New digital portal brings women’s history, feminist theory to the fore

New access via the Brown University Library provides an easy connection to the Pembroke Center Archives, a treasure trove of documents, interviews and photos by and about women.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Once every few months, Mary Murphy finds herself in a total stranger’s house, buried deep in their closets and storage spaces, surrounded by legal documents, photographs and correspondence. Together with an assistant, she’ll unearth discarded drafts of poetry, divorce papers, personal diaries, decades-old photos and intimate letters from friends. And though Murphy knows just the basics about the person whose effects she’s perusing, it’s up to her to decide whether each document could be historically significant.

As the archivist at Brown University’s Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, Murphy spends much of her time soliciting, collecting and combing through the documents of women who have made history — and those who someday could.

Colorful mementos
Mementos from alumnae of Brown's Pembroke College, now part of the Pembroke Center Archives, tell timeless stories of political activism, personal struggles and close friendships on campus.
Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

“I think a lot of people go into library science because they think it’s something solitary, something they can do quietly in a corner,” Murphy said. “But it actually puts you in an incredibly intimate environment, and you have to be comfortable with that. You’re with donors in their homes, which may be sweaty or freezing or dirty, and you have to say, ‘I’m not seeing any of that. I’m here to build trust with the donor and to get this job done.’”

Among the items Murphy has recently unearthed: the founding manifestos of the International Feminist Collective, miniature self-published magazines folded to resemble condom wrappers, and paperwork confirming a famed playwright and performer’s legal name change from Albert to Kate.

These documents and more are part of the Pembroke Center’s ever-growing archives, which aim to preserve and promote women’s history, both in Rhode Island and worldwide. And now, just in time for Women’s History Month, it’s easier than ever for scholars to browse those archives on Brown’s library website. Rather than relying on boolean search terms to find a needle in a haystack, Murphy said, scholars who are particularly interested in women’s history can visit the Brown Library’s A to Z Collections portal to access a curated collection of women’s archives.

“For the first time, library users can access fully organized and described special collections and manuscripts that are by and about women in a matter of seconds — fully processed, fully organized,” said Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, director of the Pembroke Center. “This is an important step in bringing more women’s voices to the fore in every academic field, from women’s and gender studies to history, science and art.

Already, scholars, authors and filmmakers across the country are taking advantage of these unique holdings to conduct original research and share new stories with the public. Creators of a to-be-released documentary on Anne Sexton have found crucial biographical details in the papers of the poet’s biographer Diane Middlebrook, which are part of the Pembroke archives. The Pembroke Center Oral History Project — a collection of 250 interviews with female, transgender and non-binary alumni of Brown — plays a major role in an ongoing study on memory, sexual harassment, assault and abuse by researchers at Stanford University. And one researcher studying the famous 20th-century psychologist B.F. Skinner recently used papers in the Pembroke Archives to investigate whether literary theorist Barbara Herrnstein Smith helped develop some of Skinner’s most famous theories while she was working as a technician in his lab.

“This researcher is looking at our collection of Barbara’s papers going, ‘B.F. Skinner’s theories may have been greatly affected by this woman. Why doesn’t anyone know about her?’” Murphy said. “The idea that these archives could give credit to women researchers where credit is due … that’s a big deal.”

From cassette tapes to searchable collections

Murphy, in her role as the Nancy L. Buc '65 Pembroke Center archivist, is the latest leader of a decades-long effort on campus to place women at the center of historical conversations. The effort began in 1982, when women who had attended Pembroke College, the women’s college of Brown from 1891 to 1971, recorded interviews with their fellow alumnae in an attempt to ensure that the University’s historical records included the stories of both men and women.

“This was set up in the shadow of the second-wave women’s movement,” Murphy said. “A handful of women in leadership got together and said, ‘We need to collect our own history or it’s going to be completely forgotten.’”

Black and white photo of Carol Canner
Private images from the past – including this one, donated to the Pembroke Center Archives by 1959 Brown graduate Carol Canner (left) – often quash stereotypes about the ways young women behaved in the mid-20th century. In an archival interview, Canner discusses her experience as a Jewish student at Pembroke College and describes becoming lifelong friends with Peggy Brooks (right), one of two black Pembroke students in her class.
Pembroke Center Archives

The tape recordings piled up on a shelf on campus; soon, a large box was filled with intimate stories of interracial friendships, shattered glass ceilings and botched back-door abortions. After a few years, those leading the effort solicited help from the University Archives in making the recordings more accessible. In 1987, the John Hay Library and the Pembroke Center entered into a formal partnership still in effect today: Staff at Pembroke would find collections by and about women, process them and hand them off to library staff, who would provide research services and a physical and digital home for the collections.

“In an era where college libraries are stressing the importance of partnership, this is an outstanding example of a successful one,” Murphy said. “That Brown took actionable steps to ensure women’s history was included, that it dedicated money to this project, that it allowed the Pembroke Center so much independence — all of that is phenomenally open-minded.”

Over the decades, the archives grew slowly but steadily until, in 2016, the proportion of University special collections that were by and about women reached about 11 percent. Then, the Pembroke Center hired Murphy, its first full-time archivist. Under Murphy’s watch, special collections by and about women have more than doubled, now making up 25 percent of the total.

Murphy’s goal is to reach 51 percent to reflect the American population’s current gender ratio. A recent gift from Shauna Stark, an alumna and financial supporter of the Pembroke Center, might just make that dream a reality: The funds will allow Murphy to hire an assistant archivist.

“I envision the Pembroke Center Archives fully representing the lives, aspirations and achievements of women previously invisible to scholars,” Stark said. “If women are systematically left out the archives of our country, how will we ever be represented in American history?”

Shattering stereotypes

Today, the Pembroke Center’s collections are divided into two archives, one focused on local history and the other on feminist scholarship. According to Murphy, both are “important, edgy and often not G-rated.”

The Christine Dunlap Farnham Archive, named after an alumna, offers a comprehensive history of women at Brown and in Rhode Island. It’s here that scholars and curious community members can find photos of classes, ceremonies and parties on College Hill; recordings of alumni speaking about birth control, race relations and activism; and papers that document local women’s fights for the vote, for temperance and for access to the Biltmore Hotel’s then-male-only bar.

Malana Krongelb holding zine pages
Student assistant Malana Krongelb flips through a zine she made, part of  the extensive zine collection she manages within the Pembroke Center Archives. According to archivist Mary Murphy, an increasing number of scholars at Brown and elsewhere use zines for research in psychology, gender studies and more.
Nick Dentamaro / Brown University

The Feminist Theory Archive documents the work of influential feminist theorists and scholars who have transformed the landscape of higher education through their writing, teaching and activism. The collection includes personal papers from the likes of black feminist theorist Ann duCille, biologist of gender Anne Fausto-Sterling, and co-founder of the Wages for Housework campaign Silvia Federici.

While many documents from the Pembroke Center Archives confirm stereotypes about women through the ages, said Murphy, others shatter them. Personal photos donated by Carol Canner, a 1959 graduate, depict close friendships between students of different races and show young women smoking and drinking alcohol together in a dorm room. An extensive collection of zines — small-circulation, self-published works — contains provocative political commentary and intensely personal stories about struggles with sex work, disabilities and interpersonal violence.

“These collections show that stereotypes are made to be broken,” Murphy said. “Women are part of every movement and behave in every way — good, bad and ugly, just like the men. These archives prove that. They were involved in wars, peace efforts, Civil Rights and racism.”

Murphy hopes to continue busting stereotypes for many years to come by procuring an even greater diversity of collections, from the papers of feminists of color to the personal stories of transgender alumni. Like many others at the Pembroke Center, she believes that illuminating the long-hidden histories of women and other marginalized groups could go a long way in creating a more equitable society.

“I feel incredibly privileged, because no matter what’s happening in the news, I get to put one foot in front of the other every day and fight for women’s liberation,” she says. “I can certainly sleep at night with the job I do here.”