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Where are the Women in History?

Women are missing from our history textbooks and public memory—and not necessarily because their stories haven’t been told. Sometimes it’s because of how their stories were preserved and told in the past. Understanding decisions earlier generations made that hinder our ability to find women’s stories can make it easier for us to rediscover and tell them today.

As we do, writers in the past believed that whose stories got told, and how, mattered. Those aims motivated friends, family, and activists to preserve women’s written and spoken words. They also led authors to craft narratives and to edit women’s documents in ways that would be relevant or persuasive to their audiences.

Take the example of Isabella Graham. Born in Scotland in 1742 and married in 1765 to a British army physician, Graham followed her husband and his regiment to Canada, Fort Niagara, and, on the eve of the American Revolutionary War, Antigua. After her husband’s death there in 1773, she returned with her four children to Scotland. She moved for the final time to New York in 1789. There she opened a boarding school where George and Martha Washington and other prominent families sent their girls. Then she became a trailblazer in founding charities aiding women and children. Graham died in 1814, and over the following decades she was remembered as a philanthropist, an educator, and an evangelical role model. Well-known in the 19th century and remembered into the 20th, she is now unknown to most outside of early American historians.

Protestant evangelical reformers shepherded her memory in the 19th century, starting with her family and her pastor. John M. Mason, a Presbyterian cleric who had been Graham’s pastor for many years, published the eulogy he delivered at her funeral. Her son-in-law and daughter, Divie and Joanna Bethune, published a biography of Graham and collections of her letters and other writings. Periodically revised and issued in new editions, the books were bestsellers and, along with the eulogy, were advertised hundreds, if not thousands, of times in newspapers in the early to mid-19th century. Excerpts or abridged versions of her biography were included in other books and periodicals, including ones geared to young readers, such as Sketches of the Lives of Distinguished Females (1833) and Benson Lossing’s Our Countrymen: Or Brief Memoirs of Eminent Americans (1855). The latter mainly featured men, but Graham was spotlighted alongside several women including Catherine Ferguson. A well-known African American philanthropist in New York City, Ferguson’s story was shared nationally in articles and tracts based on an interview the abolitionist businessman Arthur Tappan conducted with her in 1850.

These authors had clear purposes for their works. Following in the long Christian tradition of nurturing faith by telling stories of exemplary believers, writers such as the Bethunes and Tappan drew out aspects of their subjects’ lives that advanced that goal. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History