Constructing life stories of women

Archaeolgists, Mr and Mrs Mallett at Harlyn Bay, c. 1900 (credit: R. Ashington Bullen, "Harlyn Bay and the Discoveries of its Prehistoric Remains" 1902). How do you write the life-story of a woman? Are biographies of women different to those of men?

Biography as a genre has a field of study all of its own. But for History 51 we are very much starting from scratch and most of our subjects are having their biographies written or constructed for the very first time (e.g. through art, craft, photographic journeys, film and oral history).

The history of the great and the good?

Contributors to History 51 have asked if the women we want to record have to be famous or have done something outstanding in the conventional sense of the male dominated narratives we're used to that promote the achievements of 'great men' especially if they are kings, princes and politicians.

The simple answer is No.

History is about understanding change over time. The acts of women, good and bad, have contributed hugely to those changes which have affected the lives and men and women alike.

We also have hundreds of thousands of female ancestors about whom nothing is written.

The Elizabeth Treffry Collection documents the lives of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly from all walks of life and will continue to do so. We do not privilege one kind of achievement over another.

We can learn so much about the past and about our own attitudes today if we listen more to the everyday stories of ordinary people. And very often we will find that they were not that ordinary at all.

We also have hundreds of thousands of female ancestors about whom nothing is written. Archaeologists are experts at reconstructing lives and lifestyles from the remains of past societies, and Cornwall and Scilly are blessed with some of the the richest, most fascinating archaeology in the world.

Cornish Women's Index data entry form

Documenting lives in the Cornish Women's Index

As part of History 51 we are developing a pioneering digital project to record and gather together the life-stories of as many women as possible. The Cornish Women's Index will be a Wikipedia-style online database that contributors can add to from anywhere they have an internet connection.

We'll shortly be offering training to our contributors so if you'd like to take part and add your story, please register your interest.

You can also find out more in our Cornish Women's Index guide in the History 51 resources section.