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The rise and rise of women editors from 1700 onward

Women were denied the right to vote until the early 20th century. They had limited access to financial rights and almost none to formal education. Yet, a few of them managed to make their voice heard through the press. The WeChangEd project is investigating their contribution to sociocultural change.

Society

London, 1852: The first issue of the ‘Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine’ is published by Samuel Beeton. Articles cover fiction and middle-class domestic life and offer practical ideas on household management. A first step towards feminism is taken, addressing women as a valuable readership and consumers in their own right. Little did people know then that Beeton’s wife, Isabella Beeton, was in fact responsible for a large share of the magazine’s content. She was a pioneer in the editing business and a member of a pan-European network of women editors who had been writing and creating from the shadows since the 1700s. Through the project WeChangEd (Agents of Change: Women Editors and Socio-Cultural Transformation in Europe (1710-1920)), Marianne Van Remoortel, associate professor at Ghent University’s Department of Literary Studies, wanted to put the spotlight on women like Beeton. “Female authorship is a relatively rare phenomenon and may even seem unworthy of detailed studies. On the contrary, we argue that women’s editorship does matter from the perspective of women’s history,” she explains. That’s precisely why she decided to demonstrate the existence of these women’s networks and put the spotlight on their most influential members.

A database of over 1 700 editors

“One of the main outputs of our project is a database of women editors and their periodicals, to which members of my team contributed. We have now gathered data about more than 1 700 female editors and the periodicals they edited in 26 European languages,” Van Remoortel says. There lies one of the project’s most important contributions. Instead of focusing on specific national traditions and periods, WeChangEd is a large-scale, cross-language study of periodical press. And this wasn’t an easy task, as Van Remoortel notes. “An important challenge for us was to include data on editors and periodicals published in languages that we did not cover as a team. Even with six researchers, there were still numerous European languages we did not have access to. By organising an international conference on European women editors in May 2019, we were able to bring together a wealth of additional expertise on, for instance, Eastern European women editors,” explains Van Remoortel. A year before its completion, the project has already led to four successfully completed doctoral projects and a host of scholarly articles. It has also produced a new data model for periodical studies that can be used even for projects focusing on other topics. “Our model reflects a number of curatorial choices – only periodicals, edited by women, in Europe, between 1710 and 1920. But it also goes beyond these choices. For instance, we argue that the digital turn in periodical studies needs to be geared towards building sustainable, structured and open data models for periodical research,” she outlines. “We therefore built our data model in accordance with Linked Open Data principles. It fosters collaboration among periodical researchers beyond language boundaries.” WeChangEd’s data is publicly available through Wikidata and a web application called Science Stories. The stories aggregate their data directly from Wikidata, which means they can be continuously expanded by Wikidata users. Overall, Van Remoortel hopes that WeChangEd’s research and the way it made its data available will eventually inspire similar research on women’s editorship, and on the periodical press in general. But no matter what the future holds, the project certainly pioneered a new research field through its focus on women whose histories, perspectives and experiences are still too often regarded as secondary to men’s.

Keywords

WeChangEd, women, editors, periodical

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