Women's Studies Scholarship: Its Impact on the Information World

by Sarah M. Pritchard 

This paper was first presented at the 50th anniversary conference on "Women, Information and the Future" at Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, June 1994. A very abridged version of this was printed in the conference proceedings, Women, Information, and the Future: Collecting and Sharing Resources Worldwide, edited by Eva Steiner Moseley, pp. 15-23. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press, 1995. Sarah Pritchard has granted permission for this original text to be available via the FTF Web site.


One might wonder why feminist thought has any more or less impact on the world of information and libraries than any other subject. In fact, there is a fundamental connection between the two. Librarianship is concerned with understanding the nature of information and recorded expression, the ways people seek and use it, and thus the best structures and processes for organizing, documenting, preserving and sharing it. Feminist thought is calling into question the values and definitions underlying our very concepts of knowledge, thus also questioning the whole structures and institutions we have built around those concepts.

I would like examine what is information and what is women's studies, and what has been the fruitful interaction between them over the last twenty years. I'm using the term information in its broadest sense, that is, recorded knowledge, creative writings, the documentation of human endeavor, whatever the subject or, most importantly, whatever the physical format or package -- printed books and periodicals, unpublished records, electronic databases, graphic images, broadcast media, and access to information services themselves.

In libraries, we analyze the systems for organizing information starting at its creation: who generates the material, what kinds of things are produced, who publishes or distributes them, what categories of materials are distributed through what channels and aimed at what audiences, who collects or controls access, who gets to use the material; and how can we document these channels, set up indexes and catalogs to track all these materials and information services even if we don't actually own them, and how can we explain all this information and all these access mechanisms? Libraries serve as the gatekeepers of culture and learning. Whether we admit it or not, libraries, in selecting some items and ignoring others, in codifying knowledge through cataloging and classification, in actively assisting users or passively standing by, control access to, and impose a structure and a relational value system on, all forms of information, creativity and communication. This has implications for women, women's studies, and other topics and users that do not fit into these structures and values.

What has then been the impact of women's studies on the way we define and organize information? While writings by women and about women's experiences date back to the Greeks, there was little sense of an integral body of feminist thought until the 19th century, and "women's studies" did not have an identity before the wave of political action and intellectual work starting in the 1970s. I would like show how the growth of library collections and services in women's studies has paralleled the growth of the field itself, and explore some of the obstacles encountered by researchers and the responses taken by librarians. I base my analysis on the North American experience; though it would be useful to have comparative studies of this development in other countries, where the political, social and educational structures would combine in different ways.

Definition and origins

The term "women's studies" is not only hard to define, but it comes in for criticism from many perspectives. At the narrowest, it means material about women, their activities and characteristics, but not necessarily from any political or revisionist perspective; at the broadest, it implies a gender-based critique of all fields of academic inquiry and social endeavor.

Women's studies, or perhaps a better term is feminist thought, encompasses the humanities, sciences, and social sciences, both historical and contemporary analyses, from scholarly, popular, and activist perspectives. It is international and interdisciplinary. And it is constantly evolving and reshaping, within itself, and as it transforms traditional disciplines. Women's studies, in fact, challenges the very notion of separations, whether between disciplines, between teachers and students, or among the academy, the state and the populace. Feminist thought has posed new theories about the connections between subjects, has criticized philosophical notions of objectivity and universalism, has uncovered bias in the canon and in the idea of having a canon at all. Feminist research has found new value in sources long forgotten or thought to be unacademic or too subjective, and has forged creative links among an array of subjects, materials and perspectives. The "subject" of women's studies is not limited to women, but has extended to an exploration of the way the gender-based development of our entire culture has affected learning and knowledge, and the power that results from that knowledge.

All of the definitions and aspects of women's studies must be considered when trying to organize and provide information. Beyond just specific subjects about women, feminist critique is particularly crucial to an understanding of the process of communicating knowledge, of which libraries, universities, and many social agencies are a part. The feminist movement helped create new information and redefine old sources, helped create new research methods and critique the traditional ones, looked at women both as participants in, and subjects of, the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This critique has been applied to women and writing, publishing, mass media, literacy, education, technology, and of course libraries. It applies not only to the information itself but to women as users, creators and managers of it, and involves issues of economics, employment, public policy and ethics. This world of information and this feminist analysis is a continuum, and we have to be aware of all of the the linkages within it.

Women's studies in libraries

Women's studies in the U.S. today is an outgrowth of the women's movement of the late 60's and early 70's. There were at least two branches in this movement; first, the more mainstream approach of the government commissions, national women's organizations, and women active in public policy debate. Second, there was the more radical grass-roots women's liberation movement of the late 60's, linked to civil rights, anti-war and leftist movements, garnering lots of media attention and giving rise to a much broader social and political critique. The first official women's studies program was established in 1970, and programs proliferated rapidly. Both separate women's studies programs, and courses included in existing departments were created, which colors the philosophy of the faculty, the kinds of assignments and research conducted, and the sources and methods deemed acceptable. This distinction also affects library and information services.

In the 1970s women's movement, an immediate need was felt for bibliographies, resource materials, and the recovery of so-called "lost" primary source documents, thus, many early publishing efforts focused on anthologies, bibliographies, and guides. Both women's studies programs and feminist activist groups are highly information- oriented, creating a wealth of books, newsletters, manifestos, self-help publications, conference papers, and other documents. The development of these feminist and women's studies resources reflects many of the conceptual concerns of the movement: breaking down barriers and hierarchies; accurate and adaptable language; revisionist interpretations of academic canons; grass-roots foundations; inclusion of perspectives from lesbians, ethnic women, women of color, diverse ages, classes and nationalities, women with disabilities, and the like; and the importance of women maintaining control over the creation and distribution of their work.

Feminist and women's studies sources are valuable in two ways, both for their immediate content, and almost as "objects," a means of studying the frameworks of the movement and the discipline. But how much of this material has made it into libraries? It was not brought in by the traditional net thrown by library acquisition channels. And much of "it" didn't even exist in the 1970s. But librarians and scholars around the country started to create it, go out and find it, keep it, look at why it had not been kept before, started to look at what was in libraries and whether it was going to help do the kinds of research emerging in literature, history and social studies.

The impact of feminism on women librarians in the U.S., and the development of women's studies, are two converging trends that affected library resources and services. Over the last twenty years, the drive for equity and equality within the library profession has generated research and policy change, and has included, from the beginning, a focus on resources and services in libraries. Not one, but at least six or seven different groups and committees of feminist librarians arose, and still exist, within U.S. professional library organizations. A female- dominated profession (85% women), librarianship suffers from both internal and external discrimination such as job segregation, pay inequities, underrepresentation of women in management, lack of flexible employment policies, and the overall lower salaries of the profession compared to others in the country. The effort to improve information and services for women and women's studies is all the stronger from being situated within this broad context of professional awareness.

The structure and content of women's studies research is broader and more complicated than any one field, issue, ideology or media event, and the library collections needed to support it must be as well. In looking at women's studies and feminist research, what is important to me as a librarian are questions like the following: What information is needed? What sources are available? What is missing from libraries, and why? How do our criteria for selection and our priorities for processing affect access to women's studies information? What is probably located there, but obscured by biased interpretation, archaic or sexist language, by lack of indexing, or by censorship? What sources are thought inappropriate for libraries, or are pre-judged as only being valuable in certain instances? What has been neglected, because it was ephemeral, or didn't "look" academic, or was hard to get, or controversial? What doesn't seem to exist at all? What are the best research strategies for using the sources and access tools we do have to respond to and educate library users? Most importantly, who are those users, where do they live and work and get information, and do they even know they can come to the library for help?

Phases of Women's Studies Information in Libraries

I would like to illustrate the growth of women's studies information resources by using what women's history scholars call "stage" or "phase" theory, to look at the intellectual evolution of the field and to show what kinds of library resources and responses are evoked at each stage. In my definition of phases, I am borrowing from scholars like Gerda Lerner and Peggy McIntosh. Phases are not exact; they overlap and coexist, and reflect variations of time, place and application. It may seem artificial, but the concept helps us to understand the kinds of research done, the kinds of sources used, and the kinds of curricular approaches seen in American universities.

The first phase might be called "womanless" or "male" scholarship. This would be the classic white, male western dominant tradition, reflecting highly exclusionary standards and, of course, an assumption that these standards are not only objective but normal, universal, essential and unquestionable. Women were not entirely forgotten; you might find a few things noting deviations when they step out of their role, or giving praise for upholding men and the family. Queens and female rulers get some attention, within strict historical categories. Even if there is a little information by or about women, it is not relevant to the way scholarship is conducted or organized thus is easily overlooked, not collected, not listed in bibliographies, not asked for.

When researchers and librarians interested in women's studies confront libraries and information resources at this stage, it leads to a process of recognizing invisibility and developing strategies to overcome it, by turning sources around, inferring evidence, and using old things in new ways. Many researchers and activists may turn away completely from academic libraries, to go directly to special collections in organizations, or to develop their own primary material. Libraries may be seen as worse than useless, because the gaps-- which are not acknowledged as such-- are actually misleading. This leads naturally to a desire to really examine the deficiencies, to begin to unearth better information and to create new research tools. So,

In the second phase, termed by some "compensatory" scholarship, women are added, but into the roles and standards already defined in the first phase. This is a common characterization of most academic libraries and scholarly research, at least until recently. There have in fact been serious substantive works on aspects of women's history and sociology since the first generation of college-educated women began writing in the last decades of the 19th century. With the advent of women's studies, the value of these sources is rediscovered, although they had been there all along. One finds new questions being asked about old materials, for example analyzing the images of women in existing texts; and this phase leads to some additional "factual" documentation, for example identifying who were the women novelists in America in the 19th century. But for the most part, women are still seen as exceptions, or adjuncts, to the main discourse.

This very common phase is exemplified by many Library of Congress subject headings that used to start "women in" or "women as," and by a smattering of bibliographies of the same sort. Upon examination, a lot of stuff was in libraries, especially in the genres of literature, travelogues, domestic manuals, old-fashioned medical works, and religious and educational works aimed at women. Even before the 1970s there were a few special collections and archives focused on women's history, for example right here at the Schlesinger Library, and at Smith College. Except for what one might call "famous females," however, there was a dearth of biographical information and little demographic data of any detail. Women were too often included only under their husband's or fathers' names, in census and property and legal records; even author headings in card catalogs strictly listed all of a woman's husband's surnames even if she never used them. There was very little information written from women's own points of view, and even the "women in" approach neglected a vast literature whose relevance was not well understood.

This is a typical, and for some a comfortable phase that we are still in for many subjects, though in some areas of inquiry we have been able to move to a different level. This phase gave rise, and continues to generate, a large amount of academic publishing because, in some ways, it is "safe" and an obvious purchase for libraries. However, in what is the "add women and stir" approach, one has not really challenged the underlying structures or built significant new tools. It is important to remember that this stage is only the beginning of women's studies; for some short-sighted scholars and librarians, unfortunately, it may be the end.

In the third phase, we start to look at women as a special group, as a "problem" or anomaly or absence in history and scholarship, and we identify the barriers that have excluded them and other groups. This has also been called a "bifocal" phase, looking at women as separate and yet as part of the dominant society. The discovery of deep discrimination can generate immense anger, a sense of deprivation, a demand for rights and redress, and a push towards separatism. It is the point at which scholars and librarians and policy makers, we hope, begin to seriously challenge the traditional canons and paradigms that caused the gaps. Women's studies scholarship in this phase is generating a continuous and steady flow of research, new journals, publications from both mainstream and alternative presses, only some portion of which -- again, the more acceptable academic work -- is getting into libraries or getting found once it's there.

In libraries, this phase has motivated a highly productive examination of our tools and procedures and the ways in which they embed bias and omission. This includes acquisitions, where criteria for selecting books and publishers may cause small press, ephemera, and lesbian materials to be ignored; cataloging, where subject headings have been the focus of intense criticism and revision; bibliography, where we find feminist and women's studies sources inadequately and inaccurately covered in periodical indexes and reference books; and public services, where outreach to meet the informational and scholarly needs of women is underdeveloped.

We have undertaken a variety of local and national projects to address these biases and omissions. The types of strategies categorized in this phase include revising LC subject headings, getting more periodicals covered in indexes and databases, getting more feminist press books reviewed in traditional library journals, compiling new more comprehensive bibliographies. There has been an increase in ideas for developing special services for women as library users, for example referral files and clearinghouses, and bibliographic instruction for women's studies courses. But unless we continue to move forward, the need for these services and integration attempts will be seen as only temporary or remedial.

The anger and frustration of the third phase lead to the fourth, which looks at women on their own terms, revalorizing them as a group. The focus is on women's lives and experiences, the cultures and values women have created throughout history, their ideas and affiliations. This focus on women's social history is not without criticism, since some fear that it may result in a form of ghettoization, nonetheless, it has been the occasion for a large body of research, and in some ways has been a link between academic research and certain elements of contemporary feminism, a link not there with some of the more conventional forms of scholarship, or with some of the more anti- academic branches of feminism. There is a search for new and plural sources of knowledge and documentation, a search which has immense implications for libraries, changing the ways we use existing sources, and pushing us to acquire more and different sources.

Librarians must exercise considerable creativity to support research at this stage. Scholars may be using old sources, but employing a revisionist method. New sources needed may include realia, audio-visuals, oral history, elementary textbooks, demographic data, domestic manuals, diaries, things with no subject categorizations. Women's traditional lack of education, power, and access to the public institutions of society has resulted in a great lack of historical records and evidence of their daily lives, although there is no lack of prescriptive and didactic writing on what women were supposed to do. Sources outside the library become very important, so the librarian must maintain an active liaison and referral role to ensure access to information, and a dynamic give and take between the users and creators of information.

If we assume that all the phases are coexisting, then at this point we have developed an extremely rich literature and the field has become established as an ongoing part of research. Librarians are then in a position, as we have been for last few years, to look at the whole scholarly apparatus for women's studies: creating not just single bibliographies, but bibliographies of bibliographies, not just adding periodicals to old indexes, but creating new indexes and databases. National and international collaborative projects have given rise to women's studies thesauri, numerous databases, major guides for research in the field, and a collection evaluation "Conspectus" explicitly for women's studies, which is a set of guidelines and a classification structure for evaluating the strength of academic library collections. The Conspectus structure is being used for all subjects at many major libraries; the addition of women's studies is a major step toward developing resource sharing agreements, planning preservation programs, dividing acquisitions budgets and even promoting user education; to be able to integrate women's studies is a major step. The actual resources being linked and documented with these tools may not be new, but the view of them as an integrated whole is, and we are seeing the services described a moment ago become more permanent, as the discipline itself is firmly established.

A fifth phase, the last one defined in most of these schemes, is the most radical and the most unrealized. It implies a multifocal approach to history and to all subjects. It would reflect a fundamental transformation and an epistemological growth that we have only begun to describe, let alone experience. It would bring a wholism and integration to the study of all areas of human endeavor. It is at this point that some people believe we might not need "women's studies" as a separate department; but it is at this point that the very way we define subjects and departments should have evolved to take into account the critiques emerging from the earlier phases. I am not aware of any area in the information or academic field where we have reached this phase, so I would say we continue to be working with a combination of the others, and even if some very narrowly defined fields start to show this paradigm shift, we will still be using the philosophies and strategies of women's studies as a distinct field for some time to come.

Feminist Issues and Library Strategies

Women's studies and feminist critique cannot be contained within a single department or discipline or group or issue, but on the other hand there are unique central theoretical perspectives. Thus, I believe we will always see two ongoing and interrelated strategies, in scholarship, in political activism, in the curriculum, and in information services.

The first is the mainstreaming approach, where we try to get information about women into individual disciplines, ultimately leading toward change in the methodological foundations of the disciplines themselves. In a library, we would try to get every subject specialist and every bibliographer to select items by and about women that fell into her or his area of expertise, for example music, political science, French literature, African studies. We would make sure that these books were cataloged and classified in such a way as to spread them throughout the entire stacks, together with other related subjects and not lumped under HQ. Bibliographic instruction classes would incorporate women's studies topics in regular sessions for students in History, English, Psychology, et cetera. Electronic forms of information would be no different.

The second is the separatist approach, where we continue to maintain a distinct women's studies department and core faculty, and we focus on the special needs of women whether as faculty, employees, students, or women in the community who need educational or information services,. In the library, we would have a women's studies specialist and perhaps a women's studies reference collection. This would ensure that multi-disciplinary works, feminist theory that did not fall into any preexisting category, works that challenge the traditional divisions of format, subject and genre, would be purchased and linked with the other bodies of creative and scholarly work in women's studies. Separate bibliographic instruction classes, computer training and similar public services would be tailored to support women's studies and women students.

I strongly advocate that we maintain both approaches, because both have value in various contexts and because we cannot assume that either one on its own will be effective. As scholars and librarians have moved through the phases of disciplinary growth, both strategies have been deployed. We need to maintain a focus on our topic and its unique aspects, but we also need to get it into everyone's separate collections and syllabi. And in so doing, we must revisit fundamental assumptions about the nature of evidence and interpretation in all fields.

In closing, let me ask, what is the future of women's studies information?

Library services must deal with students, faculty, writers and publishers at all stages, using all approaches, and must be able to operate across methodological, conceptual, format and disciplinary divisions. Will women's studies be forgotten once it is no longer trendy or politically "hot?" In the current debate over the academic "canon," will conservative pressures squeeze out the whole subject? Some of the areas to consider are:

--In library purchasing, what materials are cut when budgets get tight? And now that there is a lot of academic hardcover publishing in women's studies, will we forget about the ephemera and alternative presses? Will we select only "safe" women's studies material? Will we not complain that new forms of electronic media are replicating many of the same biases? Will we continue to pressure publishers in both the commercial and nonprofit sectors to make sure the information comes out at all? How will we make sure we get international material, when financial constraints, standardized vendor plans, and official policies from national libraries and large publishers may filter out the very materials we most want?

--With the increased emphasis on preserving library materials, and its reliance on government and foundation funding, how will items be selected for microfilming or digitizing or remote storage? Will important women's studies historical sources be lost because they do not fit into traditional classifications and bibliographies used to plan preservation projects? Again, looking internationally, will we lose a great proportion of non-U.S. material since so few countries can yet move to wide use of acid-free paper? Will technical and financial support to begin preservation programs be given to those countries, and will women's information be included?

--Even if we could afford to buy all the necessary material, are the priorities we establish for organizing and cataloging going to relegate women's studies sources to the back shelf because they are unbound, raggedy looking, and don't arrive with advance data from the Library of Congress? If it's not already listed in a national computer network, what will happen? In the context of this conference, will the lower cataloging priority often given by U.S. libraries to material published in other languages affect our access, right at the time when international women's studies is expanding?

--As more and more individual people gain access to information through computer networks and not via libraries or other intermediaries, what will happen to non-mainstream information? Will some information only come out electronically, and what about poor people, more of whom are women-- will they have access to information vital to their lives? Will the commercial sector control more information? Will our computer systems link across countries, and will girls and women get the training? How can librarians, computer systems designers and information users work together to ensure equity in content and access?

I have tried to outline the growth of a rich and multidimensional body of literature, and the attempts to get this material into the systems established for information access and services. The influence of women's studies goes far beyond just cataloging and collection development for one subject. The greatest potential impact for feminist thought, an impact gradually beginning to be felt and one that may have a longer-lasting effect than some political changes, is in the sociology of knowledge. Libraries, universities, publishers and the media are concrete mechanisms for transmitting content, legitimacy, history and, implicitly, social value. Such institutions cannot then ignore challenges to their own operations; rather, we must mobilize resources to enable writers, librarians, publishers, faculty, students, policy-makers and women in the community to find information, and to use it to create new services, structures and sources.