Thinking digital sources with Gayle Rubin

2011 March 8
For International Women’s Day and my friends & colleagues in digital history and digital humanities. Pointing out instances where historical women’s voices get presented incompletely is always topical here.

My apologies to those who can’t read the links below due to GLQ’s academic paywall. If you can read them, think about how scholarly publishing as-currently-practiced limits access to exciting feminist scholarship.
Update: An explanation of the issue I describe below, gleaned from email conversations with a ProQuest representative, is here.

GLQ is a well-known and respected journal in interdisciplinary gay/lesbian/queer studies, but it’s not usually the first place I’d think to find good critiques of digital historical collections. The current issue, “Rethinking Sex,” is devoted largely to the symposium held at UPenn on the 25th anniversary of Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.”1 It’s well worth reading for the range of comments offered by other scholars, many of which would be especially useful in graduate seminars where “Thinking Sex” is under discussion.

In her comments, Rubin, an anthropologist by training, offers a retrospective on feminist anti/pro-pornography politics in the early 1980s, in which her paper “Thinking Sex” played a significant role. Again, she’s not one of the first people I think of when I think “critical digital scholarship,” but she points out a big gap in a Proquest historical collection:

The periodical off our backs was the closest thing to a newspaper of record of the feminist movement. It was therefore extremely distressing
that its coverage so closely mirrored the [Women Against Pornography] accounts. There was an avalanche of letters to the editor from those of us with a different perspective: from me, Frances Doughty, Barbara Grier, Hollibaugh, Nestle, Newton, Vance, Walton, and Willis. There is a letter from Samois. There is even a letter from Cleveland Women Against Violence Against Women in which the organization distanced itself from the protest leaflet….

But while the articles from off our backs are readily available
online, the letters are not. A digitized version of off our backs is available through Proquest, but the letters have not been included in the digital archives. The incomplete digitization of off our backs ensures that the one-sided and distorted picture of the events remains canonical. To get a sense of the full range of the discussion in off our backs, it is necessary to consult crumbling newsprint. As yet, there has been no comprehensive history of the feminist sex wars, and one challenge is that so many of the primary documents are not easily accessible.2

That is something I’d want anyone reading on the history of feminist antipornography movements to know before they start using Proquest’s digitized versions. If a student of mine pointed that out, I’d give them credit for thinking clearly about the biases of a source collection.

Historians know that, in many cases, we’re at the mercy of corporate digitizing projects for access to digitized primary sources. So why is it that we (scholars, including historians) don’t have a website that points out the shortcomings and biases of these source collections? [Edited to add: which is to say, a website that focuses on detail-level reviews and error-checking of scholarly source collections, not the 10,000-foot-flyover reviews usually published in journals. Think of it as a place to find out what flaws other scholars have noticed in this collection.] Does Proquest systematically respond to critiques like this, and if so, what scholarly journal would carry that response? It’s not as if GLQ runs letters-to-the-editor regularly.

The American Historical Association has been, for years, one of the big lobbying organizations in support of the Freedom of Information Act and in opposition to sealed-records laws for US and foreign archives. In an age when historians are doing more and more of our research online, it seems to me that this is one of the chief functions that professional organizations 2.0 should be performing.

(Of course, if there is a website that systematically collects reviews of digital source collections for their specific omissions and biases, I’d love to hear about it. I just haven’t noticed that any of the scholarly journals I read are going into that much detail with their website reviews.)

  1. Note to early-career scholars: “Thinking Sex” started off as a conference paper, presented in several different versions before Rubin read it at the 1982 Barnard Sex Conference. Rubin didn’t get her Ph.D. until 1994. Talk about being in the right place at the right time… You could do worse than to find the contemporary equivalent of that right place.
  2. Gayle Rubin, “Blood Under the Bridge: Reflections on ‘Thinking Sex’”, GLQ 17:1 (2011), 27. It’s worth noting that off our backs is still in existence.
One Response
  1. March 12, 2011

    Thanks Shane. Good call.

    This is why I’ve taken care to scan all of the DYKE A Quarterly files myself, and put them online myself. As you know from private emails, I’m only partially up to the task, technologically. Nevertheless, I do believe that our record is – or will be- very full, including letters sent to us but never published.

    What we don’t have is any institutional power. But, as we used to say, all power to the people.

    I do invite folks to check out our annotated, online archive-in-the-making at

    liza cowan

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