Archiving materials that reflect a ‘shared history’

How 50 years of material from the Program in Gender Studies and Women’s Studies and the Penn Women’s Center becomes more accessible for students, faculty, and researchers.

Five students looking at gender, sexuality, and women’s studies archival material.
(From left to right) Students Rashmi Iyer, Amanda Giannopoulos, and Caroline Allen look over the archives at the Penn Women’s Center.

In 1969, a group of women met to talk about women: their bodies, their sexual health, their reproductive rights, and their experiences with doctors and medicine. A year later, these women put together a 193-page course booklet and in 1971, retitled it “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Now a cult classic, the book has sold more than 4 million copies, been translated into 34 languages, and been banned from high schools and public libraries.

“Our Bodies, Ourselves” is now out of print. But an old, yellowed copy, dated 1971, stapled at the corner, and priced for 75 cents, for years existed in a box in Fisher-Bennet Hall. This spring, it will move to the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, as part of the formal archiving of all the historical materials from the Program in Gender Studies and Women’s Studies (GSWS) and the Penn Women’s Center, both of which are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year.

Gwendolyn Beetham, associate director of GSWS, says that in the run-up to the 50th anniversary, she and Elisa Foster, director of the Penn Women’s Center, realized that none of their documents were housed as accessible archival material. “We wanted to get them out of boxes in people’s offices or basements,” Beetham says.

Three students looking at gender, sexuality, and women’s studies archival material.
Adriel Strickland takes a picture of a news article while Maddie Scott (center) and Maven Kielska (right) read together.

Alicia Meyer, curator of research services at the Kislak Center, says she’s had researchers come in looking to see and ask to see “this OG copy of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves.’”

“People will ask me, ‘Do you have it? Do you have it?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I know where one is …’” Meyer says. Archiving the materials will make them more accessible for researchers, she says, who can view the library documents in the sixth floor reading room at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library. Any materials specifically relating to Penn will be located in University Archives, and all will be available to the public.

The material is saved in context, with newspaper clippings pointing to larger national issues, says Meyer. “It’s great when you can connect those other sources to the history of Penn, because I think it really affects students and helps them see their own role in the history of the institution.”

“I’m a feminist, and it was really helpful to have professors who helped me study feminism,” says Marielle Cohen, who graduated in 1991 from the College of Arts & Sciences with a degree in sociology and in 1992 with a master’s in social work from what is now the School of Social Policy & Practice

While at Penn, Cohen advocated against sexual assault and attended “Take Back the Night” rallies. In her second year as an undergraduate, Cohen began volunteering as a rape crisis counselor for the Philadelphia Center Against Sexual Violence, eventually serving in the emergency room at Jefferson Hospital.

“Issues of equality affect all of us, all of our lives,” she says.

Using the materials in the classroom

The 50th anniversary was a good turning point to preserve the history of gender studies and women’s studies, Foster says. “It’s not just about our specific programs, but the impact that these movements have had so far throughout the University.”

The archival material also includes documentation of the histories of Special Services and Penn Violence Prevention, Foster says. Penn Violence Prevention grew out of the Women’s Center, which continues to serve as a safe space and offers education to students and employees about preventing interpersonal violence.

“We have this shared history,” Foster says of GSWS and the Women’s Center. “The same people who were pushing for the Women’s Studies program were pushing for a women’s center and advocating for the safety of women on campus in their everyday lives.”

This semester, the Center also served as a classroom, where Beetham’s course Trauma Porn to Title IX: 50 Years of Anti-Violence Activism at Penn met to go over the archival material before it moves into the University Archives and the library system. Students have pored over program flyers, course materials, and handouts about interpersonal violence, sexuality, and resilience. There are saturated photographs of Anita Hill during her 1992 visit to Penn, a proclamation from City of Philadelphia declaring “Penn Women’s Center Day,” and a poster advertising a lecture on eating disorders. “Not Just a White Girl’s Thing,” it reads.

A trio of historical archival images.
A selection of materials from the GSWS archives on display in the Kislak Center during the program’s recent 50th anniversary symposium.

The students have been particularly drawn to material from the 1990s, a decade whose music, fashion, and iconography resonate with Gen Z. Plus, the ’90s mark the transition from black and white to color, with photographs and posters becoming more commonplace.

Chiara Bruzzi, a third year from Miami majoring in materials science and engineering, found a flyer from the ’90s that read, “If we don’t have abortion, what will we do?” Next to those words was an image of a coat hanger, a once-common reminder of the history of reproductive rights.

“To see that …” Bruzzi pauses. “In today’s world, we don’t talk about it as much, as often. We talk about abortion in terms of laws and policies, we don’t talk about what it used to be for women.”

Three students looking at gender, sexuality, and women’s studies archival material.
Students noticed that many of the archival flyers advertised free food at events. Across the decades, some things stay the same.

“Having a historical perspective is very important in discussing these topics,” says Hannah Bast, a third-year student from Miami majoring in political science with a minor in gender studies and women’s studies, “You can really trace how topics have evolved and how society has evolved.”

Bast, who originally took the course last year, serves as a teaching assistant for this year’s cohort. Looking through the archives helped her feel “a connection to the women and queer people of the past,” she says. “It’s important to be able to … appreciate the community of the past and what it’s brought me today.”

Aleiyah Aguero, a second-year student from Philadelphia majoring in history and gender studies and women’s studies, says the archives reminded them that certain experiences and issues exist across decades. “For me, it reinvigorates what this is all about,” Aguero says. “It makes it more tangible.”

“Having these sources is incredible, because a lot of times we don’t want to save these maybe taboo, or unpleasant topics,” Bast says. “But they’re important to continue making progress.”

Three students looking at gender, sexuality, and women’s studies archival material.
(On homepage) Students pore over items from the 1990s, including a city proclamation for Penn Women’s Center Day.