March is Women’s History Month and the library will be celebrating with a series of posts on resources for the study women’s history. We would love to hear your comments and questions about the posts: please tweet us @GCWLibrary, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tell us your thoughts in the comments section at the end of the post.
Why use online resources to study women’s history?
In my previous post, I introduced two of the library’s databases for studying women’s history. These databases are available by subscription–the University Library pays for them, and all staff and students at the university are able to access them. In this post, however, I will introduce some databases that are freely accessible to all. There is no one reason for using an online database as opposed to one built by subscription. Historians who study women’s lives have (and still do) push back against the stereotype that there’s no evidence for women of the past, which has led to a concern with gathering and sharing sources to enable research. Sometimes research touches on the concerns of past or contemporary communities and so researchers want it to be freely available to all who are interested, or sometimes research involves participants and investigators outside of the university and so for practical reasons an online resource is best. Online resources can be built with or by primary and secondary school students and teachers in mind. And sometimes an open access online database is simply the best resource available for a particular subject you are interested in!
This post will offer a brief introduction to the world of online database for women’s history. It is primarily focused on online archives and databases, rather than teaching materials. Should these be of interest to you, you may want to investigate open education resources (OERs)–materials for teaching, learning, and research that can be accessed, used, reused and adapted for free and without need to seek permissions from anyone. One example of an OER would be the curriculum (lecture slides, lesson plans, and assignments) for a university module on women’s history that has been freely shared on a site such as OER Commons.
First, I will briefly discuss how to find and select an online archive or database. In parts two and three of the post, I will highlight a range of databases you can use to investigate women’s voices and lives.
How to find an online archive or database
If you are doing a dissertation or research essay, the best thing to do is to talk to your supervisor, tutor, and academic subject librarian about the kind of sources you would like to find (you can get in touch with your librarian here) The specific of what you are looking for–time period, geographic location, type of source, and so on–can form keywords that help you locate your material in a search engine such as Google.
Lists and bibliographies of online resources for women’s history can be useful too, bringing together collections of sources that you might not necessarily have found with your original search. There are many of these out there–a few recommendations for places to start would be:
- Africabib.org (a collection of seven bibliographies including African Women and Women Travelers to Africa)
- WWW Virtual Library Women’s History
- Women in the National Archives (US)
- National Archives (UK): Research Guides such as the one for Women’s Suffrage
- Archival Sites for Women and Gender Studies
Women as Authors and Audiences
Online archives and databases for women’s history often focus on collecting texts written by women, and a very wide range of texts are available. I have include examples of databases of letters, diaries, and speeches to demonstrate the range of material available. Don’t forget that texts written by or on behalf of women can be found in archives that are not specifically focused on women or women’s history–I include the Cairo Genizah below as an example of this.
This database collects women’s letters written between the fourth and the thirteenth centuries. It focuses on letters which were originally written in Latin; all of the letters are translated into English, and bibliographical information as well as historical context are provided. The database includes letters written by and to women; readers can browse and search women’s biographies–you can look for specific names as well as keywords (for example ‘queen’ if you are looking for letters by royal women, ‘England’ if you are looking for letters written by women in medieval England); and you can also search the letters by title, sender, recipient, and keyword. The database’s list of resources for further research are also well worth looking at, especially for BA and MA dissertation students.
Diaries provide a writer’s personal views on her lives, times, and experiences. Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901), was prolific diarist throughout her life and excerpts of journals in her own handwriting, as well as transcripts by her daughter Princess Beatrice and others, survive. The journals are fully searchable, with separate sections focusing on the Queen’s illustrations and sketchbooks. The journals can be browsed by year or searched for specific topics; a timeline and a series of contextual essays will help you make sense of what you find.
This site was started at Sweet Briar College, a higher education institution in the United States, after a librarian tried and failed to help a student find a speech by Gloria Steinem. The site collects speeches give by contemporary women around the world, making it a potentially significant resource not just for students of modern history, but also for anyone researching politics, science, and the arts too. The site was originally intended to collect material from 1900 to the present (it stopped adding new speeches in 2017), but does include some famous speeches of the nineteenth century too. Readers can browse the site alphabetically by the name of featured speakers or search for them directly. All lectures by female Nobel laureates are available as well. A useful page of search tips is available here.
In Judaism, a text containing the name of God cannot be thrown out or destroyed but must be buried or, if this is not possible, kept in a sacred storeroom called a genizah. The Jewish community of Fustat (Old Cairo), in Egypt, put their documents, letters, literature, medical treatises account books, and more in such a storeroom between the ninth and the nineteenth century, with the result that students and scholars today have access to some 300,000 manuscripts which shed light on aspects of eastern Mediterranean economic, social, and cultural life. The website linked above will take you to the 18,000+ of these manuscripts which have been digitized by the University of Cambridge Library. The manuscripts can be searched by keyword; a search for ‘women’ comes up with over 2,000 texts, including letters written to or by women. A catalog summary of each text is available but not all texts have been transcribed or translated, so you may want to use the bibliography search here to help focus on texts available in translation.
Evidence of Women’s Lives
This section of the post discusses collections of documents, images, and resources for the study of women’s lives in different periods of history. Some websites focus on collecting as wide a range of sources as possible–Diotoma and the Internet History Sourcebook are good examples of this. Others, such as the Proceedings of the Old Bailey of the Women’s Library, focus on materials having to do with particular periods, places, and archives.
This database was designed to provide interdisciplinary resources for scholars and students interest in women and gender in the ancient world (Greece, Rome, and Egypt), and also to provide a space for teachers of these subjects to collaborate. An anthology of translated texts provides a range of materials originally written in Greek, Latin, and Egyptian. The bottom of the page has links to translated sources on other sites and these is a separate anthology focused on Ancient Rome. Some of these are focused specifically on women and gender, and some are not; in the case of the latter you are given suggestions for how to locate material on women. If you are interested in art and material culture, there is a long list of digital collections and exhibits, including specific ones such as Empresses on Roman Coins. Don’t miss the bibliography since it contains a wide range of suggestions for further reading on topics such as sexuality, women in art, and many more.
Interested in the lives of non-elite women? This database contains 197,000+ records of trials held at the London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. A video guide provides a video and text overview of getting started looking for records you are interested in, and a specific page on searching takes you through the different ways you can look for material to answer your research question. To make sense of the records you find, there is an extremely useful page which helps put proceedings and associated records in context. If you are researching female criminals or defendants, definitely have a look at the historical background essay ‘Gender in the Proceedings‘. It provides context on eighteenth and nineteenth century gender roles and valuable suggestions for how to carry out searches to find what you are looking for.
The Internet History Sourcebook from Fordham University in the United States is divided into sections by period and by theme; one of the themes it focuses on in particular is women’s history. Unlike the period-specific sections of the database, the women’s history section includes both contextual essays covering different regions and time periods, before proceeding to translated or original texts from ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, and so on. The database is organised by theme, organizing texts by their focus on ‘great women’ (members of the political, social, and cultural elite), women’s oppression, and women’s agency. An easy way to find what you are looking for is through browsing the texts available by time period and geographic area. Since the Internet History sourcebook focuses primarily on texts which are out of copyright (before 1923) or for which copies are permitted, you will likely want to look for more recent scholarship and translations to supplement what you find here.
If you are interested in suffrage and women’s history in the nineteenth century, this site will be one of your first ports of call. Founded in 1926, what was then called the The Library for the London Society for Women’s Service had two goals: to provide resources for women entering public life, and to keep materials related to the history of the women’s movement. The library includes archives, objects, and printed material such as posters and rare books. Its collections focus on the UK, with some material from the Commonwealth. The collections are housed at the London School of Economics–a catalog of the archives and objects can be found here and for the book collection you can search the main library catalogue.
There is a range of online resources–curator Dr Gillian Murphy blogs regularly about the collection, including ‘how to’ posts such as this one, which offers suggestions for getting started researching a suffragette relative. The Women’s Library Album contains photographs and images related to the history of suffrage and the Digital Library offers a timeline and selection of digitised printed materials (books, pamphlets, magazines, and journals), archives, and objects. A Google Arts and Culture page showcases a series of digitised objects, banners, and documents, and exhibits which tell the stories of particular women, like Rosa May Billinghurst, or themes and events such as the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Pilgrimage.
As March comes to an end, we hope you have enjoyed this series of posts on researching women’s history and will continue to come back to it as a resource for your investigations of women’s lives in the past. If there is a database, online archive, sourcebook, or other resource you would recommend that we have neglected to mention, please tell us about it in the comments!