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Women’s history gets digitized, organized

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Updated: November 7, 2012 6:03AM

A local historian is digitizing and organizing rarely seen documents that will open whole new areas of on-line research in women’s history.

Kristen Gwinn-Becker, founder and CEO of HistoryIT ( in Evanston, has leveraged her creative and humanities background to advise the National Women’s History Museum on upgrading its online educational exhibits and create an easily searchable database of women’s biographies.

The museum makes its information public on its website ( and through newsletters and outreach programs. It is working to build an actual bricks-and-mortar museum next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“We want to digitize materials for preservation,” said Gwinn-Becker, 34, author of The Long Road to Internationalism, a biography of Emily Greene Balch, the second American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Gwinn-Becker, a self-taught web and database developer who earned her PhD in U.S. History from George Washington University, works with teams of designers, programmers, architects, archivists and historians on company projects. “It’s one thing to scan 1,000 letters of an historic figure, but if those digital records aren’t organized or easily searched, they’re useless to you.”

HistoryIT also sets up web-based systems so that employees of museums, nonprofits and small and medium-sized businesses can easily work with the databases and other digitized material.

The company’s work with an emerging history of women who ran for local office before women won the federal vote in August 1920 allows the project’s organizers to update the website remotely and automatically.

The project, called “Her Hat Was In the Ring” (, has found more than 2,000 women who ran for political office — whether they won or lost — ranging from well-known suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to lesser-known Equal Rights Party presidential candidate Belva Lockwood, the first woman to appear on official ballots in 1884 and the first female attorney to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This information has been scattered in local newspapers, state reports and abstracts, and all kinds of biographies, but only recently has it become digitized and searchable,” said Wendy Chmielewski, curator of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection who is collaborating with political scientist Jill Norgren on “Her Hat Was In The Ring.”

“We never expected to find nearly as many (women candidates) as we did,” Chmielewski said.

Chmielewski and Norgren are seeking to raise money to speed their self-funded project, which is expected to take three years to complete at its current pace.

The website lets users search for candidates by state, political party and/or political office. The 70 categories of political office range from governor to town sheriff to delegates to state party conventions.

Closer to home, HistoryIT is digitizing the journals of social reformer Frances Willard for the Evanston-based Frances Willard Memorial Library and Archives ( and posting them to a website yet to be developed. The site is slated to go live in the spring of 2013.

Willard, who as the second president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union expanded the organization’s mission to an international force for women’s leadership and social justice, kept diaries from 1855 to 1870 and again from 1892 to 1896.

“The journals show her development of thought and as a person, and what she thought of her times and achievements,” said Janet Olson, volunteer archivist at the library and archives.

By putting the journal entries online and easily searchable — a project expected to take until Spring 2013 — anyone with a web browser can learn about any number of topics: How someone described as having “a womanly manner” became a notable female figure in the 1800s, Willard’s opinions about suffrage and the Civil War, her travels in Europe and in Egypt and how she turned a single-note organization into a global voice for wide-ranging and controversial issues.

The journal entries, some in pen and some in pencil on varying kinds and sizes of paper, were transcribed over eight years by Carolyn De Swarte Gifford, a Willard scholar who published excerpts in the book, “Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard.”

HistoryIT’s work reflects a new phase of research in which museums, government, universities and other academic organizations are turning to private technology resources to deal with an explosion of data and records, one expert says.

The data explosion is happening just as these groups’ budgets are getting crushed and requires expertise they may not have in-house, said David G. Halsted, director of online and blended learning at the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The trend is helping people find never-before-available information.

“When records go online, we can see trends and patterns and find people or places that would have otherwise been completely hidden,” Halsted said.

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