Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, alphabetically the last Harvard concentration, comes at the end of a guide through Houghton that hopes to have shown that the library’s reputation for being a place where diversity is the exception to the rule is unfounded. From African and African American Studies to East and South Asian Studies, Houghton has material spanning many ages and cultures, and, though it might have a larger quantity of material about Western history and culture, that does not mean that the rest of the world in not represented in its stacks. The same is true of women, whose presence and importance throughout history is reflected in Houghton’s collection in orthodox and unorthodox ways.

The library, for example, owns an incunable copy of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris (Typ Inc 2496, 002534000), a compendium of biographies of important Western females written in 1374. It also holds contemporary copies of the first five US censuses, which display the demographic growth of the country by gender, and an 1858 report about the morality of the British army written and prepared by Florence Nightingale (EC85.N5647.858m, 002917124), one of the most important women in the history of medicine.

Houghton also delivers when it comes to early feminist history. The library owns the papers of Fanny Garrison Villard (MS Am 1321, 000601933), a celebrated suffragette, and of Julia Ward Howe (MS Am 2214, 008943290); letters by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (MS Am 1906 [623], 000602226); and a copy of a 1911 pamphlet titled Ancient Suffragettes, by Margaret Wynne Nevinson (*78-2523, 004775872), which can be paired up with a handkerchief from 1881 that ridicules the women’s suffrage movement (EB85.A100.881w, 013829419). It also holds W. V. Quine’s copy of a 1990 paper by C. H. Sommers titled The Feminist Revelation (MS Am 2587 [2220], 008937558), which can be studied through philosophical and historical lenses. However, it also contains more curious items, such as an Italian treatise that purports to teach Newtonian physics to women (Typ 725.37.133, 003973520), and Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (Typ 732.05.567, 002860975), an eighteenth-century entomology treatise by a Dutchwoman who abandoned her husband and traveled to Suriname with her daughter to study insects.

Another Houghton collection that allows students to investigate women and gender is the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions archives. The ABCFM archives (ABC 1-91, 000602481) contain documents relating missions all over the globe—from Africa (ABC 15, 009763477) to the Pacific Islands (ABC 19, 009763593) and Native American communities (ABC 18.3-18.8, 009763568)—and can provide students with information not only about the role of women in the cultures observed by the missionaries, but also about the role of women missionaries and their challenges in proselytizing. An additional broad-spanning collection related to women and gender is the American Birth Control League records (MS Am 2063, 005534934), which can be studied in conjunction with the papers of Margaret Sanger (MS Am 2094, 008634316), a foremost figure in the field.

Houghton also possesses plenty of materials related to queer history. The library owns the papers of Gore Vidal (MS Am 2350, 010474168) and James Baldwin (MS Am 3000, 014250328), both renowned twentieth-century writers, as well as the papers of poet and translator Witter Bynner (MS Am 1891-1891.31) and of Amy Lowell (MS Lowell 19-19.4, 38, 51, 62), a female queer poet and one of Houghton’s main benefactors. Students interested in sex and sexuality in general can also find items at the library that cater to their interests. Two of the most relevant examples are the manuscript of Histoire d’O (MS Fr 588, 013332083), a famous twentieth-century erotic novel, and a collection of 24 gay adult novels from the seventies and the eighties (MS Am 3082, 014675188).

If WGS students come to Houghton, they might observe that the library’s lobby, a homage to important historical figures in literature and donors, includes the names of white men only. There is pressure to renovate the space for the 75 years of the library, and a more diverse showcase of the library’s collections is most certainly in order. This is a golden opportunity for students to help change a space that they could potentially use daily, making it reflect the ideals of a new century that prizes equality and diversity.

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