Two Women's Diaries

Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library
October 1, 2002

 

The word "diary" may conjure up various images: a small book with a clasp that holds an adolescent's secrets; an elegant hand-bound volume with thick, unlined pages; or, more simply, pieces of paper loosely held together with a ribbon, or even string. Yet, diaries, whatever their form or purpose, have one common characteristic--an author's self-inscription.

Woodring's simple prose

Stewart illustrated her travels

Lives recorded: Stewart illustrated her travels, above; Woodring's simple prose, top.

Until recently, diaries, and particularly women's diaries, were assigned little scholarly importance in and of themselves. Such views have changed. Now diaries are considered valuable primary sources; they are the voices that give life to a time and place and put "flesh on the bones" of history. For scholars of women's studies, diaries reveal the often unexplored roles and contributions of women and offer insight into women's sense of self.

There are many noteworthy diaries in the collection of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library's Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. Two show the diversity within the genre quite clearly. The first is a five-volume set penned and lavishly illustrated in the early twentieth century by Harriet Sanderson Stewart, a British traveler. The second is a tiny, sixteen-page journal created in the 1870s by American farmwife Rebecca Woodring. Inside and out, these diaries echo the disparity between their authors' lives.

From 1906 to 1911, Harriet Sanderson Stewart traveled the globe with her father, the Reverend Francis Stewart. While abroad, she recorded her impressions of the lands and peoples she encountered. She also illustrated her writings with her own watercolors, as well as with photographs, postcards, and even dried flora. Elegantly conceived, her work is bound in separate volumes, titled "Westward Wanderings," "Eastern Impressions," and "Scenes from Southern Spain."

Her writing reflects her privilege and education, as in this account of an outing in Jamaica: "This afternoon we went (rather too early in the day) to the famous Hope Gardens. The trees, shrubs, plants, ferns, and flowers we saw there beggar description. If you can imagine the contents of all the Kew hot-houses turned loose on to their lawns, having first been greatly multiplied, enlarged, and beautified, you will form just a very faint idea of what we saw. The setting included a glorious chain of mountains, gold green shaded with cobalt, rippling streams, bright sun and cool air, and lawns as green and well-trimmed as any in England."

In sharp contrast, Woodring's diary records the mundane details of her life as a miller's wife in Flint Rock (Catawba County), North Carolina. Written in 1872 and 1873, the diary consists of eight sheets of scrap paper folded in half with a makeshift cover cut from a letter issued by the Post Office Department. A frayed piece of string holds the papers together. The diary bears witness to Woodring's unusual circumstances as a poor yet literate woman in the war-ravished South, and it conveys her determination, and her need, to inscribe her lived experience.

In her work-filled days, she regularly made time to write in her diary. An entry from June 1872 reads, "3 Sun. we went to H.C. in the afternoon. Mirah and Grany Mitchell were her[e] in the forenoon hoed & thined my cotton last week & finished a pair of socks, went to preaching to St. Peters on Sat, grany Hettrick was buried, and J.M. Smith preached her funeral from Rev. 14,13."

The collection documents women's efforts to define their lives in words and validates their collective experiences. Opening their diaries, humble or elegant, brings them to life again.