While researching historical documents authored by men, I have often found that their depictions of female contemporaries results in a one-dimensional characterization - especially if that woman does not entirely fit into their expected traditional gender role. Essentially, this type of characterization is comparable to the recognized problem with medieval literature where women were regarded as good/confined (traditional virgins, wives, and mothers) or bad/unconfined (anything other than). While confined women fit within the accepted gender roles, unconfined women subverted the order of gendered behavior and were therefor deemed dangerous.
While we recognize this issue in early literature, primary source material is often left unchecked for context and used by contemporary writers to define an historic woman’s essence. An example of this are the writings of Robert Mackay (1772-1816). Mackay was a business partner of William Scarbrough’s (1776-1839) and godfather to William and Julia Scarbrough’s daughter Charlotte. While he was a great friend of William’s he did not particularly care for Julia’s sense of importance (unconfined) and coined her now well-known moniker, “The Countess.” Mackay’s letters about Julia (and others) were published in 1949 and have since been used by numerous contemporary authors to define Julia as a one-dimensional creature who cared for nothing other than her own self-aggrandizement.
Julia’s oldest daughter Charlotte Scarbrough (1806-1861) has suffered from the same character simplification as her mother - with the exception that Charlotte seemingly evolved from one simplistic form into another. In her early years her natural intelligence and insight where regarded stereotypically as a “grace” (confined) and in her adult years her self-assurance and determination were viewed as “vindictive” (unconfined).
The exhibit, “The Shadows of Scarbrough House: Materializing the Dangerous Women Who Lived and Ruled Here,” examines the one-dimensional legacy of Julia and Charlotte Scarbrough, provided us via the social and patriarchal biases of their time. 19th century silhouettes are implemented to represent this legacy overlaid with historic and contemporary quotes which when looked at with contextual insight and without a 19th century prejudice will provide a deeper meaning - materializing the women for who they really were.
The intent of this exhibit is not to imply that the Scarbrough women were necessarily forward-thinking, in many ways Julia and Charlotte were participants of their age, but they were women who didn’t always fit into the assigned expectations for their gender and were therefor given a bad rap – as I suspect was the case for a good few of our foremothers.
Curator of Exhibits and Education
Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum
SEPTEMBER 2019 - 12 JANUARY 2020
MUSEUM HOURS: 10:00 - 5:00 (LAST ADMISSION: 4:15)
Julia Bernard Scarbrough
Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum's Collection
From the Workbooks of Charlotte Scarbrough Taylor
Courtesy of Charlotte County, Florida, History Services