Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Correspondence

Guess I will take a pill and a coca cola. I am weary of the misery.
--letter to Myrna Giddings from her mother, 21 September 1938*

Giddings family letters. In possession of Gena Philibert-Ortega

Correspondence, letters, pages women wrote that reached out to friends, family, significant others and provide a glimpse of everyday life. We make an assumption that for a large part of history women were illiterate and so they didn't leave behind any writings. But make sure not to make assumptions. Women's letters as early as 300 BCE have been found and published.**

Now, you may be thinking "my female ancestor didn't leave behind any letters." I understand. The only family letter I have is a letter from an English genealogist who responded to my maternal grandmother's request for a parish record lookup. This tired female genealogist provides some glimpses of her hectic life that involved taking care of small children and providing family history research services to Americans. Though written in the 1960s her exasperation is one felt by modern-day moms. My grandmother's "voice" is not represented but it gives me an idea about what she was doing, genealogy wise, based on the researcher's response.  How did I get access to this letter? My grandmother gave it to me for my stamp collection when I was a kid. Sometimes genealogy is found in odd places.

We should look at letters for two reasons. One, if they are authored by our ancestor they provide a glimpse into her life that is not recorded in official records (unless, of course, she wrote of important events like the birth of a baby or the death of a family member). Second, if they are authored by someone in her FAN Club we can expand our understanding of her community. Remember that researching women's lives needs to include her FAN Club (friends, associates, and neighbors).

Where do you find letters? After exhausting family for possible home sources, conduct a place search in an archival catalog like ArchiveGrid. There are also subscription databases and finding aids available that provide access or links to women's correspondence as well. See the Resources below.

Alexander Street Press - North American Women's Letters and Diaries
Alexander Street Press - British & Irish Women's Letters and Diaries
Carnegie Mellon Library - Women's History: Primary Sources: Collections, Papers, Letters, and Diaries
Georgetown University Library - Women's Manuscript Collections-19C Women's Journals and Letters

*From the collection of Gena Philibert-Ortega.
**See the book Women's Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC - AD 800.

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