In the 20th century, much of a man's history was preserved in documents. A woman's, not so much. The story of a woman's life often must be be gleaned from unexpected sources, from the things the individual left behind, Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich told a Utah audience recently.
Ulrich presented the 2016 annual address for the Aileen H. Clyde 20th Century Women's Legacy Archive in the J. Willard Marriott Library on the University of Utah campus on March 10. Her focus is on women's history and she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a book based on the diary of Martha Moore Ballard, a 20th century New England midwife. Ulrich said the diary was often boring and repetitious, but Ballard's life could be discerned amid the minutiae of details about weather and mundane daily tasks. Ballard became one of the first of her generation to become a doctor.
Snippets of the life of Maude May Babcock were found in the records of a Howard University Summer School program for physical training, Ulrich said.
Babcock later became a leader in higher education in Utah as the first female professor at the U. and founder of theater, speech and other programs at the university in the 1920s. The Babcock Theater on the campus was named for her.
The Howard summer school program included taking very precise measurements of students as a first step in the students' efforts to design an ideal man and an ideal woman. Babcock's detailed measurements were included in the record, she said.
A vintage photo of one of her own relatives inadvertently chronicled some women's history, Ulrich said. A close examination showed that the woman was holding ledgers and a cigar box. The thoughtful identification on the back of the photo explained that the woman, educated well beyond most women of the time, was a member of a local school board and that the cigar box held district financial records. The woman also was wearing an elaborate hat sporting bird feathers, she noted. When women's hats switched to other decorations, it was a veiled message that the Audubon campaign to save the hundreds of millions of birds whose lives were forfeit for the fashion trend had succeeded. Many women were involved in the campaign.
Ulrich said that there may be historic value in many of the odds and ends people find, often in drawers, the backs of closets and other obscure places.
"Don't throw them out," she advised. Even in an age when digitization has become common as a way to preserve artifacts, the original materials should be preserved, she said. Newspaper clippings, old invitations, newsletters and other publications, even recipes, all may be clues to what a woman's life was like, she said.
"What do you have in your house that would fit in a 20th century archive?" she asked.
The professor, a native of Idaho, praised the work of an increasing number of archives focused on women's history. The U. archive is growing steadily, she said.
"Archives matter, not just for the public. They make materials accessible, not scattered. They perform a great service," she said.
Such collections can contribute to a better future for women in Utah and everywhere, she said.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who has recently been called to serve as a family history missionary.