New sources enrich women's history

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New sources enrich women's history

By sharing previously-unavailable material, researchers offer public a broader view of women's history

by Katherine Marino, Natalie Marine-Street, and Alexis Charles on Monday, March 31, 2014 - 10:10am

An historian and a filmmaker created an online archive of Chicana feminist thought, beginning with the mementoes stored in their own mothers' offices and expanding to thousands of previously-unavailable sources. A physician and scholar collected and digitized over 15,000 cigarette ads targeting women. An English professor, frustrated with the absence of black women in nineteenth-century archives, created her own "archive" out of available sources—by meticulously mining white newspapers for mentions of black women's activism.

Gender News salutes those who have enhanced women's history by saving, collecting, and sharing the rich historical sources that reveal the lives and activism of generations of women.

Chicana activist, "Vote raza unida party"Liberating the Chicana feminist archive

Maria Cotera’s ambitious online archive project, “Chicana por mi Raza,” houses a rich archive documenting the development of Chicana feminist thought and action from 1960 to 1990. 

Cotera first conceived of the project when she was teaching two classes at the University of Michigan – Introduction to Feminist Studies and Introduction to Latino Studies. In preparing for the classes, she found almost no anthologized material for either class about Chicana feminism. She decided to find her own primary source materials to share with her students.

She knew she need look no farther than her mother’s office. Her mother, Martha P. Cotera, was a foundational Chicana feminist activist, leader, and writer. Cotera brought into the classroom her mother’s collection of third-world and Chicana feminist newspapers, magazines, and articles from the 1970s and 80s. 

Seeing the transformational impact these first-hand accounts had on her students, Cotera decided to embark on a large-scale digital archive devoted to Chicana feminism. She partnered with Linda Garcia Merchant, a Chicana filmmaker from Chicago, whose mother, Ruth "Rhea" Mojica-Hammer, was also an activist and a friend of Cotera’s mother.

Together, Cotera and Merchant have amassed and digitized thousands of newspapers, reports, leaflets, out-of-print books, pieces of correspondence, and oral histories, most of which have been missing from mainstream archives. Read More > > 

Cigarette ad collection reveals how big tobacco targets women and teen girls

"We make Virginia Slims especially for women because they are biologically superior to men.... You've come a long way, baby."For nearly 100 years, cigarette companies have worked hard to attract female customers, and they have been effective—in 2008, almost a fifth of American women smoked. To document this history, Stanford scholars Dr. Robert Jackler and Laurie Jackler have created a publicly-available collection of nearly 15,000 cigarette advertisements and have worked to analyze their themes. For a century, cigarette advertising has suggested that smoking will make women thinner, more independent, and more fashionable.

By the mid-1920s, tobacco companies linked smoking to feminism, presenting cigarettes as a way for women to demonstrate their liberation from tradition. Echoing the giant suffrage parades of the 1910s, one tobacco company marched cigarette-smoking women in flapper dress down New York’s 5th Avenue—they called the cigarettes women’s “torches of freedom.” During the 1960s, the Phillip Morris Company tried a similar strategy, using its “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” advertising campaign to link Virginia Slims to women's liberation and second-wave feminism. More recently, the brand's taglines have included “It’s a Woman Thing” or “Find Your Voice.”

The Jackler's advertisement collection also reveals the tobacco industry's long tradition of equating smoking with thinness. In the 1920s, cigarette companies targeted fashionably thin flappers by suggesting that smoking would allow them to avoid bulkier figures. One ad slogan urged women to “Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet.” In the 1970s companies created women’s cigarettes with names such as “Slims” and “Thins.” Today, we have "Superslims—and women-targeted cigarette brands are almost universally promoted as slender, thin, slim, lean, or light.

What motivated the Jacklers to amass such a collection? For one, smoking’s hazard to women: lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among women. But there is a more personal motivation driving the project, too. One of those smoking-induced lung cancer deaths was that of Robert Jackler’s mother, Marilyn E. Jackler. As he notes, “She has been gone some a few years now, but our passion to study tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion has only intensified.“ Read More > >

Recovering the silenced lives of black women activists in the 19th century 

Sojourner TruthU.S. history textbooks highlight important abolitionist and women's rights activists of the pre-Civil War era such Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But, with the lone exception of Sojourner Truth, the voices of black women activists are often missing in the history books of this period. Carla Peterson, a literary critic and English professor, set out to question this silence. Sifting through historical records, she has come to understand the presences and absences of black women—whose activism was often not recorded in traditional history archives.  

As Peterson began research for a book on African American elites in nineteenth-century New York, she faced a dearth of information about the city's black women activists—even though archival collections existed to record white women's activism. Peterson decided to employ a different research tactic, in order to uncover her own "archive." She calls this tactic “going through the back door.” She scoured white records and white newspapers for mentions of African American persons or organizations to further explore. In this way, Peterson found black women activists. These included black schoolteachers, and black women who raised funds for the Colored Orphan Asylum.

She also used her "back door" approach for the period after the Civil War, illuminating a new archive that sheds new light on the history of women’s activism. In the late 19th century, women organized clubs for social reform, self-development, and women’s rights—a history that is generally marked by exclusionary policies from white women's clubs and separate organizing and the part of black women's clubs. In The Brooklyn Daily, a white newspaper, Peterson found evidence of black and white clubwomen working together, in an organization known as The Order of the King's Daughters. This instance of interracial activism counters the better-known narrative of separate organizing among white and black clubwomen.

What's more, Peterson’s research proves that silence does not prove absence. “That is the whole point,” Peterson says, “because we tend to assume that if we do all this archival work, and we don’t see [black women’s activism], we tend to say well okay [black women] weren’t there.” Read More > >


Katherine Marino earned her PhD in history from Stanford 2013. She is a former Graduate Dissertation Fellow and member of the Clayman Institute's student writing team.

Natalie Marine-Street is a PhD candidate in history. She is a Graduate Dissertation Fellow and a member of the student writing team.

Alexis Charles is a PhD candidate in modern thought and literature. She is a member of the student writing team