What the Little Woman Was Up To

Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection

an exhibition at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, February 28–June 15, 2019; and the Grolier Club, New York City, December 11, 2019–February 8, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Naomi L. Nelson, Lauren Reno, and Lisa Unger Baskin
Grolier Club/David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, 159 pp., $60.00
A stereographic souvenir card showing a display of showing a display of the naturalist Martha Maxwell’s wildlife specimens
Lisa Unger Baskin Collection/Rubenstein Library, Duke University
One half of a stereographic souvenir card from the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia showing a display of the naturalist Martha Maxwell’s wildlife specimens, with Maxwell seated at the center

One of the most celebrated attractions at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial International Exhibition was the installation of Great Plains and Rocky Mountain wildlife in the Kansas-Colorado Building. Stereoscopic souvenir cards show a faux mountainside crammed like a Victorian what-not shelf with deer, goats, polecats, and raptors. A cougar is suspended mid-leap over the mouth of a cave, where a lady sits with a bird (species unidentifiable) in her lap. Not visible in the photographs, but noted in accounts, was a sign over the cave entrance announcing “Woman’s Work.”

The woman in question—the one whose work it was—was Martha Maxwell, and Mary Dartt’s 1879 book On the Plains, and Among the Peaks, or, How Mrs. Maxwell Made Her Natural History Collection opens in the voice of an incredulous visitor: “‘Woman’s work!’ What does that mean?… ‘Does that placard really mean to tell us a woman mounted all these animals?’… ‘Did she kill any…?’”1 The answer was, of course, a double-barreled “yes!”

Born in 1831, Maxwell was a former Midwest schoolmarm who had remade herself as an entrepreneurial gun-toting naturalist and progenitor of the natural history diorama (a subspecies of eastern screech owl is named for her). She evidently enjoyed an unusual array of talents, and one might assume that such nonconforming creative achievement had been preceded by angry repudiations of her womanly duties—feet stomped, suitors spurned, parents defied. One would be wrong. It was through adventures encountered while helping secure a house for her family that Maxwell, through a series of pragmatic steps, found her vocation. She had perseverance certainly, but more important, a nimble imagination—an invaluable asset when trying to get things done from a social position that generally demands constant accommodation to the needs of others. Woman’s work indeed.

Perseverance gets celebrated a lot, strategic tractability less so, but one of several important lessons conveyed by “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” was that adaptability is a lifesaver. Hosted by New York’s private Grolier Club, the nation’s preeminent bibliophilic society, this dense and discursive exhibition included some two hundred objects, mostly books, selected from the more than 16,000 accumulated by the collector and activist Lisa Baskin over the course of forty-five years. (The collection was acquired by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture at Duke University in 2015, and the exhibition was cocurated by Baskin, Naomi L. Nelson, and Lauren Reno; an earlier iteration took place last year at Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.) The exhibition’s compass was broad but…

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