What problems do archives raise in trying to reconstruct the lives of women who leave no written record? My first contact with these problems relating to sources can be traced back nearly 40 years ago to my post-graduate studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada. As part of my Master’s course I took a module on Slave Societies. The tutor, Michael Craton, had written a seminal text on slave resistance in the Caribbean, Searching for the Invisible Man. It was this text that gave me the inspiration for the research into African and African Caribbean slave women that was transformed into my first book. Where was the ‘Invisible Woman’ and what was her contribution to slave resistance? What I discovered was that slave women were far from ‘invisible’; they existed in parliamentary papers and reports, contemporary published accounts, illustrations and unpublished diaries, plantation records and ship’s logs and registers in various archives. But such sources revealed the slave woman of the white imagination, what Maya Angelou described as a ‘fabulous fiction’ of multiple, predominantly negative, identities.
Archival sources and published accounts provide descriptions of slave life refracted through white, mostly male, eyes and, on the surface, reveal more about the preoccupations, prejudices and fantasies of contemporary observers than the realities of slave women’s lives. The same may be said of accounts by white women, pro-planter and abolitionist, for whom female slaves reinforced their own sense of racial and class superiority. Additionally, such sources recorded only aspects of slave life that directly related to European interests. Slave owners had little interest in the culture of the slaves unless it directly threatened those interests. Moreover, there is evidence that slaves were keen to protect certain aspects of their lives from prying white eyes.
Nevertheless, we can glean insight from archival sources by reading them against the grain and with a fresh eye. For instance the diaries of Thomas Thistlewood, a small-scale slave owner in Jamaica in the latter half of the eighteenth century, are often cited in relation to sexual exploitation of slave women and related cruelties. Yet his diaries can also enable us to piece together the lives on his long-term slave ‘wife’, Phibba, and her close female kin, their entrepreneurial activities and contribution to the slave community life. The women in Thistlewood’s world were clearly immersed in the shadowland of African rituals of which whites had little knowledge or understanding.
Thistlewood’s diaries are exceptional in their richness and detail but, in general, when working with archival and other sources, we can only catch glimpses of women’s inner, private lives, as opposed to their public persona as economic units of production and reproduction. Thus such sources provide but limited insight into how female slaves subjectively experienced the trauma of enforced migration and the Hobbesian fabric of their everyday lives. Can we ever really get into the minds of women such as Thistlewood’s ‘Old Sybil, bit with a spider….delirious [and] singing her country’? Arguably, to gain a more rounded understanding such women’s lives and those of their free descendents in the African diaspora, we must also incorporate interdisciplinary sources such as anthropological and archaeological evidence. Perhaps more controversially we need also to draw on oral traditions, and ‘sites of memory’ which embrace cultural forms such as dance. The value of such sources in reconstructing the histories of oppressed groups who leave few written records now has fuller recognition. Searching for the ‘invisible woman’ also demands a degree of what the late Eric Hobsbawm termed ‘imaginative empathy’ to compensate for absence of sources. But in using less conventional approaches one is exposed to criticisms stemming from a deep prejudice on the part of historians (often male) who are wedded to the archives and orthodox history writing. This raises the question as the whether there is a hierarchy of subjects deemed suitable for allegedly ‘real’ historical research. At the top of this hierarchy are studies of essentially masculine power and privilege, for which ample archives exist, whilst working class, Black and indigenous women, marginalized or absent in such archives, are located at the bottom.
My latest research has moved on to the lives of African and African Caribbean women in the era of late colonialism post 1918 and I have made extensive use of the rich archival sources at LSE relating to colonial development and decolonisation. Sources for this period are plentiful. However, I have encountered similar problems with the ways in which African women are represented in white writings and archival collections such as personal diaries. The official archives are either silent on women or reiterate historical stereotypes going back to the slave era. Women focus primarily when they are seen as a barrier to modernizing development policies, or a threat to colonial stability as with the Women’s War in Southern Nigeria in 1929. An important development in this era is the expansion of archives left by women. This reflects the emancipation of women after 1918 which enabled them to more fully participate in academia and the colonial project. Yet white women continued define their own superior identities in relation to African women with whom who they found little common ground and this is reflected in archival collections.
In conclusion, I have always had a difficult relationship with the archives, in particular the allegedly authoritative, official archives. I recognise the importance of archival sources but also the need to subvert them, to read between the lines, and to go beyond the contemporary discourses and knowledge frameworks in which they are embedded. I am irritated by dismissal of what are regarded as less valid sources that can help illuminate silences in history, particularly the invisible women of the past who are usually not part of the consciousness of the originators and gatekeepers of archives. This raises important issues relating to the very nature of archives; is there a gender bias in the way they are selected, catalogued and prioritised in relation to historical worth? Who determines what subjects are historically valid? Are women’s archives, including the letters, diaries, life memorabilia of ordinary women, regarded as less valuable than men’s as sources of ‘authoritative’ history? Here lies the indispensable value of the Women’s Library as a unique resource to protect and promote sources for researching women’s and gender history that can challenge the masculine bias in archival and other sources that are fundamental to working with the past.
Barbara Bush (c) March 201
Barbara Bush is convenor of the Women’s History Network and Emeritus Professor, Sheffield Hallam University.
This was my contribution to a panel discussion on ‘Working With the Past’, organised by Asiya Islam, Equality and Diversity Adviser, London School of Economics and Political Science, on the 12th March to celebrate Women’s History Month and to promote the rich Women’s Library archives, recently relocated to LSE library. The other panel members were Sally Alexander and Kate Murphy and the three brief presentations generated a lively discussion about archival research. Thanks to Asiya and her colleagues the evening was a great success.
The 31 May 2012 saw the University of Greenwich host ‘Youth, Recreation and Play’, a conference bringing together youth workers, school pupils, artists working on community arts projects, students from George Williams College and Greenwich University, and local and international academics from a range of disciplines. The conclusion of the conference saw Dr Mary Clare Martin, its organiser and founder (with Dr Keith Cranwell) of the Centre for the Study of Play and Recreation, launch the London Network for the History of Children.
Three plenary sessions – ‘Play and Legal Liability’, ‘Play, Space and Boundaries’ and ‘Empowering the Young? Citizenship and Activism’ sandwiched two streams. The first, ‘The Development of Youth Work’ included papers having an historical and socio-economic perspective, whilst the second, ‘Theoretical and Educational Developments’ focused on the socio-economic and the psychological vis-à-vis childhood development, youth and adult maturation, educational organisation, and the politics of education and employment policy.
Presentations from six Bedonwell Junior School students (three girls, three boys) opened the conference. They recounted their role and self-development through participation in and leadership of the school’s ‘Guardian Angels’ programme. Designed to support younger pupils by ensuring all have playtime companions, and to encourage positive caring and sharing together with principled citizenship within the school environment, Guardian Angels is a mentoring and skills awareness concept-in-practice consequent upon the work of Deputy Head Heather Soanes and June Vincent, SENCO. The students spoke of their leadership as Guardian Angels arising out of their ‘shadowing’ (as younger students) students holding the role before them and how they, in turn, mentored their own ‘shadows’.
Of particular interest to historians, sociologists and political scientists exploring women’s role was a session on ‘Youth Work Provision: Catering for Minorities?’ Anne Hughes of the University of Southampton and Dr Mary Clare Martin delivered papers on, respectively, ‘A Good Jew and a Good Englishman’: Religion in Jewish Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, 1880-1930’, and ‘Disability and the Girl Guide Association 1900-1950: Heroic Patience or Active Engagement’.
Anne Hughes’ research and reflections on late nineteenth and early twentieth century creation of young people’s clubs by wealthy philanthropists, particularly in London’s Jewish community, will remind 2011 Women’s History Network Conference participants of the holdings in the Women’s Library. One of the Vera Douwie Scholars at the 2011 WHN conference revealed the existence of a significant archive, including written material and photographs, featuring East End clubs and their initiation and support by well-heeled West End Jewish women.
Anne Hughes highlighted the gendered-focus of the clubs, where ‘sports were a main focus of their activities’, however:
‘Within boys’ clubs, sport and militarism was the primary focus of the activities, with religious elements included as a way to promote sportsmanship or strength of body. For the girls’ clubs, religion was seen as a way to promote the ideals of femininity … [T]raditional English and Jewish notions of womanhood and manhood affected the inclusions of religious elements.’
Another side of ‘clubs for girls’ was evident in Mary Clare Martin’s trawling of Girl Guides’ archives to illuminate the ‘principle of inclusion’ enshrined in the Guide Law, ‘A Guide is a sister to every other Guide’ and how it worked in practice:
‘Many of the developments within the GGA [Girl Guides Association] began at grass roots level. From 1919, companies were founded in institutions. From 1921, an organization called Extension Guides was set up to enable “invalid, cripple, blind and deaf girls living in their own homes to become Guides”.’
‘Badge requirements were adapted to make it possible’ for Guides with a disability ‘to achieve’. As well, ‘special camps were organised for different groups’:
‘While the photo of a Guide in uniform lying in bed making a pretend camp fire might seem distant from the experiences of those who could move freely in the open air, the rhetoric emphasized how Guides were all one family, with only minor differences. Indeed, the association claimed that Guiding was the one thing which could dispel the sense of isolation and difference experienced by disabled Guides.’
Dr Martin’s analysis of archival records provided answers to questions including ‘whether images of heroic suffering and patience dominate over the more pro-active discourses emphasizing achievement and potential’, whether the GGA promoted ‘a medical or a social model of disability’, and whether Guides with a disability were ‘able to participate in the same activities as their peer group’. She observed that, as may be expected, the picture is complex:
‘Some accounts eulogize girls who were models of patience. One girl who had to lie in bed all the time made friends with the birds who flew in. In 1946, Daphne was presented with the “Badge of Fortitude”. She spent all her life in a plaster bed but could still do gardening from her spinal chair was “the friend of all the children in the neighourhood”. Nevertheless, pictures and stories of girls [with a disability] at camp also emphasized the value of the outdoor smells, sounds and relative freedom to blind girls, or how “higher-grade defectives” were almost the same as other Guides, and badge requirements should remain the same …’
A plenary session on the legal implications of play raised questions which continued through the day: whether, in play, girls and boys are treated differently, with stereotypes dogging the footsteps of the sexes when it comes to what, as children, they are permitted to do and what is affirmed or condemned. Edward Phillips (University of Greenwich) ‘Boys will be Boys: Legal Culpability for Sport and Horseplay’ led to participants questioning whether ‘girls will be girls’ is accepted within schools and the law as a positive or negative notion, and what relationship it might have to its ‘boys will be boys’ equivalent. Or is there any equivalence at all? Are girls as girls engaging in recreational activities in the school ground expected to conform to a more passive picture of performance so that stepping out of that role may lead to condemnation not experienced by boys?
‘Youth, Recreation and Play’ followed on from the January 2012 conference, ‘Rethinking the History of Childhood’. It anticipates another January conference for 2013, focusing on issues surrounding play, recreation and the law. This is particularly apposite, for both the January 2012 and the present conference highlighted the central role played by the law in childhood and the activities of childhood, not the least in recreation and play. Myriad questions rise in the field, too, for adults in recreational activities.
Note: The conference programme in its entirety, including all titles of papers and presenters, may be found on the Greenwich University website.
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s books include Growing Up Feminist – The New Generation of Australian Women and Growing Up Feminist Too – Raising Women, Raising Consciousness, volumes in the Artemis ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series.
Recently The Women’s Library hosted the annual Fawcett Lecture, presented by Sandi Toksvig. Following Sandi’s enlightening and suitably humorous take on the topic of Post-Feminism, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One of the last of these questions was about the perceived current lack of outright and outspoken feminist and women centered perspectives in the mainstream media. Where were the campaigners and contemporary figureheads for the next generation/wave if they were not present or made visible by television, radio and newspapers? While the truth is certainly more complicated than just saying “Online”, a definite case can be made to show how much of the debate, discussion and dissemination that shapes current feminism exists and occurs online. Not exclusively but increasingly and meaningfully, traditional networks and face-to-face communication are being supported by social networking, blogging and e-zine culture.
The question pertinent to organisations such as The Women’s Library which are predicated on the notion of celebrating and more relevantly recording women’s lives is just how to collect and record things as traditionally intangible and ephemeral as webpages? In 2004 The British Library began its UK Web Archive as an attempt to provide a solution to ‘ a potential “digital black hole”‘. The Web Archive exists in a similar manner to all archives which preserve the records they contain for the use by current and future generations – only this time the records are all available to view 24/7 provided you have a stable enough internet collection and the hardware. And you don’t have to worry about only using pencils around them.
This Women’s Library is involved and responsible for researching and nominating websites which can be included as part of the Women’s Issues Special Collection. The Collection mirrors the existing collections of The Women’s Library and is guided by the library’s own Collection Development Policy. Many of the archives held at The Women’s Library are complemented by having their website preserved in this collection, such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. There are a range of UK websites that have been included such as women’s organisations and campaigns, research reports, government publications and statistics pertaining to women, personal sites of women, blogs (including this excellent one!) and women-focused e-zines; a total of 277 sites have so far been archived and are available to view (accurate at the time of writing).
Rather than being selected by British Library staff, the Women’s Issues Collection was initiated by Beverley Kemp, who was the Librarian at The Women’s Library. Beverley was the first external subject specialist to work with the British Library in this way. Following Beverley’s departure, the Collection continued to be developed by The Women’s Library, and as of 2010 several other institutions were emulating this collection (including Hampshire County Records Office and The Library of the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Currently we are seeking to continue building the collection and push the total numbers upwards. During this time of cuts and the impact that this is having on women’s organisations it is even more important to keep some sort of record of what has been created and the broad spectrum of women’s activism. There are a range of sites which we will be submitting for inclusion into the project, which have been gathered with the help of our staff, volunteers and interns. However, the World Wide Web is pretty big and there are a lot more of you who are familiar with potentially many more web pages that we may have missed and which may well be worth including. So in the spirit of collective willing and in celebration of recording contemporary women’s lives feel free to send/forward/email/tweet/facebook your suggested sites to us. For the more ‘Vinyl’ of you we still have telephone lines and a physical location.
Also, given that it is Women’s History Month, it would be remiss not to mention a project that The Women’s Library has been involved in (involving some of the WHN list members). It’s called the Fragen Project and has been carried out in conjunction with women’s libraries, archives and other organisations in 29 other European countries, collecting together and digitising some of the key European feminist texts published since the 1960s. Working closely with external partners including Anna Davin, Avril Rolph, Heidi Mirza, Mary Kennedy, and Red Chidgey, we managed to get a long and short list of potential titles and from this we successfully negotiated permissions to put forward the following 6 items to be digitised from the UK:
1) Women’s Liberation and the New Politics / Sheila Rowbotham (1969)
2) Conditions of Illusion: papers from the Women’s Movement / ed. Sandra Allen, Lee Sanders & Jan Willis (1974)
3) ‘Challenging Imperial Feminism’ Feminist Review Special Issue, ‘Many Voices one Chant’, No.17, July: 3-19. / Valerie Amos, V and Pratibha Parmar (1984)
4) The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain / Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe (1985)
5) Once a feminist: stories of a generation / Michelene Wandor (1990)
6) Black British Feminism; A Reader / ed. Heidi S. Mirza (1997)
More information about the project can be found here and it is very close to launching (give or take some technological issues) and when it does we will circulate details to the entire WHN list.
Many happy returns for Women’s History Month! Inderbir Bhullar is Information Librarian at the Women’s Library in London.
On this day, 4 Mar 1912, ‘For Valour Hunger Strike’
A Women’s Social & Political Union hunger strike medal was awarded to Gertrude Wilkinson ‘Fed By Force 4/3/12 Gertrude Wilkinson’, with presentation box, produced by the WSPU and presented to Gertrude Wilkinson for forcible feeding 4 Mar 1912. (The Women’s Library Ref 7EWD/M/25)
Also on this day: 4 March 1912, Votes for Women!
A Women’s Social & Political Union militant protest took place. Circular letters from Emmeline Pankhurst stated that instructions would be given at the Gardenia Restaurant on the day of the action at 6pm. Tickets were passed to members for admission to restaurant. ‘PS Please do not wear colours [purple white and green] or [membership] badges’ (The Women’s Library Ref 7HFD/B/1/03)
The image above and the information comes from the Women’s Library collections.
Have you ever been to… The Women’s Library? It’s a cultural centre housing the most extensive collection of women’s history in the UK. Access is free and open to everyone. As well as a Reading Room where you can refer to our collections, we also curate exhibitions and a regular events programme. From workshops to walks, study days to special events and lots more in between, there’s something for everyone at The Women’s Library. Have a look at our website for more details.