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Sallie Bingham redefines the life of Doris Duke and describes her impressive career in public talk

<p>Merle Hoffman, pictured above at an abortion rights rally, is just one of the many women connected to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture.&nbsp;</p>

Merle Hoffman, pictured above at an abortion rights rally, is just one of the many women connected to the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. 

On October 6, 2020, feminist activist and writer Sallie Bingham read excerpts from her newest books “The Silver Swan: In Search of Doris Duke” and “Treason: A Sallie Bingham Reader.” The first book, in line with Bingham’s mission in founding the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture, catalogs the life of Doris Duke, the billionaire daughter of James Buchanan Duke. The second chronicles several of Bingham’s works throughout her career, including short stories, a novella and a play. 

In 1988, Bingham founded the Sallie Bingham Center with hopes to fill the gender gap within academic scholarship and archival work. It became the first major women’s history archive in the Southeastern United States, located within the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Following its establishment, Duke librarians and archivists began gathering the women’s history documents that already existed within Duke University. 

The Merle Hoffman Director in the Sallie Bingham Center, Laura Micham, said: “It is very common at all archives in this country and in general that women’s history was hidden behind the collections of their fathers, their husbands and their brothers.” 

The first four collecting areas were Women Authors and Publishers, Feminist Theory and History, Women of Color and Lesbian Women and Culture. Today, these have evolved and expanded. For instance, the Center has begun collecting materials on the intersection between faith and feminism. They also accept any medium of material, from letters and diaries to posters. 

Bingham remains involved in the center with bi-yearly visits and public readings of upcoming books. Her research was also completed in part with Duke University’s archives. 

In her reading, Bingham discussed her shock in learning about Doris Duke’s limited representation on Duke’s campus, despite her critical role as a major donor and daughter of the founder. This prompted a nine-year project to dig through the Doris Duke archived materials and begin connecting the dots on her life. In spite of this, Bingham pointed out that Doris Duke, due to her wealth and prestige, was a unique case.

“She would have been an example of a woman whose work would be preserved," Bingham said.

This was because of the class-oriented and racial perspective to archival work. History was told from the viewpoint of a limited group — the bourgeois white man. If women were included, they were white, upper-class ladies, thus emphasizing the importance of cataloging for the purposes of representation, a critical motivation for Sallie Bingham’s founding of the center. Doris Duke herself led an exciting and privileged life, one filled with travels around the world, expensive clothing and a visit to anti-colonial nationalist Gandhi. Yet, this is not to exclude Duke’s philanthropic pursuits.

As Bingham herself claimed: “Most people who know a little about Doris Duke consider her a colorful eccentric. I prefer to call her an original.”

Rather than focusing on these colorful aspects of her life, Bingham’s motivation in this research was uncovering a woman who became a philanthropist, donating vast sums to the poorest tribes of Native Americans, an attempted reporter during the last days of WWII and an early supporter of the birth control movement, along with her friend Margaret Sanger. 

During her research, Bingham ran into several roadblocks along the way; namely that, due to Duke’s limited education, she rarely wrote or was interviewed. Much of Bingham’s own research and discoveries were rooted in examining letters from those who knew her. From there, she would draw an idea of who Doris Duke really was. 

When describing the subtitle of her work, “In Search of Doris Duke,” and alluding to these difficulties she faced, Bingham said, “this implies that I never found her, which is always possible for a biography.”

In the second half of her talk, Bingham began reading from her work, “Treason: A Sallie Bingham Reader.” Her collection contains her play “Treason,” chronicling the life of poet Ezra Pound and the women he betrayed, along with three short stories and a novella. 

In describing the naming of her play “Treason,” Bingham stated: “The three women — wife, mistress and daughter — who spent their life taking care of the poet Ezra Pound lacked mentors who would make them question their devotion to a cruel and careless man” 

Rather than focusing on the political treason in Pound’s own life, Bingham reformulated this life through the perspectives of the women who cared most for him. She intended to provide a commentary on how many women, regardless of era or time period, devote too much time and effort into what she deemed unworthy men. 

The three short stories are tied to “Treason,” with similar themes of betrayal and treachery, focused on the lives of different women. Her final piece is a novella entitled “Upstate.”

“I take on an uncomfortable subject in this novella: a woman’s rage," Bingham said. "Even today, years after the three successive waves of the women’s movement, rage is not an acceptable feeling for women and must be suppressed.”

Following the publication of “Silver Swan” and “Treason,” Bingham hopes to continue in the genre of nonfiction and research. Her next piece, entitled “Little Brother,” chronicles the life and mysterious death of Bingham’s younger brother coupled with the tumultuous change of the early 1960’s.  

Given the pandemic, Bingham’s ability to publicize her works has been severely diminished. One of her goals for the reading was to spark an interest in her audience to consider purchasing the works and continue reading for themselves. She hopes that they too want to explore what it means to be a woman through the unique lens each of her works chooses. 

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