Preserving Women’s Voices: The Maine Women Writers Collection at UNE

Preserving Women’s Voices: The Maine Women Writers Collection at UNE

In 1959, Westbrook Junior College literature professor Grace A. Dow (1901-1995) had an inspired idea. Long before the rise of formal programs in women’s studies, or the inclusion of more than a handful of women authors in literature courses, or the incorporation of women’s lives as part of American history curriculums, Dow, together with English professor Dorothy M. Healy (1904-1990), saw how Maine women’s writing was in danger of being lost. They resolved to do what others had not, to take women’s writing seriously and to value, and collect for future generations, the literary works of Maine women.  

The Maine Women Writers Collection (MWWC) began with a dream to preserve Maine women’s writing and a $400 budget. Today, the MWWC is one of the country’s most important collections documenting women’s experiences and is the premier collection of works by and about Maine women. Housed at the library of the University of New England’s Portland Campus (the former Westbrook Junior College), the collection today numbers nearly 10,000 items, with works representing women writers of Maine, Dawnland, the traditional territory of the Wabanaki people, and Northern New England.  

Dr. Jennifer Tuttle, UNE Professor of English and Director of the Maine Women Writers Collection, describes the mission as one to collect, preserve, and keep the works safe for posterity. Tuttle notes: “We collect the work of authors and creators who identify as female, femme, transfeminine, or non-binary, and include both published and unpublished material such as letters, photographs, diaries, memorabilia, artwork, and other forms of creative expression.” The collection is particularly strong in nature writing, women’s education, children’s literature, and 19th and 20th century writing, particularly works of prose. Researchers find particular interest in the papers of Josephine Diebitsch Peary (wife of Arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary) and her Arctic-born daughter, Marie Anighito Peary. The May Sarton Collection and the papers of Sarah Orne Jewett, which includes some of her earliest writing, and even her childhood porridge bowl, also draw frequent scholarly attention. 

In addition to the well-known women writers represented, the archive also houses the papers of authors little remembered today and those whose writing was private, such as that kept in diaries, day books, or calendars. Curator Sarah Baker, who joined the MWWC in July, is particularly inspired by private writing. Items like women’s personal calendars, she explains, are “classified as ordinary or everyday items but are actually extraordinary in what they reveal about the person and their times.” The director and curator work collaboratively to identify new areas to collect and to make the collection as representative and inclusive as possible.  

Dr. Tuttle noted that, “we have been actively working on expanding our poetry holdings, for example, and on giving greater representation to Native women, Black women, and others whose voices deserve attention, care, and amplification.” 

The collection reaches beyond what most think of as traditional writing. For example, the archive actively collects artist’s books, which Dr. Tuttle describes as “an innovative genre that is not only an important art form but also an accessible way to engage students in the archive.” Many of these artistic works encompass multiple themes. Book artist Martha A. Hall (1949-2003) created several powerful pieces in response to her treatment for breast cancer. These are frequently studied by students interested in the health care system, art, patients’ narratives, or women’s health.  

Engaging an audience and making the collection accessible are key values of the MWWC mission. MWWC staff work with faculty to bring items into UNE classrooms, connecting students directly to Maine’s rich writing and creative traditions. Maine women writers address a wide array of subjects, providing material for undergraduate classes in Native American Studies, Narrative Medicine, The Painted Book, College Women, and Writing and Women’s Health, as well for graduate courses in social work, to name just a few. High school and area college students come to the collection, as do faculty and teachers who want to incorporate original materials into their classes. Academic researchers visit as well as artists, genealogists, local historians, and community members. Digitization has increased the reach of the collection, with items such as the Peary Diaries available online.  

Open access to the collection is vital for studying the material within and creating new knowledge on women’s experiences. The collection hosts several public and academic events which present an opportunity to showcase the holdings, share new knowledge, and amplify the voices of women writers. The annual Donna M. Loring Lecture—a free event open to the public—highlights Native American or aboriginal issues, Indigenous rights, and topics of civil rights, fairness, and equity, particularly as they overlap with the concerns of tribal peoples. Research grants provide scholars –both academic and independent – with funding to visit the archive. Creative Fellowships offer support for non-academic projects which might include finding inspiration in the collection for plays, works of fiction, artwork, or other endeavors. Curator Sarah Baker welcomes anyone who wishes to visit, noting that there’s no need to hold certain credentials or have a project in mind—all are welcome to make an appointment to visit and simply explore.  

The quest to save women’s writing—in all its forms and from a wide diversity of creators—is ongoing. Women’s writing and creative expression has been for far too long left out of the historical record, not taken seriously or valued by those who decide what to preserve in an archive or what to include in a literature or history or art course. Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy understood in 1959 the consequences of women’s invisibility, and six decades later, the work continues in order to celebrate Maine women, their lives, and their creative endeavors, to document their myriad cultural, historical, and literary contributions, and ultimately, as Professor Tuttle notes, “to render a more accurate and inclusive vision of the world.”  

For Curator Sarah Baker the Maine Women Writers Collection is the vanguard of this mission “to make sure we bring women’s writing back into the conversation. Just because it’s 2021 doesn’t mean everything has changed. Having a collection like this is a constant reminder that women’s voices are valuable.” 

To learn more about the collections or to contact the curator, see www.une.edu/mwwc . Digitized items are available on DUNE (digital UNE) at https://dune.une.edu/mwwc/  .  

 

 

 

 

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Elizabeth DeWolfe

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