Until recently, many historians were interested only in the historical writings of men. Documents by women chronicling their experiences and achievements were forgotten or simply ignored.
Digging through old manuscripts, diaries and letters is one way that Temple history professor Susan E. Klepp gives life to women’s history. Klepp uses autobiographical writings as well as demographic, social, economic, cultural and medical history to recreate the experiences of women.
“I’m trying to show that women have always contributed to society and have always been important,” Klepp said.
Klepp’s office is decked with women’s history. Books with such titles as “Woman of Value” and “One Woman, One Vote” jam her bookcases. And above one bookcase sits a large portrait of Sojourner Truth, former slave turned abolitionist and women’s rights activist.
Klepp’s research interests lie in the “long” 18th century, circa 1680-1830, a period known for its heightened ideals of liberty and equality.
“I think it’s the beginning of the modern world,” Klepp said. “It is a period of enormous change and a lot of those things we’re still working out today, so I see it as a crucial period.”
Despite revolutionary principles, the concepts of freedom and equality applied to only a few, Klepp said. Klepp points out that for African-Americans, white women and poor people, the high ideals of the American Revolution were not carried out. As a result, people began to push for social change, and became increasingly empowered.
At the forefront of this push were women. Klepp recounts the lives of African-American women in Pennsylvania, who after gradual abolition, founded churches, societies and schools. Klepp also finds inspiration in Esther De Berdt Reed, an American Revolutionary War patriot she describes as “amazing.”
De Berdt Reed employed the phrase “women are born for liberty,” and created a women’s committee in Philadelphia to support the cause of independence. The women raised money for General Washington’s troops by knocking on doors, which was scandalous, according to Klepp. She also has an interest in Abigail Adams, whose letters to her husband often displayed a political bent.
“She was the one who told her husband to ‘remember the ladies’ during the Revolutionary War,” Klepp said, referring to Adams’ complaint about the legal subjection of married women. With publication rarely an option for women, Adams often used correspondence to express her political views.
History is filled with noteworthy women who inspire Klepp to keep digging.
“I remember reading in a doctor’s account books of these two laundresses who saved up their money and got their kids inoculated against small pox,” Klepp said. “You know that money must have been enormously hard for them to come by, but here they are, sacrificing to make sure their kids got the latest medical technology.”
Currently Klepp is working on the diary of Hannah Callendar. Callendar was a Quaker woman forced into an arranged marriage by her parents. It was a miserable marriage, and Callendar went to great lengths to ensure that her daughter married for love.
Klepp said such discoveries give women opportunities, options and power.
“If you know your history, you can see what’s new and different and how you can change your life,” Klepp said.
Kia Gregory can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org