The Virginia Historical Society's first gift of manuscripts in 1833 included a transcript of the proceedings instituted against Grace Sherwood when she stood accused of witchcraft before the Princess Anne County Court in 1706 (pictured right). For several decades the alleged witch may have been one of the few representatives of her sex in the antebellum gentleman's club that then was the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society; it did not admit women members. As the manuscript collection grew in size, other historic figures joined Grace Sherwood, but living flesh-and-blood women did not become a visible force at the Historical Society until late in the nineteenth century. Since then, they have played important (if sometimes unacknowledged) roles in shaping the manuscript collection.
Today we recognize that the manuscript collection as a whole at the VHS documents women's lives across a span of nearly four centuries. Documenting Women's Lives is intended to make the stories of Virginia women more accessible to researchers and to demonstrate how over the last four centuries the kinds of written material produced by or about women have changed.
During the last hundred years the historical society's manuscript collection has swelled from several thousand to eight million processed items. Women contributed a disproportionate share of these manuscripts. Some of the collections that they gave commemorated, celebrated, and documented the lives of men, but their gifts of large, multi-generational family archives, containing the writings of both men and women and spanning the decades from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, proved even more significant. Slowly, imperceptibly, and perhaps initially unwittingly, these donations transformed the manuscript collection at the VHS, shifting its focus from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth and beyond and introducing a host of women's voices.
Gail S. Terry
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