Always the younger sister

March 29th, 2011 by billie

Our latest exhibit at the Maine Women Writers Collection is a family tree of sorts, showing the family ties among ten of the writers in the collection.

The exhibit features the mother-daughter pairs of Josephine Peary & Marie Stafford, Elizabeth Coatsworth & Kate Barnes, and A. Carman Clark & Kate Flora; and two sets of sisters, Mary Ellen Chase & Virginia Chase and Kate Douglas Wiggin & Nora Archibald Smith.

I had the opportunity to process Nora Archibald Smith’s (1859-1934) papers last semester and through that began to learn about who she was as a person, writer and school administrator.  Many of you may know her sister’s most famous work: Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but did you know that together they opened the California Kindergarten Training School?

Both girls were born in Philadelphia to Robert Noah Smith and Helen Elizabeth (Dyer) Smith.  Their father died shortly after Nora’s birth and their mother then moved the family to Portland, Maine.  She soon remarried and the family moved into Nora and Kate’s stepfather’s (Dr. Albion Bradbury) house in Hollis, Maine.  It was in the farmhouse called “Quillcote” that both Nora and Kate grew up, and to which they would later retire.  In 1873, while Kate attended finishing school in Andover, Massachusetts, Dr. Bradbury moved the family to California.

Nora Archibald Smith graduated from Santa Barbara College, which she referred to as “an impermanent institution which never before had conferred similar honors (and never did again)” (Smith, 1925).  She then took a job in Mexico where she taught for a year.  After that she went on to Tucson, Arizona to teach for two years while her sister opened the first free kindergarten west of the Rocky Mountains on Silver Street in San Francisco, California.  In 1880 they founded the California Kindergarten Training School together.  Nora Archibald Smith went on to become the superintendent of the free kindergarten on Silver Street and later to take over the running of the California Kindergarten Training School in 1889.

Ms. Smith was president of the California Froebel Society, an executive member of the committee of the International Kindergarten Association, and the vice-president (1891-1892) of the kindergarten department of the National Education Association.  Nora Archibald Smith collaborated with her sister to write or edit fifteen books.  Ms. Smith, a writer in her own right, also published many serial stories and academic journal articles.

The Nora Archibald Smith papers include scrapbooks of her writings in publications such as Kindergarten Review, The Outlook, Primary School Popular Educator and New England Magazine.  The collection contains correspondence to Kate Douglas Wiggin collected by Smith while writing her biography of Wiggin; correspondence with her publisher; Houghton, Mifflin and Company; and Smith’s private correspondence.  One of my favorite pairs of letters is one written in Spanish offering Smith a job and a reply letter from Smith, accepting the job and promising to try to learn some Spanish before she gets there.

Her papers also include many newspaper clippings that inspired Smith’s stories.  Photographic portraits of Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith, as well as photographs of their friends and places in their lives, are also a part of this collection.

Blog As Buried Treasure

March 18th, 2011 by Gay Marks

I always hope that childhood memories for us all can include the experience of reading the back of a cereal box.  Distractedly shoveling spoonfuls of your favorite cereal, moistened with milk, into your mouth, you become completely engaged in the promise of a toy inside the box, or a maze to challenge your brain as you armed yourself with a pencil exchanged for your spoon, or, in my generation, the chance to enter some wacky, but dreamy contest sponsored by the maker of the cereal.

My fond breakfast memories were revived for me by the discovery of  a few interesting inserts in a Mary Ellen Chase book, The White Gate, here in the collection at the Maine Women Writers Collection.  Hidden within the pages of the 1954 book were: a carefully cut out and typed contest form, a wrapper box top for Post’s Sugar Crisp (is that cereal still available?), and an addressed envelope, also typed, to Post Cereals Buried Treasure of Chicago, Illinois.  Typed on the back of the envelope is the return address—James Bowers of Montclair New Jersey.  James’s entry form, cut out from a newspaper comic section (possibly the Sunday edition because the comics on the reverse are in color– and dated 1957), is approximately 5” x 8.”  In bold letters, above what appears to be a tropical island scene—palm trees, sand dunes, ships’ wreckage, peg legged pirates, are the contest directions: “Find The $25,000 Buried Treasure.”

The clue to the treasure’s location obviously are the footprints drawn onto the sand, criss-crossing the entire scene, as the pirate, sword in hand, aptly named Capt. Portzebie by James, looks on, a parrot perched on his shoulder.  Looking carefully at the entry form, one can see that James had made his mark!—he has put a heavily penciled circle around one footprint, typed the words “Foot Print” and drawn a penciled arrow to that circled print—aka “X” marks the spot.  So—James has risked his guess, folded his entry, typed his envelope, included his cereal box label—and yet the envelope was never mailed—here it sits next to my computer.  What happened to derail James’s hopes, to dash his dreams, to leave his mail unmailed?

One interesting clue to this surprising end is that the addressed, ready-to-mail envelope’s reverse side appears to have been used to leave a note for some anticipated visitors, telling them that he/she who has written the note on James’s entry mailing must be away, but will be back after lunch, and to please come ahead.  The note’s signature does not read “James,” but possibly his mother?  Did she never intend to mail the contest entry or did she plan to erase the penciled note, then mail it?  We only know that James never entered the contest.

The book which carefully held these enclosures for many years, The White Gate, was written by Mary Ellen Chase in a desire, as she says in her preface, to write short stories that “have to do with adventures in the imagination of a child, adventures possible only through imagination.”   We have to think that on some level James must have imagined winning that contest and the money it promised—or at least to have dreamed of adventures with pirates on far-away islands, a life completely unlike his life in New Jersey.  Did he ever know that his entry went unmailed?  Or was he so totally engrossed in Chase’s book that he unwittingly pulled his unmailed entry from the table on which it rested to slip his “dreams” into the book, marking his place and then closing the book forever.  We can only hope James continued to dream and imagine himself in new adventures even if he wasn’t going to win the $25,000 from General Mills this time.

Toward a More Feminist Maine

March 16th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Next week, on Monday, March 21 at noon, JoAnne Dauphinee will present a talk entitled, “Toward a More Feminist Maine: 40 years of NOW activism and alliances.” Please join us for an engaging conversation.

Monday, March 21, 2011
12:00 pm – 1:30 pm
Maine Women Writers Collection
Abplanalp Library
University of New England
716 Stevens Avenue, Portland, ME
Free and open to the public.
Lunch will be provided.

JoAnne Dauphinee will present a vivid picture of feminist activism in Maine from the 1960s to the present, with a specific focus on the work of the National Organization for Women and its diverse projects. She will offer a view of NOW’s dynamic actions and events, and of the activists who gave generously of their time and talents to create a more feminist world and a more feminist Maine.  Jo will discuss Maine’s evolving political climate and look at how activist events responded to changing legislative agendas.

As a founding member of Maine NOW, JoAnne Dauphinee has served in various NOW leadership and alliance positions since its founding. Currently, she coordinates Maine NOW’s FAT Liberation Project, Maine NOW PAC and the high-donor program, which includes producing the monthly newsletter JAM–Jo’s Action Message.  She represents NOW on the Coalition for Maine Women and the Maine Choice Coalition, and serves on the board of the Mabel Wadsworth Women’s Health Center in Bangor. She is actively involved in NOW’s Maine Feminist Memory Project, which seeks to collect the papers and oral histories of Maine feminist activists.

Celebrating 100 years of International Women’s Day and this year’s theme, “Pathway to Decent Work”

March 8th, 2011 by Catherine Fisher

Here at the MWWC, our mission is to celebrate the “decent work” of writing and to champion any woman’s path to it. Traditionally for women the road to becoming a writer and doing the work of writing has been fraught with obstacles, and in the company of our collection are many women who overcame much to answer their true callings. Their courage to actively pursue the goal of writing, claim the time and the space to write, own and honor a voice to write, and respect the writing enough to make it public deserves our admiration and gratitude. Whether the limitations have been educational, financial, political or domestic, every writer in our archives has seen her way clear to do the decent work of writing and contribute her part to the vibrant collective.

At risk when the pathway is blocked is spelled out in a letter by Gladys Hasty Carroll, 1991:

“If women don’t tell how women feel, and why they feel that way, and how the world and the future look to them, how is anybody going to know? And how much sweet mystery, true enchantment, bewitching diversity, and superb innovation will be lost to the world!”

One of the major obstacles to engaging in the decent work of writing, that of finding uninterrupted time, is explained by poet and journalist Elizabeth Akers Allen in a 1910 letter:

“When I was preparing my last book, I was more than once called down stairs seven and eight times in one afternoon. In fact, I am never sure of one uninterrupted hour. How much work would Longfellow or Lowell have done in such circumstances?…it is the breaking of the thread of thought, the “losing one’s place,” the entire displacing of one’s ideas by something entirely foreign to the work in hand, which does the mischief…”

This difficulty is echoed a few decades later by Florence Burrill Jacobs, who wrote poetry, fiction and greeting card verse:

“It takes time, it takes energy, physical and mental. When you have finished a good big ironing, even with a mangle, you don’t bring to writing a poem the same fresh outlook and uncluttered imagination that you might had you been walking on a beach. Time, actual physical time, three or four hours; it takes energy; and there is always some detail ahead, start supper…and a constant mental drain, bring in the clothes if they are dry enough…”

In the collection and preservation of poetry and cookbooks, novels and memoirs, scientific studies, political papers and scholarly works, the Maine Women Writers Collection honors all women’s voices, all forms of writing and expression, and values the documents that illustrate the pathway each woman traveled and illuminate the obstacles she overcame. Decent work is a choice and a purpose, as activist Ramona Barth declares in her 1990s article, “Woman and the Postwar World”:

“I maintain that today’s woman who is choosing work instead of shopping and playing is better equipped to talk, think and plan peace than the woman rightly featured before this war by the advertisers as the sheltered, pampered lady. She is a responsible, integrated, purposeful being, instead of the useless dilettante of yesterday.”

The choice of Maine’s women to persevere in the work of writing has had positive international impact on peace, education, the environment, empowerment of women, and cultural enrichment. Rather than being lost to the world, their voices have helped clear the pathway to decent work for generations of women, today and tomorrow.