The World Wide Web: A Primary

Resource for Women's History

by Phyllis Holman Weisbard


In the '70s, the question for historians of women's history was "Where are the Women?" What followed was a torrent of articles, dissertations, monographs, biographical dictionaries, guides to archival collections, and more focusing on the social fabric of women's lives and restoring women of achievement to their rightful place in history. But people needed to visit libraries, archives, or museums in order to actually encounter the raw material on which such research is based. Exposing undergraduates to primary source documents and rare printed works was daunting, usually requiring assignments involving the use of microforms, a medium that excites few students. Today, the situation is radically changing. World Wide Web sites mounted by institutions offer access to a selection of rare and primary sources, with more being added all the time. However, several factors about the Web conspire to make the question "Where are the Women?' relevant nevertheless.

If you want to find books on a subject, the obvious place to start is your campus library's catalog, backed up by catalogs of other institutions and by unified catalogs such as OCLC/WorldCat and RLIN, which represent the holdings of numerous institutions. But what about websites? Would you think to look for them in library catalogs, too? Many libraries do now catalog websites, though representation of virtual items in their "collections" is much less systematic than it is for physical items. Nevertheless, it is important to try this standardized source of information to locate academically significant websites. Web-based library catalogs will hyperlink the Web address for a cataloged website, meaning that you can click on the link from within the library catalog and go directly to the site. Do a search as you would for print items, but limit the retrieval to computerized records. What's great about this is that you don't need to second-guess where to find material - you can use the same sort of search you would for books on that subject. For example, if you want to find women's diaries from the Civil War, you wouldn't need to know that there's a project called Documenting the American South at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. You could simply search the catalog for the subject "women" and the subject "Civil War" and you'd find the individual diaries and other documents digitized by the UNC project - and any others elsewhere. In OCLC/Worldcat there are now over 200,000 such records, although accurately limiting to "computer files" to obtain these records will not be operational until September 17, 2000. (Until then, regular keyword, subject, etc. searches will turn up records for Internet sites mixed in with those for books and other formats.) Thereafter, one can use the advanced search screen, put in the keyword(s) or subject(s) search and choose computer files from the drop-down menu under "document type."

While many librarians think this is the way to go in imposing some system of organizing a selected subset of material on the Web, such cataloging is not widely known about and does not yet cover all sites or individual digitized items that would be useful - and perhaps may never do so. For the foreseeable future, there are two other methods of finding material on the Web: search engine searching and using subject meta-pages. Using Web search engines is the main method most people employ to find material on the Web. Yet anyone who has tried using search engines for "women" anything knows the unsuitability of many of the resultant hits. If you have a more precise search, though, it is often quite satisfactory. For example, if a colleague says she came across the transcript of an interview with Jeannette Rankin "somewhere on the Berkeley site," a search for "Jeannette Rankin Berkeley" will put the item from the Suffragists Oral History Project, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, at or near the top of your retrieval list, which is also much shorter than it would be searching only for "Jeannette Rankin." Likewise, if you want to see what resources the National Women's History Project offers for commemorating Women's History Month, a search for the phrase "National Women's History Project" will easily get you to their site, particularly if you pay attention to searching conventions employed by many of the search engines, such as putting phrases within quotation marks.

Searches for "women's history," though, are too broad to unearth specific historical items as disparate as Civil War diaries, oral histories of Hawaiian women pineapple workers, photographs of women in a variety of work set-tings in Florida, electronic versions of classic works such as Jane Addams' Twenty Years at Hull House and Mary Antin's The Promised Land, or articles from women's liberation periodicals of the late 1960s/early 1970s - all of which are now available on the Web. Further, no amount of Web search engine searching or even Web cataloging will reveal that excellent social commentary can be found in the "American Ballroom Companion" collection of dance manuals in the Library of Congress' American Memory Project or in the beauty and hygiene advertisements from the 1920s onward in the Ad* Access Project of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History at Duke University. These are best found by browsing subject meta-pages maintained by scholars, librarians, and dedicated aficionados who troll the 'Net constantly, pouncing on "the good stuff" and adding links to their pages. Meta-pages perform their most critical service when they link to sites that are relevant and useful, but not obvious from their title or overall focus. Meta-pages are the virtual descendants of bibliographies intelligently gathered and organized in times past, before databases seemingly supplanted their function. The rest of this article will be devoted to discussing metasites for women's history and some of the primary source riches they include.


A Guide to Uncovering Women's History in Archival Collections,


Maintained by Jill Jackson, archivist of Center for the Study of Women and Gender & the Special Collections and Archives Department, University of Texas-San Antonio

Traditionally, archives were places mostly frequented by persistent scholars and individuals on genealogical quests, but no longer. The Web has brought archives out from under their cloak of obscurity. Archives have realized that the Web offers them the possibility of providing scholars unparalleled access to diaries, letters, photographs, and other evidentiary material while at the same time raising their visibility to the general public through enjoyable Web exhibits. The Guide is ideal for users who want to "visit" various archives and see what they have online about their women-focused collections.1 The only institutions included are those that Jackson is aware of that have websites with information about collections from women's organizations or from or related to individual women. The arrangement is by state, sub-arranged alphabetically. Each repository merits a short description, highlighting the relevant material in its collection. Archival Sites for Women's Studies (http://gwi maintained by Mary Faith Pankin, Gelman Library, George Washington University, as part of WSSLINKS (see below) is another good resource for browsing by repository. It also employs a geographical arrangement, by region, sub-arranged by name of institution. Descriptions are shorter than in the Guide, and users interested in Midwestern archives will need to know to look under "Northeast" on this site.

WSSLinks,, a collaborative project of the Women's Studies Section Collection Development Committee of the Association of College and Research Libraries, is a resource that should be bookmarked by everyone in women's studies. Two sections of WSSLinks relate to women's history: Archival Sites for Women's Studies, mentioned above, and Women's History Sites, URL:, maintained by Rachel Murphree, University of Texas at El Paso Library. [Note: new URL: and new compiler, Ruth Dickstein.]

Murphree has arranged her site by time period (ancient, medieval) or place (U.S., Canada, elsewhere) sub-arranged alphabetically. She has additional sections with information about women's history month activities, conferences, and speakers and performers.

American Women's History: A Research Guide


Maintained by Ken Middleton, Todd Library, Middle Tennessee State University

Middleton's bibliography nicely integrates pointers to reference resources in print and on the Internet, an important ploy in an era when students increasingly think that everything is on the 'Net. He also provides descriptions and links to major digital collections of relevance to women's history.

A Celebration of Women Writers


Maintained on the site of the Digital Library Project, Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, by Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This is the location to find links to free digitized editions of published works by women throughout history. Genres include novels, poems, letters, biographies, travel books, religious commentaries, histories, economic and scientific works. There are also links to biographical and bibliographical information about the writers and websites devoted to them. Essentially, A Celebration of Women Writers is a massive index to works by women digitized in numerous projects scanning or transcribing works in the public domain. These include Project Gutenberg (, the Making of America (University of Michigan:, Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina:, the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center ( and projects it has spawned such as Hypertext Projects of American Studies students (, etc., and efforts by individual volunteers stimulated to create an online version of a favorite older work. Since it is difficult to keep up with all the separate projects underway, it is a major convenience to have the works by women pointed to from this site. 2. While large university libraries will have print versions of all or most of the texts digitized in these projects, they are a boon to smaller colleges, offering access to rare material not before available in their libraries.

Though browsable by author, century, and country, A Celebration of Women Writers does not have a dedicated mechanism for searching directly for a particular title. It is possible, however, to accomplish this by using the search feature of a companion site, the Online Books Page, edited by John Mark Ockerbloom at http://digital.library.upenn. edu/books/search.html, which includes the texts linked from A Celebration of Women Writers. Searching within the full texts of the works is dependent on the project that did the digitizing. Some of the digitized versions have been input in plain text or HTML, rather than a structured mark-up language (SGML or XML). As a result, there are no search capabilities for these beyond the simple "find" and "find again" commands within an Internet browser. Twenty Years at Hull House, by Jane Addams, Mary Antin's The Promised Land, and Catharine Beecher's "Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, with Reference to the Duty of American Females" are examples from among the hundreds of historically relevant texts input in this way that can be accessed from this site. Myrta Lockett Avary's A Virginia Girl in the Civil War, 1861-1865: Being a Record of the Actual Experiences of the Wife of a Confederate Officer is one that is accessible both in HTML and in SGML.




Maintained at Michigan State University by H-Women Editors

H-Women is first and foremost an electronic discussion group for historians to discuss women's history. Messages posted to the list are arranged by discussion thread, and resource information is compiled into subject bibliographies. The site also has conference announcements, syllabi, book reviews and links to other women's history sites. Though definitely the best place to find opinions of historians, the other mega-sites mentioned above are better as pointers to digital collections of primary sources.

Women's History Resources


Maintained by Phyllis Holman Weisbard, University of Wisconsin System

This section of our office's website can also be used as a metasite, particularly for links to oral history projects with excerpts or transcripts online, descriptions of women-focused material within the major ongoing digital projects in the United States, and links to other sites of interest to academics.

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Visiting two or more of the meta-pages above from time to time will keep you abreast of most happenings in the digitization of primary source material relevant to women's history. Below are examples of several of the important collections pointed to from the meta-pages:

General Digital Collections

American Memory Historical Collections, Library of Congress


Skeptical about the digital collections? Just look at this one. I guarantee that only the severest Luddite will remain one. Numerous divisions of the Library of Congress are contributing to multimedia Americana col-lections of digitized documents, photographs, recorded sound, moving pictures, and text. The result is in some ways better than an in-person visit to LC with its welter of buildings, divisions, reading rooms, and rules for use. A good example is "Votes for Women: Selections From the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921." It consists of 167 books, pamphlets and other artifacts documenting the role of the NAWSA and its predecessor organizations (the National Woman Suffrage Association [NWSA] led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association [AWSA], led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe) in the long road to suf-frage. Most of the material is from the Library of Congress' own collections, but not all. Other repositories, including the New York Public Library and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, consented to have their relevant holdings scanned in as well. While this cooperative procedure has been followed in the past in the assembling of large microform sets, even well-indexed sets cannot compete with the fulltext search capabilities of "Votes for Women" and other online col-lections, which make it possible to jump directly to instances where a person, place, or concept is mentioned.

"Votes for Women" has a small companion pictorial exhibit, "Votes for Women Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920" from the Prints and Photographs Division, that sports portraits of suffrage leaders and a few photographs from suffrage parades and pro and anti-suffrage cartoons and photographs. The pictures are familiar ones often reproduced in textbooks - in fact the Library deliberately mounted those that are most frequently requested for photoduplication. Scholars would want more, and perhaps in time the Library will add to this exhibit.

Suffrage, however, is only one of the many topics in American women's history that can be examined in the American Memory Project. "Making Do: Women and Work" offers excerpts from interviews with three women among the interviewees in the Federal Writers Project, 1936-1940; first person narratives by women participants can be retrieved in the "California's Early Years" collection, and there are over two hundred shots of women at work in munitions factories and on the farm in a large 1930s set from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information. Both "Women Pioneers" and "Women's History" groupings bring together items from throughout American Memory's named collections. Keyword searches across all American Memory Project collections turn up many more items in such collections as "African American Perspectives" pamphlets, "Quilts and Quiltmaking in America, 1978-1996," and among the more than two hun-dred dance manuals in the aforementioned "American Ballroom Companion" collection.

Early Canada Online


If your interest runs to Canadiana, try Early Canada Online (ECO), a full-text online collection of more than three thousand books and pamphlets in English and French documenting Canadian history to the late nineteenth century. On the English site, a whopping 686 documents resulted from a subject search for "women." The collection is a good resource for women's travel writing (for example, To Klondike By Sea, by Geraldine Bonner, 1897) or for reading how an anthropologist (Otis Mason) regarded women's roles and Native American culture in 1895 (Women's Share in Primitive Culture). It could also be used to examine writings on women's suffrage in Canada, perhaps with an eye toward comparing them to those from the United States, such as are in the NAWSA collection. Each page can be rotated, which is especially nice for illustrations, and the collection is searchable throughout the full texts.

Making of America

University of Michigan portion, URL: http://moa.umdl.

Cornell University portion, URL:

This project offers digitized versions of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum per-iod through the early twentieth century found in the collec-tions of the two collaborating institutions. Users view images of the actual pages of the nineteenth-century books and journals scanned from the collections. Many of the items also had Optical Character Recognition (OCR) applied to the scanned texts, plus SGML encoding of the ensuing textual information. For these items, full-text searching is possible. Users can also choose to "view as text" to increase the readability (and to see where the OCR program has misread characters). At the present time, the two collections must be searched separately, but there are plans to integrate them.

The Cornell collection includes twenty-two journals (and 267 books). A search on the term "women" yields some fascinating articles, such as "Women's Views of Divorce," an 1890 piece by Rose Terry Cooke in The North American Review that allowed no grounds for divorce other than infidelity, and "Rum Creeters is Women," by J. W. De Forest, a tale of love and betrayal across the Civil War divide, published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1867. The University of Michigan portion includes an 1855 book about women missionaries (Daughters of the Cross: or, Woman's Mission by Daniel C. Eddy), one from 1866 detailing the work of women in the Civil War (Women of the War; Their Heroism and Self-sacrifice, by Frank Moore), and biographical sketches of prominent women of the time, such as Florence Nightingale, Lydia Maria Child, and Emma Willard (Eminent Women of the Age Being Narratives of the Lives and Deeds of the Most Prominent Women of the Present Generation, by James Parton, Horace Greeley, T. W. Higginson, et al., 1868). The Ladies Repository, 1841-1876, and Vanity Fair, 1860-62, are two of the eleven journals in the Michigan collection that are of relevance for women's history. These volumes include images of engravings and cartoons.

National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Archival Information Locator (NAIL)


NAIL is a prototype database of 124,000 digital copies of the most popular manuscripts, photographs, maps, drawings and other documents in the National Archives. Included is a ready-made unit for schools on "Woman Suffrage and the 19th Amendment," but many more items on women are retrieved through keyword searches. "Girls" turned up 1,512 hits, of which 272 are photographs. A use-ful exercise for a course on gender and race in American history would be deconstructing the revealing scenes of Native American girls at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools, including one where they are playing, of all things, croquet! ("Girls playing croquet." [NRE-75-PI(PHO)-7], or of young African American women given training to be domestics: "Colored girls attending WPA household workers training center (serving a tea given for the Phoenix Recreation Dept.)" ca.1936 [NLR-PHOCO-A-5251(107)]. More fun is "Two girls fishing at Short Creek" [NRCA-142-INF001-10836A], 1940.



J. Walter Thompson Company Competitive Advertisements Collection of the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising and Marketing History, Rare Books, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

One of the questions I get every semester comes from students in a communications course who need to examine gendered messages in advertisements from the days before the modern women's movement raised the consciousness of advertisers. This special collection from Duke is an excellent resource for them, especially the Beauty and Hygiene section, which includes ads from the 1920s through the 1950s for cosmetics, soap, and feminine hygiene products.

A Sampling of Digital Collections Specifically on Women

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century


Digital Schomburg Collection, New York Public Library

Some of the historical works in this collection are The Work of the Afro-American Woman, a 1908 encomium by N.F. Mosell, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction, by Hallie Q. Brown (1926), and several more biographies and autobiographies.

Five College Archives Digital Access Project


Created and maintained by Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts

This effort focuses on the history of women's education at the participating institutions. Included are oral his-tories, records from student organizations, personal papers of women faculty, and more. Other colleges may want to organize similar projects, perhaps in commemoration of a significant anniversary of the admittance of women students.

Marriage, Women and the Law: A Digital Collection


Sponsored by the Research Libraries Group, this demonstration project focuses on family law and domestic relations in the nineteenth century, primarily in the United States, with some material from the United Kingdom. The New York Public Library contributed material on social conventions and the status of women; New York University Law Library supplied documents on the Comstock laws; Harvard University Law Library gave accounts of trials; North Carolina State Archives had material on mar-riage in the South; University of Pennsylvania Law Library, anti-miscegenation documents; Library Company of Philadelphia, miscegenation; Princeton University Libraries, polygamy and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; and the University of Leeds contributed the British sources. (In order to access, click on the connect button.)

Suffragists Oral History Project


Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley

In the early 1970s, the Regional Oral History Office conducted interviews with suffragist leaders Alice Paul, Sara Bard Field, Burnita Shelton Matthews, Helen Valeska Bary, Jeannette Rankin, Mabel Vernon, Rebecca Hourwich Reyher, and five rank-and-file suffragists. In the 1990s, the transcripts were encoded using the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines for SGML. The result are fully searchable versions of the interviews.

Women in Journalism


Washington Press Club Foundation, Washington, DC

A major resource and inspiration for women considering careers in journalism, the Women in Journalism Project interviewed almost sixty women who, according to the site, "have made significant contributions to society through careers in journalism since the 1920s." Most but not all the interviews have transcripts online.

A Sampling of Online Exhibits in Women's History

Emma Goldman Papers Project site


Besides offering selections from the printed guide to the sixty-nine-reel microfilm collection of Goldman papers assembled by the Project, the site has excerpts of texts and photographs from a traveling exhibit on her life.

Jewish Women's Archive


The "Women of Valor" series on the site exhibits the lives and accomplishments of selected North American Jewish women. Three have been chosen for the project each year since 1998. The 2000 Women of Valor are Congresswoman and activist Bella Abzug, anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, and Canadian Olympic medalist Bobbie Rosenfeld. The site has audio and film clips, photographs, and text.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire


Presented by the Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives at Cornell University in cooperation with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE!)

The famous sweatshop fire on March 25, 1911, killed 146 workers, primarily young immigrant women who jumped to their deaths in desperate attempts to get out of the burning building, while spectators helplessly watched in horror. The exhibit includes photographs, newspaper accounts, political cartoons decrying the conditions, and audio clips from oral histories with witnesses and survivors.

Hawaii Women's Heritage Project


Presented by the Women's Studies Program of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa; created by faculty and students

The Program has mounted several separate multimedia projects that other Women's Studies Programs might like to emulate with features on their local history and issues. "Women and Work in Hawai'i: Into the Marketplace" uses a laundry line throughout to symbolize the "fluid exchange of women's work between the home and the labor market." Other parts include a site about the hula and about Chinese women in Hawaii.

Motherhood, Social Service, and Political

Reform: Political Culture and Imagery of American Woman Suffrage


Featured on the website of the National Museum of Women's History, proposed for Washington, DC

The exhibit examines the political imagery and artifacts of the suffrage movement. Visitors can also listen to a suffrage song.

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The sites described above are but some of the ever-growing number of primary resources for women's history available on the Internet. As the quantity and quality escalate, the need for tools designed to lead potential users to them - whether by means of traditional cataloging or other techniques tailored to a webbed environment - will become more critical. Let's hope that the online community recognizes this fact and rises to the occasion. If not, the Internet will be a decidedly frustrating place for historians and students, in large measure no better off than they were in the pre-Internet days when primary source material was buried in archives.


1. Readers wishing to locate the personal papers of an individual woman or the records of a women's organization should try the index to Women's History Sources, a Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections in the United States, edited by Andrea Hinding et al. (2 v., Bowker, 1979), and the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), published by the Library of Congress in print volumes through 1993, and online for cataloging records created since 1986/87 at The commercial database ArchivesUSA indexes NUCMC (1959-present) and NIDS (National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States, a microfiche set of finding aids). (Finding aids are detailed descriptions of collections of personal papers or organizational records. An inventory at the box or folder level is generally included.) ArchivesUSA also links to repositories with homepages and to some finding aids. Several archival finding aids digitization projects are linked from For a look at some relevant online finding aids, try the Harvard Online Archival Search Information System (OASIS) at and select the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Linked from the resultant page are over thirty aids mounted in both SGML and HTML versions.

2. For links to collections of digitized historical texts, see #history, maintained by John Mark Ockerbloom on The Online Books Page.

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