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‘In Her Own Right’: Philadelphia Consortium to Create Digital Archive of Early Women’s Activism in America

The Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing is participating in a $496,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources, which will support the creation of an online archive documenting women’s assertion of their rights, 1820-1920.

The Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries (PACSCL) recently announced that member library Temple University has been awarded a $496,000 grant on PACSCL’s behalf from the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives initiative of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for its project “In Her Own Right: The Many Faces of Women’s Activism, 1820-1920.”

Led by PACSCL members Temple University, Drexel University College of Medicine Legacy Center, and the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College and involving a total of 11 partner institutions as well as PACSCL itself, the project will complete the digitization and online presentation of a significant body of letters, diaries, photographs, organization records and other documents, totaling 117,000 pages. These documents illuminate women’s efforts to assert their rights and work for the rights of others in a variety of spheres in the century leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, in 1920. The images and associated metadata will be released into the public domain for use by researchers and the general public.

“In choosing the materials from our member organizations for digitization, we wanted to demonstrate a full range of women’s rights-related activities,” explained Margery Sly, Director of the Special Collections Resource Center at Temple University and principal investigator for the project. While some collections are primarily suffrage-related, others demonstrate a range of activist endeavors. The collections also flesh out the complexity of the women’s rights movement. “We are trying to highlight those moments where women’s identities and priorities came into conflict,” Sly added, “while acknowledging that women of color and working class women were often marginalized within the women’s rights movement.”

The project builds on earlier work conducted with the assistance of a Foundations grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The newly digitized materials will be available through the website developed as part of that project ( Margaret Graham, co-principal investigator and managing archivist at the Drexel University College of Medicine (DUCOM), notes “we included Bates Nursing Center’s Mercy-Douglass Hospital records in our pilot project, providing a window on African-American women’s efforts to attain a professional education in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” 

Project participants, in addition to Temple University, Drexel University College of Medicine, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, Lehigh University, and PACSCL itself, include Bryn Mawr College, the German Society of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the National Archives at Philadelphia, University of Delaware Libraries, and the Barbara Bates Center for the History of Nursing of the University of Pennsylvania.

In this CLIR grant, the Bates Center will focus on digitizing the notebooks and diaries of Chloe Cudsworth Littlefield, a late 19th century private duty nurse in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, and Massachusetts. Littlefield was an 1883 graduate of Women’s Hospital of Philadelphia School of Nursing. Her notebooks and diaries reveal the day-to-day activities of a private duty nurse and the methods and means she used, like so many nurses at this time, to carve out an identity for herself.

PACSCL, along with the Bates Center, is very grateful to the three lead applicants for their hard work in bringing the project proposal to fruition and to CLIR for its continued support of PACSCL. The Bates Center is incredibly thankful for opportunity to work on this grant and to make these collections available to a wider audience.