THE "WONDER WOMEN WEDNESDAYS" (3WD) SERIES episod 1
Have you ever met a story-teller telling their story with such passion that the characters immediately come to life in your mind's eye? Have you ever met a historian recounting lives lived long ago, by others they've never met, and yet that they seem to have intimately known?
Sharon Halevi is one such wonderful story-teller. I met her in October 2017 in Berlin, while I was attending an international conference on gender and travel writing. She was sitting right next to me. When she got up, she gathered a few sheets of paper - which she barely touched - and sat in front of the audience. For half an hour, she told us the story of "her girls": anonymous, young, unmarried, long-dead American women who left behind forgotten travel diaries.
Sharon, I was incredibly moved by the stories you told us about these girls and the way you foraged for their diaries. How did it all start?
I became interested in American girls’ travels and their travel writings, which includes letters and journals, through my work on a larger project on girls’ lives from the 1760s to the 1830s.
So far, I have found 55 pieces. Twelve of them are devoted exclusively to travels, most of which describe "tourist travel": leisurely, entertainment travel motivated by curiosity.
I was absolutely taken by these girls’ sense of wonder and excitement in exploring the world around them! Although most of them had prepared for their travels and read up about the places they were to visit, nothing could prepare them for their first sight of the vastness of the ocean, or of the thundering roar of the Niagara Falls!
Much of this sense of “newness” is lost to us today, as more and more of us are exposed to the sights and sounds of the places we have yet to visit, through magazines, TV shows, travel blogs and websites.
Now I must tell you more about these girls, about who they were! As can be expected from those days, all the diaries I found were kept by white, upper- and middle-class girls. Most of them lived in the Northern United States, and most began keeping diaries in their mid-teens – but only for a few years, generally until the daily duties of married life and motherhood took over... Nonetheless, the youngest diarist I found began keeping her journal when she was barely seven years old! These diaries and their concerns differ greatly from the more common types of diaries, the ones kept by adult (and thus usually married) women.
It was clear during the conference that you cared for every story, for every girl you got to know through her diary. Is there one story in particular that resonated with you?
One of the earliest travel accounts I found was written by Hannah Callender Sansom. She was born in 1739, and died in 1801. She lived in Burlington, in New Jersey, and also in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hannah began keeping her diary in 1758. In the spring of 1759, as she was 21, she set out for a four-month tour of New York City. She was part of a larger group of eighteen young men and women, which she dubbed, I quote, "the Crazey Company". Together they set out without any adult supervision, on overnight jaunts to Long Island and its beaches. They also went on day trips to what were then the rural meadows in the north of Manhattan Island - an area which today is the Bronx! So there was indeed one incident that amused me quite a lot. It occurred during an excursion to Long Island. A friend of Hannah suggested that they both ride out to see a certain spot called Horsemanden’s Folly, which had a view of the ocean. But somehow all the other members of the “Crazey Company” got wind of this and, in a blink of an eye, we've got eighteen young people with their carriages heading to what was supposed to be a quiet trip. As a mother of teenagers, I have witnessed the organizing process of more than one outing, and the whole thing sounded very familiar! Some things have definitely not changed since the 18th century!
This was not just Hannah's generation. A year after her trip to New York City, Hannah set out again with friends on “a Tour of a Week or ten days” to the Moravian settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She mentions in her diary that 19 years earlier in 1742 her own mother, Katherine Smith Callender, also traveled to New York City and toured it for a week in the company of two cousins and her cousin’s wife. For those of you who would like to read some more about Hannah, I highly recommend The Diary of Hannah Callender Sansom: Sense and Sensibility in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Susan E. Klepp and Karin Wulf and published by Cornell University Press in 2010.
Diary of Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, 1799-1806. New York Public Library.
During the conference, we talked a lot about how women relate to travel, and more generally how they relate to public space. This has become a hot topic in women's rights movements worldwide. Do these diaries give us any extra insight into that issue?
One of the first things I noticed during my research, is that once you start looking for “traveling girls”, their numbers suddenly seem to grow.
While most girls and young women did not keep a record of their travels, and while not all records survived, it is absolutely amazing to see how many diaries, journals and memoirs did actually survive.
So in the end, even if the number of surviving texts is low, when you begin to read them you notice that girls often traveled in the company of sisters, female relatives and school friends. They also mention meeting other girls and their families while traveling. So I have come to believe that a far greater number of girls and young women traveled, as compared to what one would think. And they traveled for pleasure at a much earlier time than we have been led to believe.
So would you say that the times were more accepting of unmarried women in public spaces than what we thought?
Well, the second thing that struck me was that none of the people these girls and young women met seemed particularly surprised by their traveling. As far as I know, they expressed no disapproval whatsoever about them not staying home, or about them desiring to see the world. But it could well be because they were always accompanied, by parents, relatives or family friends. This may have spared them the disapproval or hostility of their contemporaries. Or it could be that these girls were somehow excused, because they did not aspire to publish their experiences, to make them public: when you read them, it is clear that their diaries were intended for their eyes only, or sometimes they were penned with one particular female reader in mind (mother, sister, cousin, or best friend). In any case, maybe because of all these circumstances, the disapproval of “the traveling woman” that later women travelers feared and experienced, and which has been the focus of so much academic research, is completely absent from their writing.
Sharon Halevi in front of the New York Public Library.
What about you personally? I mean, you're a woman, and you write. Did the girls change you, somehow? Your own writing, your worldview?
What most impressed me was how action-oriented their journals were! The girls described in great details what they did, what they saw, whom they met, and what they read... Sure, they often recorded what they felt at certain moments.
But what I didn't find in their writings are the detailed description of feelings, the constant, inward, self-examination I have come to associate with contemporary writings about "the self" in memoirs, diaries, or travelogues. This made me realize again to what extent we all live in a post-Freudian world!
Today, we read this kind of writing not just to learn about another person’s life or travels; we also use it as "personal therapy" - that's how I'd phrase it as I can't think of a better word. This was a sound reminder for me that I should, at all times, read and understand the lives of these girls who lived some 200 years ago on their terms - and not on those of my time.
Thanks Sharon. Before we leave you to it, could you tell us what's the next step for you and "your girls"?
One of the main issues I am examining now is the lasting impact these travels had on the girls and especially on their sense of national belonging. I mean, what happened when a girl from Philadelphia traveled to Boston... and, once there, received word that New Hampshire had ratified the Constitution? Why did girls and young women make it a point to stop at battlefields and pay hommage to the men who died there? This is especially true of the ones traveling up the Hudson River valley and into upstate New York, and later the ones visiting the Great Lakes area. Also, how did seeing the landscape of another State of the Union, and befriending its people, foster their sense of belonging to the expanding United States? Current research links mobility to a decreasing sense of territorial belonging. Quite in contradiction with that view, my sense right now is that for these girls, travel increased their sense of national belonging.
Sharon Halevi is currently Chair of the Department of Multidisciplinary Studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. A former PhD student at the University of Iowa in the US, she is a research specialist in the fields of Feminist Theory & History, History of the Wife, History of Identities, Gender & Autobiography, and the American Revolution & the Early Republic.
This interview was conducted as a written interview in February 2018.