Panel: The Sources and Challenges of Women’s History

Greater Philadelphia Roundtable panel discussion
April 1, 2010, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Cindy Little, of the Philadelphia History Museum at the Atwater Kent, began the evening by mentioning that this year’s theme for Women’s History Month was “Write Women Back into History.” Little commented that the history of women in Philadelphia prior to the Civil War has been written about extensively, but the record begins to become less extensive after that time and into the present day. She remarked how fitting it was that we had gathered at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania where the collections are so rich in women’s history and just waiting for the story of twentieth-century women to be written by historians. She noted how the goal of the evening’s roundtable was to suggest critical themes and players to tell the story of Philadelphia-area women during the twentieth century in the planned Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Little acknowledged that most of the attendees know that women are everywhere, and yet where history is concerned they are often nowhere to be found. Even though this has improved with the burgeoning of women’s history in recent decades, the situation is still far from where it needs to be. Furthermore, numerous people in attendance had labored mightily over the years to bring women’s historical experiences forward through collecting, researching, writing, and interpretation. Others had worked and continue to work for organizations that shape women’s lives through direct service, education, and advocacy. She lamented the fact that all too often these two groups do not know each other, but they need to in order to ensure that women’s historical experiences are not lost because of someone throwing out an organization’s records or waiting too long to get oral history interviews.

Finally, she introduced the evening’s panelists by saying that they were to offer their thoughts on how to tackle the challenge of incorporating women’s history into the Encyclopedia. Lastly, she mentioned that the formal program was to be followed by a reception hosted by the Philadelphia University at the building of the New Century Trust, which is one of a handful of nineteenth-century women’s organizations still in existence and owning its own headquarters.

Margaret Jerrido

Margaret Jerrido, an independent archival consultant, geared her remarks toward researchers, people with materials, and students looking for topics. She noted that there was a great need to collect or provide assistance in making available historical documents that document women’s experiences. Jerrido outlined several places to find such documents: organizations (such as Women’s Way and the Gray Panthers), departments within larger organizations (such as academic institutions or churches, either within the denomination or the larger church-structure itself), events (such as the Million Woman’s March), and from individual women. Documents of individual women could be used to learn more about singular figures like Maggie Kuhn or organizations such as the Women’s Garment Workers, Whitman’s Chocolates, and women working at the Navy Yard.

The speaker identified several challenges to writers, researchers, and collectors of women’s history. First, there is a lack of inventories and finding aids. She noted that most existing collections have yet to be inventoried, and in this state what good are they to researchers? Second, there are a number of hidden collections, where women’s materials are hidden within a larger collection’s documents. For example, the Navy Yard is a situation where women’s stories are buried within the larger records of the organization. The final challenge mentioned was the problem of retrieving records from individuals. Jerrido explained that, in many cases, the people either do not believe that they own something historically important or they do not know what to do with those items in their possession. In this case, she encourages people to turn them over to a suitable location.

Next, the speaker outlined some recommendations for facing these challenges. First, individuals should be encouraged to turn materials over to a relevant place where they have a connection, such as an institution or organization that they attended, worked for, or to whom they belonged. Once the material has been collected it must be organized, archived, inventoried, and processed. Without this step, the documents are not of much use. Next, the speaker suggested that maintaining personal contact with individuals was instrumental in building the trust necessary to get people to turn materials over to organizations and archives. Furthermore, the historical community should actively seek grants to fund such enterprises. The speaker acknowledged that although times are tough, the money is out there; however, everyone must be diligent in finding it. Lastly, the speaker recommended that organizations should publish directories of women’s resources. This not only allows students and researchers to find existing materials but also helps individuals looking for an appropriate place to deposit collections.

Lastly, Jerrido provided a short list of repositories with women’s collections, including: the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections, the Drexel University College of Medicine (which contains archives and special collections on Women in Medicine and Homeopathy), the Hagley Museum and Library, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Urban Archives at Temple University, and the William Way Community Center’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Library and Archives of Philadelphia. In summation, the speaker stated that there are plentiful materials out there about women, but they must be found, turned over, processed, and made available for use.

Kris Myers

Kris Myers began by saying that she was speaking as both a representative of the Alice Paul Institute and as a recent student. At the Institute, she helped organize the site’s archives, but she noted that many other documents pertaining to Alice Paul could be located at the Smithsonian Institution (specifically visual artifacts) and the Schlesinger Archives at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (mostly paper documents). Also, as a recent student, the speaker agreed with Margaret Jerrido’s assessment that students and researchers have a wealth of knowledge about where to locate information. As an example, she cited her own discovery of a record of a 1913 protest for women’s suffrage during her cataloguing of the Institute’s archives.

Focusing on the archives of the Alice Paul Institute, Myers related that they hold everything owned by Alice Paul when she died, which includes books, journals on both the suffrage and equal right’s movements, general women’s journals, and original editions of women’s history books. Here, the speaker suggested the history of the street -speaking demonstrations staged in Philadelphia for suffrage as a necessary topic for the Encyclopedia. Even with all of this documentation, the speaker noted that there is still much to learn about the subject, including Alice Paul’s life in England during the early 1900s, her days as a University of Pennsylvania student involved in the women’s suffrage movement, and with gaps in the history of her life after 1920.

The speaker mentioned several problems that have arisen in doing research on Alice Paul. First, because the documents for the subject are held in three locations (the Alice Paul Institute, the Smithsonian, and the Schlesinger Library), there is no central site to learn about Alice Paul. Furthermore, online resources to help people interested in learning about the subject are slim. To this end, the New Jersey women’s history website ( is useful, as is the Institute’s own site ( Also, the Institute lacks the capacity to digitally scan documents such as the suffragist journals so that they may be accessible for researchers who cannot physically visit the site. Lastly, the speaker stressed the need for the Alice Paul Institute to become a part of women’s history directories so that more people can become aware of what the site does and how it can contribute to the greater knowledge of women’s experience.

Marion Roydhouse

Marion Roydhouse began by expressing her honor in representing two organizations that support and are fully committed to the Encyclopedia project: Philadelphia University and the Pennsylvania Historical Association. She then noted that the previous panelists showed how the writing of history has changed as technology has advanced to include new mediums like videography, visuals, and social networking on the internet. She then posed the question: How can researchers and historians effectively utilize these new techniques in their work?

Roydhouse said that when she was first asked to write about a general survey of women’s history in Pennsylvania, she initially believed that this would not be difficult but secondary the sources soon proved to be hard to find. She explained that her recent volume for the History Studies Series of the Pennsylvania Historical Association was an effort to survey women’s experience in Pennsylvania, ending with a general plea for others to delve into this wide open field. Ultimately, the volume is an attempt to convince people to transform Pennsylvania history and the written history of Philadelphia to make possible the goal of all women’s historians, which is for all histories to include the experience of women. Therefore, when approaching this speech, Roydhouse originally planned to provide an overview of what has been written and speculate a little on what areas could be explored.  However, as she sat down to think about this subject, the speaker realized that what we need to know about women in Philadelphia became a topic that would take up much more time then was available this evening. So, her goal became to whet our appetites rather than try to cover every avenue of every neighborhood of women’s experience, or explore every corner and alley of the impact of gender upon Philadelphia’s history.

The speaker started to outline what we know and what we want to know about women’s history in Philadelphia. She noted how she was enormously surprised with her general survey of women’s history in Pennsylvania at exactly how little had been written. She acknowledged both Tammy Gaskell at the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography and Paul Newman at Pennsylvania History for working to increase the number of published articles over the last ten years. Her own research identified a number of themes that deserved more scrutiny: women in the work force and labor actions, social reform, political involvement and suffrage, women’s voluntary associations and institution building, cross-class efforts by the YWCA, and women’s colleges. Her book, Women of Industry and Reform, covered the years before World War II, and all of the topics covered deserve attention in the post-World War II years. Furthermore, there are several World War II-era topics that have yet to be fully investigated, including women on the railroads, women at the Sun Ship yards, and segregation and desegregation as it was affected by wartime conditions.

What questions should be asked and what kinds of frameworks should be used to learn more about women in Greater Philadelphia? Roydhouse posed a series of focusing questions: What does it mean to be looking through a lens at what is defined as both a physical and intellectual space? How should we define women’s and gender history in urban and suburban history? What historiographical approaches should we take and what methodologies are most appropriate? Lastly, how will we define women’s history and gender history within the boundaries of city and suburban life?

In exploring current work, the speaker explained that because we are in the middle of such a plethora of work on the U.S. we often forget that there are useful models elsewhere. For example, Seth Koven’s work Slumming: Sexual and Social Politics in Victorian London provides a powerful example of the examination of the dynamics of class relations and sexual politics, which could be a model to use in examining Philadelphia.

Also, the speaker explained how, during a recent trip to New Zealand, she worked with Erik Olssen who applied the methodology of historical sociology to “complex historical space.” Olssen began with a social history of a working class area in Dunedin, not unlike Ted Hershberg’s deeper collection of data on Philadelphia. Olssen then expanded the work with the help of women’s studies scholars and anthropologists to include gender, and this is precisely what the Encyclopedia needs to have. Roydhouse then suggested that the framework Olssen and his team used should be adopted by scholars working on the Philadelphia project, namely that “it is now a truism that gender, like other categories of social analysis, cannot properly be studied in isolation.” She recommended learning fom the book Sites of Gender, which seeks to analyze gender by setting it “deep in place and time.” Furthermore, “sites” in this context means not only as physical spaces but also as places where “gendered behavior” connected with “cultural meaning.” The speaker continued to explain how we can focus on “key areas of social life in which gender was enacted, which both shaped and were shaped by gender,” as authors Barbara Brookes and Annabel Cooper pointed out. The speaker suggested that the project should consider what Sites of Gender described as “the broad domains of work, education, consumption, leisure, poverty, mobility, transport, health, religion, and marriage” in order to focus on streets and neighborhoods as well as considering the issues of locality and space. Ultimately, this will lead to a consideration of the networks of association and the overlapping uses of space and how these were shaped by gendered behaviors and the concepts of gender in Philadelphia.

The speaker also noted that the project needs to bring to bear the methodologies of historical geography and sociology as well as those of history, be they qualitative or quantitative. This should be done in order to create our histories not only by the painstaking accretion of evidence about ordinary people and ordinary lives through the use of traditional documents, but also analysis of census data laid upon geographical boundaries and new geographical analyses, thereby taking advantage of new kinds of evidence created by new technologies.

As another example of a useful framework for study not currently employed in work on Philadelphia can be seen in Sara Deutsch’s examination of Boston in her book, Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870-1940. Here, Deutsch analyzed the way women changed the manners, mores, and physical spaces of the city. Also, others have written on the cultural impact of working-class women and their use of leisure time, notably Kathy Piess on New York (Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York). Also, the speaker noted the implications of neighborhood and place for studies of ethnicity, assimilation, race, and class as viewed through the lens of gender differences or women’s experiences as useful avenues to consider for the project.

Next, the speaker turned to the framework of suburban and urban connections, using as an example the volume edited by Kevin Kruse and Thomas Sugrue, The New Suburban History. In this book, the contributors examine residential segregation, state and local relations, perceptions of the suburbs by scholars and theorists, race and class in the suburbs, and immigration and ethnic diversity. Roydhouse suggested that there is also room in the historical discussion for questioning how suburban communities were affected by gender and gendered behaviors, and by women and women’s leadership in political, social, educational, and cultural realms, as well as economic and work force issues. The speaker questioned how the history of the Philadelphia region, including the development of suburbs from Chestnut Hill to the Main Line and from Yeadon to Jenkintown, could be examined without looking at the way in which these physical and psychological spaces were impacted by gender and gendered behavior? Furthermore, how did the growth of suburban jobs affect women’s opportunities in the work force, and how did this shape the stages of women’s lives in a way that was different from earlier periods?

Historiographical approaches can be widened to include gender and women’s experience. The next point that Roydhouse examined was the issue of who and what should be written about: what people, institutions, organizations, and associations lie waiting to be brought to life by the pen of the historian? The speaker asked if the project should be uncovering the lives of women whose influence upon Philadelphia was significant . She argued that if you consider the impact that the books Notable American Women and Black Women in America have had upon women’s history from 1971 to today, it is apparent that the gathering of biographies provided the impetus for the developing new areas of investigation. As such, one approach that would provide material for further study is simply to add more to what we know about women whose significance in public or cultural life has been established.  Furthermore, the speaker acknowledged that we already have several powerful models of biographies (for example, Helen Horowitz’s work on M. Carey Thomas and Kathryn Kish Sklar’s research on Florence Kelley), where both effectively site the lives of women in the community.

Another topic raised by the speaker is one originally theorized by Anne Firor Scott, that women’s voluntary associations were and are key to the American experience. The author argued that we need to know more about women’s associations, voluntary organizations, and women as the founders of key urban institutions. Roydhouse explained that Philadelphia’s history, its institutions: educational, medical, religious, charitable, and philanthropic organizations, have been deeply affected by women’s leadership and involvement. Furthermore, all of these subjects will need to consider the issues of race, ethnicity, class, income, and all the diversity and layers of American and Philadelphia’s history.
The speaker admitted that she had not raised every strong example that needs to be covered by the project and that the audience will need to supplement this summary. However, some other roles that need to be examined were listed.

  • First, women’s roles in education are worth exploring because the Philadelphia public school system has had strong female leadership, as have suburban school districts, private schools, and education institutions like the Philadelphia Education Fund. Second, women’s involvement in local community development have been potent forces of change, such as the East Falls Community Development Corporation led by Gina Snyder; there are many others like her and there have been many who preceded her in this area.
  • Next, cross-class institutions like the YWCA, the worker’s and labor schools, such as the Bryn Mawr Summer School were significant in the period before World War II. These were later followed by other such experiments and should be followed into the post war period.
  • Additionally, women’s efforts to break into the male political world of patronage politics deserves investigation , as well as women’s involvement in politics interpreted broadly for example how women became part of the political system and centers of political influence (such as the Union League).

The speaker also suggested that Nell Irvin Painter’s new book, The History of White People, could lead a prospective historian to examine the results of recent “whiteness studies” and critical race theory in terms of women in Philadelphia, especially regarding the post-war period. Also, there are many African American women leaders whose leadership should be brought to the fore. Roydhouse asserted that race should be combined with gender as a factor for analysis as we write the history of women in Philadelphia.

The speaker then asked some questions on women and work that could lead to further topics : What is the significance of the changing nature of women’s involvement in the work force over time? What was the impact upon industry, business, and the economy of Greater Philadelphia of women’s work? What about women in the white collar labor force, clerical and professional workers, women labeled as “pink collar workers,” and blue collar workers? Lastly, what does it mean that women are working as UPS drivers and on road construction crews; how did this happen and how has it shaped life in Philadelphia?

In conclusion, Roydhouse suggested that whatever we do, we must always consider the question of audience and good writing. She explained how a recent reviewer in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography described an author as “that rare creature: a prodigious researcher who knows how to write. There is neither an undocumented assertion nor a dull sentence in the entire book. The author makes connections and each connection deepens and complicates our understanding.” Awareness of the audience and good writing will be key to the success of the Encyclopedia, no matter who we write about and how we approach the subject matter.

Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy