Beacon Street Diary blog

Add Women and Stir

When I was ten, my personal hero was Patrick Henry. He was the Revolutionary War figure who demanded "liberty or death" — in retrospect, not a surprising choice for a bookish, secretly rebellious pre-adolescent. But by the time I reached college, I had switched to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the outspoken leader of the woman suffrage movement. I had discovered "women's history".

I shouldn't have had to choose one over the other, but that's the way history had been done for a long time. The stories revolved around wars and politics, and so in spite of an occasional Molly Pitcher or a Queen Elizabeth, the average textbook was pretty male-dominated. When changes came, they were incremental. In the new textbooks famous women appeared in text boxes, set off to one side, and probably not on the final exam.

Women's historians called this the "add women and stir" approach, a way of writing history not unlike adding chocolate chips to cookie dough. The cookies would certainly be edible without the chocolate chips and the chips don't turn the cookie into a ham roast. But the chocolate chips — and the women — are extra. They don't really alter the final product.

How much we miss! Lately one group of women has fascinated me, at least partly because I've found so much material about them in the Congregational Library. These women lived in the mid-twentieth century, after the suffrage amendment but well before the National Organization for Women and The Feminine Mystique. They lived out their faith in organizations like United Church Women, but also as deeply loyal Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. These were women who enjoyed taking leadership, lobbying presidents and generals and atomic scientists — but who hated being called feminists. 

In fact, they always preferred to go by their husbands' names. They were "Mrs. Harper Sibley", "Mrs. Samuel Cavert", "Mrs. Theodore Wedel", and "Mrs. Douglas Horton". Their husbands were prominent, accomplished men, but thee wives were incredibly competent on their own. Cynthia Wedel had a Ph.D. in psychology and was the first female president of the National Council of Churches. Mildred McAfee Horton was the president of Wellesley College and in World War II commander of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, the women's division of the Naval Reserve).

To me, these stories are every bit as much "hidden history" as are the church records we collect and digitize on our website. It's not hard, for example, to find Douglas Horton, the main architect of the merger that created the United Church of Christ, in our collection — but where is the intrepid Mildred Horton?  

These are some of the stories we'll consider next week at the library, as we observe Women's History Month. You are all cordially invited to attend or watch live-streamed a talk I'll be giving on "Liberal Women in Conservative Times" at 4:00pm on Tuesday, April 3rd. Please RSVP on Eventbrite.

-Peggy Bendroth