gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Monissa Whiteley

I'm not going to write about myself, because I don't. I write about other people instead. Other people are more interesting to me, because I know about me.

Last week I wrote a LiveJournal post about a woman from the past, but I didn't write about her. I wrote about the bushranger who denied knowing her, the husband who was hanged for sheep-stealing and the names and dates. Always the names and dates.

I've done the family history thing, and all my female ancestors have been carefully recorded as a series of names and dates: who/when they married, children's name and dates of births, when they died. Sometimes I have a photo, or an obituary or a letter written from NZ to a much missed son, but I know little else about them. Oh, I know more about the handful who came out at Her Majesty's expense. I know where they lived, their (claimed) trade, their height, eye & hair colour, shape of face, and what they got up to in the months after they were dumped in Hobart, until they got married. And then they also become a list of names and dates.

Their husbands turn up electoral roles and in land records. They leave wills. They have accounts at the local chemist, advertise their businesses in the local newspaper, put their name on petitions that get published in that same newspaper, get fined for letting their cattle stray, donate cups for sporting events. They leave footprints.

But for many women, ordinary woman, it seems the only footprints they leave are in the sand, waiting to get washed away with the next wave.

Obviously some women wrote journals and letters, which are stored away in the back of cupboard or donated to the local community history museum, until a researcher finds them and makes use of them. Therefore the sensible approach to researching women of the past is to find such a collection of material and use that as the basis of your research project. So now you know how to do it.

But what about those people who decide on a subject for a more irrational reason, and what to find out something about them? Then I reckon it comes down to luck.


And names and dates. Despite my grumbling above, they are useful. They provide the framework of a life, and can point to other places to look. The first place to look for information on someone is in the newspaper the week after they died. Of course, that requires knowing the name they died under and with some women that's a tad difficult. (Just because divorce isn't an option, doesn't mean women didn't "re-marry" and take another man's name. It just means there's no paper trail to help you find this.)

But filling in the gaps that flesh out those lives?

I say it's luck because that is what determines what ends up in archives and museums and local history collections. Luck that someone decided to keep a pile of letters, or some faded old photos, or out of date business records, and then someone else decided not to throw them out, and maybe someone else finally decided to pass on the junk that has been cluttering up the back room to their local history society.

That luck works both ways, and that means footprints of ordinary people can end up being preserved and made available to future researchers. Of course, well known personalities are going to figure prominently in collections. (I'm quite sure Lady Franklin and her husband left everything behind when they ran off home to England, except maybe a change of clothes.) Which is understandable, because the owners are more likely to hang on to something with "significance" and then consider it worth passing on. But community history is about ordinary people. I volunteer at my local museum, and by local museum I mean one that claims to have the biggest collection outside of a capital city so as you might imagine they have some interesting stuff, but a lot of it is interesting because it deals with the little details of life: account books from a local business, visiting cards, police/court records, a letter written from a father to a son telling him his wife remarried or a letter from an ex-convict inquiring about her personal effects, minutes of meetings of local organisations, notes from bushrangers, reports of charity events, newspaper clippings grouped by theme, posters promoting visiting entertainers. Anything or anyone might be in there. Somewhere. The problem, as always, is keeping track of what exactly is there, indexing it, making it easier for people to find thing (but I'm helping with that for one place anyway).

As another source of information, I have to mention newspapers. I love my newspapers, even moreso now that I can search them, and read them from home. Obituaries, and court sessions, and police reports and, um, I'm sure they have other stuff in them. Women do feature prominently in the various types of crime reports and inquests, not just as perpetrators but as victims, witnesses or "wife of". They appear in business advertisements (running a school maybe or a hotel, or a widow taking over the family business or selling her property). They perform at concerts, or fall off bridges, or have fathers & husbands who write letters of complaint.

And that is the other thing to do: bounce off the men in their life. Read between the lines of their lives, to find out something about their wives and daughters. Which is what I was doing with my lady above. In some records, it's actually the sensible way to do it. Jane Brown might not get a mention in the newspapers, but John Brown's wife does, or in more respectable circles, Mrs John Brown. Or sometimes it's the only way to approach the problem. This week I was searching for background information on another young lady, something more than "She left her husband". I knew knotting of her, so I read accounts of the man she left with (his biography, other books, newspaper stories and online). I finally found what I wanted via a manuscript that had been lodged in the state archives and published a few years back. Now if only I knew what name she was using when she died... (I might ask at the museum next week? )

It can be harder tracing women through history, but patience, stubbornness (and luck) do go a long way. I know I've left out some things, because I didn't want to go on for too long, but I'm interested to know what other people's approaches are.

Gillian is making me talk about myself, so I'll see if I can get with saying I'm currently a library tech student and volunteer at Launceston's Queen Victoria Museum, and I like to take photos of places I go and things I do, and then turn them into long Live Journal posts at, where you might find a bit about me but more likely you'll find about more the Tasmanian conivct system than anyone needs to know, or tall ships, or anti-pulp mill protests, or other things (although not things that you'd rather be shot than called). I
also have a webpage somewhere, but it's perpetually out of date so I prefer not to think about it.

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