digging up dead women and rewriting historyPosted: November 4, 2013
I used to write in a graveyard. I went to college in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and there was a little Episcopal church in that town with an old cemetery and a small labyrinth made of stones. I’d sit on a bench and write, and when I needed a break or inspiration, I’d walk the labyrinth or wander among the fading tombstones. One day I discovered the grave of the man who had been mayor in 1869. W.B. Scott was the second black mayor in the US, and here he was leading this rural Tennessee town just a few years after the Civil War.
East Tennessee was mostly pro-Union with all kinds of slavery opponents, but it still surprised me to see that a predominantly white town had a black mayor. The place was clearly proud of this fact all these years later because they’d erected a fancy new tombstone that also mentioned his work as a newspaper editor. I was mighty impressed until I noticed a crooked, faded, half-sunken stone next to it.
Who do you think that grave belonged to?
The woman who fed him, sewed and washed his clothes, bore and raised his children, and kept his home clean and his bed warm. The woman who likely listened to his concerns, fears, and ideas; buoyed him when he faltered; and gave him advice and an idea or two of her own.
To leave her grave that sad while her husband’s positively sparkled was a shame. I haven’t been back to that cemetery in years, but I hope they’ve rectified their mistake.
It made me think of Shakespeare’s sister. Virginia Woolf imagined that William Shakespeare had an equally talented sister named Judith. The young woman’s story goes something like this: forbidden to study and married off too young, she ran away, but her inability to get work in the theatre and subsequent impregnation led her to commit suicide. Woolf wrote:
When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.
The point is that there may have been all kinds of female Shakespeares, Raleighs, DaVincis, Copernicuses, etc., but we never had the chance to meet them because society did not deem it appropriate or beneficial to invest in women’s intellect and creativity.
Not only that, but history is missing women’s voices from all walks of life. History is made up primarily of men’s stories; the whole narrative of Western history is shaped by men, and white Western men at that. Even women who achieved have been written out, erased, forgotten. Women are responsible for the DNA double helix, signal flairs, and computer programming, to name a few, but you wouldn’t know that because men got credit for the hard work of these innovative women.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to serve on the advisory council of the Tennessee Women Project. Led by American Association of University Women of Tennessee, this project resulted in a book that highlights women who are missing from Tennessee’s history text books. The book, Tennessee Women of Vision and Courage, just came out, and it includes an essay I wrote on social reformer Fanny Wright.
When I was given the assignment, I knew nothing about Fanny Wright–or many of the other women included in the book. I didn’t grow up in Tennessee, so I didn’t learn state history in school like kids do around here. Over the years, I’ve gleaned bits and pieces, attended history museums, and read essays, but women were often missing from the story. And then I was offered the chance to dig them up and restore them to their rightful places.
The niece of moral philosopher James Mylne, Frances “Fanny” Wright was born in Scotland in 1795, but the promise of egalitarianism led her to the US, where she did decades of work for racial, gender, and economic justice. She created Nashoba, an intentional community outside of Memphis, devoting her attempted utopia to ending slavery and promoting racial integration.
In my research, I discovered that Fanny spent the final years of her life in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, she’s buried in historic Spring Grove Cemetery, where my grandfather and uncle lie and where I will someday go to visit the graves of my mother and stepfather.
She came all the way from Scotland to Tennessee to work for freedom, and I had to come to Tennessee to find her when she had been in my back yard my whole youth. I’ve worked for women’s empowerment and the elimination of racism for years, and nearly 200 years after Fanny’s arrival, it’s still an uphill battle sometimes here in the great state of Tennessee.
But now I have Fanny’s words to remind me how relatively easy my battle is: “I have wedded the cause of human improvement, staked my fortune on it, my reputation and my life.” True indeed, as you’ll see when you read the essay.
These words are engraved on her tombstone, which, unlike Ms. Scott’s, is prominent and tended. May her memory be as well.