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Diversity in the Stacks: 50 Years of Gender Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn

The Penn Libraries holds essential collections in all the fields of importance to this vital community.

A person sits on a desk, gesturing with one hand while speaking to a classroom. Three student are shown listening.

Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies is celebrating 50 years at Penn this year. Its two components, the Center for Research in Feminist, Queer, and Transgender Studies and the Penn Program on Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, play a key role in the academic affairs, teaching, and scholarship of the University. With faculty in over 20 departments, the GSWS program reaches into nearly every discipline taught at Penn. The Penn Libraries holds essential collections in all the fields of importance to this vital community, whose students and researchers are encouraged to explore a wide variety of issues concerning gender, race, sexuality, and women in society, culture, history, science, and language.

Special Collections: Women’s Rights and More, from the 18th century to the present 

The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts has many historic titles in the movement for women’s rights. Usually considered one of the foundational documents in feminist philosophy, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects was a revolutionary book in a revolutionary era, the late 1800s. It asserted that women were able to receive education beyond the domestic sphere and could contribute to political and social affairs.

An interesting manuscript is a letter from Ann Eliza Young, a former plural wife of Brigham Young who became an anti-polygamy activist. This one is particularly interesting because it describes some of his other wives; it also discusses women’s suffrage.

One of the most utilized collections is the papers of Marian Anderson, the barrier-breaking contralto. It consists of personal papers, scores, and recordings. Much of it has been digitized.

Also within special collections, the Walter J. Lear U.S. Health Activism History Collection, named for the pioneering doctor and LGBT medical activist, focuses on health activism, with strengths in women’s health and AIDS activism.

The Kislak Center also is collecting in trans studies. It includes a 1925 science fiction book with transgender characters.

From Children’s Books to Legal Analysis: Documenting the Lives and Struggles of Transgender People

Trans studies, an essential topic for our students and faculty, is also an important component of the general collections. Several library staff are involved in these collections. Special efforts have been made by our bibliographer for literature in the English language to collect literature for children and young adults exploring trans, and more broadly LGBTQ+, themes. Given how controversial these materials have become across the United States in recent years, the importance of collecting these titles cannot be overemphasized. A few examples are This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them, and Us and Self-made Boys: A Great Gatsby Remix.

The need for materials exploring transgender healthcare is met by our Health Science Libraries staff. The edited collection Transgender and Gender Diverse Health Care: The Fenway Guide covers the gamut of issues relating to the sociological, biological, and medical aspects of trans health care. Another resource, ClinicalKey, gives journal articles, yes; but also images, videos, and patient education examples. Trans people are also taking a key role in their health care. Care Without Pathology: How Trans- Health Activists Are Changing Medicine is proof that trans people can control their own destiny.

Our bibliographers have also assiduously collected on contemporary issues relating to controversies in public schools, athletics, and more. Even actions many of us take for granted and consider an everyday commonplace such as using one’s chosen name can pose a dilemma for a trans person. A 2024 book Names, Naming, and the Law: Onomastics, Identity, Power, and Policy recognizes the diverse gender identities that exist today and what the challenges are for naming in the law. Civil rights for transgender athletes has also become a subject of heated debate in recent years; Fair Play: How Sports Shape the Gender Debates is a good introduction to the topic.

From art history to social work, dental medicine, and education, more could be written on how the library is working to meet the needs of the GSWS and trans community’s research, information, and practical needs. Suffice it to say, the staff are committed to inclusiveness where it may lead.

Sexuality and Desire in Fiction and Nonfiction

A recent initiative of the library having applicability across the spectrum of sexuality studies in the humanities and social sciences is the Penn Sexuality Collection (view highlights). At this point it has nearly 5,000 items, and it will continue to grow.

Many of the materials in this collection might be considered unusual. Some items are quite rare, often because of their ephemeral nature. We collect broadly for this collection and do not restrict ourselves to any particular languages or time periods. An early example would be Le Baiser: Etude Litteraire et Historique (The Kiss: Literary and Historical Study).

The collection also covers issues of sexual functioning and health, primarily with historical resources. For example, there is an abundance of “how to” manuals describing a wide variety of sexual activity. 
Recently the collection was given an infusion of gifts from the William Way LGBT Community Center.

It includes nonfiction titles like Some of My Best Friends: Essays in Gay History and Biography, Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military, and A Faith of One's Own: Explorations by Catholic Lesbians; but the bulk of the collection consists mostly of fiction that the Penn Libraries did not have. Offerings include mystery series with gay themes by authors like Dorien Grey, pen name of Roger Margason, and Mark Richard Zubro, among others; lesser-known works by authors of classics, such as Rubyfruit Jungle’s Rita Mae Brown; and several “best of” collections of fiction and essays. As such, it will provide our English department with a source of popular literature that it previously might have missed and that is often overlooked by university libraries.

Online Resources  

There are also a number of excellent online resources of interest to those studying gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. A cooperative enterprise of over 20 institutions, the Digital Transgender Archive includes digitally-born materials and archival holdings. Many of these items would otherwise have been lost to library collections. Pioneers like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera are represented. Interestingly, it also has clothing examples.

Probably the most well-known database in the field is GenderWatch. It is also among the oldest. What makes it special is its inclusiveness of a huge variety of both popular and scholarly materials. Community newspapers from women’s and LGBT groups around the country are especially well represented.

For those looking to explore sexuality in film, is a subscription service that provides documentary, comedy, and educational films from historical and contemporary sources that can be used for research and teaching purposes.

Given the universality of gender and sexuality as a research interest, it is no surprise that our Center for Global Collections is also centrally involved in this field. One of my colleagues there put together a brilliant guide to Japanese digital resources in gender studies.

It is clear from these brief highlights that the impact of 50 years of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program on the Libraries has been enormous. Along with the subjects mentioned here, GSWS topics can be found in the historical scholarship or social science research in ethnography, communications, demographics, and more. Each field deserves to be highlighted. The point is obvious: the topicality of GSWS intersects with everything the Libraries is involved in.

Featured photo: Penn GSWS and English faculty Melissa Jensen talking with students. Credit: Eric Sucar, Penn Today 



February 28, 2024