Women's History Month ... How Women's History Has Been Neglected

Roundup: Talking About History

Leslie Lindenauer, assistant professor of history and women's studies at the University of Hartford and executive director of the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, in the Hartford Courant (March 7, 2004):

1872 was seven years after the close of the Civil War, a war that had forced Americans to confront slavery and ponder the meaning of liberty, and two years after the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, enfranchising African American men.

1872 was the year Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. A warrant for her arrest lays out the charge.

That startling document - nestled, chronologically, in the middle of the always impressive, often moving exhibit"American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives" - tells but one of dozens of complex stories that capture our imagination and infuse our popular culture. With a purposeful act of defiance designed to call attention to the national hypocrisy that left women disenfranchised, Susan B. Anthony made the sort of history most likely to be collected, preserved and interpreted as a part of the public record at the National Archives.

Anthony's arrest warrant is, however, one of only two documents in this exhibit related specifically to women. (The other is Harriet Beecher Stowe's deposition on copyright infringement regarding"Uncle Tom's Cabin.") That should come as no surprise. In a nation where women could not vote or hold public office, could not sit on juries and, until the middle of the 19th century and beyond in some states, could not own property, it is no surprise that their voices would prove so relatively muted in the National Archives, our country's repository for our most treasured public documents. Though women fueled social and political movements, contributed to the economy and shaped American culture, their roles in our history have not been as readily documented - or as highly valued - as men's.

Women's voices do echo, however, throughout"American Originals" and more explicitly in its companion exhibit,"Connecticut Originals." Women's stories lie at the heart of some of our country's most treasured documents, from the Amistad trial records to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here we encounter female abolitionists, black and white, who organized an anti-slavery movement so influential that neither those involved in the Amistad trial nor President Lincoln, pondering his political options in the days leading up to his Emancipation Proclamation, could afford to ignore them.

"American Originals" is, among other things, an extraordinary testament to our struggle as a nation to define"we the people." It was, in the words of Susan B. Anthony,"we, the people, not we, the white male citizens ... but we, the whole people, who formed this Union." In order to form that more perfect union, women fought against slavery in the 19th century and for civil rights in the 20th. They"kept the home fires burning," which was a pointedly domesticated way of saying they kept the businesses operating, the factories producing, the trains on time and the families safe and provided for, as well as educating children and tending to the sick.

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