured a story about the exciting work that our Public History program has undertaken this spring. Text from the following article was written by UMass Boston News writer, Anna Fisher-Pinkert.
When most people think of Boston history, the images that come to mind are the Old North Church, the brownstones of Beacon Hill, or the Old South Meeting House. UMass Boston history professors and students are working to expand our knowledge and understanding of the history right in the university’s own Dorchester neighborhood through two new projects.
On April 22, Jane Becker, internship coordinator and history lecturer, and Monica Pelayo, assistant professor of history and director of the public history master’s program, collaborated with John McColgan, Archivist, Boston City Archives, to host “Building a People’s History of Dorchester” at the Dorchester Historical Society. The event was designed to encourage current and former Dorchester residents to take part in telling the story of their neighborhood.
Approximately 30 people attended this initial meeting, and contributed ideas for building a timeline of Dorchester history. For Pelayo and Becker, this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to help the community tap into their own history.
“What’s important about this process is that it comes from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Pelayo said.
She added that people don’t always realize that their family photos, documents, or keepsakes are potential historical resources for their communities. Pelayo and Becker plan to have more events in the future to encourage individuals and community organizations to participate in the project.
UMass Boston public history master’s students are also involved in revealing a piece of Dorchester’s history. This semester, students partnered with city archaeologist and UMass Boston alum Joe Bagley to tell the stories of women and girls who lived and worked at the Industrial School for Girls in the 1860s. The school was founded in the 1850s to train poor girls to work as domestic servants.
The history graduate students wrote about the women and girls at the school, and created a website to share their findings with the public. Much of the information on daily life in the school came from the objects uncovered by Bagley in a 2015 archaeological dig.
Want to learn more about the rich history of Dorchester Industrial School for Girls?
By: Heidi Gengenbach (Second of two parts. Here’s Part I)
Wuxaka ra tinhwari hi ku handza swinwe. (Kinship among partridges comes from scratching in the soil together).
Archives and oral traditions hold little information about rural African women’s history. How do rural women themselves keep track of the past? In Magude, a Shangaan-speaking district in southern Mozambique where I conducted research in the 1990s, women’s histories reside in places long invisible to scholars, but in plain view in everyday life.
Through their performance of tasks culturally defined as women’s work, rural women and girls carve out feminine social spaces where they create historical records with female actions at center stage. Using skills honed over centuries of specialized labor—as mothers, farmers, healers, artisans—they memorialize experiences that archives and formal oral traditions disregard. Academic historians have overlooked the evidentiary value of women’s “remembrances” (Shangaan: switsundzuxo), which take unconventional forms, defy disciplinary norms, and challenge the masculinist thrust of “official” stories. But without these sources, we not only lose the opportunity to glimpse rural women’s pasts; we also accept versions of history whose “truth” requires the exclusion of their knowledge.
As in the rest of southern Mozambique, men in Magude have been migrating to South Africa in search of mine work since the late 1800s. Known in precolonial times for its agricultural prosperity, droves of cattle, and bustling trade, Magude became in the 20th century an increasingly impoverished labor reserve, whose patrilineal kinship and marriage rules pressured women to remain on the land and sustain communities in men’s absence. The limited archival evidence on these women falls into one of two categories: it either depicts them as powerless, dutiful appendages of their husbands and male kin, or it vilifies the minority of women who “abandoned” their marital homes and fled the countryside to live in town. Free from the “misery” and (according to European commentators) moral constraints of rural life, so-called “town women” earned money on the margins of the colonial economy, making their way as market traders, food vendors, prostitutes, or—for the fortunate few—low-paid factory labor. In the records of the colonial state as in scholarship relying on archives alone, rural women are the faceless, unchanging background to these events, toiling on in worsening poverty and helpless to improve their lot.
But rural women’s own accounts tell a surprisingly different story. In Lili Xivuri’s version of her family history, for instance, she refashions the Shangaan tradition of the clan praise song to foreground beer-drinking, marriage choices, soil selection, and common household objects (baskets, mats, awls), instead of the usual themes of chiefly politics or war. The designs female potters “write” on their clay vessels, on the other hand, document women’s experiences of long-distance overland travel and trade.
In the early 1900s, women such as Cufassane Munisse walked for days at a stretch to exchange her pottery for baskets of grain (or vice versa), visiting female kin and friends spread throughout southern Mozambique and in neighboring South Africa. In the course of this regional trade, potters also spread new vessel styles and decorating techniques, defying European stereotypes of rural women’s passivity, home-boundness, and resistance to technological change.
By the 1940s, female body-marking practices show that women in Magude were anything but passive victims of male migrancy and Portuguese rule.
Tinhlanga, the cicatrized patterns with which girls and women had adorned their bodies for centuries, offered a powerful medium for contesting the colonial hierarchies that threatened to divide women in new ways. Whether it was Christian missionaries offering literacy in exchange for rejecting “uncivilized” customs such as body-marking, or manufactured consumer goods accessible only to the most successful migrant workers, girls and women appropriated the power of these intrusions by incorporating them into new tinhlanga techniques and designs.
Older women who had once cicatrized girls’ skin with sharp stones or acacia thorns and ash took up imported shoe polish and sewing needles to create tinhlanga depicting the new commodities trickling into the countryside: scissors, flower pots, tins of Blue Cross condensed milk.
Surely aware of the irony, schoolgirls used the blouses and skirts missionaries insisted they wear to conceal prohibited tinhlanga, risking corporal punishment.
A few, such as Valentina Chauke, rebelled more openly, inscribing the letters of their xilungu (European) name on their forearms.
Unconcerned with missionary rules, adult women flaunted the “modern” images emblazoned on their skin, declaring that they were “civilized” too.
The memories women inscribed in their crop fields entered a higher-stakes public domain. Agricultural labor occupies most women here from dawn to dusk, and provides the bulk of household food supply. Although traditional land tenure rules give men the authority to allocate plots, in practice most women choose their own farming sites, and they lend, borrow, and transfer land among themselves as needed. They document these informal transactions in the boundaries (mindzelekana) they “scratch” in the soil around their fields—faint, squiggly lines whose location everyone can guess, but only adjacent field owners know with certainty. As long as there is enough land for all, this system causes few problems. But during the civil war (1976-92), when the stationing of government troops in Magude town (the district capital) made the area a magnet for displaced families, competition for land intensified. By the mid 1990s, acute land scarcity and the diminishing size of subdivided plots drove some desperate women to “steal mindzelekana,” surreptitiously redrawing boundaries to increase their cropping area.
Victims’ threatening response to this transgression—“I will bury you in the border!”—and the death by poisoning of several suspects made clear that mindzelekana were far more than just lines in the dirt. Field boundaries recorded agreements among women for whom every inch of cultivable ground was a precious resource, with life-or-death significance in wartime. Erasing these negotiated divisions undermined female authority and the bonds of women’s “cultivating kinship,” while challenging mindzelekana’s important memory work: reminding women of their shared responsibility for community survival.
Magude women’s practices of record-keeping preserve and pass on facts of the region’s past that would remain unknown to historians if we neglected the world of evidence beyond archives and official stories. But is such evidence relevant to researchers outside southern Mozambique? At the very least, it proves that historians don’t always need a paper trail; that important history-telling can happen without writing, even without words; and that gendered people leave gendered traces of their lives, if we know where to look.
HeidiGengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.
By Heidi Gengenbach (First of two parts. Here’s Part II)
Avavumbeli mbita eku cukumeta.
(Potters don’t fashion clay into a pot just to throw it away.) 
How do historians study people who left no written traces of their life, no paper trail hinting at who they were or what they accomplished? Questions of “truth” and “fact” suddenly dominate American politics and news media. But debates about how we know what we know, about the reliability of the evidence behind claims we make about the world, are as old as history-telling itself, and they haunt historians every day. It is difficult enough to reconstruct someone’s past from the documentary fragments we unearth in public and private archives. When no such records exist, when people leave no evidence behind, can—or should—historians pay attention to their lives at all?
During the millenia of human history before 1900, when most African cultures relied on sophisticated oral rather than written forms of communication, the number of writing women was truly minute. As happened during the peaceful spread of Islam into Africa from the 7th century on, European missionaries and colonizers brought writing skills to the parts of the continent they occupied or conquered between the 15th and 20th centuries. In the 18th and 19th centuries, some liberated African slaves who had converted to Christianity in the Americas similarly introduced literacy when they returned to Africa, sometimes as missionaries themselves. But African girls had limited access to the Quranic and Western-style Christian schools these men established. And because the colonial state ignored “native” women unless they broke the law, appeared in court, or engaged in political protest, neither European officials nor the male African clerks who did much of their record-keeping documented women’s ordinary activities or opinions.
The lives of rural women, especially, escaped the notice of Europeans, who lumped them together derisively as “peasants” or “beasts of burden.” In colonial eyes, rural African women were less troublesome than their sisters in the urban “educated elite,” but less deserving of attention too.
In other words, the vast majority of sub-Saharan African women in the past possessed neither the means to write about their experiences, nor the power to be represented fairly in the written archives of their place and time. And while the continent’s wealth of oral traditions—performed narratives that recount past events and are transmitted across generations—offer another body of evidence, women seldom appear as speakers or subjects in these histories either.
There are some exceptions, but in most African oral chronicles women’s voices and deeds are sidelined by patriarchal cultural norms and a gender division of labor that assigns women the arduous work of subsistence, leaving them too socially marginal (and too busy) to challenge the public histories their menfolk tell.
Given women’s absence from traditional written and oral accounts of Africa’s past, it might seem that their lives—and African women’s history as a whole—must be hopelessly beyond our reach.
In the rural communities of Mozambique where I have been working since the 1990s, the devastation wrought by Portuguese colonial rule (1895-1975) and protracted independence and civil wars (1965-75, 1976-92) further complicates research on women’s history.
In addition to the spottiness, racism, and sexism of colonial archives, and the androcentrism of oral traditions, the scars from nearly 30 years of violent displacement and traumatic loss—of family, belongings, homes—can make it exceptionally difficult to interview women about their experiences.
Too many elders did not survive the civil war, leaving a generation of youth bereft of the knowledge their grandparents would have taught them.
Memories of brutal conflict, particularly the atrocities committed against civilians by Renamo rebels, can be too painful to speak aloud.
Girls and women suffered both wars in distinctly gendered ways, including rape and sexual enslavement but more commonly by shouldering the burdens of food provisioning, childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and ritual mourning of the dead—often while on the run as “internally displaced persons” or refugees in neighboring countries.
A person’s understanding of the past can’t help but change in such harrowing times. Post-war grief and nostalgia, and the urgent need to rebuild shattered communities, also raise the stakes of remembering “correctly,” while discouraging memories—of injustice, victimization, betrayal—that distract from the business of moving on. How does one analyze women’s testimony in these circumstances, let alone separate “truth” from nightmare?
Part II explores these questions next week.
HeidiGengenbach is Assistant Professor of History at UMass Boston. Her doctoral dissertation received the Gutenberg-e Electronic Book Prize from the American Historical Association, and was published by Columbia University Press (Binding Memories: Women as Tellers and Makers of History in Magude, Mozambique) in 2005. Her second book project, Recipes for Disaster: Gender, Hunger, and the Remaking of an Agrarian Food World in Central Mozambique, 1500-2000, will be published by Ohio University Press.
Henri P. Junod, The Wisdom of the Tsonga-Shangana People (3d ed. Braamfontein: Sasavona Books, 1990), 162-3.
Women’s history month provides a time to look back on various female role models from our past–women who inspire us, make us think, and perhaps challenge us to question societal restrictions, as they did. These stories of empowerment, leadership, and success don’t always come from the most obvious places.
Nearly 30 miles off the coast of southeastern Massachusetts lies Nantucket, a small and unassuming island that hosted an independent and progressive society in which women long played a vital role. In this place, women existed as prominent religious figures, business owners, educators, scientists, and adventurers before the voices of suffrage permeated the political and social dialogue of the late 19th century.
Nantucket thrived as a whaling port until the 1850s. This caused many of its male residents to venture out for years at a time, on voyages across the world, without the guarantee of returning to their home or loved ones. Subsequently, the women of the island were often left solely responsible for their family’s financial, social, and religious well-being.
Women held a prominent presence in the public and commercial spheres. One group of women managed an entire section of the town business strip nicknamed “Petticoat Row.”
The island has always been relatively small. Its population peaks, both in its whaling days and current tourist seasons, at around 10,000. In the earlier years, this population total included many of those away at sea. Nantucket’s isolation and self-sufficiency, combined with its early history of political and ideological separation from the mainland, resulted in a unique environment where a woman’s capability and voice in society often equaled their male counterparts. In the Heart of the Sea, author Nathaniel Philbrick explains,
“Given the island’s place on a map, you might expect Nantucketers to be an independent bunch, and you would be right. …More than anything else, it is this place, ‘away off shore,’ that has determined who the Nantucketer is.”1)Philbrick, Nathaniel. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and Its People, 1602-1890. (New York : Penguin Books, 2011): xiii, xvi.
Nantucket produced a wide range of interesting women and influential female leaders. One of the earliest of these notable women was Mary Coffin Starbuck (1645-1719), the first woman to marry and have a child on the island.
She was not only greatly responsible for bringing Quakerism to the Nantucket community, but she successfully ran her family’s trading post as one of the earliest authoritative businesswomen in the town. Unlike Starbuck, who oversaw the family affairs while her husband was away, some women chose to go to sea alongside the men. Two such women, Susan Austin Veeder (1816-97) and Eliza Spencer Brock (1810-99), kept detailed journals of their experiences at sea which are now archived at the Nantucket Historical Association.
Outside of the island’s commercial world, women were just as influential in science, education, and social movements. Maria Mitchell (1818-89) was a brilliant scientist and librarian whose accomplishments included discovering a comet, becoming the first professional female astronomer, and eventually becoming a professor at Vassar College. Mitchell became well-known for her influence in astronomy and education on the mainland. However, her early years on Nantucket and her involvement in its progressive community greatly shaped her outlook and future. She attained unprecedented success in her field. By her own successful example, she promoted the potential for all women. Throughout her life, she advocated for gender equality in any field and encouraged other women to strive for success.
Another Nantucket educator also fought for equality but in a different scope. Anna Gardner (1816-91) was a teacher at the African School on the island. Gardner left her position as an educator to protest racial discrimination that had been experienced by one of her students and to more fully dedicate herself to the cause of abolition. She eventually helped organize the first Anti-Slavery Convention on Nantucket and would continue her activism by fighting for both gender and racial equality with organizations such as the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society and the Association for the Advancement of Women, an organization partly founded by Mitchell.
These women represent only a few examples of the many incredible women that can be found throughout the island’s history. As time goes on, authors and historians will undoubtedly uncover more inspirational stories while attempting to interpret the unique role women played in shaping Nantucket since the 17th century. But what was so unique about this place that contributed to such a concentration of powerful figures? Whether it was thanks to situational necessity or progressive and inclusive thinking, this island has produced a legacy of individuals well-deserving of our consideration.
Cheyenne Dunham is earning her M.A. in History with a specialization in Public History. She earned a B.A. in History, minoring in Anthropology, from Eastern Washington University. Currently, her work explores Nantucket’s developmental history alongside the Pacific Northwest’s settlement. She is designing a digital exhibit connecting post-whaling industrial and population shifts on the Massachusetts island with the establishment and growth of Washington State in the second half of the 19th century.
In January 2017, half a million people showed up for the Women’s March in Washington DC and over four million people participated in their own marches throughout the country to raise awareness for women’s rights. During my internship at the Boston City Archives in Fall 2016, I came across many female activists who worked tirelessly for change in the past two centuries. The following three women represent just a fraction of the inspiring women whose successes and failures can motivate activists fighting for similar issues today.
Suffragist, journalist, and anti-lynching activist, Florida Ruffin Ridley (1861-1943) became one of the first black teachers in Boston. She came from an educated background. Her father, George Lewis Ruffin, was the first African American to graduate from Harvard Law School and the first African American to be a judge in the country. Her mother, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a suffragist and civil rights activist, published the first newspaper for African American women. Ruffin, following in her mother’s footsteps, also worked as a pioneering journalist and activist.
Journalists provide an invaluable service, especially in a digital age where news comes from various sources and is often contested or falsely reported. Florida edited the Women’s Era, her mother’s newspaper. She wrote articles about black history and issues affecting blacks for multiple publications, including the Journal of Negro History and The Boston Globe. She, Pauline Hopkins and Dorothy West all belonged to the Saturday Evening Quill Club, an African American literary group founded in 1925. In addition to her writing career, Florida was involved in co-founding several nonprofits for African American women and was a lifelong political activist.
Ridley raised awareness about race relations; her contemporary Ida Hebbard pioneered the issue of food safety in Boston. Recent documentaries likeFood, Inc. and Cowspiracy have challenged people to think about where their food comes from. Hebbard became a food safety activist over a hundred years ago.
She served as president of the Housekeepers League, an all-female group. During the 1910s, the League lobbied for consumer rights, protesting the increasing prices of household foods. Hebbard led the group in protesting the price of eggs in 1912, as well as the price of potatoes and coal in 1917. Potato prices for consumers dropped from 70 cents to 35 cents a peck because of their efforts. More importantly, she advocated for the Bob Veal Bill. This bill banned the sale of calves weighing less than sixty pounds, preventing them from being slaughtered and shipped to Boston the day they were born.
In November 2016, activists like Ida Hebbard succeeded in passing Question 3 on the ballot, which banned the confinement of farm animals in small cages in Massachusetts. Like the Bob Veal Bill, Question 3 will go on to improve the health of people because it improves the lives farm animals.
Grace Lonergan Lorch, the third Boston woman featured today, championed civil rights and women’s rights in education. Before 1953, Boston Public School teachers were forced to resign before they married. Thus, in the 1880s, Florida Ruffin left her job to marry. Grace Lonergan Lorch changed that for future female teachers. In 1943, she brought a case against the Boston School Committee (BSC) in an attempt to keep her job after she married Lee Lorch. Although the BSC upheld the rule and Lorch was forced to resign when she married, the publicity surrounding the case forced the BSC to end the ban of married women public school teachers ten years later.
During his service in the military during World War II, Lee became aware of racism. During troop transports, he noted, often the black company had to clean the ship. Discrimination made Lee Lorch, a professor and mathematician, very uncomfortable and his wife shared his views. When the couple moved to New York City following the war, they worked to desegregate their home community, Stuyvesant Town apartments, which had banned black families from living in their complex.
Lee led the Town and Village Committee to End Discrimination in Stuyvesant Town to try to end the ban. In 1949, the Lorch family attempted to find a loophole in the ban and invited a black family to live in their apartment as their “guests.” When their plan backfired, the couple and their daughter, Alice, moved to Pennsylvania, then Tennessee before they moved to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1955.
The couple became very active in civil rights in their new community. Their neighbors were Daisy and L.C. Bates, founders of the Arkansas State Press and active members of the NAACP during the Little Rock Crisis. Alice Lorch became friends with many of the children in their new neighborhood. So, in September 1955, Grace wrote to the local superintendent requesting that her daughter be able to attend the local school. She hoped that Alice would not only be able to attend school with friends, but also promote integration as their neighborhood was predominately black. Although the school board denied her request, Grace continued to be involved in Little Rock’s branch of the NAACP.
On September 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, found herself alone and surrounded by a mob when she attempted to enter Little Rock Central High School.
All nine teenagers had planned to arrive at the school together with their parents, but the meeting place changed. The Eckford’s lack of a phone left Elizabeth uninformed and alone. Grace Lorch, after dropping Alice off at school, passed the high school and saw Elizabeth’s predicament. The civil rights activist fought her way through the angry crowd and helped escort the girl home. The rescue of Elizabeth placed a target on the Lorch family. Alice Lorch found herself bullied at school. Someone placed dynamite in their garage, and they were harassed by both press and the people around them. In 1959, Lee accepted a job from the University of Alberta and moved his family to Canada.
By fighting for causes that were important to them, Florida Ruffin, Ida Hebbard, and Grace Lorch shaped the future and women now continue to do so. Originally from Little Rock, journalist, activist, and speaker Liz Walker became the first African American woman to co-anchor a newscast in Boston in the 1980s. Lauren Singer challenges us to think about where our household goods come from and the environmental impact they may have. In India, Rashmi Misra fights for education in rural communities and giving young women entrepreneurial skills, and Maya Wiley works for civil rights in New York. Like Ruffin, Hebbard, and Lorch before them, these women will go on to influence the next generation of women.
Monica Haberny is currently working on her Master’s degree, specializing in Archives. She received her Bachelor’s in History from Montclair State University (2013). Currently, she is working on a digital exhibit on Kathleen Sullivan, the only woman on the Boston School Committee during the start of Boston’s public school integration, for Stark & Subtle Divisions. She has a strong interest in the history of nutrition, activism, and animal rights, and hopes to use these interests in her final capstone project.
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