March Madness and Primary Sources for Women’s History

The folks over at Junto are at it again with March Madness!  As a non-sports-fan at a major basketball university, this is always my favorite part of March.  If you aren’t already following the tournament (and voting), you really should do yourself a favor and check it out.  Every year this brings some more nerdy fun to this little corner of the internet, but this year’s theme should be of particular interest to readers of TUSH.  Instead of scholarly monographs, this year primary sources are facing off against one another in a battle to… some kind of victory?  In the meantime, though, there’s much good food for thought about syllabus development and some lesser-known sources are highlighted.  Do read the entire thread of nominations and the ongoing discussions.  It’s good stuff.

There is, of course, a lot left out.  With only 64 sources in the running, many favorites cannot be contenders.  As one commenter has already noted, presidential sources got a bit of a short shrift.  Since I’m always on the lookout for new sources for my American women’s history through 1869 course, I was disappointed to see so few documents by and about women on there.  More disappointing, though, was the ways that the women’s history texts have frequently been paired with each other in the first round—automatically requiring the dramatic reduction of women’s history sources to make it into the next rounds.  The two material culture sources (graham crackers and Jane’s skeleton from Jamestown) are in a similar boat.  Too bad—though not a material culture scholar myself, that would have been a wild pairing to see go head-to-head later in the tournament.

In the interest of assuaging my own guilt for not seeing the call for nominations in time (silly me for not spending more time checking the blogs during midterm week), I thought I’d use my space here this month to talk a bit about the primary sources for women’s history that I’ve used with best success in my own teaching.

The major omission from the Junto bracket to my mind is anything by the Grimké sisters or Catharine Beecher.  For Beecher, I almost always use her Cherokee petition and her letter to Angelina Grimké (both available through Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000).  For the Grimkés, I have had great success with Angelina’s Appeal to Christian Women of the South, of course, and selections from Sarah Grimké’s Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (Letter III, in which she responds directly to the Pastoral Letter, teaches particularly well).  I’ve taught excerpts in my religion and politics course, and in my 19th century reform course, but for my women’s history course I have made great use of Kathryn Kish Sklar’s fantastic Women’s Rights Emerges from the Anti-Slavery Movement.  Like so many of the Bedford readers, this is a really excellent short volume that teaches well.  Great introduction, great sources, and more Grimkés than I know what to do with, and that is a very good thing.

To complement the important inclusion of Abigail Adams’ “remember the ladies” letter on the Junto list, I would like to also suggest that if you are looking for primary sources to use when talking about women and the revolution, you look to Edenton, North Carolina, home of the “Edenton ladies’ tea party.”  The petition of women from this town, paired with the political cartoon lampooning them for their political activities, never fails to get students talking.  Even in classes where students have previously refused to say anything about visual sources, this one will get them going.  So I recommend it on two counts: for the content of the paired sources themselves and for their ability to get students more comfortable with visual sources.

The major document reader I use for my women’s history course is Root of Bitterness, edited by Nancy Cott, Jeanne Boydston, Ann Braude, Lori Ginzberg, and Molly Ladd-Taylor. As that list of names suggests, this is an excellent reader with some wonderful gems.  Next year I’m planning on adapting Joe Adelman’s Commonplace Book assignment in conjunction with their readings in it.  I’ll just highlight a few sources here that always go over particularly well for me.  On religion and gender, I have great success with Anne Hutchinson and Sarah Osborn, both excerpted in here. Abigail Adams is here, too, with more than just the “remember the ladies” letter.  There are great sources on women’s work, domestic and otherwise.  “A Father’s Letter of Advice to his Daughter” is a favorite of my students.  This is a 1788 letter from A. Jocelin of North Carolina writing to his daughter about what her duties as a wife will be.  There is a fantastic extended discussion of virtue that has really resonated with my students.

(One document in here hasn’t gone well for me in the past is “Moll Placket-Hole,” though I wish I had better luck because it’s so great.  I would love advice on if you’ve had success teaching this great bawdy tale of a madam who lures young women into her brothel.  There is a wonderful moment where a man comes in and realizes to his horror that the woman with whom he is about to become involved is actually the daughter of a friend.  What’s a respectable woman like her doing in a place like this?  He rescues her and you would think that we could have a great discussion about class and sex here, but it never goes where I want it to.  Even paired with a lecture on moral reform, something about the document—maybe it’s tone? Or the genre?—doesn’t translate.)

What primary sources do you use in the women’s history classroom?  Which of these documents make it on your US history syllabi?  And how will you vote on the difficult first round question of Harriet Jacobs vs. Harriet Beecher Stowe?  An agonizing choice…

One thought on “March Madness and Primary Sources for Women’s History

  1. Thanks for this! Phillis Wheatley’s “On Being Brought from Africa to America” always leads to some interesting discussions. Hannah Adams’s amazing An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects is great because it gives an overview of religion in the various early states but also leads you to Shakers, Unitarians, and Jemima Wilkinson (great fun to teach). And I’ve enjoyed using a section of The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk during discussions of anti-Catholicism.

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