The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Beehive series: Recent Events

Seminar Recap: Paying For “Freedom” with Her Health

On Thursday evening, October 13th, the Boston Seminar on the History of Women and Gender welcomed Helen Zoe Veit of Michigan State University who presented her paper “Paying For ‘Freedom’ with Her Health: Rising Life Expectancy, Women’s Aging, and American Youth Culture,” with comment by Brooke L. Blower of Boston University. Veit is an historian of food and nutrition whose first book, Victory Over Ourselves: American Food in the Era of the Great War (forthcoming in 2012) examines the modernization of food through home economics, food science, and self-discipline. While conducting research for Victory Over Ourselves, Veit discovered the work of Eugene Fiske and the Life Extension Institute, during the 1920s, in promoting the concept of self-discipline over “the one thing you couldn’t possibly apply [self-control of the body] to – that is, death.” “Paying For ‘Freedom’” examines the changing attitudes towards aging in the interwar period, with particular attention to the ways in which notions about the consequences of aging – and advice on anti-aging strategies – were framed differently for female and male audiences.

In comment, Blower commended Veit on her “classic cultural history objective” of seeking to understand how the discourse of self-discipline over the body as a means for extending life (and even defeating death?) has cast a “long shadow” over the 20th century. She pointed out how Veit brings our attention to the fact that, in the 1920s, Americans had to be sold on the idea that growing old could be a positive thing. One of the ways the fear of old age became managed was through separating the idea and performance of youth from one’s numerical age – the notion that acting young could actually make you physically youthful, no matter how many years you had been alive. Blower raised the question of whether the growing emphasize on youth in American culture may not, in fact, mask the reality that political and economic power remained in the hands of the late-middle-aged: “’youth’ rules; the young do not,” she suggested. Finally, she challenged Veit to provide more context – particularly exploring the way in which life extension efforts might relate to Teddy Roosevelt’s advocacy of “the strenuous life,” to fears of neurasthenia, and to the work of eugenics advocates. She was interested in popular reception of ideas concerning life extension, and whether Fiske’s advice had any noticeable effect on public practice. Given the gendered nature of the debate, she also wondered whether any women might be found pushing back against the new rhetoric of yourhfulness, and where and how they did so.

The discussion period was lively, as audience members discussed how persuasive Veit had been in her argument concerning the differing expectations of male and female youth and vitality. The consensus seemed to be that while the idea had promise, more evidence was needed. A number of suggestions were made for further exploration of context: Christian Science theology from the period, discussions of fertility and motherhood, the connections between nationalism and public health, the development of the life insurance industry and modern statistics collection, and scientific research on hormones.

The seminar series at the Massachusetts Historical Society are open to the public free of charge, with a small subscription fee for those wishing to receive the pre-circulated paper. We welcome you to explore our offerings, and hope to see you at upcoming sessions!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 19 October, 2011, 8:00 AM

Marriage, Statistics, and the State: Lunch Talk Recap

On Monday, 26 September, Bostonian Society/New England Women's Club Fellow Sarah Kirshen, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, gave a presentation on her dissertation research, “The Family's Values: Marriage, Statistics, and the State, 1800-1909.”  With a background in Public Health, Kirshen has undertaken to write a history of marriage statistics-gathering by state and federal governments, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s call in 1800 for such information to be collected (a proposal that went nowhere) and ending with the publication of the second national study of marriage in the United States in 1909. Specifically, Kirshen focuses on two waves of activism in support of keeping marriage statistics.

First, during the 1830s and 1840s, there was a push for keeping vital statistics (birth, marriage, and death records) as a function of developing national identity. The advocates of vital statistics saw the keeping of such records as documentation that would provide a means to track individuals family histories as both a public health measure and as a means of developing a national lineage. In 1842, Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to pass a vital statistics act, followed by other New England states. For the first time in 1850 the federal census asked about marital status. Kirshen looks at how the implementation of these laws led to the creation of “labor systems” by which the data could be collected and tracked. She also examines how the bureaucratization of marriage changed the meaning of marriage by making state solemnization central to the meaning of marriage in the United States.

The second wave of nineteenth-century activism around marriage appears in the Reconstruction era, when there was widespread national anxiety about changing household forms, particularly because of the new visibility of free black families and the debate over women’s property rights in marriage. Some reformers, specifically, drew upon marriage statistics as an authoritative source by which to argue that the American family was in crisis. They were particularly concerned about the prevalence of divorce, which they attributed to a lack of uniformity in marriage and divorce law nationwide. Thus, both the evidence of the problem (a supposedly newly-high rate in the breakdown of marriage relationships) and its cure (uniformity of marriage record-keeping) were tied up in the collection and analysis of statistics.

During the question and answer period, audience members asked about the influence of anti-Mormonism in the late-nineteenth-century push for marriage registration and the uniformity of state-sanctioned marriage. Kirshen has, as yet, uncovered little direct reference to Mormon polygamy in her research, but acknowledged the possible connection. In response to a question about opposition to vital-statistics gathering, Kirshen described the vocal dissent of Archbishop John Hughes of New York, also a critic of mandatory public schooling. Hughes argued that marriage was a sacred rite, not a state contract, and should not be subject to state oversight.

We wish Kirshen the best of luck with her research moving forward, and anticipate the completion of her dissertation with interest.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 28 September, 2011, 12:00 AM

An Educational Summer @ MHS

More than 500 teachers from across the United States (and Dubai!) will return to school this fall equipped with classroom resources obtained through various workshops at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Educators, as well as a few curious adults, took part in fourteen different workshops offered at the MHS this summer. These lucky participants investigated documents related to a vast array of intriguing characters, events, and issues. Topics on offer included the dilemmas of colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson, daily life during the Siege of Boston, the ratification of the United States Constitution in Massachusetts, women in colonial Boston, and Irish American and African American participation in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Photograph of educators participating in an MHS workshop at the Forbes House MuseumWhenever possible, education programs at MHS provide educators with opportunities to explore landscapes related to the Society’s documents and artifacts. We were fortunate to take several field trips this summer to locales in Boston and beyond. Participants in our Thomas Hutchinson workshop spent a beautiful summer day exploring the Forbes House Museum and other Hutchinson memorabilia in Milton. (Pictured on left.) While learning about the Siege of Boston, other educators took a tour of Loyalist Cambridge with J.L. Bell that included a stop at Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters. Where better to see the Constitution in action than at a courthouse? Photograph of educators participating in an MHS workshop at  the John Adams Courthouse in Boston MAOur Constitution workshop participants were able to discuss the ratification process in the elegant surroundings of Boston’s John Adams Courthouse, home of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. (Pictured on right.) Of course, not all of our excursions were land-based. In early August, twenty teachers from the Boston area participated in a workshop at Fort Warren on Georges Island, part of Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Although the majority of our teacher workshops take place in the summer months, the MHS offers occasional workshops throughout the academic year. For a list of upcoming programs specifically for teachers, visit our events calendar or contact the Education Department.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 August, 2011, 8:00 AM

The Civil War and Citizenship @ Fort Warren

On 13 August 2011, members of the Education Department spent a beautiful day on Georges Island, part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area.

Our day began with an exploration of Fort Warren, a National Historic Landmark built between 1834 and 1860.  Thanks to its strategic location overlooking the shipping channel into Boston’s inner harbor, the fort became a crucial part of Boston's coastal defense plan during the Civil War. Fort Warren also served as a recruiting and training camp for Massachusetts regiments of the Union Army, as well as a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. The first prisoners of war, including 155 political prisoners and over 600 military prisoners, arrived in October 1861. Perhaps the most famous Civil War prisoner held at Fort Warren was Alexander H. Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, who was held there from 25 May - 13 October 1865. Enthusiastic visitors can still take a peek into the cell occupied by Stephens during his stay on the island.  Other interesting nooks and crannies to explore include the fort's bakery, the old hospital, and a powder magazine. Brave souls can also explore the dark arch (Bastion A), a former storage area and recreation hall full of mysterious rooms and dim corners best explored by flashlight!

In addition to roaming the fort, we also enjoyed a fantastic talk by Dr. Christian Samito, a practicing lawyer and a faculty member at Boston University School of Law, where he teaches courses on the legal history of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Education staff members have been working with Chris throughout the summer on a series of public programs and teacher workshops related to issues of citizenship and Civil War military service. During this particular talk, which was co-sponsored by the MHS, Chris discussed how African American and Irish American soldiers influenced the modern vision of national citizenship that developed during the Civil War era. By serving in the Union Army, African Americans and Irish Americans demonstrated their loyalty to the United States and strengthened their American identity. While their experiences differed greatly, both groups cited their participation in Union efforts as they advocated for the expansion of citizenship rights after 1865. In the years following the war's end, African Americans gained access to legal and political processes from which they had previously been excluded on the basis of race, and Irish Americans helped to cement recognition of their full citizenship through naturalization. For more information about this topic, pick up a copy of Chris's recent book, Becoming American under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship during the Civil War Era, published by Cornell University Press.

To learn more about Boston and Fort Warren's role as a site of diplomatic intrigue, join MHS staff members on Georges Island at 1:45 P.M. on Saturday, September 17th, when we present "The Trent Affair." In the fall of 1861, Jefferson Davis sent diplomats James Mason of Virginia and John Slidell of Louisiana to Europe seeking support and recognition for the Confederacy. Eluding the Union blockade, the Southerners reached Cuba, where they boarded a British mail steamer, the Trent, for passage across the Atlantic Ocean. On 8 November 1861, the ship was seized and its Confederate diplomats imprisoned at Fort Warren.  MHS Education and Library staff members will discuss the details of the event; Mason, Slidell and prisoner life at Fort Warren; and the important role the Trent Affair played in Anglo-American relations. We hope to see you there!

This event will take place on Georges Island. For information about ferry tickets and schedules, please visit the Boston Harbor Islands Partnership website.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Friday, 19 August, 2011, 8:00 AM

Brown-Bag Lunch Talk: “Drops of Grace and Mercy”

On Wednesday, 1 June, past and present fellow Rachel Cope of Brigham Young University gave a brown-bag lunch talk on her current book-length project “Drops of Grace and Mercy: How Women Cultivated Personal Change Through Conversion Processes.” Much of the existing scholarship on the Second Great Awakening of religion in American life focuses on what Cope identifies as external forces. Scholars ask what socioeconomic forces, such as industrialization and migration, precipitated the culture of religious revival life during the first half of the nineteenth century. Cope argues that this emphasis on externalities has lead to an inordinate focus on male participants, since men were most often the visible preachers and organizers. When women appear in the existing scholarship, it is most often in the aggregate, as a demographic very likely to participate in the revivals. In part because of the equation of femininity with spirituality, women’s participation in religious movements has been understood as natural rather than worthy of particular note. Thus, there has been a dearth of critical historical analysis of women’s involvement in revival activities.

Seeking to address this gap in the scholarship, Cope focuses on women’s spiritual experience as religious seekers, asking how and why they came to religious conversion and what women did after they chose a certain spiritual course. Recently, Cope has begun to think about the concept of “agency,” an idea that has a lot of currency in present historical scholarship. When historians speak and write of agency, they are trying to understand the degree of freedom individuals and populations had, within a certain historical context, to make meaningful choices and pursue their desired life course. Because of the emphasis on personal freedom, discussion of agency has often emphasized people whose life choices are radical, people who are obviously pushing the boundaries of what is expected of individuals in their situation. Cope would like to consider not only the agency of exceptional women, but also the agency of women whose spiritual experiences and choices “fit the mold,” or supported (rather than resisted) existing structures. As she says of these women, often “working within the box is [just as] meaningful” as working outside of it.

Discussion following the presentation revolved around how Cope will situate her subjects within broader contexts, even as she focuses on their internal experiences and women’s interpretations of their spiritual lives in diaries, letters, and other forms of autobiographical writing. Those who attended the brown bag asked questions about comparing the female subjects’ writing to the voices of male counterparts; about socioeconomic commonalities among the women who left a spiritual record; about comparisons between religious and non-religious women; and about the possibility of change across time from the early 1800s to the 1850s, when Cope’s research ends.

As Rachel Cope continues her fellowship here, and moves forward with her project thereafter, we wish her the best in forming this valuable contribution to the fields of religious and women’s history.

comments: 1 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 8 June, 2011, 8:00 AM

older posts