Understanding Social Change through the Digital Humanities

How has the mass media supported, enabled or challenged women’s emancipation? How have feminists used the media to promote women’s issues and rights? How have these messages been interpreted by the public? And how has this changed since the emergence of the mass press in the late nineteenth century?

These are some of the central questions of the International Standing Working Group (ISWG) on Medialization and Empowerment at the German Historical Institute London. Our project examines the ways in which the rise of the mass media has shaped discussions of women’s rights in the twentieth century.

Until now, historical work in this area has predominantly focused on social and cultural approaches to media sources. Historians have analysed representations of women and women’s rights across a variety of mediums, looked at the creation of feminist publics and media and explored how they have contributed to the shaping of feminist subjectivities and politics. While we now have a strong body of work on the history of feminism, what we still don’t know enough about is the role of the media and media users as agents in this equation. How might our histories change if we took the role of the media as an actor seriously? Similarly, what would happen if we paid more attention to popular responses to women’s rights over the longue-durée?

One possible avenue to address this lies in the digital humanities. With so many newspapers and magazines now available digitally, we are able to explore changes in language usage over time. Corpus linguistics is one way historians can explore large bodies of texts, tracing how often particular keywords are used, and the terms and word clusters that are associated with them. For example, at what point in time do the words ‘feminist’ or ‘feminism’ – as opposed to ‘suffragist’ or ‘women’s lib’ – enter the mainstream media? And what might these kinds of linguistic changes tell us about the popular attitudes towards women’s rights?

Stack maintenance at the New York Public Library (1948). Photograph via Unsplash, published under their license.

While corpus linguistics can give us insight into how the media has shaped the history of feminism, digital statistical methods can also be used to gauge audience responses. Media and social science archives (like the British Film Institute National Archives or the BOLSA collection in Germany) contain extensive data on audience media engagement. In some cases, the raw data collected by social scientists is available digitally to historians to analyse, and through this we are able to get a sense of how certain themes resonated with the public, how often people watched television or read newspapers and, importantly, whether the media could promote liberal social change.

Despite the promise that digital methods offer historians, too few are trained in the skills required to conduct this kind of analysis. For this reason, the ISWG on Medialization and Empowerment are developing two online modules offering historians preliminary training in digital humanities methods. Alongside learning the basics of coding, statistical analysis and corpus linguistics, the modules will offer guidance on how historians can use these techniques in their own research. Initially, these modules will be available to participants at the meetings of the ISWG, but in the future they will be available freely online. In doing so, we seek to build skills and digital competence among historians – of feminism specifically, but also more broadly within the historical community.


This post was originally published on the Wissen Entgrenzen blog of the Max Weber Foundation. The featured image shows a photograph by Emile Perron, published on Unsplash under their licence.


Published by

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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