Check out Our Girl History writing about connoisseurship and making for the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture blog “Material Matters” here!
Have you ever found yourself encountering an injustice in the world which you feel you must fix? Have you had the experience of fighting for that change until you run out of energy? Have you gotten to the point where you walked away? Me too.
The flood of “me too”s which inundated social media this past week sure upset me. It upset me because it is painful to know that people I love, and a huge number of people I have never even met, have been hurt. It upset me in a more complicated way as well: it reminded me that the way we treat women’s stories today is an extension of how we treated women’s voices in the past, and how we treat women’s voices of the past.
Living history is a community in which many people feel like they have permission to revert to some mythical concept of historical gender roles (which are seldom rooted in close research). In the context of military reenactments, this manifests particularly strongly in the idea that women play merely supporting roles, which go under-researched, under-appreciated, and under-discussed. Though this is changing, some combination of our culture’s ideas of what is “important” in history, and its latent sexism, means that it persists even in the most progressive settings.*
One of the conversations which occurred on my Facebook feed about #MeToo revolved around living history, and the ways in which harassment and sexual abuse occur within the reenacting community. I’m glad this conversation happened, but I found it distinctly upsetting, as it brought to the surface a profound frustration which I had put aside several months ago when I left my history job for grad school.
It reminded me that history and living history too often see women as inferior. Too often living history re-tells stories in which women’s voices are perpetually drowned out. #MeToo highlighted for me that when I want to scream and fight for my friends who have been catcalled, and touched, and asked to do things they do not want to do in situations where they cannot refuse, I am fighting the same fight as when I ask for stories of women in history to be presented alongside those of men. Drowning out women’s voices in history is an act much like drowning them out in police reports and newspaper articles. It contributes to a mass conspiracy of silencing which #MeToo was an attempt to break out of.
The effort to amplify and share the voices of women in history is one of those causes about which I feel so strongly that I cannot contemplate it without seeking a way to correct it. When I say that women’s history is important, it is because when we do not tell it, there are more people who “just didn’t know it was like that” and who wonder “why didn’t you just say something?” When I left my history job back in May, I had used up all my energy to fight. I paused my efforts to advocate for these stories because it felt like going down to the station to report the injustices of history and not being believed by the officer on duty. Desperately in need of a break, I have gratefully pushed it to the back of my mind for five months. It resurfaced this week, and I find that I am as mad as ever.
It’s good to Fight for What is Right, but boy did I not miss how angry this makes me, and how blue it makes me feel. I’ll keep fighting this fight, but if #MeToo has convinced you that women’s voices are there to be heard, today and in the past, then I would gladly accept your help.
*I count myself in good company with others who are working to make this no longer the case, but I’m not sure that any of us are there yet.
Today in class we were learning about woodworking tools. The instructor brought out a moulding plane to demonstrate how it worked. For those of you who don’t know, a molding plane is used to carve a detail along the edge of a piece of wood. If the baseboards in your house have a fancy edge at the top, that’s moulding. One super-common shape for moulding is an “ogee,” which is a sort of “s” shape that’s real common in the sort of furniture we’ve been learning about. I like ogees. I don’t really care about the shape, but I really like saying the word: “Ogee, O.G., Oh Gee!” It’s the perfect sort of word – a homophone for something funny.
When our professor brought out the moulding plane in class he pointed out that this one was not, in fact, and ogee design, though it was similar. I couldn’t help myself: “So would that make it an ‘aw gosh’ plane?”
If you’ve ever met Our Girl History in real life (and lets be honest, most of you have. It’s not like this blog has all that big of a readership), you’ve figured out that I really, really like puns. And before you point out that puns are the lowest form of humor, or something like that, I know! Puns can be stupid, but they can also be so, so good. For me, puns are about keeping my mind in shape – thinking up puns is an act of constantly considering language. A pun is the result of a word lodging in my brain, and me flipping through every word I’ve ever heard that sounds like it, looking for something clever. Sometimes it’s about synonyms, or words that look the same on paper but sound or mean something completely different. When I come up with a pun, I’m greasing the wheels of the part of my brain that deals with language.
The good news is that those extra-strong wordplay muscles get flexed in all sorts conversation and writing. The bad news is all this practice only makes me better at coming up with puns.
If you’d like a demonstration of the sorts of things that can happen when you just sit around and do silly things with words (or if you’re wondering where Little OGH got her start), I can’t recommend to you highly enough A. A. Milne’s delightful poem Sneezles, which I read the other night when grad school had me down. As it has done since I was very small, it pleazled me greatly, and I hope it does the same for you. And next time you hear a pun remember, it’s no joke – puns can make you smarter.
They bundled him
They gave him what goes
With a cold in the nose,
And some more for a cold
In the head.
They examined his chest
For a rash,
And the rest
Of his body for swellings and lumps.
They sent for some doctors
To tell them what ought
To be done.
All sorts and conditions
Of famous physicians
Came hurrying round
At a run.
They all made a note
Of the state of his throat,
They asked if he suffered from thirst;
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles,
Or if the first sneezle
They said, “If you teazle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
Will certainly go.”
They expounded the reazles
The manner of measles
They said “If he freezles
In draughts and in breezles,
May even ensue.”
Got up in the morning,
The sneezles had vanished away.
And the look in his eye
Seemed to say to the sky,
“Now, how to amuse them to-day?”
Some of you know that a few months ago I left my job at The Fort in order to begin a masters program in American Material Culture at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. Going back to school represents a significant change in my life. In some ways though, this is just the end effects of an older and more painful change. Reflecting on this has inspired some ideas around thinking, craft, and self-identity.
The summer before my final year in university, my right wrist started to hurt whenever I sewed. It kept hurting over that whole school year, as I worked through my final year of a combined honors degree in Early Modern Studies and Costume Studies. It got worse, and after graduation, I began looking for a remedy. I managed to get my arms to a place where they were mostly free of pain, so long as I adjusted my activities around what they could handle, but gripping a needle for more than ten minutes was beyond what my wrists could take.
Three years later, I am still processing this ax-blow to my sense of self. I have been making for as long as I can remember, and at 23 I had been sewing for almost two decades. They say you need to put in ten-thousand hours to truly master a skill, and I had done my time. Now it didn’t count. Making my living through the meticulous hand-stitched replicas of historic garments that I loved was no longer possible, so who was I?
It was the summer of 2014. I thought about grad school. I’d earned a combined honors degree after all — half in craft, and half in hardcore humanities — and I’d done it because as much as I like to make, I also like to think. Environments that focus on craft work can be frustratingly shallow in the intellectual department, and so perhaps this was my opportunity to explore another side of myself. I very nearly got in to the one program I applied to, and then I didn’t.
I got offered a job at The Fort, and I spent a couple years as a costumer (in a position where someone else did the hand sewing). I spent my long commute thinking about history, gender, and identity. It was that thinking which inspired this blog. But underneath that train of thought were other ideas – ones that didn’t have to do with dress, or women’s roles in military history, or hairy legs. They were ideas I hadn’t dared to think back when I was a seamstress, because they had been so thoroughly off topic. I thought about what it meant to make; about the process of inventing; about the evolution of technology. I thought more than I dared to admit about my mysterious fascination with water powered mills.
Injuring my wrists had thrown my life off it’s course in a profound, if not particularly dangerous, way. After two years stagnating in my comfort zone, it seemed like the only thing to do was to embrace the new direction. I re-applied to the program at Winterthur.
Now, a week into our Summer Institute, I’m pondering self-identity again. I am so very excited to explore a range of interests that I might never have given the time of day if circumstances hadn’t forced my hand — or perhaps I should say my wrist. At the same time, I’m not ready to give up being an artisan, even if I’ll never be the seamstress I was, uninjured, at 22. I don’t want to get out of school and go back to spending my commute thinking big ideas, because it’s the only spare time I have. Neither do I want to relegate craft work to the realm of “hobby.” I would like a life where mind and hands work together to create a greater whole. I’ve got two years to contemplate what that might look like, and I hope I figure it out.
I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine. She’s planning a civilian living history event at the end of April. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about interpreting peacetime British garrison life on the eve of the American Revolution next month. Her event will fall on my birthday, while she has work on the date of mine. We found ourselves clamoring to express why exactly each event is worthy of the other’s attendance, despite schedule restraints. It became a discussion of what makes an event worth going to. Both of us are sick of trotting out the stale history-book stories. In the age we live in, we don’t have time for “edutainment” that doesn’t teach something we care about. So what are the stories that urgently need to be taught?
I find myself desperate to teach history that will inform the world I live in now, and which perhaps has a chance of correcting its flaws. In light of this past Saturday’s march on Washington, I feel even more firmly than before that women’s roles must be incorporated wherever possible into the typically battle-heavy world of reenactments. I want to create much needed visibility of this full half of the population in a portion of history which is so often left to the men. Long on my mind, but sparked by other comments made after this weekend’s march, I also want to make discussions about First Nations peoples possible. These two examples are of course the beginning, not the end of the list of subjects which should have prominent places in the history we present today.
I want to do more than say “these people were here too” though. I want their narratives to be intrinsic to the stories we tell, and to inspire self-examination. I want discussions of laundry to be a tool for talking about health, about equal pay, about essential personnel. I want those portraying native fighters to have a chance to talk about exchange and appropriation of culture, then and now; about being understood, and misunderstood. I want these narratives – little heard, and much needed at this current time, to be given room to shine at the forefront of interpretation.
For my friend’s sake, and my own, I will push myself to tell a new story at next month’s event. Neither of us is interested in reliving boring history. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t think it’s interesting to spend the day weeding a garden, or darning socks. It means we want to tell stories that aren’t stale, that no one has bothered to consider before now, and that truly have something to say.
Before getting off the phone we dared each other “plan something cool, something worthwhile, something I’ve never done before, and I’ll be there!” Forget the American Revolution for a second, living history is ready for – is already embarking on – this revolution. Dare to interpret the untold. Put the marginalized at the forefront. Tell a story that scares you because the message is has to share is important. Be a radical historian today.
A brief reflection on the value of studying the way things worked “back then”.
On a hot August day this past summer I stood in a crowded second-floor barracks room of the old fort that is my workplace. I was on duty in our military tailor’s post; sweating into my gown, and drinking water from a redware jug to keep myself from stumbling over my words as I spoke to a constant stream of late-summer tourists. I paused my banter for another drink of water, and a man piped up with a question about my scissors, dubious of the quality of tools available to an eighteenth-century craftsperson. I smiled, this being a topic I am fond of, and responded that, in the grand scheme of things, 1777 wasn’t really all that long ago; technologies such as eighteenth-century tailors’ shears were quite similar to their modern equivalents.
I heard a voice from the doorway and turned, seeing a twelve-year-old girl step into the room. As she snapped my photo on her phone, she stated with youthful self-assurance that “they didn’t have technology in history”.
I understood the meaning behind her words, and yet I was startled by the scope of her statement. It was hard to know where to start: with the idea that the word “history” could be used so broadly, or “technology” so narrowly.
Her comment stayed with me long after she left the conversation and the museum. Technology is manifestation of the ancient Greek concept of techne: the realm of human art or skill. To this end, every tool we use and every invention created today, or last week, or millennia ago is, in truth, technology. Both antique sewing shears and the iPhone 6 qualify. Through the eyes of my young visitor though, technology encompassed only new ideas, and so could not exist in the past.
I saw a flaw in this logic, for there is a first time for everything: the first knife, the first stained glass window, the first computer. At that moment in time, each is cutting-edge. Many antiquated objects have since evolved almost beyond the point of recognition, but many others survive still in nearly their original form – tailors’ shears for example: so functional that they need no re-design, but so familiar that we cannot conceive of them as technology, until we think back to an era when they did not yet exist. In the study of material culture, we cannot afford to let the word “technology” be relegated to modern times. An object which was the first of its kind might at once be very old and entirely new – the foremost technology of another era. Not only does an understanding of this allow us to explore that age, it also helps us excavate the foundations of our contemporary material lives as we follow the story of that once-new idea on its evolutionary journey through time.
My conversation with this young tourist caused me to appreciate that there is value in understanding the full life cycle of a design, as it gestates in the mind of its inventor, is born imperfectly into the world, and is then remade many times over, remaining much the same or evolving almost beyond recognition. It remains a function of techne – the artfulness of humanity – be it old or new, useful or obsolete. In either case, when viewed through the lens of technological innovation, the study of material culture teaches us not just about the material lives of ages past, but also about how people went about the process of improving their lives. To study material culture is to step inside the inventive human mind.
For the third year running, I participated in the Rhode Island Historical Society’s “What Cheer Day” this past weekend. WCD is a first-person living history event which seeks to bring to life for a day the John Brown House in Providence RI, with a cast of characters ranging from maid to matriarch. I played the former for the past two years, but a few months ago when Kitty Calash contacted me about this year’s program, she offered me a different role: that of Alice Brown, the Bad Daughter. Of course I said yes. I’ve always been better at dramatic characters than meek ones, and this would be an opportunity to misbehave splendidly; a comic role, or so I thought.
One of the reasons why WCD is such a fun event is that the Brown family has all sorts of drama. But perhaps the most scandalous single event is the wedding of Alice Brown to John Brown Mason on July 16th 1800, just a day before she gives birth to their daughter. Kitty asked me if I would play Alice, circa fall 1799. The scenario would be the youngest child of the family straggling home the morning after a party. Feeling none-too-well, she would be put to bed, the doctor called, a diagnosis made: bun in the oven.
Because this was to be first person, I had to research my role. Researching for first-person interpretation (where you interact with the world as if you were a particular historical figure) is different from other types of historical research. In this case, historical facts on topics like politics weren’t particularly relevant, as Alice probably didn’t follow politics all that closely, and even if she did, she wouldn’t be expected to converse on political topics. The research I needed to do was much more self-centered: I needed to think through how Alice would react in the situation she was about to find herself in. Unfortunately, the way the cookie crumbled I ended up with less time for research than I would have liked. Though I was able to do a spot of reading on sex and premarital pregnancy in colonial and federal New England, I didn’t get a chance to plan out Alice’s every thought the way I might have liked.
Here’s how Saturday went for me/Alice:
Alice arrived home, looking rather bedraggled in her party clothes from the night before, and was immediately issued in to see Mrs. Brown, concerned over her daughter’s tardy return. Alice attempted to explain herself before begging off to go change out of her party clothes. Upstairs she encountered her sisters: widowed Abby, mother of three but with only one surviving, and Sally, long-betrothed but stilled not married to her darling Mr. Herreshoff. They were mildly sympathetic; Alice was something of a brat.
Soon Alice’s symptoms (only partially faked, as a bad night sleep led to greater accuracy than I had originally planned) caused her to climb into bed and the doctor to be called. Between him and the experienced Abby, her condition was discovered.
Here I ran into my first unanswered question: Was this news to Alice? it was possible that she already knew she was pregnant, and was simply keeping it from her family, but it was also possible that she was unaware. I, however, hadn’t decided what my character knew and what she didn’t.
Next, Sally became upset: after half a decade of engagement, she remained unmarried. Her impetuous younger sister on the other hand was now almost certain to be married to the husband she wanted (or at least lusted for) within the next 9 months. If Alice didn’t get married, that might be even worse however, as then Sally would have to deal with the scandal of a sister giving birth out of wedlock.
This produced another unanswered question: in late 18th-century New England it was not uncommon for brides to go to the alter already pregnant. Often it was an effective way of forcing the issue of marriage, and not unintentional at all. Was this true for Alice? Was this young woman innocent or wily? I hadn’t really thought about it. And no doubt just like Alice, I hadn’t thought about poor Sally’s feelings either.
Finally Mrs. Brown sent for Alice in order to decide what would be done with her.
By this time. I was truly anxious – my own uncertainly about the role I was playing had translated into Alice’s anxiety about how her family would deal with her behavior. Alice and I retreated into our respective shells and let the other participants push the scene.
Alice’s brother James was called in and sent to Mr Mason’s house to inform him of her condition, and negotiation conditions of an engagement. While this was happening Alice returned upstairs in the company of her Aunt Ruth, who was firm with her wayward niece, but still kind underneath it all.
Throughout all of this, visitors were wandering through the house and interacting with the characters. As with all first-person interpretation, we did our best to answer their questions while staying in character. By this point in the day however, I was having a hard time not associating with Alice. As the day’s events unfolded, not all visitors were sympathetic towards her plight. Some reveled in asking me hard questions, which Alice surely deserved, but which came close to hurting my own ego, tied up as it was with the character of Alice.
By the end of the day, I had been Alice the self-righteous girl just wanting to have some fun, the melodramatic youngest child needing to be taken care of while sick in bed, the chagrined young woman whose family has just learned she is pregnant our of wedlock, and the person who felt the need to defend her choices to a public who thought she was in the wrong.
I had gone into the day assuming I would play a the humorous roles of a silly young woman, obsessed with parties and the fellow she had a crush on; in reality, I had been cast in a drama. However, by observing where my preparation of Alice’s role was weak, I re-learned a valuable lesson: from the outside, it is easy to observe the actions of others, but from the inside, those actions are motivated – must be motivated – by intention. This was true of the historical figure of Alice Brown, and whether or not I did my research, I’ll never be certain of what her true motivations were. This style of living history – the first-person portrayal of an individual – is an interesting reminder that history is composed of thinking, feeling, people, not just battles, political movements, and dynasties.
In this, the late summer of 2016, I find myself living in a world where daily newscasts seem like thinly veiled cried for empathy: whether it be United States politics, international conflict, or disputes in European beachwear, our world is made up of myriad cultures trying – and these days often failing – to understand each other and co-exist amicably.
Multiple cultures also co-exist at living history museums like my work. One is the world of tourists seeking entertainment and education, and the staff who aim to provide it. The other is the fictional time-warp created to drop those same tourists centuries into the past. Conflicts arise frequently between those two cultures, and it is my job (or at least my goal) to resolve them wherever possible by means of knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, empathy.
Most of these cultural conflicts are small. They take the form of quips and questions through which visitors express their discomfort with the idea of stepping into the past. As a historical interpreter, these statements of lack-of-understanding are often directed at me in the form of questions: “aren’t you uncomfortable in that?” and “is that really what you would have been doing?” Perhaps the most important comment I hear however is the simple “I just cannot imagine what it would have been like to live back then!”
That is my cue; the point in the conversation where I pipe up with the simple statement of “try!” Try to imagine your life – the life of suburban parent, a well-traveled retiree, a seven-year-old about to head off to second grade – superimposed on daily life in 18th-century America. See what happens when you open yourself up to the possibility of understanding. To help with this, I open myself up for questions about my experience of what that life is like. Questions on how comfortable my clothing really is, how my lunch tastes, and whether or not I *have* to mend the soldiers’ breeches. From time to time I even get asked what sort of underwear I’m wearing, and whether or not, in this context, I would actually have been a prostitute. I do this because I understand that living history is a uniquely fictional culture, where blunt or even rude questions can be asked without giving offense, and where honest answers to those same questions can lead to a very frank understanding of why a different culture is, in fact, different.
I try to set up the world they are observing within the cultural context in which it makes sense. I explain the practicalities behind the clothing us interpreters wear, but also illustrate how fashion leads to impractical clothing in any era, drawing a connection with the peculiarities of their own sartorial choices. I point out analogies between their daily lives, and the lives that we reenact so that they can situate themselves in “our” world, rather than simply observing it as the “other”.
I do this because I believe that taking the time to empathize with what life was like at a military fort in the 1770’s is a skill. One that can translate into empathy with any other group or culture which is at first perceived as so strange and foreign as to be beyond comprehension.
History encompasses countless cultures from which we are temporally estranged. Our present-day world is also made up of diverse cultures which seem impossibly distant from our own. We are separated from them not by time but by geography, religion, politics, wealth, and more. I hope that visitors to my living history museum take their trip to the eighteenth century as an opportunity to practice understanding a “foreign” culture and that they come away from their visit with the tools they need to relate to a life that at first they “could not image” living.
You go to a museum to learn a story by means of the objects they have on display. You go to a zoo to be entertained by the animals. You go to a living history museum to to see people bring the past back to life. People who, in their historical clothing, are part zoo animals and part museum objects. They are also, quite often, knowledgeable historians and talented craftspeople, but perhaps you do not notice this. You do notice them, photograph them, as objects, as zebras and giraffes, on display for your enjoyment.
I’ve got a friend named Will who does living history as a hobby. Our friendship revolves largely around tossing barbed witticisms at each other. At a reenactment a few weeks ago, sitting around the tavern table and passing the punch bowl, he tossed a comment my way that I wasn’t able to forgive him for. It was a revolutionary war event, and I was portraying an army woman – the wife of a continental soldier.
What he said was: “you’re too pretty* to be a camp follower”.
A bit of “no I’m not” – “yes you are” ensued while I recovered from this blow. You see, Will did a remarkable thing – he crafted an untouchable insult: He successfully objectified me, shredding any sense that my knowledge or skill were the more relevant factors in determining my ability to accurately portray a soldier’s wife, and he did this through a comment that everyone else at the table perceived as a compliment. (For bonus points he made me feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t a comment I expected or wanted from a friend.) When I brought this up with him a few weeks later, he said that since we had a relationship based on insulting each other, he had thought of the most insulting thing he could say to me. I offered him my congratulations, because he certainly succeeded.
Aside from the simple horror of being so sharply objectified, Will’s comment touched a nerve; I’ve had the feeling since this spring that “looking pretty” while doing living history is a bit of a problem. This first came to light when I finished a new gown in March. It is pink – a nasty, insipid, little girl sort of a pink that I bought on a lark because I thought it would be funny to make a dress in such a ridiculous color. (There is a perverse pleasure to be gotten from making something historically accurate which is also godawful ugly.) But everyone else seems to think it is pretty, and when I wear it, visitors to my site take my picture; they take it instead of talking to me. My knowledge and skills become irrelevant; superseded by my appearance. It seems to me that wearing a “pretty” dress means being a museum object, rather than a museum educator.
Because of this, Will’s comment had a second meaning of which he was unaware. Looking pretty while doing living history is a problem: it makes it much harder for me to have meaningful, educational interactions with people. To this end, I do not wear that stupid pink dress all that often. I was not wearing it at the event where I got into this little verbal dog fight in which Will struck such a significant blow. And yet, he was able to use the crime of looking pretty against me, to diminish me and my work.
I didn’t come up with the zoo analogy from the opening paragraph – that’s one we throw around at work a lot (when people touch our cloths without asking, put their fingers in our lunches, and interact with us solely through their camera lenses). It stems from the frustrations of a team of deeply knowledgeable people being viewed not as historians, but as figurines in a moving diorama. Our goal is not just to illustrate but to educate, but often we fail in this mission because of how we are perceived.
The “pretty” problem is a part of this. It is an additional hurdle I and my female colleagues are required to jump over, put up by a society that is used to objectifying women. A society where an older male friend doesn’t have to think twice before throwing out a comment that revolves around physical appearance. It makes me so sad. The only fix I know is not to sit quietly while photographed, but to talk to the people who face me through their iPhone cameras, and hope they go home with not just a photograph, but some historical knowledge, and a small sense of the person who they learned it from.
*A note on my physical appearance: I am a healthy, normal-enough person in her mid-twenties. That’s it. I’ve never been in a beauty pageant, so I don’t have any more solid information for you on the topic of my looks, nor do I want it. If you feel the need to form your own opinion, let it remain that: your own.
Last week I gave a presentation for a National Endowment for the Humanities teacher’s course being hosted by my work. The title of the talk was “Army Women in the American Revolution: reading between the lines to learn about life behind the lines.” It covered ways in which to examine primary sources which do not overtly address women’s history topics, in order to glean information about the roles of women with Revolutionary War armies. My aim was to promote the idea of women doing women’s work as a valuable part of the historical narrative. Internally, I hoped my audience would make the connection to the way women’s Revolutionary War history is typically taught, where, as often as not, the subject is covered by merely rehashing the stories of two extraordinary women, doing what is traditionally considered men’s work.*
I am of course talking about Deborah Sampson, who lied about her sex and enlisted in the continental army under a false name, and Mary Ludwig Hays AKA Molly Pitcher, who worked alongside men on a cannon crew at the battle of Monmouth. I do not want to suggest that these women are undeserving of our attention, but I’ll admit to being frustrated that our contemporary historical narrative seems to stop with them. The reason we fixate on the names Deborah Sampson and Molly Pitcher is because they fulfill our need for “heroic” female role models. However, as role models they are problematic, since they are more extraordinary than exemplary. There are next to no other accounts of women serving as soldiers in the American Revolution; Sampson and Hays don’t serve as icons for other faceless women combatants. Instead, they unfairly represent a population of women who did indeed serve alongside the troops, but who did so in more traditionally female roles. I perceive these two women’s inclusion in the historical record, to the exclusion of others, as yet another way in which “male work” (even as performed by a woman) is considered more valuable than the less “heroic” roles traditionally fulfilled by women. In this way, the stories of Sampson and Hays cause us to perpetuate the undervaluation of other types of labor.
In part I understand why the narrative is so skewed. As a researcher it is impressively hard to find information on the average experiences of Revolutionary War army women. The women who followed 18th-century armies had roles so ancillary to the idea of men standing up on a battlefield and shooting at each other that they have been almost universally overlooked by the writers of that era, and (partly because of that) of this one.
As I read officer’s orderly books and soldier’s memoirs these days, I dog ear any page which references women. And since that frequently produces no results at all, I also note references to laundry, baggage, the ill or injured; to marching orders and reprimands for the sale and consumption of alcohol – any quip or comment on which I might build my understanding of women’s typical wartime roles. I do this because I crave an understanding of the work so fundamental to daily life that no one paused to describe it. These women washed, nursed, cleaned, marched, and were forgotten. They contributed hugely to the success of the military communities they were part of, but they did so in such commonplace ways that everyone forgot to mention it. I choose to take note of women being women, even – especially – when it seems unimportant.
I do this because I want the next generation of history text books to do more than throw around the names of two unusual female combatants; I want them to point out that we do not have the names of most of the women who marched with the Continental Army, but that they were in fact valued and valuable. Their work was significant precisely because it was routine: without laundry, without nursing, without someone there to peddle the simple goods that made life bearable, those short lengths of time during which men (well, mostly men) stood up to fight would have been nearly impossible. I want to be allowed ordinary role models. I do not want to have to live up to the exceptional every day, I want permission to embrace whatever work I excel at, and be valued for my contribution, whether or not it is “heroic”.
*I realize that I run the risk of making it sound as though women should only be acknowledged for traditionally feminine, and men for masculine work. This is not what I intend; I love the idea of celebrating the exceptions to gendered labor in order to break down the idea that labor should be divided between the sexes. However, I am deeply frustrated to think that women’s work is so entirely undervalued that a woman might only receive recognition if she stepped into a masculine role.