Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930: A History Website

Melissa Doak S.U.N.Y. Binghamton

From the book, Creating Web Accessible Databases: Case Studies for Libraries, Museums, and Other Nonprofits. Julie M. Still, editor. Published by Information Today, Inc., Medford, New Jersey USA. Copyright 2001 by Julie M. Still, used by permission. All rights reserved.


      "Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1830-1930," ( a website produced and maintained at the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender at the State University of New York at Binghamton, is intended to introduce students, teachers, and scholars to a rich collection of primary documents related to women's historical participation in social movements in the United States. Professors Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin co-founded the project in 1997 with minimal expertise and funding; since then it has grown enormously and now contains more than 300 primary documents, fifty illustrations, and resources and links to other sites on the web for further research. The website has received national recognition, "selected to be showcased on EDSITEment as one of the best sites on the Internet for education in the humanities." The rapid growth of the website since its beginning has been exciting, and yet it offers challenges as we struggle to keep pace with the project's growing size and the plans at the Center for increasing outreach to educators.

       The website is organized around editorial projects completed by undergraduate and graduate students at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Each of these editorial projects poses a unique historiographical question and provides a series of documents that addresses the question and makes a scholarly contribution to historical knowledge. We now have seventeen projects on the website, and in Spring 2000 we expect to add another ten. Undergraduate students in a senior seminar in United States women's history completed most of the projects. This course, taught three times since 1997 and scheduled to be offered again in Fall 2000, offers students an opportunity to understand historical research as an interpretive process. Through the development of the editorial projects, students not only become solidly grounded in historical research skills, but also get useful training in the authoring of web pages.

       The website, co-directed by Kathryn Kish Sklar and Thomas Dublin, is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Last year, Sklar and Dublin founded the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender. The Center has become the organizational home of the website as well as some proposed outreach projects. I became involved in the project during the summer of 1998, when the co-directors hired me as a graduate assistant. In August 1999, I became a post-doctoral research associate at the Center, continuing my association with the project.

       Because Sklar and Dublin conceived of the Women and Social Movements website as a resource for teachers at the college and secondary levels, one of our primary goals is to continually increase the depth and breadth of the materials available. One of the most exciting things about internet publishing is its lack of stasis; our project constantly grows and changes. Currently the site features seventeen projects, covering such diverse social movements as the Female Moral Reform Society of the mid-nineteenth century, abolitionist activism, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, women's suffrage, the peace movement, and women's labor activism in the New York City Shirtwaist Strike of 1909-1910 and the Lawrence Strike of 1912. Our goal is to have another ten projects available on the website by the summer of 2000, including material about the dress reform movement, the Oneida community, the birth control movement, and the women's rights conventions of the 1850s, among others. We aim to represent diverse women, time periods, and reform movements as we continually enlarge the scope and breadth of the Women and Social Movements website.

       The project began on a much more modest scale. Kathryn Kish Sklar, a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton, conceived of the idea in January 1997, when she took part in a panel organized in response to a call from the Library of Congress for submission of projects to be put on the National Digital Library. While participating in that panel, Professor Sklar became distressed to discover that digitized collections of historical materials about women were scarce; few women's historians were producing materials for the internet, and none could rival the scale of the larger historical projects already on the web. As a result of dialogue with participating secondary school teachers, Sklar became convinced of the need for primary documents to be presented within an interpretive framework that would enable students to learn something about women's history despite the limited amounts of time available in classrooms to work with online materials. With this idea in mind, despite what she felt was her relative lack of knowledge about producing internet materials, Sklar returned to S.U.N.Y. Binghamton determined to begin filling the need for historical materials about women on the world-wide web.

       Sklar began immediately. Although the first week of classes of the spring semester had passed, she presented students in her senior seminar in U.S. women's history with a new research project alternative: they could undertake editorial projects, collecting twenty documents that would address a unique historical question, write a general introduction to the material as well as headnotes for each document, and provide annotations and scholarly footnotes for the project as a whole. She also suggested that students who wished could complete their projects in website form. By March of that first semester, Sklar had recruited the co-director of the project, Thomas Dublin, and had made a successful application to the National Endowment of the Humanities for a small, one-year Focus Grant. They used these funds to hire a graduate student for the 1997-1998 academic year who would help to create a pilot website.

       Michelle Mioff, the newly-hired graduate assistant, had mounted the first two editorial projects on the Women and Social Movements website by December 1997. Those two projects, still available on the site, were titled, "How Did African-American Women Define Their Citizenship at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893?" and "How Did the National Woman's Party Address the Issue of the Enfranchisement of Black Women, 1919-1924?" Both projects were originally done by students in the spring 1997 senior seminar, and that material and a small related links page made up the pilot website. In spring 1998, Sklar taught the senior seminar again, this time assisted by Mioff, who helped students convert their work from Microsoft Word documents to html files. Over the summer of 1998, after Sklar and Dublin had edited the student work for quality and consistency, Mioff worked to ready four of the projects for mounting on the larger site. The amount of progress on the Women and Social Movements Website in its first year helped Sklar and Dublin obtain a larger, two-year Teaching with Technology grant from the NEH. The new grant funded my one-year hire in August of 1998 as well as the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender, created in summer 1999.

       When I joined the project staff as a graduate assistant at the start of the 1998-1999 academic year, the website was in transition; heretofore it had been a small, pilot project, and soon it would "go public" with its wealth of accumulated materials. My task was to provide the technological support to quickly increase the number of editorial projects available on the internet site. I had only a minimal amount of experience working on the internet; I had constructed several online course syllabi for professors in the history department and had served as the department's webmaster for one semester. I was, however, intrigued with the project's mission to place replicas of original historical documents on the internet within an analytical framework to provide students access to primary documents as well as a window into understanding those documents. I believed the project was truly innovative. My growth has paralleled the experience of all of us involved in the project -- we have learned from our successes and our mistakes as we worked to encourage and sustain the growth of the project.

       When I began on the Women and Social Movements website, my initial task was to transform the undergraduate projects, edited by Sklar and Dublin, into the standard format, then linking the projects to the site. At that time the website remained small, allowing just the three of us to handle new projects and maintenance of the site. We knew little about site design, and because the website was still small, we continued to refer to the project as being in the "pilot" stage. However, the website was facing a transition. Although only six editorial projects had been mounted in the year and a half since the project began, because the senior seminar had been taught twice, we had about twenty projects to choose from as we strove to mount more materials. Several graduate students had also been recruited to create editorial projects based upon their own research. Within a few months we had mounted several more projects and moved the pilot website from the S.U.N.Y. Binghamton instructional server to a server that could be indexed by search engines, essentially making the Women and Social Movements website available to the public for the first time.

       Within six months of my hire, it became clear that this project had potential to grow exponentially. Because of its rapid growth, we increasingly realized that the design of the project had flaws that we needed to address. Our collective lack of experience publishing on the internet manifested in our lack of knowledge about site design and user accessibility. Although we received much positive feedback about the materials the site made available, we also received some valid critique of our site design. My role evolved into a more supervisory one as we hired four undergraduate work study students to do the mounting of new projects, freeing me to address some of the larger problems. In addition to training the work study students in HTML and supervising their work, I also designed and implemented a new format for the site in consultation with Sklar and Dublin. The new design further standardized the look of the editorial projects, implemented a simple search engine, included better navigational features, and looked much more polished to our visitors.

       We developed our new organizational scheme with an eye toward making navigation for users relatively easy. Although the complete overhaul of the site took several months, it still provides the structure for the projects. From the homepage, users can access any of several main pages: a search engine; a permission page on which we list the credits for documents and images; pages providing short biographies and acknowledgements of editors and staff members; a related links section; and project notes, which include an editorial practices section. The most important link from this homepage leads users to a projects page, which lists the short titles of the currently seventeen projects on the site. From there, users can link to short descriptions of projects that interest them and from that intermediate page link to the projects themselves.

       During spring 1999, in addition to our work on the website design, we also concentrated on networking with the staff of other internet projects and informally working with some professors at other universities who began to assign reading from the project in their undergraduate classes. Periodically we request that one of our work study students spend a few weeks surfing the internet and writing email to the webmasters of other academic sites asking them to include a link to our project. In this way we have been able to expand the number of other websites from which users were linking to our site from about two in January 1999 to more than 175 at present. Using information maintained on the S.U.N.Y. Binghamton server, we track the increasing number of visits to our site and the growing number of internet sites that link to our project. In the 1998-1999 academic year more than 27,000 visitors from over forty countries came to the site, with more than 5,000 visiting in March alone. By the summer of 1999, the website had been completely redesigned, seventeen projects had been mounted, and we were receiving over one hundred hits a day.

       After the period of rapid growth in 1998-1999, our attention shifted in the late spring and summer of 1999 toward improving the quality rather than the quantity of material offered on the Women and Social Movements website. We assigned one work study student to increase the number of links within each editorial project to relevant scholarly websites elsewhere on the internet. One of my major tasks over the summer was to improve the large "related links" section of the site as a whole, which resulted in our implementing a three-part links section on the site, including three major categories: Archives and Webographies in Women's History, Projects in Women's History, and Women and Social Movements Today. We want to not only offer students and teachers a large collection of historical documents within an interpretive framework, but also to direct users to the growing number of other resources for the study of women and gender elsewhere on the internet.

       My hire as a post-doctoral research associate marked the beginning of another transitional phase for the project, as the website continued to grow, as we continued to formulate plans for greater outreach efforts, and as we better learned how to best serve the needs of the students who produce these editorial projects in the U.S. Women's History seminar. In the fall of 1999, Kathryn Kish Sklar and I team-taught the senior seminar. In preparation, Sklar and Dublin identified several collections of primary documents that the S.U.N.Y. Binghamton library owned on microfilm and formulated a set of possible questions about these documents that students could choose to investigate. Students in the seminar selected the collection that most interested them and the questions they wanted to explore. Sklar and I aimed to help the students learn research skills that would allow them to form an analytical question and organize an answer through the exploration of primary documents.

       A collaborative learning classroom had been completed on the S.U.N.Y. Binghamton campus during summer 1999 and we were able to take advantage of its facilities in this third time the seminar was offered. The classroom contains comfortable, rolling chairs with fold-down desks that can accommodate small or large group discussions as well as individual work. Laptop computers with wireless internet connections for each member of the class allowed us to thoroughly train students in the skills they needed to create their project websites. The flexible workspace as well as projection technology gave students the opportunity to share their work with others. We developed an extensive course website that guided students through basic computer and research skills and HTML tutorials. Students accomplished a great deal during the semester, each of them acquiring a solid grounding in historical research skills, training in HTML, and opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers and individually with us in an adjoining conference room when the need arose. The fifteen students in the class brought their projects to an unprecedented level of sophistication, and they proudly displayed their online projects at a reception for university administrators at the end of the semester. The team-teaching approach as well as the technologically advanced classroom enabled us to not only give participants a richer learning experience, but also to guide students to produce much more "finished" editorial projects than had been possible in previous seminars.

       The dozen excellent editorial projects from the senior seminar waiting to be mounted, the enormous growth of the website, the increasing number of project staff members, and the evolution of several new goals for the site, have led us to consider, once again, reorganizing both the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender and the "Women and Social Movements in the United States" website. We now employ six undergraduate work study students, one graduate student, and one project intern, and are guiding six independent study students working on various aspects of the website. The growth of the staff associated with the project has presented organizational challenges that Sklar and Dublin hope to remedy by obtaining additional funding for a few more graduate assistants who can take responsibility for small aspects of the project and for an associate director who can supervise the new assistants as well as spearheading outreach efforts.

       The future of the project, facing the transition necessitated by the website's growing size, rests on obtaining additional funding. The Teaching with Technology grant Dublin and Sklar secured from the National Endowment for the Humanities has allowed us to construct a website as a resource for high school and college teachers; in the process, the project directors have created a model that we think others can effectively adopt. Sklar and Dublin have now requested a larger grant from the NEH to fund a collaboration with a selected group of college and university teachers. This group of educators would develop additional editorial projects and websites that would dramatically expand the availability on the worldwide web of quality educational materials related to the history of American women. To prepare for the proposal to the NEH, Dublin and Sklar invited about sixty college faculty who teach U.S. Women's History at colleges and universities around the country to propose projects for consideration for inclusion in the grant application. Sklar and Dublin then selected thirteen faculty at twelve institutions who had demonstrated strong support from their institutions, access to rich archival sources for use with students, and exciting project proposals for possible mounting on their own or our website.

       The array of scholars from diverse institutions with access to varied and rich collections of primary documents will ensure a much larger scope than that currently offered by the website. The projects proposed cover women's urban reform efforts, the involvement of Jewish women in reform activity, suffragism in Colorado and Tennessee, women's networks in the New Deal, and the reform efforts of women from prairie states. The proposed projects will lengthen the time span of the Women and Social Movements website as well, as they range from the antebellum period to the 1970s.

       Renewal and enlargement of our funds will allow us to help these thirteen collaborating faculty implement our model on their own campuses through the development of a manual for the creation of similar web projects that they and others can follow and the sponsorship of a five-day training seminar for collaborating faculty at S.U.N.Y. Binghamton in July 2001. The associate director will provide support to the selected faculty as they implement their courses and their own web projects, responding to their syllabi, proposing assignments that make full use of the website's resources, and incorporating suggestions and feedback from faculty as they experiment with the available materials. In addition, we will add to the site substantial pedagogic suggestions for how it might be used in college and high school classrooms. Our goal is to continue to increase the educational value of the website on both the college and the secondary school levels.

       Dublin and Sklar have proposed that the selected faculty will begin their involvement with the project by using the website in their teaching during the first year of the grant period. We will encourage all faculty to share their ideas with one another about their teaching strategies. In July 2001, we will hold a five-day training workshop at S.U.N.Y. Binghamton to prepare these thirteen scholars to teach courses in 2001-2002 much like our senior seminar in women's history. Faculty will guide their students in the creation of editorial projects using the unique resources available at the different institutions. We will either mount many of their projects on the main website or assist those faculty who want to mount the projects on servers at their home institutions in 2002-2003, taking care that all projects are accessible to users of the Women and Social Movements website.

       Ultimately, we anticipate that the mounting of projects carried out by the students of collaborating faculty will double the size of the website. We are likely to have about thirty-five editorial projects mounted on the website in July 2001 when we hold the training seminar. The twelve courses at the campuses of our collaborating faculty will probably produce that number of completed projects worthy of mounting on the worldwide web. We anticipate that by the summer of 2003 our website will include or link to some seventy editorial projects with roughly 1,400 primary documents.

       Our involvement with faculty at other institutions will not be limited to the thirteen Dublin and Sklar selected for intensive collaboration in 2000-2001. The project directors are also pursuing funding to accept another twelve faculty into the program who will teach both an introductory U.S. history survey course and a U.S. women's history course using the Women and Social Movements website. Dialogue with these twelve scholars will help us to further enhance the educational value of the website. We will also remain in extensive contact with another 50-100 faculty and secondary school teachers who have expressed interest in using the website in the classroom, taking particular care to expand this network to include more secondary school teachers. We will encourage contact between the instructors and develop further a "teacher's corner" on the website on which to mount exemplary assignments and projects utilizing the site. We will develop a curriculum for teachers that will also be placed in the teacher's corner. Our goal is to greatly expand our outreach efforts and to encourage secondary, college, and university educators to use the resources the site provides.

       Our production of additional editorial projects will not end despite our expanded mission. We propose to contribute to the growing diversity of projects included on the Women and Social Movements website by beginning an initiative at S.U.N.Y. Binghamton to develop projects on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX banned sex discrimination in schools, in academics or athletics. It has had the greatest impact on athletics, although academic gains for women have been impressive as well in the nearly thirty years since the legislation passed. We anticipate that including Title X material will broaden the website's appeal to non-historians. Currently, three undergraduate students are working with us in independent study courses to ready Title IX material for students who enroll in the senior seminar to be taught in Fall 2000. We also have begun exploring resources for students who wish to investigate the beginnings of an organized lesbian movement in the United States and hope an incoming graduate student will succeed in developing a project out of the scattered historical sources available on the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs.

       The phenomenal growth of the Women and Social Movements website and the various initiatives undertaken by Dublin and Sklar at the Center for the Historical Study of Women and Gender have necessitated a rethinking of the basic organization of the project as a whole. As the website continues to expand, it will contain too many projects for teachers and students to browse effectively. We propose to create a relational database cataloguing system, allowing a much greater level of sophistication in searching capabilities. The database will allow users to browse lists of subjects, titles, authors, and media types; search for specific subjects, titles, authors, and media types; and search for Boolean combinations of subjects, titles, authors, and media types. We also want to greatly increase the visual materials we make available on the site, complementing its documentary strengths. The database will allow users to include these graphics in their searches for materials.

       As is apparent, the Women and Social Movements website, as well as the organization that supports it, is approaching another crucial transitional moment. Concerned that the new technology was bypassing U.S. Women's History, Dublin and Sklar began this project on a very modest scale just three years ago, and since then its size and significance have exploded. We believe that the website contributes in a very significant way to the technological revolution taking place in the teaching of the humanities. Our challenges include securing the funding to expand the staff needed for support of the project and to reorganize the site itself in order to accommodate the increasing number of materials available on the Women and Social Movements website. Our most pressing challenge, however, is to find new and varied ways to reach out to educators, helping them become producers of editorial projects, as well as encouraging them, particularly at the high school level, to use the exciting new resources available on the world wide web to teach students about the integral nature of women's activism in American history.