women in archives, accessibility, and ‘ms’
This week I delved into Box 19 of the Vancouver Status of Women collection – this is a hefty box of newspaper clippings from the late 1970s and early 1980s. There were a few things inside that seemed particularly interesting/relevant to me; these newspaper articles relate to Shaunna Moore & Susan Pell’s “Autonomous archives” as well as the introductions by Lisa Darms and Kate Eichhorn on their “Radical Archives” movement.
In general, I think Darms sums up the intrigue of archives focusing specifically on women. She says that “the covert function of an archive is to make things more complex, to complicate, to serve as a counterbalance to the reductive and endlessly repeated sound bites that constitute much of what we are told is “history”.” With this in mind, the Vancouver Status of Women archives are certainly a counterpart to the kinds of ‘history’ we are traditionally exposed to; from an early age, we are taught about the founding fathers, the men who made an impact in the world as politicians, scientists, writers, philosophers, and adventurers. These newspaper clippings are about women, but they are also often about the men with whom they are associated.
For instance, part of folder 39 (Rape: BC) focused on a Vancouver businessman who was sentenced to three years in prison for raping a woman he had been doing business with. Although the woman is the victim in this situation, the articles are all focused on the businessman and the repercussions he faced as a result of this alleged rape. In every article, he asserts his innocence and maintains that it was consensual. This collection of articles is a small sample of the way men act as the main players in most situations, even in an archive on women. None of the articles featured extensive interviews with the woman involved, and some failed to mention her name. This seems to remove her independence; she stands in for all women who have been raped and whose names and identities have been similarly erased while the name and identity of their rapist, although muddied, is featured in the news.
The question of accessibility is also one that interests me; in their article, Moore and Pell address the fact that “Because … archives are commonly located within the places they [a]re created, they are also more accessible to the people of these communities” (263). In the 1970s and ’80s, who read newspapers? It seems likely that the man of the household, the patriarch, would pick up the paper while drinking his morning coffee and perhaps leave it on the table for his wife to read after he’d left for work. This, too, could point to the focus on men in these articles, despite their being in an archive devoted to women.
However, Moore and Pell’s quote can also be taken in another direction. These clippings are (almost) all from Vancouver newspapers: the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the Province. In this way, the place of creation is Vancouver, so are the stories contained within the clippings and the issues they raise “more accessible” to people from Vancouver? Only a few clippings struck me as being particularly place-specific; being from Vancouver myself, I recognized the names of streets and neighbourhoods. Beyond that, however, these events could be taking place in any city; one pair of articles described a Vancouver Island mother and Rape Relief Centre worker whose outfit of choice was deemed inappropriate by the Mayor of Saanich. As a result, her appeal for a $16,000 grant to educate people on rape and talk about it in schools was denied. A photograph was attached, and her outfit was neither inappropriate nor provocative; the mayor was quoted as saying that maybe he was “just a dirty old man”. Looking beyond the issues of his statement, this event could have happened anywhere, and in fact, similar events continue to be reported to this day. Although some aspects of this archive may be more relevant to people from Vancouver, many of the events described are problems for women across the globe.
Moore and Pell also claim that archives “function as public places” (265) at their root. One of my favourite clippings was a collection of letters to the editor that referenced a previous letter from a woman who wanted to be referred to as ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’ – the latter two seem to be the only acceptable options at the time. One woman’s response called the paper’s refusal to use the term “another case of the media making a direct effort to shape our thinking”.
When my mom got married, she had already obtained a graduate degree and published papers under her maiden name; for these and other reasons, she chose to retain her own name and remain a ‘Ms’ as opposed to a ‘Mrs’. This archive is a public place, and therefore it can be accessed and (hopefully) related to by members of the public, just as I thought of my mom and other women who prefer ‘Ms’. Today, it seems that ‘Ms’ has become the default; some married women who change their name still prefer it to the more traditional ‘Mrs’. ‘Miss’ as a title is nearly obsolete. This archive is publicly accessible and certainly relatable, and this article in particular proves that things have changed.
In another letter to the editor, a man complained about a columnist being “out of date” because he said women were worse drivers than men. His counter-argument said that even “the most doddering male should be ready to admit that women are at least as good drivers as men. Indeed, statistics seem to indicate that they are better.”
In the 1980s, it was considered ‘out of date’ to think less of women than of men. In 2016, many women don’t change their names at all, and ‘Ms’ seems to be the preferred title. While some problems still remain, the fact that this archive is public property serves as a reminder that our society has come a long way in terms of advocating for women’s rights.
Darms, Lisa and Kate Eichhorn. “Radical Archives: Introduction.” Archives Remixed. Archive Journal 5 (2015).
Moore, Shaunna and Susan Pell. “Autonomous archives.” International Journal of Heritage Studies4 (2010): 255-268.