Perspectives on Women’s Archives

Edited by Tanya Zanish-Belcher with Anke Voss. Chicago: IL: Society of American Archivists, 2013. 502 pp. $69.95 (paperback). ISBN 1-931666-47-4.

In their introduction to Perspectives on Women’s Archives, Tanya Zanish-Belcher and Anke Voss explain how they reconceptualized this edited volume, whose original aim was to collect and contextualize “all previously published archival literature on women’s archives and collections” (1). The resulting collection benefits from their retooling of purpose, responding to both gaps and surfeits identified by the editors. Perspectives on Women’s Archives is therefore not a uniform text. One of its key accomplishments, in fact, is to document a plurality of approaches that historians and archivists have applied in their efforts to build, describe, and complicate women’s archives in the United States. In their recent state-of-the-field essay in the Journal of American History, Cornelia H. Dayton and Lisa Levenstein observed that “diverse sets of conversations in women’s and gender history’s subfields sometimes eavesdrop on each other.”[1] Here, Zanish-Belcher and Voss invite archivists to listen across professional lines to the ways that women’s historians and women’s archivists have engaged and challenged one another’s work, and to consider how we might benefit from continued and more deliberate eavesdropping.

Zanish-Belcher and Voss underline three themes that circulate through the anthology, comprised of both previously published and newly solicited articles. First is the need for collaboration between historians, archivists, and librarians, which one might view as a productive consequence of efforts to “eavesdrop.” Voss’ 1995 study of Mary Ritter Beard contextualizes Beard’s frustrated effort to establish a World Center for Women’s Archives in the mid-1930s, as well as her later successful collaboration with Smith College archivist Margaret Grierson. Kären M. Mason’s engaging account in “‘A Grand Manuscripts Search’: The Women’s History Sources Survey at the University of Minnesota, 1975-1979” documents the creation of the groundbreaking compilation Women’s History Sources: A Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States, edited by Andrea Hinding.Today, this nearly 1,500-page resource escapes the notice of many historians and students whose research habits steer them toward digital research tools. Eva S. Moseley’s 1980 article “Sources for the ‘New Women’s History’” provides an early example of a curatorial mindset that embraced women’s histories as “a welcome challenge, rather than an irritating distraction from collecting and research on the big names, female or male, of history” (103). And Deborah Gray White’s discussion of manuscript sources on black women, originally published in 1987, reminds readers of the critical limitations of archival collections that have been built and described in ways that obscure female African American historical experiences.

A second concern of Perspectives on Women’s Archives relates to technologies of access, and the understanding that “those institutions and individuals with resources will determine the majority of what is to be saved of the archival record” (5). As we work within established structures to enrich archival representations of women, however, the editors’ final theme, regarding grassroots collecting and the impact of “citizen archivists,” also recognizes work that has challenged business-as-usual in the archives. Questions of power, legitimacy, and knowledge animate the essays in the book’s second and third sections, dedicated to “locating” and “documenting” women and their materials. There is richness in historical specificity, as evidenced in Mary Caldera’s history of efforts to place “The Lesbian in the Archives,” and Susan Tucker’s elaboration of women’s roles as family record keepers. A pair of studies by Mason and Zanish-Belcher insists more broadly that “women’s archives have a meaning greater than the collections they house” (127). Because the symbolic importance of these archives is itself historically situated, the challenge remains how and what to collect to respond to perceived gaps in the historical record and shortcomings of previous archival practices. The authors propose oral history initiatives, specialized subject repositories, and creative outreach methods as tools for making both users and donors aware of the material housed in and symbolic significance of women’s archives.

The essays contained within Perspectives on Women’s Archives can be fruitfully selected and/or rearranged to highlight a range of historical, theoretical, and practical topics. As a collection, moreover, the volume is both intuitively structured and strongly framed by a pair of writings by the late Gerda Lerner that outline the state of U.S. women’s history scholarship in 1975 and 2009. Finally, Elizabeth A. Myers’ “reflection” is a nuanced and necessary piece. Perhaps even more than the introduction or Lerner’s bookending essays, this is where the stakes of the work represented by Perspectives on Women’s Archives are made clear. Describing the impact of feminist and racial critiques, Myers writes: “Even deliberate, well-intentioned decisions to include always function to exclude as well. This realization has resulted in a general rethinking of the boundaries of woman with important, even radical, ramifications for all archivists” (439). Ironically, it is also Myers who introduces a full discussion of gender to this volume, roughly ten pages before its conclusion. Her insistence that “archivists of women’s collections should pay attention to and think critically about how gender is documented and how that documentation is preserved” (447) might well be the basis for the future set(s) of essays that Zanish-Belcher and Voss hope will build on the present work.

Wendy Korwin

Brown University

[1] Cornelia H. Dayton and Lisa Levenstein, “The Big Tent of U.S. Women’s and Gender History: A State of the Field,” Journal of American History 99, no. 3 (December 2012): 794.