As they are now, Salem women were really, really busy in the near and more-distant past, and the records in the Phillips Library are a testament to both the range and intensity of their activities. At this moment, the PEM is highlighting all of the powerful women whose work and lives are featured in their 2018 slate of exhibitions, including Georgia O’Keeffe, artist and facilitator Angela Washco, photographer Sally Mann, and a succession of Qing Dynasty empresses of China. In her post, Lydia Gordon writes about “multiple feminisms” and observes that to operate in feminist modes is not just advocating for women’s issues, but rather to take on the human issues within social, cultural, economic and political arenas of our lives. To be a feminist is to be human. I couldn’t agree more, and while it is wonderful to have all these exhibitions on view here in Salem, once again I am struck by the burying of the local past by an institution which is focused primarily on the more global present. For the collections of the PEM’s Phillips Library are full of women tak[ing]on the human issues within [the] social, cultural, economic, and political arenas of [their] lives, and I’m afraid we’re never going to hear their stories–or see their faces.
The lovely Catherine Johnson Pierce, who we do get to see in Salem: anonymous American artist, c. 1828-29, Peabody Essex Museum.
So many activist “Republican Mothers” in nineteenth-century Salem! Here’s just a sampling of women’s association papers in the Phillips Library: the Salem Female Charitable Society Records (1801-2001; MSS 359—still active today!), the Dorcas Society of Salem (1811-1875; MSS 113), The Seamen’s Widow and Orphan Association (1833-1960; Acc. 2011.008); the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Records, 1834-1866; MSS 34—fortunately digitized by the Congregational Library and Archives), the Salem Female Employment Society (1861-1875; MSS 113) and the Salem Thought and Work Club (1891-1974), headed by the famed author and activist Kate Tannatt Woods, who deserves her own archive. In her 1977 article in the Essex Institute Historical Collections, then-curator Anne Farnam outlined the workings of the Salem Female Charitable Society early in the nineteenth century, and also reads between the lines to illustrate what can be gleaned from the more opaque entries, such as the vote of the SFCS on September 2, 1801 from the first published list of subscribers of the society. Mrs. West was in the process of a bitter divorce, and one would like to have heard that discussion. As the century progresses, Salem women’s organizations continue to serve as charity stewards, and widen their social scope to include abolition, temperance, education and immigration.
A published sermon for the Salem Female Charitable Society, 1815; and records of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society as digitized by the Congregational Library & Archives.
And then there are so many stories of individual women in the Phillips: far too many to include an exhaustive list here. One could: follow a Salem sea captain’s wife along as she accompanies her husband around the world in 1837-38 (Log 405), reconstruct several long-distance marriages by delving into the correspondence between captain’s wives who stayed in Salem and their roving husbands, perceive how several Salem women, from different stations in life, assessed the world around them and their own lives during short and long stretches of time in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their diaries; appreciate the contributions of the extraordinary women of the Remond family (MSS 271), assess the interesting lives and careers of the “Misses Williams” of Salem, two spinster sisters who made, taught, collected and sold art in Salem, and traveled to Italy and elsewhere recording their observations and purchasing items for resale back in their Salem studio/gallery (MSS 253); read cookbooks annotated with notes and suggested variations (MSS 483); examine the unsuccessful restoration of the Qing Dynasty in China from the perspective of three missionaries present at the time (MSS 0.650), learn so much more about the lives and work of so many accomplished Salem women, including Sophia and Rose Hawthorne (MSS 69), educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (MSS 474), author, illustrator and educator Lydia Very (MSS 83), authors Kate Tannatt Woods and Mary Harrod Northend (Fam. Mss 1119 and MSS 0.016) and artist and entrepreneur Sarah Symonds (MSS 0.016).
Studies of the intersection of maritime and gender histories have been trending for some time–but where do the rich collections of the Phillips Library fit in? Women of the Waters Family–all dressed up and ready to go where? (Phillips MH 12); The Studio of the Misses Williams of Salem (Phillips Library photograph from Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s “The Misses Williams in Salem and Rome: Women Making and Marketing Art and Antiquities.” In The Art of the Deal: Dealers and the Art Market on Both Sides of the Atlantic, 1860–1940, ed. Lynn Catterson, 59-8 (2017); An illustration by Lydia Very, who bequeathed her Federal Street house to the Essex Institute (MSS 83); Kate Tannatt Woods, Out and About (1882); What Salem Dames Coked, the cookbook published by the Esther C. Mack (another amazing woman) Industrial School in 1910, 1920, and 1933 and reprinted by Applewood Books; The “Colonial Studio” of Sarah Symonds on Brown Street, in a building now owned by the Peabody Essex Museum.
As I think about these Salem women on this particular day, in the midst of this particular Women’s History Month, I am dismayed and disheartened when I should be inspired. The sources for women’s history in the Phillips Library are so rich that I have no doubt that they will be discovered and dispersed by a succession of scholars, as many have already (and the digitized catalog and finding aids will facilitate that process), but the prospects for public presentation and engagement seem bleak. As the Phillips collections take up residence in an inaccessible factory, with no obvious digitization plan in place or apparent institutional interest in historical interpretation, it is difficult to see how the people of Salem—or visitors to our “historic city”– will be able to face its history in any meaningful way, like the little girl below.
Two-year-old Parker Curry facing Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald: a photograph taken by museum visitor Ben Hines which went viral last week, Washington Post.
March 7th, 2018 at 2:05 pm
Even just this much about what is in the Phillips taught me something I should have learned before: I had no idea what a Dorcas Society was, that its mission was to provide clothing to the poor. Now how do I learn more? Go to the Phillips . . . sigh, no.
March 7th, 2018 at 2:10 pm
Oh well, thanks, Brian, she says bittersweetly. Actually while these past few months have been painful I have acquired a good grasp on the Phillips catalog—which I never really had to use before. I think the Dorcas Society was the MOTHER of all female benevolent societies, but I could be wrong…….
March 7th, 2018 at 3:15 pm
important stories, all. It was from the writings and notes from my female ancestors that we know so much about our family. Some of the EI material was in the big needlework exhibit about 15 years ago. Let’s hope they have other Salem centered exhibits in the works that include their wealth of women’s history.
March 7th, 2018 at 3:36 pm
Yes that was a wonderful exhibit, Rick. Great catalog too: https://www.amazon.com/Painted-Thread-Art-American-Embroidery/dp/0883891190
March 7th, 2018 at 3:34 pm
Has the fight to save the Phillips Library as a library and defacto Salem historical society along with keeping its contents in Salem been given up? What of getting the Mass Attorney General’s Office interested in this public cause?
March 7th, 2018 at 3:39 pm
Hi Nanny, no it has not; I’m just feeling a bit resigned today! It’s going to be a long, long process. The materials are on their way to Rowley if not there already, but there are many people in Salem dedicated to getting them back. The Phillips Library buildings in Salem need renovations anyway so they can not be housed here at present (don’t ask what’s been going on since 2011 because I don’t know!) The AG’s office is “monitoring” the situation.