In the year of the Silence Breakers, the Archives can also Protect Evidence of Sexual Violence

Time Magazine named its Person of the Year this week, opting to honor the many individuals and groups of people who had come forward with sexual harassment cases this year. After decades in which accusers of high-profile abusers had been disbelieved by the majority of bystanders, the “silence breakers” of 2017 shifted the narrative. Remarkably, it is the year after “post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year in which these victims of abuse have finally been believed.

One thing that undoubtedly helped turn the tide of belief was the sheer number of silence breakers. No longer could claims of harassment be belittled as a “he said-she said” toss-up. CNBC correspondent Christina Wilkie summed up the situation best:

 

As more men in powerful positions are rightly toppled, I find myself breaking for the backlash. One of the ways to defend against the argument that these scandals are somehow faddish is to build the historical record of sexual misconduct ranging from assault to repeated harassment. By showing that this is not a new problem, activists can buttress their outrage against those who would belittle it. Archival research is one way to do that.

An archivist at Colorado College recently rediscovered extensive evidence of a past college president’s repeated crimes against women. The evidence was collected by James Hutchinson Kerr, a professor at the college in the 19th century, during the investigation into President Slocum’s abuses which forced him out of his office of 29 years in 1917. The papers, part of Kerr’s bequest to the college, had not been cataloged, perhaps intentionally. While the Slocum scandal was seemingly common knowledge throughout the 20th century, it was often spoken of in inexact terms, without the frank testimony of some of his victims. In 1954, after Slocum’s death, the college even named a dormitory in his honor. Today there is an active campaign to rename the building.

The Mennonite Church has had its own travails with the crimes of powerful men. John Howard Yoder, the leading 20th century Mennonite theologian, was censured and stripped of any official position in the 1990s after his victims were eventually believed and after various previous intercessions had failed to publicly deal with his abuse. More recently, a Mennonite missionary in Haiti was arrested for sexually abusing minors. The church has a long way to go in its reckoning with abuses it has long ignored or covered up. The blog OurStoriesUntold has been a powerful collective voice to draw attention to these abuses and call abusers to account.

All of this context made a recent post on AnabaptistHistorians very important, I think. In a relatively brief essay, David Neufeld shared a centuries-old story of sexual violence within the Anabaptist tradition. Remarkably, two women in Zurich in 1630 went on the record against Jakob Zehnder. Their testimony remains on the record though their abuser avoided serious consequences for his misdeeds.

That the phenomenon of men preying on women (and men), wielding their power in fundamentally violent ways, is centuries old should not come as a surprise. Neither should it blunt the outrage at more recent abuses. Instead, we should seek to expose these crimes in the past and present where we, as researchers, archivists, and citizens, come across them in order to begin some process of justice.

Utilizing shared authority

Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World is a collection of essays published by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. It was a timely read for me this week as I wrote a piece for AnabaptistHistorians.org about how Anabaptist Historians should embrace public history techniques such as shared authority.pa-lancaster-mennonite-historical-society-october-14-2016-132028

[Lancaster Longhouse at the 1719 Hans Herr House & Museum, one of the really positive examples I identify of public history methods in an Anabaptist context]

In fact, I wish I had read Letting Go? before I wrote most of the post. I will certainly refer back to the collection of theory and case studies whenever I get around to writing the sequel. Continue reading “Utilizing shared authority”

Introducing AnabaptistHistorians.org!

Today a new collaborative blog launched! My good friend Joel Nofziger tapped a couple of historians (who were all interested in studying various Anabaptist denominations) on the shoulder and several months later, there’s an actual thing! After a lot of fruitless brainstorming (looking for that perfect catchy name that would nonetheless represent the breadth of our scope) we settled on the typo-inviting AnabaptistHistorians.org. There are a couple posts up already and we have some more in the pipeline by a bunch of wonderful scholars (and they’re wonderful people too!*). I’m not sure exactly how often I’ll find time to post something over there during this school year, but maybe I’ll find time for an occasional short essay.

*It’s seriously a great list, with a bunch of friends and colleagues (past and present!): https://anabaptisthistorians.org/contributors/