Posted on behalf of Kate Ozment. EMOB is grateful to Kate Ozment, doctoral candidate, Department of English, Texas A&M University, and Co-Editor, Women in Book History Bibliography, for the following review.
In November 2016, Texas A&M University hosted a symposium titled “‘She Wrote It, But…’: Erasures, Recoveries, and the Futures of Women’s Book History.” The two-day event included a showcase of women-centered digital projects hosted by the Initiative for Digital Humanities, Media and Culture, and a panel with speakers Margaret J. M. Ezell, Helen Smith, Laura Mandell, and Michelle Levy.
The panel brought together these four scholars to imagine how the intersection of book history and women could shape the future of areas such as material culture, digital humanities, and authorship. The panel’s discussions focused on the issues that stem from gender and materiality: recovery of women, manuscript and print, the place and capabilities of digital projects contrasted against traditional scholarship, and how women fit into book history’s larger historiography. The speakers’ topics clustered geographically in England and spanned chronologically from Early Modern through Romantic. Despite the temporal breadth, there were several threads that wove together to create a picture of the prospects of women’s studies and book history: the reality of increased representation of women’s writing; the possibilities of the archive; and the opportunities that de-centering the author has created for women’s labor.
Exploring the implications of increasing women’s representation was a major theme for both Mandell and Ezell. Mandell (IDHMC at Texas A&M) asked “Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: Were There Any?” The answer is a resounding yes, despite poor representation in older editions of the Norton Anthology, and Mandell’s presentation outlined the women’s editing and reception. Women’s reputations seem to not have saved them from problematic framing, as Mandell noted that the poet Felicia Hemans was actually quite famous while she was being “forgotten.” Discussing her ongoing work with the Poetess Archive, Mandell noted the importance of digital projects in closing the gender gap for access and representation when traditional methods, such as print anthologies, have lagged behind.
This was a similar point for Ezell (Texas A&M), who offered a perspective on how the field has developed as we have increased the volume of women’s writing. Her paper, titled “I Wrote It But … What Was I Thinking?” discussed the shifts in attitude about the inclusion of women from the publication of her The Patriarch’s Wife: Literary Evidence and the History of the Family in 1987. She has seen wholly male reading lists in graduate school evolve into the multiplicity of sources offered by the Orlando Project and Perdita Manuscripts. She also emphasized the challenges that such work will face to avoid cyclical erasure. Ezell has pushed at the limits of the methods feminist scholars have used to recover women writers, and there is significant weight to her call to meld digital repositories and tools with institutionalized scholarship to preserve the longevity of this work.
The materiality of women’s writing and returning to the archive also permeated the panel, emphasized by Levy and Smith in particular. Echoing Ezell’s call to return to the archive without agenda, Levy (Simon Fraser) emphasized that women have remained under-represented in anthologies. Looking at the Romantic period in her paper titled “Why We Need a History of Women’s Books,” she argued that even as women have increased in number, in volume of pages they still lag significantly behind their male counterparts. Levy also returned to Robert Darnton’s classic communications circuit, noting that such abstract models have led to a genderless book history and the belief that bibliographic codes are separate from our gendered history. Building off of the arguments in her article, “Do Women Have a Book History?”, she noted that whereas men have occupied all areas at all times in Darnton’s circuit, women have not, and she calls for further scrutiny of this asymmetry. Often, practices common to women writers such as self-financing collapse areas of the circuit, opening up new questions for how we understand the lifecycle of texts and authorship.
Also picking up classic book history articles, Smith (York) urged us to expand our conceptions of book history scholarship and embrace the “capaciousness” of D. F. McKenzie’s sociology of the text and the ways that the de-centering of the author figure allows us to recover women’s labor. Her paper, titled “Rethinking the Miscellany,” emphasized the uniqueness and diversity of the genre and how it defies easy categorization. Women’s writing often appeared in miscellanies, a term that Smith argues is deceptively orderly for such diverse collections. As compilers and translators, women’s labor is hard to grasp through archival records, but she concludes that their persistence on the margins deserves to be conceptualized more fully.
The second half of the symposium was a Digital Project Showcase, which exhibited some of the databases and digital tools available for work in this area. In addition to demonstrations of Voyant and Gelphi, participants looked through three women-centered digital projects: the Women in Book History Bibliography, edited by Cait Coker and Kate Ozment; the Poetess Archive, edited by Mandell; and Women’s Print History Project, 1750-1836, edited by Levy. The Women in Book History Bibliography is a newer project, launching in May 2016, which collects and curates lists of secondary sources on women’s writing and labor. As of November, it has collected 600 sources organized by time period and subject. Mandell’s Poetess Archive collects work by “poetesses,” defined as category and not a biological marker of the author. The archive hosts more than 4,000 bibliographic records for the years 1750-1900. Lastly, the Women’s Print History Project is an ongoing effort to provide data on women’s participation in print through the Romantic period. All three of these projects use bibliography as a feminist intervention into book history, blending old and new methods to continue to increase access to women’s labor and print.
The symposium was organized by Laura Estill and Margaret J. M. Ezell and sponsored by the Department of English, IDHMC, Women’s and Gender Studies, Glasscock Center for Humanities Research, Early Modern Studies and New Modern British Studies Working Groups, and the Sara and John Lindsey Chair in Liberal Arts.