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The secret history of women in America, told through their belongings

Historians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, books, womens history



The ephemera that make up a home—a vintage rocking chair, heirloom jewelry, a silver-plated tea set—are clues into the interior world of the people who live there. For centuries, women have shaped these domestic spaces, which are places of simultaneous confinement and freedom, with furnishings that have traditionally received less attention from historians.

With its latest tome, the Smithsonian is changing that. Called Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, the book features 280 artifacts in all, from Julia Child’s cutting boards to Oprah Winfrey’s television show couch, each pulled from 16 different Smithsonian museums and archives, and contextualized by a collection of 135 essays written by 95 authors.

A meditation on women’s history in the U.S., the curation of domestic and professional spaces, and the power of domestic design as a mode of self-expression, Smithsonian American Women invites a dialog on how the things we carry define us.

For instance, there’s a birth control pill container from the 1960s that signals how American women were able to claim more control of their bodies and sexual lives during this era (the pill was exclusively prescribed to married women until 1962). The innovative Dialpack design, which allowed for loose tablets to be stored in calendar-like rows, made it easier for women to track their daily usage.

While objects like these illustrate huge steps forward, they don’t paint the full picture. There’s no mention of the contraceptive trials that took place in Puerto Rico in 1955—the first large-scale human trial of the birth control pill—which saw Puerto Rican women being tested, often times as unknowing experimental subjects, before the pill was approved as safe in the 50 U.S. states. This omission is in line with the version of history we are often taught—a signal of progress still left to be made.

Read entire article at Fast Company

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