At Long Last, an Exhibition Celebrates Centuries of Women at Work

A new show at New York’s Grolier Club features the collection of Lisa Unger Baskin, who sought to share the untold stories of women in the workforce

Emma Goldman
Anarchist Emma Goldman, who dedicated her life to combatting inequality, repression and the exploitation of workers Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

As a female curator of rare books in 1960s America, Lisa Unger Baskin was decidedly in the minority of a very male, very white world. Few in her field were willing to give material featuring women—much less women curators themselves—their proper due.

So, Baskin decided to start a collection of her own.

Now, some five decades later, 200 of the books, letters, journals and artifacts she compiled are featured in “Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection,” an ongoing exhibition at Manhattan’s Grolier Club that celebrates the tumultuous, undervalued and oft-ignored history of women making an independent living. Together, they chronicle 500 years of women’s intellectual contributions to a dizzying bevy of fields, from civil rights to medicine, science and literature.

“There is an enormous breadth of vocations women have been [a] part of,” Baskin tells the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler. “Women have been working people, always.”

The exhibition displays just a small fraction of Baskin’s collection, which encompasses more than 11,000 items assembled over the course of 45 years. Officially, the full set is owned by, and usually resides at, Duke University, which acquired the feminist treasure trove in 2015. Prior to arriving at Duke, the collection was housed in Baskin’s Massachusetts residence.

“When I saw it, I got very excited,” Naomi Nelson, director of Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, told the Duke Chronicle’s Matthew Griffin last year. “We’re always on the lookout for women’s history, and this is one of the best collections we’ve seen.”

Lizelia Moorer
This volume of poetry, written by activist poet Lizelia Moorer, confronts the nature of racial oppression. The frontispiece may be the first depiction of an African American woman with a typewriter. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

Highlights of the Grolier Club exhibition include a handwritten draft of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s publicity blurb for The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a 1630 missive penned by Renaissance artist Artemisia Gentileschi, a piece of Charlotte Brontë’s framed embroidery and papers related to 20th-century anarchist Emma Goldman.

Other artifacts of note range from correspondence exchanged by suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Emmeline Pankhurst to folio editions of works by Dutch artist and naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, who was the first scientist to study and depict insect metamorphosis in the wild.

The collection also features several precious firsts, including a copy of Prejudice Unveiled, a 1907 poetry compilation by Lizelia Augusta Jenkins Moorer that may contain the earliest image of an African American woman with a typewriter.

Per a press release, among the oldest items on display are a 1240 land grant for “a home for repentant prostitutes” in Pisa and a 1478 text acknowledged as one of the first books printed by women.

Baskin didn’t discriminate as she curated. While some of the women immortalized in the exhibit bear now-famous names, others received far less recognition for their work, even in the present day.

“It’s an intentionally democratic exhibition, featuring both the famous and the forgotten,” says Nelson in the statement.

All of the individuals included in the show stand on common ground: Their stories were, at some point, untold. The desire to quash this erasure, according to Baskin, “ultimately led me to focus on unearthing the histories of ordinary women—women who worked every day without recognition or acknowledgment.”

In bearing her name, the Grolier Club’s exhibition can promise that, for Baskin, the story will be different.

Five Hundred Years of Women’s Work: The Lisa Unger Baskin Collection” is on view at the Grolier Club in New York through February 8.

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