Women, Independence Day, and Our National Landmarks at Risk
“How many whales were killed to make all those whalebone corsets worn by American women during the 18th< and 19th centuries?” asked Dr. Heather Huyck, president of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. She posed this question to me as we were speaking about how the rising seas, floods, and wildfires brought by climate change and threatening some of the United States’ most cherished historic sites also threaten what future generations will know about women in our nation’s past.
Life in the past—the importance of tangible evidence
On a recent whale watching excursion at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts, I saw whales in their natural habitat for the first time. I was transfixed by their magnificent splashing and spouting. The farthest thing from my mind was how today’s endangered status of whales resulted from demands for better lighting, machine lubricants, and the once commonplace women’s undergarment.
Humpback whales splashing and spouting in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. Photo: Deborah Bailin
Humpback whales splashing and spouting in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Deborah Bailin
”Corsets shaped women’s bodies into various fashionable shapes. Their stays were often made of whale baleen connected with fabric bands—girdles on steroids,” Huyck quipped, “although some historic site interpreters swear they are comfortable.”