Female biography and the digital turn

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Spongberg, M, Walker, GL & Whipp, K 2017, 'Female biography and the digital turn', History Review, vol. 26, no. 7, pp. 705-720.

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The digital revolution gives new meaning to the concept of ‘shelf life’. It offers the promise of infusing surviving accounts of the ever-fragile female past with both a material and an electronic robustness. Among the many dusty volumes that have benefited dramatically from digital capabilities, few are more emblematic of the power of contemporary technology to advance feminist historical recovery than the six volumes of Mary Hays’s Female Biography: or memoirs of illustrious and celebrated women, of all ages and countries: alphabetically arranged (1803). Female Biography was an anomaly when first published and controversial ever since, imitated but unacknowledged, left to molder on library shelves and in the pages of histories of prosopography. It was the first attempt at a comprehensive biographical history of women in English by a named woman author since Christine de Pizan's City of Ladies (1405) and the first compendium of women by either male or female compilers since Thomas Heywood's Generall Historie of Women (1624, 1657) to include rebellious and impious figures as well as learned ones. It was also the first Enlightenment prosopography of women and a compelling response to the great forgetting of women in traditional histories. While Hays's enterprise was a quintessentially ‘Enlightenment project’, the Female Biography Project to produce the Chawton House Library Edition was very much of the digital age. In this article we examine how Mary Hays put together Female Biography at the cusp of the nineteenth century and what happened in the twenty-first century when some two hundred scholars were assembled to grapple with the scope and scholarship of this work. We also explain the process of constructing a digital archive of Female Biography, and how this enabled a wonderful feat of feminist collaboration across the globe.

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