some notes on gender and documentation

In my 2007 New Media class, I posted a blog entry that I felt compelled to repost here:

My grandmother never had her own social security number. When she was born they weren’t issued at birth and the only time a woman needed to/could attain one was if she went to “work.” Otherwise, a wife used her husband’s SSN with a digit added to the end. First of all, let me emphasize how very hard my grandmother worked. She grew up on a farm and married a farmer. They had a little bit of land and by the grace, a home to shelter them; that was pretty much it (even though it was much more than many people had). My grandmother worked out in the fields with my grandfather, sun up to sun down. And working in the fields on a farm is very different from working in your garden, especially when you are working without the farm machinery that we take for granted now. This one photo remains burned into my mind: my grandmother, scarf tied around her head, breaking up soil with a hoe. Even though this photo is taken later, after they were successful enough to say own a camera, for me this is the document that will always serve as evidence of my grandmother’s work. A social security card would tell me nothing about who my grandmother was, about the things that she did. That single photo contains a world of meaning for me that extends far beyond The documents that prove that she was born, that she married and that she died tell me tell me almost nothing about my grandmother, yet even without the stories that I can associate with this photograph, it would still tell me more about who she was as a person. I could see where she lived, a piece of her daily life, how she held her body, what kind of clothing she wore. All of these seem so much more important than knowing her exact date of birth or death. Yet it is our birth certificates that we place in safety deposit boxes. It’s not that these things are unimportant but if I had to choose between a record of when I was born and when I died and a moment in between that showed what I did, I’d choose the photograph that caught me between the birth and death certificates.

All documentation, all records are necessarily incomplete. Even the official documents that tell you when you were born. They give you a date, a place, and the names of your parents. They don’t tell you about the ambulance driver who got lost taking your mother to the hospital and the elevator that got stuck between floors as your mother was being taken to the maternity ward. The entire story of the day that I was born tells you so much more about the bizarre life that began that day than knowing what day it actually was. The date is important for lots of reasons but the story of that day is so much richer. So, my birth certificate tells you little about the circumstances of my birth. Similarly, my grandmother’s photo represents a piece of a moment and place in time, providing no knowledge of what cam before or after or of what was happening outside of the photo’s boundaries, yet that document makes her real to me in ways that a birth certificate never could. So why is it more likely that evidence of her death and birth will remain long after I am gone than will any evidence of the life that she lived between? How do documents get imbued with value? And what makes an official document more valuable than that photo? And what does it say about the ways that women and men are valued differently, when those official documents, the ones that make you “real,” are denied to women?

(A note on my grandmother’s SSN: several years after my grandfather’s death my grandmother had to apply for a social security number in order to get Medicaid. Already in her eighties, my mother helped her with the complex application process to obtain, for the first time, her own SSN. Until then, in the eyes of government assistance, she wasn’t “real.”)

And a comment on the photograph: I don’t know who took it, although I know from stories that it is reflective of my grandmother’s life. It was only in writing this that I considered the circumstances necessary to take a photograph. Did my grandparents own a camera early in their married life? Wouldn’t that have been a strange luxury for a struggling farmer? Could it have been a wealthier relative? And if so, why take such a photo? Why be a voyeur to another’s hard work? (I know that photographers do this all the time but it somehow seems stranger that a relative would photograph and look on without offering help.) What was the impulse that made the photographer want to capture this particular moment in time? I welcome any possible answers to these questions.