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University archives: uncovering women’s history

Published: March 30, 2012
Section: Featured, Features


This past Wednesday, the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections hosted a “Show and Tell Event” to celebrate women’s history and their contributions to Brandeis. Created by graduate students Allison Lange and Zach Albert, this visual display highlighted photos of famous women, documents and events that occurred throughout Brandeis’ history. Combining Lange’s focus on women’s suffrage and Albert’s interest with museum displays, the event signified a joint effort. Lange mentioned that she was interested in planning a women’s history event partly because it is Women’s History Month and, unlike in past years, Brandeis does not seem to have many relevant events this March.

Archives and Special Collections possesses so many primary sources on famous women and feminism that Lange and Albert were not even able to display them all. While some of the photographs may be curling at the edges, they still serve to showcase the lives of momentous women. From Gertrude Stein to Georgia O’Keeffe, these photographs are intense in their ability to capture the raw essence of these women.

Also on display were documents such as a letter signed by Jackie Kennedy and propaganda posters from World War I encouraging women to participate in the war effort. One depicts a woman with a smile playing on her lips and her hair tossed back, hands shoved nonchalantly in her pockets as she urges others to join the Navy. These posters, while basic government ads, transport the viewer back to a time and place in which women’s aid in the war was necessary.

The event also showcased the impact women have had on Brandeis. Eleanor Roosevelt, former first lady and U.N. ambassador, bore a distinct mark on Brandeis. She was, at the time, the sole woman to serve on the board of trustees. She also actively engaged with students in the community by holding speeches and functions and she even presented the university’s first commencement address. Her time at Brandeis is very well documented: photographs abound, hinting at the impact this sole woman had on our community.

Famous Brandeis alumnae were also mentioned, such as Debra Messing ’90, who held a starring role on “Will and Grace.” There was material on the start of the Brandeis Women’s and Gender Studies Program, which coincided with a sort of “second wave feminism,” a central issue throughout the entire United States during the late 1970s.

The event also brought to light events that Brandeis hosted throughout history that are not as well known today. For example, porn star Linda Marchiano (Linda Lovelace) visited Brandeis in 1982; she was brought to campus to discuss “pornography’s real story,” since there had been screenings on campus and an overall widespread acceptance of porn. In her controversial lecture, Marchiano discussed how pornography was a harmful industry to women, and she was basically forced to be a sex slave.

This “Show and Tell” event’s greatest strength lay in its ability to unfold Brandeis’ rich and varied history, something that is often lost as students focus on their next exam and upcoming water polo game. By bringing women’s history to the forefront, the exhibit allowed easy access to these women’s lives and events that otherwise may not be remembered.

The success of this event is also connected to the importance of Archives and Special Collections; located in Goldfarb Library, level 2, Archives offers a range of services to the average Brandeis student. From housing past Brandeis yearbooks to possessing old senior honors theses for guidance, it also preserves and provides access to countless primary sources.

Director Sarah Shoemaker stresses the importance of this resource, saying, “We teach nearly 30 instruction sessions and answer more than 2,000 reference questions a year.” She described how it is not only Brandeis students who utilize this; it is instead “students, faculty and staff, as well as scholars and researchers around the world.” The instruction sessions taught at the Archives serve as a sort of “outreach” so that students “can learn about the wonderful resources available to them.”

The fact that Archives and Special Collections can be such a valuable resource is another gem to emerge from this women’s history “Show and Tell” presentation. Despite its somewhat hidden location in the lower floors of the library, the primary sources owned by the university should be in the forefront of Brandeis students’ minds. Students possess what is essentially a miniature museum in our library, and should utilize it to its full potential.