USC exhibit, ‘Beyond Domesticity,’ examines facets of women’s writing
A University of South Carolina exhibit dispels the notion that American women from Colonial times to the early 20th century led lives of quiet domesticity with few interests outside the home.
Created by Dr. Katherine Adams and Dr. Cynthia Davis, scholars of American literature, the exhibit is titled “Beyond Domesticity: U.S. Women Writers, 1770-1915” and is on display at USC’s Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library through April 30.
More than 140 books and other items from the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the Hollings Library, South Caroliniana Library and McKissick Museum are featured.
Visitors can also take a 35-minute audio tour. One of five pre-loaded iPods can be signed out at the Hollings registration desk, or visitors can download the audio file directly to their phone or iPod at www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/beyondDomestic.html.
Adams, an associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies, said she and Davis encountered many surprises along the way.
“It was quite exciting to see how many items that the university has,” said Adams. “We both do scholarship in this area, so just discovering so many original sources in our very own library was amazing. It was great to look at these first editions, to go into the rare-book stacks and see a text signed by Pauline Hopkins or Susan B. Anthony. There’s a big, geeky thrill in working with these original sources and books.”
Many of the books are very revealing, she said. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself “(1861), by former slave Harriet Jacobs, shows how slavery changed conventional notions of girlhood and motherhood. Charlotte Perkins Gilman argues in “Human Work” (1911) that home was anything but a haven. And in “The Awakening” (1899), Kate Chopin aligns childbirth with the death of female artistry.
The books are accompanied by historical items such as a spinning wheel, women’s suffrage buttons, clothing and advertising from the eras.
“The idea behind ‘Beyond Domesticity’ was to challenge how domesticity is only one side of women’s experience in the 19th century, and I helped identify materials in the collections that would illustrate that,” said Jeffrey Makala, librarian for instruction and outreach in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.
“For example, women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920, but they were deeply engaged in national politics before that time, and they wrote about it,” he said. “‘The History of Woman Suffrage,’ written in 1887 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage, is part of the exhibit. The university has a beautiful copy with a local connection: It was inscribed by Anthony as a gift to the Political Study Club of Columbia in 1895.”
There were surprises even in the works that were about domestic issues, Davis said.
“You’d think that a domestic manual would present housekeeping in a positive light,” said Davis, a professor in the department of English language and literature. “Yet to take one example, Catharine Beecher begins her famous ‘Treatise on Domestic Economy’ (1843) with a discussion of all the women who were made sick and unhappy by housework. Many of the works in the exhibit contain similar surprises.”
Students in Adams’ “Women Writers” course are helping to create an online version of the exhibit, scheduled to go live later this spring.
The exhibit will remain on display through April 30. For more information about the exhibit, contact Bekki Gettys at 803-777-2115. For hours of operation and more information about the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library, visit the website: www.sc.edu/library/