February 28, 2000
Volume 52, No. 23
Web project highlights women writers
By Eric Rangus
For many Men with the Conceit of their own Perfections, neglect that which should make them so; as some mistaken persons, who think if they are of the right Church they shall be infallibly saved, when they never follow the Rules which lead to Salvation; and when Persons with this inscription pass currant in heaven, then it will be to my Antagonist's Fancy, that all Men are good, and fitting for Heaven because they are Men; and Women irreversibly damn'd, because they are Women . . .
As any English student--or even anyone who's seen Shakespeare in Love--knows, the English language sounds quite a bit different now than it did several hundred years ago. Some past texts have been studied, annotated and translated many times over, making them easily accessible to modern audiences.
Many more pieces, though, haven't been touched. These unedited, untranslated stories, poems and articles have escaped study as they sit gathering dust in libraries or hide in rolled-up spools of microfilm.
The Emory Women Writers Resource Project hopes to change that.
The project was created in 1995 by Sheila Cavanagh, associate professor of English, in collaboration with the Beck Center, the Institute of Women's Studies and the Virtual Library project. It is an online collection of edited and unedited texts produced by women writers between the 16th and 19th centuries. The idea to edit and place them online for academic study or pleasure reading sprung from work Cavanagh was doing to find ways for computers to enhance education.
"Our goal is to make a range of texts available so that faculty or students could use them as best suits their needs," Cavanagh said.
The project puts graduate students to work editing and annotating these long-forgotten texts with the hope of giving modern readers new sources for research.
"It's both tedious and fascinating," said Anna Engle, project coordinator. "It's interesting when you're reading the work, but it's tedious because you're looking for things like commas and spelling."
Work is submitted from a variety of sources. The project has an editorial board that selects appropriate material. Graduate students can submit texts, and faculty with a specific research interest are sometimes approached for suggestions.
So far six texts have been edited and posted on the project's website. More than three dozen, however, have not been edited, including Female Advocate or, an Answer to a Late Satyr Against the Pride, Lust and Inconstancy, &c. of Woman. Written by a Lady in Vindication of her Sex, the full title of poem in whose preface the above passage appears.
Working in groups of four, students edit and annotate different sections of a text from the collection, and write notes explaining their editorial choices. The Oxford English Dictionary, which contains definitions of more than 1,000 years' worth of words in the English language, often serves as the first resource for annotation. More than a dozen other sources are utilized as well.
The editors take into account the audience, whether the edited work should be presented with old or modernized spelling and what sort of background information, if any, should be included for reference. Editors have a free hand with their work, but must explain and defend every action they take.
"One of the main things learned here is how to make these choices and how to justify them," said Alice Hickcox, electronic text specialist at the Beck Center.
Engle, a graduate student in English, is currently editing about 200 pages of newspaper articles from the 1800s on suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "There were a lot of typos," said Engle, who cleaned up most of them but saved some of the more interesting ones. Those referring to "Mrs. Susan B. Anthony" (she was never married), for example.
"But I kept what I knew to be 19th century spellings," she said. "We're trying to keep the texts as a accurate to the time period as possible."
Translations are posted on the project's web site at http://abelard.library.emory.edu/wwrp/. Several others have been finished but not posted because the students have submitted the works to journals for publication.
Several of the original works--scans from books and some microfilm--are on display on the third floor of the Woodruff Library.