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.

Yes Papa! Our latest addition

Yes Papa! by Barbara Eaton (credit: Francis Boutle Publishers) The Elizabeth Treffry Collection, like a healthy baby, seems to be growing by the minute. Our latest addition is a book by Barbara Eaton, from the Lizard in south west Cornwall, on Hester Chapone, an early Bluestocking.

Published by Francis Boutle Publishers and formally launched at the Hypatia Trust in 26 July 2012, Yes Papa! Mrs Chapone and the Bluestocking Circle is a biography of a mid 18th-century woman on a mission. She educated herself and quickly formed an essential part of the circle of Samuel Richardson. An abrupt end to married life left her in debt and she turned to writing to make ends meet. Letters on the Improvement of the Mind, published in 1773 became a bestseller for decades afterwards, quoted in the novels of Jane Austen and W.M. Thackeray. It was even famous enough to be satired in the anonymously published Anti-Chapone in 1810. Eaton restores Hester Chapone to her rightful place in the hall of fame of the Blue Stocking circle.

We are delighted to have this new addition to the collection and offer Barbara very sincere congratulations on the publication of yet another work that brings women in history to life.

In 2005, the Hypatia Trust published Barbara's highly commended book, Letters to Lydia: ‘beloved Persis’,  a story of a 19th-century love affair between Henry Martyn, a chaplain of the East India Company, and his 'beloved Persis' in Cornwall, Lydia Grenfell, based on their letters and diaries. It was runner up in the 2006 Holyer an Gof Awards for Literature of the Cornish Gorseth. George Care commented in Cornish World:

‘… this is a fascinating study and deserves to be widely read. Barbara Eaton and Hypatia have performed an excellent service’

Yes Papa! is available from all good booksellers or direct from the publishers, RRP £14.99 (Paperback 274 pages with 35 black and white illustrations. ISBN 978 1 903427 70 5).