Women in History

One usually thinks of women during the Victorian era as hopelessly constrained by corsets and convention, delicate creatures who strayed no further than the boundaries of hearth and home.

But when Barbara Walzer began collecting antiquarian books and pamphlets about women, she discovered that a woman named Mary Hitchcock had made a treacherous hike through the Klondike in the 1890s, staking over 100 claims in the goldfields and later becoming a noted lecturer on the region. Another woman, an artist named Elizabeth Sarah Mazuchelli, carried her paints and canvas up the slopes of the Eastern Himalayas on a two-month trek, returning home to write ''The Indian Alps and How We Crossed Them,'' an illustrated account that was published in 1876.

In fact, as her collection grew, she acquired so many books, journals, letters, and other accounts of women who had done remarkable things that she listed them all in a catalog titled ''Women Adventurers. Explorers. Mountaineers. Artists. Printers. Scientists. Pamphleteers. Orators. Journalists. Eccentrics. Agitators. Hoboes. Spies. Anarchists. And more . . .'' The ''And more . . .'' refers to the nonliterary aspects of her collection, suffragette banners and hats, posters, and other items that illustrate the changing status of women over the past two centuries.

Ms. Walzer's collection evolved during her work as an antiquarian bookseller in Cambridge, Mass., her interest sparked by the wildly diverse lot of women in the little-known volumes she found gathering dust in attics and on the shelves of used bookstores. She found everything from books on the deportment of proper young ladies to romantic fiction to feminist and antifeminist tracts to the journals of women who had traversed the globe.

''I was interested in collecting information on the lives of women that we don't know about, women who had managed to break away from the home and pioneer their way into all sorts of unladylike pursuits,'' she says. ''At first I was most intrigued with books by or about women explorers, those who had showed physical courage. Then the interest grew to include experimenters of all sorts.''

Of the 400 or so books and pamphlets in her collection, about a third are on women explorers, accounts that date from the early 19th century on up to Arlene Blum's ''A Woman's Place Is on Top: The Story of the First All-Women's Himalayan Climb'' published in 1978. One of her favorites is a 1935 book titled ''Women Called Wild,'' Rosita Forbe 's account of her travels, during which she met notable women living in remote corners of the world. Among the biographical sketches in the book is a chapter on Alexandra David-Neel, a scholar who, wearing a disguise, slipped into the forbidden city of Llasa to research the lives of Tibetan monks.

Other books from the 1930s chronicle the adventures of women, some of them victims of the depression and from less lofty walks of life. One such is ''Sister of the Road,'' the biography of ''Boxcar Bertha,'' a woman who hopped freight trains and lived in the tent cities that had sprung up across the United States. An earlier book of this sort is the 1914 ''Adventures of a Female Tramp, '' the story of ''Hobo Nell'' who, according to the subtitle, ''traveled 500,000 miles for $7.61.''

Other titles in the collection - ''A Woman in the Sahara'' (1914), ''I Ran Away to Sea at Fifty'' (1939), ''The Trail of a Sourdough: Life in Alaska'' ( 1910), ''A Sportswoman in India'' (1900), ''The Call of the Snowy Hispar'' (1911 ) - are evocative testaments that women as well as men have long felt the call of faraway, even dangerous places. It was a discovery that Ms. Walzer found a little surprising.

''I had had the impression that, until quite recently, women were nearly always domestic,'' she says. ''You certainly don't learn much in history class about women who explored the Amazon or scaled the Himalayas. But as I began collecting, I saw that women have been doing all sorts of interesting, unexpected things. And what I've found is only a fraction of what has been written.''

As she began collecting these little-known adventure books, she also stumbled across works of a more political nature that included some of the most famous writings from the feminist movement. Among the most valuable acquisitions are early editions of Mary Wollstonecraft's ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'' (1792) and the even rarer ''A Vindication of the Rights of Men'' (1790).

''There is something tremendously exciting about this old edition,'' says Ms. Walzer as she turns the rough-cut pages of ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.'' ''It has a physical presence that you don't find in any other form. Sure, you can get a paperback version, but there is nothing quite like seeing the very same book that so scandalized people when it first appeared.''

Another treasured volume is a bound collection of Susan B. Anthony's weekly newspaper ''The Revolution,'' which she published between 1868 and 1870. This collection, which bears Susan B. Anthony's inscription in the flyleaf, was a gift to Harriet Robinson, a Lowell millworker who wrote a successful play about life in the mills.

Also among the titles pertaining to the women's movement is an 1877 pamphlet called ''Abbey Smith and Her Cows with a Report of the Law Case. Decided Contrary to Law.'' Written by Julia E. Smith, it is an account of a well-known case in which the author and her sister refused to pay their taxes because they were not allowed to vote. As a result, the tax collector sold their cows and land at auction.

Not all of the books and pamphlets in the collection are pro-feminist. One pamphlet called ''Ten Little Suffergets'' is an attack on women's suffrage, an illustrated verse patterned after the ''Ten Little Indians'' rhyme. And a book by Sir Almroth Wright titled ''The Unexpurgated Case Against Woman Suffrage'' ( 1913) declares that women are ''intellectually inferior, hypersensitive and unreasonable.''

Although books and pamphlets make up the majority of her collection, Ms. Walzer also has 88 color posters from the early 1920s that depict women wearing trousers, engaging in sports, and in other poses indicative of their new-found freedom. Most originally appeared as inserts in the New York World newspaper. ''Votes for Women'' banners and a front page from the New York Times with a photograph of the suffragette parade down Fifth Avenue are part of her collection as well.

Ms. Walzer, who has acquired her collection through a variety of channels, including auctions, used bookstores, and other collectors, believes that most feminist-related objects are going to be worth much more than they are now.

llectible item, and by that standard feminist books and other objects aren't yet considered very important,'' she says. ''But because the prices are still quite low in comparison to items of similar age and rarity, it's a good time to collect. There's still a lot of it out there.''

Ms. Walzer estimates the books in her collection to be worth anywhere from $7 .50 for Elizabeth Bisland's ''A Flying Trip Around the World'' (1891) on up to $ 1,500 for Margaret Field's ''Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country,'' a manuscript and collection of original photographs taken during World War I. Both her copy of ''A Vindication of the Rights of Woman'' and the collection of Susan B. Anthony's newspapers are valued at $400.

''One rule to follow when collecting books of any sort is that their condition is every bit as important as their age or rarity,'' says Ms. Walzer, who first acquired her knowledge from her parents, who owned an antiquarian bookstore. After running a book business of her own in Cambridge, she has recently moved to Newport, R.I., where she works as a consultant to a large company.

She considers the knowledge gained while collecting to be as important as anything she learned in school or business. ''It's given me a sense of women's history that I've never had before,'' she says. ''And it's something I've been able to use in my own life. I think knowing what others have done gives you a sense of what you can do yourself.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Women in History
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today