Working with Gwenllian Morgan

By Amara Thornton (Co-Investigator, Beyond Notability)

As a team, we have been talking a lot about work lately. In order to test out our evolving ontology for cataloguing women’s work, we’ve started to create quite detailed entries for a few women in our database. These detailed entries are based on the initial archive research we have done over the past few months, and associated desk-based research in primary and secondary source material. 

Working through the source material and figuring out how to catalogue what we are finding about women’s work most effectively has highlighted the need for us to construct a flexible and contextually relevant framework to represent what can be quite complex forms of activity into statements that work as linked data.  

We are using this framework to reflect the wide range of activities we are seeing in the records. And where possible, we are noting whether or not “positions held” – which we are deliberately separating from employment – are paid or unpaid, with salary specifics where we have them. To that end, we have decided to pull all these together by making a new item “public or professional activity”, each work-related property we create will now be united, and queryable, through the statement that it is an “instance of” a “public and professional activity”. 

Let’s take the example of Gwenllian Morgan, one of the women in our database. She was elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in the 1930s, toward the end of her extremely active life. Her blue paper reflects the wide range of her activities – beginning with her name, after which are the letters J. P., indicating that she was a justice of the peace.  

The “Addition, Profession or Occupation” field on the blue paper reveals that she held the position of Mayor in Brecon, Wales, where she lived, in 1910, and that she was Governor (equivalent to a Trustee position) of the National Library of Wales.  

The “Qualification” field introduces yet more areas of “public and professional” activity that Morgan undertook: her co-founding of the Brecknock Society and Museum, her role as Correspondent (effectively local reporter) in Brecon and district for the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Monuments, and her association with the “restoration” of the Cresset Stone in Brecon Cathedral.  

This last detail took a bit of time and research to unpack. On first glance, it might look like Morgan had a role in conserving the stone, which had been found in a nearby garden. But in fact, courtesy of the National Library of Wales’s digitised newspaper collection, the “restoration” refers to Morgan’s purchase of the stone and (presumably) her donation of it to the Cathedral. As an aside, I’d highly recommend watching this beautiful film of a specially composed piece of music played near the Cresset stone, which is illuminated with candles. 

Turning to secondary source material, we find yet more evidence of Morgan’s activities in local government beyond her positions as J. P. and Mayor as indicated in her blue paper. An article in the Review of Reviews, published to coincide with her inauguration as mayor, notes that she had further positions as a town councillor and a poor law guardian

It remains to be seen how far Morgan’s local government work fed into her antiquarian interests. But it is clear that Morgan felt very strongly about championing women’s work in local government. She outlined her thoughts on the matter at a meeting of the National Union of Women Workers, which took place in Manchester in 1895.  Her speech there was published as a pamphlet, which is now accessible through the LSE Women’s Library digital collection.  

Alongside this local work, Morgan took part in national and international campaigns for temperance, holding positions in the World Women’s Christian Temperance Association and the British Women’s Temperance Association in the 1890s. As Superintendent of Petitions and Treaties for the WWCTA, she led on the collection of signatures of Great Britain and Ireland for the Polyglot petition, which called for governments to prevent trade in opium and alcohol. The founder of the WWCTA, Frances E. Willard, noted in her announcement of Morgan’s appointment that Morgan owed the role to her friend Lady Henry Somerset – an indication both of the role of patronage in these appointments and of Morgan’s social network. 

Morgan’s public and professional activities encompass some key areas we are planning to highlight through our database, including the intersection of proto-feminist campaigning with heritage-related and philanthropic activities. We won’t be able to cover every woman in our database in this much detail, but Morgan’s active life gives us a useful template for thinking through how we represent various aspects of women’s work through time.  

References/Further Reading 

Brecon County Times, 1913. Builth Wells Naturalists At the Priory Church, Brecon, 31 July, p 6. 

Chapin, Clara, 1895. Thumb nail sketches of white ribbon women. Chicago: Women’s Temperance Publishing Association. 

Morgan, Gwenllian E. F. 1895. The Duties of Citizenship: The Proper Understanding and Use of the Municipal and Other Franchises for Women. 

Willard, Frances E. 1890. A New World’s Secretary. The Union Signal, 4 December, p. 12. 

On Working with Gender

By James, Katherine and Amara.

The subtitle of our project, is ‘Re-evaluating Women’s work in archaeology, history and heritage in Britain, 1870 – 1950′. We aim to create a large-scale study of women’s contributions to these fields by rendering visible previously unknown ‘professional’ (both salaried and unsalaried) activities of women through the study of archival sources. This requires us to identify instances in our sources of women conducting various activities we would categorise as ‘work’, and to express those as data. But how do we identify these women?

This has led the project team to chew over two issues in recent meetings:

  • How to work within, or modify, the conventions of Wikidata to deal with gender (and indeed other sensitive personal) characteristics in our database
  • The ethics of ascription of gender to people in the past

To begin, let’s consider the conventions governing how the property of gender (or ‘sex and gender’, since Wikidata currently conflates the two – and this is in itself controversial) is handled in Wikidata, the collaboratively edited knowledge graph whose linked data underpins Wikipedia and Google Search. Like other systems for the organization and systematization of knowledge, Wikidata operates by using (relatively) controlled vocabularies: lists of key terms with agreed definitions that allow records to be tagged/described in ways that render them searchable.  In order to link our data to other data sets it is important to work to some extent within conventions in order to make those links. If we were to create an entirely unique, bespoke set of categories to classify our historical data, our database would be limited in usefulness, since it would not be discoverable through standard searches or interoperable with other data ecologies. On the other hand, conventions developed in Wikidata (term lists etc) are simplifying/flattening and can be inadequate when dealing with historically constructed categories, including gender. Crowd-sourced editing of Wikidata (in which we are participating) can also lead to changes and allows for modifications.

We are constructing our database by writing statements that ascribe information to individual or classes of items/objects, including people, by linking them with particular values of properties (known in data design as key-value pairs). For example, the English language statement “milk is white” would be encoded by a statement pairing the property ‘color’ (P462) with the value ‘white’ (Q23444) under the item ‘milk’ (Q8495).

The category (property) of ‘sex or gender’ (P21) is defined in Wikidata as follows:

sex or gender identity of human or animal. For human: male, female, non-binary, intersex, transgender female, transgender male, agender. For animal: male organism, female organism.

The issue here is not only that this gloss is contestable (and indeed contested – check out the discussion on the property talk page (content warning: transphobic language)). It is also that no caveats exist around the ascription of values of this property to historical or living individuals.

The absence of caveats for ‘sex or gender’ contrasts with cases such as ‘ethnic group’ (P172)’ and ‘sexual orientation (P91)’, properties the definitions of which are hedged about with caveats:

subject’s ethnicity (consensus is that a VERY high standard of proof is needed for this field to be used. In general this means 1) the subject claims it themselves, or 2) it is widely agreed on by scholars, or 3) is fictional and portrayed as such)

the sexual orientation of the person — use IF AND ONLY IF they have stated it themselves, unambiguously, or it has been widely agreed upon by historians after their death

We are not the only people to notice Wikidata’s blunt flattening of sex and gender. The wonderful Homosaurus, a linked data vocabulary of lesbian, qay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, and others (LGBTQ+) terms, gives us a range of narrower terms we might use instead: gender identity, gender expression, assigned gender.

These narrower definitions draw attention to what we, as historians, are doing in this project. We are dealing overwhelmingly in assigned gender rather than gender identity or gender expression, i.e. gender as ascribed to historical agents in our sources and/or as perceived by us in our interpretation of those sources. We have no direct access to the gender identity of the majority of our subjects (they do not ‘state it themselves, unambiguously’). And gender expression varies over time and between places, making our particular perception of gender a determinant of how we ascribe gender.

In the sources we have been looking at so far, sources that (partially) record work in archaeology, history and heritage in Britain, ‘sex or gender’ (P21) property-values such as womanhood are either ascribed to the people that feature in them, or our sources are silent on the matter. Sometimes the (ascribed) gender of individuals in our sources is signalled in explicit fashion, e.g. by use of gendered titles such as ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’. In other cases there is indirect or implicit evidence of gender-ascription – not least, evidence of the various kinds of barriers and exclusions to which women were subject in 19th and early 20th century Britain.  Most obviously, individuals to whom womanhood was ascribed were excluded from being Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries until 1920, but (in the UK until 1918/1928) they were also excluded from suffrage, from taking their degrees in certain universities, from pursuing certain kinds of professional work once married, and so on.

Data Feminism gives us ways to respond to the inadequacies of Wikidata P21, both as a tool for representing the past lives that are the focus of our study and – in turn – all people effectively misgendered by its flattening effect and binary assumptions. As D’Ignazio and Klein write “data feminism requires us to challenge the gender binary, along with other systems of counting and classification that perpetuate oppression” (D’Ignazio and Klein, Data Feminism (2020), 97). Not only is questioning a classification system a feminist move, so is acting in opposition to it, refusing to contribute to it on its terms. If what gets counted counts, we need to ensure that not only are more women counted, but that they are counted in ways that make clear when their womanhood is an ascription, an identity, and an expression.

What does this mean in practice? It means a number of interventions in the way we make statements about gender and sex, none of which we claim to have got entirely right, all of which we are working though in real time as we encounter the archive and the lives therein. These include assigning gender as ‘woman’ (Q3 in our data) if:

Where gendered honorifics are absent and only initials and surname are given, even if the individual’s name appears in relation to a context and activity in which normative actors in our period are men, we do not assume that the individual indicated is a man. Rather, we investigate that name, indicate uncertainty when ascribed gender is unclear, and record ‘unknown value’ when no evidence can be found.

Finally, we are committed to using a technical infrastructure that tracks our changes, timestamps them and gives each edit an author. This enables our attempts to resist the presumption of gender ascription to be recorded, and when new information is found that revises a claim, ensures that our uncertainty – however fleeting – remains entangled with the linked data we produce.

All these solutions are provisional and imperfect. We welcome constructive feedback on the procedures we have developed so far.

Introducing Our Database

We are now three months into Beyond Notability. We gave our first overview presentation of the project at the Society of Antiquaries Christmas Miscellany last month, for which we pulled together some initial findings. It’s the start of a new year, and so it seems an opportune moment to introduce the first iteration of one of the main project outputs: our research database. 

The research database was set up by Co-Investigator James Baker, and currently operates on WbStack, a shared hosting platform for Wikibase sites. You can find it at the web address https://beyond-notability.wiki.opencura.com (though note the address will change in Spring 2022 when we migrate to Wikibase.Cloud, a new service that will be managed and maintained by Wikimedia Deutschland). You can also find a link to it on our website, by clicking on “Database” in the menu. This post will take you through a few key parts of the database at this early stage of its development. Please note:  if you are using Chrome as your browser, you may need to make sure your language settings are set to British English in order to see all the data.  

And so, to begin. At the top of the main page of the database site you will find a short description of the aims of the project. This section also links to our statement of project values, which has a related bibliography. 

Screenshot of the main page of the Beyond Notability project database, Jan 2022.

Below the first section you will find a section called “Where to start”. The links under this section will take you to a list of all the items (currently) in the database, each of which has an individual Q number, the unique identification number for each item. The list includes people, organisations, events, titles, publications and sources, all linked in some way to individual women’s records. You will also find a list of properties in this section. These are words or phrases that allow us to link items together, or qualify information in a given item (with, for example, an approximate date for the information given, or a reference to source material).  

We have begun creating records for women who were proposed as Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries.  For these entries we began by using the information available in one key source for our project, the Certificates of Candidates for Election (also known as “blue papers”). The “blue papers” have been bound into volumes, each volume representing papers from roughly a 10-year period. The volumes are held in the Society of Antiquaries’ archive. Eventually, we intend to add to these entries with information from other sources. 

Scrolling down the page, under the Additional Resources section of the website you will find a link called “Meta“. This will take you to a page where we will be documenting our decision making and our source material. Under the “Item Templates” section is a list of information we will be prioritising in our dataset, and also information we intend not to prioritise. The following section “Key Sources” will link to pages with descriptions of some of the most important sources for our dataset, such as the “blue papers”, with details on why they are useful for our project.  

Let’s look at an individual entry. 

In 1924, the archaeologist Marjerie Venables Taylor became the first woman proposed and elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries through the same route as a man – that is to say, she was proposed by another Fellow and not by the Society’s Council.  We have extracted data from the  “blue paper” for M. V. Taylor (as she was more commonly known) to begin representing Taylor’s life; our current efforts are on our website at this url: https://beyond-notability.wiki.opencura.com/wiki/Item:Q133. This url will be the main ‘address’ for Taylor on our database for the present, and in due course more information from other sources will be added to supplement the information given on Taylor’s “blue paper”.  

Screenshot of the Beyond Notability database entry for Margerie Venables Taylor, Jan 2022.

The box at the top indicates Taylor’s name as it was given on the blue paper. Alternative names are also listed under “also known as”.  The alternative names are important as women frequently appear in different sources with different names (this is particularly true if they were married).  

Below the top box, is the “event” of the proposal, given as a single statement. This includes the propertyelection to SAL proposed by“, with the name of the person who initially proposed Taylor (who we have assumed is the first signatory on the list) following. The property “evidence (free-text)” is next, enabling us to transcribe of the information on the blue paper. Another property “point in time” is used to indicate the date that the blue paper was submitted. All the people who signed her blue paper are listed with the property “proposed election to SAL signed by“. Each person has been given their own Q number, and are included in the list of “items”. The property “is elected” allows us to indicate whether or not the person was admitted as a Fellow.  The property “evidence (item)” is used where we have created individual items for individual pieces of evidence, such as a job, or a publication, that were used as supporting details for admission to the Fellowship.    

Below this are separate statements with properties to indicate an individual’s sex/gender, whether or not they are already included in Wikidata, whether they have been given a person ID by the Archaeology Data Service (which links to a list of their publications), their residence including locality (given in the blue paper), employment or degree information.  

The information given in the blue papers can sometimes be difficult to isolate as an item. In Taylor’s case, while there was specific information about the positions she held at the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, there was also an explicit statement about her “distinguished service to the study of Roman Britain”. To capture this more ambiguously framed but important information, we have created a free-text property called “area of expertise“.  Each of the statements described above has been given a reference, using the property “stated in“, which links to the item “Society of Antiquaries Certificates of Candidates for Election“. 

There are currently three statements on Taylor’s page that do not come from her blue paper, and they show the potential for adding information from other sources to enrich the data given in the blue papers. Two of these – “described at URL” and “Archaeology Data Service person ID” – link outward to other websites that describe Taylor’s life and work in the form of statements, connecting our data to those sites, and enabling cross-referencing and querying. The third uses the property “member of” to indicated that Taylor sat on the (item) “Society of Antiquaries Research Committee“. This information has come from another recently added item, the publication “Camulodonum: The First Report of the Excavations at Colchester“. This excavation was conducted in the 1930s as a collaboration between the Society of Antiquaries (through the Research Committee) and the (item) “Colchester Excavation Committee“. Creating the publication as an item enables us to use it as a reference for the work of other women mentioned in the report. From the “Camulodonum” item, you can use “what links here” on the left-hand menu to see the other women included in the report. Some of these women were proposed and elected as Fellows in the years that followed. We will be adding their blue papers in the months to come. 

Detail from Margerie Venables Taylor’s page showing the what links here link (see bottom left hand corner), Jan 2022.

We hope that this post will help you navigate our database site, which grows larger every day. This site is a work in progress, and the ways in which we are cataloguing the data will change as we continue discussing, thinking about and analysing the records. We encourage all of you to take a look at the women we’ve already been able to represent with the data available to us to date. And we hope that you enjoy engaging with the data as much as we do.