Blog Post

Why gender/women’s history needs to go digital


Cross posted by my blog, 

At the Women’s History in the Digital World conference there was much discussion of how digital humanities seems to developing in ways that exclude gender.  As I blogged, the conference felt like what I imagine the first Berks must have been like, an exciting beginning.  However, underlying it all was a persistent thread of concern that gender (and other aspects of identity, although gender was the primary one mentioned) was getting left behind.  As one participant opined during the opening plenary, it was like all the hard work done in the past to open up space for women in historical narratives had never occurred.  
Without Big Data, How will we answer big questions?
Large scale digitization of archives has the potential to push historians of gender beyond the usual historical subjects found in the usual locations. Presenting history digitally can help us to share with the public more than “exceptional women” in history.  For that to happen though, massive amounts of labor need to be dedicated to creating digital archives, writing code to get what we want out of these archives, and encouraging historians of gender, who are mostly women still, to go into what is often perceived as a male-dominated field.
Copyright is not our sole barrier
I'm hopeful that it isn't too late for gender history.  However  some significant barriers still exist.  For example, a few weeks ago atPhillyDH, I prepared to lead a workshop on AntConc.  Due to computer logistics at Penn, I had a hard time accessing the corpus I wanted to use to demonstrate AntConc.  I needed to quickly grab a large body of texts from the internet.  What are my options?  As a historian, I don't really want a lit source.  That already limits me.  If I don't want texts by Euro-American men, I'm also facing fewer choices.  
In fact large scale digital archives for history in easily accessible downloadable formats are no where near as available as lit sources are for a variety of reasons, including the rules of holding archives and restrictions on access to individual collections.  Even in archives that have been able to digitize significant amounts of their holdings, off site online access is often restricted.  
NEH Digital Humanities Start Up Grants
One measure of the status of the field of digital history is to explore projects funded by the NEH Digital Humanities Start up grants
history is well represented.  Of the 98 projects listed, history is contained in the project field of 13,

 with project field including history in X, and many more projects include history in their description.

Plenty of evidence for the "4 Ps" of digital history (what Trevor Owens calls the four flavors, reading him caused me to add my 4th P programming) which will obviously provide useful models and tools for historians of gender
programming for history: Encoding Financial Records for Historians, Digital Video Navigation and Archival Content Management Tools for Non-linear Oral History Narratives, Prosop a social networking tool for the Past)
presenting history: Mobile Historical, Omeka Audio, Journey Beyond the Fair 
preserving history:  transcribing the menus of the NYPL
producing history: Untangling the Web of Historical Thinking, Campus Services to Support Historians
In terms of projects that focus on gender history? Two!  The game Desperate Fishwives and an application, Fort Vancouver Mobile, that seeks to expand its offerings to cover gender.    The situation is marginally better for race with four funded projects: Traveling While Black, Pathways to Freedom, and Representing Early Black Film Artifacts, Remixing Race.  As far as I can tell, no projects deal specifically with sexuality at all. 

At Women's History in the Digital World, the takeaway message was clear.  We need to support one another in efforts to secure funding for projects that will produce now, while the field is developing, projects based on gender in all areas of digital history.   

I'm hopeful that the new online group created by Sharon Leon following the recent That camp Prime  will facilitate this.  The work of CHNM seems most central right now in the future of digital gender history.  Not only do they produce Omeka and Zotero, but they also employ lots of women in powerful positions.  I've been so impressed by the programming work of their graduate students working on gender, check out Jeri Wierenga  and Erin Bush, for some inspiration and hope for the future of gender and digital history. 
*  the field "humanities" (n=21) dwarfs all others, as would be expected in this grant category, and obviously historians will benefit from many of these projects. For comparison, Literature contained in 7 project fields.

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