Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection
“Women’s work”. The phrase usually conjures up domestic duties or occupations largely associated with women, such as teaching, nursing, or housekeeping. Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection upends those associations and documents the often obscured, forgotten, and overlooked work and intellectual contributions of women from the Renaissance to the modern era.
On view from December 11, 2019 to February 8, 2020, the exhibit brings together many well-known monuments of women’s history and literature, as well as lesser-known work produced by female scholars, printers, publishers, scientists, artists, and political activists. Taken together, they comprise a mosaic of the ways women have been productive, creative, and socially engaged over the centuries.
The collection was carefully assembled over forty-five years by noted bibliophile, activist, collector, and Grolier Club member Lisa Unger Baskin. She and her late husband, the artist Leonard Baskin, were both avid collectors in many areas. Lisa Baskin began collecting materials related to women in the 1960s, seeking to recover and recognize the many ways women have supported themselves, their families, and the causes they believed in. “The women’s movement and my compelling interest in these untold stories ultimately led me to focus on unearthing the histories of ordinary women—women who worked every day without recognition or acknowledgment,” said Baskin, who co-curated the exhibit.
The result was a collection comprising more than 11,000 rare books and thousands of manuscripts, journals, pieces of ephemera, and artifacts ranging from a copper token minted for the American Anti-Slavery Society to pottery produced by Jane Addams’ Hull House Kilns in Chicago. In 2015, Baskin placed her collection with the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, part of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University. Prior to its arrival at Duke, it had been the most significant collection on women’s history still in private hands.
The earliest items on display include one of the first books known to have been printed by women (1478) and a land grant from 1240 for a home for repentant prostitutes in Pisa. Among the more recent are a selection of materials related to the twentieth-century anarchist Emma Goldman. In between are more than 200 important works on women’s education, women’s rights, the right to vote, slavery and abolition, women in science and medicine, as well as items produced by women publishers, artists, and inventors.
“It’s an intentionally democratic exhibition,” notes Naomi L. Nelson, co-curator of the exhibit and director of Duke’s Rubenstein Library, “featuring both the famous and the forgotten.” According to Nelson, the exhibition also stands as a testament to Lisa Unger Baskin’s own vision, persistence, and keen eye. “Women have long built private collections, but they have been fewer in number than their male counterparts and have only recently been welcomed as members in some bibliophilic circles,” she said.
A few highlights include correspondence by legendary American and British suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence; a publicity blurb for Sojourner Truth’s Narrative hand written by Harriet Beecher Stowe; the first obstetrical book by a woman, the 17th century Louise Bourgeois; a letter and needlework by Charlotte Brontë; and folio editions of the works of Dutch artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, the first scientist to study and depict the metamorphosis of insects in the field. Other items of interest include:
- Hore beatissime virginis Marie, printed in Paris in 1546 by Yolande Bonhomme, one of the most prominent woman printers and booksellers in sixteenth-century Paris.
- A 1630 letter from acclaimed Florentine artist Artemisia Gentileschi to her patron Cassiano dal Pozzo requesting permission for her assistant to carry arms. It was the only Gentileschi letter in private hands.
- A first edition of the first book published by an African American: Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773). Wheatley signed the verso of the title page.
- A selection of manuscripts, correspondence, images, and artifacts related to the Ladies of Llangollen, who made a life for themselves as a same-sex couple in Wales in the late eighteenth century.
- Sojourner Truth’s first account of her life, given as testimony during a trial before she changed her name from Isabella Baumfree to Sojourner Truth: Fanaticism: its source and influence, illustrated by the simple narrative of Isabella…, 1835.
- The Reason Why the Colored American is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition by journalist and anti lynching activist Ida B. Wells, a forceful protest against the exclusion of African Americans from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
- An 1897 letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Sarah M’Clintock inquiring “Would you sell the table on which the Declaration [of Sentiments] was written and what would you ask for it?”
- An elaborate certificate recognizing British suffragette Rosa May Billinghurst’s contributions to the suffrage movement, designed by Sylvia Pankhurst around 1912. Billinghurst was disabled and campaigned on a hand-powered tricycle or in a wheelchair.
The Grolier Club exhibit originated at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University, the repository of Baskin’s collection.
CATALOGUE: A heavily-illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. The book is available from Oak Knoll Press, https://www.oakknoll.com/.
SYMPOSIUM: Women in the Book Arts. January 21, 2020, 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
EXHIBITION WEBSITE: Information about the exhibition, including the Symposium, may be found here: https://exhibits2.library.duke.edu/exhibits/show/baskin/events
LUNCHTIME EXHIBITION TOURS: Thursday, December 12, 2019; Thursday, December 19, 2019; Wednesday, January 8, 2020; Friday, January 31, 2020, 1:00 – 2:00 p.m.
Lisa Baskin will lead free public tours of her exhibition “500 Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection.” Open to the public; no reservations required.