Jan 18, 2020
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The Overlooked History of Women at Work

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Martha Maxwell stood only 4 feet 11 inches tall. But in the annals of natural history, she was a giant of a kind.

After moving West during the gold rush, she became perhaps the first female naturalist to hunt, skin and stuff her own specimens, which she displayed in her own museum. She was perhaps also the first naturalist, period, to display animals in the kind of lifelike tableaus now familiar at institutions everywhere.

Not that Maxwell’s work wasn’t greeted with condescension, even disbelief. A souvenir stereograph from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where she represented Colorado, shows her standing quietly in the middle of one diorama, behind a deer, with the caption “Mrs. Maxwell and Her Pets.”

Some visitors were so doubtful that she had done it all herself that a sign was added, reading simply “Woman’s Work.”

“The world demands proof of woman’s capabilities,” Maxwell once said, when asked how her handiwork related to the treatises for women’s equality being published at the time. “Without it words are useless.”

Maxwell died in poverty a few years after the exhibition. But now, she is among the women being celebrated in “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work,” an exhibition at the Grolier Club in Manhattan documenting the long and sometimes hidden history of women making an independent living.

The exhibition, which runs until Feb. 8, is drawn from the collection of Lisa Unger Baskin, which is now owned by Duke University. The nearly 200 items on view include books, letters, photographs and printed matter of all kinds, along with surprises like a pink early-20th-century birth control sponge (or a “sanitary health sponge,” as its tin puts it).

The materials show women working as scientists, artists, writers, activists, printers, architects, midwives, undertakers and makers and sellers of all things, from books and violins to patent medicines and condoms.

“I’m interested in how women managed to survive and keep themselves,” Ms. Baskin said during a tour of the exhibition, which she curated with Naomi L. Nelson, the director of Duke’s Rubenstein Library, and Lauren Reno, the library’s head of rare materials cataloging.

The phrase “women’s work” may conjure up domesticity (if not drudgery), or “women’s professions” like teaching or nursing. “But there is an enormous breadth of vocations women have been part of,” Ms. Baskin said. “Women have been working people, always.”

Assembling the collection, which includes some 16,000 items, has been a nearly 50-year endeavor for Ms. Baskin. When she began, women’s history as an academic discipline was just getting started. In the (still) heavily male and white rare book world, women’s material — and women collectors — were marginalized.

Ms. Baskin’s first big “score,” she said, came at a flea market in Madison Square Garden. “I asked one dealer, ‘Do you have anything relating to women?’” she recalled. He handed her a box of photographs.

It turned out to be preparatory material for Adelaide Johnson’s sculpture of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, which had been commissioned for display in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol in 1920, after the 19th Amendment was ratified, but relegated to the basement after a single day. (It was moved back to the Rotunda in 1997.)

The women’s suffrage movement — the exhibition includes two extensive cases dedicated to the British and American campaigns — was an early anchor. From there, Ms. Baskin spiraled backward and outward, assembling a kaleidoscopic record of women both arguing for their rights, and simply going about their business.

Among the oldest items on view is one of the first books printed by women, a 1478 history of Rome’s emperors and popes. (It’s shown open to a passage about Pope Joan, a mythical female pontiff.) The most recent are letters by the anarchist Emma Goldman, displayed, in a slyly pointed nod to the present, next to Goldman’s 1919 pamphlet against deportation.

Virginia Woolf’s writing desk, a star of the collection, stayed behind at Duke. But some marquee female writers are represented at the Grolier.

There’s a piece of framed embroidery by Charlotte Brontë, displayed with a Brontë letter describing her efforts to find work as a governess. There’s also the manuscript for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s blurb for “The Narrative of Sojourner Truth,” as well as a 1773 first edition of Phillis Wheatley — the first African-American to publish a book of poetry, and perhaps the first American woman to try to earn a living by writing.

That book’s famous frontispiece, showing Wheatley putting quill pen to paper, finds an echo across the gallery, in a copy of “Prejudice Unveiled,” a 1907 poetry collection by Lizelia Augusta Jenkins Moorer. The author photograph may be the first image of an African-American woman with a typewriter, a label reads. (The show also includes a copy of the first autobiography by a black woman in Britain: the rollicking 1857 account by Mary Seacole, a Jamaican-born nurse who, among many other things, served in the Crimean War.)

Ms. Baskin said she used to be upset by the battered condition of the Wheatley book, which she stored in the drawer of Woolf’s desk). Then Ms. Nelson’s research revealed that one of the book’s early owners, Melatiah Bents (who wrote her name in the volume twice), was a widowed tavern keeper — that is, another working woman.

“I understood the physicality of the book in a different way,” Ms. Baskin said, “the way it had been cared for and lovingly resewn.”

Not all the women’s handiwork had such loving keepers. Maxwell, the naturalist, struggled financially after the Philadelphia exhibition, where she battled with organizers over the rights to souvenir photographs. She died five years later, from ovarian cancer. By the 1920s, her specimens had mostly deteriorated beyond use.

And that “Woman’s Work” sign?

“I have forever been on a quest to find a photograph of it,” Ms. Baskin said.

Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection

Through Feb. 8 at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York; 212-838-6690, grolierclub.org.

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