The Allure of the Archive: On Frustration and Comfort in the Historian’s Craft

As an historian of gender-based violence, I’ve often come across things in my archival research that have made me feel uncomfortable, disgusted, upset and so frustrated that I want to tear my hair out. I’ve also read files that have made me laugh, smile and left me feeling deeply proud and grateful to the women who fought to entrench women’s rights and protect women from violence. For me, the archive represents a host of emotional and physical responses. The memories of back aches from long days spent sitting, of drinking terrible (but cheap) machine coffee and the small pleasure that after months of daily visits, the archivists finally remember me as ‘Frau Freeland.’

I’m certainly not alone in making this kind of observation. Many of the scholarly reflections on archives draw on an emotive language to describe archives and historians’ encounters with them. Archives are places of loss and silence, of allergy and hay fever. They are dwellings and, most famously, a site, even a cause, of fever. Historians and scholars have used these metaphors as a way of challenging the archive as a repository of objective historical truth, revealing the power structures and violences that have fed into it and upon which the archive is built. Drawing from the interventions made by postcolonial scholarship, feminism and gender studies, historians have broadened our understanding of what an archive is, what it does to our historical subjects, and how we—as historians—can read archival sources.

This literature was the starting point for the conference ‘Archiving, Recording and Representing Feminism’, hosted by the German Historical Institute London and held online from December 10–12, 2020. The conference explored the history of women’s emancipation at the intersection of archives and narrativization. It asked not only where feminist stories can be found in the archive, but what it means to recover them and how to tell the many histories of feminisms. These questions are deeply political. The way women’s voices have been recorded says much about the ways women’s lives have been valued in the past and in the present.

As I wrote my paper for this conference, I reflected upon my own archival experiences. On the ways I had to circumvent archival absences to find the voices I was looking for, on the things archivists told me about what histories were (and were not) present in their files, and the way contemporary gendered ideas about what is political and what constitutes historical ‘value’ have so often kept me from getting access to stories about women’s lives.

But I also thought about those feelings of being in the archive and of that encounter between researcher and historical subject. I thought about those moments of upset, joy, horror and gratitude that marked my research. This came into acute focus as I listened to the papers of Durba Ghosh and Kanika Sharma, who both asked what happens when our historical subjects do things we don’t like or that we don’t expect. But what precisely do these moments of emotional response, of not-understanding and frustrated expectations reveal? Is it possible that such reactions actually say more about the present than they do about the past?

This is something I have grappled with in my own research into gender-based violence in socialist East Germany. One source in particular has proven a challenge. Between 1987 and 1989, a group known as the Weimar Women’s Tea Parlour ran a grassroots survey into women’s experiences of gender-based violence and harassment in East Germany. Collecting 153 responses, the survey reveals much about the extent of sexual harassment and abuse under socialism. Importantly though, it also provides access to the voices of women themselves, a rarity in the archival vestiges of the East German socialist dictatorship.

As I read the survey responses, however, I became increasingly frustrated, even incensed. In several of the completed surveys, women respondents listed rape by an intimate partner as sexual harassment and not as rape. How could this be, I wondered. Was it the result of a widespread rape culture that blamed women for the violence they experienced? Was it because women lacked information about rape and sexual violence, which the socialist regime strictly controlled? Or were the women giving the answers they thought they should in case the surveys were intercepted by the secret police?

Anthropologist Christine Helliwell had a similar experience while conducting ethnographic research in Borneo, as one morning she woke up to find women laughing about an attempted rape that had taken place the night before. ‘I was shocked and appalled’, Helliwell recalls, ‘An unknown man had tried to climb into the bed of a woman in the dead, dark of night? I knew what this was called: attempted rape.’1

Like Helliwell, I see my frustration at the surveys as a reflection of my own preconceptions, prejudices and beliefs: as evidence of what Helliwell identifies as a large body of feminist scholarship that challenges rape as a function of biology and sexuality, but also frames it ‘in terms that suggest—either implicitly or explicitly—that it [rape] is a universal practice’.2

Indeed, the challenge of the Weimar surveys is to put aside what we might consider ‘feminist common-sense’, and to take the statements of these women seriously. But this is where it gets messy for the academic wanting to write a seamless history of women’s rights activism. How do we understand such statements at a time when they are not only unthinkable, but antithetical to the movement we are studying?

Perhaps the answer, as Ghosh suggests lies in embracing this discomfort. In pushing back against straightforward narratives that can so easily fit into liberalizing or nationalising trajectories, and instead dwell in the ambiguity of the archive.


Photo by user Smallison, licensed under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence, via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Christine Helliwell, ‘”It’s Only a Penis”: Rape, Feminism and Difference’, Signs, 25.3 (2000), 789–816, 789. []
  2. Ibid., 790. []

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Jane Freeland

She is a historian of feminism and gender in modern Germany. Her research examines the impact and meaning of 1960s feminism on contemporary discussions of gender and women’s rights. Prior to joining the GHIL, she worked at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Modern German History. She holds an MA in European Studies and a Ph.D. in History from Carleton University, Canada. Jane Freeland joined the German Historical Institute London in July 2019.

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