Who is the intended audience?

In addition to identifying the author, identifying the intended audience or audiences is an important part of analyzing any source. Evidence on women in history can fruitfully be divided into “conscious” and “unconscious” sources. “Conscious” sources are materials that have a deliberate subject or audience, such as letters or memoirs. “Unconscious” sources are more ephemeral, items that were made for or by women for daily, personal, or household use. All of these can be studied to learn about the varied experiences of women throughout history.

There is a large difference between public communication—documents created to be read by unknown others—and private creation. Public communication expanded rapidly with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, and later with the growth of the bureaucratic state across the globe beginning in the 19th century. Private materials are often created for the author, perhaps a journal or a painting, or for a specific other, perhaps a letter to a relative or friend.

In each instance, the creator of the material works with a particular audience in mind. The imagined reader—the self, a family member, other women, the general public—influences not only the content of the source, but also the form. Sources are created to persuade, to inspire religious devotion, to encourage “proper” conduct, to facilitate the day-to-day business of an organization, to preserve an account of a particular event or a particular life, or to provide statistical information about a group of persons or a historical phenomenon. In all of these cases, the author’s motivation shapes the content of the source, and subsequently, the evidence it provides about women in world history.