WomensActivism.nyc is a crowdsourced digital archive highlighting the contributions of women throughout history. Sponsored by the New York City Department of Records and Information Services, the archive was launched as a five-year celebration of women’s suffrage in the United States. The goal of WomensActivism.nyc is to have a permanent, communally-built archive of 20,000 inspirational women by 2020, the centennial anniversary of when white women won the right to vote in the US. As seen above, the initiative even has a social media hashtag associated with it – searching #20000by2020 on Twitter will display posts from contributors to the archive urging others to add their own stories about women who have made a difference through activism.
The About page for WomensActivism.nyc insists that any inspirational woman has a place in the archive, “whether famous or unknown.” The only requirements are that a potential addition must identify as a woman and must be an activist. However, it appears that in practice, one can submit an entry for any woman who galvanizes, encourages, or influences action. Many contributors have submitted entries for female relatives such as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers who have shaped their lives, alongside writers, educators, politicians, and activists. No purpose for the archive is specified beyond collection.
In order to explore WomensActivism.nyc’s catalog interface, I decided to write an entry for Mary Lyon, founder of Mount Holyoke College, one of America’s first higher education institutions for women and my undergraduate institution. In order to make an entry on the archive, a user has to click on the “Share A Story” link at the top of the website. Many of the headings have a similar dressed-up feeling – “Who Inspires You?” for name entry, “She Lived” for dates, “Share Her Story” for a description – as if the website designers were really trying to drive home that this is fun data entry where you’re helping to craft a narrative. The submission process for WomensActivism.nyc does not appear to include any fact-checking on the part of the Department of Records, which suggests a lot of trust in the individuals who are submitting stories. It would be easy for someone to exploit this in order to flood the catalog with inaccurate or factitious posts. Even if someone accidentally includes misinformation in their submission, there is also no way to edit an entry once it has been posted. Make sure you proofread!
The only required field in an entry is the name of the person being added. All other fields (birthdate, death date, short biography, subject tags, website link) – are encouraged, but technically optional. There is only one field for searchable metadata: a section labeled “What Is She Known For?” where a user can select every subject tag that applies to their entry. The search function for looking up women in the archive uses the same system. There are no other tags available for organizing archive entries.
Personally, I find this lack of specificity frustrating. Searching by subject might get the job done if you know the name of a person or if you want to look up every entry tagged with, say, “Education” and “Suffrage.” But if you wanted to make a list of activists from the Middle East, or only knew the person you want to look up was an American education reformer, there is no guarantee that a search will present you with every relevant post. The lack of specificity underscores the fact that WomensActivism.nyc is intended to be an exhibition of individuals, and not a research tool or academic catalog. Still a cool and necessary project, just not as precise as it could be.
As of this posting, WomensActivism.nyc still needs 18,503 entries in order to reach the target number by 2020. The archive also leans heavily towards American women and American history, although theoretically it was envisioned as a global catalog. The Department of Records does not appear to be advertising the archive beyond the #20000by2020 hashtag and tables at relevant conferences, such as the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, where I first encountered them. Do the people behind the project fear backlash from certain corners of the internet if WomensActivism.nyc gets too well known? Are they content to rely on word of mouth? Hard to say. Time will tell if the Department of Records begins to advertise more aggressively or edits the site’s mission statement to be more specific. In any case, the catalog is a quick way to contribute to a collective project promoting the voices that are often lost in history.
– posted by Camilla Yohn-Barr, 653-01