Ashley’s Sack (and A Small Rant on Bad Word Choices)

CWU Professor Mark Auslander has researched and proposed likely identities for the names on Ashley’s Sack, a piece of embroidery from 1921 tracing one family’s lineage through slavery. Really neat work digging into American history.

For almost a decade, a slavery-era artifact known as “Ashley’s Sack” has intrigued historians unable to identify Ashley—the girl’s name preserved in needlework. The Smithsonian, where the sack is on display, may now attribute the recent discovery of Ashley’s identity to Central Washington University Professor Mark Auslander.

Auslander, who teaches in the department of Anthropology and Museum Studies and is director for the Museum of Culture and Environment spent the last year researching the lineage of the three women whose names were needle worked into the cloth. Research led him to North Carolina and Philadelphia where he searched slave, court and estate records, as well as early bank and census data.

“The object has become a kind of obsession for me during this past year,” said Auslander.

His findings were recently published in the article “Slavery’s Traces: In Search of Ashley’s Sack,” in the noted academic journal Southern Spaces.

Ashley’s Sack, on loan from Middleton Place in South Carolina, is currently on exhibit in the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. 

However, reading CWU’s writeup of the news has one unfortunate bit that really stood out to me (emphasis mine):

The original object was found in 2007 at a flea market in the small town of Springfield, Tennessee. Little was known of its history, but it gained great attention by historians and academics. Even less was known about the females listed on the sack.

This really, really should have read, “Even less was known about the women listed on the sack.”

Using “females” instead of “women” is rude and dehumanizing, and to do so within the context of a historical artifact of the slavery era makes it even worse. Just don’t do it (especially if you’re writing for an institute of higher learning, and again especially if your writing about an artifact of an era where the dehumanization of an entire race, let alone gender, was the norm).

2 thoughts on “Ashley’s Sack (and A Small Rant on Bad Word Choices)

  1. Repost:
    As the author of the news release referenced in your “Ashley’s Sack (and A Small Rant on Bad Word Choices),” I wish to thank you for your comment.

    As a public relations and journalism professional, who also happens to be female and African American, my goal was to pay homage to Ashley’s Sack and notify the public of Professor Auslander’s research.

    I thought deliberately how best to communicate this work to the community. And in fact, I toiled whether to use the word ‘females’ or ‘women’ when describing them. Please note that both words were used in the release. I chose the word ‘females’ over ‘women,’ where you quoted the release, because Ashley was referenced to be nine-years-old at the time her mother presented her with her keepsakes. I did not want to call them girls—as this would be inaccurate and demeaning. Instead, I chose females.

    You will see later in the news release where I reference them as “women.” My thought process was that by this time they would have all become women.

    “Auslander uncovered the potential identities of all four generations of women spanning the full 150-year history of the sack.”

    There was no intentional disrespect or belittling of these incredible people or their family’s heritage.

    • Hi Dawn,

      Thanks for the reply! I can see the dilemma, and am glad you debated the word choice. I still feel that outside of actually being used as an adjective (“first female president”, for example), it’s best to avoid using “female(s)” to refer to women (even young women).

      Thanks for stopping by!

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