Historical Expectations vs. Reality

While Thigpen’s research into the life of Mary Walker is fascinating, it seems slightly odd that she was so surprised to discover Mary’s more “conventional” side. As a 21st century historian with access to Mary’s writings – which she read before examining her personal affects – Thigpen began her relationship with Mary with more information than Mary’s contemporaries would have had. A 19th century individual who was not already Mary’s “near and intimate friend” would never have seen the diaries in which she expressed her dissatisfaction with domestic tasks. Mary seems to have hardly wanted her deepest feelings to be made public, even requesting that one diary be burned rather than be read by a stranger. Instead, she would have made her first impression using the very things that Thigpen found surprising: her clothing, her ability to perform household activities, and so on. There was never a reason to assume that Mary did not sew or dress like other women of her status simply because she did not write as much in her journals. On the contrary, such things were so commonplace in the 19th century that Mary probably did not think they merited a detailed description. While a dress and a thimble do not seem to reflect Mary’s primary interests as much as her writings do, her contemporaries would have found these writings far more indicative of Mary’s “complexity” than the fact that she sewed and raised children. We in the 21st century are always looking for historical figures to stand outside the conventions of their time (hence the popularity of the “Edith-Anne” sampler), but to what extent are we framing history according to what we hope to find in it? Although it is important to consider Mary Walker as an individual rather than simply a product of her time, it would be equally unwise to let 21st century expectations separate her from her historical surroundings.

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