Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources

 Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry, eds.

Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010

Reviewed by Traci Yoder

Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources examines the role of archival materials in the creation of feminist histories. In this volume, contributors analyze various archival sources to determine what kinds of information they can yield about women and gender historically, even when the materials themselves were not meant to preserve women’s lives and experiences. By emphasizing the practice of recovering knowledge, these authors highlight the various strategies available for interpreting these sources.  Drawing on court records, criminal proceedings, prison documents, indigenous language sources, newspapers and manuscript collections, state sponsored magazines, travel narratives, and oral histories, these essays show the layers of interpretation and interrogation required to find women in the historical record.


The main theoretical argument of this collection is that archives are not neutral repositories of information, but rather sites where knowledge is actively produced by historians. While this argument, drawn from postmodern critiques of archival research, is not particularly novel, the major contribution of this anthology to historical and feminist literatures is methodological. Each chapter shows in detail the complex methods feminist historians must utilize to analyze archives in which women’s lives and voices are obscured. These methodological strategies includes “researching around” particular documents, reading materials “against the grain,” weaving layers of information, looking for subtexts and silences, and using knowledge of context and historiography to situate the archives. In cases where the historical record did not provide adequate materials, these researchers created alternative archives using oral histories, ethnographic methods, and other sources of evidence located outside of conventional repositories.


Contesting Archives is organized into three sections. In Part 1, Locating Women in Official Documents, the authors use government and church records to elucidate the lives of women in different times and places. By carefully examining documents and placing them in historical context, these chapters reconstruct moments in the lives of a Muslin slave woman interrogated by the Inquisition in early modern Spain, a young orphan attempting to marry an older man in 19th century Mexico, a lower class Italian immigrant woman on trial for theft in 19th century Tunis, and an African American domestic worker accused of infanticide in Philadelphia in the early 20th century.  Taken together, these historical case studies show the rigorous methodological strategies required to analyze the glimpses of women found in archival sources.


In Part 2 of the book, Integrating Varied Sources Found Inside and Outside Official Archives, the authors contend that it is possible to weave together fragmented and partial materials to form a picture of women’s lives.  Although interpretation of sources is complicated when documents are not complete or historiographic information is limited, the authors show that it is not impossible to find evidence of women’s voices and actions in these records. The chapters draw on multiple sources and methods to examine the lives of Native American women in colonial Mexico, radical women in Progressive-Era California, working women in Communist Poland, African American women in the Marcus Garvey movement, late 19th century Bengali nationalist women in India, and women from the Qajar period in Iran. While the first part of the book focuses mainly on the lives of individual women, most of the essays in this section expand their analysis to discuss broader groups of women and the role of women in larger social movements.


The final section, Creating Women’s History Archives, shows the creative possibilities of constructing new archives from personal and organizational records as well as oral histories.  Joanne Goodwin’s chapter describes the Las Vegas Women Oral History Project, an archival and oral history endeavor designed to achieve a more complete understanding of working women’s experiences in this fast growing city after 1945. Kathleen Sheldon’s piece also uses oral histories from women in Mozambique to construct a picture of their lives. As Sheldon argues, creating historical evidence is particularly important in the case of Africa, where written archives are especially limited.


Contesting Archives is successful in showing the creative methodological strategies that allow feminist historians to reconstruct women’s lives through fragmented and incomplete records. This collection will be valuable for readers interested in historiography and women and gender studies. The accessible language and practical case studies make this volume a good choice for undergraduate classes. However, the specific examples showing how researchers have engaged these archives will also be useful for more experienced archivists and historians.


Traci Yoder has a M.A. in Anthropology and a M.S. in Library and Information Studies. She is the archivist for the Association for Feminist Anthropology

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