Studying Gender Beyond the Archive

Dorothy de la Hey travelled from Oxfordshire to Madras to establish Queen Mary’s College in 1914, the first women’s college in Madras. Sharaf-un-Nisa Begum, the wife of a member of the British aristocracy in the early years of East India Company rule, travelled from Kolkata to Devon in the 1770s. If we were to rely on the archives, we would have mere snippets and uncontextualized illustrations of their lives. Official sources would limit our understanding of both women and we will be unable to insert them in larger discourses on gender and Empire.

Dr. Megan Robb looking at textiles at the Palmer family archive in Devonshire

Historians have traditionally relied on the written and documented record, which comes in the form of archives and material artifacts. Pierre Nora understood modern memory to rely “entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.” Archives and museums were considered privileged sites of the past. They were not simply repositories but, as Foucault indicates, the “law of what can be said, the system that governs the appearance of statements as unique events” demonstrating its connection to power. This record, usually produced by those who were literate and powerful, privilege dominant (male) voices, while marginalizing non-dominant groups such as women.

It leads us to ask, if non-dominant groups become peripheral subjects in the historical record, how are we able to understand their lives today?

Efforts to examine and re-center women in history have led the profession to re-examine its traditional narratives and adopt new approaches relying on ‘non-official’ source materials. Everyday materials such as photographs, family letters, newspaper clippings, and other ephemera provide insight into individual lives that official records do not. Reading official sources ‘against the grain’ is another method that helps to reveal a more complex understanding of non-dominant groups, through contextualization and interweavement of multiple sources.

Other methods, commonly utilized by oral historians and anthropologists, include ethnographic research, oral history methods, and life writing, which allow us to better understand the ways in which subjective experiences of the past can be articulated from the prism of the present.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in her essay, ‘Rani of Sirmur’, asks if marginalized and subaltern women specifically can articulate their subjectivity. Rani of Sirmur, the wife of the King of Sirmur, appears in the colonial archives only “when she is needed in the space of imperial production.” These archives themselves were a product of the commercial and territorial interests of the East India Company. Rani herself is not there to tell her own story and cannot be found as there are dominant power configurations that represent her. Spivak further expounds this in her essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ to ask whether there is a possibility of recovering female subaltern subjectivities. This helps us to reflect on the complexities of the conflicts and contradictions of historical subjects such as Dorothy de la Hey and Sharaf-un-Nisa Begum.

A women-centered approach in research methods can give women space to speak on their own terms, which can give equal weight to women’s experiences and women’s interpretation of those experiences. Adopting diverse methods in historical research to examine the lives of women can assist in better understanding their lives in broader terms, as they become participants and agents of historical processes. This showcases the transnational characteristics of women’s mobility in imperial networks. Foregrounding mobility is at odds with traditional historiography supported by archives grounded in a rigid and bounded space.

Diverse and ‘non-traditional’ methods are especially useful in both the construction of a postcolonial archive and when examining marginalized groups who do not have access to traditional forms of power. This makes ‘non-official’ source material ever more important.


de Certeau, Michel. The Writing of History. Columbia University Press, New York, 1988.

Foucault, Michel, Alan Sheridan, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.

Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire”. Representations. University of California Press, 1989, pp. 7–25.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Can the Subaltern Speak?. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archives”. History and Theory. Wesleyan University, 1985, pp. 247-272.


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