'Contesting Archives'

It has long been said that the winners write the history books -- but those keeping the records may also have their own agendas. How can historians reconstruct the narratives of those who may have been precluded not only from writing history, but even from being "considered legitimate subjects of history and therefore of archival collection"?

October 12, 2010

It has long been said that the winners write the history books -- but those keeping the records may also have their own agendas. How can historians reconstruct the narratives of those who may have been precluded not only from writing history, but even from being "considered legitimate subjects of history and therefore of archival collection"?

That is the question asked -- and given a myriad of potential answers -- by Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, recently released by the University of Illinois Press. It is edited by Nupur Chaudhuri, professor of history at Texas Southern University; Sherry J. Katz, lecturer of history at San Francisco State University; and Mary Elizabeth Perry, formerly adjunct professor of history at Occidental College -- each of whom also contributed an essay to the book.

Inside Higher Ed interviewed the three editors by e-mail to learn more about the practice and significance of "contesting archives."

Q: Why is it important for women's historians to "contest" archives? What is entailed by this?

Chaudhuri: As historians, we all have to consult archives. When I started to work on women's history, I hardly found any primary sources on them, unless they were famous women. Most of these women, if they were married, were subsumed under their husbands’ or fathers’ papers. The entire world was viewed from a male perspective. Naturally, questions came to my mind: Who were these people collecting these papers, and how did they categorize these papers? I felt that if I were to write history based on those available sources, then I would perpetuate the same male worldview... . To my mind, “contesting the archives” means to insist that archivists include more material on women and categorize them differently so that women become more visible to the future generation of women’s history scholars. It is also to make women’s history scholars aware of the shortcomings of most of the archives of the present day.

Perry: When we “contest archives,” we question them, look for more, ask why they are presenting some information but not other kinds of information. As historians, we are usually trained to feel a great deal of respect for archives — after all, they provide our raw material for writing history! Yet to merely respect them means we settle for the often superficial and self-serving. To simply accept them with their limitations cuts off so many possibilities for learning more about the past and creating more diverse archives. In contesting archives, we insist upon the importance of contextualizing historical records. We want to know why these particular records were archived and others were not. We want to know, what was the power context in which they were recorded and saved? We also want to open up the idea of an “archive” to be more than certain records saved by an official institution. Expanded and newly created archives offer rich data for learning more about women in the past. Consider, for example, those that gather women’s magazines, material remnants of their lives, written or recorded oral histories, letters, photographs, arts and crafts. In a very real sense, “contesting archives” means refusing to be content working with limited official records of a very dead past.

Q: Does contesting archives imply a specific agenda?

Katz: Contesting archives does not imply a specific agenda, although historians who have challenged archival “neutrality” and “objectivity” have often been interested in studying peoples marginalized in traditional archival collecting and in traditional history writing, including women. The entire process of contesting archives enables historians to research those often neglected subjects of historical study. So in that that sense I suppose we have an agenda: to document groups who have been traditionally neglected in both archival collecting and history writing, a goal which was first articulated by the social historians of the 1960s and 1970s. Contesting archives can be seen, then, as a product of modern historical approaches, from social history to postmodernism.

Q: One idea that crops up repeatedly in the book is that of "reading against the grain." What exactly does that mean?

Chaudhuri: When I research or teach, I usually ask the following questions: “Who is speaking for whom, and what are they saying?” Raising these simple questions allows me to read “against the grain,” and to go beyond my own preconceived notions and make me an objective historian.

Perry: I first came across this very important concept when reading an essay by feminist critic Annette Kuhn. It truly startled me, as it seemed to encourage me to expect more than surface meanings in records that I read. It gave me permission to become aware off the empty spaces in a document and ask what was not being written or who was not being heard. It convinced me that the silences in a document and the words not spoken are integral and meaningful parts of the document.

“Reading against the grain” quite simply means that we read historical records critically, looking especially at the power context in which it was written and the power motivations of those who wrote the document. We contextualize documents as we read them so that we can probe more to learn what the document is not saying and why.

Q: "Even when women are not missing from the archives," the book's introduction states, "reconstructing their lives and voices presents many methodological challenges." How and why is this the case?

Katz: The contributors to our volume faced many methodological challenges, even when their subjects were not missing from the archives. For me, the primary challenge lay in the fragmented nature of my subjects’ representation in the archives. Since Progressive Era California socialist-feminists left few manuscript collections behind in archives, I had to find traces of them in many other types of materials (including newspaper accounts, government documents, and the collections of mainstream reformers), and then to reconstruct their activism from those threads. Another difficulty was posed by the “disembodied” quality of the materials I mined, sources which lacked biographical or personal information. I therefore had a particularly challenging time in reconstructing my subjects’ personal lives or the relational aspects of their activism.

Perry: Many of the documents I read in Spanish archives present women, but they usually identify them as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, or grandmothers — rarely as human beings with a life story. Moreover, many of the legal records and Inquisition documents contain cases involving women, but the women’s testimony is given in a situation in which they must speak very carefully to save their own lives and interests. Our challenge is to interpret why they are speaking the words that are reported without further distorting what their intentions may have been.

It is tempting to analyze the words we find in order to promote a life story that is exciting and shows a woman as an active agent in history. However, most of the women I study in Spanish history had to survive in a patriarchal society. The records about them present them as objects of concern, whether legal, moral, or spiritual. The challenge, then, is to find out more about them as subjects who make decisions and take action.

Q: How is it possible for a historian to "recover female agency and subjectivity from sources that treat women largely as objects" (another idea from the introduction)? Does this present a particular danger that the historian will read his or her own motivations or perspectives into the history?

Perry: Subjectivity is always a concern when we care so much about the topic we are researching and the people we are finding in the documents. Clearly, we historians want to respect the people and cultures that we are researching. We try to do this by being very aware of our own interests in telling a story about people in the past. I make a conscious effort to separate my own agenda from how the story is unfolding from the records I have read, and I especially look for complexities and nuances in these records that cannot be interpreted completely in line with my interests.

In writing about Fatima, the slave woman presented in an essay in this book, I would have loved to find a way to see her as a heroine, but the document shows that she is actually more of a victim. The only way I could stand writing about her was to see that she was presenting an important example for how we can write about disempowered people and look for the unexpected ways they developed some power, established their own identities, and played active roles in history.

Q: How do the essays you contributed to this volume illustrate the work and importance of contesting archives?

Chaudhuri: I used Krishnobhabini Das’s travel narrative, Englande Bangamohila (A Bengali Lady in England) as an archival source to depict her nationalism and feminism. To describe her life history, I used her travel narrative, poems, and obituary notice. Thus I have created an alternative archive, and in this way I have contested the commonly held concept of the archives. In this essay I have tried to tell other historians that to get information on women, they have to look into different sorts of sources and create their own archives of information.

Katz: Because California socialist-feminists left few of their own records behind in official archives, my way of contesting the archives involved mining records generated by others in which my subjects appeared. This involved reading against the grain records that did find a home in official archives (socialist newspapers, manuscript collections of individuals or organizations with whom socialist women collaborated), and other materials housed in university libraries but not in their archives (mainstream newspapers). When we research radical women (or any women who left behind few of their own records) it is absolutely essential to contest the archives by mining all possible documents that hold traces of their lives, even those generated by others who may have been hostile to their interests. This means reading many different types of materials held in official archives against the grain and looking beyond the archives for other sources to redefine as archival materials.

Q: What are your goals for this volume? Who is your intended audience, and what do you hope they'll get from it?

Katz: Our book came out of a conference roundtable focused on research methodologies in women’s history at the [American Historical Association]. These presentations were then revised into articles for the Journal of Women’s History’s “History Practice” section. After we completed these articles, we began, at Nupur’s suggestion, to envision a larger project that would demonstrate many diverse and innovative ways of researching women in history. We found very few discussions of methodology in the women’s history literature, and we hoped that our volume would contribute to a more vibrant conversation regarding methodology among women’s historians. But we see our audience as broader – including scholars and students from other disciplines who are interested in women and gender. We hope that our volume might make its way into courses designed to teach historical methodologies to advanced undergraduate and graduate students. We also hope that the volume will provide all of these audiences with useful methodologies to incorporate into their own research projects and will engender more creative thinking about how to contest the archives.


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