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The Future of Women’s Pasts

27 July 2015

laura-king-212x300By Laura King, University of Leeds

Understanding how families keep things and document their histories is, for me, a feminist project. The Family Archive project has an important dual purpose, in this sense. Firstly, by thinking about the records, documents and objects in people’s homes, we can find out about women’s histories, which are often lost in official records. Secondly, by better understanding the collecting of family items, keepsakes, and knowledge, we recognise the important role women have historically played in the creation of those archives and histories.

The author's grandmother, who created many scrapbooks of her and her family's life, to pass on to her grandchildren
The author’s grandmother, who created many scrapbooks of her and her family’s life, to pass on to her grandchildren

One interesting question that the project is starting to tackle is whether women have historically played a more important role than men in keeping family archives. In the first half of the twentieth century in Britain, it seems that women were really important in the preservation of family objects, and perhaps that women invested more significance in this practice than men. In autobiographies about this period, for example, women were somewhat more likely to discuss family heirlooms, other objects, and the preservation of family stories and memories. And even those written by men highlighted the central role women played in preserving those histories in one way or another. Paul Johnson, for example, wrote about how his mother would repeatedly tell him her life story, and that of relatives: 

It was a kind of verbal autobiography, reaching far back into the past (she was born in 1886) and embracing an enormous cast of characters, distant cousins (‘once removed and he couldn’t be removed far enough for me’), great-aunts, of whom there were many, known by their husbands’ names, Aunt Seed, Aunt Ogilvy, Aunt Spagrass and so on’.

Paul Johnson, The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries (London, 2004), p.4

Keeping particular objects could be very important to women’s sense of identity. It was a meaningful practice. Evelyn Haythorne, for example, discussed her mother’s most treasured possessions:

‘the family’s three china cups and saucers. They were really pretty, with deep pink roses and gold leaves painted on them but they had never been used to my knowledge for they were Mother’s pride and joy.’

Evelyn Haythorne, On Earth to Make the Numbers Up (Castleford, 1991), pp.19-20

These cups were not for everyday use, but had a more intangible function. As well as creating a sense of pride for her mother, Evelyn recalled how they were used to denote, in one case, who was special enough to become part of the family. A new girlfriend of her brother’s admired them, but, not being approved of by her mother, was swiftly rebuked: ‘”I only use them for anyone special,” Mother sweetly replied before smugly walking into the kitchen.’The way in which items conceived as part of a family archive were used could create a sense of who belonged or was ‘special’ enough to belong to that family.

When talking about her mother’s treasured cups, Evelyn positioned these as belonging to her family – ‘the family’s three china cups and saucers’, but also identified them as ‘Mother’s pride and joy’. Were these a personal or family item, and did they sit as part of the individual archive of her mother, or a wider family archive? Who were they passed on to when her mother died? Did her mother choose this? Who owns them now? These are questions we unfortunately cannot know.

The division between individual and family items is an important question when thinking about women’s financial power and (in)dependence. Women in this period lacked the financial power of men. Many of the women whose lives are documented in these autobiographies worked. But most women also relied financially on men, their husbands and fathers. Did the few possessions they had, in which they invested emotional meaning and identity, matter more because they were in a financially less stable position than male wage earners? To the female writers I’ve studied as well as the women who are mentioned in these autobiographies, objects and stories mattered a lot. In contrast men were more likely to mention or perceive as important other ways of preserving family heritage, such as genealogical research, or passing on a family name. That’s a huge simplification, but gender is clearly an important dynamic in this story, and something to be investigated further.

This question of women’s archives and histories was the subject of a recent conference at the University of Leeds. We heard about the wonderful work being done to preserve these histories, by the Sisterhood and After project at the British Library, The Feminist Library, Atria in the Netherlands, the Glasgow Women’s Library and Feminist Archive North. I also talked about this project, on family archives, which caused some debate. Does the focus on the family mean this is stereotyping women into particular roles? Does our focus on objects mean other stories get lost?

To me, one key issue for us is making sure we embrace a really broad understanding of what ‘the family’ is. It’s never, of course, just about parents and children. It’s about wider family connections – aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins-twice-removed. It’s about step-parents, half siblings and every other connection you can think of. And finally, it’s also about friends too – essentially, we consider ‘family’ to be anyone to whom we have an emotional relationship.

At the Future of Women’s Pasts conference, Ann Schofield, Professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, described how historians must think more carefully about how we get at those who have been ‘hidden’ from history, whose lives aren’t so carefully recorded in official records. To do this, she suggested we must think about history as not only dates, facts and figures, but of emotions and feelings – and how we must engage with the fascinating idea of an ‘archive of feelings’. And Kate Dossett, a historian at the University of Leeds, challenged the myth that women’s history is hidden because women don’t keep records, telling us about how women prominent in politics in interwar America, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, were very aware of the need to and importance of documenting not only their achievements, but also their struggles.

This is, I hope, one key aim of the Family Archives project – to create a more expansive definition of what an archive is, to include the lives of women hidden from history, and to recognise how women have archived their own and their families’ histories for many years.


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