Highlighting the hidden women in history

Several months ago, a researcher visited the department to look at the materials of G. Perle Schmidt, a poet, composer, and author born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1881. As I normally do when someone is using a collection I haven’t looked at before, I went to our website and did a quick search for Perle – no results found. After talking with the researcher a little more, it turns out the papers of Perle Schmidt are actually  found in the collection of her husband’s papers, Louis B Schmidt. I’ll never know how this researcher found the collection, but her research skills are amazing.

You can see the Louis B. Schmidt collection listed on our website, but no finding aid is available, making it impossible to key-word search for Perle’s name in the finding aid:


A snapshot of the finding aid for RS 13/12/22, the Louis B. Schmidt papers listed on the SCUA website.

Despite the fact that Perle was well known in her own right, she has been hidden in her husband’s collection since it was donated over 40 years ago. She was active in several societies such as the Society of Mayflower Descendants, had her first poem published at age 12, composed music, published many short stories and articles, and was even selected at the 1936 Iowa delegate to the National Democratic Convention in Philadelphia.

Although I normally focus my energy on making new collections available to the public, this is a clear case in which revisiting an old collection and re-working the description will make a significant change in accessibility to the collection, specifically to Perle’s materials.

Bringing “hidden women” to light can sometimes be very challenging, particularly those living in the early 1900’s. Women would frequently be referred to by their husband’s first and last name, which can make it very difficult to find or verify information about a woman. Although this practice is less common today, it does still happen. As you can see in the article below, Perle is referred to as “Mrs. Louis Schmidt.” Even in her own obituary, she is known by her husband’s name rather than her own unique identity.


Obituary for Perle Schmidt, referred to as Mrs. Louis B. Schmidt. RS 13/12/22

Sometimes women also weren’t given credit for the work they completed. I’ve often heard the tale of the wife who did the research for a husband’s newest paper, or the female secretary who wrote departmental reports that were credited to a male boss. While this didn’t happen everywhere and all the time, it does add to the challenges of verifying accomplishments. In the case of Perle Schmidt, it is her work with the ISU Music Department that we have been unable to verify. Both her husband and her son mentioned that Perle was working in the Music Department in 1907-1908, however she isn’t listed anywhere that we have been able to find.

So….what can I do about it? A few things. One small change that would bring Perle Schmidt out of the shadows is just to change the title of the collection. Rather than the Louis B. Schmidt papers, I plan to rename the collection the Louis B. and G. Perle Schmidt papers. This will allow her name to at least be key word searchable on the internet.

The description we currently have for the collection doesn’t include any biographical information on Perle Schmidt, but instead is a 2 page biography of Louis Schmidt along with an 8 page list of his publications. This biography for the collection will be updated to include more even amounts of information about both Louis and Perle. By doing this, anyone looking at the finding aid online will know Perle is a prominent part of this collection.

This collection also needs to be re-processed, and some materials will need intervention from the Preservation department to ensure the collection survives another 40 years. Some of the materials used for photographs, paper, and other formats are just not meant to last – they deteriorate even in the best of conditions and need to be checked on periodically. For example, the photographs below may have been perfectly usable in 1975, but are now so brittle they can’t be handled:

Until the collection is re-processed, it is still open for research, with a few restrictions for the more brittle items. If you’d like to come learn more about Perle, please come visit! In the coming months, an updated version of our guide to this collection can be found in our new catalog, CARDinal.

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