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Director's Letter: Hard Times, Profound Histories

A pile of colorful buttons advertising pro-life slogans
In order to tell a more complete history of women in America, the Schlesinger continues to its work to diversify its collections—not only demographically but also ideologically. The Sisters of Life recently chose the Schlesinger as the permanent home of their Joseph R. Stanton pro-life collection, 1966–2007, which documents the pro-life movement. It includes the political buttons seen here. Photo by Kevin Grady

“How are you holding up?”

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question has become obligatory, and with it, the realization that we live in hard, historic times. Like everyplace else on earth, the Schlesinger Library has felt the strains of the pandemic: the burdens carried by our staff and our patrons, researchers whom we’ve labored mightily to support, consistently, through the spikes and valleys of these last two years.

We’ve also experienced a vigorous sense of purpose—a calling, even. And we are finding, amid the obstacles, powerful signs of renewal, especially the hiring of brilliant staff members, including our wonderful new Lia Gellin Poorvu Executive Director, Petrina Jackson, who joined us in November.

The Schlesinger Library was born in times like this, for times like this. In 1943, when Maud Wood Park, Radcliffe College Class of 1898, donated her Woman’s Rights Collection to her alma mater, the country and the campus was in the midst of the century’s second great global war. Park’s boxes of records and manuscripts documented a profound struggle: the hard and still unfinished history of American women and their quest for full citizenship. In the nearly eight decades since, in the thousands of manuscript collections and tens of thousands of photographs and rare printed materials that followed, the hard questions we document have only multiplied.

Park and her cohort asked, How long must women wait for liberty? Her descendants in our collections, people like Pauli Murray, have built on that question to ask, How do the double binds of race and sex—the intersection Murray called Jane Crow—shape the ability of American women to achieve full equality under the law? Or as Angela Y. Davis, whose papers the Library was fortunate to acquire several years ago, might put it, What does liberty for some mean when so many others are incarcerated? Others have asked, What do women owe their families and their careers, their spouses and their children? As we increase our holdings documenting trans lives, we form a new question from Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement: How are women born, and made?

Not every woman is a Davis, a Murray, a Betty Friedan, or an Alice Paul: leaders of national prominence. People are sometimes surprised to learn that the core of the Schlesinger’s collections consists of family papers, the quotidian records of ordinary mothers, fathers, children, and siblings, documenting daily life and extraordinary times from generation to generation. In a Library centered on the history of women, gender, and sexuality, even the most everyday records of ordinary individuals document confrontations with profound, even existential, issues. How can families flourish in times of scarcity? How do women control their intimate lives, their fertility, and, with it, their adult destiny? When, indeed, does life begin?

Founding of the Women's Archives at Radcliffe College

Jane Kamensky, the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library, discusses what it takes to fully document our nation's hard histories.

Such questions have agonized families and organized movements and political parties. As the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s world-shaping decision in Roe v. Wade approaches, my colleagues and I have been digging deep into our collections, thinking about exhibitions and public programming that can help us air these hard questions as frankly and fully as ordinary families have done, year in, year out, in good times and in hard times, over generations of American history. As part of Schlesinger’s strategic efforts to ensure that our collections document all sides of history, we’ve been building the ideological as well as the racial, ethnic, religious, and class diversity of our holdings. Recent acquisitions like the massive Joseph R. Stanton Pro-Life Collection, entrusted to us by the Sisters of Life, will allow our researchers to see familiar struggles from fresh angles of vision. In that difficult analytical work, facing hard histories in hard times, our staff and our patrons will try to be as fearless and as empathic as the ordinary men and women whose lives we hold in our vaults.

How are we holding up? Times are hard. Our work is hard. But never has it felt more necessary, more urgent, or more valuable. And so we rise and build.

Jane Kamensky is the Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Foundation Director, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and Jonathan Trumbull Professor of American History, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

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