the Women's Liberation Movement, An On-Line Archival Collection
As an instructor and a historian, I am continually amazed by what can be found on the Internet. With this in mind, I have come to routinely assign a Web-related project in many of my courses as a way of highlighting the critical questions students should be asking when using Internet sources which, for better or worse, constitute the bulk of much student research done today. In 1998 I first assigned an Internet-related project in the first half of the U.S. history survey course I was then teaching at a small community college in western Massachusetts. Once ensconced in the college computer lab, I asked my students to do a basic search in Google using the term "Seneca Falls." The results indicated there were more than 14,000 "hits" that year which was, of course, the 150th anniversary of the women's rights convention held in that upstate New York community. A similar search in 2005 yielded over 900,000 "hits." But, surprisingly, a recent Google search for "women's liberation documents" yielded only a little over 200,000 hits while a more general search under "women's liberation" turned up 851,000. In both cases, the first entry was the Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement, An On-line Archival Collection maintained by Duke University, and for good reason. It is certainly the sort of website I would be pleased to have a student make use of in her research.
The Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement online collection is just a small sampling of the resources held by the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture in the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library at Duke University. On its home page, the site makes this clear and also states that the online documents presented "focus specifically on the radical origins of this movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s." Like so many such sites, the one at Duke originated as a web-based support tool for a women's history course taught in 1997 by Anne Valk (now at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville). The site also makes use of some of the material amassed by Rosalyn Baxandall and Linda Gordon for their volume, Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement (Basic Books, 2000). Eight years after its debut, the Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement online collection remains a valuable teaching tool as well as a good starting point for research into the more radicalized portions of the movement itself.
This online collection can either be searched through keywords or one can simply plunge into the various subject categories which include the "General and Theoretical," "Sexuality and Lesbian Feminism," and "Women of Color." Not surprisingly, there is repetition of some documents within categories as they readily defy simple categorization. For example, Anne Koedt's groundbreaking essay, "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm," which first appeared in Notes from the First Year (New York Radical Women, 1968) can be found under both the "General and Theoretical" and "Sexuality and Lesbian Feminism" subject categories. It should be noted that the entire Notes from the First Year as originally published in 1968 has been transcribed. It is among the many documents offered on this site that are now considered classic statements of the rage amidst the hopefulness for real, positive change that so characterized the Women's Liberation Movement in the late 1960s. I will admit, though, that I was a tad disappointed that only the front cover and inside front page of Notes were scanned and thus can be viewed in their original form. While it's not the same as holding that historic document in your hands, you can see that the paper has darkened with age as you read the masthead which includes the document's cost in 1968--"50 cents to women, $1 to men." That piece of information regarding a gender-based price structure alone could well spark an interesting classroom discussion today.
As valuable a contribution to the study of women's liberation as this site is, I do have some caveats. First, there is little if any contextual information or even basic explanation of the movement itself thus presupposing a fairly knowledgeable user. Second, you have to be a bit patient at times while navigating this site. It is not always as easy as some would like to return to the main page--the link to do so is at the bottom of most documents and toggling through, for example, the twenty-eight pages of Notes from the First Year, might take too long for some users; of course, using your browser's back button solves this but is it worth noting. Third, as so often happens in the transcription process, there are some typos. And while this is not generally a serious problem, on a return visit to the site one typo in particular caused me some momentary frustration.
On one of my first visits to the Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement collection, I was especially taken by a wonderful multi-page cartoon done by the writer and activist Meredith Tax. On a subsequent visit to the site, not remembering the name of the document itself or its assigned subject category, I did a keyword search under "Tax, Meredith" and got "no results." I then tried "Meredith Tax" and received the same "no results" reply. Determined to find this cartoon, I started going through the various subject categories and finally found it under "Women's Work and Roles." It seems that when I first viewed this document, I didn't notice that Tax's first name is misspelled as "Meridith" in the citation which explains why I couldn't find it searching with the proper spelling; it does come up, however, along with several other documents, if you simply use the keyword "Tax." This is, admittedly, a small research hurdle perhaps but one that could perhaps prevent a less motivated researcher from continuing her search.
More importantly, in finding this "illustrated satirical poem" by Tax, entitled "There was a young woman who swallowed a lie..." [Pittsburgh: Know, Inc., nd.], I was reminded again of the great value of the Duke site. For amidst all the theory, the fury, and the intensity of the modern Women's Liberation Movement, there can be found humor as well and that too is represented in this online collection. Many would argue that the two pieces from No More Fun and Games: A Journal of Women's Liberation [Cambridge, Mass: Cell 16. vol.1, no. 2 (Feb 1969)] included on the Duke site--Roxanne Dunbar's "Who is the Enemy?" and Mary Ann Weathers' "An Argument for Black Women's Liberation as a Revolutionary Source"--are excellent representatives of the theory and the intensity of the movement. Then, there is Tax's poem, set to the cadence of "There was an old woman who swallowed a fly," which certainly provides evidence that there was some fun in this revolution as well. As reproduced within Documents from the Women's Liberation Movement, "There was a young woman who swallowed a lie..." concludes by saying:
Nor will the history of this struggle for women's equality as it unfolded in the late 1960s and early 1970s die as long as there are sites such as this.
Dr. Kathleen Banks Nutter holds a Ph.D. in American History from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In addition to work as an archivist at Sophia Smith College, Dr. Nutter is the author of "The Necessity of Organization": Mary Kenney O'Sullivan and Trade Unionism for Women, 1892-1912 (Taylor and Francis, 1999). She is currently a lecturer in the Department of History, SUNY Stony Brook, and her latest research focuses on the gendered production and consumption of chocolate bonbons in America through the 20th century.
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