History 359 Discovers the History of Women

History 359 Class

This semester Professor Beth Salerno’s American Women’s History class took part in a national research project. Each student chose a militant suffragist from a newly created database of 400 white women mentioned in the National Woman’s Party newspaper The Suffragist. The students’ biographical sketches and research notes will be published in the Women and Social Movements Database to which hundreds of academic libraries subscribe. One Thing After Another asked the students to reflect on their research experience for this blog entry.

At the beginning of the project, each student or team of two chose a militant suffragist from the database. These were women who picketed the White House during World War I, were arrested in demonstrations, donated to or worked for the cause, or served as a state officer for the National Woman’s Party. Despite starting out with nothing but a name, a home state, and perhaps a word or two describing the woman’s involvement, most students assumed this would be an easy task. As junior history major Eric Soucy said, “I have done many research projects before in the past. . . . None of the research [for those projects] was . . . very hard to find. A simple WorldCat or JSTOR search . . . almost always resulted in a couple hundred relevant articles.”

HI 359 Olzendam

Eric Soucy and Chris Griebel did research on Miss Therese Olzendam who is pictured here.  

However, the students rapidly discovered that they were the first researchers ever to study most of these women. Junior history major Whitney Hammond gave humorous expression to her shock: “I did not understand how I could possibly write a report about someone who did not have at least a Wikipedia page.” Even women who were famous in their time, socializing with Governors and testifying before Senators, seemed completely unknown today. As junior history and politics major Emily Rice wrote, “It was enlightening . . . to learn how quickly a woman can fall through the cracks of history.” Junior politics major Chris Cardona summed up the feelings of the group when he stated, “Researching a historically important figure may seem like a click away on Google, but nothing could be further from the truth.”

HI 359 mackaye loc

Marisa Feijoo and Lily-Gre Hitchen did research on Mrs. Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye who is pictured here. 

Because the students have been studying women’s history all semester, they had a good sense that certain topics and groups of citizens are far less present in history books than others. But this project brought that point home more clearly than any lecture or book. As first year student Tessa Sances noted, “Women suffragists were not often documented and the work they did was not seen as worthy.” Even websites and textbooks that discuss the extension of voting to women often do so very generally, not providing information on the diverse women who took real risks by advocating such an unpopular cause. As she struggled to find information on her person, Senior English major Hannah Galluci found herself getting angry “at how easily a person’s life can be forgotten or glossed over just because they were active in something that was not deemed acceptable.”  Hannah also learned how even objective facts can be shaped by social expectations. Her person held multiple offices in suffrage organizations and even went on a speaking tour. However her census record listed “no occupation” since suffrage “work” was rarely paid.

Every student noted that the dearth of information greatly improved their research skills. As junior history major Ryan Parenteau wrote, “This project forced me to dig much deeper and find sources I would not normally use like birth and death records.” Sophomore history major Erika Ellis noted that her group had to sort out Sally and Sallie Hovey, who were two different women. Senior English major Kelsey Fair struggled with a woman who was mentioned only once in the suffragist newspaper. She turned out to have “impacted tens of thousands of lives [through] her involvement in the Children’s Year campaign and in her thirty-year term as a headmistress.” Her suffrage activity ended up being a minor part of her life.

History 359 bliss finley pic

Alexis LaBrie and Whitney Hammond did research on Miss Bliss Finley who is pictured here. 

Multiple students suddenly became aware how marriage might make researching women particularly difficult. Senior English major Marisa Feijoo and sophomore history major Lily-Gre Hitchen chose Mrs. Benton MacKaye from the database. It took weeks to piece together that Mrs. Benton MacKaye had been Miss Jessie Belle Hardy, then Mrs. Jessie Hardy Stubbs, and only late in life Mrs. Benton MacKaye. Lily-Gre noted that prior to this project she had been “a little intimidated by the multiple library databases.” After doing multiple searches on each of Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye’s names, it is not surprising that she reported “I will be able to use them confidently in the future.”

Many of the students learned to love geneaology as part of this project, as senior history major Chris Griebel did. “I took great pleasure in researching her family’s past.” Almost every student could find more information on husbands, brothers, and sons, than on the women they were studying. Class discussions made clear that some groups were having far more luck than others in tracing genealogies, which had to do with economic class. Upper and middle class women were far more likely to have published family records or business records of prominent family enterprises.

But genealogies also turned up three research problems for students. As first year history major Sarah Hummel noted, “Our woman’s daughter possessed the same exact name as our militant suffragist. Thus actions . . . could have just as easily referred to daughter as the mother.” Hannah Galluci found conflicting sources, some of which listed two women as sisters, others of which did not. Sophomore psychology major Lisette Labbé found the hardest part of geneaological research was “not to get too distracted by little rabbit trails . . . it was difficult to stay on task at some points [when there was so much more to know.]”

Many students found that doing such intense research really made them invested in the project. Senior Communication major Jane Bunn came to feel a real sense of historical duty: “I felt this burden of responsibility to get everything right, to leave no stone unturned, and to record [my person’s] triumphs with the diligence they deserved.” Junior history major Alexis LaBrie hoped “we did [our person’s] memory justice.” First year student Lauren Batchelder shared a last name with her subject and became quite attached to her: “I see her as someone I want to be; she is almost an accidental role model.” Many students have unanswered questions. First year students Caitlin Williamson and Haley Zahn still have no idea when or where their subject died. Perhaps a second marriage caused a name change they have not yet been able to trace?

The collaborative research process, usually done in pairs, led many students to find new value in “group work” which many of them had previously avoided. As first year student Tessa Sances summed up, working collaboratively “helped me learn how to deal with miscommunications and differences . . . I learned a lot about myself and how I work with others.” Jane Bunn thought working in a group was “the second best part of the project.” Haley Zahn was grateful to have someone “to ask questions, compare my work to, and…understand the difficulties this project entailed.”

HI 359 Shaw

Sarah Hummel and Lisette Labbe did research on Mrs. Lois Warren Shaw who is pictured here. 

Being responsible to someone else, to the historical record, and to the organization publishing the project all pushed students to do their best work. Ryan Parenteau spoken for many when he said he enjoyed doing research that “might actually matter.” Lily-Gre Hitchen is “interested to see if a historian picks up where we left off, and writes more about [these women].”

We list here the names of the women we studied for the historical record: Miss Bliss Finley, Mrs. Jessie Belle Hardy Stubbs MacKaye, Mrs. Elizabeth Darrow O’Neil, Mrs. Mary Darrow Weible, Miss Harriet L. Hunt, Mrs. Beatrice Castleton, Marie (Minna) Shein Bodenheim, Mrs. Lois Warren Shaw, Miss Ann Batchelder, Miss Sallie V. Hovey, Miss Therese Olzendam.

History 359 Class Celebrating

History 359 celebrates completion of the project.