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Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 175-177
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Catching it All on the Web:
Crafting Cohesive American Women's History in the Age of the Internet
Renée M. Sentilles
I agree with much of what the panelists have said, and particularly identify with Kathryn Kish Sklar's optimism about the ways American women's history is reshaping the study of American history and Nancy Hewitt's excitement over the continuing impact of multiculturalism on our field. I was surprised, however, to see how little the panelists mentioned the role of the Internet. And perhaps it is a bit like pointing out the elephant in the parlor, but I was surprised also that no one discussed the ongoing problem of crafting an accessible narrative for undergraduate teaching that is both cohesive and diverse.
It is undeniable that the Internet and Web are changing the way we conceive of, research, write, and publish American women's history. Sklar alluded to the virtues of the Internet when she talked about the website she co-directs. It is an exciting website—well-researched and built with links to other amazing websites, which also have links. The information goes on and on like one of those mirror-within-a-mirror images of infinity. But in the question-and-answer session, Nancy Hewitt suggested that there was also an advantage to doing work before the Internet age, because scholars could develop a project without the constant intrusion of the outside world. As a pair, Hewitt and Sklar rather neatly (and unwittingly) made the point that the Internet is both a boon and a barrier. A wealth of information is thrilling and opens new possibilities, but it can also rather quickly become too much information. Mastery of a subject seems impossible when faced with infinite links and references. We need to reconsider if "mastery"—a particularly problematic term for women's history—remains a logical requirement in our scholarship.
I wonder if the explosion of information, and our inability to come to terms with all of it, is somewhat responsible for the high number of new historians writing biography as noted by Gerda Lerner. I do not mean to say that other forces are not at work, but biography does offer an antidote to the problem of too much information. Tying one's study to the experiences of an individual creates an anchor for a swirl of information that appears unmanageable. From another angle, writing biographys allows one to study something in-depth and still connect it to the larger historical narrative.
At this point, it would be misleading to omit the fact that I am one of these new scholars Lerner mentions. My own cultural biography, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity, will be [End Page 175] published by Cambridge University Press in April 2003. 1 I chose to write a biography because I was intrigued by this maverick actress and poet of the Civil War period who successfully played with gender, race, ethnicity, and class in ways that I had not realized were possible in the mid-nineteenth century. Menken's individual story challenged many of the concepts I had accepted about white womanhood in that period. With excellent models, such as Sklar's work on Catherine Beecher and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale, I saw cultural biography as a wonderful way to pay attention to both society and individual. 2 Of course, they made it look easy, and it is not.
I did not write a biography because I found it gave me greater control over a topic, but my understanding of that virtue did become more profound when the Internet entered the process. In 1991, when I began the project, the Internet was probably being used somewhere, but not in my world. And, truthfully, the difficulty of finding information often led to my most interesting discoveries. In 2001, when I had written the manuscript and I was waiting for the...