I’m delighted to say that my proposal for a chapter in Subjecting History: Building a Relationship between History and its Alternatives. This fabulous volume, edited by Thomas Padilla and Trevor Getz addresses “questions about the relationship between academic history and alternative forms of historical representation.” A crucial aspect of this book, and my attraction to it, is “engaging a nonacademic audience to comment upon the text.”
So let the audience engagement commence! UPDATE live google doc of chapter
Amateurs, Activists and Academics: Who’s Subject to Whom?
In “Women’s History: A Retrospective from the United States” Bonnie Smith argues that academic historians of women erroneously believe they created their field from nothing, and argues instead that the revived interest in women’s historical agency involved activists as much as academics. As a contribution to clarifying those relationships, I investigate the multiple layers of historical discourse created in and around the intersections, and at times, collisions of historical approaches to one woman, Donaldina Cameron, a nineteenth century Protestant missionary who worked in San Francisco to address the “problem” of Chinese prostitutes.
Cameron became the subject of extensive interest in the mid 1970s. Chinatown’s Angry Angel (1977) written by Mildred Crowl Martin, friend, fellow church member and admirer of Cameron, offered a laudatory, deeply religious account of her heroine. That same year, librarian, community member, and eventually influential historian Judy Yung published “A Bowlful of Tears”: Chinese Women Immigrants on Angel Island,” which focused on the Chinese detainees held at the immigration station, including many women suspected by officials of being prostitutes. The feminist performance artist and activist Suzanne Lacy, who in 1977 embodied Cameron in a performance art piece, The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron, cites both women’s historical research. Finally the first extensive “scholarly” treatment of Cameron occurred in historian Peggy Pascoe’s dissertation done at Stanford in 1980s, subsequently published in the now classic Relations of Rescue (1990).
I trace the continuities and disruptions to these competing narratives about Donaldina Cameron into the twenty-first century. Fierce Compassion: A Biography of Abolitionist Donaldina Cameron(2012), a Kickstarter-funded mother-daughter authored book is in the vein of religious “heroine” history of Mildred Crowl Martin. Like Judy Yung, Laurene Wu McClain writes of Cameron from multiple perspectives. McClain a lawyer, community member, and eventual academic historian offered “A Reappraisal” of Cameron in 2001. The artist Suzanne Lacy offered a revisionist history of her performance piece in her collected writings of 2010. Finally Kirsten Twelbeck, Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Hannover analyzed “The Donaldina Cameron Myth and the Rescue of America” in 2011.
In exploring varied uses of women’s past centering on Cameron, I have found Katie King’s notion of pastpresents “in which pasts and presents very literally mutually construct each other” incredibly useful. Rather than adjudicating which versions of history are most “correct” King encourages us to contemplate how and why histories are shaped and presented as they are. While King traces the emergence of pastpresents to “something [that] happened in the 1980s” I argue that the critical wedge inserted into history making occurred earlier, in the mid to late 1970s among the activists and amateurs who made history along lines quite different from those of academically-oriented feminist scholars.
Kirsten Twelbeck, “The Donaldina Cameron Myth and the Rescue of America,” in eds, Vanessa Künnemann, Ruth Mayer. Chinatowns in a Transnational World: Myths and Realities of an Urban Phenomenon (New York: Routledge, 2011), 135-162.