Righting the Record: The Schlesinger Context

Anna Chen Chennault. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryAnna Chen Chennault. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger Library

The library’s mission to document the lives of women in America has been taken seriously from the start. Seven decades in, our manuscript collections cut across time, geography, class, race and ethnicity, and political and social issues. Still, we know that some groups—such as left-leaning white middle- and upper-class women—are better represented than others. As you can read elsewhere in this issue, we’re working hard on several fronts to enhance the diversity of our collections so that students, researchers, and scholars will have the documentary records they need to write complete and balanced histories of our times.

The “Righting the Record” panel in October stressed the importance of adding more voices of politically and socially conservative women to our collections. Following are descriptions of three such collections already here that those new acquisitions will join: the papers of Anna Chen Chennault, Eunice Simm Howe, and Mildred Jefferson.

Anna Chen Chennault

Anna Chen Chennault was born in Beijing in 1923. As the first woman correspondent at the China Central News Agency, she covered the US 14th Air Force. She met and married General Claire Chennault, former commander of the famed WWII Flying Tigers and ardently anticommunist, a sentiment she shared. After the general’s death, in 1958, Chennault settled in Washington, DC, where she became a successful businesswoman, a popular hostess, and an active supporter of the Republican Party. In 1960, she campaigned for Richard Nixon and organized Asian American voters across the country. Although accounts differ, she played some part in an “October surprise” in 1968—the collapse of peace talks between North and South Vietnam, a major factor in Nixon’s election that year.

Eunice Simm Howe

A lawyer, government official, consumer-affairs advocate, and Republican Party activist, Eunice Simm Howe received her law degree from Boston University in 1941 and in 1942 was appointed an assistant attorney general of Massachusetts, the youngest person to hold that office in the state’s history. She served on a long list of state commissions and councils, and in 1970 she was appointed by Richard Nixon to the President’s Consumer Advisory Council. Howe’s collection reflects her professional career, her work for the Republican Party, and her advocacy for women’s rights, including her efforts at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to enable women to be listed in telephone books under their own names.

Mildred Jefferson

Born in rural Texas in 1926, Mildred Jefferson became in 1951 the first African American woman to graduate from Harvard Medical School—one of many “firsts” in her medical career. Her involvement in the right-to-life movement began in the early 1970s, and she went on to be one of its most sought-after speakers. A founder of Massachusetts Citizens for Life and the National Right to Life Committee, she served on the boards of more than 30 groups opposing abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. Jefferson was also active in the Republican Party and campaigned for antiabortion candidates at the local, state, and national levels. She unsuccessfully ran twice as a Republican for the US Senate and once for a House seat.

Update on the Baird Collection

Photo by Kevin Grady, from the Papers of Bill Baird, Schlesinger LibraryPhoto by Kevin Grady, from the Papers of Bill Baird, Schlesinger LibraryThis collection, the largest ever acquired by the Schlesinger Library, arrived in June 2015 and is now being processed. Because the collection documents both sides of the battle over contraception and abortion, we asked the processors of printed and manuscript materials to tell us about its conservative materials.

Jennifer Gotwals, the lead archivist who’s processing printed materials in the Papers of Bill Baird

Bill Baird attended numerous pro-life conferences, where he collected fliers, brochures, pamphlets, and other materials created by pro-life organizations for distribution to pro-life activists and the public. Baird also added himself to the mailing lists of many of these organizations. Over the summer of 2016, library staff members, assisted by students from the Simmons School of Library and Information Sciences and the Harvard Divinity School, sorted 40 cartons of material into groupings based on the organizations that created it. We also consulted with several historians of the pro-life movement to determine best practices for cataloging and describing some of this hard-to-find archival material.

Currently, a total of 823 organizations are represented, some by one item, some by many folders of material. These groups include organizations from 42 states and the District of Columbia. National Right to Life material exists along with that from smaller groups such as Pharmacists for Life, Texas Collegians for Life, Pro-Life Cartoon Service, and many pregnancy crisis centers and maternity homes. Much material is not dated; for items that are, the dates range from 1970 to 2012.

We anticipate that scholars will use the imagery, slogans, and rhetoric at work in this material to better understand the political activism (both grassroots and nationally coordinated) around opposition to abortion in the United States since the 1970s. The wide variety of formats that groups used to promote and share their message (bumper stickers, greeting cards, posters, direct mail, comic books) will give students and scholars an idea of the deep religious faith, creativity, and conviction of pro-life activists.

Mark Vassar, the lead archivist who’s processing manuscript materials in the Papers of Bill Baird

Among the speeches, clippings, correspondence, and other manuscript material in the Papers of Bill Baird are a number of materials from pro-life conservatives. Baird often received letters from pro-life activists—some threatening in nature, others using much gentler language. Unlike the threatening letters, which are generally unsigned, the gentler letters are often signed, include the author’s address, and express in one case “love and concern for [Baird] and our unborn children.”

Another example is a program card advertising a talk by Joseph Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League, who penned a note on the card reading, “Bill—Join our side! We love you.” Baird also maintained a correspondence with Father Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life. They regularly held “peace meetings,” and the two created a joint statement advocating nonviolence in both pro-life and pro-choice demonstrations. Their friendly relationship continues to this day.

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