Thursday, November 30, 2006

The index to history is in our heads

Today I had lunch with Sally Roesch Wagner, the Executive Director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. Matilda Joslyn Gage -- along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony -- was a founding member of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Her life was dedicated to woman's rights.

I first met Sally in 1999, when I was working on a demonstration project called Winning The Vote. (Although the project is not maintained, it still receives good usage.) As with our first meeting, today we talked about many things, sharing stories as well as pointers to information.

Above you see a photo taken of a suffrage parade in 1914 (the original is owned by the Rochester Museum & Science Center). This is one of my favorite photos because of what the women were wearing. As soon as I saw the photo, I insisted that it become part of Winning The Vote. The text from Winning The Vote says:

The women in the picture wore "dominoes." A domino is a hooded robe. These types of robes were worn by priests and other religious people, such as monks. A domino is also a type of mask that is worn at a masquerade to conceal someone's identity. In this parade, the women wore the dominoes and the masks so that the public would pay attention to their message, not to them. The placards they carried advertised an upcoming lecture by Reverend Anna Howard Shaw and others.
In the U.S., we associated this type of garb with a group that is not generally beloved (the Ku Klux Klan). The text above teaches you what the garb originally meant and allows you to understand why some groups adopted it.

Sally was very surprised when she saw the photo. She had seen none other like it. After I showed this photo to Sally, she showed me a book published in 2005 that was filled with suffrage photos and none of the photos in that book (ironically also called Winning The Vote) showed suffragists wearing dominoes. We both know that the author of that book would have wanted to have this photo included, if he had known about it.

And so here is my thought for the day...

For all that we have documented, indexed, cross-referenced, etc., it is apparent that the best index to what exists about our history is still in people's heads. Unfortunately, the index is not in one person's head, but in the heads of multiple people. Right now, there is luck involved in finding some pieces of history (like the photo above). Maybe, maybe, maybe at some point in the distant future -- when all of the holding of every historical society have finally been indexed and detailed collection information for every institution are available electronically -- we can take happenstance out of the equation. However, for now, we must rely on luck and our own wits.

Addendum, Dec.1: One reader messaged and pointed me towards this Wikipedia article on the Ku Klux Klan. For those who are unfamiliar with the KKK, this will help you understand who they are and why it would seem so unusual to see suffragist women in similar garb.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jill, I so enjoyed our lunch. Good to see you again. And you are so right about history being in our heads, as we dream of the day when you, and others with your skills and talent, will bring it all together in virtual space. In the meantime, I will tell my friend Bob Cooney what he missed with the fascinating photos you included in your project way back in 1999 when he did his book by the same name. Let's not wait so long to get together again.