Writing Women’s History

Detail from Great Hall at Library of Congress (Photo: Diana Parsell)

Today is the first Thursday of the month. That calls for packing my lunch so I can join the Women’s History Discussion Group at the Library of Congress.

We all crowd into a small conference room and sit around sharing ideas about research avenues for the various projects we’re working on. The moderators — Barbara Natanson (Prints and Photographs Division), Janice Ruth (Manuscript Division) and Kristi Conkle (Humanities and Social Sciences Division) — offer the kind of tips that could take outsiders years to figure out on their own.

Fortuitously, I learned about this group soon after I began going to the Library of Congress to do research for a possible book on Eliza Scidmore.

It was in January 2010. Due to the economic recession my freelance work had slowed down. The Christmas holidays were over. And of course it was time for New Year’s resolutions. A lot of people vow to lose weight, and head to the gym. I headed to the Library of Congress. (Hate the gym … though I do go there kicking and screaming once in a while.)

Posted by all the elevators were flyers about the women’s history group, so I followed the bread crumbs. The first person I happened to meet was Dr. Peg Christoff, an Asian studies specialist who’s done work at the library for many years.

Peg is one of the smartest, warmest and most dynamic women I know. She was excited to hear that we had some overlapping research interests, since Eliza traveled in Japan, China and other parts of the Far East.

Soon, Peg invited me to use the spare desk in her research office. So now I’m an “independent scholar” with my own study desk at the Library of Congress. (I love how that sounds, but as a non-academic, I usually just identify myself as an “independent writer.”)

The office, in the library’s Art Deco-style Adams Building on Capitol Hill, is tiny and very retro. Two old desks, pair of swivel chairs, tall bookcase, metal filing cabinet, wooden coat rack. All in a space about the size of a pantry – and with no Internet connection.The room is so small and cramped that Peg and I often take turns working in the adjacent Science and Business Reading Room.

So why go there several times a week when I could work at home in my slippers? The main thing: several shelves of books reserved for my use, some of them highly specialized or not easy to find elsewhere.

I got an important lesson early on in what a difference that can make.

Some of Eliza’s books are available online through Google Books. But seeing and handling the book in its original form can offer unexpected delights. One day when I requested a first-edition copy of Eliza’s popular guidebook on Alaska, it came with an unexpected treasure: Tucked into a flap at the end of the book was a long, thin fold-out map — in beautiful colors — showing the exact route that the mail steamers followed along the Inside Passage in the mid-1880s, when Eliza went to Alaska for the first time.

Besides providing research leads, the women’s history group has been helpful in increasing my awareness of some of the challenges in writing about women from the past.

“A lot of women’s history is buried in the records of the men in their lives,” I heard again and again.

But Eliza Scidmore’s father wasn’t famous, and she never married. Her brother George was a distinguished U.S. consular official who spent most of his career in Japan. Presumably his personal papers would reveal a great deal about Eliza and the Scidmore family’s interactions. One brief item I came across in my research, however, indicated that when George Scidmore was shipping his belongings home to the United States, the ship caught fire at sea and all the cargo sank.

Why so few of Eliza’s own papers survive is part of the mystery of her life that I hope to answer.

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Filed under Biography, Eliza Scidmore, Library of Congress, Research

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