Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project
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Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives:
The Women Writers Project

In March 2008, the Brown University Women Writers Project (WWP, http://www.wwp.brown.edu) held a colloquium entitled “Revealing Women,” which brought together scholars, archivists, and technologists to consider the role of traditional and digital archives in the study and teaching of early modern women’s writing. This event marked the WWP’s twentieth year of work as a digital humanities project: digitizing women’s writing, researching and theorizing technologies of digital representation, exploring new methods of scholarly communication, and supporting scholarship. The most visible achievement during that period has been the publication of Women Writers Online (WWO), an internationally recognized digital collection of women’s writing in English, which has made pre-Victorian women’s writing visible within the new digital canon.

These two decades of work have produced innovation on several fronts: theorizing markup technologies, researching the impact of digital scholarly tools, and promoting the availability of writing by women. However, as our anniversary colloquium revealed, this work raises as many questions as it addresses, particularly at the points where these domains intersect. How does the digital work of the WWP engage with current issues in feminist scholarship? How does our digital collection position the digital text in relation to archival sources? Is there a gap—professional, disciplinary, epistemological—between the literary scholar or historian who uses a digital archive such as WWO and the digital humanist who produces and theorizes that archive?

The nature of these questions reminds us that the impact of technology on serious scholarship is not simplistically progressive. We see exciting opportunities for feminist scholarship, literary criticism, and digital humanities to converge in the ongoing work of the WWP, as well as reminders that the digital is not the cure-all for our scholarly woes. While there is certainly promise in the ongoing theoretical and pragmatic work being done here, we do not want simply to reproduce the overly-celebratory promise of “new” frontiers. Instead, we understand that an archive like the ever-growing WWO is a conduit through which to experiment with new modes of scholarly intervention—at the level of production as well as [End Page 425] analysis—in ways that can make substantive changes to feminist, literary, and digital humanities scholarship.

The Digital Archive

One of the shifting points of pressure for the WWP has been the status of technology itself. At the project’s inception, digital publication produced fairly widespread anxiety among scholars on issues such as textual accuracy, authenticity, and verifiability.1 Now, in the twenty-first century, the realm of technology risks conferring a kind of self-evidence on humanities texts, foregrounding access and increasing speed and ease while complicating and in some cases obscuring the constitutive processes through which digital textual consumption is enabled and conducted. Feminist scholarship has demonstrated the myriad issues raised by the unreflective or under-theorized production of modern archives, and it is important to keep those insights in mind as new technologies emerge. Further, terms like “new” and “innovative,” almost inescapable as descriptors of digital work, also require critical attention to recuperate some specificity and give us a sense of the kind of social traction they propose. If we say of a digital collection like WWO that it opens up new approaches to the study of women’s writing, we must immediately ask what we mean by these terms. “Study” by whom and in pursuit of what kinds of questions? Is the term “women’s writing” a deliberate sidestep from more specific formulations—from words like “literature” or firm designations of authorship and publication? And what do we mean by “new”?

If the status of technology is regularly shifting, so too is the theoretical and institutional status of feminist discourse. In an important sense, digital humanities began in the same liberationist spirit as women’s studies, and this impulse informed the founding of the WWP at the level of both technology and content. The project’s emphasis on canon reformation through expanded access to rare materials (a theme that runs through much early digital humanities work) mirrors the early feminist sense that literary...