Rachel F. Seidman
Associate Director, Southern Oral History Program, at UNC-Chapel Hill and visiting lecturer in Women’s Studies at Duke University
As a women’s historian, a teacher, and a feminist activist, I can’t think of a better way to spend an evening than celebrating and honoring the creation of such an important resource as the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture. I want to spend a few minutes explaining why I believe so passionately in the need for archives like the Sallie Bingham Center, and how they have supported my work, and how I hope we can continue to work together to document women’s lives and especially their work in the ongoing feminist movement.
I was in graduate school in the late 1980s-early 1990s and I was casting about for a dissertation topic. I read in an old book that women had written letters to the Secretary of War and to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. No footnote. I figured they’d probably be at the National Archives, so I called up a Civil War archivist there and asked. “I don’t know,” the archivist said. “I guess you’ll have to come down and look.” So I took the train down to Washington, and he showed me back into the stacks, where acres of floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with gray archival boxes. “This is where the letters would be,” he said. I slowly pulled out the first box, and started flipping through it. Every third letter or so was from a woman, writing to try to get their sons and husbands out of the war, to come back home and support their families.
There were thousands upon thousands of them. But nobody had ever noticed, or thought about how they might be interesting because they were by women. I ended up writing a dissertation about the impact of the Civil War on northern women’s relationship to the federal government. My friend Laura Clark Brown, an archivist at the Southern Historical Collection, tells me stories about the gems—women’s diaries, letters, speeches—they continue to unearth in their collections because when they were originally deposited as part of some man’s papers, they were not considered important enough to catalogue.
That’s why the Sallie Bingham Center and other women’s history collections are so important to historians. They are not only critical to helping us answer questions we already have, they also help shape the kinds of questions we can even think to ask. One of the experiences that online catalogue searching is killing for our students is that moment when you go to the library shelf looking for a particular book, and then you see all the ones it’s next to, and the intellectual landscape opens up to you in ways you didn’t predict. Women’s archives are like that too; when we put women’s letters, diaries, organizational records, into collections like the Sallie Bingham Center, we can begin to see the connections between them, to trace relationships and networks in ways that are much harder if they are spread out and disaggregated.
The Sallie Bingham Center and other archives like it are not important just for historians. Preserving and making accessible women’s voices are essential for all of us. First of all, the past is important. It’s much harder—I would argue impossible--to understand why and how things are they way they are today if we don’t understand what happened before. And we get the past wrong if we don’t take women’s actions and perspectives into account.
But it’s not just about women in the past. It’s about women (and men) in the present and the future. Understanding their history is important for young women’s sense of themselves and their place in the world; if you never see women as agents of change or as important actors in the world, it’s harder to imagine yourself as being of value and worth. And a lack of understanding about women’s central role in the fundamental business of this country has affected how boys and young men think about women.
I have seen all of this play out in my classes at Duke, and it is why I focus on connecting the past and present in my courses. The Sallie Bingham Center has played a major role in some of the most powerful moments in my teaching.
I teach a class called Women in the Public Sphere: History, Theory, and Practice. We read about the history of women’s activism in the U.S. and changing participation in the labor market, and we read theories on gender and leadership, and study current issues facing women in the public sphere. Now there are lots of great published primary document collections that I can and do draw on; in fact one of my favorites was edited by our own Nancy Maclean from the history department. And of course we can find all kinds of documents online. But when I can, I have had the Sallie Bingham Center prepare a wonderful smorgasbord of documents for my students to come and see, to handle, in person, here at the library. They lay out these 19th century women’s newspapers, or 20th century girls’ zines, or minutes from a 1970s grassroots organization, or mimeographed handbooks on how to start a consciousness raising group, and my students, after having read about 19th century women activists or 1960s and 70s feminists, get to actually hold these things in their hands, feel the paper, touch the history. It makes an enormous difference. They understand in a much more embodied way what it meant to be an activist before the internet—for instance, looking at a mimeographed newsletter, they see how much organization and time and even money it would take to spread the word about what was happening. And they see spread out before them the physical manifestation of a buried history—why, they say, have we never seen these before? Why didn’t I learn about all this in high school? Why, if I had not signed up for this class, would I never have learned about this?
So it sometimes makes them angry; but it empowers them. They feel much more conscious of the long road women have traveled who have come before them and the strategies those women used to push for change. The way the story of women’s activism gets told-I’ve seen over and over-shapes whether and how young women see themselves as part of that story.
For the final project in my class on the public sphere, I had the students pick an issue about which they, as a group, felt passionate, and commit to trying to exercise leadership geared at social change. It is here, when I ask students to work as a group, take a risk, and set their sights on making an actual difference, that they start to understand the history of women’s activism at a whole different level—they see how hard it is to organize, find allies, raise money, and most importantly, take a public stand. One group of students determined that part of the problem with Duke’s campus culture was that there were not enough spaces on campus where women could come together in ways that would support social change. After reading about Hull House in Chicago, the students imagined that a separate women’s dorm might foster a supportive community and be a springboard for activism. They did background reading, undertook focus groups and market research, and wrote a stellar proposal to the Dean. Their proposal was immediately approved and implemented, and there are currently nearly 50 women living in the Women’s Housing Option, or WHO House. WHO House has spun off several campaigns aimed at changing campus culture over the past few years.
Another group started the Who Needs Feminism Campaign. Frustrated by their inability to talk with their peers about issues we addressed in class, like sexual assault, pay inequity, barriers to women’s political leadership, etc., without being accused of being “man-hating feminists,” they decided they needed to do a PR campaign for feminism on campus. They took pictures of friends and classmates holding up signs that said “I need feminism because…” with their own, individual statements. They printed posters and put them up around campus. They also posted them on Facebook. And suddenly, the thing went viral. Thousands and thousands of people around the world started “liking” their page, discussing the pictures, and sending in their own. We continue to receive submissions from India, Afghanistan, Brazil, New Zealand, etc. It’s a powerful example of the role that social media is playing in young people’s activist lives. It also raises problems for archivists. The University Archives collected the original posters, and has made efforts to digitally archive the project. But how do you document and collect something that is moving that quickly, being written about in newspapers and magazines around the world, and popping up on other websites and blogs and tumblrs and twitter? Documenting online feminism is going to be one of the ongoing challenges for women’s movement archivists in the coming years. I look forward to future conversations about how to handle this.
Another exciting collaboration with the Bingham Center demonstrated how we can connect teaching, engagement, and archival collecting, and I hope it will prove to be a model we can build on in the coming years. With Ada Gregory, the former Director of the Duke Women’s Center, I created and lead The Moxie Project: Women and Leadership for Social Change. In that year-long program, students took my course or another course in women’s history, and then went to New York City with funding from Duke Engage, where they lived together and undertook internships in a variety of women’s organizations in the city. We taught a weekly seminar during the summer and hosted weekly reflection sessions over dinner. Then the students returned to campus in the fall and took a capstone seminar, in which they reflected on the experience, studied feminist ethics and various models of social change, wrote case studies of the organizations in which they interned, and undertook a hands-on final project. This intensive, year-long experience was one that many of the students reported was transformative. It reshaped not only their view of women’s history, but of themselves and their role in the world. (Just the other day, I received an email from a student who said “I can't begin to express how that program and your class impacted me…my classes and training through Moxie better prepared me for the challenges I face now, and truly allowed me a start my self-analysis and develop more cultural, social, and systemic awareness.”)
One of the internship sites we placed students in was the Third Wave Foundation. It so happened that the Sallie Bingham Center was in the process of trying to collect the Third Wave’s records. Over a couple of years, we helped build connections with the people at the Third Wave, and then, we actually placed a student, who got training from the Sallie Bingham Center, as an intern at the Third Wave. During her summer internship she helped prepare the archives for transfer to the Bingham Center. Not only did she learn a great deal about the history of the organization she was working in, she learned transferrable skills, and came to see the real work of preserving women’s history and understood in a deeper way the importance of that work for both organizations and for the historians who want to tell their stories. I hope we can continue to build new ways of integrating the Sallie Bingham Center into our teaching. It’s essential to helping students understand the intricate connections between the work of activists today with how these students protect and preserve their own history, how archives make those stories accessible to students, historians, and communities, how we as teachers and writers communicate those stories to young people, and how those young people feel empowered to carry the story forward.
The Sallie Bingham Center is a treasure trove in terms of its materials, but also because of the knowledge, creativity, and collaborative spirit of its wonderful staff. Working with Laura Micham and Kelly Wooten is always a highlight of my work at Duke, and I am deeply honored to have been asked to share my thoughts on the importance of this fantastic resource that we are so fortunate to have here.