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Memorial University archivists rewrite herstory with #MissusMonday

Archival assistant Nicole Penney holds an index card showing one of the many women who were identified by their husband’s names – in this case, a Mrs. James Collins.
Archival assistant Nicole Penney holds an index card showing one of the many women who were identified by their husband’s names – in this case, a Mrs. James Collins. - Juanita Mercer

Project seeks identification of ‘nameless women’

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Do you know Mrs. Bill Adams?

What about Mrs. James Collins? Or Mrs. Owen Antle?

These are just a few of the many “nameless women” in the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA).

These women provided valuable information about the province’s customs, songs, stories – a wide range of folklore. But archivists working at MUNFLA say the women weren’t given proper credit.

“The tidbits of information that were recorded from them are very valuable, and it’s almost like they’re just dismissed as Mrs. Husband,” says archivist Pauline Cox.

“We call them the ‘nameless women’ most of the time,” adds archival assistant Nicole Penney.

“One comes up and we’re like, OK, another nameless woman. … We have amazing oral histories with some of these women and their only identity is what is their connection to their husband.”

Cox and Penney flick through index cards in a filing cabinet.

They’ve opened a drawer with surnames beginning with the letter A.

Immediately there are several women who are identified only by their husband’s name.

“Here’s another one, Mrs. Fred Anderson,” says Cox.

Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive archivist Pauline Cox (left) and archival assistant Nicole Penney.
Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive archivist Pauline Cox (left) and archival assistant Nicole Penney.

After pulling several index cards, Penney exhales.

“This is just the first drawer,” she says.

“So, you can see what we’re dealing with here.”

In an effort to identify the women, they started the #MissusMonday hashtag on Twitter.

Each Monday, they will tweet from MUNFLA’s Twitter account, @MUNFLA_Archive, about one woman. The archive has limited resources to devote to the initiative, so they hope they will be able to crowd-source information using social media.

MUNFLA sent its first #MissusMonday tweet on April 1 with the goal of identifying the first name of Mrs. Bill Adams from Tilton, Conception Bay.

Penney says they’ve had a few people get in touch with some information, but so far, they haven’t definitively identified either of the first two women they’ve tweeted about.

“I’m hoping with time we’ll be able to do that, once we have a bit more awareness about it.”

MUNFLA was established in 1968, so the records Cox and Penney refer to are fairly recent as far as historical documents go. It’s possible some of the “nameless women” in the archive could still be alive.

Penney says the practice of naming married female informants by their husband’s name was widespread in the 1960s and 1970s, and continued into the 1980s before it rapidly declined in the 1990s.

“I suppose in the late ’80s and the ’90s with the women’s lib movement of that time you were seeing less of that happening, which probably also coincided with more women coming to the university and enrolling in the department here.”

The #MissusMonday project is still in its early stages, and neither Penney nor Cox were able to give an exact number of nameless women they have in the archives, only that there are many.

Cox says the goal of the project is simple – to give the women their names. Systematically, one by one, they plan to go through the indexes and identify as many as possible.

“To give them back their voice, and to give credit where credit is due.”

juanita.mercer@thetelegram.com

Twitter: @juanitamercer_


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