After Twenty-Five Years: Reflecting on the Origins of the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers

Sallie BinghamSallie Bingham

“when something new crosses the doorstep
the uncles mutter
the women walk away
the younger brother sharpens his knife…..”

These lines from a Mary Oliver poem sum up, for me, my feelings in the late 1980’s when I began to realize that my papers might never find a home…

At that point, I was that “something new,” and most unwelcome, crossing the doorstep.

But the latest example of my newness—my role in the sale of my family’s companies—was only the latest, not the first.

I was born on Black Tuesday in 1937 when the Ohio River crested and much of Louisville, KY was flooded.

My poor mother I think never forgave me for coming into the world at such an inopportune time. Legend has it that my father could only drive her to the hospital by crossing a stream on a pair of planks, held up by two men, one with a wooden leg that sank hip deep in the mud.

And I was too big: fully nine pounds. And I didn’t get any smaller as time passed.

What does all that have to do with what I feared would happen to the remains of my thirty years as a writer, when all hell burst loose in 1989?

I think we have to be of a certain size—a perhaps unmanageable size—to believe that the proof that we lived is of any importance.

Often women have said to me, “My papers wouldn’t interest anyone.”

I hope my example begins to disprove that. I think all our lives are deeply interwoven with the history of our times, as my great-grandmother’s girlhood was shadowed by the Civil War in Richmond, as my grandmother inherited the political troubles of Northern Ireland, as my mother suffered through the isolation of wives left behind during the second world war. It is not only the personal that our papers record but the way the personal becomes political, even for women who may never recognize the connection.

We might prefer to be powerless, to have inscribed on our graves the epitaph chosen by two of my North Carolina female relatives: “She did what she could…”

But we really don’t have that choice, and our papers are the proof. We have taken up space on this crowded earth, and the written words that remain after our death justify that and explain it to the degree that any mystery can be justified or explained…

Women often fail to preserve their papers because of shame. I can’t claim that women are truth tellers, at least not all the time, but we are the sometimes unwilling inheritors of secrets: the things that go on in families, as in countries as a whole—addiction, murder, suicide, bigamy, illegitimates that no one is ever willing to mention.

We hear about all that, late at night, in the kitchen, or in bed, often with requests that we never repeat it—but since all good writing is made up of secrets, most of us do find a way to write it down—and this writing it down reveals cracks in the system of power.

And this writing it down will shake the foundations and rattle the windows, since families and the culture that enshrines them depend on secrets and on our loyalty to peace-keeping rather than truth-telling.

That’s another reason why women’s papers are so often destroyed—and mine would be a prime example. I had heard and seen things that did not fit what I was told, a discrepancy that can lead to madness—or to a faith in the value of an alternative vision. A vision based on real equality, on the actions that bring all of us into the human family.

So I had reason to fear that no one, in the poisoned atmosphere of the late 1980’s, in Kentucky, would see to the preservation of what I would leave behind—letters from the time of letter writ-ing, galleys, manuscripts, failed attempts at novels and short stories, my desperate journals. I really didn’t know where to turn.

At the time I was publishing a literary quarterly called The American Voice which carried works written by women, an attempt to counterbalance our poor representation in print, which contin-ues to this day. Recent studies in Vida which follows women in the literary arts found that the lists of major publishing houses show that thirty percent of their books are by women—only Riverhead Books is able to boast forty-five percent—and the small literary presses are even more biased. Book reviewing follows this trend, with my old nemesis, The New York Review of Books—eight-three percent of the books it reviews are by men. This is another reason women’s papers are always in danger of obliteration: if our work is not respected during our lifetimes it certainly will not be respected after we are dead.

These are some of the factors that moved me. Also, I had been changed by Anne Firor Scott’s groundbreaking book, The Southern Lady which opened my eyes to the realities that were can-died over in my grandmother’s reminiscences.

I got in touch with Anne who was teaching here at Duke and asked her to send me something for The American Voice—which she kindly and generously did.

This was my blessed introduction to Duke University.

My next mentor was Jean O’Barr whose Women’s Studies Program here proved that we could take our rightful places even in a great university, something I could not have imagined when I was a stowaway at Harvard in the 1950’s.

Next, my dear friend Bob Byrd invited me to a writers’ weekend where I met some of the women whose papers are now preserved here.

Like these women, I was looking for a home, as we all are—something that our literal homes don’t always provide.

I found mine here when Bob came to Lousiville to collect the first box of my papers.

Ever since, when I prepare to ship off another box, I go through the same litany:

Do these matter?

Who would they matter to?

How many secrets are my papers telling, and do I have a right to tell them?

Who would be hurt if I burned them all up, and who would be hurt if I saved them?

After that, I don’t allow myself to censor. I remember being quite embarrassed when a teenaged diary of mine was displayed here in a glass case—with all that obsessing about boys.

But the embarrassment was worthwhile, as it nearly always is, reminding me—again—of how similar we all are.

So—no censoring. The whole truth, or none of it.

As I sent off more boxes, I realized that if doing that mattered to me, it would matter to other women. I could never justify offering myself an opportunity that was not offered to other women.

Clearly, inevitably, that meant establishing an archive to preserve what would otherwise be lost, especially the papers of marginalized women and the organizations they founded.

(It is always, in the end, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Most men’s lives are lost after they die—but that has not been my mission. I must leave that to others.)

So, with invaluable help from the array of people here at the Rubenstein Library and the support of the University, we have, together, achieved this archive, which is flourishing, reaching more and more women, expanding our boundaries and our expectations.

I’ve never been comfortable with calling the archive by my name—it is not really mine, never was and never will be.

But I know that many if not most women hesitate to give their names to what they create—unless what they create is babies, and even then, other names come first.

So I look on the naming of the archive not as a claiming, but as a recognition of my profound, lifelong connection with all women who write.

Now, the crucial question—where do we go from here? 

It’s a paradox. We must go further in searching for, and finding, the women this culture casts off: lesbians, transgendered, women of color, Native women, immigrants, poor women, homeless women. How to find them is a very big issue. We can’t do everything. We can’t cover all groups. 

But we can plant the seeds. For example: is there a university in the southwest that already had a program addressing the history of Native women? If so, can this program be expanded to include an archive devoted to the papers and the oral accounts of Pueblo women, Navajo women, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux and all the other women who are our original settlers and pioneers? 

Can the same be done at a university here in the south that has already developed a program addressing the history of African American women? This archive can be a shining example of inclusion, and it can be its ambassador.

This is something I would dearly love to see.

Since marginalized women have little time or energy to spend on writing—and letters have already almost disappeared—we may need to turn to oral histories, and train a cadre of women to collect them. And these women must belong to the groups they seek. 

We also have an obligation to collect, preserve, and interpret the records of women of privilege, like me, who so often reflect, and reinforce, the injustices of the powerful. 

We can do this honorably and truthfully if we undertake as individuals and as an institution, a profound and fearless examination of privilege—if we are ready to bite the hand that feeds us—its great rewards for women born into power and its lethal limitations. 

And then—for all the young women I see here at Duke—for my two daughters-in-law and my three granddaughters—we must find a way to reach young women, even those who have not yet recognized the problems we all face. 

I’d like to see us begin with the doubtless pink journal kept by a seven year old girl, and follow its development, and hers, through a lifetime.

As my journals have followed me, from the page-a-day diaries with the little gold keys to the terrifying notebooks I can’t bear to re-read—or I would never send them off to Duke. 

There lies our future. 

Thank you.