When the writer Anne Brewster (1818–1892) and the sculptor Harriet Hosmer (1830–1908) met in Italy in 1876, their conversation circled mainly around the recently deceased actress Charlotte Cushman. That itself was hardly unusual—Cushman was the talk of the town. During most of her adult life, Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876) was among the most-well known public figures in the Anglophone word. As an American actress who could boast a phenomenal success in Britain with roles as varied as Meg Merrilies and Romeo, Cushman dominated the theatrical scene on both sides of the Atlantic for several decades. While she might be forgotten today,1 she was everywhere during the height of her success. You can’t miss her in databases like ProQuest’s American Periodicals Series and Historical Newspapers or the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Yet if you relied only on these public sources, you’d miss a lot.
Historical museum guidebooks mediate an associative network of ideas, writings, artefacts, and people. Piecing together these contingent and ephemeral encounters, and parsing original work from posthumous orders and emendation, is a difficult task that poses a number of questions. What determines how visitors move through museum spaces? Whose voices lead and regulate? Who watches?
On March 6, 2016, at the height of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton or someone on her campaign posted a tweet about intersectionality. Commenting on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the accompanying diagram depicted the various issues that had intersected to cause the crisis. This was a curious moment, as a theory with roots in radical feminism was brought to the center, part of a modish interest in intersectionality as an explanatory framework for understanding contemporary America. Indeed, where her main primary challenger was positioned as a more economically progressive choice, Clinton’s supporters often claimed (with varying degrees of sophistication) that in an intersectional sense she was the more properly anti-establishment candidate, over the white male Bernie Sanders. Had Clinton won in November, this discourse of intersectionality would probably have been a main theme of her presidency. That this seemingly centrist liberal set of ideas can be traced to the radical wing of second wave feminism, the New Left, and even Marxism, adds to the curiosity of its move to the political mainstream.
The stimulating blog Black Perspectives has published an online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability that includes two posts clearly relevant to the history of knowledge. Instead of exploring the link between education and respectability that is familiar, for example, in European social history, these pieces scrutinize the special role played by respectability in African American communities as part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” One response to this acute awareness of scrutiny in a racist society were “pedagogies of respectability,” produced for and circulated via black periodicals and films in the early twentieth century. See Jane Rhodes, “Race, Media, and Black Womanhood in the Early Twentieth Century” for more.
This vocational film is interesting in a few different ways, including for its normative gender roles.