"which materials in [your] collections support gendered stereotypes?" [comment post]

Mildred Mitchell
sitting under a frescoed wall (1918).
Massachusetts Historical Society
This week, I was contacted by a PhD candidate doing research on "archives and the construction of female identity." I had much to say about a couple of the questions, which I thought might be of more general interest to readers of this blog. So here is what I wrote!

4. Which materials in [your] collections support gendered stereotypes? Are there any examples materials which subvert these stereotypes? 

I find the framing of this question strange and confusing, perhaps because I am trained first and foremost as a historian. As a historian, I approach all collection materials as sources which can be understood in many ways. Most cultural artifacts do not in and of themselves support or subvert limited or fixed stereotypes or agendas; these artifacts are what we (the researchers) and any other individuals who interact with them (from creation to destruction) make of them. Rather than asking whether any particular item in our collections supports or subverts a particular understanding of gender (or sexuality or race or etc. etc. etc.), I would ask what the item might be able to tell us about how its creators and contemporaries understood gender (or etc.) in a multivalent sense. How did human beings make meaning using this item? What can this item tell us about the time and place in which it was created and used?

To use an example from the MHS collections which I, personally, have incorporated into my work as a historian, there is a deposition in the Godfrey Cabot Lowell Papers taken in 1914. It is the deposition, by a male member of the legal-judicial system, of a female office/retail worker about her experience of sexual-medical impropriety at the hands of a male doctor treating her for gynecological ailments. The deposition, as far as I have been able to piece together, is part of a larger case being assembled against the doctor for his activities, medical and personal. You can read the conference paper I wrote about the document here.

If we were to ask your question(s) of this item: does it support or subvert gender stereotypes, what would a meaningful answer be? One could argue the deposition was constructed in a context over-determined by a number of gender-based narratives: the female office worker, the sexually-naive spinster, the predatory male gynecologist, the hard-boiled private detective, the patriarchal morality police, the sexually immoral widow/madame with whom the doctor is living and working. The deposition and associated detective’s reports draw on all of these. Yet the deposition also offers up gender surprises, given its historical context. How did Nellie Keefe, the deposed woman, decide to speak out against the treatment that made her feel uncomfortable? How should we think about the persecution of a doctor for living with a woman (and perhaps enjoying a consensual sexual relationship with her) while unmarried? What bearing does that have on his medical practice? How are the women patients understood within the context of the case as gendered subjects? How does their agency in speaking out against the treatment they were uncomfortable with play into the “long game” persecution of the doctor for his domestic arrangements? Was the doctor acting inappropriately, based on the standard medical training of the day, in giving the treatment he did? To what extent are both women and men in this narrative leveraging and falling victim to narratives of gender salient in their specific time and place. Most historical texts (like our lived experiences!) are complex, multi-layered things which work within and against dominant narratives simultaneously.

As a reference librarian who works with researchers doing scholarship in the areas of women, gender, and sexuality -- along with other intersecting aspects of subjectivity and identity -- I see my job as helping a researcher to ask new questions of materials; to complicate our reading of what might at first glance seem self-evident as a source. I spend time brainstorming with researchers about where they might find documents or artifacts that speak in some way to their questions about gender and sexuality -- and the work they do with those items is quite often fresh and unique, challenging us to see particular moments in history and culture in new ways.

5. Should women’s collections, both those created by women and those about women’s activities, be kept in separate repositories or locations? Why? 

I believe in the organizational power (in a positive sense) of designated spaces and groups whose mandate is specifically to collect, preserve, and make accessible the documentary record of historically marginalized populations. The genesis of many special collections repositories for under-represented groups (people of color, religious minorities, women, LGBTQ folks, etc.) has often been within those communities themselves through grassroots organizing -- e.g. the Lesbian Herstory Archive. I believe those community-based archives have done (and continue to do) important work. I am also glad to see more conventional archives beginning to collect materials that more fully document all aspects of our culture and society. It is my hope that we will continue to have both types of archival repositories into the future, since I believe the “activist archive” and the institutional archive both serve important purposes within the ecosystem of the library/information professions.

Historically, the physical location of an archive or a collection has had significant bearing on who is able to access the materials the archive holds. Hence, it has often made sense for similar / like materials to be gathered in a specific location so that researchers can access them for a topical research project: e.g. lesbian pulp novels. Collecting policies often reflect this -- we don’t just take every collection we are offered, but rather consider whether it complements the other collections we have, or the goals of our repository in documenting certain aspects of history and culture: here at the MHS environmental history, for example, and Massachusetts family papers of the 18th and 19th centuries. My wife works at a repository that collects materials related to the history of medicine, so they collect physicians’ and medical researchers’ papers as well as print materials. As we are able to make collections more accessible through digitization, such geographical proximity can matter less (but still matter today, and will continue to matter for decades to come).

As an “activist archivist,” what I care about is that someone, somewhere, is collecting the materials related to histories of a wide range of people and groups. I want the employees at the institutions that care for these collections to believe in their worth and the necessity of their preservation. I’m pretty impartial as to whether those materials are held in an identity-based archive (e.g. a “women’s collection”) or whether they are held at a more eclectic institution. What I care about is that they are findable and accessible to whomever wishes to use them to further our knowledge of peoples and pasts. I would further complicate the issue of “women’s collections, both those created by women and those about women’s activities” by pointing out that each of us exists in the world with multiple facets of identity, and that making a present-day argument for the creation of women-focused collections (as opposed to historically women-centered collections) raises questions about how we would formulate a collecting policy for such an institution, and what such a policy implies or outright states about the notion of “women” as a discrete category of being.

Say you have a collection of personal and professional papers of a woman with both African (recent immigrant) and Euro-American ethnic and racialized heritage; she attended a historically-black college as an undergraduate, and then went on to seminary for an M.Div. Following several years as minister in the Reformed Church of America she left the ministry in order to openly marry her partner. She decides to pursue midwifery training so that she and her wife (a primary care physician) can set up a practice working with bisexual, lesbian, and trans* female couples around pregnancy, childbirth, and post-partum care. They become central movers and shakers in the women of color-led reproductive justice grassroots movement. The woman grew up in Georgia, attended graduate school in Michigan, then settled in Chicago with her wife whose family has roots in upstate New York and Western Massachusetts. After a long career in urban community-based women’s health activism, they retire to the Minneapolis/St. Paul (to be near the wife’s brother and his family). So, what’s the best place for these personal-professional records? In an archive that specializes in records of African-Americans? Women? Queer folks? People in the health sciences? Ordained individuals? Social justice activism? Should the records stay local to the Chicago area? Should they go to the HBCU institutional repository as an alumna collection?

I’m a cisgendered woman, but my womanhood is only SOMETIMES the most salient aspect of my identity (like when the Supreme Court decides because I’m a person with a uterus my workplace could pass judgement on my healthcare decisions). I’m also a librarian, a historian, a writer, a Euro-American with strong Scottish heritage, a bisexual lesbian -- where do my papers “best” belong, thirty years from now? It’s an imperfect science at best.

Any additional comments? 

In reflecting on your questions, I will say that it seems important to note that as a graduate student in library science / archives, with a background in women’s studies and history, I would have said my “ideal” job would be to work at a place like the Lesbian Herstory Archives, the Schlesinger Library, the Sophia Smith Collection -- somewhere that specializes in the historical subjects I find most interesting as a scholar. However, the job I found was here at the MHS, a repository that does not focus intentionally on any of my subjects of interest (history of sexuality, history of women and gender, history of social justice activism, history of religion, history of education, all emphasizing twentieth century American contexts…). Over time, I have grown to appreciate the important role I can play as a reference librarian in a more “generalist” research library in suggesting entry points into our collections that get at some of these subcultural and/or marginalized histories. Because of course even when we aren’t visible in the mainstream narratives, we have always been there -- to take queer sexuality as an example, it’s not like women sexually desiring women, and building relationships with them, is an invention of the twentieth century (though “Lesbian” as an identity construct, like “Straight” or “Cis” or “Trans*,” arguably is). So it’s important to remind researchers that they don’t have to go to “women’s collections” or “lesbian archives” to find stories that include queer folk. Which is not to say that finding us (people similar to us) isn’t harder in mainstream repositories, where finding guides and catalog records don’t necessarily indicate those aspects of an individual’s identity … to the extent that those aspects of identity are knowable.

No comments:

Post a Comment