Roundtable Seeing the Archive as an Artifact of Community: Fresh Approaches to Women’s History

AHA Session 51
Coordinating Council for Women in History 5
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Missouri Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Sherry J. Katz, San Francisco State University

Session Abstract

Communities of all kinds create archives.  An archive is thus a subjective, culturally constructed, and historically contingent outcome hinging on the values by which a community assigns meaning to experience at a given moment in time.  Values mediate the way an archive records and transmits knowledge about a community’s past.  Hence the form and composition of an archive –what it contains, what it excludes, and how it is organized- expresses the mores of whoever creates it, and of whoever maintains it.  Moreover, patriarchal customs common to communities through time and around the world forge archives that privilege men’s voices, and marginalize those of women.  For the historian, recovering women’s experiences requires understanding the archive as an artifact, one imprinted by the normative role of gender in a community.  That understanding poses interpretive challenges calling for innovative methodological responses.  Proceeding from the idea that “communities make archives,” the archive should be construed as a category of analysis, and added to the inventory of others traditionally deployed by women’s historians (gender, race, class, and more recently stage of life).  Finding that women’s voices and their texts were often obscured or lost altogether, the participants in the proposed session have developed new methodologies to “challenge the archive” by seeing it as an artifact of community.  They uncover more evidence by reading documents “against the grain,” and in one case by creating an archive, weaving together many layers of information to reveal complexities, and to reconstruct women’s lives in the past.  Through addressing questions of women’s history and historical method, the proposed session will speak to the interests of a broad audience.

The session will involve a roundtable discussion concerning the efforts of a diverse group of historians who reconstruct women’s experiences by deconstructing the archive and its intersection with community.  Their work engages women in the nineteenth- and twentieth centuries, from Mexico, Tunisia, Angola, and the United States.  Daniel Haworth reveals a subtext of female agency in a set of documents penned by male officials in provincial Mexico in 1854, describing the emancipation of Petra Fernández so that she could marry against the wishes of her guardian.  From a trial record written in a hybrid of Arabic and Italian, Julia Clancy Smith maps the intersection of gender, law, and legal pluralism in the world of an Italian immigrant, Giovanna Tellini, who lived in the North African port of Tunis in 1868.  Kali Grows uses court documents to show how Henrietta Cook, an African-American domestic worker accused of infanticide in early twentieth-century Philadelphia, walked a “tightrope” regarding respectability, sexuality, and reproduction.  Kathleen Sheldon explains how, to make her research possible, she created an oral history archive to preserve the perspectives and experiences of workingwomen in Mozambique in the 1980s. Each presenter will describe their unique approach to the sources; collectively, they open a fresh perspective on doing women’s history.

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