The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume VII, Number 3-4, Pages 10-11
Summer-Fall, 1982

Washington Womens History Preserved in Photographs

by Mary Cain

(The photographs discussed here by Mary Cain appeared in the next two articles in The Pacific Northwest Forum. Links below connect to those articles.}

Do these photographs look familiar? If they do, either you have seen the Washington Women's Heritage Project's exhibit and slide-tape show, or they remind you of those from your own family collection. Images such as these contribute to women's sense of personal and regional history; and, if the purpose of history is to connect one to the past, these photographs provide women with a heretofore missing link.

Research by the Washington Women's Heritage Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, has uncovered a wealth of photographs documenting Washington women's private and public lives. Including these photographs in topical exhibits which interpret Northwest history would certainly enrich our understanding of the past. One of the goals of the Washington Women's Heritage Project is to make these images of women more accessible.

Much remains to be done. Only two of every eight photographs copied from collections throughout Washington State became a part of the exhibit and slide-tape show. From a tremendously diverse collection, these 200 were selected because they illustrate previously selected oral history excerpts. As the primary collector of photographs for the Project, I would like to offer some insights into this first statewide collection.

The collection divides itself into two types of photographs: professional and personal. The professional photographs document women's lives from the commercial photographer's point of view. They are a fairly objective description of women doing paid and community work. This "outsider's" view presents important evidence of women's continual contribution to Washington industry, as well as their role in community-building groups. These same photographs raise questions about job options, childcare arrangements, financial responsibilities, on-the-job relationships, and the physical and emotional strain of production work. The best of the professional photographers use a skillful knowledge of exposure and lighting to emphasize subject matter. Occasional closeups capture facial expressions that begin to express a particular woman's individuality.

Personal photographs are women's own descriptions of the important relationships, events, and places of their lives. Family, community, and friendship rituals have been recorded with a warmth and intimacy that is unmatched by commercial photographs. The heartfelt immediacy of personal photographs (the spontaneity of gesture, stance, and setting) provides a rich source of visual documentation that can be found nowhere else. A leading question in the field of women's history is -"How have women perceived their own lives?" It seems a simple question, yet until recently it went unasked. Researchers have turned to oral histories, journals, letters, and photographs in search of answers. Each of these avenues of interpretation confirms the pivotal role of relationships in women's lives. Often the standard name, date, place questions asked of historical photographs become secondary to psychological questions of relationships, expression, and gesture yielded by "reading" the photograph itself. New questions will lead to new ideas that are crucial to understanding women's lives in the context of Northwest history.

Historical photographs of women will be seen in more interpretive exhibits only when they become more accessible. Surveying and copying private and public collections is a first step. Copy prints of approximately 300 of the Heritage Project photographs will be available to researchers through the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies at Western Washington University in Bellingham. Photo archives holding the original prints will retain copyright. Unfortunately, personal photographs are not usually a large part of archive collections. Most often, they are relegated to cardboard boxes labeled 'Unidentified Photos." Many of the most memorable photographs - used by the Heritage Project came from these boxes. Luckily, personal photographs have been organized into albums and preserved by private individuals. In April, the Washington Commission for the Humanities will have the opportunity to fund a project to make these photographs accessible to the public.

Professional photographs and personal photographs of women provide complementary information linking the private and public lives of over half of Washington's population. The photographs you see here are a very small sampling of what remains to be seen.