“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.
”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. “
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.
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.”
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.