Not just Rip Van Winkle

Harriet Hanson Robinson 2
Harriet Hanson Robinson (1825-1911). Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

As anyone engaged in the study of family history knows, researching the women of the past can be a difficult process. Many commonly used sources draw out details in the lives of men but provide only minimal statistical information about the lives of women. Women are often erased from the narratives written by historians and their documents lost or destroyed. This state of affairs is changing, however, and improving, thanks in part to the entrance into the historical field of women eager to tell their own stories. This substantial increase in historical work by women began in part with the field of genealogy, which opened to women much more quickly than other areas of study.

This brings me to some research I have been doing lately in the institutional archives at NEHGS. My coworkers and I were recently discussing a set of ambrotypes in our collection which show an early class of members of NEHGS (exclusively men, unsurprisingly for the year 1858), and that got me wondering about the first women admitted to the Society. As I’ve since found out, NEHGS first accepted women as members in the year 1898, 40 years after those ambrotypes were produced and 53 years after the Society’s founding.

In order to make this possible, a majority of the current members had to agree to make a change to the charter (which originally specified that only men could be members) and then submit this change for consideration by the Massachusetts State Legislature, who at the time had to approve any changes to charters the body had granted. Once this change was accepted, 36 women were nominated for membership and 29 accepted. Their membership applications are full of interesting details, including a number of women who record their profession as “Genealogist.” But by far my favorite find in this first group was the application of Harriet Hanson Robinson, noted author and suffragist.

Harriet’s involvement in NEHGS actually extends back quite a bit before she was admitted to the Society. A prolific writer throughout her life, Harriet contributed several articles to the Register in the 1880s and early 1890s. She also wrote a number of books, and in fact donated her book on women’s suffrage nearly fifteen years before she was actually allowed to be a member. Knowing all this, it is no surprise that she was elected to membership as soon as she was eligible.

Harriet is a great example of the vital work women were doing in this period to preserve history that might otherwise have been lost. Two of her publications are particularly noteworthy on this front: Loom and Spindle, a record of her time working in the cotton mills in Lowell, and Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement, a record of women’s rights activism from 1774–1881. While she is concerned more broadly with the way early reformers can be forgotten by the time their goals are achieved (she calls the reformer “the Rip Van Winkle in the history of his time”), one particular story stands out to me as an example of how she saw women preserved in history and what she was trying to change.

In her book on the woman suffrage movement, she talks about Abby Folsom, an early activist who was deemed insane by her contemporaries and by history. Harriet notes that “[Ralph Waldo] Emerson called her the ‘Flea of Conventions’ [and] but for this impaling on the pen of his genius, her name would have been long ago lost in her forgotten grave.” This is not the fate she wants for the women of her generation or for herself – to be forgotten, or only remembered (perhaps negatively) in the words of notable men.

As a woman studying history, I feel something like kinship to the women like Harriet who came before me, and I look forward to seeing how we can all continue her legacy in the field of genealogy.

Note

Quotations from Harriet Jane Hanson Robinson, Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. A General; Political, Legal and Legislative History from 1774 to 1881 (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1881), ix and 11.

Jennifer Guerin

About Jennifer Guerin

Jennifer has a BA in History and American Studies from Smith College, and has previous non-profit experience at the Smith College Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. While working at the Smithsonian, she developed a love of genealogy while researching collections of family papers and transcribing oral histories. Jennifer’s primary historical interest is Revolutionary history, particularly the experiences of everyday people during revolutionary periods. She is also passionate about food culture and popular music of the past and the present.

7 thoughts on “Not just Rip Van Winkle

  1. Jennifer, add Early Professional Women (Genealogy) to your Revolutionary interest.

    Why not create a pre-Who’s Who database for all women professionals, starting with that First Class into the Society? Mrs Robinson’s career mastery, starting as Ms Hanson, ought not to be lost again.

    Regards, RMG

  2. I found a report of an NEHGS meeting in February 1923 on the 25th anniversary of when women were admitted. Although it was clearly a long struggle to admit women, thank goodness it happened. Emma Story White was one of those first 29 women, and her manuscript on the Story family was a huge help when I was trying to find the ancestry of my grandfather’s mother, Bertha Story. Not only did she put together the genealogy, but she kept track of where she found the information; a skill that is as important today as it was then.

  3. Recently I was doing some research on another 19th-century Lowell mill worker, Eliza Jane Cate. I came across an article reporting that in 1880, Cate was elected a corresponding member of the New Hampshire Historical Society and was the first woman to receive this honor. I guess she was considered a corresponding member because she lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and couldn’t attend meetings.

  4. There was another nineteenth-century Lowell, Mass., female mill worker and author who became the first female member of an historical society. According to the Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 14 Sept. 1880, p. 7: “Miss Eliza Jane Cate was recently elected a corresponding member of the New Hampshire Historical Society–the first woman who ever received that honor” (viewed at GenealogyBank.com). I guess she was considered a corresponding member because she lived in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and couldn’t attend meetings.

    The experience of living and working among women in Lowell seems to have inspired and strengthened some women to pursue accomplishments they might not have otherwise.

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