Semester’s End, Reflections and Anticipations

Well, my Women’s History compatriots, this semester is at an end.  I read through my entire blog this morning, from start to finish, and I’m wondering where the semester has gone.  It’s probably camping out with Virginia Dare.  In all seriousness, I was struck by how much I’ve learned this semester and how much history I have explored.  This will be my 23rd post of the semester.  That’s a lot of posting for 14 weeks.

Briefly, briefly, briefly, I would like to take a quick trip through five of my favorite posts of the semester (in publication order).  See if you catch a theme!

#1. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812: I loved this book!  Reading Martha’s story and learning about midwifery has continued to crop up in the strangest places ever since I wrote this post.  I met a nurse who’s husband was a history buff, so I recommended the book as something they could read together.  I was in my church one Sunday talking about natural remedies that I learned from this book (onions, what?!).  I was in Short Story class comparing things that Martha did medically to some things that characters did in the stories.  Martha Ballard gave me a lot of knowledge that I have continued to use.  Also, Martha Ballard, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and my class discussion about this book all made me start questioning modern childbirth practices.  My mom has a couple of hospital horror stories from her pregnancies that I don’t want to have.  I don’t know if I’ll have kids yet or not, but if I do, I’m seriously considering the midwife route as opposed to the hospital environment.  How you have your children is a huge decision, and without Martha Ballard, I never would have considered the options.

#2. Dear Women, Please Vote This Year: I like this post because it’s funny!  Obviously, it would be impossible for Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone to have voted in the 2012 election; they have been dead for a century.  But the thought game involved in writing this post — ah, that was fun.  I also hope it was entertaining.  Plus, writing this post gave me a chance to really dig into Obama’s 2012 platform and compare it to my knowledge of suffrage as a movement.  For what specific reasons would the suffragists choose Obama?  Those kinds of questions helped me to probe into Obama’s plans for the next four years.  I’ve been an Obama supporter since 2007, but I was admittedly a little complacent this year in my politics-watching.  By really digging into the platforms to write this post, I reaffirmed my connection to the Democratic party and was able to make an informed voting decision this year.  I voted with the suffragists.

#3. “Can women have it all?” And other bull**** questions: My trip to the Connecticut Forum: Wow.  What a trip.  I think about what all of the panelists at the State of Women 2012 panel said frequently.  It mulls around in the back of my brain, Gloria Steinem pursuing emotional freedom for men and women, Michelle Bernard shouting about transvaginal probes, Connie Schultz laughing at Rush Limbaugh, Ashley Judd and the god of her understanding.  I said at the bottom of my event review that this trip to the Connecticut Forum felt like an inauguration.  Without any question, it was.  After the CT Forum, I began questioning and challenging everything in conversations with my friends and with others.  The day I met my boyfriend’s father, we delved into a massive conversation about women’s liberation and high heels.  He raised a valid question:  Why do women in positions of authority wear high heels if they are painful and detrimental to your feet?  In this conversation, I mentally tried to emulate Gloria Steinem and Ashley Judd at the Connecticut Forum.  I wanted to possess a shred of Steinem’s wisdom and Judd’s ambassadorial tone.  Finally, I thought, ah finally, I am a feminist.

#4. Sarah Hale, I Love You: I cannot possibly begin to describe how much I love Sarah Hale.  She’s wonderful.  She’s hilarious.  And I can’t use the word female at all without thinking of Sarah.  I specifically reword things to take female and male out of my conversations.  Isn’t that crazy?  I got so involved in the story of her campaign with Vassar that I saw all of the logic of her arguments and started to agree with her.  Sarah Hale has made me phenomenally more conscious of the language that I use, both in formal writing and in everyday speech.  That consciousness is important to develop, because if we continue to use inaccurate language to describe our problems, then we will never arrive at accurate solutions.  Also, even by fighting to equalize terminology, Sarah Hale was laying the groundwork for feminist literary criticism. Without Sarah Hale, there is no Luce Irigaray.  And since I love Irigaray, I love Hale.

#5. Full of Quivers After Reading Quiverfull: Quiverfull was a fascinating read.  It was wonderful and horrifying and brilliant all at the same time.  It felt like the capstone to my first semester pounding into women’s studies.  Mostly, Quiverfull made me feel indignant that such obvious harm is being done to women right now.  And in the Church.  Having grown up in the evangelical Protestant world, I would like to believe that the safest place for people to be people is within the arms of the Christian church.  But all too often, someone who runs to the church’s embrace soon finds themselves suffocating from its death squeeze grip of hierarchical terror.  Say it with me now, what?  In no way does that make sense to me, and yet for so many people, it is the reality.  The churches presented in this book do harmful things to humanity, and it makes me angry.  Reading Quiverfull was at times like a call to action.  I live, function and operate within this world that so desperately needs feminism, and now I know, it is my duty and obligation to future generations to fight to make my world a safer place for humanity.  That’s my quiverfull.

Farewell to you all, all of my lovely followers!  Thank you for joining me in this four-month endeavor to learn some things about women in the U.S. throughout history.  If you are interested in something different, come back next semester for my second women’s history experiment:  Women in Christian History with Dr. Amy Davis Abdallah.  Until then, this has been Women in American History with Professor Bethany Johnson, as retold by Maggie Felisberto.  Hope you’ve enjoyed the ride!

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Sarah Hale, I Love You

I know, I know.  I have now announced that I am leaving the 19th century.  Why should I go back there?  Why bring up Sarah Hale again, considering the fact that I posted about her five weeks ago?  Well, I can’t help it; I have to let you all know what I’ve been up to with regards to Mrs. Hale.

At Vassar College, in Special Collections, there are sixty-three letters, each in separate folders, split into two boxes.  They’re the letters that led to Vassar College being called “Vassar College,” as opposed to “Vassar Female College.”  Most of the letters are typescript copies that (I think) were made in the 1930s (based on some notes on the bottom of a handful of the letters in the second box), but a few at the beginning of the collection are original letters.  They are the letters that Sarah Josepha Hale, “Editress” of Godey’s Lady’s Book, sent to Matthew Vassar, John Raymond, Benson Lossing and others.  She was campaigning for the institution’s 1866 name change, and she led the charge for six years.

See how there’s no center plaque on the top and the brick has faded? That’s where “Female” used to be.

I was fortunate enough to visit Vassar’s Special Collections and read through the Hale letters on two different occasions, and it was quite an experience.  I learned in late middle school that there are people who do primary source research and write books, and then there are people who take those books and make textbooks, and then there are students who consume history from tertiary sources.  Which never really seemed like the best situation.  Why do I have to read about something that has been summarized in a textbook when I could read the thing itself?  This is why I’m an English major — you don’t learn about Christian mysticism in the fourteenth century; you read The Book of Margery Kempe.

Getting into Sarah’s letters (because she quickly became Sarah to me) was perfect and beautiful and it made me cry.  I love her.  I don’t know how to explain it, because she’s dead.  But it’s like a mixture of the attachment you get to a beautiful fictional character, but then you realize that the person is real and was alive and passionate about things, and it gets you.  It hammers this timeless poignancy into your heart because look!  This woman was alive and was breathing and writing and living a life.  Nobody made her up; she just was.  She was alive.  When Matthew Vassar wrote in 1867 that he was worried about her health and his own, and afraid they might not see each other in person again in this life, it is real.  It’s not fiction.  The sorrow is real.  It’s real, and it’s so beautiful.

Apart from being entirely emotionally affected by the experience of reading Sarah’s letters, I learned a lot about the process of studying history.  For example, did you know that when you go into Special Collections at Vassar, you’re not allowed to use your own notebook paper?  They provide paper for you to use.  The sheets are pink and approx. 4″ by 5″ in dimension (I measured with my thumbs, so whatever standard paper measurement is close to that, that’s what these sheets are).  You have to use a pencil, and you can have a laptop and a digital camera.  You can take photos of the documents, providing there is no flash and you fill out the right forms.  So I have photos of almost every letter in the Hale collection now!  But I’m not going to post one, because I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.

I can post a photo of my notes, though

For both of my research dates, I had to make an appointment ahead of time.  I did so by first calling, then emailing Dean Rogers at Special Collections.  Dean, who was more than incredibly helpful with all of my initial questions, also gave me advice on how I could get to Vassar from Nyack by public transportation if I needed to, and when I emailed him this past Wednesday about coming in again on Friday, he replied to me so quickly that I couldn’t believe it (yes we have power, and yes we have space; I don’t think the train lines are working.  Let me know what time you’ll get here).  The first time I went, I spent about an hour and a half in the morning reading through letters and taking photos of them.  When my camera died, I transitioned to more handwritten notes.  When I went up yesterday, I spent the larger part of the day with the Hale letters and a full-batteried camera.

Special Collections is in the basement of Vassar’s library building (which looks like a castle).  When you walk into the room, there are a handful of tables with lamps on them, and all of the chairs face the back wall.  This wall is made of glass, and Dean’s desk is on the inside of the next room.  The door to the reading room and the door to the second room are controlled by buzzers at Dean’s desk.  Each letter, whether it was five paragraphs or five pages, was in a separate folder, and I could only take one folder at a time.  Dean kept the rest of the folders in their boxes behind the glass wall.  As soon as I finished working with a folder, we traded out for the next one (side note: Dean Rogers is one of the most helpful individuals I have met this year.  I hope your research takes you to Vassar College, because he’s great to work with).

Dean Rogers in Special Collections at Vassar College.

I snapped pictures of each page of the letters, but that didn’t stop me from taking the time to read them all and write down a handful of fun quotes.  I realized quickly that Sarah Hale has a sense of humor all her own, and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s being sarcastic, or if she really believes what she just said.  She likes to be dramatic, too.  Here are some quotes:

“It has never seemed to me that a lady should claim the same amount of salary as a gentleman professor.” — to Milo P. Jewett on Feb. 20, 1864.

“Men have never yet considered woman’s learning of much benifit.  Loveliness was worth more than Latin.”  — to John H. Raymond on Nov. 3, 1864.

“I have suffered too much by this misnomer, using female for woman, to see, with indifference, the blot on the escutcheon of an Institution that I love and honor so truly.” — same letter as previous quote.

“If this ‘consummation,’ so deeply desired —  even devoutly supplicated, should be reached before the College is opened, it will add a bright ray on the fast deepening twilight of my life” — to John H. Raymond on Feb. 24, 1865.

“In his views he may of course be mistaken.  They do not agree with my own.” — to John H. Raymond (no date) about her son Horatio Hale’s critique of Vassar.

Other fun things I learned about Sarah Hale:  She has perfect handwriting.  I mean perfect.  She started to lose control of her eyesight in the mid/late 1860s.  She did concordance word studies to prove her points.  She wrote letters to four or five different people consistently over the course of six years about the name change of Vassar College.  She  wanted the word “Professoress” to exist.  She thought that the position of Deaconess needed to be reinstated in the Christian church.  She got on Matthew Vassar’s case about his health (and he got on hers).  She sent essays with her letters to further prove her points.  She sent poetry to friends when she wasn’t feeling well.  She had pneumonia for a month in either 1866 or 1867.  She promised to visit Poughkeepsie if and only if the name of the College was changed and the “Female” plaque was taken down.  She personally took care of Matthew Vassar’s subscription to Godey’s Lady’s Book.  She was against uniform dress codes and Bloomers.

If you’re interested in the Hale collection, here’s a link to the Special Collections guide, and here’s a link to the Vassar Female College entry in the Vassar Encyclopedia.