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Audrey Spann: female shoplifters in the 19th century

Mar 29, 2021

Author: Sianna Westley

In our interview with Spann, she describes her research on female shoplifters in the 19th century and the significance of Women's History Month.Left frame: Audrey Spann / Right frame: 19th Century Female Shoplifter. Book Illustration; “A Female Shoplifter,” from James D. McCabe Jr. Lights and Shadows of New York Life. Philadelphia: National Publishing Co., 1872; [View Image]

Audrey Spann, B.A. History 2020, earned praise from Professor Carolyn Eastman for a paper she wrote on female shoplifters in the 19th century. Sianna Westley, a junior in VCUarts and student worker for the history department, reached out to Audrey to ask her about what inspired her to become a history major, the inspiration behind her capstone paper, and her thoughts on the significance of Women’s History Month. 

What inspired you to become a history major?
I took college classes my last two years of high school and that is where I attended my first college level history course. The class was on World War II, but rather than focus solely on military history, the professor spent a large portion of the semester discussing the war’s impact on civilians. This was the first time I had been asked to engage with a wide variety of primary sources. It was also where I was first taught that history is an interpretation and to critically analyze and question these interpretations. After that class I knew I wanted to pursue an education in history because it not only became my passion, but also made me a better person since I was learning about different histories, experiences, perspectives, and beliefs.

Do you have any favorite history classes from your time at VCU?
Dr. Eastman’s 490 capstone seminar class was my favorite. I especially loved our one-on-one Zoom discussions on research and gender norms during the 19th century and how to effectively tell a story within an essay. There were so many great discussions in that class, and I really loved hearing about everyone’s unique topics. I also enjoyed Dr. Shivley’s class on the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was invaluable learning about how much collective memory can impact what histories are told. I have also really enjoyed Russian history taught by Dr. Munro, the history of Ancient Medicine taught by Dr. Crislip and the history of West Africa to 1800 taught by Dr. Shilaro. Honestly, I have not taken a history class at VCU that I did not enjoy.

We are celebrating Women’s History Month. Professor Eastman was impressed with your paper on female shoplifters in the 19th century, and recommended that we reach out to you. What drew you to that topic?
The capstone seminar class I took focused on American social and cultural history, but I did not start with any topic that I specifically wanted to research. Dr. Eastman had recommended that we begin by searching for ideas within Richmond based newspapers, so I started searching there. At the time I was taking Dr. Shivley’s history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, so I chose the year 1868 in the search bar and began scanning through the tiny, illuminated print of various newspapers. After two days of searching, I came across two sentences stating that a group of women in Brooklyn had been arrested for shoplifting. I was immediately intrigued and after that my research evolved into focusing on the difference in public perception between lower- and upper-class female shoplifters in New York city from 1860-1870.

A lot of the current research on women who shoplifted focused on kleptomania, which was a tool created by male doctors to explain women as emotionally less stable rather than people who were actively choosing to steal outside of the constraints of the domestic sphere. The items stolen were of little value and could have easily been purchased, so these women were actively breaking the rules, but are largely remembered as kleptomaniacs. Alternatively, the women considered professional shoplifters are largely excluded. This can give the false impression that women did not commit crimes in the 1800s or that it was not within their control. I also chose this subject, because the public’s anxieties over women stepping outside of their considered moral and societal roles led to attempts to distinguish the criminal and respectable women. Dr. Eastman also really helped me to narrow down my focus and she encouraged me to consider what the public and press’ perception were saying about the larger gender norms during this time period.

What did you learn that was surprising to you?
What surprised me was the press and general public’s obsession over the physical visibility of someone’s character and how this was tied to the societal belief at the time that women were morally superior. The relative attractiveness of a woman’s features could be proof of her possible guilt. If a shoplifter happened to be an attractive young woman, then it was believed that there remained some hope of saving her from what many considered a crime that ruined women. If a woman possessed what was considered unattractive features, then those features were considered physical evidence that the corruption of her moral nature was causing physical changes to her face. It was also really fascinating to see that when these white middle-class shoplifters were arrested, their innocence and character were largely determined by their networks of high-class female friends and acquaintances who would defend them. Being considered the moral compasses, these women had the power and influence to force judges to release the accused, even against prominent businessmen like Mr. Macy of Macy’s department store.

Do you see any parallels between what you wrote about in your paper to today?
I think that American society is still obsessed with women’s physical attributes and as something that demonstrates the moral/immoral nature of their character. Their worth is derived from whether they are considered ‘beautiful’, whatever that means and can falsely be used to indicate character. While researching, I came across another parallel. Among the newspapers articles I reviewed, I did not come across any that mentioned instances where Black women could use respectability. The historian Erica Rhodes Hayden does a great job of addressing this in her book “Troublesome Women: Gender, Crime and, Punishment in Antebellum Pennsylvania”, and she argues during the Antebellum period Black women could not claim respectability. I also saw that white lower-class shoplifters were also unable to claim respectability and later kleptomania, once it was introduced as a diagnostic, for the similar reason of lacking what society considered respectability. Only white middle- and upper-class women could utilize societal norms or stereotypes in a way that alternately resisted them, while a type of agency, this was still a form of privilege. This idea of who can and cannot use respectability to defend their actions is still a part of our society and is based on racial and class discrimination, as well as sexism.

What is the significance of Women’s History Month to you? Why is it important to learn the histories of women?
Women’s History Month is extremely important to me, because the celebration of the stories and accomplishments of women is empowering. For too much of history, the worth of women was often valued only by what they could offer men, and that erased or ignored so many different narratives and contributions that women have made and fought for. There are many amazing histories of women that I could mention, but the most memorable to me was when I first began studying history. It is considered likely that Queen Ankhesenamun, fearing the men around her after the death of her husband King Tutankhamen, wrote a letter to the Hittite King asking him to send her a son for her to marry. She made a decision that defied the men vying for the throne and even went against the beliefs of her society. At this time the Egyptian royalty did everything they could to keep power within royal bloodlines to promote stability and it would have been considered unthinkable to seek a ruler outside of Egypt. Eventually a prince was sent but along the way he died or was possibly assassinated, and this resulted in war between the two empires. Although it ultimately failed, here was a powerful woman actively working against the men around her and prior to this class all that I had ever been taught about her was that she was Tutankhamun’s wife and half-sister. The story of Ankhesenamun is what opened my eyes to how much I did not know about women in history and just how little I had been taught before becoming a history major. That is why this is such an important month, because the value of women is not tied to men or what we can give away, but instead it is who we are and the choices we make as those people and history needs to represent that.

It is important to learn the histories of women, and even more so to make sure that none are exclusively focused on and others are ignored. That is why it is so important to highlight a diverse range of women’s histories from women who are a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, to Black women, to ancient midwives and women in science, because the histories of women have always existed, and it is important to remedy the gaps in history. Also, many of the issues that face women, like discrimination, violence towards women, and the right to bodily autonomy, to name just a few, are not new issues.

What does representation mean to you?
As someone who loves history it means the research into or revision of histories that for years were written from the perspective of white, patriarchal, and imperialistic societies that largely ignored or erased women’s voices. In the context of Women’s History Month, it means celebrating the women who have led us to where we are, as well as all the women today, because however someone decides what being a woman means to them is valid and should be celebrated.

Representation also means being inspired when seeing other women within a wide variety of academic fields and professions. When I was five years old, I loved studying sharks so much I co-wrote a book about them with my sister composed entirely of pictures. I continued learning about them far into middle school however, this was seen as quite the oddity by most people. Years later, when I was told that I might not be as successful with a history degree I felt like I was five again and worried people saw some hidden reason as to why I might not be able to succeed in the field. I mentioned this to my grandma, Susan, who then told me the story of how she loved studying geology, and I asked her again so I could include it for this interview. In college she was a part of the education department, but she loved geology and took geology classes for her electives. The department head called her in and asked her why she was taking geology, wasn’t she in the education department? She said yes, so he told her she should stop taking seats away from other people plus she needed to stop because they were being graded on a curve and her A scores were raising it. She told him that she was interested in becoming a field geologist. This was in 1959 or 1960, and the professor told her that no one would hire a woman for field work, and she would not have a career as a field geologist. She decided to go into education, which her whole family was involved in, but she says she was disappointed and could have gone without that experience. Both her and my mom have always wanted me to study what I love but this is why seeing other women teaching as professors and researching as historians and within other academic fields is extremely important and inspiring to me.

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