During a recent informal conversation, a group of historians discovered by chance that they had all faced some form of sexual discrimination, including to the point of feeling actively unsafe, while using archives. To find out whether these were isolated incidents or more common occurrences, they reached out to dozens of other historians, many of whom reported their own stories of differential access for different researchers, quid pro quo arrangements in exchange for assistance, and other circumstances in which scholars’ gender affected the research experience in ways ranging from the subtle to the profound.
Sexual misconduct has drawn a lot of scrutiny lately on campuses and at academic conferences. Yet strikingly there has been little discussion among historians about how gender and sexuality shape the practice of research itself. Disciplines that recognize their scholars’ endeavors as “field work” are far ahead in .
In hopes of opening up a dialogue, and perhaps inspiring more thorough inquiries, Brooke L. Blower asked Ashley D. Farmer, Gretchen Heefner, Rebecca Herman, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, and Kirsten Weld to offer some preliminary reflections. Although these accounts convey especially the challenges faced by cisgender women as they embark on archival research, they raise all kinds of important questions for future investigation about other factors that shape historical field work such as race, religion, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, citizenship status, nationality, age, and ability.
Based on your own experiences, and those of others you've heard from, how do gender and sexuality impact archival research?
Farmer: There seems to be an implication that the way I present in the archive as a young black woman means that I don't know how to conduct research, I am not familiar with the procedures that one needs to follow, or that I have not done my due diligence in preparing before arrival. These implications manifest more subtly in the ways in which archivists explain the rules of the site differently to me than to others, their litany of questions about what I have done (did I look at the website, the finding aid, am I familiar with how to use archives) before they will allow me to begin researching. Some also have exhibited a general unfamiliarity with the collections about African Americans and women that I intend to use while there. Their attitude toward me leads to a general skepticism about my research and a reluctance to offer the same level of assistance as others who may be visiting the archive.
I have either experienced or witnessed the following interactions with archivists that suggest the prioritizing of men's research and their presence in the actual archival space: more assistance for male researchers including talking to them at length about their projects and offering to “take a look” in the archives for them, or basically performing some of their research for them while neglecting the rest of us; reserving materials for them even when others needed them; and reserving actual physical space at a desk or table in an effort to prioritize their research needs.
Herman: The worst experiences I've heard about involved groping and other kinds of unwanted sexual or romantic advances from archivists. More commonly, I've heard about “innocent” comments about researchers’ appearances, discomfort with navigating social invitations that seem ambiguous in their intent, or perceived differences in how female researchers are treated interpersonally in the archives. One scholar reported that archivists in Mexico seemed to take her more seriously when she was “all dolled up.” Another noted her feeling that women have to do more “emotional labor” to be professionally successful in archives in Russia—to chit chat and socialize while men are left to their “serious” work. Another scholar working in Russia listed baking cookies, tea dates, and meeting archivists’ sons among the social activities she engaged in that ultimately built trust and opened new levels of access for her.
A classic dilemma we've heard about again and again is whether to accept an invitation to have lunch with an archivist during a workday, or coffee or drinks after work. I personally think there are few things more exciting in our profession than “nerding out” with another scholar about the breadcrumbs we're following in the archive, so I am fully on board with building spaces for these conversations on a research trip. But I've heard from many female scholars who have struggled with the ambiguity that an invitation from a male archivist can hold. In several instances, women discussed accepting invitations to coffee only to then realize it was more clearly a date—declining future invitations or bailing on the commitment, and then having to show up day after day at the archive seeking that person's professional assistance, which is awkward and humiliating.
Accepting the invitation in order to avoid that discomfort is in some ways even worse. On one of my first research trips in graduate school, when I was in my mid-twenties, an archivist who was very helpful to me invited me to lunch and I agreed. But when I realized that the expectation was that we would drive to lunch in his car, rather than walk somewhere near the archive, I felt sick. I'm embarrassed, looking back, at how I handled the discomfort. It seemed impossible to me to cancel or insist on an alternative plan without injecting awkwardness into this really important relationship. Rather than risk rocking the boat, I sent off a quick message to my parents letting them know where I was going and with whom, “just in case.” Just in case what?! In case I was discovered dismembered in a duffle bag? But at least I wouldn't hurt his feelings! The lunch was fine. I was delivered back to the archive unscathed, and the archivist would probably be horrified to learn that he'd caused this sort of panic.
Weld: I was working in one national archive's periodicals room, in which access was controlled completely by one male staff member. Each time you wanted a new bound volume of a particular publication, you had to bring a request slip up to that staff member, who would then go into the back and bring you what you'd requested. After I had been going a couple of days a week for several weeks, this staff member offered to give me a personal “tour” of the city. Since I had already been living there for a few months and knew my way around, I politely declined, but he wrote his cellphone number down and slid it across the counter to me as I filed my request slip.
A few days later, he said that he was interested in hearing more about my research, and asked if he could take me out to lunch the following week. Caught off-guard, I agreed, but afterward I realized that this would be a bad idea. To get out of the lunch while saving face—both his and mine—I concocted an elaborate story about how I'd mentioned our totally innocuous planned lunch to my “jealous husband,” causing said putative husband to blow up and forbid me from spending time alone with another man. The face-saving strategy didn't work, though; the staffer was visibly grumpy and angry with me, and for several months thereafter would noticeably stall and delay whenever I filed request slips, causing me to waste significant amounts of time waiting for volumes. It made visiting the periodicals room deeply awkward and uncomfortable for the remainder of my time there.
Heefner: Age really seems to matter. As a young, female graduate student I was far more likely to experience uncomfortable moments in the archives than I am now, or than my male graduate student colleagues experienced at the same time. These moments range from lewd looks and inappropriate comments about my clothing or hair, to more direct inquiries about getting together for drinks or dinner.
But maybe more insidious were the ways that interactions with archivists raised doubts about my intellectual interests and abilities because of my gender. I work in military archives and as a graduate student I often found that my age and gender made me suspect. One of the male historians we heard from noted that he recognized it was precisely how he presented—as a white, heterosexual male with short hair (he admits to cutting his hair before going to access military records; I must admit to thinking about high-collared shirts and appropriate pants when I go in)—that facilitated conversation and camaraderie with the largely male pool of military archivists. I found that to expedite some of my research at certain (not all) locations, I could choose to either play dumb and get sympathy assistance, or over-prepare and assert my right to the information. The former was more immediately successful, but in both cases the emotional and intellectual costs were, and are, high. Feigning cute ignorance is frankly taxing and demoralizing in a way that is hard to describe. These problems, not surprising, have vanished since I left my spry twenties, but the psychic cost remains in the way I still over-prepare for every interaction with military archives and centers.
Nguyen: When I first set out to research in Vietnam at the national archives and research libraries located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, I was told that my research topic (the military, diplomatic, and political spheres of Hanoi's post–Tet Offensive war) was not suitable for a young woman, especially one from the Vietnamese American community. Military strategy, party politics, and foreign affairs were the terrain of “serious” male scholars who were better “equipped” to address such issues.
About three months into my research trip after hearing this constant refrain, I nearly gave up. I still remember when that all changed, when my frustration turned to drive. After a successful interview with a high-ranking officer in the People's Army who surprisingly answered my questions with complete candor, I asked him at the end of the meeting as I gathered my notes together why he had been willing to share such frank assessments with me. He said, “Well, I doubt you'd know what to do with the information I just gave you. Young girls don't have the capacity to make heads or tails of battle tactics!” Well, that was a call to arms if I ever needed one!
Sadly, though, the advice to choose a different topic didn't always come from hostile archivists or interviewees. It also came from well-meaning people who genuinely wanted me to succeed in this profession or who hoped for new directions in the study of Hanoi's war from non-national scholars. But, the problem, as I saw it, was that my male colleagues (of whom there were a few doing research on the war around the same time as me) were never given the same advice and definitely not with the same frequency. There's clearly a tendency to make women researchers jump through more hoops, especially if they venture in territory deemed “hostile” to their gender.
It's not that archives are uniquely prone to these kinds of encounters, or patterns of behavior. Recent revelations have shown that they occur in all kinds of workplaces. But what are the implications of recognizing archives as sites of important power relations?
Herman: That's just it—this isn't really an archives problem—it's a societal problem. I've had phenomenal experiences in the archives working with all kinds of archivists over the last ten years and still other experiences that were completely unremarkable. But at the end of the day, researchers go to archives seeking access to materials and archivists facilitate that access. Most of the women I've spoken to about this topic can immediately call to mind instances in which they were acutely aware of this power dynamic, and their own struggles with managing it.
It does seem to be the case that in places where the protocol for access to materials is less clear, or less uniformly applied, where the “catalogue” is the archivist's own institutional memory, and where relationships are especially crucial to access, the stakes are far higher and the likelihood that race, gender, sexuality, and other factors will play a greater role. But based on the stories we've heard, big bureaucratic, institutional spaces are also riddled with gendered experiences.
Nguyen: That's definitely true that archives are not uniquely prone to these kinds of encounters; they occur in all sorts of workplaces. That said, working in Vietnam—like working in other countries where archives remain restricted—rests all on power relations and access. While abuse proliferates when access is at the discretion of the state, institution, or the whim of an individual archivist, discrimination and bias operate even when there is a standard protocol for declassification in place. In other words, women and minority scholars are more likely to suffer from both “official” and “unofficial” discrimination. They are told that certain collections are “off-limits” or access remains “highly restricted.” Male researchers, especially national but sometimes foreign ones too, are more likely to have exceptions made for them because they are deemed more “serious” and more likely to be considered “important” in their professions and fields. Access, then, is not gender-blind or race-blind.
Weld: The same kinds of gender and sexuality issues permeate archives as workplaces, not just for users who want to consult documents, but also for the archivists and other staffers employed there. This plays out in multiple ways. Lower-status positions within archival institutions are overwhelmingly occupied by women and people of color, while the directors of prominent archives, and hence the people making important accessioning and appraisal decisions, are still overwhelmingly likely to be white men. So plenty of potential exists for fraught power relations, not only between archivists and archive users, but among archivists themselves.
On top of that, the front-line archivists serving users, many of whom present as women, are also vulnerable to all kinds of harassment and intimidation from researchers. That can range from generally officious and undermining treatment, i.e., the archive or library patron behaving as an aggrieved customer making unreasonable demands, to explicitly sexualized forms of abusive treatment, such as one story I heard where a patron repeatedly targeted one employee with requests for erotic or pornographic materials.
One thing which makes archives distinct, in terms of being sites of these kinds of power relations, is that most historians can't opt out of using them. That just isn't possible. And so if users’ access to archives is in some consistent way contingent on their gender presentation, that has real implications for the profession.
Farmer: The archive as a site and archiving as a process are the foundations of historical research. So power relations in archives shape the kind of history that is ultimately published. When certain kinds of researchers feel uncomfortable or unsupported in their research it limits both their desire and ability to gain access to needed materials, and by consequence to pursue the profession. This has the trickle-down effect of narrowing the kinds of people who become historians, the kinds of histories that scholars produce, and ultimately the kinds of historical narratives that are disseminated to the broader public. In a period when historical knowledge and historians’ public engagement are under scrutiny and are critical for shedding light on contemporary problems, we cannot afford to limit the diversity of historical research produced.
Heefner: The responses we've received highlight one of the most glaring implications: access to information and assistance. They also reveal a double standard at work: male colleagues report great finds and access after having drinks or dinner with archivists. Yet even under totally innocuous circumstances, it is very difficult for their female counterparts to participate in the same types of interactions. For example, as a graduate student a male archivist told me about papers he had in his personal collection that I could use if I wanted. I believe (and continue to believe) he was completely sincere in this offer, but given the potential for misunderstanding, there was no way I could accept. Would a male graduate student have been so circumspect?
In a profession that trades on knowing things, finding hidden information, and learning about new documents and materials, this is a rather damning reality. Again, here, I think it's worth emphasizing that in my experience the vast majority of archivists have no intention of being unfair or unequal. But the potential power disparity between men and women, graduate students and head archivists, and so on can make such personal interactions difficult.
How do scholars’ concerns about the gendered nature of research extend beyond the bounds of formal archives?
Farmer: I think this is a very important aspect of archiving that is hardly ever addressed. Travelling alone as a woman, especially for long periods of time or in remote locations, presents very important safety challenges that I do not think men often think about when planning an archival trip. As a young black woman conducting research on civil rights and Black Power organizing, I have often had to figure out how to navigate travelling alone in places where I knew the racial politics were fraught and I could be targeted while going into homes to conduct interviews alone, and travelling with strangers in order for them to take me to historical sites or to meet other people who they thought I should interview. I am constantly weighing my safety with the merits of performing a certain aspect of research, and there have definitely been times when I have had to put my safety first and forgo an important interview or archival site.
Nguyen: I find that when scholars from more “developed” nations invoke their privilege when traveling to less affluent countries to do research, they are more prone to come away dissatisfied with their archive experience. That is also the case when one applies one's own culture and social norms while abroad. In some cases, these are decisions that clearly burden women (and minority) scholars more than their male (and white) counterparts.
When I first set out to do research in Vietnam back in the 1990s, I tried my best not to act like a privileged Americanized “Viet Kieu” (Vietnamese abroad). That proved difficult at times. As a graduate student, I used to enjoy unwinding with a glass of wine or a pint after a grueling day at the archives but there weren't many local places I could go without attracting unwanted attention. Back then, the drinking culture in Vietnam was heavily male-dominated. What made it worse was that I saw that operate in the academic realm: local archivists and scholars would invite the male researchers to the local “bia hoi” (beer gardens) where they could socialize at ease and commiserate over the lack of academic freedom and openness. While I could have bucked local societal taboos and claimed exception as a foreign woman, I'm glad I didn't. At heart, some of these “bia hoi” devolved into spaces where male toxic culture could persist and I wanted no part in that.
Herman: One thing I've heard from many women are stories of feeling perfectly fine in the archives but unsafe in transit to and from them—getting groped on train rides, needing to spend extra money on cab fare in instances in which a man would be safe taking the bus, feeling prisoner to rented rooms in unsafe neighborhoods, etc. And thinking about the broader gendered experience of research travel writ large opens up a whole host of other challenges, such as managing tensions between motherhood and archival work. I canceled a research trip to Cuba when I was pregnant with my son because the Zika outbreak had just hit the news and nobody really knew what was going on yet. I made the trip instead when he was an infant, which came with its own demands. He and my husband traveled with me to Havana, where we rented an apartment directly across the street from the archive where I was working so that I could quickly dart across the street to breastfeed every few hours. This was a luxury that most researchers can't afford. Going alone and pumping instead creates a whole new logistical quagmire at each archival destination: Is there a place to pump other than a toilet stall? Is there an electrical outlet in the bathroom? Is there somewhere cold to store the breast milk until you go home for the day? It's hard to get this information ahead of time, and the answer to most of these questions is usually no, so in addition to your laptop and camera you drag along a hand pump, a cooler, and ice packs. Not the sort of thing we cover in grad school professionalization seminars!
Heefner: First as a graduate student, and later as an advisor to female graduate students, I can speak to the fact that women plan more robustly for travel. They have to consider neighborhoods and times of day they travel. Sometimes this means staying at more expensive lodgings or leaving archives early to get back before dark. They are less likely than their male counterparts to rent a room in an unknown home. They have to practice or map out best routes for travel between facilities and lodging. These problems have been accentuated in the turn to international and transnational histories that demand young scholars to travel more widely and frequently than before.
My own experiences conducting research in the rural U.S. heartland attest to these potential barriers. Although I was never threatened in my travels, concern about being a woman travelling alone led me to a number of costly decisions. I purchased my first cell phone. I booked lodging in advance so my family could check in with me. This led to some inefficiencies in travel if I needed more or less time in a particular spot. I planned meetings so that I would not have to drive at night on rural roads. When it came time to conduct oral history interviews, I brought my mother along! This was in part because she is awesome. Her presence is calming and she can help people open up. But more than that it was an issue of safety as I was going into people's homes and vehicles. Having an ally along made me comfortable enough to go places and enter into properties and sites I would not have done as easily on my own.
The nuisances are small, but they add up. The work it takes to think of all of these little details, or to worry that you have not thought of them, is maddening and exhausting. Do men think of these things in the same way? How much time and energy do female scholars lose in navigating their safety?
Weld: Doing research in comparatively dangerous places can be a real challenge for women-identified researchers. Travelling solo, and hence doing things like potentially eating alone in restaurants or walking alone in unfamiliar locales, often opens them up to unwanted attention. During my dissertation fieldwork in a large Central American capital city, I was ambushed and robbed at gunpoint, a spate of assassinations of bus drivers in the leadup to a presidential election made public transit unworkable, and I was regularly followed after using ATM machines. Accordingly, I relied on a trusted taxi driver for much of my movement in and around the city. This was expensive and periodically inconvenient. Meanwhile, in a different Central American capital city, a grad school colleague of mine—a muscular, 6'5” white man with a penchant for wearing reflective wraparound sunglasses—was able to simply talk his way out of an attempted mugging by insinuating that he worked for the CIA.
What makes a research site or topic “dangerous” for a particular researcher is, of course, intimately tied to one's subject position. In many parts of the world heterosexual men enjoy more rights and freedoms than women and LGBTQ folks. So it isn't just that our travel experiences might be circumscribed in ways that cishet men's aren't, though that's obviously the case. It's that our degree of choice when it comes to selecting the countries or subjects in which we choose to specialize is differential and reduced.
Smart critiques have been published about how travel and on-site research are preferable to accessing digitized collections remotely.1 Does what we've heard about scholars’ experiences qualify that idea?
Herman: I don't think so. I suppose the experience of combing through a digitized database is about as genderless a research experience as it gets, because you remove the power dynamic of the interpersonal relationship. But on the other hand, you remove the interpersonal relationship! That seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. So much of the productivity and excitement of archival work comes from the relationship with the archivist, who is your guide to the collections and can help you think creatively about how to navigate them. There's also the power of dumb luck discovery, which is harder to stumble upon when things are ordered in a sterile way.
And besides, so many of the archives I've worked in don't have the resources to catalogue and organize materials, much less to digitize—the service that archivists provide is invaluable. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't want to live in a world in which archivists can't invite researchers to lunch for fear of making them uncomfortable, but it would be great to live in a world in which all archivists and researchers were sensitive to their own biases, and to the power dynamics that shape encounters in research settings. (And, if we're being ambitious, I wouldn't mind a world in which I didn't brace for dismemberment when getting in a car with a relative stranger.) Building that world is a project that extends well beyond the archive walls.
Nguyen: Despite the hurdles and obstacles, I find that there is nothing that replaces doing field work to understand the full dynamics of your subject. Without it, I fear, for example, that scholars would come away with sanitized interpretations of the exercise of U.S. power abroad, both in the past and in the present day—that the work they produce would then minimize the extent to which the non-Western world suffered from death, destruction, and violence at American hands. For instance, take the Vietnam War. While great histories can be written using digitized collections, I think only traveling to the country firsthand would reveal more of that war's impact: on society and culture, on individual families, and on the land itself just to name a few. We know that much is omitted and that voices are silenced within state and institutional archives, but what gets erased in the digital era is even greater, I fear.
Heefner: While I tend to agree that there might be something lost in not going to the archive and visiting the places we write about, I am also well aware of the difficulties this places on some scholars more than others. This is not only for the safety reasons we have discussed already. I would also suggest that for women who are thinking about or who choose to have children, travel becomes increasingly difficult. While I am cognizant of the fact that men also have concerns about families and infant care, there are concrete health and wellness reasons for women considering pregnancy to be concerned about travel. At the same time, few people with infants relish the idea of rigorous travel abroad. The list goes on.
Farmer: I am someone who finds immense value in going to the physical archive and who thinks it is equally as important to visit the spaces and places about which one is writing. However, issues of accessibility, access to childcare, safety, and discrepancies in funding make such visits especially difficult for women and other marginalized groups. I think accessibility (physical, financial, and otherwise) should be privileged, and digitized collections help ensure this kind of access.
Weld: I think this helps us see how both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, or at least different kinds of risks or potential pitfalls—and that those advantages and disadvantages are not evenly distributed among academic researchers. That uneven distribution has consequences all along the academic food chain, from dissertation research to the job market to tenure clocks.
The experiential value of “deeply getting to know a place” is also unevenly distributed. If you have to take taxis everywhere for safety purposes, or need to break up your research into shorter trips due to family obligations rather than relocating to your work site for a semester or a year, you aren't going to form the same kinds of relationships with local people or with the local terrain as you would otherwise. That could conceivably diminish some of the value added of physically “being there.”
1 Putnam, Lara, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review 121, no. 2 (Apr. 2016): 377–402.