Behind the Exhibition

75 Stories, 75 Years: Documenting the Lives of American Women
Edith Hall Plimpton's gymnasium suit, 1896Edith Hall Plimpton's gymnasium suit, 1896
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library

After much brainstorming about an exhibit to celebrate the Library’s 75th anniversary, a plan emerged. Loosely patterned after the British Museum’s popular podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects, the exhibit would include 75 objects or groups of objects. The exhibit committee asked current and past colleagues, researchers, and friends of the Library to name their favorite things in our collections. The items could be beautiful, odd, old, powerful, wry, revealing—whatever caught their fancy.

Kotex dispenser, ca. 1940Kotex dispenser, ca. 1940In no time, the list included more than 230 suggestions. The variety was surprising. Even staff members who have been here the longest and “seen it all” hadn’t seen some of these nominees.

Then the whittling began. Our goal was not a straight timeline of the Library’s history. We also decided against a linear history of women in America. We really wanted to highlight the richness of our collections: how broad and deep and sometimes surprising they are; how our manuscripts, printed material, and objects tell amazing stories; how they speak not only to women’s history but to all of American history.

Flo Kennedy's brown suede cowboy hat, ca. 1974Flo Kennedy's brown suede cowboy hat, ca. 1974

As we pared down the list, we kept three goals in mind: First, we wanted to represent all types of materials, including oral histories, zines, photographs, and artifacts. Next, we wanted to tell stories that reflect important themes among our holdings—traditional strengths such as suffrage, post–WWII feminism, and women’s health, along with areas we’re working hard to strengthen, such as race, ethnicity, and sexuality, but also girlhood, Radcliffe College history, women and war, and activism of all sorts. We also wanted to highlight the Library’s role as a place that not only collects the materials from which others write women’s history but also makes women’s history: the Library-sponsored Black Women Oral History Project; Notable American Women, which flourished under the Library’s wing; and the 1981 debate organized by the Library between Andrea Dworkin and Alan Dershowitz on the legality of pornography.

Bill of sale for Thankfull, 1803Bill of sale for Thankfull, 1803Paring the list down to 75 was no easy task. Some objects were no-brainers. The metal suffrage bluebird had a dozen fans. We looked for documents and objects that could be “twofers” or “threefers.” Flo Kennedy’s trademark cowboy hat tells at least five stories: of a radical feminist, a civil rights activist, an abortion rights advocate, an African American, and an all-round hell-raiser. The 1803 bill of sale for a 23-year-old female slave named Thankfull will break your heart.

Start with item #1, a photo featured in the fall newsletter of Radcliffe students in pumps pulling a suffrage wagon into Radcliffe Yard in August 1943—the arrival of the materials alumna Maud Wood Park, Class of 1898, had gathered to document the struggle, of which she’d been a part, for suffrage and beyond. This was the Woman’s Rights Collection, the seed from which the Library has grown for 75 years, the collection that attracted seven researchers in 1949, the first year it was open for perusal. Whether you see the exhibit, up until November 1, in person or tour it online——don’t miss the Kotex dispenser by the restrooms. Think about how itchy Edith Hall Plimpton’s 1896 black wool gym outfit must have been. Watch June Jordan read one of her poems.

Metal suffrage bluebird, 1915Metal suffrage bluebird, 1915The collection arrived with Park’s hope that researchers would use it “with profit and inspiration.” For the past 75 years, they have; for the next 75 years, they will.

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