Saving our HERstory

Saving our HERstory

OxFam Newsletter July 2012

These last fifty years have seen the explosive growth of the global women’s movement as women around the world have challenged societal perceptions and restrictions about being a woman. We who have been part of the movement or have studied and recorded women’s actions know all about the amazing activities that, in aggregate, produced this most important social movement of the last century.

But will our daughters know?

We recall how rural women hugged trees to protect their forests and how village women clanged their pots and pans outside huts when a husband was beating his wife to shame him. We repeat the amazing story about how isolated rural Korean women were required by their government to meet monthly to receive birth control pills, and how the resultant consciousness raising slowly opened up their world view, which culminated in their daring to take a train trip to distant religious shrines.

We laugh in admiration at the courage of Kenyan women who stopped harvesting coffee until the co-ops let them control their income and pay their children’s school fees. Research showed that the co-ops paid the property owner — the men – for the crop, unlike the marketing boards which paid the worker. The payment system was changed. Research also proved that women with access to shelter are more able to confront patriarchal control over their lives, resist domestic violence, and accumulate assets for their family.

We know this. But do our daughters know? Will our granddaughters wonder how this societal shift came about? It is critical that we save the story of our struggles. If we women do not, who will?

Materials documenting these tremendous changes are essential to show future generations the global reach of activism and to illustrate the incredible variety of resistance and action. Otherwise, the herstory of the movements will be written as the actions of a few prominent women in the UN. Historians have preferred to write about great men or wars, neglecting the lives of ordinary people. Women’s studies have begun to address this myopia. But future generations need better information to project a clear picture of our accomplishments.

The archive imperative

Two events triggered my concern about preserving our herstory. The first happened in 1970 in Washington, DC, when a consulting group that had completed several contracts documenting development assistance to women in Asia, suddenly went broke. They dumped all their reports and documents and even books into the trash. I knew how extensive their materials were because I had worked for three months on one of their projects. I phoned several other organisations, but none were interested in collections on women.

Then in 1982, one of the first projects of the newly formed National Council for Research on Women (NCRW) was the creation of a Thesaurus on terms used in women’s studies. As a member of the committee, alongside several librarians, I kept mentioning international concepts; finally I was asked to start a separate committee. The feminist librarians brought to my attention the lack of women’s archives available at both national and international level. I became a vocal convert, chairing a committee on the topic, and holding sessions at many professional conferences.

I have edited two books that collected stories written by activist women themselves, explaining how they became involved, and talking about their accomplishments. Women in Washington: Advocates for Public Policy came out in 1983, as the climate for change was cooling. In 2004, Arvonne Fraser and I collected 27 memoirs of women from 12 countries telling about their role in the global women’s movement in Developing Power: How Women Transformed International Development. I asked all these authors what plans they had for saving their herstory; in the latter book we included this information for each author. Several had deposited materials in the Princeton University Library, but no records were yet available because their collections remained in boxes. Unless you have an extraordinary collection, it is essential that your donation of materials is accompanied by funds.

Twice, as I moved homes, I found an interested library for my collections. In 1989, when I retired from the University of California, at Berkeley, I sent the entire collection from the Equity Policy Center (of which I was Founder and Director) to the University of Illinois Champaign/Urbana; Berkeley was not interested. I moved my personal materials to Portland, Oregon, so when I moved out of a large house to an apartment in 2010, I was confronted with this large quantity of accumulated documents: seven filing cabinets in the basement, and several more in my office. I asked Susan McElrath, Archivist at American University in Washington, DC, (which now houses the collection of my papers) for advice. She wrote:

I always recommend donating the documents that provide evidence of the who, what, where, when, how, and why. For organisations, the obvious choices are correspondence, minutes, photographs, publications, reports, and speeches. For membership organisations, this would include membership rosters, brochures, recruitment tools, and so on. For individuals, this might include field and travel notes, diaries, correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and speeches.

Documenting your organisation

In my experience, activist women rarely have time to write up what they and their organisations are doing, though most hope to do so at some time in the future. So you keep those boxes of files in the back closet, but use only when pressed to write a proposal for funds or stories for a new brochure. But mostly the piles of papers just sit. Then the leadership changes, or the organisation runs its course, and you wonder if you should just throw them out. You probably think you have nothing of importance to put into an archive. You are wrong.

Some future scholar will want to know who started the organisation; a group or an individual. What were the original goals, and have they changed over time? Who funded the original group, and did this support change as the organisation grew? Budgets and sources of funds indicate where community women found support: foundations, development agencies, women’s organisations, or local people.
If the organisation has members, data about them is crucial. Minutes of Board meetings will show the debates over programmes and directions. Keep everything!

Saving research materials

Scholars always collect more information during their interviews or field observation, than they utilise the first time round. They always think that someday they will have the time to analyse that data from years ago. Meanwhile, work on the ground may have changed their research design. Thus, documentation from scholars should include such information, as well as conference papers which may show the evolution of their thinking. Also of interest is where the research funding came from: foundations, development agencies, women’s organisations, or local people.

Materials from supporters

Much early research on developing countries is based on the articles and diaries of people living in those countries, both local and foreign. Feminists today often meet with women around the world and record their experiences about the rapid changes in women’s lives. The four United Nations World Conferences for Women provided the occasion for life-altering interactions between women from every part of the globe. All this should be documented as well.

Build women’s archives

First, find a library that wants your materials. Usually this will be a university library where courses are taught about women around the world. For example, as mentioned earlier, my primary archive is at the American University in Washington DC. Their International Development Program includes courses on women, children, and gender relations, but also integrates women’s issues into most of their offerings. The Economics Department has perhaps the first Graduate Certificate in Gender Analysis in Economics.

If you cannot locate an interested library, start your own archives with the help from development organisations.

Second, contact the library with a general list of your collections and find out the breadth of what they will accept. Then box your files in new boxes – old cardboard boxes often split in transit – and write on each box the content you have included.

Third, send funds along with the materials you are sending to enable the librarians to process them. Otherwise the boxes may sit in the stacks for many years. The funds will pay for graduate students to read through the boxes and produce a list of “finding.” Staff reads through the files and assigns categories to each box, but does not index each file or letter. Findings are then made available on the internet so that geographical location is less important than that the archives are created.

As newer technologies digitise some of the archival materials and they become part of a global online knowledge bank, our herstory will spread even further. But for now, start collecting and boxing. And if your local university is not interested, create a women’s archive so your daughters may know what you did to further the global women’s movement!

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