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Women, Independence Day, and Our National Landmarks at Risk

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“How many whales were killed to make all those whalebone corsets worn by American women during the 18th< and 19th centuries?” asked Dr. Heather Huyck, president of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. She posed this question to me as we were speaking about how the rising seas, floods, and wildfires brought by climate change and threatening some of the United States’ most cherished historic sites also threaten what future generations will know about women in our nation’s past.

Life in the past—the importance of tangible evidence

On a recent whale watching excursion at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts, I saw whales in their natural habitat for the first time. I was transfixed by their magnificent splashing and spouting. The farthest thing from my mind was how today’s endangered status of whales resulted from demands for better lighting, machine lubricants, and the once commonplace women’s undergarment.

Humpback whales splashing and spouting in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. Photo: Deborah Bailin

Humpback whales splashing and spouting in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Deborah Bailin

”Corsets shaped women’s bodies into various fashionable shapes. Their stays were often made of whale baleen connected with fabric bands—girdles on steroids,” Huyck quipped, “although some historic site interpreters swear they are comfortable.”

Huyck, a public historian who has worked for the National Park Service and the U.S. House Subcommittee on National Parks, connected the dots for me. Resource depletion, she explained, disconnects us from history: “If we don’t have whales, we cannot understand much about corsets made from them.” Disconnected from the tangible resources that literally shaped and limited women’s lives, we lose touch with the cultural and economic forces that brought the whale baleen from under the oceans to the undersides of drawing-room society.

When it comes to women and historic sites, “always assume that women were there,” Huyck emphasized. From the Native American women who ground corn into flour at Mesa Verde to the immigrant women who passed through Ellis Island and made clothes and sold flowers on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “every historic site is a women’s history site, either directly or indirectly. “

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Photo: NPS

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. Photo: NPS

Through the architecture, artifacts, and objects found at historic towns like Charleston, SC, St. Augustine, FL, and Seattle WA, our national historic sites allow us to connect directly with our past. Because American history has often been defined as male political and economic activities and most women had less education and lived primarily in the private worlds of their families, finding written sources from women is often more difficult. Historians have used written sources creatively and collected oral history interviews, but analyzing tangible resources—farming landscapes, soddy homes, quilts, tools, typewriters, ships—is crucial and has offered fascinating insights in recent decades,

Liberty—telling the whole story

At military sites like Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, which is on the Chesapeake Bay and vulnerable to sea level rise and coastal flooding, the lives of women who were present are often missing from the stories told about the celebrated men and events such sites represent.

Dusk at Fort Monroe. Photo: NPS.

Dusk at Fort Monroe. Photo: NPS.

Traveling by land at the time of the Civil War was difficult and time consuming; waterways often functioned like highways do today. At Fort Monroe, the public can observe the landscape and structures and understand why the fort, an interface between land and water, was built there and became an escape point for slaves during the Civil War.

Although the first two escaped slaves who showed up at Fort Monroe were men, many women escaping slavery found their way there, too. Mary Peake, a free black woman, became famous at Fort Monroe as a teacher to the slaves who had freed themselves. Because Peake was free, literate, and played a public role, we know something about her life, but we have scant information about many other women.

We know, for example, how many Union soldiers died at Fort Monroe, but we do not know how many black women did, because civilian deaths were not counted.  And we do not know how many of them—hungry, tired, desperate and with their children—may have been turned away.

Because slavery was “inherited” through mothers, not fathers, Fort Monroe occupies a vital place in women’s history. “If there were no Fort Monroe gate,” Huyck said, “we couldn’t walk through that gate today and imagine how a slave mother escaping to freedom with her children felt as she hoped freedom was so close for them.”

Pursuit of happiness

Resource depletion and extinction are woven through our history as a nation as much as progress and development are. In the immense fur trade, Native American women taught the European trappers how to live in the American wilderness and also prepared those hides for shipment to Europe, which brought material benefits both to their tribes and to the Europeans.

Without beaver and their ponds, such an international economy becomes hard to “see.” And as plant and animal species in our nation’s forests, like Superior National Forest in Minnesota, change from global warming, it becomes harder to connect with the lives of those who once lived there using forest resources.

Huyck underscored, “It’s hard to understand a forest when it’s gone.”

The iconic Statue of Liberty was closed for eight months for repairs following Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Andrea, Flickr.

The iconic Statue of Liberty was closed for eight months for repairs following Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Andrea, Flickr.

As we face more and more extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change, one of the challenges, a subtle one, is that climate change distracts us and impairs our ability to thoughtfully interpret and preserve the whole story—to fully understand who we are and where we’ve come from.

“In the middle of a catastrophe like Hurricane Sandy,” said Huyck, “we don’t feel we have time to talk about why we need historic sites.”

As we reflect on our history as a nation this Independence Day, we must act to preserve our nation’s landmarks and historic sites—so that future generations may know about our past. These places shape our identity as Americans. They tell us about who we are as a people and how our democracy came to be what it is today. And they place women in our tangible past, when written records too often have left them invisible.

Posted in: Global Warming, Science and Democracy Tags: , , , , ,

About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy and researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland, where she studied the cultural influence of Charles Darwin on American literature. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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  • Richard Solomon

    Thanks from me, too, for an interesting piece on a perspective on history that I, as a man, all too easily overlook.

    For anyone interested in a fascinating nonfiction account of slaves escaping from the South I’d suggest the following: Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America by Fergus M Bordewich. It was VERY educational as well as moving to read about how people helped slaves in the years leading up to the Civil War.

    • Deborah Bailin

      Thanks for the book suggestion, Richard. Obviously, I think it’s important to consider the women’s history angle when thinking about the value in protecting our national historic sites from climate change. Because women’s history is history that has already been marginalized, it is that much more vulnerable if these sites are damaged or destroyed.

      • Richard Solomon

        Yes, you are right about the role of women being, at best, marginalized in most history books. Cokie Roberts wrote a book called Founding Mothers in which she described how different women played important roles in the American Revolution, etc. It is a good read!

  • Steven_T_Corneliussen

    Thanks for this provocative essay, in particular the part about Fort Monroe, the historic landscape that many of us in Virginia have been trying, and failing, to protect from overdevelopment.

    The self-emancipators about whom you write were among the earliest of the black self-liberators who, according to Eric Foner, forced the fate of slavery onto the nation’s agenda shortly after Fort Sumter in 1861. It’s worth mentioning that a charming work of historical fiction is available: Lottie’s Courage, about a little girl who escaped enslavement by traveling on foot to Fort Monroe, the Union’s mighty, and mighty symbolic, bastion in Confederate Virginia.

    Almost all of Fort Monroe, not just the moated fortress within the
    historic landscape, has been a national historic landmark for a half century. Now this landscape, which reaches back to the time of Jamestown and the arrival of the first captive Africans in 1619, is in grave danger of being “squandered,” as the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot has put it.

    At the Union of Concerned Scientists, clarity about the threat to Fort Monroe from sea-level rise has not been matched by clarity about the overdevelopment threat to the historic landscape itself. As can be seen in a quick glance at the map-and-photo illustration at http://www.fortmonroenationalpark.org/, the national monument is bizarrely split on the bay-facing side of Fort Monroe. The politicians’ idea is to give their developer cronies not only the west side of the landscape, which makes some sense, but also to give them the sense-of-place-defining heart of the Chesapeake Bay (east) side of the landscape.

    And the politicians have all but won. For more, please see http://www.fortmonroenationalpark.org/ .

    • Deborah Bailin

      Thank you so much for reading and for sharing the link to your op-ed on the over-development problem around Fort Monroe. The argument made by Wetlands Watch that you mention in the piece is a pretty strong one — that anything developed on that site will be just as vulnerable to sea level rise as what’s already there. The value of the historic landscape, in my opinion, cannot be quantified. Its value is in what it teaches us about our history. But have the risks to over-development from sea level rise on that side been quantified? If preserving the past has been less than persuasive to local policy makers, perhaps hard data on the costs would be.

      • Steven_T_Corneliussen

        Thanks, Ms. Bailin. You ask about quantification of the sea-rise threat to the envisioned houses. I can send you a copy of the letter that Wetlands Watch sent to the Fort Monroe Authority when the overdevelopment plan, as I call it, was still pending late last year. WW charged that despite “significant new residential development
        investments” planned for this “increasingly fragile and potentially dangerous landscape,” the newly approved development plan “does not consider the long-term costs/benefits.”

        You also conjecture about affecting the judgment of the decision makers. In 2005, when the Army announced it would be leaving, they misframed Fort Monroe as a redevelopment plum for Hampton–even though no one would ever frame, say, Monticello as a redevelopment plum for Charlottesville. They have relentlessly defended this misframing of a national treasure, mainly by making sure to steer public discussion toward staying inside the framing, with the framing itself kept undiscussed. My nine years of experience in this struggle have shown me zero evidence that the decision makers are anything but heedless about “redevelopment,” the key word in the base-closure law. (That law makes sense for a humdrum Fort Drab in a cornfield. It’s a horrendous mistake for a national treasure.)

        Also: Because some at UCS fail to understand that Fort Monroe is more than just a moated stone fortress, just as Monticello is more than just a house, I should once again point to the illustration that appears prominently on the Web site that I cited earlier. It shows at a glance the geographical footprint of the problem.

      • Deborah Bailin

        Thanks again for drawing our readers’ attention — and mine — to the local politics angle on protecting Fort Monroe. I tweeted the link you provided, so hopefully more people will understand the complexity of the issue and the need to protect not only the fortress but also the surrounding landscape.

      • Steven_T_Corneliussen

        Always grateful for a chance to talk about saving Fort Monroe. There’s much more to say, and I’m available if anybody wants to discuss it more deeply. Just one example: Recently two officials finally, at long last, publicly quoted the Edward Ayers statement that’s at the top of the home page on the Web site I cited above: what happened at Fort Monroe in May 1861 has a strong claim as “the greatest moment in American history.” Now that they’ve all but won, they can afford to admit that Fort Monroe has first-rank status as an American, indeed a world, historical site (even though they aren’t treating it that way). Until recently, the politicians and officials made a practice of classing the 1861 events with Fort Monroe’s other historical dimensions, many of which are important, all of which are interesting, but none of which–except for May 1861–has a direct, central bearing on the meaning of America itself. You’re kind to indulge me.

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