As a historian I, of course, have some issues with historians. My
main bugaboo this past year has been what I term “source prejudice.” We favor textual documents over visual, no doubt about it. What really gets me is that one of the main defenses for this has been that textual documents are more open and reliable, visual more obscure and relative. Well now, there are definitely interpretation issues within textual documents too; we still need to consider intention, audience, possible deception, etc. etc. etc. in a journal entry as well as in a propaganda poster.
In a crusaderly mood then, I undertook writing a cultural history paper about a time, place, and people that left behind little textual evidence, but a great deal of visual sources–the late 19th/early 20th century women of central Utah. Recently, the George Edward Andersen collection has been uploaded online, giving public access to tens of thousands of images, most of which feature portraiture and landscape scenes from places like Scofield and Manti, and as I zeroed in on the women in these pictures, I discovered an exceptionally progressive collective culture of economic independence, cultural refinement, gender equalities, and even forward-thinking fashion.
Of course, like I noted above, every source has its flaws, textual and visual. I tried to be open-minded yet carefully critical of my interpretations. What ultimately solidified my argument was being able to show that the few textual sources that were available (in a smattering of journals, Women’s Exponent archives, and immigration statistics) were in agreement
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with what I could see in the photographs.
With this rather rambling introduction, I think I would like to treat my posts as spotlights on these remarkable portraits I had the privilege of studying. Since I cannot possibly spotlight every striking example of the “New Woman” in Utah, I’ll try to pick a few that are particularly fascinating.
This is the photograph that started it all. The moment I saw Anna Thompson from Scofield, Utah striking that pose I needed more. I mean, isn’t this remarkable?! Dating 1898, she is at the height of fashion with her large sleeves, belted traveling skirt, and “clerk” collar. Even better, she is outside, presumably tromping through fields and boulders armed with an umbrella and hiking buddy. But what really attracted me to the portrait was the
uncanny similarity it has to an iconic portrait painted by John Singer Sargent in 1896 of Mrs. I.N. Phelps Stokes.
You should know that when this painting was unveiled, it was considered a bit brassy. Mrs. Stokes’ pose–looking straight forward, hand on hip, confident smile– was considered “too strong” and “too powerful to be properly feminine.” What an unexpected surprise to find the same “brassy” attitude, not posed by a painter
but self-posed for a frontier photograph, in the smile and stance of Miss Anna Thompson of Scofield, Utah.
Looking through the archives, I also found a companion photograph that reveals an even higher degree of
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feminine freedom than even I supposed Utah women had at the time (let alone what the general American populace thinks these women were subjected to in “Mormondom”).
Yessiree, they’re on a group date! Andersen’s meticulous notes confirm that this is simply Anna Thompson “and friends.” Wait, maybe they’re not even on a date! They might just be “hanging out”!! Okay, okay, I’ll be serious now. At any rate, the fact that a group of two women and two men, unrelated, identifying themselves as “friends,” would have their picture taken together in a setting that implies a good deal of healthy strolling and spatial freedom…well, it’s perfectly, marvelously, unexpectedly liberal!
Say hello to the “New Woman” exactly in the place you would never suspect her to be: stereotypically patriarchal, orthodox, hick-town mining camp, frontier Utah.