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E-Texts and Women's History
An article by Jone Johnson Lewis, Women's History Guide

An irony of the "world wide web" is that this very modern communication technology is making available more historical writings by women (and men). Research on many women of history is easier than ever! Etexts, or electronic texts, of out-of-copyright materials can be placed on a website by just about anyone, and thereby are available conveniently and without cost to readers.

Women's writings have drawn less attention from historians than men's writings have, and more than once a generation of women writers has been lost to history until uncovered again. There are still far more etexts by men than women on the web, but the number of available resources by women are increasing literally daily, and the uncovering continues.

Passionate amateurs (in the best definition of "amateur," someone loving what they do) and students join professional educators in scanning or re-typing not only the standard works of historical women writers, but many of their less-known and not-so-easily available works.

A case in point is the site Jane Austen E-texts, etc. Cathy Dean, the self-styled Proprietess, has created a 19th century "feel" to this site. Beyond the standard six books of Jane Austen which are often studied (and available in most libraries in print form), Dean has included Austen's delightful juvenilia (written during her teen years), her poetry, and even a growing collection of criticism and biographies that are out of copyright. This site, for its wide scope and thoughtful design, is an excellent model for anyone considering creating an etext site!

A simpler, yet still complete and thorough, etext site is Mitsuharu Matsuoka's E-texts of Elizabeth Gaskell. Matsuoka has converted the entire body of Gaskell's works to digital or etext format. Matsuoka, an Associate Professor at Nagoya University, also has an excellent site on the works and lives of the Brönte sisters.

More women writers are featured at focused web sites. Just two more examples:

  • All Alcott: the Louisa May Alcott Web: comprehensive links and information about Alcott, kept current. I particularly liked the FAQ. (Many web site authors are swamped by questions that often boil down to "would you write my paper for me?" or "can I use your graphics on my site?" Yet few think to post a Frequently Asked Question page (FAQ) to provide the common answers!)
  • Emily Dickinson, much of whose poetry is available online, is featured in several websites.

An excellent index to etexts by "feminist foremothers" is at the Matilda Joslyn Gage site. While the site could use improved design and layout, the links are comprehensive and I would award the site four stars for usefulness.

Some etext and edocument collections highlight specific historical periods or issues. An excellent example is the Library of Congress feature on Votes for Women, documents and photographs from the National American Woman Suffrage Association collection, 1848-1921. Another Library of Congress exhibit online is Women Come to the Front Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II, with texts and photos.

A good example of the larger collections which focus on women writers include the Texts by Women Authors from the Modern English Collection at the University of Virginia. Authors from Jane Addams to Zitkala-Sa are represented. For this or any online etext collection, be sure to read any conditions of use. (Copyrights apply not only to the original writing, but also to the format and design and annotations of the web versions.)

Perhaps the most comprehensive collection of links to etexts by women is A Celebration of Women Writers (part of the larger On-Line Books Page). A strength of this site is the inclusion of many women who wrote in languages other than English. You can browse, as with most etext collections, by author, but also by country or century, a great help when you're looking for the larger perspective rather than a single woman's work.

Another comprehensive collection of etexts by women is the Victorian Women Writer's Project. Novels, dramas, poetry, and political tracts by 19th century women authors are featured, such as Harriet Martineau's Autobiography or a pamphlet on "Female Ministry, or, a Woman's Right to Preach the Gospel" by Catherine Mumford Booth. This site is especially rich in works by less-known women writers.

General etext collections often include a few women among many men. The Project Bartleby Archives from Columbia University include a few etexts from women, including Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Gertrude Stein, and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Project Gutenberg, a cooperative and volunteer project to make literary works widely available, had its beginnings in 1971 (no, that's not at typo!). Project Gutenberg's official site is at promo.net/pg with mirrors at other locations including www.gutenberg.net and www.gutenberg.org. Featuring no-frills text, not web-browsable HTML, the Gutenberg site includes an author index if you're looking for a particular woman's writings or just to browse through the authors looking for works of women. For instance, under A you'll find Louisa May Alcott, listing several titles including Little Women and Flower Fables. (There are more Alcott writings at such sites as A Celebration of Women Writers and the Louisa May Alcott Web.)

You'll find etexts like John Stuart Mills' "On the Subjection of Women" at the ALEX Catalog of Electronic Texts (UC Berkeley). At this site you can not only read or download many etexts, you can dynamically create PDF versions, individualizing to your needs by specifying font type and size, etc. You'll need the free Adobe Acrobat reader, but it's worth the effort: you can create readable or printable versions that are easier on the eyes than either the computer screen or those typewritten-looking Courier type text versions. You can even produce 24 point versions for those who need to read large type.

More general etext collections to browse or search include Internet Wiretap, Online Book Initiative, and Oxford Text Archive.

The English Server (Carnegie Mellon University) includes full etexts of recent scholarly articles on feminism, gender and sexuality and history. An example: exploring this site I found a 1992 paper from the Mid-America Conference on History, The University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas: "The great marriage hunt: finding a wife in fifteenth-century England" by Sharon Michalove, University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Buried deep within general-purpose archives are treasures like The Seneca Falls Declaration (from AmDocs- Documents for the Study of United States History, part of Carrie, the University of Kansas full-text electronic library).

The Making of America collection, choosing to collect page images rather than converted text, includes such gems as

The Atlantic Monthly Online Archive includes writings by and about women, including such gems as an article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson about his correspondence with Emily Dickinson and a review of Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. Or check out their collections on more recent women's history such as the abortion controversy.

The Library of Congress website features documents and texts on specific historical periods. In addition to the targeted collections like Votes for Women and Women Journalists mentioned above, in general collections you can find resources related to women's history. An example: an illustration from Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Women), by Christine de Pisan (born 1364), who was the first woman known to have earned her living through her writing. (The illustration is part of the collection Creating French Culture: Monarchs and Monasteries: Knowledge and Power in Medieval France.)

Representative Poetry Online includes not just full etexts of poems (by many women) but also short biographies. This is part of a larger collection of English Language and Literature materials from the University of Toronto.

If you're a student of women's history, you'll be glad to know that the number of sites featuring etexts by women is sure to increase. You can count on me to continue to ferret out many new and old treasures that help to shed light on women's history.

Author: Jone Johnson Lewis.
Title: " E-texts and women's history."
This URL: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa020199.htm

Text copyright 1999-2001 © Jone Johnson Lewis. All rights reserved.

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