What's Cooking in Women's History: An Introductory Guide to Preserving Archival Records about Women // Review

By Melnyk, Olenka | Resources for Feminist Research, Spring/Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

What's Cooking in Women's History: An Introductory Guide to Preserving Archival Records about Women // Review


Melnyk, Olenka, Resources for Feminist Research


Women's historian Gerda Lerner recently completed her major study, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, in which she shows how women--in what she calls the "prehistory of women," the millenia leading up to today--have not been validated for the writing they have done. In fact, women have had to prove anew in each generation that they had a right to their own thought and that "their thought might be rooted in a different experience and different knowledge" from accumulated male thought and writing.(f.1) Such constant struggle for basic recognition and validation has stifled creativity and effectively silenced women.

Yet some women did express themselves and we have heard them, especially in the past decade or two as women's historians have combed through the scanty record our foremothers left and have raised their voices out of the past. Most often, the record women left is far from traditional, and other more traditional records are now being researched in nontraditional ways. Women's historians have used, rather creatively, women's own records from recipe books to letters between female friends as well as official records like municipal police records and federal government files on World War II, not to mention other media records like photographs and tape recordings. Piece by piece, record by record, women's historical experiences are being stitched together. More than being integrated into the existing official histories, women finally have their own valid, and often very different, story to tell.

Known records about women are nevertheless relatively few and often are not organized properly or inaccessible for other reasons. In 1978 in Archivaria, the journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, Canadian women's historian Veronica Strong-Boag issued the plea for commitment from all sectors of the historical community to gather information on the historical experience of women in Canada, and to do so in an organized, concerted fashion: to ignore this plea would keep Canadian history in the back woods and incomplete.(f.2) Strong-Boag's article has been quoted many times over the years and its plea is just as important today for the historical community, particularly professional archivists, as it was a decade and a half ago.

Over the years, other contributors to Archivaria have echoed and pushed Strong-Boag's arguments further. Diane Beattie showed how Canadian women's historians have only minimally used archival sources to do their research on women, partly because traditional finding aids do not highlight women in the record and partly because archivists have not acquired adequate documentation on the subject of women in the first place. Susan Mann suggested that women would continue to be part of the woodwork of archives if specialized finding aids were not created to make women stand out. In a similar vein, Danielle Lacasse stated that federal government records, while containing a wealth of information about women and women's place in the Canadian social fabric, simply do not reflect this richness with the current tools available. (f.3) Johanne Pelletier and Sharon Larade were concerned that, in describing records, archivists be sensitive to the politics of language. Sheila Powell encouraged archivists to document the subject of sexuality in Canada. Marlene Epp, in an article on records on women in church society, wrote that non-traditional sources such as oral histories, photographs, and recipe books should be preserved for use by historians to lift these women out of a buried past. Referring to American historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, Sharon Cook noted that women's discourse is different and the record they have left is very different; she implicitly encouraged the analysis of their unique documentation. (f.4)

Although these authors collectively argue that the job is not done, there have been commendable efforts by diligent women to address these lacunae over the years. …

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