English students recover treasure trove of women’s writings
Aperio Seminar of Humane Texts brings Baltimore’s female authors to life
After intensive detective work led him to a research library at the University of Maryland earlier this year in search of a long-forgotten book of American poetry, Hunter Flynn was awed to feel the weight of the delicate prize in his hands.
Written and tenderly illustrated with colorful pastoral scenes some 130 years ago by Elizabeth Turner Graham, a Baltimore Quaker, the rare work had been seen by few—if any—modern readers.
“It was just so cool to uncover something that old,” said Flynn, ’18, a 22-year-old English major from Timonium, Md.
The book, Buttercups and Daisies: Songs of a Summer, features sing-song poems likely intended for children. Yet even as the rhyming verses envision an unfolding summer, they also speak of love, Flynn said.
“I was struck by how mature the themes were,” said Flynn, who believes Graham probably bound the book herself, displaying a craftsmanship that was a clear labor of love.
Flynn’s discovery is just one of hundreds made by students in the upper-level English Aperio seminar, Reading Women, Writing Women, 1890-1920, taught by Jean Lee Cole, Ph.D., professor of English.
The project is sponsored by Loyola’s Center for the Humanities, and is one entry in a long-time initiative, the Aperio Series of Humane Texts.
The course centered on researching the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, founded in 1890 and lasting to 1941. Members of the club, most of whom came from the city’s upper echelons or who worked in professions such as journalism and teaching, spent their meetings discussing a wide range of topics including fiction, poetry, travel, history, classical translations, and even some current events and politics.
The club was part of a wave of women’s groups originating in the late 19th century, which helped transform gender roles and paved the way for the women’s suffrage movement, Cole explained.
“We looked at how this club and others like it helped train women to become active citizens,” Cole said.
In 2017, five Loyola research assistants painstakingly transcribed thousands of pages of club minutes from 1890 to 1920. The original documents are housed at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The seminar students used that research the following spring to help track 250 women who belonged to the club during those years.
With Cole’s guidance, the young researchers set out to find writings produced by club members that included the likes of Louise Malloy, a playwright and one of the first women journalists in Baltimore; and Christine Ladd-Franklin, a psychologist and mathematician who was also a writer and one of the club’s founders.
“It struck us that you would assume these women were progressive,” Flynn said, “but the vast majority of them went by their husband’s name—which made research difficult.”
While women who remained unmarried could be tracked through the census and other historical references, Cole said, those who married virtually disappeared from the historical record.
“We had to track them through their husbands’ names and names of male relatives, where often they were merely mentioned in obituaries, biographies and such.”
Students combed through newspapers, magazines, and reference works. They also visited graveyards to look at tombstones.
In researching May Garrettson Evans, the first female reporter for the Baltimore Sun and an ethnomusicologist, Sydney Johnson, ’18, uncovered a book written by Evans and her sister about Native American dance. Johnson discovered Evans had visited the American Southwest meeting with tribal elders to document dance steps and the stories and music behind them.
At the end of Cole’s course, as part of a “salon” that mimicked the salons held by the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore, Johnson performed one of those dances by following Evans’ meticulous descriptions in her book.
“It seemed like the students were making those kinds of amazing discoveries every week of the class,” said Cole, who will give an academic presentation on the class research at the November conference of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers in Denver.
Cole said one of the most significant findings was the only known remaining copy of a book of poetry by the niece and childhood companion of Emily Dickinson, Clara Newman Turner.
In studying the writings of the women, Cole said her students came to appreciate how contradictory human impulses can be.
“These were women who fundamentally believed in democracy, but they were divided in their support of suffrage. They would rail against the ways women were oppressed, but did not think women should participate in public life.” Cole added that some of the writers were Confederate sympathizers who did not see their views as racist.
Students created a website that features the transcribed minutes, a club membership list, biographies, and a searchable digital library of the published works of the women writers the students discovered. The site also includes a map of where club members lived in the city. A student blog details the trials and triumphs of their research.
Next year, Loyola’s student-run Apprentice House Press will publish an anthology of the students’ research, highlighting the reclaimed writings of members of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore. It will be titled Parole Femine, the club’s motto and the second half of Maryland’s state motto, “Fatti Maschii, Parole Femine,” “Manly Deeds, Womanly Words.”
In the 2018-19 academic year, an upper-level English class on book editing, led by Cole, will complete editing work already started by students in the Reading Women, Writing Women seminar.
Flynn, a Fulbright Scholar who will be traveling to Japan in September for 10 months of research into William Faulkner’s time in that county, said it was important to reclaim lost women’s voices.
“We’ve only inherited half the history,” he said. “We tried to remedy that.”