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Presentation: Inauguration of the Aileen H. Clyde 20th Century Women’s Legacy Archive

March 7, 2014 - University of Utah Marriott Library

Prof. Flake will speak a the University of Utah Marriott Library’s inauguration of the Aileen H. Clyde 20th Century Women’s Legacy Archive on the topic of women’s continuing historical anonymity.

Presentation Draft

Kathleen Flake, “On Being No Longer Anonymous”

My every inclination is to celebrate this evening, but Aileen wishes that we learn something tonight and so I must try to be erudite. I would be content, however, simply to remind you of three things you already know.

The first is gestured to in my title. Some of you will recognize its allusion to the saying “anonymous was a woman.” Granted, it is a political claim; not capable of being evidenced. Nevertheless, it has the ring of incontrovertible truth. The telling of history was and is in many ways defined — its limits set and its conclusions undermined — by the anonymity and invisibility of women. As Aileen has said, “Women’s history is hardly known even to themselves.”

The second truth is related the first. Women’s anonymity and invisibility in the historical record was largely caused by their lack of education. The vast majority of our foremothers could not leave written memorials of their thoughts and actions to be found by others and, even if they could have, they were denied access to institutions that could have maintained those memorials. Illiteracy and social marginalization have always inhibited women’s inclusion in history, which is to say our society’s understanding of itself. That is, after all is said and done, what history writing is and does. It is how we look back in order to get the lessons we need in the present to move forward in the future. It is a collective act, requiring a collective identity that is based in collective memory. Periodically we hear of some poor soul who suffers a trauma that strips her or him of memory. Imagine what you would know of yourself under those circumstance. The same is true for societies, too. History matters and, until relatively recently, women were not included because they did not have the means or access to institutional support to write and preserve their story.

But, things have changed. You are no longer anonymous. In the first place, the story of the twentieth century has been in large part a tale of conflicts over public policies regarding women. That alone makes your story, an unavoidable story for the twentieth century historians. In addition, you are part of a revolution in the American academy, though you may not have noticed. By century’s end the majority of baccalaureate degrees were granted women; shortly thereafter, women earned the majority of advanced degrees.[1] The availability of education, coupled with cheap paper and ink and, then, accessibly priced computers meant that unlike the generations of women who preceded us, we leave a long paper trail — written by ourselves or others about us —daily diaries of meetings and to-do lists, letters or emails, even a few journals, I hope. Public documents, too– deeds, wills, bills, board minutes, meeting agendas, and a traffic ticket or two – all hold pieces of our thoughts and record our actions. And, do not overlook those sticky notes and marginal notes, lesson plans and meal plans, recipes, and so much more that, though you probably cannot believe it, I can testify would delight historians. Moreover, many among us have positions in institutions that record their participation in some fashion – Justice Durham’s opinions, for example, or others of your public performances in a variety of capacities, political, academic, ecclesiastical and artistic. Regardless, where these institutions have failed us, our generation has a unique the capacity to make and keep our record. So, the question becomes do we – especially those of us without institutional support — take ourselves seriously enough collect our memories and contribute them to an archive devoted to our time.

Again, I would ask you to consider that the twentieth century is our time not just because we lived it, but also because it was so substantially marked by women’s new political rights, social standing and personal opportunities. Quite simply, a knowledge of the twentieth century is impossible without women’s history. You have lived in “interesting times” — some of you extraordinary so. The fortune cookie came true for you: you have lived in interesting times and that makes you, too, interesting.

You do not have to say everything, but you do have something to say. What about that peace march, love-in, anti abortion rally, labor strike, civil rights demonstration, environmental crusade, anti-ERA campaign, and discrimination lawsuit you joined? Surely, some of you remember being a political activist and foot solder consigned to the mimeograph machine? Did you ever say “Hey, Hey LBJ . . .” Did you vote for Shirley Chisholm and Bellah Abzug? Were you ordained to the ministry? Did you witness firsthand the post Vatican II revolution in Catholic women’s orders? Did you serve an LDS mission or become a Relief Society President? Did you endure years of your husband’s bishopric service? Did you attend Utah’s IWY Meeting? Which side were you on? How did that feel? Did you attend BYU when women were not allowed to wear pants? How did that feel? Surely, I’m not the only one who remembers half-court women’s basketball? Just as surely there must be someone here who received an athletic scholarship pursuant to Title IX? What did you think when the revelation on priesthood to all worthy members was announced? Where were you when Kennedy or Martin Luther King was shot — or when Sally Ride shot into the sky? Do you remember Thalidomide? Did you wear a sweater with Jimmy Carter? Did you protest nuclear testing or waste-dumping in southern Utah? Did someone you know get sick or die from the radiation? — from aids? — from drugs? Were you ever sexually harassed or attacked? Did you serve in a war zone? – or the domestic zone, getting up every morning to feed the kids, manage a household, make the money stretch and watch the one-income household become largely extinct? Were you that one-income household – a single-parent household? Did you experience the poverty attendant to a no-fault divorce?

I could go on, of course, and you no doubt have been thinking of other examples as I listed these. I didn’t even mention one of the more cataclysmic developments – the Pill. The point is the same, whatever the example, and Aileen has already made it: “The twentieth century was full of change and we need many points of view to know what happened.” Not just people who catalyzed change, but those of us who experienced the affect of change. No story is too small for this endeavor of creating a legacy of women’s experience and understanding of the twentieth century. Neither do you have the excuse of thinking anyone else’s story so large as to capture the whole. History is not longer merely the story of kings or even queens. Political history is recognized as necessary, but not sufficient to understanding ourselves. Today, the past is told through social histories – the history of the family, of labor, of the city or of the farm, of immigration, of leisure and recreation, of culture groups – Hispanic history, Black history, Asian American history and women’s history. If you tell your story and trust it to this archive, your history will be a resource for historians of all these stripes.

And, this raises my third point. It is about archives. Unrecorded lives fade or and get lost in a fantasy about the past that is often in service to political purposes. This we learned from feminism’s first wave in the early years of the twentieth century. They were about so much more than suffrage, but as we know from the symbolic force, as well as the actual limits, of the 1950s, that “more” was forgotten and other ideals filled the vacuum. From this we learned another lesson: change must be institutionalized, if it is to last.

Archives are particularly powerful means of institutionalizing change. Contrary to popular opinion they are far from being passive repositories of old files. Archives are comprised of people who organize, catalogue and preserve the historical record: deciding what matters, preserving it, and making that content and descriptions of it publicly available. In their search for the meaning of the past, historians are dependent on archives and are guided by descriptive archival registers to focus on specific content. In sum, archives have always “been about power . . . about the power of the present to control what is [known], and [what] will be, known about the past, [archives are] about the power of remembering over forgetting.”⁠[2] Or stated more bluntly, “archives are established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled. Certain stories are privileged and others marginalized.”⁠[3] Women have held the short end of that stick long enough. We must not miss the opportunity presented to us by this great University – “to control” or at least contribute to what is known and what will be known about the 20th century. Our personal histories have now become the history of the 20th century. It is time to begin to collect it in a way that ensures it will be preserved and can be, even must be taken into account when historians return again and again for knowledge.

What you and I are inclined to dismiss as our private, subjective impressions and personal experience, or just that scrap of paper or an old conference or church program with our notes scrawled in the margin, and certainly our letters and emails are the stuff of which knowledge is made. Teachers will teach it, experts will impress people with it, and pedants pontificate on it. It will become part of history, which is to say it will become a part of how people know who they are and how to imagine future possibilities.

That is why you have an archive in your house. Maybe it’s in a box in the basement or under your bed, but it’s there somewhere. It’s certainly not being preserved. Those old photographs are fading and papers turning brown even as I speak. Nevertheless, it is a collection of what you think is important – the names, the dates, the stories, the letters, drawings and photographs and maybe a commentary of some sort on them. It is an archive of what you want your family to know for its own sake.

Again, you may not think you matter to the present much less the future. Let me just say that will certainly be true someday, if you do not preserve your story. If it you let yourself fall silent, it will be such a loss to those who seek to understand your time. The loss is not personal. It is, rather, a much larger loss. The present can only understand itself in terms of the past. And, the future is always leveraged from some combination of those two. This archive is meant for that purpose. It is not a tomb; it is a resource for constructing the knowledge that will become society’s collective memory.

Now, some of you are still thinking “papers?” — “what papers?” Others of you are already thinking — “Oh that stack of stuff! Who would want that? Who would want to know what I thought or did?” Many women have thought this and (thank heavens) they still kept their papers and wrote their reminiscence to our great benefit. So, when you open that box or book stored in your basement and it crosses your mind again that your papers don’t matter, I ask you to remember it is not just about you or even just about the past. It is about what your experiential insight and understanding, your witness that would have become knowledge, if you had shared it. That’s what the academic enterprise is ultimately: it is the creation of knowledge about the human condition. That knowledge evolves as new questions are put to the same sources. That’s why there are so many histories of Thomas Jefferson, for example. Every generation brings its own questions to the stories we leave behind and they do so not merely as an academic exercise. They are trying to understand how to live. Or as one philosopher put it: “To say that [historical] narration is a recital which orders the past is not to imply that it is a conservative closure to what is new. On the contrary, narration preserves the meaning that is behind us so that we can have meaning before us.”[4] I promise you, if you will tell the story of your life, you will not only find that kind of generative meaning for yourself, but also you will open up meanings for those who come after. “To give people back a memory is also to give them back a future.”[5]

My friends, history does not always belong to the winners, it belongs also to those who get their point of view archived. It belongs to those whose words are in the mix that becomes historical knowledge – which is to say, knowledge for successive generations to read and write about and, thereby, make some sense out of our lives in order to understand how to live their own.

Now that I have done my duty: I have given you something to think about and exhorted you to give your papers to Aileen. Let me invite you to celebrate this wonderful occasion — certainly the wonderful inauguration of this archive — Aileen’s archive, but as she would have it “our” archive.

My fantasy of heaven has always been to be in the company of friends made dear to me by shared experience, both of joy and suffering. I imagine an unhurried conversation – speaking of differences we could rehearse and laugh about; congruencies of thought and feeling we could marvel at. Since learning of it and of who was making it come to pass, I have thought this archive could become such a place with Aileen, like St. Peter our sponsor. I thank her for that; even the promise that time will not drown our conversation and others will read our papers and get a glimpse of what we – all us – meant to each other, as well as what we did and did not accomplish. And those losses notwithstanding, our aspirations and our affiliations may be of use to generations yet to come — who do come to this archive, this Legacy – looking for to answers to their questions and words for their own ideals.

Not long ago Aileen spoke at a conference on contemporary women’s stories and said such stories are needed to know “things as they really are (Jacob 4:13) She said at that conference what needs to be said at this. So, let me conclude by reading her words: “Today, . . we sense our freedom to participate in a great service — to think, remember, inquire, study, write to improve the balance in building the record of things as they really are and to move closer to the whole story. Let’s run with it.” And, I invite you tonight, when you do run with your remembrances and your records, to run with your friends in this direction that this wonderful conversation and contest we have been engaged in will continue through the lives of those who come after.[6]

[1] The Rise of Women: Seven Charts Showing Women’s Rapid Gains in Educational Achievement (February 21, 2013), The Russell Sage Foundation


[2] Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook. “ Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2, (2002) 2.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Paul Ricoeur, “The Creativity of Language,” in Mario J. Valdés, ed., A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 468.

[5] Ibid., 473.

[6] Aileen Clyde, “Shall We Not Run?” Claremont Graduate University Mormon Studies Conference (2/5/11), “Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices: Agency in the Lives of Mormon Women”, at http://ccdl.libraries.claremont.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/cms/id/26/rec/3.