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A New Approach to The Suffrage Postcard Project’s Methodology
by Alexander Cendrowski, Fall 2017
The Suffrage Postcard Project (SPP) is, like so many digital archives, a continuously ongoing project. While we continue to make headway and turn out fascinating research through the project and between our undergraduate RAs, grad students, and faculty heads, the SPP is continually updated and changed in order to attempt to live up to its Feminist Digital Humanities principles. This is further complicated because the SPP has a rolling masthead; each year (if not each semester), a new set of researchers embarks on the journey of learning the project's inner workings, wrestling with its methodology, and ultimately making changes towards the group's research interests.
Evidence of this challenge was immediately visible to our group of researchers once we looked into the SPP's tagging system. While the methodology of intersectionality and the awareness of object-driven-tropes necessarily leads to dozens of tags for most postcards, it seemed to our researchers, at first, that there were redundant or irrelevant tags in the system. We set out with two substantial goals for the semester:
- To exert some quality control on the tag systems. Tags that existed but were never used would be noted and either applied or deleted; tags that appeared twice but with different spelling/syntax would be combined; and the general format of the tagging system (outlined in the Master List below for the previous system) would be made uniform.
- Create a living dictionary for our tagging system.
It was this second goal that we were the most hopeful for. We had the good fortune this semester of an entire RA team who were in the midst of taking Kristin Allukian's Feminist Digital Humanities class, and they were in agreement that one of the core elements of feminist digital archiving is transparency in methodology in purpose. The looseness of certain tags (for instance: "Abusive," "Absent wife," "AGE," just to look at the As) meant that searching by tag might not bring up postcards that a researcher was looking for. By developing a definition system that could be tied directly to the tags (see a sample below), we could hope to illucidate that process.
Pictured: A sample of the definitions spreadsheet we developed.
These two goals soon became (as you might have expected) intertwined. We realized that part of the function of the tagging system that we were struggling with was its very organization: Social Identity, Institutions, Markers, Text Only, and 19C and 20C terms were odd methods of categorization that didn't live up to many of the tags that had become inserted into the archive in subsequent years. So we developed a new system, built of five categories, with definitions clearly defined:
- Social Identity: Socially constructed identifiers; either ones decided for one's self or decided by others. These included terms like "Boy," "African American," "Girl," "Middle-Class," and "Older woman."
- Experiences: Interactions with surroundings or settings; actions, events, or situations. These included terms like "Absent father," "Activist," "Arrest," "Domestic woman," "Housework," and "Picketing."
- Institutions: Established traditions, rulesets, and forces that influence society/societal expectations holistically. These included terms like "Capitalism," "Christmas," "Education," "Legislation," and "Prejudice."
- Icons: Objects, people, and locations. These included terms like "Abraham Lincoln," "Alcohol," "Bucket," "Goose," and "New York City."
- Rhetoric: Recurring themes, language, and interpretable symbols. These included terms like "Slang," "Purple & Gold Suffrage Color Scheme," "Ancient Greek," and "Love."
While it would be difficult to claim in any circumstance that a digital archives tagging system was perfect, our team was quite proud of what we were able to accomplish this semester in behind-the-scenes work. There were a multitude of "Aha" moments, such as when one of our researchers, Terikia Seals, discovered the purpose of a tag like "Rolling pin"; not only a symbol of domesticity, but frequently one represented in Anti-Suffrage postcards as a weapon utilized by fervent housewives (in the end-times that would be a period where women could vote). We leave the project hopeful that the groundwork we've laid this semester will be instrumental in pushing the project forward along its continuous journey of feminist digital archiving.
Introducing The Suffrage Postcard Project’s Methodology
by Michele True, Spring 2017
To create a searchable, easy-to-use, digital collection of suffrage postcards for research and teaching purposes, the Suffrage Postcard Project (SPP) RAs use feminist digital archiving methodology. Drs. Allukian and Stevenson directed us to “Feminism in the Age of Digital Archives: The Women Writers Project” (2010) by Jacqueline Wernimont and Julia Flanders, an article that constantly helps us think through and reflect on our approach to tagging and categorizing the postcards. In their article, the Wernimont and Flanders describe this as “scholarship [which] has demonstrated the myriad of issues raised by the unreflective or undertheorized production of modern archives, and it is important to keep those insights in mind as new technologies emerge” (3). In other words, our approach to the suffrage postcards uses digital tools to study the “unreflected” or “undertheorized” messages about masculinity as contained in the postcard images from a feminist perspective.
The first step in our process is uploading as many qualified images of suffrage postcards as we can locate into Omeka. Here we use Dublin Core Standards to tag and create metadata to optimize search effectiveness. This sounds simplistic in theory, but the SPP contributors have found that it is a highly nuanced and biased process. After uploading and describing the imagery on a postcard we begin to tag it with keywords. This is where we slow down and carefully analyze our choice of words and the impact it will have on the archive. Tagging is where the collaboration between research assistants becomes most valuable. For example, in many of the postcards women are portrayed as bitter, angry, and overbearing. Often, they are depicted with “manly” features or exaggerated overbites and large noses. In private settings, many of these women are wielding rolling pins as weapons; the Walter Wellman series, for instance, incorporates the rolling pin are as a fashion accessory complimenting “masculine” uniforms. In tagging one of the postcards that contain this imagery, our team discussed the role of the rolling pin. Was the rolling pin a symbol of femininity in reference to homemaking skills in 1909? What message is being sent through this imagery when the homemaking tool is transformed into a tool of violence? How did these nuanced images impact history and women’s literature through the ripple effect of stigmatization? After long, detail-oriented conversations, we reach a conclusion that a word is to be added to the Master List of Tags, which you can see below. After the word is added to the Master List of Tags, we then apply the newly-added word (tag) to applicable postcards in our quality control edits. By way of collaboration, discussion, and historical research, our multiple perspectives on each image come together produce a more robust, dynamic database.
MASTER LIST FOR TAGS
Master Tags (general):Pro-suffrage/Anti-suffrage/Ambiguous-suffragePublic/Private Handmade/Photograph/Print/Drawing
Master Tags (categories):
19C and 20C TERMS
Angry man etc.
“Votes for Women” banner
“Votes for Women” placard
“Votes for Women” flag
Women’s rights decoration
Reversed Gender Role
Traditional Gender Role
Declaration of Independence
States of the Union
World War I
“Votes for Wimmen”
“Votes for Women” sash
Looking Glass (Mirror)
Courting adultized child
Women's Social and Political Union
National American Woman Suffrage Association
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union
International Woman Suffrage Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship
Father of the nation
Mother of the nation
Social reform forefather
Social reform foremother
Susan B. Anthony
George William Curtis
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy
Purple & Gold Suffrage Color Scheme
Class of voter
New York City