Thursday, July 03, 2014

In the months following the Women’s Archives/Women’s Collections: What does the Future Hold? symposium that was held as part of the 2013 SAA conference, I began thinking more meaningfully about the stories we might tell about women’s contributions and women’s lives through collections housed at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries

How do women become a part of the historical record? How do women’s stories intersect with the broader historical context? How do our collections facilitate a scholarly analysis of the human experience? 

The legacy of Susan B. Anthony echoes throughout many of our collections. Anthony lived in Rochester as an adult and her home became one of the sites in the campaign for women’s suffrage. In addition to the Susan Brownell Anthony Papers, we’re also able to work with scholars to tell stories using our collections and go beyond Anthony and her life-long campaign for women’s rights. 

Beginning in the fall of 2011, we began a project to put Anthony and other social activists in conversation with one another, by working with students to digitize and transcribe nearly 2,000 letters written in the nineteenth-century to and from Isaac and Amy Post. The project’s website went live in 2012 with 200 letters, and we anticipate finishing the digitization of the collection in the summer of 2014. 

The Post family lived in Rochester and their home served as a stop on the underground railroad. The family members supported the newspaper Frederick Douglass published in Rochester, as well as helped to plan the second women’s rights convention that took place shortly after Seneca Falls in the summer of 1848. Their correspondents include Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Harriett Jacobs, William Cooper Nell, and Frederick Douglass. By reading these letters, scholars can better understand the involvement and impact a family like the Posts had on the major social movements of the nineteenth century, and how their involvement was very much a part of the fabric of their daily lives. 

In a letter written to Amy Post after the Civil War, Anthony shares her delight that the Post family will be coming to visit she and her brother at their family farm. Referring to herself in the third person, Anthony writes: 

And Susan B. in 
particular will be very 
happy to see thee & both &
plan about Anti Slavery,- 
as well as visit – 

It’s not completely clear what Anthony means when she says “anti slavery.” Should could be referring to the ongoing debate regarding black male suffrage, or she could be assuming the term anti-slavery to describe women’s status at the time. It’s hard for us to imagine Anthony sitting still long enough to write a letter- while campaigning nationally for suffrage and equal rights- let alone welcoming visitors to her family’s farm. In between the lines, we can read the careful balance women struck, to both assume and cast off societal expectations of women. 

This collection and project helps to underscore one of my big take-aways from the symposium, which is that we find women’s stories in nearly all of our collections and these stories celebrate not only those notable and well-known figures, like Susan B. Anthony, but also those women, who remain silent within the historical record. Bringing these voices to life is one of the things I like best about being an archivist.

Lori Birrell
Manuscript Librarian
University of Rochester


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