From the Archives: Jordyn May, PhD Candidate, visits the Huntington Library

Jordyn May – History department PhD Candidate (Cohort 2017-18) working with Dr. Kirsten Swinth – is currently completing his dissertation, entitled: “‘A campaign so splendid could not fail’: Reexamining the Woman Suffrage Movement through Interrelationships between the Eastern and Western Branches.” In this week’s From the Archives, Jordyn hares some of her experiences while researching at the Huntington Library in California.

What is your current research on?

My research for the dissertation currently examines the California and New York woman suffrage state campaigns from 1890 to 1920, specifically looking at how suffragists from the East and West influenced each other’s strategies, methods, and tactics. My research also delves into how tensions developed between Eastern and Western suffragists and how that influenced the national movement.

What archive did you visit and can you describe the archive a little?

I visited the Huntington Library in San Marino, California in July 2022. The Huntington is gorgeous as it is also a famous botanical garden. The library and reading room was situated close to the entrance of the garden, but after the end of the day, I was able to wander the whole area. The sunshine and fresh air was definitely nice after being in a freezing archive all day! The reading room was very nice and all of the archivists were incredibly helpful. I spoke to a curator who knew the collections inside and out and who was able to give me great advice on what collections to look at. 

What was the purpose of your trip? What type of documents did you plan to look at? What makes those documents unique for your research?

The purpose of my trip was to find crucial primary source information about how the state campaigns operated in Southern California as I had done a previous research trip to Northern California. I looked at a lot of correspondence between suffragists, organizational records, speeches and essays written by suffragists, suffrage newspapers, biographies of a couple suffragists, and histories of other organizations in California that helped with the campaigns. Reading the correspondence between various suffragists has been the most enlightening. These women were very sassy and did not hold back when discussing their views of other women and the tactics of the movement. These letters give me the best, unfiltered, view of the tensions between Eastern and Western suffragists.

What was a challenge you encountered during your research? How did you overcome it?

No one tells you how exhausting it actually is to sit in a reading room and look through documents all day. I had a month long fellowship at the Huntington which meant I was in the reading room Monday through Friday from 9am to 4pm with a short break for lunch and I often went Saturday mornings as well. Research can be very exciting when you are finding documents that you need or find something you didn’t know existed, but the rest of the time is sorting through boxes and folders and can be incredibly mentally taxing, especially when you are trying to decipher handwritten documents! When I got too tired and mentally strained, I tried to change tasks or take more breaks to rest a little. 

The organization of the collections was also not standardized, so there were some collections that had no finding aids. I would have to request every box in the collection just to see if it was even worth looking at. It was frustrating, but I also found interesting material that I might not have requested in the first place.

Did you receive any funding to support your research?

I applied for and received a short-term fellowship from the Huntington to support my research. The application was due in November and was fairly simple. The application consisted of a 1,500 word project description, current CV, and two letters of recommendation. I received the award letter in March and spent my month in California in July. The grant was for $3,500 which helped cover travel and living expenses for the month, but the award money is paid out after you have already been there for a few weeks. Affordable housing was a little difficult to find within walking distance of the Huntington which was my only qualm with the award amount.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing historical research?

It may sound weird, but do your research before you do your research. You want to be fully prepared before you go into the archive. That means looking at all the finding aids for each collection you want to view and marking exactly which boxes and folders you need to see. One of the collections I investigated at the Huntington was over 100 boxes. I couldn’t feasibly look at all of them so I made a spreadsheet detailing what I absolutely had to look at to help narrow it down. You also need to prioritize your research. Make sure you are viewing the documents you know you need and then looking at documents that might be just interesting afterwards. Time goes by quickly in the reading room and you want to make sure your time is well spent, especially if you are only there for a few days.

The Yellow Ribbon was a short-lived suffrage newspaper specifically for the West Coast. The Huntington had all of the issues, and I think they are one of the only archives to have a complete collection.

From the Archives is a special series for the Fordham History blog which highlights the research experiences of members of the history department in an effort to both showcase their work and provide insight for future researchers preparing for their own archival projects.

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