National Geographic : 2019 Nov
to be the province of women. Cooking. Cleaning. Tending. Gardening. But his- torian and activist Lisa Unger Baskin has been exploring women’s work going back seven centuries, and she has found quite a different story. Women have been holding up half the sky while toiling in jobs considered “men’s work.” “It is so important for our girls, and for women too, to see what they can do and be, so it is not just in their imaginations,” Unger Baskin told me recently. “And it is so important for men, for us all really, to see female accomplishment, because over centuries humans have been conditioned to see women as the weaker, less capable sex, when all around us there is evidence showing that simply is not true.” Unger Baskin has spent a lifetime trying to add to that evidence file, amassing an astounding collection documenting women’s work through photographs, books, trade cards, artifacts, personal letters, and ephemera. She believes her collection, housed at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University, is the world’s largest record of women in work and professional enterprise. Women have worked—and succeeded—in occupations long seen as the province of men: as laborers, scientists, printers, navigators, and mechanics— sometimes purposely keeping a low profile to avoid reproach, but most often invisible simply because of their gender. “I think that the stories that we can glean from what I put together, from my collection, say something about power, something about disenfranchisement,” Unger Baskin said. “The assumption that women did not do things that were always male dominated is just not true.” Her collection grew out of curiosity and umbrage. She traveled to book fairs and rare book auctions, looking for signs that women were reading and getting educated and working all along. She discovered that women were allowed to inherit and run a printing press if they were widowed because the work was so important and the expertise so rare. As a result, there were several significant women printers in colonial America. She discovered that Sara Clarson was working as a bricklayer in England in 1831, that Madam Nora led a troupe of glassblowers who traveled the United States in 1888 making whimsical sculptures, and that Margaret Bryan introduced math and astronomy into the curriculum at her girls school in London in 1799. She discovered that Maria Gaetana Agnesi wrote a widely translated mathematics textbook in Milan in the mid-1700s and that the German naturalist and illus- trator Maria Sibylla Merian made the first observations and drawings of insect metamorphosis in natural settings. As a collector, Unger Baskin often was not taken seriously. That worked in her favor as she snapped up documents, books, personal letters, needlepoint, engraved silver—things that no one wanted or understood—often for just a dollar or two at bookshops, book fairs, and flea markets. She talks about her discoveries as if the women she’s rescued from anonym- ity are old friends. One that breaks her heart was an enslaved woman called Alsy, who lived in Virginia. Unger Baskin found her story on a fragment from an 1831 medical certificate in which a physician described a device to hold up Alsy’s prolapsed uterus so she could “be made usefull” again. His subject’s humanity was of little interest, but her labor was so important that he was tasked with getting her back on her feet. Unger Baskin said this particularly devastating story shows how women through time have been considered inferior and yet essential. Enslaved and indentured women are included in the collection, along with items from Harriet Beecher Stowe, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Brontë sisters, Virginia Woolf, and Sojourner Truth. Unger Baskin sees her collection as a rearview mirror that can guide women as they move forward, imagining a future that is attainable but avoiding the mistakes of the past. One of those big lessons is inclusion. Aspirational women’s movements of the past—reaching all the way back to the 18th century—have been led by and centered on white, educated, upper-class women. Even abolitionists fighting for the rights of the enslaved often kept those women at a distance socially. Sojourner Truth is known for rattling the conscience of the nation with her “Ain’t Many women had to strategically build an audience for their work without calling too much attention to themselves, because they were operating well outside of their prescribed roles.