Gender and archives

Lesley A. Hall

Wellcome Library

[This paper is based on a rather longer draft version of my presentation at the Genders and Archives workshop at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on Friday 21 January 2005]


I assume that one of the reasons I have been invited to speak here is that I am both an archivist and a historian, so am perhaps what Kipling referred to as a bloody harumphodite. And in both capacities I have been dealing to a great extent with issues of gender.  As an archivist my experience covers both working in a major British governmental record office, the India Office Records, prior to its move to the British Library, and subsequently in a specialist collection at the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine, formerly the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine. As a historian I did my PhD (based largely on materials in the Wellcome collections) on ‘medical attitudes to the sexual disorders of the quote-unquote normal male in Britain, 1900-1950’, subsequently published as Hidden Anxieties, and have continued to work in the history of gender and sexuality ever since.

Over the course of the years I have written a number of articles explaining how to find women (or particular sub-groups of women, such as nurses) in the archives. And what I have found is that to explain how to find out about a particular topic or theme, it’s necessary to provide quite a lot of information about what an archive is, how it comes into existence, and how you go about preparing yourself to undertake research in it. While gender was, for a long time neglected category, it is gaining increasing attention these days, and at least people tend to have some notion of what gender signifies. As an archivist, and indeed as a historian, I am sometimes inclined to feel that ‘archives’, and what an archivist actually does, are great mysteries to many people. I thus feel that to address the theme of gender and archives it’s worth spending some time exploring some general issues to do with archives and archival research. Using archives for any particular thematic research raises a number of issues, and thus, I hope, obliquely, to work my way round to the specific question of gender and archives.

In my experience there is a good deal of confusion as to what ‘archives’ actually are. I’d better come clean at this point that I see myself as belonging to the sect of ‘strict and particular archivists’ who continue to adhere to the sacred words of Sir Hilary Jenkinson (1882-1961), Keeper of the Public Records, author of A Manual of Archive Administration, published in 1922).  Jenkinson made what  remain very important points about what is an archive, and how it differs from other sources of evidence and information, and the archivist’s responsibilities, which I do not think have been superseded. A quick google on his name suggests that the principles he advanced are still considered to be the basis of what we do as archivists. Sir Hilary defined archives as ‘the Documents accumulated by a natural process in the course of the Conduct of Affairs of any kind, Public or Private, at any date; and preserved thereafter for Reference, in their own Custody, by the persons responsible for the Affairs in question or their successors. They were generated as a by-product of the transactions of an organisation (or individual), and not with a view to their eventual use by other people for other purposes in other times.

Unfortunately these days the term archives is used extremely loosely: for example the computer term ‘archive’ usually means making a back-up copy of data. There is a general blurring of the distinction between information and the archival record.  Even scholars can be found using the term ‘archive’ to mean any kind of primary (and sometimes not even primary) research resource. Other kinds of resources contain important, valuable, significant, material, indeed many kinds of information that would not be found in an archive. But there sometimes seems to me a fetishisation of the term to embrace all evidence. This is not helpful, and positively misleading. Does it convey a desire for authoritativeness? Wanting to make everything into ‘the archive’ is a rather odd way to challenge what some historians in some fields perceive as the actual archive’s hegemony.

As I’m sure even Sir Hilary would have conceded, other data may shed light on and supplement that gleaned from archival research: one might invoke here the path-breaking insights of W. G. Hoskins about the landscape itself as historical evidence.

Archives are opaque: all reading of the archive is going to be against the grain of what it was originally created to record. It’s not just gender that is not necessarily immediately apparent: it’s most kinds of thematic and subject approach. The basic principle of archival organisation is that provenance structures the arrangement, in order to retain the all-important original context for the individual documents. This approach is not always intuitively apparent to someone coming as a researcher to use the material. The archive is less like a museum which is going to present you with a particular artefact, nice and clean and well-lighted, it’s more like having a patch of land and a trowel to excavate with to find out for yourself whether the artefact’s there and what it’s embedded in.

Bearing all this in mind, I’d like to move on to issues of collection development and how issues of gender play out there, before considering issues of how we try to make the material accessible, in the intellectual sense, to the researcher.

There are significant differences between the situation of a large national or local government record office, which is part of an administrative structure, and that of a collecting repository engaged in building up and developing a collection. Anyone who is building up a collection relating to e.g. women’s history (or indeed, any thematic area) should be thinking, besides acquiring material that does fall within the category of archives, about types of material illuminating that area that often survive very poorly. I’m thinking here of ephemera, ‘grey literature’, pamphlets, limited circulation or short-lived periodicals, personal narratives or oral histories. All these non-archival items can be important sources, and like manuscript material, often shed light on the information acquired from the archival record. But I will continue to focus on archives as seen through my Jenkinsonian spectacles, as I think they do raise particular problems.

Some practical  exploration of my experiences of gender issues in acquiring and making visible archives. The Contemporary Medical Archives Centre at what was then the Wellcome Institute, was set up in 1979. There was already a substantial and catalogued, but at that stage theoretically non-accruing, manuscript collection. Issues of gender were around from the outset. The initial impetus, modelled on the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre at Oxford (now the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Science at Bath) would appear to have been very much about intervening to preserve and make available for posterity the records of the ‘Great Men of Medical Science’ and perhaps a few token Great Women who had contributed to the enormous biomedical developments of the twentieth century, or WOMOMP – the Wonderful Onward March of Medical Progress.  But the Centre was able to develop a fairly broad agenda in pursuing a range of material relating to modern medicine and health that was not ending up in central or local government repositories,  including that relating to non-mainstream developments. This has evolved into our current acquisitions policy that ‘Accessions are intended to reflect the broadest possible range of issues and concerns surrounding medicine, biomedical research and health’.

At the outset, besides collecting the papers of a very wide range of individuals, we very soon found ourselves becoming a haven for the records of all kinds of medical and health-related non-governmental bodies for whose records there was no obvious home.

People don’t think about archives or how they come to be there until they want them: then they assume that the records they want to consult must exist. But as we developed the collection we found it impossible simply to make up a ‘shopping list’ for one’s collection. While we are fortunate in that unlike many archival institutions we do have a purchasing budget, as well as the possibility of special purchase funds for one-off cases such as the Crick papers, in the case of archival collections, because of the costs of processing and preservation, we prefer to receive these as gifts or on deposit (and grants towards cataloguing costs are always very welcome!). But we are limited in what we acquire by what actually survives, and some fascinating and important individuals simply did not bother to preserve their papers.  We are further limited by the amount of storage space available, and also the availability of staff resources for processing – these two are related, since most collections will reduce by a certain amount once they have been processed, through weeding of duplicate or extremely routine materials, more economical packaging (lever arch files are a great waste of space!).

There are huge issues of happenstance in what gets preserved. For example ‘leatherbound ledgers’ look substantial and impressive (and are physically much more robust than modern files) and are sometimes kept even when they turn out to be low-level accounting records. Older material may be preserved rather than newer, less impressive-looking material, irrespective of its actual importance. Among our holdings at the Wellcome, we have a substantial number of very impressive looking large leather bound volumes: prescription registers of retail pharmacists, going back to the nineteenth century. Very very few researchers ever consult them. They’re routine and not very interesting. But they look old and impressive and their solidity has ensured survival.

Particularly with institutions, all that ‘old’ stuff may no longer survive, or survive very sparsely. Sometimes this is the result of managerial housekeeping, the unfortunate outcome of having no records management policy until all the space is overwhelmed and in an act of desperation it’s all chucked into a skip. In the case of individuals a clear-out is often sparked by moving into smaller accommodation in later life – one of the most depressing instances of this from my own personal interest in women in science is the tale of Dame Janet Vaughan having ‘'vast bonfires of my laboratory records' before moving into a small flat. On the other hand, the papers of the epidemiologist Alice Stewart, who was still actively engaged in research in her nineties, constituted a substantial collection requiring two trips to collect from her cottage.

Survival or non-survival of personal papers is sometimes the result of having had a peripatetic career rather than an established position – something which possibly has tended to be more characteristic of women than men. There is arguably some difference between the preservation (prior to their transfer to an archival repository) of men’s and women’s papers: men, or their relatives or executors, are perhaps more likely to consider their papers to be of lasting historical importance and therefore kept, possibly even sorted and organised. But while there are cases on record where women themselves, or their executors at their instruction, seem to have conducted a deliberate purge of their personal papers, there are also cases of women retaining a substantial record of their activities and doing their best to ensure its preservation for posterity. A notable case of this was Marie Stopes, who on her death in 1958 left her papers (3 pantechnicons full) to what was then the British Museum Reading Room, now the Department of Manuscripts, British Library. However, what the custodians there did was pick out what they thought was significant, such as her correspondence with leading scientific, literary and political figures of the day, returning the remainder to her son Harry Stopes-Roe, including the thousands of letters Stopes received from grateful and puzzled readers of her works on marriage and birth control. This extremely important residue, which provides unique insights into the social history of the interwar years, was donated to the Wellcome Institute in 1980, and is one of our most popular and heavily-used collections. The distinction between magpie hoarders and routine chuckers-out is not, I think, particularly gendered:  relentless hoarders as well as ruthless expurgators include men and women: and even the hoarder may not hoard everything.

In the case of organisations, many bodies were started by volunteers, and never, or only relatively late in their lifespan, had a permanent home and office staff. With records passed to and fro between officers as responsibilities rotated, there was immense potential for records to get dispersed,  or someone to simply decide that it was not worth keeping all this stuff to be shifted along every few years, or just to forget to pass along bundles of old records. There was also, sadly, the civic-minded sending of old records for wastepaper salvage during two world wars: this was not always even recorded. The records of the Protestant Nursing Sisters established by Elizabeth Fry in 1841 contain two examples of their early registers of the employment of the nurses in home nursing survive – with notes pasted in the front that all subsequent volumes were sent to the government Waste Paper Drive during the Second World War.

Philanthropic or campaigning bodies established by women are possibly less likely to have had the resources in terms of permanent offices, secretarial assistance, and so forth, available to many similar organisations founded by men. However, this may be a distinction to do with certain types of organisations rather than a strictly gendered division. Also, there are several relatively under-resourced women’s or largely women-run organisations which managed to retain extensive and meticulously organised records. The National Birthday Trust Fund was hardly under-resourced, being set up by women of the political and social elite in 1928, but it can be only as a result of having a long-serving General Secretary dedicated to keeping a meticulous record that its archives are so well-organised and so well-preserved. The Family Planning Association, founded as the National Birth Control Association in 1930, was a good deal less well-endowed, but it preserved a large and complex archive. The 700 boxes of material up to 1974 (when contraception was finally fully accepted into the National Health Service) include copious amounts of material on the testing of contraceptive products, relationships with manufacturers, files on all the clinics established by local branches, lobbying central and local government for further concessions, and has been very little explored, though still a popular collection with our readers.

Having significant resources doesn’t, unfortunately, necessarily mean that people are any more attentive to their archives. There are no simple formulas by which to calculate what people will consider important, what will be carefully cherished and kept safe and what will be carelessly discarded without a second thought.

At the Wellcome a substantial number of collections are of significant importance to gender history. How we came by them is a combination of happenstance and design. Our impressive collection of early modern domestic recipe books, including both medical and culinary material, grew out of Sir Henry Wellcome’s determination to acquire materials relating to the widest possible range of medicine and health-care, and is still being built on. Our major accumulation of archives relating to the birth control movement developed around our original acquisition, very soon after the setting up of the Contemporary Medical Archives Centre, of the Stopes papers, the archives of the Eugenics Society, and those of the Abortion Law Reform Association. These created a core around which other collections in the area built up, at least partly due to the interconnection of the various organisations working in the field, so that someone who had dealt with us over one collection might at least mention our names to another organisation with which they were involved doing similar work when questions about archives came up.

The role of relatively informal contacts and networking has played, I must say, a significant part in the development of our collections, and in many cases although there has been no immediate pay-off in terms of accessions, relationships once established may have very pleasing outcomes.

We were fairly proactive in ascertaining what records survived of the largely female-dominated nursing and ancillary medical professions. In the early days we undertook various surveys of records held elsewhere: including the records of such organisations as the Queen’s Nursing Institute and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, which at the time were committed to retaining their own archival heritage. However, with office moves, changes in management philosophy, and the problems that bodies not geared towards the needs of researchers may experience when they encounter demands for research use of their holdings, we subsequently acquired the archives of both these bodies: also those of the Health Visitors’ Association and the Occupational Therapists. Similar relatively informal contacts provided the basis for the eventual transfer to us of the archives of the Medical Women’s Federation (which grew out of the Association of Registered Medical Women set up in 1879 when women were finally admitted to the Medical Register). I approached them about using some of the materials from their archives in an exhibition I was organising at the Wellcome on ‘Women, Health, and Healing’, and as a result they decided to place their records with us.

Another factor influencing our acquisitions policy was our sense of the sorts of things that people came to us asking whether we had relevant materials about, and certainly quite early on it became apparent that issues to do with women’s history, women in the medical and health care professions, and as patients, were areas in which there was significant research interest. We were, in many cases, able to refer them to collections we had surveyed or knew to be accessible for research, such as the Royal Colleges of Nursing and of Midwives, but it also indicated to us an area to be considered in our own collection development policies.

Once one has acquired the material, how does one make it visible and accessible to researchers? The absolutely basic thing is that it needs to be catalogued: this important labour of the archivist is often quite invisible to people using their collections. I’ve had people assume that they would personally have to go through box after box of chaotic materials (as well as the people who submit one single order slip for an entire large collection) and indeed, it’s commonly supposed that archives will be available as soon as they are acquired (in the case of the Crick papers, because this was so widely reported in the press, we had people turning up to look at them before they’d even physically arrived). It’s time-consuming and labour-intensive work.

            There are often problems in applying the principles laid down by Sir Hilary Jenkinson in the context of the archives of government, to collections of personal and organisational papers with no obvious pre-existing system of organisation. I might cite here the papers of the eminent nutritionist and child-health expert Cicely Williams, which were received in several suitcases. According to her great-niece, the donor, when Auntie Cicely wanted to find anything, she would open the suitcase, spill out the contents, and sort through them until she found the item she was looking for.  Then stuff them all back higgledy-piggeldy. There may be gender issues here in that until fairly recently, men on the whole are more likely to have had established permanent posts, an office and a devoted support staff of secretaries. One quite often notices the difference between the sparse survival of papers from the period when they were peripatetic researchers living from research grant to research grant, the well-filed bulk from the period of major career achievement, and a later post-retirement deterioration in the coherence of the files. Institutional records can also suffer from disarray: the papers of the Pioneer Health Centre Peckham, an important experiment in health and community of the inter- and immediately post-war years, were received in extreme disorder, having been held, subsequent to the closure of the Centre in 1952, in various hands. They also incorporated the personal papers of the founders, and manifested overall problematic borderline issues between the personal and the institutional material.  Sections of the papers had been gone through, re-sorted, and annotated by various individuals connected with the Centre and its work. And a substantial group of administrative files, of which a list survived, had just completely disappeared.

            As an archivist, and indeed as a historian, I am infuriated by the approach to cataloguing which proceeds with detailed description of particular items, but fails to provide a structural overview of the collection – and ideally, of the holdings of the repository as a whole. I was once doing research in a famous women’s history collection, and could not, at any point, establish with any hope of certainty, a complete list of what collections and manuscripts they actually held. So left feeling that, although I had found some very useful material, I might have missed something important. There is also the maddening case of the important collection of the papers of a British interwar feminist, writer and social activist, which received Heritage Lottery Funding to produce a catalogue. There are detailed summaries of the contents of numerous letters, but it’s practically impossible to get an overview of the collection or any sense of its structure, and any idea how much of the whole has actually been catalogued. This also suffers from the problem of what happens when a project is funded, and then the person moves on to another job when the funding runs out: institutional memory about the archive is lost. A whole class of material among these papers could not be located last time I visited the repository in question: maybe the catalogue entry was just a temporary place-holder for a notional group, but who knew?

            Cataloguing, and knowing what’s there in the way that you only can if you’ve gone through a collection bit by bit, removing its rusty staples, recreating the order of correspondence sequences that have fallen into disarray, all the physical as well as intellectual work that goes into processing, is the only way that archivists are going to able to direct and guide their users in any really helpful way. They will know what’s there, and just as important, what isn’t there (saving their researchers wasted time and effort).

And the fruits of this labour are being made much more accessible with the new developments in online cataloguing, which are very exciting and very productive.  However, while producing online accessible, searchable catalogues opens up the archive amazingly, this can be a bit delusive. The National Archives’ online searchable online catalogue is a massive and worthwhile finding aid, but given the amount of material it’s working on, and the existing finding aids on which it's based, it’s still not always helpful in making highly specific searches, and for certain keyword searches it automatically provides links to their thematic leaflets. The Wellcome is one of the few, if not the only, repositories to have put meta-terms for subject access into a significant portion of our online catalogue. This (a still continuing project) is a tedious and time-consuming task, even given the fact that for the majority of the  manuscript collections there were existing printed indexes. However, we had to make the terms in these consistent with the thesaurus used within the Library, and we were also dealing with the idiosyncrasies of the original indexer and what terms they thought meaningful. Thus the naïve searcher might completely overlook the vast swathes of our ms collection on early modern women, which were not indexed under ‘woman’ or ‘women’ but as ‘domestic medicine’ or ‘receipt books’. The researcher still has to work, to think laterally, to consider synonyms (we do have a pop-up guide to finding the approved thesaurus term in the website version of our catalogue). With modern archival-type collections (except in one idiosyncratic case where an existing database was imported) we’re so far (and I think this is probably the only practicable thing to do) inserting relevant subject headings at the collection level description, not to each single item (and how can one tell, without more work than any archive is ever likely to have resources to undertake, the subjects and themes to which any single item might speak?).  There is also the issue – this came up yesterday with a researcher – that it is easier to get a grasp on an archive as a whole by consulted a hardcopy list, especially if you’re for browsing for items of potential interest rather than searching for anything particular. In addition, I suspect – simply from seeing some of the orders that have been put in by readers since we moved to on-line ordering – that there are increased dangers of researchers cherry-picking bits and pieces without regard for or attention to overall context and provenance.

            Our previous strategy for providing a themed approach to our collection was the introduction of sources leaflets: these provided a synoptic overview of our collections (only those already available for research) by subject, by topography, and by format (for example, sound-recordings, visual images). These were originally word-processed documents, deliberately kept simple in design and production so that they could be readily updated: they are now available on the Library website as well as in hardcopy.. The first one was, for reasons to do with the holding of a conference on the subject, ‘Nutrition’ (a topic which has more gender relevance than may immediately seem apparent). The next three, driven by both our sense of reader interests and our knowledge of subject strengths in our holdings, were ‘Women in Medicine’, ‘Mothers and Babies’, and ‘Nursing and Midwifery’ (later expanded to be ‘Nursing, Midwifery, and Health Visiting’). In pre-searchable database days, this was obviously an extremely helpful way into the collections for researchers. I feel they still serve a purpose in giving this relatively aerial perspective on what we have that’s relevant – it’s easier to scan down a page or so of text than to navigate down a hitlist on a computer screen, clicking on each entry. Plus there is a value-added quality in that the sources leaflets can be fairly specific about what is relevant to a particular subject within any particular collection, whereas a collection-level subject term may be more baffling than helpful.

            I’d like to end with some general thoughts about gender and archives and research, and the limitations of any approach which assumes that producing a hit-list of relevant archival material is going to be easy. During the mid-90s I was researching the biography of Stella Browne, a British feminist, socialist and radical sex reformer, and this was just before the online revolution had really got under weigh in the archive world. At the beginning there wasn’t even email communication – this was within ten years ago. One might think that finding material relating to a specific individual, rather than a concept, would be much, much easier. In fact, after making personal visits and much delving, I discovered letters buried in collections in a range of repositories. Most of which had denied that they had any material relating to her, but I was visiting them anyway at least in the hope of gleaning some background material on her associates and the circles she was moving in. In some cases her name did appear in typescript inventories and indexes; in most cases the letters were buried in ‘General correspondence B’, and in one case a very important letter was filed under ‘Unidentified correspondents’. (Okay, her handwriting was pretty dreadful before one got used to it.) I also managed to track references to her in the correspondence between friends and colleagues. But I’m still not persuaded that there isn’t relevant material still out there – after I’d started writing up my research a couple of years ago I quite by chance found a very interesting group of letters of hers buried in a publisher’s archive.

            Researching in archives strikes me as the antithesis of googling, and the idea that the information is out there and can be readily located if you get your search terms right.

            So: gender and archives. Well, it’s there, if not explicitly, in any kind of archives, as recent scholars have reminded us. Finding things in the archives is at least as much a question of asking the right questions and going and looking, as of the archives themselves. The National Archives, and other repositories, have recently been tackling the problem of inclusivity, and trying to make people aware of how much there is in the archives on subjects that people don’t necessarily expect (though people can be surprisingly obtuse about the role of the National Archives: I’ve had people turn up at the Wellcome looking for things where I would have thought the Ministry of Health records in the National Archives were the obvious first port of call).

I’m not surprised, but always a bit disappointed, when people working on issues to do with gender tend to tread in the well-trodden pathways. There seems to be a lack of imagination or expertise or confidence in branching out beyond what is already known and mapped in 100 histories.  In our collections, we sigh when we see yet another research topic on Marie Stopes and birth control, women and eugenics (surely thinking about eugenics and masculinity issues would be a worthwhile thing to do), shellshock in the Great War, the life and career of cross-dressed woman doctor, James Miranda Barry, and women’s struggle to enter the medical profession during the decades 1850-1880. And, to cite an example not at the Wellcome, I also think that it’s time that Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick stopped being the poster-boy and girl for thinking about Victorian notions of gender, sexuality, class, dominance/submission, etc.

            Thinking about issues to do with women in medical professions, remarkably little work has yet been done on the fascinating subject of what happened once women had access to the relevant education and the ability to obtain legal registration, and how they made further inroads into creating a legitimate professional space for themselves. There’s been some interesting work by Mary Ann Elston on the later nineteenth century, and some intriguing articles by Carole Dyhouse on the mid-twentieth century,

            There are also all sorts of issues to be considered generally about women within the medical and health profession: for example women as both subjects and objects, the influence of factors of power, status, class, and education. With the rise of new health professions such as health visiting and physiotherapy, were their issues about gender or about professionalism and recognition of their expertise. And how did their position and the attitude of male doctors to them compare to the situation of women doctors who were directly encroaching into the male medical space. This kind of boundary work will not only be seen in the records of the various organisations representing the interests of the women themselves: it will also be addressed in the archives of mainstream medical organisations such as the British Medical Association.

            Gender history still seems, an awful lot of the time, to be about women. On women’s entry into the medical profession, I would love to see work being done on their male supporters. We seem to hear constantly about the opposition (especially, for some reason, Henry Maudsley) and the kind of gender boundary-marking that was going on with that, but what were the issues for those who thought women could and should be doctors?  I would estimate that 90-95% work done being done on the Stopes ‘Married Love’ correspondence is still about women, although since I published Hidden Anxieties and related articles on using the over 40% of the correspondence which was received from men, we do get a few individuals researching male issues. When masculinity is studied my impression is that it’s still very much about times of perceived crisis in the male role: shellshock in the First World War being an obvious example. In the case of e.g. psychiatry, might there not be something to be learn by, say, looking at the construction of the male in Victorian lunatic asylums, and whether there were gendered issues in the diagnosis and description of male lunatics. Were they too violent and uncontrolled or were they Sad Sack sitting on a block of stone, way in the corner weeping all alone? And how was this inflected by class issues? How did it affect the responses of those in charge of them? And what about the male asylum attendants?  The archives for doing this are there, but as far as I can tell no-one’s doing it.

            The thing about archives is that they can sustain a range of approaches.We get lots of people using our collections for research that is nothing to do with our stated specialism of medical history. Once you start looking with the sensitised eye women/gender/issues of masculinity/questions around sex are in all sorts of archives: records of local and national government, records of a range of organisations and institutions, papers of all sorts and conditions of individuals, business records.  However, there is still so much out there and unpreserved that the more repositories collecting, provided the better, providing that their storage and processing meet desirable standards and that they’re able to make the material available, rather than simply warehousing it.

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Last modified 4 July 2008