Thursday, February 13, 2020

Marla R. Miller's "Entangled Lives"

Marla R. Miller is the director of the Public History Program and a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution and Betsy Ross and the Making of America.

Miller applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts, and reported the following:
Page 99 falls within a chapter on domestic service, and shares the conclusion of a story about a Native American woman, Rachel, who worked at the Hadley, Massachusetts, farm of Charles and Elizabeth Phelps, and Ralf, a hired man with whom she formed a romantic union. The narrative is part of a larger analysis of domestic servants who are, or become, mothers while laboring in another family’s home, exploring ways in which working women in Federal New England balanced parenting with the need to secure a livelihood.

This page is quite representative of the overall book, which follows closely a handful of women who lived and worked in Hadley in the half-century following the American Revolution. The exceptionally rich archival and artifactual record of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Hadley affords unusual insight into the lives of women whose experiences too often lay beyond the reach of historical documentation; Rachel, for instance, is one of a handful of native women working in domestic service in late eighteenth-century Hadley, and the same sources that document her also help us consider poor white women on the margins of her rural economy, distressed immigrants, enslaved and free African Americans, and others whose experiences are generally difficult to document. My aim in the book is to show, as my subjects continually circulate between foreground and background in one another’s stories, how entwined and entangled women’s lives were on the rural landscapes of early Massachusetts. Popular historical imagination has a tendency to homogenize women’s experiences in this era; Entangled Lives recovers and reconstellates the lives of white, black and Native women on the rural New England landscape in order to explore how opportunity and constraint operated in the rural female economy in the decades before industrialization.

What page 99 doesn’t capture is the book’s effort—principally contained in a “coda”—to understand the evolution of how this work has been remembered in the community. We know about Rachel and the other women discussed here because of the paper, artifacts, and built environment preserved in Hadley, through the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation (which stewards a large collection of family papers as well as a historic house museum), the Hadley Farm Museum (which opened in 1930 to preserve the history of rural life and work in the region), the Hadley Historical Society, and other efforts to preserve and interpret local history. What we remember, and what we have forgotten, about early American women’s work reflect generations of assumptions and preferences about the past, each with their own historical contexts. The project’s conclusion, then, contemplates the trajectory of pastkeeping in Hadley-- the ways women’s work was interpreted by nineteenth and early twentieth-century museum makers, and how their choices and priorities continue to shape historical understanding today.
Learn more about Entangled Lives at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Betsy Ross and the Making of America.

--Marshal Zeringue