“Doing research in women’s history — so what?”

I had the pleasure of doing a guest lecture in Dr. Ana Maria Garcia’s Gender in America class (at Arcadia University) this week.  It was a delight to be in the classroom with inquisitive students, who asked some insightful questions and even went along with doing some physical activity during the session.

In a talk called “Doing research in women’s history — so what?”: Connections between American Women’s Athletic Activities and Their Health,  I discussed my research about the ways historians use texts and illustrations drawn from popular culture to consider their educative function.  Articles and advertisements that appeared in American periodicals as well as other publications at the turn of the century catalogued the advantages of women’s athletic activity and its relationship to their health.

AU1Popular culture sources provided an important means of informal education for their readers.  They suggested that women would improve their health through physical exertion and could look forward to better posture and respiration as well as increased strength and endurance.  Athletic activity could also lead to an improved complexion and a pleasant appearance.  Moreover, advocates of sports for women also noted the potential benefits to society, couching their approbation in the language of race preservation.  Finally, many writers reassured their audience that physical exertion provided an important balance for mental activity, frequently citing the athletic programs at women’s colleges as proof of the viability of symmetrical development. The authors of works that appeared in the popular press, unlike some writers in the medical literature, generally painted a positive image of the effects of physical activities for women, though some counseled moderation.  Even some advertisements for clothing noted the relationship between appropriate attire and healthful activity for women. I argue that these sources suggested that women’s athletic activity had multiple benefits for their health and played an important role in the construction of the ideal of the new athletic woman.

This lecture was drawn from my larger project “‘The Winning Girl’: The New Athletic Woman in American Popular Culture, 1880 – 1920,” which explores the role played by women’s athletic activity in the transformation of gender roles to determine the connections between the construction of gender and written descriptions and illustrations of athletic women.




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Here and there in the Digital Age

I attended a very interesting lecture yesterday given by Dr. Laurence Scott, of the Arcadia London Centre, about study abroad in the digital age.  Dr. Scott made a number of key points, such as the contrast between “here” and “there” being all but erased, as we can take here with us to there.  He also noted that the many ways we can interact digitally have created a fourth dimension.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the talk was the notion that we curate ourselves in digital space, but are also curated by others, as we are, for example, tagged and retweeted.  I was also struck by the multiplicity of identities one can simultaneously have in this fourth dimension. In the space of the ten minutes running up to Dr. Scott’s lecture, I acted as an administrator, a friend, a daughter, a scholar, and a colleague – on multiple digital platforms, including email, Twitter, and Facebook.

The connections that are possible in this digital age simultaneously link and separate us.  We can acquire news and information almost instantly.  And it can seem as if we are there, because of the proximity and rapidity of others – but we are still here and they are there, yet everywhere.  For those who study and travel abroad, the sense of being connected is a comfort, but the experience is mediated and made different because of those connections.  The connections enable us to process experiences differently, as we decide what to present in which digital medium, and challenge us to engage with the present in the moment.

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Travel with students

My university has a wonderful program that allows our first-year students to spend spring break on cultural study trips abroad.  This year, Arcadia University will send nearly 400 students on seventeen courses in fifteen countries.  The students have been preparing for their trips over the course of the semester.  When they return, their experience will culminate with presentations at the Global Expo.

I am fortunate enough to be traveling with a wonderful colleague and nineteen excited students.  We will spend our week exploring British popular culture in London.  The themes we are studying include the role of sport in popular culture, the role of history, advertising, music, and everyday life.  Among the sites we will visit are the Olympic Park, the Museum of Brands, the home of Chelsea Football Club, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  I am excited to spend the week helping my students experience a place I love.

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A Flurry of Conferences and Presentations

The autumn conference season is well underway.  Last month, I presented a paper entitled “‘You and Your Career’:  Careers Advice in Co-ed Magazine, 1956- 1965” at the Gender, Race, and Representation in Magazines and New Media Conference held at Cornell March 1961-coverUniversity.  This conference followed on from the Women in Magazines Conference that took place in London in June 2012. My paper focused on the magazine’s first decade, using the “You and Your Career” column in order to consider changes and continuities in careers presented in the pages of Co-ed.   It also considered other career-related pieces that appeared elsewhere in the magazine. The paper examined how various careers were represented as well as what advice was given about how to train for particular careers.

I was fortunate to be able to present a seminar for the Centre for the History of Women’s Education at the University of Winchester in November.  Our evening spent considering “Co-ed Magazine: A Source of Informal Education for 1950s American Teenagers,” was filled with fruitful discussion and convivial conversation, especially as we were able to examine copies of some issues of the magazine.

GraceCoverNext up is a trip to Exeter, United Kingdom for the UK History of Education Society annual meeting.  At that conference, my research colleague Stephanie Spencer and I will present “Professionalism in the Ranks:  Learning about Teaching and School Leadership in British and American Schoolgirl Stories.” We are using a British and an American series of schoolgirl stories to consider these works as sources of informal education for their readers about what teaching might be like as a career. In this paper, we highlight how authors detailed the characteristics associated with successful and not so successful teachers within schoolgirl fiction, focusing on the Chalet School books written by Eleanor Brent-Dyer and the Grace Harlowe high school series written by Jessie Graham Flower.

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Reflections on Mary Lyon and Mountain Day

MHC-MountainDayI spent this past weekend at Mount Holyoke College, my alma mater, at an Alumnae Association workshop.  Walking around the campus, I was struck,  as always, by its beauty and by how fortunate I had been to be able to attend this extraordinary college.  Founded by the redoubtable Mary Lyon in 1837, Mount Holyoke has always provided the opportunity for women to pursue higher education, often when social and economic conditions were not favorable.  Mary Lyon willed Mount Holyoke into being, raising funds to open her female seminary, designing the curriculum, and hiring the faculty.  She insisted that students walk for an extended period every day, to maintain good health, and that they share responsibility for some of the domestic duties.  The institution thrived and remains one of the leaders in higher education for women; it is a beacon in that landscape.


This morning, I received an email from the Alumnae Association, declaring that it was Mountain Day.  Although I am many years removed from my undergraduate days, those two words still carry a thrill.  On Mountain Day, the college chapel’s bells ring and ring, proclaiming the day, on which all academic activities are suspended and the college community is encouraged to enjoy a day out of doors.  Many students walk to nearby Mt. Holyoke and climb to its summit.  Mountain Day offers a chance to pause and to reflect.  Although I won’t be climbing any mountains today, I will still take a moment to reflect on my good fortune and on women like Mary Lyon who have made history.

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Midsummer musings

As the summer races by more quickly than I’d like, I’ve been working on three projects.  The first is reading the six books in the Grace Harlowe overseas series, in which the lead character and her friends serve in various volunteer capacities in France during WW1.  This reading is in preparation for writing the abstract, then the paper, for next summer’s International Standing Conference in the History of Education, which has the theme of ‘Education, War and Peace’. It has been fascinating to read about very familiar characters placed in equally unfamiliar settings. I am also reading through multiple issues of Co-ed magazine, which began publication in the 1950s and was designed to be of interest to ‘Career Girls and Homemakers of Tomorrow.’  There are several projects involving this magazine afoot.  Finally, I am writing a new chapter for my manuscript about images of athletic American women in late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  I also need to rewrite the introduction, in light of many recent sporting events, and send it on for review.

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Women’s History in a Digital World

The following paragraphs are excerpted from a paper I gave on 22 March 2013, entitled Womens-History-in-the-Digital-World-Conference-POSTER“What’s it all about, Alfie?:  conducting research in a digital age – Sensuality, Serendipity, and Sources.”  The paper was part of the Women’s History in a Digital World conference held at Bryn Mawr College under the auspices of the Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education.  This material must be cited and may not be reproduced without my permission.


There is something about the smell of dust in the archives that represents research.  Learning to negotiate the physical space of the archives is a rite of passage for historians and remains an essential part of “what we do.” I am sure that all of us remember our early experiences doing archival research–the mysterious soft lighting, the smell of old paper, the gloves required to examine photographs, and yes, the dust of elderly pages– all of our senses engaged in the process of research.  There is a certain sensual allure to the archives and we can hardly deny the attractions of archival research.

Yet there are negative features as well–the distances we must travel to access materials and the costs of getting there, the restrictions that must be imposed on handling rare materials, not having the requisite pencil for note taking, the inaccessibility of key sources, the limited hours.  All of obstacles to research frustrate the historian, and the increasing availability of digital collections certainly helps to reduce some of the challenges inherent in research.  Does utility trump sensuality? Does working with digital sources change the way we interact with them?

The ability to find, to record, to access, to connect, to explore massive numbers and kinds of sources has changed the way we practice history.  Digital projects make women’s stories accessible to those who would never have had the reason or resources to work in an archive.  As we embrace the richness and range of what is available to us, we need to think carefully about how and whether access to digital archives and other sources will change the way we practice history and how we need to refine our skills and training to use such sources appropriately and effectively.

One aspect of research that may be lost with increasing reliance on digital archives is the sense of serendipity and discovery as one works diligently through a box of folders.  Not knowing what is there and what may be found is part of the allure of archival research.  The box next to the one that looked so promising may actually yield better results.  Consider for a moment the changes emerging technologies have made in how we access a source as simple as a letter.  Initially, transcripts of letters were published online, providing access to the text, but simultaneously losing some of the historical sense of the letter – what the writing looked like, how this particular letter related to others in the archive.  Scanning technologies provide us with the actual appearance of the letter and the 3-D imaging that is now available augments that interaction.  Despite technological innovations, we are still distant from the actual source, leading to a different kind of intimacy with our materials.  We look at the same object, but do we do so in the same way? The result may be similar in the way that we write about the letter, but is the experience of doing research the same . . . and does that matter?

As historians, especially as historians of women, we try to shine a light on the past and discover what we can about those who lived it.  Digital technologies offer many advantages as we pursue our craft, but we need to reflect on how changing practices influence and shape how we work as historians.


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