After Twenty-Five Years: Reflecting on the Origins of the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women’s Papers

in Essays

“when some­thing new crosses the doorstep
the uncles mut­ter
the women walk away
the younger brother sharp­ens his knife…..”

These lines from a Mary Oliver poem sum up, for me, my feel­ings in the late 1980’s when I began to real­ize that my papers might never find a home…

At that point, I was that “some­thing new,” and most unwel­come, cross­ing the doorstep.

But the lat­est exam­ple of my newness—my role in the sale of my family’s companies—was only the lat­est, not the first.

I was born on Black Tuesday in 1937 when the Ohio River crested and much of Louisville, KY was flooded.

My poor mother I think never for­gave me for com­ing into the world at such an inop­por­tune time. Legend has it that my father could only drive her to the hos­pi­tal by cross­ing a stream on a pair of planks, held up by two men, one with a wooden leg that sank hip deep in the mud.

And I was too big: fully nine pounds. And I didn’t get any smaller as time passed.

What does all that have to do with what I feared would hap­pen to the remains of my thirty years as a writer, when all hell burst loose in 1989?

I think we have to be of a cer­tain size—a per­haps unman­age­able size—to believe that the proof that we lived is of any importance.

Often women have said to me, “My papers wouldn’t inter­est anyone.”

I hope my exam­ple begins to dis­prove that. I think all our lives are deeply inter­wo­ven with the his­tory of our times, as my great-grandmother’s girl­hood was shad­owed by the Civil War in Richmond, as my grand­mother inher­ited the polit­i­cal trou­bles of Northern Ireland, as my mother suf­fered through the iso­la­tion of wives left behind dur­ing the sec­ond world war… It is not only the per­sonal that our papers record but the way the per­sonal becomes polit­i­cal, even for women who may never rec­og­nize the connection.

We might pre­fer to be pow­er­less, to have inscribed on our graves the epi­taph cho­sen by two of my North Carolina female rel­a­tives: “She did what she could…”

But we really don’t have that choice, and our papers are the proof. We have taken up space on this crowded earth, and the writ­ten words that remain after our death jus­tify that and explain it to the degree that any mys­tery can be jus­ti­fied or explained…

Women often fail to pre­serve their papers because of shame. I can’t claim that women are truth tellers, at least not all the time, but we are the some­times unwill­ing inher­i­tors of secrets: the things that go on in fam­i­lies, as in coun­tries as a whole—addiction, mur­der, sui­cide, adop­tion, bigamy, ille­git­i­mates that no one is ever will­ing to mention.

We hear about all that, late at night, in the kitchen, or in bed, often with requests that we never repeat it—but since all good writ­ing is made up of secrets, most of us do find a way to write it down—and this writ­ing it down reveals cracks in the sys­tem of power…

And this writ­ing it down will shake the foun­da­tions and rat­tle the win­dows, since fam­i­lies and the cul­ture that enshrines them depend on secrets—on our loy­alty to peace-keeping rather than truth-telling.

That’s another rea­son why women’s papers are so often destroyed—and mine would be a prime exam­ple. I had heard and seen things that did not fit what I was told, a dis­crep­ancy that can lead to madness—or to a faith in the value of an alter­na­tive vision. A vision based on real equal­ity, on the actions that bring all of us into the human family.

So I had rea­son to fear that no one, in the poi­soned atmos­phere of the late 1980’s, in Kentucky, would see to the preser­va­tion of what I would leave behind—letters from the time of let­ter writ­ing, gal­leys, man­u­scripts, failed attempts at nov­els and short sto­ries, my des­per­ate jour­nals. I really didn’t know where to turn.

At the time I was pub­lish­ing a lit­er­ary quar­terly called The American Voice which car­ried works writ­ten by women, an attempt to coun­ter­bal­ance our poor rep­re­sen­ta­tion in print, which con­tin­ues to this day. Recent stud­ies in Vida which fol­lows women in the arts found that the lists of major pub­lish­ing houses show that thirty per­cent of their books are by women—only Riverhead is able to boast forty-five percent—and the small lit­er­ary presses are even more biased. Book review­ing fol­lows this trend, with my old neme­sis, The New York Review of Books—eight-three per­cent of the books it reviews are by men. This is another rea­son women’s papers are always in dan­ger of oblit­er­a­tion: if our work is not respected dur­ing our life­times it cer­tainly will be respected after we are dead.

These are some of the fac­tors that moved me. Also, I had been changed by Anne Firor Scott’s The Southern Lady which opened my eyes to the real­i­ties that were can­died over in my grandmother’s reminiscences.

I got in touch with Anne who was teach­ing here at Duke and asked her to send me some­thing for The American Voice—which she kindly and gen­er­ously did.

This was my blessed intro­duc­tion to Duke University.

My next men­tor was Jean O’Barr whose women’s stud­ies pro­gram here proved that we could take our right­ful places even in a great uni­ver­sity, some­thing I could not have imag­ined when I was a stow­away at Harvard in the 1950’s.

Next, my dear friend Bob Byrd invited me to a writ­ers’ week­end where I met some of the women whose papers are now pre­served here.

Like these women, I was look­ing for a home, as we all are—something that our lit­eral homes don’t always provide.

I found mine here when Bob came to Lousiville to col­lect the first box of my papers.

Ever since, when I pre­pare to ship off another box, I go through the same litany:

Do these mat­ter?

Who would they mat­ter to?

How many secrets are my papers telling, and do I have a right to tell them?

Who would be hurt if I burned them all up, and who would be hurt if I saved them?

After that, I don’t allow myself to cen­sor. I remem­ber being quite embar­rassed when a teenaged diary of mine was dis­played here in a glass case—with all that obsess­ing about boys…

But the embar­rass­ment was worth­while, as it nearly always is, remind­ing me—again—of how sim­i­lar we all are.

So—no cen­sor­ing, the whole truth, or none of it.

As I sent off more boxes, I real­ized that if doing that mat­tered to me, it would mat­ter to other women. I could never jus­tify offer­ing myself an oppor­tu­nity that was not offered to other women.

Clearly, inevitably, that meant estab­lish­ing an archive to pre­serve what would oth­er­wise be lost, espe­cially the papers of mar­gin­al­ized women and the orga­ni­za­tions they founded.

(It is always, in the end, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. Most men’s lives are lost after they die—but that has not been my mis­sion. I must leave that to others.)

So, with invalu­able help from the array of peo­ple here at the Perkins and the sup­port of the University, we have, together, achieved this archive, which is flour­ish­ing, reach­ing more and more women, expand­ing our bound­aries and our expectations.

I’ve never been com­fort­able with call­ing the archive by my name—it is not really mine, never was and never will be.

But I know that many if not most women hes­i­tate to give their names to what they create—unless what they cre­ate is babies, and even then, other names come first.

So I look on the nam­ing of the archive not as a claim­ing, but as a recog­ni­tion of my pro­found, life­long con­nec­tion with all women who write.

Thank you…

[Visit the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture online: http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/bingham/]

View all of Sallie's online writing in her archives.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add your own }

James Voyles March 27, 2014 at 10:17 am

First rate, as always, Sallie. You will never be forgotten.

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Phyllis Free March 27, 2014 at 11:55 am

I’m surprised to find myself welling up with tears upon reading this speech. Why, I ask myself? Why am I so moved by this? If I must choose one word to answer, I choose the word “validation.” Thank you, Sallie, as always, for the many ways your commitment and the gifts you’ve shared to support the work and words of women has touched, enhanced, and validated my life and work.
~ many thanks, with warm wishes, always,
phyllis free

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Patricia W. Ballard March 27, 2014 at 2:02 pm

I am – again – moved to tears. But also have amazed myself by feeling not only the urge but perhaps a fledgling glimmer of the courage it would take for me to write about my own unwanted inheritance of secrets,
things that occur yet are never mentioned, things that I witnessed that didn’t match what I was told….and vice versa. But then does it matter? Will it ever make a difference? To anyone????

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Barbara Scott March 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm

After reading this moving, passionate, elegantly fierce piece, I can see why those who know you speak so highly of you.

You are a force in the world of letters, and of women.

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