What does it mean to erase history? If you’ve ever read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, you know. It means telling history from a very specific point of view, usually that of a privileged group. It’s often said that history is told from the view of the oppressors, and the oppressed are silenced. Their history is erased because it is never heard. It’s not in the history books, it’s not in the media. The history that we hear is history as told by white dudes.
In this piece about the upcoming renovations being done to the Old South Meeting House on the Boston Globe, mention is made of a time in the 1870s when the building had been slated for demolition, but was spared by a local group that raised the money to save the building. From the piece:
In the 1870s, the congregation that owned the building moved to Copley Square, and the meetinghouse was auctioned for $1,350, basically the value of the materials that were slated to be salvaged after a planned demolition. The land alone was valued at about $400,000.
That threat “galvanized a determined group,” according to the meetinghouse’s website. “They enlisted the help of famous Bostonians, including Ralph Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott, to rally people to help.”
Enough money was raised from donations that the meetinghouse was spared from the wrecking ball, marking the first time in the United States that a building was saved because of its historic significance, DeBlosi said. The meetinghouse became a museum in 1877.
But what’s not mentioned is the fact that it was a group of women that bought the building to protect it. Philanthropist Mary Tileston Hemenway then contributed more than half the sum needed to preserve it.
The women of Boston rallied again in 1876, this time to save the Old South Meeting House from destruction. Noted as the site of the fiery gathering of the Sons of Liberty that produced the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the church was abandoned by its congregation for a new building in the newly fashionable Back Bay section of the city. When litigation to save Old South failed, its destruction began with the removal of the clock from the tower. An emergency meeting filled the church and won a two-month reprieve, but despite the oratory from the men who were present, the meeting failed to raise anywhere near the $400,000 required for the land on which the building stood.
Again it was women who had a practical solution. Twenty Boston women worked behind the scenes to buy the building itself for $3,500, announcing that the only question left was whether it should “remain where it belonged” or be moved to another site. Next, Mary Tileston Hemenway, the recently widowed wife of one of Boston’s most successful merchants, came forward, anonymously at first, with the $100,000 needed to secure a mortgage on the land; the building, safe on its original site, was taken over by the Old South Association. Another great Boston fair, a ball, and lectures eventually paid off the mortgage. Hemenway and the Old South Committee used the meeting house as a museum to develop patriotism by encouraging the study of American history through lectures, pamphlets, and public school programs and essay contests.
And that’s how you erase women’s history from the story.
If you’re actually interested in learning about women’s history in Boston, check out the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail. It’s fascinating. People also tweet about it using the hashtag #wmnhist.