By Tara McCarthy
I tell myself that my next project will have plenty of sources available—that I will choose something I know has sources—manuscript collections, but in the end, I doubt this is the case because I find myself drawn to study women who didn’t leave much behind. I am convinced that I will be able to find something anyway. We will see. But this women’s history month, I would like to reflect on the risks and rewards of studying obscure women. There is indeed something very rewarding about uncovering the everyday, the rank and file, and the forgotten.
I have just completed a book manuscript. I spent many years on it, but I still found it hard to let go of the research without being able to answer all my questions. I have to accept that many aspects of these women’s lives will never be known. In fact, even though I have created file folders for each of them, sometimes I can’t even find them in the census; sometimes, I can’t tell you very much at all. These limitations are true for many historical topics, but women are hard to trace, and working class or immigrant women left very little behind. Still, I confess that I enjoy the digging, and digitized newspaper databases have really opened up possibilities to find new leads—as long as women made news. Few did, but since I am looking for activists, I am occasionally lucky enough to find organizations, meetings, and speeches. Of course there are limitations to using newspapers too, but some of the women in my forthcoming book only came to life when I stumbled across them in the press. They left no other sources.
For example, Mary Donnelly worked for the socialite and suffragist Alva Belmont. She ran a suffrage lunchroom for Belmont in New York City where working women came for an affordable meal. She had previously been a matron at the Queens County jail where she was fired (I don’t know why), but later she accused the jail of abusing female prisoners. There is a lot more to this outspoken woman’s story, but I doubt I will ever find it. Another Catholic suffragist, Sara McPike, led the St. Catherine’s Welfare Society and became an active supporter of the Democratic Party. She believed that the votes of Catholic women could help protect against radicalism, revolution, and changing gender roles. Frances Perkins (who served as Secretary of Labor under FDR—the first woman to hold a cabinet position) described McPike as a “troublemaker” who accused those she disagreed with of being communists, but she also acknowledged the importance of Catholic women’s support for the suffrage movement. Kate Hogan was a lawyer and a teacher, who led a New York’s teacher organization in the fight for an equal pay law in the early 20th century, but she died of pneumonia in her first year. I hope to return to her story, but fear that I will not find much.
These are just a few of the activists that I have been trying to trace. They were all Irish American; they appear rarely (or not at all) in current scholarship, and their stories are incomplete. They could never be the subject of a biography or even an article, but collectively their stories do show a rich history of political organization and participation by women who were asking for equal rights and equal pay. They made significant contributions to women’s history, at least on the local and state level. I began this project to show that Irish American women sought to shape their communities through political activism, and I found more women than I expected, even if what remains of some of their lives is only fragments.
Tara McCarthy is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University and the author of Respectability and Reform: Irish American Women’s Activism, 1880-1920, which is coming out this month from Syracuse University Press.