I began forming my women’s collection at a time when there was little interest in the historical record of the achievements of women. My politics informed my collecting. In the 1960s I was involved in the ongoing struggle for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam. My response to the women’s movement, alongside my activism, was to collect and document the history that was hidden, not taught, and little written about. I had begun prying out evidence that women were working—indeed, had always been working—but the tracks marking their achievements were largely erased or obscured.
I never limited myself to books. Even the tiniest piece of evidence that women were working, and being paid for that work, was part of my quest. I acquired manuscripts and letters, objects, photographs and pamphlets, along with printed books. Often it was the ephemera, those discarded bits and pieces of paper, that told the story of working women and of their occupations—as booksellers, milliners, instrument makers, chimney sweeps, or “layers out of the dead.”
Over time my vision expanded, as did the parameters of my collection. My activism continued to inform my collecting. I sought particularly to document the lives of women of color. My interests led me to the political poetry of Phillis Wheatley, to African American women’s settlement houses in Cleveland, to Ida B. Wells’ self-published anti-lynching pamphlets, and to Lizelia Augusta Jenkins Moorer’s writings on prejudice and Jim Crow. Printing and bookselling, as well as women’s relationships to books, became vital interests. I sought books printed and sold by women, from incunables on. And though I was never particularly interested in acquiring books of “literary” women, the learned and often political renaissance writers Vittoria Colonna, Lucrezia Marinella, and Margherita Costa were interesting parallels to the sixteenth-century printers and artists Yolande Bonhomme, Charlotte Guillard, and Geronima Parasole.
The notion that collecting takes a great deal of money, and is a pastime only for wealthy and affluent men, is false. My women’s collection required something rather different: curiosity, vision, obsession, and the patience to ferret. This persistence allowed me to discover things that were often discarded or spurned. Together these objects tell a more complete story of our human history.
February 28, 2019 – June 15, 2019
Duke University Libraries
December 11, 2019 – February 8, 2020
Grolier Club, New York City