Every once in a while, I log in to my Family Search account and follow my family line down one descendant or another. There are so many resources available there, including personal and family histories that people have typed and submitted, so other relatives can read them. Seeing photos, birth and death certificates, and gravestone portraits and reading stories about my ancestors makes me feel a complicated sort of joy. I look at their faces in grainy photographs, searching for a hint of my own; I savor the few details that are there but I wish desperately for more.
Last week, when I was writing this blog post, I wanted to make sure I had the genealogy correct, so I started clicking around on my family tree. I came across a link to a document I hadn’t ever read, called “The History of Charles Simmons and Mary Elizabeth Hughes,” who were my great-great grandparents. Usually it seems that most of the life histories are about men, and while I do enjoy those stories, too, I am much more interested in reading about my female ancestors. So I was fairly excited to click on the link and learn something of my great-great grandmother, who was my namesake’s mother-in-law. From this combined life sketch, I learned that my great-great grandfather came from an old Southern family which, according to county records, owned slaves. Most of his brothers died in the Civil War. He left Virginia to move west with his wife Mary, but they stopped in Salt Lake City and liked the Mormons enough to join the church and stay in Utah. The document also has a paragraph about the freed slave they brought with them to Utah, who, although he was free, didn’t want to leave them but also refused to live in the house with them.
About Mary Elizabeth Hughes, there are absolutely no details.
This frustrates me to no end.
I came to feminism partly by way of my English degree. (Also by way of my mother, who’s been a feminist for as long as I can remember.) For me, feminism is about equal rights and equal access to freedoms; it is about the right to be able to choose what to do with your life based on what you need and want, not based on stereotypical gender roles. But it is also about women’s stories, both in literature and in history. The woman in the text, if you will.
And so many of those stories are lost.
You discover this so quickly when you start digging in to family history. There are many, many of my female ancestors who are noted only as someone’s wife, without a name, and daughters listed just like that: daughter. Yet most of the sons’ names are noted. Women’s stories—all the way down to their names—are invisible.
I want to know: what did Mary Elizabeth Hughes love about her childhood in Virginia? What experiences did she have during the Civil War? What experiences did she have traveling west? What did she think the first time she saw the mountains? Did she love or hate to cook? What was her favorite season? What were her daily struggles? What did she think about her son Nathan’s choice of a wife (my great-grandma Amy)? Did her Nathan have any similarities to my Nathan?
Unless some previously-unknown document was discovered, I will never know any of those details, about her or about any of my female ancestors.
And, sure: you could argue that if I did know those stories, my life wouldn’t change much. I would still live this life that I have. And I can’t really explain why I want to know these stories so badly—but I do. I can almost feel them, hovering around me, the women whose choices created my life. Like the angels in the Brian Kershisnik painting, except people with real experiences. If I just knew something more about them, something real, something unique—maybe if I knew I could see them in some way.
And this is one of the reasons that scrapbooking is so important to me.
Without a doubt, it’s a craft that can be viewed as kitschy. As something silly and childlike, as colored pencils and cut-out flowers, paint and frippery.
But it is so much more than it seems.
There is a long history (as long as human history, really) of women’s crafts being seen as less-than or secondary. There are artists, and there are female artists. There are writers, and then there are women writers. Poets, but poetesses. So part of feminism is claiming (not even reclaiming, as we haven’t ever been allowed to own) our art forms as being equally as important as men’s. Artists, writers, photographers, sculptors: creative people who happen to also be women are taking the stance that what they create is good not despite their gender, but because it is good.
Scrapbooking can have that same claim.
It is, in fact, a radical form of feminism: women telling their own stories. Women knowing that their stories matter (not only their children’s, not only their husband’s). Women ensuring that their voices—expressed in stories, yes, but also in the products we chose to use, and in the art we make—have a chance at being heard by future generations.
We lived. We breathed. We walked on this earth. Not all of us have extraordinary, history-changing lives. But all of us have been a part of human history. Almost exactly half of it. And the only way our voices, our stories will be remembered is if we tell them.
Tell them, somehow. In a blog or a journal or a blank screen in the word processor of your choice. Say them out loud while you record yourself. Or, yes, even: make a scrapbook. A layout or two or five or an entire album or ten albums. Your stories are important and no one else can tell them.
And this will never stop being important to me.