I just finished looking through some of the Mary Holt Woolfolk Carlton Papers at Virginia Commonwealth University where I made one of my most favorite discoveries of all time. But first, who the hell is Holt?
Holt was a friend and comrade of Zelda’s and together they stormed that bastion of Virginia conservatism, our local chapter of the fourth estate. The local newspaper, the staunchly conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch, is not much different today than it was in Zelda and Holt’s heyday. While today you can read the RTD’s attack on Katherine Waddell and the Women’s Strike Force, in the 1970’s you could look forward to such gems as sex-segregated job ads and disparaging remarks about the Women’s Bank. In fact, the frequency with which these two allies and friends mention their frustration with the media in their letters makes me wonder if I shouldn’t turn my research in that direction.
Anyway, back to Holt. She was from a “Virginia family” (as a transplant, I learned that this is code for “rich, white and, at some point probably not distant, landed) and married a supportive lawyer. She is a trained social worker with a master’s degree and something of an expert on human sexuality who corresponded with Dr. William Masters, among others. She is quite poised and very intelligent, just the sort of person you’d want to have working for you, if you were the boss. This makes my new favorite discovery all the sweeter.
In one of many folders of correspondence in the collection I found two letters, both written to people who had interviewed Holt for jobs in the past. In the letters, which almost seem like therapy exercises, she writes of her frustration and feelings of helplessness when these two men made sexist remarks to her during job interviews. Her letters are both diplomatic and eloquent and she ends both with a hope that the recipient has changed his mind about women in the intervening years. One man does indeed write back to tell her that he has changed his mind.
I am simply blown away by Holt’s courage and, well, balls. These feelings must have weighed on her through the years and informed much of her activism, particularly when it came to “desexigrating” the Help Wanted ads. One of the letters is much more difficult to read than the other. This expressive letter was written to a man who told her that “women are just office furniture”. That Holt could write to him, clearly state her feelings at the time and then end by effectively positioning him to easily claim reform is not only brilliant but shows both an amazing maturity and a sound rationality. If I had received such a letter, I would be kicking myself for not having hired such a daring and brilliant mind.
Holt Carleton (as she is known) is still alive and I can’t wait to talk with her.
It has been a crazy week over here in my house because….I GOT A JOB! Well, I got a temporary job, anyway. I think I may have mentioned at one time that I do reference one night a week at our public library in addition to being a kickass archivist? Well, said public library needs someone to fill in for three months so here I am, filling in for three months. Of course, this means that I’ll be spending all my time at the public library but rest assured that my archival proclivities will still have an outlet in the form of a biography I’m currently researching (see last post) and many many other projects.
As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently buried deep in Lee County court records over at the state library. Such paper-centric inhumation is usually not much to write home about. I’m never the archivist who makes fun discoveries like a long-lost Nathaniel Hawthorne novel shoved into some otherwise unremarkable records. Or like my buddy M.D. who recently discovered a perfectly formed origami crane mixed in with some chancery court records. It was so delicate and cool that it was featured on our blog. But today was my day. Yes, I made some fun discoveries for once. And that is discoveries with an s. Plural, baby. First up was a fun little murder case at which I’d been looking. It involved one Samuel Ball who shot a man in the gut during a dispute. Said decedent…well…died and Samuel was hauled up before a grand jury who promptly indicted him for murda. Well, someone paid the $1,000 bail to have him released on his own recognizance. Sam showed up for his hearings like a good boy until one day he didn’t. The court was not pleased and after a period of time, his bondsman went before the judge to tell the court that he knew that the plaintiff was currently in Texas and could he please go and get him? The judge then issued a “requisition”, which is, I think, fancy old-timey talk for an order of extradition, to the governor of Texas. The bondsman met with success in Texas (which, considering it was the 1870’s, is pretty damn successful) and carried his bounty back to an Appalachian jail cell from which Samuel Ball subsequently escaped. There is nothing else in the record to suggest that the bondsman engaged in yet another rescue mission so we might not be faulted for concluding that this murderer got away with it. Good times.
But, as captivating as murder is, it is the second discovery that I really like. Some of you may or may not know that I’ve a strong feminist streak and a weakness for primary sources that shed any light on women’s lives. Well, my second record of note is a very simple and otherwise tedious chancery case where a woman is asking for a trustee to be put in charge of her inheritance. “Why?” you might ask. “Why does she need a trustee for her own money?” Well, if you ask that then you’re obviously not smart enough to realize that women are absolutely stupid and cannot be trusted for one second with important stuff like money or politics or reproductive organs. Cleo Anderson, who is described by this legal document as “an infant married woman” needs a trustee because she is not yet considered an adult, being under 21 years of age. Married. But not an adult. A married child. An infant married woman. God save us. And do you know who brought this suit before the court and who wants to be the lucky trustee? Wait for it….her husband. So, let’s break this down. Cleo inherits some dough. Awesome! It’s enough to keep her in crinoline for the next fifty years! Aw, shucks. Wait a minute. She’s still a baby! A baby that has sex and bosses and slaps servants and bears her own babies but a baby nonetheless and she needs a big, strong man to tell her what to do with her money just in case she does something stupid like spend it all on Appalachian hookers or turn it into confederate bonds. How fortunate she is that John Anderson, beloved husband that he is, is willing to take on the burden of all that filthy lucre so that she needn’t soil her pretty white hands with it!
Alright, I admit that some of the details of that last part could be pure speculation. Maybe she was an ardent feminist who really wanted to take that money and buy a ticket for the next train to Seneca Falls, New York. Or maybe she wanted someone else to be the trustee during her minority (or while she grew out of the infantile stage, if you will) but her husband drugged her and made her sign a paper declaring him the trustee. Or maybe she was totally insane and evil and the husband didn’t really love her but only married her to get the money that her family made off of the backs of some long-lost family member of his.
Either way, it just shows you how fun primary sources can be.