She met Queen Victoria, helped to build the Brooklyn Bridge, wrote up last Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation, and lectured a “stunned” roomful of New York lawyers on women’s property rights. Is she on your syllabus, or listed on your museum wall? Meet Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903), another of the many “hidden figures” who have powered the American fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As a Brooklyn native, Roebling’s work looms large in history and memory for me. (If a similar hometown monument sparks your professional imagination, send a proposal by 15 April for our 2017 conference, details here). My blog series pivots next to exploring the dense lives of American women scientists, Puritans to Progressives, who invented, innovated, and laid down the prologue for today’s women in STEM. Continue reading
Normally, around this time of year, we at S-USIH would post something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and American intellectual history. Considering that today is King’s actual birthday—we as a nation observe it tomorrow—I highly recommend reading works on King and intellectual history. Whether it is Richard King’s book on civil rights history and intellectual history, Civil Rights and the Idea of Freedom, or the still-underrated From Civil Rights to Human Rights by Thomas F. Jackson, and numerous works in between, King’s legacy within intellectual history is one that has been explored time and again by historians. Not to mention the fact that King’s legacy as shaped by American memory is also slowly being explored by historians, and King offers plenty for intellectual historians to explore.
Today, though, I would like to take a moment to talk about Coretta Scott King. Her own leadership in the Civil Rights Movement—both before and after MLK’s death—is worth its own monograph length work. After all, Coretta Scott was already an activist and thinker long before she met Martin Luther King, Jr.
She was named for the ship that stole her away. At seven years old, Phillis Wheatley crossed the Atlantic from West Africa, another dot in the mosaic of roughly six million enslaved Africans who landed in the Americas between 1700 and 1808. Small and so young, she became Boston merchant John Wheatley’s gift to wife Susannah. Early on, Phillis’ talent shone. She mastered Latin and Greek, earning transatlantic praise for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry by an African-American, published in London in 1773. She sat for an author portrait, toured England, met George Washington, and, finally, secured her freedom before dying, impoverished, in 1784.
Early Americans and early Americanists have pored over her too-brief career ever since. Phillis Wheatley’s byline alone, threading together her sacrifice and her sale, bears hard history in it. As an African-American founding mother of our national literary tradition, Wheatley owns a leading role in survey classes, public statues, and cultural memory. Wheatley’s last manuscript, 300 pages of poetry, may be lost; but we hold pieces of her legacy intact. Here at the Massachusetts Historical Society, I pass by her writing desk nearly every day. It’s not the one in her formal portrait. Rather, it’s the mahogany “card or tea table” that John Wheatley gifted Phillis with sometime during her long servitude. Ball-and-claw feet grip the carpet. A neat apron-front drawer has room enough for cards, ink, and a few cottony sheets of colonial paper. Sold at auction to settle her heavy debts, the poet’s desk is a rich artifact of literary technology, an Enlightenment-era laptop. Polished and bare, Phillis Wheatley’s desk raises the question: Who took up her pen? Continue reading
Thanks to all of you for helping to build the first part of this intellectual history of early American women. In many ways, this work builds on conversations held at the 2011 USIH conference, and the comments that Ray Haberski kindly gathered and posted here. Now it’s time to crowdsource a bibliography for the second phase, which spans the Victorian period, from 1848 to 1891. For now, I define intellectual history as ideas in action. And so I’m interested in it all: manuscripts, monuments, myths, memorials, biographies, secondary sources, and public history sites that feature/analyze the intellectual and cultural contributions of early American women. Following up on L.D. Burnett’s sage notice of new media’s ability to broaden the realm of traditional academic scholarship, I’m seeking citations for related blogs/posts here, too, in order to form a sound bibliographical foundation. A short list appears below. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add suggestions in the comments. Continue reading
Embarking on a study of early American women’s intellectual history calls for a strong bibliographical base, and I’m using this post to learn your news and views of useful literature. Hopefully, we can refer to and build on Patrick S. O’Donnell’s excellent list of resources regarding “Women Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment,” published here. Since this nascent project has a public history feel—I’m interested in how women’s lives and intellectual contributions (ca. 1612-1891) are reflected in everything from standard scholarship to city statues and social crusades—I have listed select digital and archival resources for the first phase (1612-1848), below.
This is, of course, only a preliminary list. Paging all historians, librarians, editors, archivists, journalists, and history fans: Please add your recommendations in the comments.
Professor Helen Stuart Campbell could not vote, so she took America to task in print. Between 1881 and 1918, Campbell published books and articles describing women as “prisoners of poverty” and denouncing a widespread low-wage system that privileged men. In The Problem of the Poor (1882) and Women Wage Earners (1893), she upheld a common reform agenda of the day: higher wages, better working conditions, Christian lives. Women bore the brunt of the nineteenth century’s rapid industrial progress, as the professor argued in her novels and newspaper articles. It was past time for high society to recognize urban poverty, she wrote, and “bring order out of the chaos that threatens us.” Helen Campbell’s great plan of social improvement, inspired by her work in a New York City waterfront mission and as an early organizer of the National Household Economics Association, received mixed reviews. Occasionally, Campbell (1839-1918) offered her University of Wisconsin economics students a ray of hope, by writing and serializing Victorian parables where women workers—however briefly—shone. Continue reading
We never met, but we both spent a lot time, albeit in different eras and contexts, thinking about the same historical figures, reading the same dusty tomes, looking for the same forgotten papers and letters, and pondering the roots of liberal education and the humanities, both in higher education and beyond. Continue reading
[Note to readers: following up on a discussion at the USIH Facebook page, Patrick S. O’Donnell compiled the following bibliography to share with our readers here.]
Women as Intellectuals in the European Enlightenment:
A Select Bibliography of the Secondary Literature
by Patrick S. O’Donnell
Department of Philosophy
Santa Barbara City College (2015)
“Enlightenment” denotes here a time frame inclusive of what others, strictly speaking, would define as “pre-” and “post-Enlightenment” periods of European history. I hope the term “intellectual” is used in a sufficiently capacious sense. As with most of my bibliographies, this one is marked by two constraints: books, in English. And in this case, the language constraint rules out quite a number of important titles, especially (hence, not only) those in French. A further constraint is rather arbitrary: I wanted to keep the compilation to roughly one hundred titles. Continue reading
Kimberly A. Hamlin. From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (Chicago University Press, 2014) 238 pages.
Review by Lilian Calles Barger
To address the eternal “woman question,” the emerging modern feminism of the Gilded Age turned to Charles Darwin for answers. In From Eve to Evolution, Kimberly A. Hamlin’s fascinating intellectual history uncovers how the new evolutionary science provided multiple arguments by which women advanced the cause of women’s rights and equality in the home and society. Most of us are familiar with the Enlightenment, religious, and socialist origins of feminist thought. Hamlin suggests another significant strand of thought offered by the science of human origins. She argues that Darwinism, often with varied and unorthodox interpretations, was effective in overturning a central ideological obstacle to women’s equality: the biblical story of Eve. Charles Darwin’s theory, against his own conservative masculinist views, turned traditional views of women upside down. Freethinkers, socialists, and sexologists seized on evolutionary science to build arguments against recalcitrant traditional views. They asserted that the culture of their age was an artificial construct of erroneous ideas and called for change in order to live in accordance with the evolutionary laws of nature. As what Hamlin calls “reform Darwinists,” her subjects stood against social Darwinism, religious teaching, and custom.