What Makes a Radical Women’s History Archive Today?

October 5, 2020

Mary Murphy serves as the Nancy L. Buc ‘65 Pembroke Center Archivist where she curates and oversees the Christine Dunlap Farnham and Feminist Theory Archives, Brown’s womxn’s history special collections.

What makes a radical women’s history archive? This is the question I was asked to discuss last March with a group of students here at the Center for Public Humanities. Such an inquiry was posed to me because I manage the Pembroke Center Archives, which is part of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women at Brown University. The Pembroke Center is home to Brown’s Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies where part of our mission is to curate special collections by and about womxn in partnership with the John Hay Library. And because my office is sometimes described as a “radical history archive”, I began my talk on our history and mission with an opening quote by the activist Marie Meiselman Shear:

“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” 

This inherently simple notion, dating to 1986, is one that the enduring women’s rights movement still holds true and that underpins what makes women’s history archives “radical.” It is that we simply see and value women’s contributions to history enough to include them in research archives, alongside that of the white men’s history that has always been there.

Those were my thoughts in March of this year.

That time marked a unique moment in this nation’s history, when all of us seemingly had just stepped onto the train tracks and peered into a tunnel further down the line, only seeing the faint headlight of the coronavirus ahead of us. What we could not know then was that it was a locomotive also carrying the toxic freight of police violence, deadly anti-Black racism, and a demand to stand in solidarity for democracy and racial justice through a pandemic: a call to do the hard work of social justice at a time when lives would be at risk. 

Because our world is so different now, as I reflect on the question again -- what makes the Pembroke Center Archives a radical history archive? -- my answer has changed. It has been enriched through many small moments that I have experienced in the last six months and that are of great importance to me. And to history, I hope.

Like the time I stood in my kitchen on the West Side of Providence and spoke over the phone with a Chinese-American alumna of Brown’s graduate school. I listened there as she read me passages from the diary she will be donating to our Farnham Archive on the history of women at Brown. She shared her thoughts on George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police and the racism and sexism she has experienced throughout her own life. I walked back and forth, listening as she read to me out loud, writing that she was not sad but enraged at the injustice that she saw on television, and felt personally. I could hear her anger crack across the line. That diary - and one day making it available to researchers - is what I think makes our archive radical.  

It is the time during the peak of the pandemic’s first wave in New England (we are still waiting for what’s to come now that we are into the fall) when running a radical history archive meant sitting in my parked car speaking by cell phone for the first time with the daughter of Cheryl Wall. Wall is considered a founding mother of Black feminist studies, where her scholarship focused on Zora Neale Hurston and women of the Harlem Renaissance. She died very suddenly about a week before I spoke with her daughter on that day. To me, radical history work means putting aside your fears of speaking with strangers, especially those who are in deep mourning, to instead find a way to connect with them, even as their experience may be so different from your own. It means having to ask, “Did your mother die of COVID-19?” (she did not).  It means making that connection, building trust, and then working as a team to see a donor’s mother’s wishes fulfilled: that her groundbreaking collection be preserved as part of our Black Feminist Theory Project/Feminist Theory Archive.

Because COVID-19 makes it unsafe for researchers to visit us in person, our work also now entails scanning hundreds of documents from the Hortense J. Spillers and Anne Fausto-Sterling collections for Brown undergraduate research fellows and outside scholars. We do this because we refuse to cut off access to landmark collections that focus on Black feminist theory and gender studies just because a pandemic makes our jobs harder. Particularly in this moment, we are not going to deny access to historical information just when young people are struggling to learn, and especially for those who want to study history that reflects their lives. Running a radical history archive means providing excellent public service and treating researchers like they are family. 

And it is recording an oral history with a staff member who is an expectant mother and woman of color, living through the pandemic in New York City with her husband and small child. It was sitting with her, recording an interview via Zoom for our Pembroke Center Oral History Project and asking her about motherhood and her experience being pregnant with a son at this time in history. A radical history archive means listening to her and allowing the recording to document a shared trauma as she recalled the deeply sad moment that neither of us will ever forge - the video of George Floyd calling out for his mother as a police officer suffocated him with his knee for nine minutes. It is the sound of my colleague’s voice, then silence, and the video of her face as the two of us mourned for this man and for our nation. It is seeing value in preserving the history of this moment, her story, and the evidence of what happened here, in the year 2020, and as experienced by womxn. That is what makes our archive radical.    

For more information about the Pembroke Center and our archive, please visit our website