Names and invisibility

I’ve recently been thinking about the visibility of women in archives. (The material, not the profession, which is a separate question.) “Archives for All,” the Russ Pledge,* and my current processing project bring the issue immediately to mind.

The papers of Isaac and I. Minis Hays date from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. They are largely concerned with medical publications and practice, the study of natural history, and the business of various organizations of a generally scientific bent. Not, in short, corners of the past generally welcoming to women.

But women are represented in the collection—peripherally, but they are present, and speak (write) in their own voices (hand). My task is folder level description and rehousing, repurposing and modestly expanding upon pre-existing data that organized the collection primarily by correspondent. Even this straightforward task illustrates some of the ways in which women’s representations are problematic.

Let us take Isaac Hays’s wife, I. Minis Hays’s mother, as an example. She was born Sarah Ann Minis. After her marriage, she went by Sarah Minis Hays. She was affectionately referred to as Sally. And sometimes letters were addressed to “Sara Anne” or “Sallie.”

So, how does one refer to this woman when organizing correspondence? Sarah Ann Minis and Sarah Minis Hays? One or the other only? This is precisely the sort of scenario in which the Library of Congress authorities can provide guidance…but there are no entries for Sarah Ann Minis or Sarah Minis Hays.

Should the issue be sidestepped, so that wherever possible her correspondence is filed with a more recognizable (male) name? How likely is it that a researcher will seek out material related to her, rather than her husband or son? One could, if seeking to relieve one’s guilt for making that decision, rationalize that letters written from her future husband could appropriately be placed with other outgoing letters from Isaac Hays.

I deemed the sidestepping solution unappealing. Aside from the social justice aspect—I did not want to make women more invisible than was already the case—I wanted to keep the organization and description of the collection as consistent as possible. After consultation and a search for internal authorities (no dice), I opted to standardize on the name Sarah Minis Hays: she spent most of her life as a Hays, held a curatorial position as a Hays; and since the collection is Philadelphia- rather than Savannah-centric, it seems unlikely that casual Minis family researchers will make use of it. I relied upon descriptive fields, in the hope of making the presence of the materials—and their creator’s identity—transparent to researchers.

Note that Sarah Minis Hays is actually less problematic than other women I have encountered. As a member of a prominent Savannah family and the subject of a Thomas Sully portrait, she is more googleable§ than many women of the period. At greater remove from their famous male relations—whose work and reputation are, after all, the reason for a collection’s existence—their identity and significance are obscured.


* See the original post; follow links, google or use your imagination to explore the varied, generally unsurprising responses.

I would not be surprised to find she had a more active public life, but I’ve only done the most cursory online search.

Much of the woman-generated or -directed correspondence I have worked with takes the form of friendly letters, with greetings and signatures often consisting of only a given name, nickname, “cousin,” or some such. Thus a researcher already familiar with the family’s genealogy would probably recognize the individual, but (like previous archivists) I am often not in a position to provide helpful identifying notes.

§ Somewhat ironically, thanks to Isaac Hayes and Isaac Israel Hayes, in this case googling the collection creator is unusually troublesome. I do not mean to imply that visibility via Google, Wikipedia, etc. is the only metric of an individual’s visibility…but it is a pretty decent, and very quick, way to find general information and get a sense of sources (and their accessibility).

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