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March 26, 2001

Panel examines variety
of women's narrative texts

By Eric Rangus


As part of Emory’s Women’s History Month celebration, a quartet of speakers addressed the importance of women’s personal narratives as companions to generally accepted knowledge of history.

“So That the Impression May Never Be Effaced: Women’s Personal Narratives as Historical Record,” a panel discussion held March 20 in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library, took its name from a line in a diary written by a young woman named Sadai Burge. Her writings are held in Special Collections.

Writing a diary and ensuring that one’s personal history is on record, said Laura Micham of Special Collections, “sums up the power and importance of women’s personal narratives to the historical record generally and to women’s studies in particular.” Micham served as moderator of the event.

The panel was made up of Jennifer Bernhardt Steadman, visiting assistant professor in the Institute of Women’s Studies; Scott Ellis, a doctoral student in English; Victoria Hesford, a doctoral student in ILA; and Mary Odem, associate professor of women’s studies and history.

Each scholar approached the subject from a slightly different perspective:

• Steadman read passages from the diary of Amy Morris Bradley, an unmarried middle-class woman in the mid-1800s.
• Ellis concentrated on the work of the Beck Center’s Women Writers Resource Project, specifically discussing the writings of female Native Americans.
• Hesford, who works in Special Collections, introduced the diaries of four women of different races and classes who did their writing predominently in the 20th century.
• Odem presented her early work on a new project that records the narratives of Latin American immigrants to the southeastern United States, specifically Atlanta.

Steadman uncovered Bradley’s diary in the archives at Duke University while researching her dissertation on women’s travel writing between 1820 and 1860,

Bradley’s experiences included working as a governess for a family in Costa Rica, 10 years of teaching, and even working as a housekeeper for her father and unmarried brother. That last vocation didn’t last long, Steadman found.

“I am not keeping house ... are you surprised? You would not be if you knew how my brother treated me!!” Steadman read from Bradley’s diary. Bradley’s sense of humor—and sense of self—was apparent throughout. In one passage, the then-34-year-old, unmarried Bradley referred to herself as an “old maid.”

Despite her middle-class background and good education, Bradley’s single status kept her on the fringes of poverty. Still, Steadman insisted on supporting herself and eventually started the first English-language school in Costa Rica.

“The record of her rebellion and success is fundamentally important,” Steadman said. Bradley’s journal was semipublic, Steadman added, as a “means for it to serve as a legacy for her female relatives.”

Ellis, a doctoral student in English who works part time at the Beck Center, focused his presentation on the writing of Angel De Cora, a Winnebago Indian woman whose autobiographical work “Gray Wolf’s Daughter” was printed in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1899.

It portrays the moment she left her Great Plains home for school at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, Ellis said. The fact that it was published makes the narrative all the more ripe for study.

“We can explore the correlation of ‘Gray Wolf’s Daughter’ to other stories that ran in Harper’s at the same time,” Ellis said. One of those stories, he noted, was Mark Twain’s “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.”

Like Steadman, Hesford explored women’s diaries as narrative history, only she outlined the writings of four women, not just one. The women, three of whom are African-American, are “in their ‘ordinariness’ ... extraordinary examples of the truly complex way women live their lives,” according the web page she displayed to the audience.

Her subjects differed in their classes and backgrounds, and all four women’s writings are available in Emory’s Special Collections.

Unlike the rest of the panel, Odem’s narratives are oral. She is talking to Spanish-speaking immigrants—often entire families—about the ways they have reconstructed community life in the Atlanta metropolitan area.

“Talking with the other panelists,” Odem said, “is making me think about sources in a different way.”

Oral history is just one of Odem’s research methods, she said. The others include participant observation and archival research.

Not only did she talk about what she hopes to find out from interviewing these new immigrants—the impact of migration on women’s lives and gender relations, for instance—but Odem also sketched out some of the difficulties inherent in producing a study such as hers.

A large number of Odem’s subjects are in the country illegally, which makes getting them on the record difficult, she said.

The fact that she is not a native Spanish speaker, Odem admitted, could affect the narrative that comes out of the project.


Back to Emory Report March 26, 2001