DEBORAH TREFTS – STAFF WRITER
Once upon a time not long ago — if not also presently — many American students regarded the field of history as rather static. That is, many of those fortunate enough to have had history included in their secondary school curriculum assumed that textbooks and teachers had covered the past, and that little about it remained to be experienced, uncovered or revealed.
“I started out (in college) as a French major and a history minor,” said Chautauqua Institution assistant archivist Emálee Sanfilippo. “I thought there was nothing you could do with a history major.”
Then she participated in a two-week history tour called The American Experience during her final year at Harding, a private Christian university in Arkansas. Since she had always been interested in living museums, Sanfilippo said the tour’s stopover at a Shaker village prompted a lot of questions, which in turn prompted research.
Founded in England and brought to Upstate New York in the 1770s, the Shakers were (and a few individuals in Maine still are) a sect of Christianity that practiced egalitarianism. They affirmed political, economic and social equality for all.
Fast forward to 9:15 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17 on the porch of the Chautauqua Women’s Club. There, Sanfilippo — who grew up in Chautauqua County and thus Upstate New York — will give a “myth-busting” lecture titled “Women Who Do Things: The Political Equality Crusade of Chautauqua County’s Common, Country Women.”
The period Sanflippo will focus on begins with Chautauqua Institution’s founding in 1874 and ends with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. She will share her findings about the roles of the Institution and the distaff side of Chautauqua County in bringing the Women’s Suffrage Movement to Chautauqua.
The questions for which Sanfilippo sought answers are: “To what extent can the (Chautauqua) platform’s acquiescence to women’s rights discourse be credited to progressive Institution management, and how much of the program during this time was conceived beyond the grounds by local female forces?”
Her CWC porch talk is based on her research and presentation for the Chautauqua Heritage Lecture Series’ virtual celebration of Women’s Suffrage in 2020.
“Oftentimes people think of the women’s suffrage and women’s political equality movements as done single-handedly by the big names — Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, Anna Howard Shaw,” Sanfilippo said. “But the reality was that the movement in Upstate New York was driven by common, salt-of-the earth women.”
In 2013, following her encounter with a Shaker museum during her college history tour, Sanfilippo said that she interned at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas. The building in which this museum is housed is the oldest standing state capitol building west of the Mississippi River.
Having taken nearly as many education courses at Harding as history and French courses, she said she created programs for the public, including a pioneer project and a mystery project for children involving the recently opened time capsule from the capitol’s cornerstone, which in part contained bones and Confederate money.
Afterwards, Sanfilippo returned home to Chautauqua County and got a summer job at Smith Memorial Library.
It was then that she heard about the Oliver Archives Center. She said that because she had loved doing research in college, and she was looking for a position that was more history oriented, she began working at the center part-time and learning a great deal from Institution Archivist Jonathan Schmitz.
“The Archives was not on my radar of something you could do with a history degree,” she said. “I thought you had to have (more) historical knowledge. … I would have gone to grad school, but (there’s) the cost.”
In 2015, Sanfilippo moved east for a job in the University of Rochester’s department of rare books, special collections and preservation. Working with exhibitions, she co-created a Halloween exhibit with rare books (Frankenstein included), and an extensive exhibit about the Daguerreotype process and the evolution of photography (Frederick Douglass included).
In her new position, Sanfilippo also began working with collections — “like a library assistant for collections.” She said she processed the Chester Carlson Family Papers and developed a finding aid for them. “We have him to thank for (the) copy machine.”
During her spare time, she volunteered at the largest living history museum in New York — Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford, New York.
“It’s an assemblage of all of these historic homes,” Sanfilippo said. “It has a trustee building, which is rare. It grew my love of the Shakers.”
When a grant-funded position was created at the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, Sanfilippo landed the job and spent two years in the heart of Bluegrass Country amidst 3,000 acres containing 34 original Shaker structures and much more.
In 2018, she returned home from Kentucky. She said that Schmitz welcomed her back to the Archives with open arms. Since then, she has served as a part-time archives assistant and a regular speaker for the Chautauqua Heritage Lecture Series.
This year, Sanfilippo started her own independent business, Chautauqua Research Services, to provide “access to information held at research institutions across the Chautauqua-Allegheny region.”
Through CRS, she facilitated the Phillis Wheatley House project, for which a marker was created and an unveiling ceremony held on the grounds near Fletcher Music Hall on July 21, 2021.
On Tuesday morning at the CWC, Sanfilippo will challenge multiple assumptions about the past.
Women from Chautauqua County’s farmlands were instrumental in “driving (the suffrage and political equality) movements and bringing attention to them,” Sanfilippo said. “I’m putting the spotlight on rural, local women; how they descended upon Chautauqua. It was a grassroots movement. They were instrumental in bringing speakers to the Chautauqua platform. It’s a myth that women were marginal on the platform.”