Varied Activities of Women tells little known stories about women’s history

Inez Millholland, a suffragist, at a March on Washington.

How do you research an early 20th century female wreckage diver whose entire career is summarized in a couple sentences in the Chicago Tribune? Reference Professional for Special Collections Emma Sarconi and Gender and Sexuality Studies Librarian Sara Howard set out to answer that question through their project and Wintersession course, “​​An Archival Treasure Hunt in the Chicago Daily Tribune’s Varied Activities of Women Column.”

The project is an outgrowth of the early 1920s newspaper column, “The Varied Activities of Women.” While interning as a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Historical Society, Sarconi fielded a question from one of her colleagues who wanted to learn more about the Brooklyn resident Margaret C. Goodman.

“She was one of the early female deep sea wreckage divers,” Sarconi explained. “The only evidence of her that we were able to track down was a two to three sentence mention in the Chicago Tribune.”

Though Sarconi couldn’t find more information about Goodman, she was intrigued by the column. The blurbs typically read in one of two ways: as news about women, as in the case of Goodman’s feat of becoming a wreckage diver, or news for women, like the three girls, Artie, Pinkie, and Zonie Ingraham, who started their own orange grove when they were 13, 11, and eight years old respectively. 

“I thought that the column would make a great recurring project to take one of these blurbs and tell the bigger story behind it,” said Sarconi. “To get the full picture you really need to dig into some of them.”

After arriving at Princeton University Library (PUL), Sarconi worked with Howard on the beginnings of the project. The pair presented at the American Libraries Association in 2019, testing reception of a collaborative historiography rooted around researching the women featured in the column.

Despite positive reception at the conference, Sarconi wondered how students would take to a voluntary project that would require additional time outside of their packed schedules. 

“It’s a lot to ask someone to do research on top of the research they are doing for school,” Sarconi said. “So we tried to reapproach the project to be even lighter and quicker [in terms of] engagement because I think the concept is really solid. It’s about how we can meet people where they are.”

After putting the project on the backburner at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Sarconi met the person who would help bring it to a broader audience. Siobhan Barco, a second-year graduate student studying U.S. legal history in Princeton’s History Department contacted Sarconi after seeing a poster for it and taking an interest in the Chicago Tribune column as it relates to women and the law.

“There are a lot of women who engaged in activities related to law that we’ve overlooked because of how we read historical sources,” said Barco.

With Barco’s help, Sarconi and Howard transitioned the archival project from submission-based into a Wintersession course. Barco parsed through issues of the column and selected people who’d be randomly assigned to course registrants. Participants would then have time during the course to work with Sarconi, Howard, and Barco to build profiles on the women. 

“One of the main goals of this project is to build a fuller record of women’s contributions to history,” said Barco. Sarconi added, “[We’re] not only enriching our understanding of early 20th century women and women’s historiography, but also helping people practice primary source literacy and researching around the margins.”

The Wintersession benefited greatly from PUL resources, including ProQuest Historical Newspapers and America’s Historical Newspapers. Sarconi’s eyes lit up describing how the group used census data to flesh out where the women sit in history. 

“[With census data] you can learn when someone was born, when they died,” said Sarconi. “At one point the census was recording whether you had a radio in your home or not. It can also help you track things like marriage, and then Ancestry has all of that [genealogy] information in it.”  

Sara Howard noted, “It was also great to discuss what is lacking in these sources and talk about how as researchers we often need to work harder to find stories and documents looking at traditionally marginalized communities.” 

Other sources of note included the accurately named, as well as Google Books. “Google Books can be really helpful because it includes things like self-published work, which is where a lot of people put their genealogies,” said Sarconi. “HathiTrust is good for the same reason.”

Part of the course and project's appeal is the breadth of topics covered. “The Varied Activities of Women” column didn’t adhere to strict themes, detailing a group of young women who started and managed their own orchard, or covering Mary McCleod Bethune. Participants in the course, which included Princeton students, staff, and faculty, could follow an existing interest or stumble upon a field completely different from their own.

“One of the people who participated works in the Princeton Baby Lab in the Developmental Psychology Department,” said Barco. “They discovered Helen Spear, a children's playroom and furniture designer, and were able to write about things directly related to their psychological research.”

But what does it mean to “build a fuller record of women’s contributions to history?”  For some in the group it meant making immediate updates to the historical record by way of Wikipedia. 

“Only 17 percent of all biographies on Wikipedia are of women,” Barco said. “Some people edited Wikipedia pages because after doing research they found Wikipedia was representing things imprecisely,” noting that American archeologist, philanthropist and voluntary nurse Mabel Grouitch was among the figures who had their pages updated. 

The future of the project could unfold in a multitude of ways. Barco is working on a blog entry about the course which will be published on the project website. Sarconi, Howard, and Barco are to offer the Wintersession course again, but are also interested in exploring the Varied Activities in the classroom. 

“I think that the learning goals of the project are so fundamental and it's also a lot of fun,” Sarconi said. “We’re really wanting people to explore whatever avenue of history speaks to them through this column because it just touches on so many historical moments and movements.”

More personally, Barco is already planning to incorporate her experience into her doctoral dissertation. 

“Emma and Sara, from their vast experience as librarians, were extremely helpful to me thinking about the research process and digging into the archives,” Barco said. “They were really helpful in talking about how difficult it is to find marginalized groups in the archives and how it’s an emotional journey as well. They were good at teaching strategies of working with records that I’m definitely going to apply in my dissertation research.”

To learn more about the project, visit the Varied Activities of Women website. Or to get involved, email Emma Sarconi, Sara Howard, or Siobhan Barco

Published on March 21, 2022

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications