Author of I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600-1920
by Bella Stander
Once upon a time when I was in fifth grade, I wondered aloud to Ronnie, a boy in my class, why our history book only told about men. "That's because women never did anything," he sneered. I responded with some withering retort like "They did so!" but I had no proof beyond my unshakeable conviction. If only there had been Donna Lucey's I Dwell in Possibility: Women Build a Nation 1600-1920 (National Geographic) back then! I could have shown Ronnie a treasure trove of historical images of women at work, at play and on the move, amazed him with an array of facts and then hit him over the head with the book. (He had it coming.)
Charlottesville resident Donna Lucey nods her head understandingly when I recount the above anecdote, minus the violent fantasy. "When you read classic histories," she says, "you never get the sense that women had any involvement in the creation of the country or development of the economy, society or culture. I wanted to do a book on unknown women, a celebration of how important they were before they got the vote, which is the moment when most histories weigh in."
Lucey's initial proposal was for a book about 19th century women. She already had considerable expertise on the subject, having been a photo editor for a Time-Life series on the American West, and later the writer and photo editor of Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron, reissued last year by Mountain Press. She recalls, "My editor kept pushing me and saying, 'What about earlier? What about the Revolution? What about colonial women?' To distill 300 years of history seemed really daunting," she admits. "I wasn't eager to do it; I was afraid it would be too thin a survey."
But in the end, Lucey says enthusiastically, she's glad her editor prevailed because she learned a lot. For example, "I had no idea how powerful women were in the woodland tribes of the East Coast. Until the past 20 years, those women weren't considered important, even though they were the backbone of their families. But in effect they owned the fields, the crops and the houses. They were the ones who established the agricultural economy in this country, not the men. The men were out hunting."
"The only Native American women you usually hear about are people like Pocahontas and Sacagawea, who married white guys," Lucey observes wryly. "What no one ever says about Sacagawea is that she was the Ginger Rogers of the trip. Ginger did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels. Well, Sacagawea did everything the explorers did, except she had just given birth and took care of a baby the whole time."
When researching the chapter on enslaved women, Lucey "found it fascinating to learn what they endured. There was that letter from the woman in the slave pen in Houston, who wrote, 'How can you sell your own children?' Think of the courage that took!" She is amazed that these women "could create a whole vibrant life and maintain their families amidst that utter degradation and horror. They would do things like save bits of fabric from the floor of the sewing room and make clothes for their children, or raise vegetables and chickens and sell them to the main house."
On the other end of the social scale, Lucey was also entranced by women of the Gilded Age. "When I started, I thought they were just socialites, but some of them were incredibly talented," she says, such as Alva Vanderbilt, who co-designed Marble House in Newport and an astonishing French chateau on Fifth Avenue with Richard Morris Hunt. "Women like Caroline Astor ruled the social scene with an iron fist. They'd be CEOs today."
When the Fourth of July comes and once again the news media is full of stories about "the Founding Fathers," pick up a copy of I Dwell in Possibility and be reminded that, as one long-ago Massachusetts woman wrote, "even American daughters are politicians and patriots, and will aid the good work." But don't hit anyone over the head with it-the picture on the dust jacket's too good to mess up.
© 2002 Bella Stander