I first started giving more thought to the phenomenon of erasure in 2013, after hearing talks from Susan Jacoby and Jennifer Michael Hecht at CFI’s Women in Secularism 2 conference (yes, that one). Both presentations touched on the stories and accomplishments of women being written out of narratives in favor of men’s, a well-documented and observable manifestation of male privilege. A woman’s erasure turns out to be even more likely when she is a nonbeliever or otherwise unorthodox (Christian/conservative privilege); similarly, atheist men also tend to be erased from historical narratives in favor of believers (same).
Erasure of racial, sexual and other minorities should be too obvious to need mentioning, but I will mention a few off of the top of my head*:
- myths about the Native American genocide.
- whitewashing Jeezus.
- policing what Real Disability™ looks like.
- that fucking Stonewall movie.
As with all modes of privilege, for those with intersectional identities the likelihood of erasure is compounded. And as with all modes of privilege, erasure is self-perpetuating.
Without getting into too much of a tangent here, I suspect that erasure occurs as a result of unconscious bias at least as much as at the hands of outright bigots. Since the human brain is not very good at automatically noticing what is missing from any given context (as opposed to what is present), those more privileged on any axis are downright terrible at noticing the automatic erasure of those less so. And even when we do notice, as time passes the marginalized inexorably become more and more invisibilized, until they…well, disappear. That’s the way privilege, human culture and brains work.
The countermeasures to erasure include conscious, deliberate efforts like signal boosting voices more marginalized than our own and raising their profiles in historical narratives as well as contemporary ones. Even then, such efforts may barely scratch the surface, given that our unconscious biases are relentlessly reinforced by the society that surrounds us, and the predictable reactionary backlash is frequently swift and severe. That means we have to be at least as relentless as the forces of erasure: no small feat.
Which brings us to a strikingly beautiful photo collection at Downtown LA Life (via Everyday Feminism). When you think of women in the Victorian era (1837–1901, encompassing the American Civil War), what do you envision? For women in the more privileged classes the mode of dress is of course iconic: elaborate, lacy, hatted, flowered and ribboned, tightly corseted. But when my mind fills in their faces? They are all white. Yes, I know that women of color, enslaved and free, were living among everyone else in Victorian times. But it is only too easy for a Whitey McWhiteperson like me to relegate them to the distant background, if I conjure them at all.
There is an antidote. As Mallence Bart-Williams would say, I invite you to change your perspective.
VICTORIAN WOMEN OF COLOR
A Rare View
I think about what it means that for all of the women in these photographs, their stories and even their names are lost to us—except for one. Meet Bridget “Biddy” Mason.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason
(August 15, 1818 in Hancock County, Georgia – January 15, 1891 in Los Angeles, California)
[Mason] was an African American nurse, and a California real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist.
Born a slave in Georgia, Bridget was given to Robert Smith and his bride as wedding present. After the marriage, Smith took his new wife and slaves to Mississippi.
Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) proselyted Mississippi. They taught Smith and his family. The family converted. Slaves were not baptized into the Church as a matter of policy. Members were encouraged to free their slaves. Smith chose not to.
The Smith household joined a group of other Church members from Mississippi to meet the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois in 1847. The group traveled to Pueblo, Colorado and joined up with the sick detachment from the Mormon Battalion. They later joined the main body of Mormons crossing the plains and settled in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah Territory.
Church leader Brigham Young sent a group of Saints to Southern California in 1851. Robert Smith, family and slaves joined them in San Bernardino, California sometime later. Brigham Young counseled Smith again to free Bridget and his other slaves before going to California.
Bridget was among a small group of blacks, free and slave, in the San Bernardino settlement. In 1856, when Smith was planning to move to the slave state of Texas, Bridget, helped by friends, attempted to escape from Smith. She, and a group of Smith’s other slaves, traveled towards Los Angeles before Smith caught up with them.
Mason petitioned a Los Angeles court for her freedom. A California judge, Benjamin Hayes, granted her freedom as a resident of a free state, as well as the freedom of the other slaves held captive by Smith (her three daughters, and ten other African-American women and children).
Bridget had no legal last name as a slave. After emancipation, she chose to be known as Bridget Mason. Mason was the middle name of Amasa Lyman, Mormon Apostle and mayor of San Bernardino. She had spent many years in the company of the Amasa Lyman household.
Mason worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife. Saving carefully, she was one of the first African Americans to purchase land in the city. As a businesswoman she amassed a small fortune of nearly $300,000, which she shared generously with charities. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center, an elementary school for black children, and was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church, the city’s first and oldest black church.
Mason is an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction.
- Francis “Betty” Snyder Holberton, Betty “Jean” Jennings Bartik, Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, Marlyn Wescoff Meltzer, Ruth Lichterman Teitelbaum and Frances Bilas Spence. (“[T]he first professional programmers, the first teachers of modern programming, and the inventors of tools that paved the way for modern software.”)
- Project Vox. (“Project Vox seeks to recover the lost voices of women who… played significant roles in the development of modern philosophy, but their contributions have often gone unnoticed.”)
- Dee Barnes, Michel’le, Tairrie B and JJ Fad. [CONTENT NOTE: violent assault.]
- Pearl Kendrick, Grace Eldering and Loney Clinton Gordon, the women who pioneered the whooping cough vaccine.