Sunday, August 08, 2010

Tales From The Archives: Or, Past Life Shockers

On Friday, I was happily pawing through an unprocessed collection at a famous nearby archive, when I came upon one of the little treasures that illustrate the hot-house crypto-lesbo atmosphere of radical feminism in the 1970s: the mash note.

This figure (who will remain nameless for reason that become obvious below if they are not already) had drafted a letter to the object of her affections. The letter may, or may not, have ever been sent, and was redrafted at least once. It detailed the progress of the crush over time and lingered over explicit descriptions of the feelings that the crusher excited in the crushee. Most importantly, it used the effort to unveil that-which-had-never-been- spoken as a form of seduction. A particularly fine touch was the admission on the part of the author that what had tipped the scales into full-blown lust was the Object of Affection's ravishing butch haircut. Not only does this speak to the whole question of sex roles, which was one crucial focus for radical feminist critique, but the particular style chosen by the crusher caused her, in the eyes of the crushee, to look remarkably like the popular New Age guru with which they were both spiritually involved.

Having worked in numerous collections, needless to say, I have found more than one of these documents, and I don't know what to do with them. There is the Famous Feminist who claimed not to be sexually involved with women for years -- until she left her husband and was involved with women, as if this had never been an issue. But the archive also reveals (drum roll) that from about 1970 on, she got tossed at nearly every conference. Long, admiring letters and bashful cards tucked here and there into the archive detail the intensity of these encounters for the little nobody who provided the service. The absence of a response from the Famous Feminist makes it equally clear that she had been less permanently moved by the encounter (one winsome note from a one-night stand confides that a plant had been purchased and named after the Famous Feminist, a totem on which affection could be lavished until a unnamed, and entirely unanticipated, date of return.)

Finding these documents is like being at a really cool Easter egg hunt planned for feminist historians.

But they do present a problem: what to do with past life shockers? Would anyone be shocked by them really? What, if anything, do they contribute the history of radical feminism I am working on? Do they amplify the atmosphere for my reader that will better evoke the period? Do I risk losing the trust of second-wave feminists now collaborating with me if I seem to have bad judgment? (I'm thinking the answer to this is yes.) Should you publish any document about a person of interest that you wouldn't want published about yourself? And yet, why did these women leave these love notes in their papers if they didn't want me to know?



Katrina said...

Interesting dilemma! Is the issue on some level the fact that they are women? (would you be worried in the same way if these were the papers of a man, revealing that he had women pursuing him after every conference?)

As for using the letters, I would be concerned about provenance and authenticity. If these are unprocessed archives, it's not impossible for people to insert fake documents (and the type of thing you are talking about is exactly the sort of thing to produce maximum embarrassment for easy prank value). If they are authentic, I assume the recipients of these letters are dead (since their papers are available), but the authors may not be... (I guess that's a copyright issue, as it rests with the author not the recipient - and I might feel uncomfortable embarrassing some "nobody" who had once had a fling with ArchiveLady).

Never dealt with this myself: one woman whose personal papers I used made some mildly salacious revelations, but she had requested they be sealed for 50 years after her death, so by the time I saw them nobody involved was still alive.

Let us know what you decide.

Anonymous said...

Some obvious points first: are the authors of these notes still alive to be embarrassed? What is the archival context: casually filed with meeting minutes or tucked into little secret crannies?

Is one of your goals to illuminate the agonized entanglements of sex, emotions, and politics that were such a feature of the time? Then these notes are terrific evidence. If you are more interested in organizational structure, maybe not so much. Does learning the secret vices of Famous Feminist change your understanding of how/why things happened as they did? Then the rest of us should learn, too. If not, while I love gossip as much as the next lesbian, is spreading gossip worth the potential humiliation of FF AND everyone who might have encountered her?

This is one reason why I'm a fan of the fifty year rule, although that's not possible in all fields.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

And yet, why did these women leave these love notes in their papers if they didn't want me to know?

Dunno about your other questions, but isn't it likely that this stuff just gets left in archives of papers through inattention, rather than intentionally?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

To CPP's point, and TR's question that generated it: My question would be "Why did these women keep these notes?" If they never intended to reciprocate the affections, then what did keeping the (possibly incriminating?) evidence around do for them?

Yes, there is the obvious answer about ego, but there may be less obvious answers as well. The fact that these mash notes still exist at all surely means something, and that something is worth writing about, in my opinion.

(Then again, as a medievalist, I'm accustomed to working with super-fragmentary sources, so I'm always loathe to toss out any scrap of evidence for any reason. YMMV.)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Some people just keep all their correspondence. For example, I keep every single e-mail I have ever sent or received since 1999 in a searchable database.

Lesboprof said...

As for the question you raise, I think if you can make a salient point with the materials, you use them. You can always leave out the specifics of who wrote the note, but point to the trail. I will say that Lillian Faderman's use of such documents in her book, "To believe in women," made the book a fantastic read. The notes were central to the purpose of the book, of course.

Now, if people are still alive and they may react poorly to your portrayal and you need contact, you may need to configure things a little differently. Though people might be okay with disclosure now, especially if they are shown to not be the only one but part of a larger pattern.

An aside, off topic: TR, you have the most interesting choices of idioms for sex. "Tossed"? This shortly after the "Kids are All Right" post which uses "rug munching" and "mowing the lawn." I am feeling the need to go get a new sex thesaurus.

JoVE said...

Interesting dilemma. I am in the "why did they keep them" camp. Also wondering why they are in archive.

If one knows one is famous or influential in a field, surely one gives thought to what might be left behind. My partner's aunt certainly did (leaving instructions in her will for her son to burn her journals, which he did).

I think I also agree that inclusion should be driven by the argument or direction of the book. This kind of thing is interesting but it may or may not be central to what you want to say in the end.

Anonymous said...

wow... what great finds! But yeah, you have a first rate dilemma if the parties concerned are still alive. Assuming the letters are real (pace Katrina), then Lesboprof is right. You have to have a really nice empirical payoff to use these in good conscience.

I'm glad I work on the nineteenth century. Everybody is dead. Of course I never find anything that salacious either. But I did once find a wine exhibit card from the 1867 Paris World's Fair tucked in with a bunch of dunning letters and accounting records. That was fun.

Even if you can't use them now, finding a fantastic source is one of the joys of archival research. The unexpected discovery is a pleasure in and of itself.

Historiann said...

TR, Katrina's point about fakes is worth considering, but I'm assuming that few historians would have as sharp a nose for the hothouse lesbian underworld of the 1970s and the material culture of the time. So, I'm thinking that you'll reliably detect any fakery to be found. (Why would anyone go to the trouble, is what I'm wondering? Is it possible that Betty Friedan was trying to smear other feminists with the Lavender Menace she saw everywhere, like the good little conspiratorial communist she was?)

I think you should report on what's in the papers. I myself have come across some bombshell letters in the Cotton Mather papers about his penchant for 3-ways and his boyhood flings with fellow Harvard students, but I've never known what to do with them. . .

(Kidding about that Cotton Mather stuff.)

Feminist Avatar said...

I have done a lot of research on the salacious (but more often mundane!) love lives of the long dead- but I too have wondered as I quote really bad poetry written in the throes of love whether it is a step into the personal too far? What right do we have to dig this far into the personal and make it public...

But, then I think that people's emotional and sexual lives are important- they are important to them as people, and they should be important to us as historians. Plus in a longer historical context, I sometimes wonder how much they would care about this being made public- I get the sense that in my period, they would have more issue with the dirty laundry of their finances being aired than their sex lives. But that's off the point...

I guess if this was my work, I would consider possible harms to the living. Could the publication of such details ruin the reputation and/or relationships of those involved? If they are alive, why not ask them what they think? They might not care anymore.

Otherwise I'd just go ahead and publish... as a feminist, I think that it is important that women, even feminist figureheads, are shown as full people, making mistakes, having emotional lives, being sentimental, because it's part of being human. To hold them to a higher standard, to cover up their flaws or just to represent one side of them just puts them up on a pedestal- and it's hard to get things done up there.

figleaf said...

I guess my first question is why the photo of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky to illustrate this post? It's an interesting choice given that it's prompted me to think all manner of things about power imbalances, the abuse or use of acolytes, the presumptions about gender Katrina alludes to, lists of radical feminists who might have either had some connection with the Clinton era or else who might have just passed away in the 1990s, and of course the ethics of trying to guess when you're intentionally protecting her anonymity. So it's not a critical question... but it's still a question.

As for naming names, using anonymized quotes from documents, or simply referring to the documents in question I guess what matters is whether they, well, matter in the context of your subject's work.

Using more bland 19th Century examples it would matter if Anonymous's subject argued for temperance but left behind a wine exhibit flier. It wouldn't if he or she had either protested temperance or remained silent on the topic.

The great thing about being professional historians is that you're pretty darn good about dealing with the authenticity and provenance of primary documents. And if you're not your colleagues are generally pretty good at busting you for it. Consequently I wouldn't be as concerned about mischievous or incidental insertions. Further, I don't think my confidence that you'd behave responsibly and ethically about still-living correspondents would be misplaced. If nothing else, if they're still alive they're potential sources! It would be nuts to burn them.


Susan said...

It strikes me that the issue is: what's the question? How do these notes illuminate your argument. Is it important *that* there are mash notes more than who they are to/from? It seems to me that these are things that can be referenced without necessarily naming all the names. And it does remind us of the passion involved in feminist activism...

(or, as my wv says, powee)

feMOMhist said...

I have a similar dilemma. Writing about the un-dead often leads to juicy oft-repeated tales. They do illuminate the kind of emotional intensity of the atmosphere surrounding the events about which I write. Sometimes they also explain how person A became involved in said Event, due to Person B who was her lover. Now person A is married to a Dude and not too happy about prior lesbo life being shared. Lesbo life is integral to story I wish to tell, yet outing people seems not actually part of my job. So far I've parsed the differences, but the day is coming when that will not be possible.

I have had some fairly intense negative reactions to some of the things I've written about the un-dead and from a pragmatic as well as an ethical- I gotta-still-sleep-at-night POV I try to accede to their wishes as much as possible.

I need to find me some dead folk to write about.

Patty said...

It seems to me that the first step would be to authenticate the documents. Whatever people do in their lives, this stuff is historically relevant. If we want to study lesbian feminism, knowing about these relationships between women really helps.

I've always been deeply inspired by lesbian herstory, and have found 19th and early 20th century women's communities just amazing.

Recently, I discovered that the founder of our local women's organization from the mid-20th century was a lesbian. No one in the organization ever mentioned this, but it is germaine to know exactly how women got around patriarchy and male control. And the lesbian subtext for suffrage organizations and all women's rights activity is important to document. Otherwise we have this illusion that lesbians aren't key to the story of women's revolutions and social justice movements.

Patty said...

P.S. We trivialize women's lives when we say that lesbian relationships don't count. Just ask about what African Americans think of DNA and Thomas Jefferson.

Emily said...

Perhaps it would be useful to suggest looking to the social sciences on this one? I'm writing an ethnography of a living, functioning community at the moment. Although I spoke frequently about the fact that I was doing research to the people I worked with in my participant-observation (ESL students, the staff at the youth program, members of activist groups), much of the time I was simply just another member and volunteer, which means I saw office gossip, cattiness, badmouthing, interpersonal drama, the whole nine yards...and I've got it in my fieldnotes, and a bunch of it is making it, in some form, into my dissertation.

The line I tend to walk is in favor of obscuring the identities of individuals, by giving them pseudonyms where necessary, or describing them by role or other identity tags if it doesn't confuse what's going on ("a young Lebanese woman," "a student in the class," etc). It seems to me that such a route might be possible in your case. Say that Famous Dead Feminist A received mash notes from (Less) Famous Live Feminists B, C, and D. Couldn't you quote those notes without naming the writers, giving details like "part of [group with XYZ relation to Feminist A]" or "a student in her program" or whatever is relevant?

Of course, someone who has deep personal experiences of these movements will be able to say, "ZOMG! That's Feminist B!" But such persons already know more than they think, and it's not your responsibility to make people unrecognizable to themselves. I was re-reading a popular nonfiction book set in the community I'm writing on, and realized with a gasp that one of the people profiled is almost certainly the older sister of a friend/informant/interviewee of mine, based on the description of her parents' careers and her ethnic background. But that's not a failure of the author of the non-fiction book: it's just that I happen to know the family in question!

Doctor Cleveland said...

I'm told that there are similar documents in the papers of straight male figures. Why didn't they prune these things out? Heaven knows. I'm just happy to work on people who've been dead for hundreds of years.

Could you approach some of the letter-writers about this material? There are enormous risks in doing so, I understand, but also benefits both in terms of trust and in terms of information. There may be ethical ways to consult and collaborate with these sources without giving them an improper veto over the historical record.

If some correspondents are more willing to have their actual words cited then others, that could be useful to know. Some might prefer direct quotation to your paraphrase; since they can prevent you from quoting their (copyrighted) letters, but can't prevent you from paraphrasing them, that's a choice you ultimately have to let them make. And if someone's old mash note turns out to be necessary to your project, will she nill she, advance warning would still be a courtesy.

If they're willing, they can also help flesh some of this evidence out for you, including confirming the apparent lack of response. (I'm not convinced that the absence of archived replies necessarily means that there were no replies, even if Famous Figure copied the rest of her outgoing mail. The ways of self-deception are many.) And they can add context to those encounters.

feMOMhist said...

@Emily "The line I tend to walk is in favor of obscuring the identities of individuals, by giving them pseudonyms where necessary, or describing them by role or other identity tags if it doesn't confuse what's going on ("a young Lebanese woman," "a student in the class," etc). It seems to me that such a route might be possible in your case. Say that Famous Dead Feminist A received mash notes from (Less) Famous Live Feminists B, C, and D. Couldn't you quote those notes without naming the writers, giving details like "part of [group with XYZ relation to Feminist A]" or "a student in her program" or whatever is relevant? "

Historians are not so much in favor of anonymity and our obsession with citable sources, as well as names, dates and places, pretty much rules it out completely.

It is indeed one of the major differences I see in writing about the women's movement from the S.S. v the humanities. It drives me nuts when I'm reading about an org with which I'm familiar and the source is anonymous! What if I need to follow up? How can I correlate to other documents/sources?

It is an interesting debate though about the varying approaches.

Tenured Radical said...

I am loving this discussion -- thank you everyone!

Feminist Avatar said...

On the issue of anonymity in the humanities, a number of people who work with oral histories do anonymise in history. I read an article recently on farming in the US and all the interviewees were anonymised. So, there is precedence if you want to do it, in the field as well as beyond.

There is also the question of whether it is possible. There is the famous story that gets trotted out in ethics classes about the ethnographer of a small town in the US who published a book, giving each member of the town a psuedonym. But, when it was published, it was very clear to the whole town who each person was. In protest, they all made placards with their pseudonymns on it and marched through the town holding them. The ethical dilemma here was that individuals had been interviewed and had expected their information to remain anonymous- and while it might be ok to be able to identify yourself, it wasn't deemed acceptable to be identifiable to your friends and neighbours. How you get that level on anonymity in a small organisation or group must be even more difficult- and depending on the nature of the research and the agreements you have came to with your sources, you might not be able to publish everything you want to- it has to be left for the historians of the future.

Urban Exile said...

As someone who has only recently shredded, in a really big office type shredder, almost all of my past correspondence and photographs (note the "almost") I think I can speak with some authority on this point. I am not a famous person at all, but since I was a small person I have been hyper-conscious of the task of archiving myself, so I think I also qualify as a famous person -- in my own mind.

There are two processes that are interesting: one is the keeping of the mash note in the first place; second is the leaving it for historians to paw through years later.

The keeping the document in the first place can speak to pride of conquest (a characteristic frequently attributed only to men), or to some kind of genuine affection, which is not entirely out of the question either.

Leaving mash notes in the archive can be attributable to sudden death (i.e., she didn't get a chance to comb through the stuff and making packing material out of it like I did), or instead to a rather narcissistic sense that every single shred of paper referring to herself had some sort of historical value.

It is also quite possible that someone, like JoVE's cousin who was commissioned to burn all of mom's journals, failed to comply with a promise to destroy all of this stuff, which would be an interesting fact in itself. That said, it stuns me when people who are socially important don't take charge of their own documents.

This is all non-historian gab from me. But I'd say if it shows an interesting pattern, it belongs in the story.

Drew said...

As someone who sifted through boxes of papers that will one day be the archive of a radical feminist from the 1960s and 1970s, let me suggest a few responses to the 'Why did this person keep this note?' and 'Why might it be worthwhile to keep this note?' questions.

Stuff was crazy back then, people moving at the drop of a dime, stuff thrown from drawers into boxes and stored in sheds upstate for decades, etc. The existence of such a note in an "unprocessed collection at a famous nearby archive" may, based on my experience, stand more as an artifact of the time period and the movement itself than something personally significant. Also, it may well have been something that was saved inadvertently, discovered years later during the initial processing of the archival materials prior to official placement, and only then intentionally kept in the archive.

Keeping the note in the archive may be valuable in certain ways. If the note is authentic, keeping it in might assuage the fear that I've heard academic historians raise about the person having to much control over her archive. Leaving everything in might be a good, albeit painful, policy.

Also, the note may offer a glimpse into the personal side of a political movement. Radical feminists were thinking critically about sex roles, and often in ways that had never been explored before - but still struggled with the burden of dominant norms on their lives. The note may tell us something about what it was - and maybe is - like to be a radical.

I think these points are particularly important in the context of political archives. The radical feminist I worked for would ideally like her archive to be a resource for future radicals. The raw truth of what it was like to be a radical feminist in the US in the 60s/70s may be useful to that end. And the note would seem to comprise a small part of that.