The director of the public history program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Marla R. Miller researches and writes about women and work in early America. She is the author of The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution (2006), a study of the New England clothing trades before industrialization. Her Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010), the first scholarly biography of the much-misunderstood craftswoman, was a finalist for the Cundill Prize in History and was named as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by the Washington Post. Miller's latest book is Entangled Lives: Labor, Livelihood, and Landscapes of Change in Rural Massachusetts (2019). In 2012, she and three co-authors released Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, a multi-year study funded by the NPS Chief Historian's office and hosted by the OAH; the report won the National Council on Public History prize for Excellence in Consulting. Miller edits the Public History in Historical Perspective book series for the University of Massachusetts Press; she also consults regularly with museums and historic sites across the northeast. From 2016 to 2020 she served as president-elect and president of the National Council on Public History.
This talk explores the history of early American women's work in the clothing trades, as a means to better understand the meaning of craft skills, and the entangled ways that gender, artisanry, class, and opportunity shaped women's lives in rural New England. Miller's research seeks to disperse the haze of nostalgia that surrounds works of the needle while at the same time trying to understand its origins. It represents an attempt to overturn the prevailing sense -- symbolized by constructions of Colonial Barbie and the mythologized Betsy Ross -- that early American needlework was ubiquitous and undifferentiated. Miller explores the ways in which needlework shaped and reflected the circumstances of real women’s lives, circumstances that in fact varied widely over time and space; to restore skilled needlewomen to their artisanal status and to reconnect them to the expanding commercial world of the eighteenth century; and to observe the century's economic transformations from the perspective of these needleworkers.