Digital History

Review: Women and Social Movements International, 1840 to the Present

In 2003, just as I was getting to the final stages of my doctoral dissertation on women in the student movements of sixties America, Alexander Street Press published Kathryn Kish Sklar’s and Thomas Dublin’s superb co-edited reference database containing 60,000 documents relating to Women in Social Movements in the United States. This was three years too late, as far as I was concerned. In the years since, I have had several opportunities to browse through that database, which is organized in a way that connects sets of full-text primary documents with interpretative essays by leading and emerging scholars. Offered on a subscription only basis to libraries, it is a superb resource for researching and teaching social and political change in the US from the colonial period to the present.

Screenshot of the Women and Social Movements, International website
Screenshot of the Women and Social Movements, International website

It is not surprising, then, that Dublin and Kish Sklar’s second major reference database is equally impressive. Teaming up again with Alexander Street Press, their Women and Social Movements – International (WASMI) provides access to 150,000 pages of primary sources relating to women’s international activism since 1840. Broadly speaking, the material falls into three categories: proceedings of international conferences relating to women’s activism, individuals’ documentation of their international activities, and more personal documents like diaries, letters and memoirs. Most of the material is in English, with only about seven per cent in other languages. Reflecting the heavy focus on Latin-American activist groups, and the importance of organizations based in Europe, the bulk of the foreign language material is in Spanish and French, with some sources in German. About half of the documents originate from outside the United States and illustrate the political activities of women across the globe, but there is nevertheless a bias towards documenting the ways that American women interacted with international women’s movements. Given the ambitious scope of the project, it is perhaps inevitable that the emphasis would fall closer to the editors’ research interests. But there is definitely potential for further additions to the database, and with continued collaboration with the army of scholars, librarians and technicians already connected to the project, the database could continue to expand in revised editions.

In technical terms, the archive represents an extraordinary achievement. Materials were sourced from over 250 libraries in the US and abroad, with much of it still under copyright. Using Zotero as their main bibliographic tool, researchers collected data from an impressive range of sources. A large proportion of the material has been scanned in searchable (via Optical Character Recognition) format, and it is possible to download and store many of the files as PDFs. In his explanatory essay, ‘Constructing the Women and Social Movements, International Archive’ (2010), Thomas Dublin explains the difficulties the editors encountered in preparing non-English and handwritten documents for the database. As their OCR software was English-specific, the solution was to prepare searchable abstracts for the other sources. The result is a very user-friendly database, which can be browsed by subject, people, place, organization and theme, or can be searched by specific terms.

Possibly the most interesting tool offered within the database is the ‘playlists’ function. This allows individual users and institutions to build personalized collections around specific themes. Playlists can include any of the sources available in the database, including images, videos, clips, and documents. Users can annotate, edit, copy, and share playlists. It is easy to imagine how this would facilitate collaboration and conversation between researchers, or how this would become useful in organizing materials for classroom use, or for students to engage in self-directed research.

Also useful for teaching are the twenty-five scholarly essays, which draw together the major themes of the database. These contributions from leading scholars, including Leila J. Rupp, Eileen Boris, and Nancy F. Cott, highlight specific organizations and movements whose papers make up significant sections of the archive. Hyperlinks within the essays lead users to important sources, and from there they can follow research routes through specific thematic or subject searches. Thus, while the WASMI archive is not organized around ‘document sets’ in the mode of the original US database, it offers a structured pathway through its thousands of sources while still encouraging more speculative and meandering research.

As I browsed through the collection, three highlights emerged, mostly based on my own research interests. In the first instance, I was struck by strength of the database’s holdings on women in the peace movement. In particular, collaboration with the Swarthmore College Peace Collection resulted in the retention of over eighty items relating to peace organizing in the twentieth century, including significant organizational and personal papers relating to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. As Harriet Hyman Alonso points out in her specially commissioned essay, there is still much research to do on the post-war activities of this group. One would hope that the rich collection of materials – records of International Congresses, along with personal papers and diaries – will encourage scholars to follow that route.

My second highlight is the material collated from the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, housed at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Over 400 scanned items document international women’s activism from the 1920s to the 1990s. The diversity of the papers is astonishing. The editors have included the records of the International Federation of Working Women, personal papers from activists such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Pauli Murray, and a large chunk of the reports of the Pan-Pacific and Southeast Asia Women’s Association. But other sources tell us about the canned plums sent as a gift by Elizabeth, Queen Consort, to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942, to thank American women for sending five-hundred canning units to the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in Britain. Although the bulk of the database presents access to official reports and conference proceedings, these more ephemeral items add an extra dimension to our understanding of women’s transatlantic networking. For scholars outside of the United States, the window into the Schlesinger collection will prove invaluable for prompting new research ideas and promoting the use of interesting materials in the classroom.

Finally, the International database links up with its US counterpart to present taped interviews with several activists who took part in panel discussions on the UN International Women’s Conferences, as part of the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History in 2011. Renowned activist and organizer Charlotte Bunch gave a two-hour interview about her involvement in feminist and lesbian activism since the 1960s, explaining in great detail how her activism on domestic US issues took an international turn, leading her to establish the Center for Women’s Global Leadership to lobby internationally for women’s human rights. Hers is a complex story of true internationalism, in which she acknowledges her debt to American feminism, but seeks to foster a movement that will continue to act across national borders to address gender inequality on an international scale.

In some ways, Charlotte Bunch’s story reflects the development and value of the WASMI database. Even though the roots of the project lay in US domestic women’s activism, at some point is becomes simply impossible to consider this subject area outside of an international context. By first situating the activism of American women within the international sphere, the logical continuation was to examine that international activism in its own right. While the origins of the online archive are clearly rooted in the US, the materials speak to a wide range of international activities. The top three organizations referenced in the database are the International Council of Women, the Inter-American Commission of Women, and the International Alliance of Women. In his explanatory essay on the origins of the collection, Dublin acknowledges that the database represents a ‘selective edition of published and manuscript works related to women’s international activism since 1840’. Even as a selection, though, it is remarkably comprehensive. It speaks not only to women’s activism, but presents resources for a new perspective on international relations.

Editors note: The archive is available to libraries via subscription. Pricing for academic institutions in the UK starts from £300 + VAT for annual subscription, and from £8,000 + VAT for perpetual purchase, plus an additional, annual platform fee. Pricing includes unlimited simultaneous users and includes free MARC records to aid resource discovery. Further information is available directly from Alexander Street Press.

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