The thesis of a Thesis


In writing my thesis, I knew where I wanted to go but the question was how to get there. And more importantly, get there with the blessing of your advisor and committee.

My WHERE was write my Master’s Thesis on the Breckinridge gown. My HOW was more challenging. I really just wanted to do a material culture study of the Breckinridge gown. But was there enough there?

At the beginning of the thesis process you have an idea or a question that you form into a topic. But you have to do some research to get to forming your actual thesis statement. (For the more science minded, think of the scientific hypothesis. Pose the question. Do the experiments. Write up the results. It’s pretty much the same in humanities.) But as you do the research, your thesis statement will probably evolve as you hit roadblocks or dead ends. Your original question may not be your final thesis statement.

Around 2000, North Carolina’s nineteen century textile industry and the Union blockade of the southeastern seaboard seemed like a logical research path to get to haute couture and Trans-Mississippi West plantation culture. The mind boggles!

Ideally you do research and write papers through your graduate school courses that can be used in some form or fashion in this great project that if approved and defended gets you a piece of paper saying you’re a master at something. My path was not so straightforward. I was 1013 miles from the bulk of the primary sources. I was encouraged to do something more local. But I was smitten.

After finding the gown and discovering the collection of letters, I did a major paper for my Historical Methods class on the North Carolina textile industry and how the Union blockade effected it during the American Civil War. I have no idea what I was thinking or how I thought this would help me with the Breckinridge gown. Looking back – I was really grasping at straws with that one!

My heart beats faster every time I enter the Madison Building – Library of Congress (home of the Breckinridge Family Papers)! I’ve seen security tighten since 9/11 and new procedures to get access but once I’m in the Manuscript Reading Room on the first floor, I’m transported.

I got a little smarter with future papers. For a women’s history seminar class in spring 2001, I launched into the heart of the matter. Initial genealogy on KCB, outlined how and why they were in Russia for the coronation, material culture on the gown, and my first look at the letters. A spring break trip to DC – to visit a close friend and get a look a the letters. It was wonderful and I was more tenacious than ever when I returned. About here is when the Chasing the Dress phase is coined by my thesis advisor.

October 1894 Letter

I might have come back from DC more tenacious but I think that tenacity masked my fear. I mean the word THESIS was always really scary for me. It was big and powerful and life changing. It made me feel a little sick to my stomach. I’d seen the letters and I just knew in my gut that there was something there. I needed to convince others!

How was I going to turn these letters and this dress into a THESIS? I talked to anyone and everyone who would listen (or would act like they were listening). People in the know keep asking me WHAT’S THE POINT??? Why was this woman significant? I was telling them facts and trivia and they just keep telling me BUT WHAT’S THE POINT??? 

I felt this way at the beginning of graduate school (and really most of the way through!) And I was that kid in class who always asked the questions that no one had the courage to ask. But HISTORIOGRAPHY was just too scary to ask about!

And of course I took SIGNIFICANT to mean that I needed to be looking for something HUGE! Like Holy Grail or Ark of the Covent HUGE! And I just had a dress and a woman and a bunch of letters. A lot of letters. How would I get through them all and then tie it all up in a nice historiography package with a beautiful bow on top? Now historiography – that a SCARY word!

And finally someone (I think it was Stephan Recken) told me “it’s just a giant research project – your research project.” He was always the voice of reason though I usually didn’t realized it at the time! Once I started thinking of it as a research project, and not a THESIS, I could tackle it step by step. I could research and I was pretty damn good at it! So let’s research!

The lightbulb started to click but there was still a short in the wire. I started with the dress. And the dress lead to the woman who wore the dress. Which lead to her letters. Which lead to her marriage to a man who become a politician. Which lead to patriotic hereditary societies. Which lead to diplomatic appointment. Which lead to haute couture. Which lead to imperial Russia. Which lead to looking at daughters of southern planters who were born in the decade before the Civil War and came of age after. I was all over the place. There was so much but these are just facts and trivia. WHAT’S THE POINT still hung in the air like a guillotine’s blade!

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 10.57.11 AM
gotta love a venn diagram! to convince my advisor i had a project, i created this diagram of all the possible research paths i could go down!

I wanted to do a material culture study but since I didn’t have much on the dress maker (and maybe at this point I still thought it was a Worth gown), I thought the woman was the best angle of approach. After all she wore the dress and wrote the letters. And there were lots of readily available secondary sources to HISTORIOGRAPHY all over that! But I needed a road map. I needed it in a full color and bubbles. And then it clicked (or at least it clicked for my thesis advisor)! She could see my vision and where I was wanting to go. I was writing a biography.


For years – generations really – history was about white men and wars and politics and all that stuff. You know the type. Presidents. Titans of industry. Great generals. The phase “to the victor go the spoils” isn’t just about stuff. It’s the history as well. Then the 1960s and 1970s historians started looking at other folks. Other groups. You know the rest of us. The ordinary people. (It’s called New Social History if you’re interested!) It was a whole rethinking of history scholarship. Historians started looking at groups of people whose names weren’t in the headlines. The majority of history professor in western colleges and universities were trained in this school of thought.

“[Social history] prides itself on being concerned with ‘real life’ rather than abstractions, with ‘ordinary’ people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events.” –  Raphael Samuel, History Today Volume 35 Issue 3 March 1985

And I wanted to research and write about a privileged elite Southern woman who attended the sensational events of the wedding and coronation of Nicholas and Alexandra while wearing a haute couture gown. So not New Social History.

Because I didn’t get this whole New Social History thing at the time, I remember thinking but she lived and she wrote letters. She left a record. She had a real life with real struggles despite her status. In her letters she outlined an ordinary life with frustrations about money and parenting. And she detailed the everyday things she had to deal with as the wife of a member of Congress/Minister to Russia. She was more than just Mrs. Clifton Rodes Breckinridge. She had thoughts and opinions of her own and she wrote them down and someone had the forethought to save them and make them accessible to the public. I thought (or interpreted what I was being told) that KCB had to have done something in order for her to be important enough to write a whole thesis. Something on her own outside of her husband’s realm. She couldn’t just be Mrs. Clifton Rodes Breckinridge. She needed to have done something in her own right. It wasn’t that she had lived and wrote letters.

So in July 2002 I turned in a working Thesis Statement. The final paragraph says it all.

Historians have argued that the wives of great white men are not historically significant in their own right simply because of their choice of husband. In some cases this argument is true. Martha Washington is considered a great woman not because of what she did but because she was married to George Washington, father of the country. I contend many of these so-called wives are significant in their own right because of what they said, wrote or did. They should not be completely discounted at first glance because of their martial status. Katherine Breckinridge, although the wife of a powerful politician, was an astute observer of the Washington social atmosphere and the Imperial Russian court life. She did not found the American Red Cross or became a leading activist in the women’s rights movement. She was an ordinary woman in a privileged social arena who wrote letters to friends and families about her experiences. She is significant in her own right.

I can read my frustration at the time in this paragraph. My frustration with the scholarship. I can read my determination to get my way and make this my topic. And I still believe this. Historians in general have discounted elite women who lived the lives they were prescribed to live. There are many elite women who by sheer force of will and personality pushed beyond their social class and/or marriage status to become great. I’m specifically thinking about Jane Addams of Hull House fame. She was born to an elite northern family and pushed past her prescribed sphere of marriage and family and won the Noble Prize.

Not everyone can be a Jane Addams. Not everyone can win a Noble Prize. Somehow by being born into money and embracing the life of hearth and home, these women aren’t worth looking at. Studying. Exploring. There is still something to learned from her and from her experiences. But at the time I wasn’t ready or willing to take on the establishment. I couldn’t push too hard. I needed a little time. I needed some distant. I needed a mid-life crisis.

But the thesis writing process is not just about the author. Or the subject. It is really collaborative effort between student and teacher. And a good teacher will not let you hang yourself. After many meetings and discussions. After many frustrations on my part because I wasn’t listening or hearing, we hammered out a final thesis statement.

Through the correspondence and life of Katherine Carson Breckinridge, this thesis will argue that Breckinridge represents a type of elite southern white women, born in the decade prior to the Civil War and raised in the turbulent war and Reconstruction years, delicately balanced the two images, Southern Lady and New Woman, and created the abstract of the New Southern Lady. The new female ideal allowed elite southern women to broaden their private personas to include specific acceptable tenets from the public sphere. As the New Southern Lady, women felt increasingly more comfortable trying new activities such as club membership and activism. Privately, women expressed their newfound voices in correspondence with their husbands, daughters, and other female relatives.

And all I really wanted to do was write about a dress!


One comment

  1. You have been inspired by the life of one woman who could articulate her observations about life to those around her. We can never know what impact these spoken and written conversations may have had on the people around her, but it is important to be made aware of the evidence we have and compare it to the evidence we have of what those around her accomplished. When she said___ her husband can be observed as saying or doing____. Any similarities?


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