Finding women thinkers in the record

By Joanna Wood.

Having been forced to return to the UK a few weeks ago, halfway through my research trip to US College archives, it seemed like a good moment to reflect on why I was there, what I was doing and why looking in those places matters, especially for marginalised and/or neglected thinkers. As a post written in light, rather than in spite, of the current situation, I’d like to dedicate this to the archivists who made me so welcome: you make this research possible. Thank you.

For those researching neglected, marginalised thinkers, the official record seems to be the opposite of where you should be looking – after all, these thinkers are neglected in part because they don’t appear in the record and they don’t appear in the record because they are marginalised. Precisely the sort of place to omit historical women thinkers from the deeply gendered, raced and classed times of the 1920s-50s. Not necessarily. I look at women present in, connected to or working in the US academy in the first half of the twentieth century, where they are a minority in gender and a double (and triple) minority when this intersects with race and/or class. Our field until recently has not expected to find them in the academy, let alone the official record. And yet, it is the official record that started to lead scholars to these thinkers and now, to a broader ‘world’ of women’s international thought in the academy. Named chairs (professorships), prizes and buildings were often the first clue that ‘a woman was here’  (Murphy, 2017, Vitalis, 2015). But those are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person ‘named’ there are pages and pages of thinkers waiting in the records: in journal lists, institutional material, minutes, magazines, personal papers and correspondence.

Starting with the available reports marking every stage of a scholar’s career, you work through the annual lists of doctoral dissertations in progress, updates on new hires and of course obituaries. Similarly, reports of events, conferences and meetings are combed for mentions of women. This starts to build you a list of names that you then search for individually: career path, published work and of course personal papers in archives. You could stop there: it certainly furnished me with a significant number of thinkers to work on and a broad perspective on women in the field. However, these published resources are only one part of the record – the other is found in the archives, specifically the institutional archives of US Colleges and Universities.  

Take a trip through the catalogue or finding aids of most archives of US academic institutions and, sometimes after serious digging, you will almost certainly find a woman engaged in international thinking. Depending on the institution, or even despite the institution, it won’t necessarily be obvious (a member of faculty) or even resemble what we expect international thought to look like (books, credited research, named roles) but they will be there. And, best of all for the scholar, you finally get more than names – you get bodies of work and pictures of the professional reality of women thinkers in the academy. Halfway through my archival research in the US and I’m delighted (and more than a little relieved) to say that the theory has stood up to the reality. The archives have provided enough women and thought to furnish multiple theses.

Firstly there are the institutional records: the lists of graduating students, incoming and exiting Faculty, course lists, Departmental records and minutes for every committee you can imagine, on every possible theme. Then there is the official correspondence: hirings and firings, responses to press requests, letters between other heads of academic institutions, individuals. And the occasional autograph hunter… Finally there is the informal correspondence between teachers and former students, scholarly colleagues, academic women and non-academic friends, family and everyone in between. This last category, unsurprisingly, usually proves the most enjoyable to work through, containing as it does vignettes that are wonderful regardless of how relevant they are to your project (often the less relevant, the more enjoyable!). Correspondence runs the gamut from the formal official refusal letter to a women graduate seeking work to the rich informal correspondence of college women keeping in touch with former teachers and mentors, discussing the attempts to manage marriage, children and the desire to maintain an intellectual and professional life. We find contradictions to the more easily available ‘record’: a complaint to a railway company reveals that a senior women’s college administrator and two other women did in fact attend a conference even though they don’t appear in the rapporteur’s report; and a letter from a college teacher to her former student after the latter’s marriage exhorts her to not give up her burgeoning professional intellectual career in international economics. And, even after ‘finally’, there is also that impossible to categorise set of materials that can at best be loosely headed ‘ephemera’ – randomly kept magazines, telegram drafts, photos and odd notes that give a brief glimpse into the day to day world of women in the academy.

But, of course, that only gets us to more names on the list and the professional reality of these women. What about their thought? We already have the published work, where they are credited, from journals, books and other publications but this leaves many thinkers simply a name on the list. This is where the archives really come into their own: many hold the personal papers of former students, Faculty and associated thinkers. These in turn contain a wealth of resources that, if we are willing to step beyond the traditional definition of thought as academic books and journal articles, offer a rich body of international thought.  This includes teaching materials, pedagogy, bibliographies, unpublished work, fragments, contributions to husbands’ work and other non-traditional genres. Not only does this offer exciting new material to work with but also brings to light women previously excluded as ‘thinkers’ such as teaching-only staff, librarians and administrators. We finally find ourselves immersed in the world of women’s international thought hinted at by the named chairs, prizes and buildings.

All of these finds do not of course detract from the very clear omissions that such archives contain, whether contemporaneous (students or staff prevented from attending, those who don’t appear in the record) or later (hierarchies of whose papers were kept, whose are catalogued most thoroughly). Likewise, regardless of how many women we find in the record, we must never lose sight of the fact that there are those who do not feature, are not mentioned, are not visible, have been actively erased. The record and the archives can only ever be partial, biased, unreliable but they are a fruitful starting point in a field that doesn’t expect there to be any women thinkers in this period, let alone recorded ones. That is an important misconception to challenge and the record a significant source to use to do so, precisely because of its partial, weighted status. We should continue looking beyond both record and archives but that is another blog post.

Once you find one and shatter the illusion of absence, finding women in the record becomes addictive. Named chairs and buildings go from being part of the furniture of your institution to revealing clues to a different intellectual history, archives from dusty official repositories to vibrant alternative stores of new thought and thinkers. We find a new world of international thought. And, so, going back to where I started, we should not be surprised to find women in the most official of records. Women were in the academy, engaged in international thinking, throughout the 20th century. It is time we caught up with these thinkers sitting – some of whom have sat for over 100 years – in plain sight.

Murphy, C. N. (2017) Relocating the point of IR in understanding industrial age problems. In: Dyvik, S. L., Selby, J & Wilkinson, R. (eds) What’s the Point of International Relations? London, Routledge, pp.71-82.

Vitalis, R. (2015) White World Order, Black Power Politics: the Birth of American International Relations. NY,Cornell University Press.

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