Questions of Baking, Women, History & the Present: A Research Narrative

A Return to Domesticity?

Over the last few years, I’ve taken up baking as a hobby and as a historian this brought me to questions of why and how home baking has historically been gendered female. As research often does, especially when starting with a broad topic, my look into questions of the history of baking and women’s roles took an interesting turn toward questions of why there has been a resurgence of interest in DIY and made from scratch products (apparent in the popularity of Pinterest & YouTube tutorial videos.)

I began gathering resources and perused lots of mid-20th century advertisements for baking products. (This reminded me of an exhibit I saw at aSHEville Museum in Asheville, North Carolina a couple of years ago, profiling the way women have been portrayed in advertisements, which in turn led me down a rabbit hole of advertisements for all sorts of products and the way they portrayed women-perhaps a topic to expand on later.)

One of those ads I mentioned…

I also found a number of interesting articles, blogs, and other sources. One blog I was already familiar with is called Modern Wife, Modern Life and is the web accompaniment of a traveling exhibition about 1960s women’s magazines in Ireland curated by Ciara Meehan. The exhibition explores the advice given to newly married women and how that advice changed with the spread of home technologies. Women were expected to no longer just keep a beautiful home, but also to do so by being modern wives who made use of the newest technology. You can check out more about this exhibit here:

Next, I came across a research guide put together as a project of Boston University students. The site, called Guided History, includes history research guides on a number of topics. One, Material Culture of the American Household, discusses themes of gender through material culture and recommends a number of books for further reading. The guide discusses how rooms within the American home became gendered, with the kitchen and dining rooms being associated with women. Two books on this topic were recommended and I have added them to my list for future research.

  • Cromley, Elizabeth C.  The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010.
  • Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Kitchen Culture in America. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

The research guide also included a section on individual object studies with one recommended about the rise of Tupperware and women’s use of it.

  • Clarke, Alison. Tupperware The Promise of Plastic In 1950s America. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1999.

Another site, Gender, Food, and Culture, populated by students in a Harvard University Summer School course entitled “Gender, Food & Culture in American History,” offered up an article specifically about cake, “From Celebration to Procrastination: Cakes and Creativity in the 1950s.” This article discusses the shift from cakes as special treats for important occasions such as weddings and birthdays to everyday desserts because of the rise of the cake mix. Easy and quick to make, cake mixes made everyday cake possible.

With the availability of cake mixes and ready made desserts, all of this research about women’s roles in the kitchen & inventions meant to make those roles more efficient, led me to wonder about the rise of Pinterest recipes, DIY, and my own interest in baking from scratch as opposed to using a mix. Is this regressing? My own interest in baking from scratch stems from a desire to make something authentic, by myself, and to learn what I see as something taking skill.

Baking a blueberry lemon cake.

Emily Matchar argues in her book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity that a “homespun rebellion” is taking place with young adults “embracing the domestic in the service of environmentalism, DIY culture, and personal fulfillment.” Matchar’s book looks at DIY, the rise of young artisans, handmade products in Etsy shops, etc. When pursued for this purpose, this return to the domestic is not a return to old-fashioned gender roles, but instead, a response to feeling let down by mass culture & big corporations.

So the question of why & how baking has historically been gendered female brought me instead to questions about how and why modern women (and some men) are returning to traditionally domestic, made from scratch hobbies. Interesting how research can do that. Have I raised more questions than I answered? Probably, but that’s all in the fun of research.


I offer research and writing services to museums and businesses. When researching for a client, I prepare research questions for the client to review at the start of the project. I love doing research and pride myself on being thorough. The above blog post is the result of my passion for research — I did it just for fun! Contact me at if I can help you with a historical research project!

Women’s History & Public History

In the field of public history, the interpretation of women’s history has become a hot topic with increasing attention and emphasis being placed on including women’s perspectives in museum exhibits and other public history initiatives. This post is a literature review and essay on how women’s history has historically been presented via museums and historic sites. Women’s history should be more fully explored in all of its diversity and possibility at museums and historic sites of all types, especially in view of women’s historic and continued impact on the field of public history, with museums especially often considered a pink collar profession.


Social History’s Influence

Both public and women’s history as disciplines developed around the same time as social history, which began calling for the inclusion of marginalized histories like those of women, as well as racial minorities. Influenced by the social history movement of the 1970s and 80s, as well as the urgings of female staff at museums and sites, public interpretation at historic sites and museums has increasingly incorporated women’s history.[1] Even more recently, the fields of preservation and museums have pushed for progressively critical and analytical interpretations that move beyond simply adding the biographies of ‘great’ women to go alongside those of ‘great men,’ emphasizing the potential of making the history of all women more visible through the use of tangible resources.

Despite continued appeals over three decades, and a general increase in representation, there is still a need for more integration and better interpretation of women’s history at sites and museums. However, museums and preservation professionals have each identified different areas of women’s lives that are most in need of better interpretation. Museum professionals write that too much emphasis has been put on women’s public roles, while preservationists and those involved with historic sites push for more interpretation of women’s lives outside of the home, feeling that the domestic sphere is over-interpreted through the prevalence of house museums.

This interesting dichotomy may be the result of differences in the development of the two fields, the availability of the material culture used at each type of institution or issues of funding and sponsorship.

Women’s History in Museums

Edith Mayo’s 1983 article, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” was written only 5 years after public history, as a newly established self-identified field, published its own journal and is one of the earliest calls for increased representation of women’s history via public history.[2] Mayo provides an overview of the field of public history and its divergence from academic history in order to explain why women’s history had not been heavily incorporated into public history at that time. Arguing that public history and academic history separated due to increased specialization in training for academics and the propensity for academics to then see those who worked in preservation or museums as amateurs or antiquarians, Mayo then points out that women, who originally spearheaded preservation movements, were usually not trained historians. When the field of preservation began to professionalize, this lack of training began to phase out women from public history.

Mayo traces women’s involvement in public history back to the preservation movement of the nineteenth century in which women in their role as “culture bearer and preserver” led movements to save the houses of great men, including, most famously, Mount Vernon. By giving an introduction to women’s historic involvement in the field of public history, Mayo points out the irony that women’s history is “still largely neglected by public historians.”[3] Women’s history’s growing popularity in the academy as well as women’s traditional role as preservers of culture and history point to the need for more interpretation of women’s history in museums and historic sites.

Ultimately, museums should be a vehicle that brings women’s history from the academy to the public and should continue to respond to the increase in women’s history scholarship by incorporating interpretation of women into their exhibits and programs.

However, mere incorporation and inclusion is not enough as it needs to be balanced in order to present an accurate picture of women’s lived experiences. In the past, women’s history in museums has been focused on presenting “notable” women to go alongside the stories of noteworthy men.

Barbara Melosh’s “Speaking of Women: Museum’s Representations of Women’s History” finds that museums have had more success at interpreting women’s public roles, such as political achievements and labor roles outside the home, rather than their domestic lives.[6] This phenomenon is partially due to the driving principle of “finding” women on the same terms as men. Melosh shows that the exhibits of women’s public roles have been more common and more successful in terms of engaging with the available scholarship.

Exhibit at the National Air & Space Museum. Photo of exhibit taken by author.

Those exhibits that do present domestic life of women leave out any reference to subjects related to women’s bodies, sexuality, or domestic conflict. For example, Melosh found only one exhibit at the time to actually address domestic conflict in examining the household as a place of labor. The exhibit “Impact: Technology in the Kitchen” described the changes over time in kitchen tools and appliances, but rather than indicating a narrative of progress the exhibit explained how improvements in technology have not changed the amount of time that women spend on housework.[7] This lone example is in contrast to the proliferation of scholarship on women’s domestic conflicts, sexuality, and relationships.

While social history has greatly added to the interpretation of women’s history in museums, museums have not fully incorporated scholarship to the detriment of representations of women’s domestic lives. This issue stems from a continued discomfort with discussing matters of women’s sexuality and family conflict and violence. Part of the lack of critical analysis of women’s domestic lives is a collections issue because matters like divorce or domestic violence do not produce very many tangible objects, especially any which are saved over time. However, Melosh argues the major barrier to a completely scholarship-infused interpretation is the museum’s “code of civility” that tries to evade subject matter that would be upsetting to its constituencies.[9] This issue is largely tied to the need for funding and sponsorship, either from the public or corporations. Melosh encourages museums to resist letting outside sponsors dictate how the exhibits are interpreted and instead pushes upon museums their “social responsibility to close the gap between scholarly and popular conceptions of the past, to convey a more complex sense of history.”[10]

Laura Brandon’s 2010 essay, entitled “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” discusses the lack of artifacts related to certain experiences of women and the propensity of museums to interpret women in relationship to men or in roles that offer a parallel to men’s rather than looking at women’s experiences in their own right. Brandon reasons that since women make up the majority of the population, their experience of war is important for a complete understanding of wartime; however, war has traditionally been interpreted as a masculine event.

The museum her case study is focused on, which has been traditionally focused on military history rather than social or cultural circumstances of war, had recently made attempts to incorporate women’s experiences. However, the inclusion of women was still in the context of the fighting or in relationship to men. Brandon calls for more interpretation of the actual wartime experiences of the majority of women on the home front such as knitting circles, rationing and making do, working, and receiving letters from male family members. Instead of offering interpretation of the home front, representations of women have been limited to certain types such as nurses and female service personnel, two roles very much in the context of fighting. Brandon outlines the various challenges faced by the Canadian War Museum in new attempts to build a picture of the total woman including adjusting collections policies, finding creative solutions to fill gaps made by past collection policies, and  improving cataloging methods in order to better locate the few items that do relate to women’s experiences.

The available artifacts were collected by men and are limited to those objects most closely associated with the fighting, such as guns and uniforms. The lack of both art and artifacts related to women’s experiences is caused largely by past collection policies which sought the tangible remains fit for interpreting traditional military history. Therefore, current curators and museum historians are faced with the challenge of finding representations of women’s experiences. Brandon makes several suggestions to aid this process. She calls upon making use of archival records and changing the system of cataloging to help find objects based on their context and significance rather than simply their function. This method of cataloging would allow staff to pull up objects that relate to women’s experiences because of the personal story attached rather than its formal use. However, even with these methods, the main issue is that wartime material culture that reflects the changes women had to make in their lives on the home front is missing from the Canadian War Museum’s collections. Brandon finds that this issue is largely related to the underestimating of women’s experiences both in history and today. Women do not identify their own material culture relating to war as important or relevant to war museum collections. Furthermore, Brandon finds that women’s history in the academy has had less effect on masculine-oriented, war museums.

The root issue is a lack of interpreting the whole woman, or in other words, the neglect to convey a comprehensive view of women’s pasts, both in and out of the home.

Museums have followed scholars’ lead in increasing the interpretation of women’s lives and experiences; however, that scholarship has not been applied uniformly. As time progressed, the mere inclusion was not enough and interpretation continues to present issues, concerns, and questions about the best approaches and methods for interpreting all aspects of women’s history.

Women’s History in Historic Preservation & Historic Sites

Like museums, historic sites have experienced great changes in terms of the interpretation of women’s lives, experiences, and perceptions because of the influence of social history and women’s history scholarship. However, unlike museums, historic sites have emphasized moving away from interpreting historic houses solely as domestic spaces or as the sole spaces of women, leading to a push for the interpretation of women’s spaces outside of the home.

Much of the reason for a lack of sites related to women’s public roles are the lack of preservation of the evidence. However, there are still numerous ways to find all aspects of women’s lives in the built environment. Beginning with the early calls for increased identification of sites of women’s history, the field then adapted to an increased need for improved interpretation in sites already identified as women’s sites and for the expansion of interpretation into less-obvious sites of women’s experiences.

Like in museums, women’s history in historic sites and preservation began with the call for mere inclusion. Page Putnam Miller presented the following findings in her introduction to the 1992 edited collection, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. As recently as 1990, only four parks out of the National Park Service’s 356 units focused on women and less than 2 percent of the 1,942 National Historic Landmarks were designated because of their relationship to women’s history.[12] These statistics quantitatively demonstrate Miller’s motivations for the volume. The goal of the work as a whole was to encourage the fields of women’s history and historic preservation to collaborate in identifying and interpreting historic sites for their place in women’s history. Miller and her colleagues focused on properties that might qualify for National Historic Landmark designation, which, as Miller explained, offers sites more protections than nonprofits and individuals are often able to. Thus, this volume argues, designating women’s history sites as National Historic Landmarks would be the best way to ensure their preservation and proper interpretation for the public.

Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History was very successful in demonstrating the lack of interpretive sites of women’s history in the federal system of landmarks. The volume also successfully showed how historic structures can be a valuable resource for interpreting women’s history. Each essay reflects Miller’s assertion that “[b]uildings may be examined from many viewpoints and reflect social function, technological development, aesthetic taste, and economic factors.”[13] Sites also offer a powerful sense of place, which Miller regards as “equally as important as the research potential of these tangible resources.”[14] Place can provide insight otherwise not easily understood.

Other authors have written proposals and guides to applying some of the same approaches to identifying and interpreting women’s history to local initiatives rather than national landmarks designation. A case study in new ways to interpret women’s history through preservation and the built environment, Gail Lee Dubrow’s 1992 article, “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation,” does just what its title implies, proposing that the three approaches be applied in various combinations to interpret women’s history.

Dubrow focuses on issues of public, outdoor space, including structures as well as open areas, in order to emphasize making women’s history visible to the public. She uses the city of Boston, where she undertook a survey of the available resources for interpreting women’s pasts, to show how recent scholarship could be applied to advance an accurate and complete presentation of women’s roles and contributions. This article begins with the need for identification of places of women’s experiences, seeking to begin interpreting women’s history by locating it on the physical landscape. Dubrow argues specifically for using preservation, public art, and public historical interpretation in tandem.

In order to better interpret women’s history, Dubrow calls for less emphasis on notable women and more on “women’s collective accomplishments and activities and to fully encompass the diversity of female historical experience.”[16] However, she still focuses largely on celebrating contributions of women and movements for reform rather than representing ordinary women or a more critical, complicated interpretation of the past. Dubrow does push beyond mere identification of sites though. She argues that the importance of these sites must be made publicly visible. Dubrow cites the quintessential example of a project that combines preservation with art and historical interpretation in order to interpret women’s past. Dolores Hayden’s “Power of Place” project identified sites relevant to women’s history; however, many were no longer standing or were substantially changed. Therefore, public art projects were commissioned on the sites to represent the women’s stories. This successful project serves as an exalted example of what could be achieved through the combined efforts of public history interpretation, preservation, and public art with art’s ability to attract public interest and engagement, “especially where there are few tangible reminders or in situ physical clues about the historical significance of the place.”[17]

This lack of remaining built structures is due to previous lack of identification of women’s history sites, an issue largely tied to the field of preservation’s emphasis on architectural integrity. Many women’s sites are not located in buildings that are otherwise significant for their architectural style.

The field of historic preservation has pushed not only for more interpretation of women’s history but also more comprehensive and critical interpretations that push beyond women’s domestic role which is interpreted over and over again in historic house museums. There has been and remains a need to present women’s history outside of domestic settings and to reinterpret domestic settings for the lives beyond the notable women or wives of famous men that lived there.

Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, a collection of essays edited by Polly Wells Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, aimed to be a guide for local teachers and historical societies that were trying to include women’s stories in their local histories or sites.[19] The volume includes eleven case studies that examine a wide variety of sites, some not generally associated with women’s history, some places of forgotten women’s activities, and some usually assumed to be in women’s domain but reinterpreted to present a more complicated view. This volume highlights the value of tangible resources and their ability to connect the public to the past and argues that local sites can offer Americans the specific connections to their present that they so desire when learning about the past.

The chapters are not organized into sections; instead, each chapter focuses on a different kind of public interpretation of women’s pasts. The topics include the development of walking trails or tours of women’s history, the imbalance between the number of statues and monuments honoring individual women as compared to men, Native American women’s efforts at cultural retention, reinterpreting historic house museums to reflect not only the man who owned the house but the women, free, servant, or slave as well. Several chapters address the need to reinterpret historic houses in order to take these marginalized women into account; however, the volume then devotes the largest number of chapters to address the need to represent women’s lives outside the home in order to avoid the “erroneous belief that women worked only in homes, either their own or someone else’s.”[20] Thus the volume includes essays on interpretation of women in familiar yet public places such as cemeteries, businesses, entire cities, and public commemorative celebrations and events.

The volume is a valuable guide for reinterpreting both domestic and public places in order to provide a comprehensive view of women. One example of the volume’s contribution to the improvement of historic house interpretation is Pamela K. Sanfilippo’s essay, “Sunlight and Shadow: Free Space/Slave Space at White Haven,” which examines the lives of the women who lived at Ulysses S. Grant’s Missouri farm home.[21] This shift in focus from the male owner of the home to the women, both his wife as well as the female slaves, represents a trend in the interpretation of historic houses to be more inclusive of all members of the household. The essay analyzes not only the written sources about the women’s lives, but also uses the architecture itself to uncover information about the relationships the women had to physical space and each other within the home. This use of the built environment is seen in the description of the differences between the comfortable areas of the home used by the privileged Julia Grant and the dark kitchens and bedrooms used by slaves. Also using archaeology, the study of White Haven revealed details about the enslaved women’s lives, such as having to hide broken dishes under the floorboards for fear of punishment.[22] Like many of the other works in the volume, this essay demonstrates the possible successes of using material culture, and the built environment more specifically, to discover information about women’s pasts.

The volume also provides unique ideas for interpretation of both women’s public roles and the public, visible commemoration of women. One essay describes the need for increased interpretation of women as entrepreneurs. Candace A. Kanes’ essay, “Revisiting Main Street: Uncovering Women Entrepreneurs,” explains why women’s place in business has been overlooked due to history’s focus on big business and women’s predominance in the domestic sphere. However, Kane explains that some women owned and operated small businesses that were important within their communities. She calls for those local businesses to be identified and properly acknowledged through various interpretive approaches including maps, interpretive panels, or plaques.[23]

Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is a more extensive and comprehensive collection of essays regarding the interpretation of women’s history, specifically in the context of preservation projects. It makes a call for moving toward questions of women’s motivations, specifically in women’s involvement in the preservation movement. By improving understanding of women’s reasons for involvement and their contributions to the movement, those women can better be understood in their context. Explaining the advances in the interpretation of historic houses, the volume still maintains that other kinds of spaces are necessary to prevent spreading “the myth of women’s confinement in the domestic sphere while missing vital opportunities for marking women’s history in the more public arenas of the paid labor force and the community.”[25]

The incorporation of women’s history into public historical interpretation has been an ongoing process that began in both museums and historic sites as mere inclusion. However, with time and the continued efforts of women both in the academy and in public history institutions, the field has begun to push for more critical representations of women’s lives, experiences, contributions, and perspectives. Despite differences in interpretation between museums, which have better interpreted public roles of women, and historic sites, which have traditionally preserved and presented the domestic sphere, many common goals and approaches can be seen. It is clearly widely acknowledged by both preservation and museum professionals that public historians need to apply the best of women’s history scholarship in their representations to the public and present the most comprehensive view of women possible. Public historians need to fulfill the need for the ‘total woman,’ including the public and private spheres, the noteworthy and unusual, as well as the anonymous and the ordinary.



[1] Edith Mayo, “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection,” The Public Historian, (5:2), 1983, 68, Accessed on November 20, 2013.

[2] Mayo, 63-73.

[3] Mayo, 67.

[4] Mayo, 68.

[5] Mayo, 68-69.

[6] Barbara Melosh, “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History,” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press), 1989, 183-214.

[7] Melosh, 200-201.

[8] Melosh, 202-203.

[9] Melosh, 207.

[10] Melosh, 209.

[11] Laura Brandon, “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress,” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader, Edited by Amy K. Levin, (London: Routledge), 2010.

[12] Page Putnam Miller, editor, Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1992, 13.

[13] Miller, ed., 7.

[14] Miller, ed., 3.

[15] Miller, ed., 71.

[16] Dubrow, 112.

[17] Dubrow, 112.

[18] Dubrow, 130-131.

[19] Polly Welts Kaufman and Katharine T. Corbett, editors, Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History, (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company), 2003.

[20] Kaufman and Corbett, 4.

[21] Kaufman and Corbett, 103-120.

[22] Ibid, 114.

[23] Kaufman and Corbett, 189.

[24] Dubrow and Goodman, 2-3.

[25] Dubrow and Goodman, 7.

[26] Gail Lee Dubrow and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors, Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.

[27] Dubrow and Goodman, 96-110.


Brandon, Laura. “Looking for the ‘Total’ Woman in Wartime: A Museological Work in Progress.” Gender, Sexuality, and Museums: A Routledge Reader. Edited by Amy K. Levin. (London: Routledge). 2010.

Dubrow, Gail Lee. “Claiming Public Space for Women’s History in Boston: A Proposal for Preservation, Public Art, and Public Historical Interpretation.”  Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. (13:1). 1992. Accessed November 22, 2013.

Dubrow, Gail Lee, and Jennifer B. Goodman, editors. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2003.

Kaufman, Polly Welts, and Katharine T. Corbett, editors.  Her Past Around Us: Interpreting Sites for Women’s History. (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company). 2003.

Mayo, Edith P. “Women’s History and Public History: The Museum Connection.” The Public Historian. (5:2). 1983. Accessed November 20, 2013.

Melosh, Barbara. “Speaking of Women: Museums’ Representation of Women’s History.” History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press). 1989, 183-214.

Miller, Page Putnam, editor.  Reclaiming the Past: Landmarks of Women’s History. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). 1992.

Women for Abolition

The long road to freedom and the abolition of slavery was paved by many people working towards that goal, including men and women, black and white, Northerners & Southerners.

Many African American abolitionists were former slaves, who had either gained freedom through “official” means (were emancipated by those who enslaved them) or had escaped slavery. Free blacks in the north were often part of the abolitionist movement as well.

Harriet Jacobs, image in the public domain.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. She is most well-known as the author of a series of newspaper articles later turned book entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was a memoir of her life in slavery. The book was published in 1861 and is one of the earliest accounts of the struggles women especially faced when enslaved including sexual harassment and abuse and roles as enslaved mothers without legal rights to their own children. Harriet escaped into hiding in 1835 and then in 1842 was able to flee to the North. She became involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving talks to support the cause and raise money. Her later memoir was also used to raise awareness, encourage the Civil War to be rightfully seen as a war against slavery by Union backers, and to especially appeal to white women by focusing on how slavery impacted black women’s ability to remain chaste and to be good mothers. During and after the war, Jacobs worked with fleeing refugees, and former slaves helping to provide food, shelter, etc. in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived the rest of her life.

Whites who were involved in the abolitionist movement were often members of liberal religious groups, such as the Quakers, which saw all souls as equal. White women, especially those of middle and upper classes had more ability to be involved in the movement than black women owing to being allowed more education, more freedom of movement, and access to resources and financing that allowed them to concentrate their time on the effort. Many northern abolitionists are well known such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and many went on to also be prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.

Southern white women abolitionists are less often spoken about. One such woman was Abigail Stanley. She and her husband, who were part of a Quaker community in Guilford County, made their home part of the Underground Railroad and owned a wagon with a false bottom that they would use to help enslaved people escape. When many Quakers left the state as the debate over slavery grew increasingly heated, Abigail and her husband Joshua remained in North Carolina. Abigail petitioned the North Carolina legislature in 1838 to abolish slavery and worked to that end through her participation in the Underground Railroad and her writings.

The full text of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is available through the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South here: 

Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?

I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.

I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.

I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.

Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?

Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.

Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.

Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era and women of color are often even more difficult to find written sources for. While there may be less sources, they do exist.

Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.

Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”

This post was originally written in response to the US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge in 2019, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. I participated in the #19forthe19th challenge. You can find all of my posts on my Instagram feed: @bethnevarezhistory.


Mercy Hospital & the History of Segregated Healthcare in Wilson, NC

In honor of Black History Month I have been visiting local historical sites with strong ties to Black history and sharing my experiences. I have already written about Boyette Slave House in Kenly, NC, the Freeman Round House Museum in downtown Wilson, NC and St. John AME Zion Church in downtown Wilson, NC. The last site I will share about this month is Mercy Hospital, also in downtown Wilson, NC.

Originally started in 1913 as the Wilson Hospital and Tubercular Home, the hospital began when Dr. Frank S. Hargrave, a black physician who had been practicing in a local home, gave 504 Green Street East to Samuel H. Vick and J.D. Reid. Together they raised enough money to officially establish the hospital at the Green Street location. It was one of three African-American hospitals in North Carolina at the time. The hospital was staffed by Black and white doctors, but all of the nurses were Black and the hospital served the Black community of East Wilson.

The hospital had no ambulances so if a community member had an emergency they would contact one of the Black funeral homes to send a hearse to transport them to Mercy. However, no surgeries were done at Mercy—a patient would be transported (again by hearse) to Carolina General Hospital. Supplies from Mercy would be used and then the patient would be returned to Mercy for recuperation.

The hospital closed briefly because of financial issues in 1929 but reopened in 1930 with the Mercy Hospital name. Mercy offered 50 beds and 8 full-time employees. Throughout the 30s and 40s the hospital struggled financially and underwent a few ownership changes in order to secure creative financing. Through it all though the hospital was supported by the local Black community and served patients who otherwise would not have had access to healthcare. The hospital closed in 1964 when the City of Wilson integrated its new hospital in order to receive federal funds.

I must give another big shout out to the Freeman Round House Museum which provided the bulk of the information above. The Mercy Hospital building has a historic plaque out front, but the building itself is now home to the Wilson Community Improvement Association. To learn more about Mercy Hospital check out the Freeman Round House Museum and the blog of Lisa Y. Henderson (who curated the exhibits at the Round House Museum). You can search “Mercy” and find her posts on the topic. I highly recommend visiting the Museum and checking out Lisa’s great genealogy and local history work!

St. John’s AME Zion Church – Downtown Wilson, NC

I am continuing to celebrate Black History Month by sharing photos and information from my recent visits to local historical sites with ties to African American history. St. John AME Zion Church is one of several historic Black churches in Wilson, North Carolina. I chose it to visit before I visited the Freeman Round House Museum, but I was glad to see that information about the church was included at the Round House Museum—information which helped me to put the site in context. Much of the information below is from the Round House Museum, which again, I highly recommend.

Established in 1868, the St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church is one of the oldest African American churches in Wilson. After slavery ended, African Americans formed their own church congregations, a freedom often denied them in slavery. Enslaved people had to either worship as second-class citizens in the churches of their enslavers or secretly in groups at risk of punishment.

The national African Methodist Episcopal Zion church movement began in 1800 when the first AME Zion church was built in New York in response to discrimination toward Black members of a Methodist church congregation. The denomination was officially established as separate from the Methodist Church in 1821. It then began spreading to the South, advocating for abolition and supporting newly freed African Americans.

The congregation of St. John AME Zion Church was formed in 1868, but the church building pictured here was built in 1915, around the same time that Jackson Chapel First Missionary Baptist Church was built, another historically Black church in downtown Wilson. Jackson Chapel’s cornerstone was laid by Booker T. Washington when he visited Wilson in 1910.

Black churches played vital roles in the building of African American community, the Civil Rights Movement, and the social lives of Black Wilsonians. St. John AME Zion’s pastor, Rev. Richard A.G. Foster, used his position to speak in support of tobacco workers’ rights, work that was at that time dominated by African Americans, and to white Wilsonians about prejudice and racism.

Another pastor of St. John AME Zion, Owen L. W. Smith, who was born into slavery, later served as the US minister to Liberia.

St. John AME Zion church recently celebrated its 150th anniversary and continues to serve the community from this beautiful, historic structure.

The Freeman Round House Museum and Wilson’s Black History

In honor of Black History Month I am visiting local historical sites of significance in African American history. I am learning so much about local Black history. My first post of the month was about the Boyette Slave House in Kenly, NC (Johnston County). Today I am shifting to neighboring Wilson County.

The Oliver Nestus Freeman Round House Museum in downtown Wilson, NC. Photo by author.

Downtown Wilson is home to a small, but important museum called the Freeman Round House Museum. Oliver Nestus Freeman (1882-1955) was a stone mason born in Wilson. He went to the Tuskegee Normal School in Alabama where he studied construction technology and learned stone and brick masonry. He taught for some years, first at Tuskegee and later in Wilson. A creative man of many talents, he created stone houses, stonework for chimneys, fireplaces, columns, porches, and other design elements of homes, sculptures, and more. The Round House was one of his several contributions to the architecture of Wilson.

In the 1940s Freeman was concerned about the lack of affordable housing for veterans returning from service in World War II. Originally created as a prototype rental home for these returning veterans, the Round House was divided into three wedge-shaped rooms. Freeman was resourceful and used found items in his stonework including sidewalk concrete, shells, bottles, marbles, and more.

Some examples of smaller items created by Freeman and some tools he would have used in his work. On display at the Freeman Round House Museum. Photo by author.

In addition to the Round House, Freeman adorned his own home with stonework and his yard with his stone sculptures. His work can be spotted around Wilson, where he worked on homes for both Black and white homeowners. He also traveled across the state to work, from Asheville to Elizabeth City and Wilmington and lots of towns in between.

Freeman, an an African American man living during segregation, also saw a need for a recreational area for Wilson’s Black population. He created Freeman’s Park in the early 1900s with an amusement park and picnic ground on farmland he owned. He dug out a lake and made canoes for visitors to use. The exact location of the park is unknown today.

The Freeman Round House Museum tells the story of the creative stone mason Oliver Nestus Freeman, largely within the small round house itself, but the museum includes a second building, more recently built, that tells the stories of the African American community of Wilson, largely situated in East Wilson.

The Museum traces the development of the historically Black neighborhood of East Wilson, from shortly after Wilson’s incorporation in 1849 through school integration in the 1970s and into the present. The museum exhibits do an excellent job of explaining how the community came to be, not only physically as newly freed slaves left the countryside for the city after the Civil War, and settled in East Wilson as white homeowners moved out of the area, but also meaningfully, as Blacks in East Wilson created churches, associations, and institutions of their own in the face of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination.

The exhibits also trace the story of segregated public schools including a local school boycott in the early 1900s, years before the Civil Rights Movement spread across America, to protest the mistreatment of a Black teacher by the white school superintendent. The exhibits culminate in the slow history of local school integration.

I learned so much from these exhibits about the Black history of the area that I was born and raised in, stories that I hadn’t heard until now. I highly recommend visiting this museum.

For more information about the Freeman Round House Museum visit their website: or follow them on social media.


Twitter: @RoundMuseum

Boyette Slave House & Slavery in 19th Century Eastern North Carolina

In honor of Black History Month I am sharing several local historical sites with significant connections to local Black history.

First up is the Boyette Slave House. A lesser-known site, the house is located in rural Kenly, but not far off Hwy 222. I visited recently and took a look around. The site is just the small structure itself (it measures just 16x12x8 feet), a wayside side that provides some basic history of the structure, and a small, partial fence enclosing the building, but the site is very significant in terms of Black history. One of very few remaining slave dwellings, the house is a rare piece of history that could shed light on what life was like for enslaved people in the United States. The house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is privately owned.

Both the National Register nomination form and the wayside sign provide information about the Boyette family that owned the 400 acre farm that the slave dwelling was a part of, but less about the enslaved people who lived in the home. The names of several of the enslaved people owned by the Boyette family were included in George Boyett’s will, probated in 1852: Silvia, Caroline, Maryan, Alfred and James. These names are included in a footnote in the National Register nomination form.

In 1850 George and his son Larkin collectively owned 8 slaves. In 1860, after George’s death, Larkin and his wife Chloe Bagley owned four slaves. The farm produced corn and sweet potatoes as well as livestock and hay (as of 1850). After the Civil War, in which George’s son Larkin fought for the Confederacy, Larkin diversified his father’s farm and grew a wider variety of crops.

According to the National Register nomination form, the house is estimated to have been built sometime between 1800 and 1852. The National Register nomination, filed in 1979, focuses on the house’s distinctive and rare architectural features–It is one of very few remaining examples of a “fragile and ancient” medieval building style brought to the United States by European colonists. This style features hewn planks joined together with full-dovetail notches and dowels. The chimney is an especially well-preserved example of a stick and mud chimney. This architectural style was common for slave dwellings in the 19th century, when more substantial structures had moved to less flammable materials for chimneys. Many slave dwellings were made of similar materials and in a similar style, but when slavery ended many were demolished or fell into disrepair, making this dwelling unique today.

This home represents a form of slavery–smaller farms worked by the family and less than 10 enslaved people–that many don’t think of when thinking of slavery. As I found while working on the Still Standing Visitor Evaluation Project, most people think of plantation slavery with rows of slave cabins on the outskirts of a large (500-1,000 acres) plantation farming cash crops. But enslaved people lived a variety of experiences. In 1860, there were 331,059 enslaved people in North Carolina, about a third of the state’s total population. Many of these lived and worked on plantations, but others worked on small farms, or doing skilled artisan work or trades, or as house servants in rural and urban areas.

The Boyette Slave House is important as it preserves one way of life for enslaved people in the early to mid 19th century in North Carolina. Slave dwellings provide built evidence of the institution of slavery and can be used to highlight and discuss enslaved people’s lived experiences, their resistance to slavery through forging family and cultural ties despite their lack of freedom, and the myriad of little ways in which they created a life, a home, even as they worked without pay and were held against their will. This small cabin holds so many stories left untold, but is a preserved document of slavery in our community. Enslaved people lived here.

Boyette Slave House is located on Glendale Road in Kenly, North Carolina, off of Hwy 222. The structure is privately owned, but it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. It was restored in 1981, with repairs made to the roof and the distinctive mud and stick chimney. Some information about the structure is available on the Johnston County Visitor Bureau’s website.

Have you visited the Boyette Slave House? Locals, did you know it was there?

Carter Woodson and the Origins of Black History Month

We should emphasize not Negro History, but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice.

Carter Woodson, 1926

Carter Woodson, an historian, author, and journalist, is considered the father of Black history. He was one of the first scholars to study Black history and in February 1926 he started “Negro History Week.” This developed into the annual month-long celebration of Black History Month.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950), image in the public domain.

Some will interpret the quote above to mean that there shouldn’t be a separate month to celebrate Black history; however, that wasn’t Woodson’s point. He wanted African American history to be fully intertwined in American history. His efforts to study, write, and promote Black history were meant to get it into the textbooks and to make it part of the curriculum. He meant that history should be inclusive of all, and not decided by bias, not excluded because of racism, and not any one group’s history held above others. However, Woodson felt that the best way to make that happen was to promote the study of Black history till such time that it was fairly integrated into mainstream history. And until it is, Black History Month remains important.

In honor of Black History Month, which starts next week, I am visiting local sites relating to African American history and sharing a little bit about each site. This month I will visit and write about several sites in Wilson and Johnston counties in Eastern North Carolina. I am looking forward to learning more about the African American history around me and sharing it with you all.

We’ll Take a Cup of Kindness Yet: History of “Auld Lang Syne”

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.


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