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From History to Herstory: Yorkshire Women's Lives Online, 1100 to the Present

West Yorkshire Archive Service, United Kingdom
Reviewed January 2005
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This site showcases the lives of women in Yorkshire, England, from the 2nd century CE to the present day. The site presents 85,000 digitized images and microfilmed documents from the collections of the archives and libraries in and around Yorkshire. Among the women featured are some extremely well known figures, such as Charlotte Bronte, but the site also includes material on a large number of relatively unknown women.

As the title suggests, the website is devoted to pointing out that although women are frequently left out of the historical record, they were active at all levels of society. As such, the site is explicitly celebratory in tone, aiming to raise the profile of women in both popular and scholarly understandings of history. As British author Margaret Drabble put it in her speech launching the website, [this site] is a blueprint for a new way of reclaiming the past and we all now know that by reclaiming the past we can strengthen and alter the future.

There are six main sections to the site. Women’s Lives and Women’s Organizations provide alphabetical lists of individual women or women’s organizations. Each entry displays background information on the woman or organization, and provides access to related digitized materials on the site. The Women in History section offers 15 essays on the roles women have played in history.

Essay topics include titles like Campaigning, Travel, Politics, and Life in the 50s, and draw for examples on the women featured in the website. The Gallery allows the images of the site to be searched and viewed. Featured Archives provides highlights from key archives in Yorkshire. Learning Materials is designed for children and includes fact files, worksheets, quizzes, and activities. There is also a general search function that brings up all records in which the search word is found. It can be used in advanced search mode.

Featured Archives contains the most extensive collection of primary sources and demonstrates the rich contribution that this collection of Yorkshire history makes to the field of women’s history. The featured archives deal with Anne Lister (a prominent Yorkshire woman of the late 18th and early 19th centuries whose coded diaries document her life, travels, and lesbian love affairs), the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum (documenting the committal of women and their treatment throughout the 19th century), the Bronte family (documents by and relating to the three famous Victorian novelists, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte), and the George Henry Wood Collection (Wood was a reformer who documented the conditions of working class life in Yorkshire, shedding light on the position of women in the 19th and 20th centuries). In the “Featured Archives” section, there are background notes on each collection together with digitized images of documents, many also with transcriptions.

Although still under construction, this is an extremely rich site that can be used in a variety of ways by teachers and students of women’s history. The alphabetical listings and the search functions can draw together the individual biographies of women involved in a variety of political movements, social organizations, and community affairs. These can either be used to uncover the lives of particular individuals or groups, or to trace themes over the long time period that the site covers.

The diversity and size of the collection offers the advantage of combining sources deriving from well-known women such as the Brontes and Anne Lister with those relating to relatively obscure women. Students can use this range of sources to explore specific themes over time. For example, they might be invited to examine how wealth and status operated in determining the options women had of transgressing contemporary norms and values. Such transgressions could be tracked from the sexual scandal of Yorkshire nuns in the 14th century (documented in the Women in History section) to the lesbian affairs of Anne Lister, to the women whose behavior caused them to be committed to the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum.

The site is generally well designed and easy to navigate. A small design disadvantage is the limited amount of text that appears in each page of the notes and essays, despite space on the screen. This means that the pages of the site frequently have to be turned, a distraction when reading large sections of text.

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