The Story of the Warrior Women Project: Using Technology to Connect Intersectionality and Digital Humanities Theory and Praxis

By Kelly Plante

Link to Abstract

The Warrior Women Project’s last Zoom meeting

When Dianne Dugaw was writing her dissertation in English Literature and Folklore Studies from 1974-1982, she traversed the country from archive to archive, from the University of California, Los Angeles to the East Coast to the South, boxes of broadside ballad copies piling into the pickup truck her dad had given her. As a folklorist, she started her research by documenting ballads people were “singing on the back porch,” she said, and her search expanded out from there. The 113 warrior women ballads at the center of this project made their way from Dugaw’s truck into her type-written catalogue, appendix I of her dissertation, “The Female Warrior Heroine in Anglo-American Balladry”(1982); then the cross-dressing, swashbuckling warrior women featured in these ballads were elevatedto scholarly fame in Dugaw’s 1989 seminal book, Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850, republished in 1996. But while the book and, by extension, the warrior women depicted in it, have been available in print for thirty years, Dugaw’s 721-page catalogue that formed the book’s foundation has never been available to the public–until now. 

This paper tells the story of how one graduate seminar in Detroit, Michigan gathered University of Oregon Professor Emerita Dianne Dugaw’s warrior women ballads, copies of which were scattered across multiple Internet digital humanities (DH) projects/archives, into one site, encircling them in an intersectional lasso that hones in on race, class, ability, and gender as depicted in the ballads. This open-access digital catalogue known as the Wayne State University Warrior Women Project (WWP) combines intersectional and DH theory and praxis to efficiently, effectively, and ethically ignite critical interpretations of the ballads for undergraduates, graduate students, and established scholars alike. In “Toward a Queer Digital Humanities,” Bonnie Ruberg, Jason Boyd, and James How argue that “Digital tools have the unique capacity to make visible the histories of queer representation and issues affecting queer communities. Simultaneously, queer studies brings to the digital humanities a set of intersectional, conceptual frameworks that challenge DH scholars to reflect on the politics of their research as well as the implications of their methodologies” (Losh, chapter 8). Because of the WWP team’s dedication to applying intersectionality in both theory and praxis, the process–the story of how we arrived here, reflecting on the implications of our methodologies and where we envision this digital catalogue to go next–is just as important as the end-product on this site. 

The Early English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which seeks to make “broadside ballads of the seventeenth century fully accessible as texts, art, music, and cultural records,” according to the banner on its website, approached Simone Chess, Associate Chair and Associate Professor of English and an affiliate of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at Wayne State University in Detroit, about digitizing and publishing Dugaw’s historic catalogue. The seven M.A. and Ph.D. students in Chess’s hands-on, experimental DH course set out in fall semester 2019 to learn histories and technologies of cheap print with emphasis on gender and sexuality in broadside ballads from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. No prior technical experience being required, the team was comprised of students with various literary research interests: early modernists Erika Carbonara, Robert Chapman-Morales, Bernadette Kelly, and Matthew Jewell; Sarah Chapman, who teaches drama; medievalist Lindsay Miller; and Kelly Plante, long eighteenth-century. Due to my prior professional background as a technical writer/editor, publisher, and project manager for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, I (Kelly Plante) created our database–in which we all took equal responsibility/accountability for data-entry–and advised on publishing project management concerns such as eXtensible Markup Language (XML), web design, content management, and sustainability. In writing and theorizing about the ballads and in writing and performing technical work such as indexing and experimenting with web design and interface, we collaborated in a unique environment shaped by traditional literary theory and DH theory. 

The team did not, in Dugaw fashion, pile into a truck and traverse the U.S. from Detroit to Santa Barbara; we did not leave campus. But we did have some adventures. Our process involved advisory meetings with WSU DH librarians Alexandra Sarkozy and Clayton Haynes, Skype meetings with EBBA Assistant Director Kristen McCants Forbes and with Dugaw; working with Professor Judith Modenhauer and student assistant Matthew Holben of the WSU Art Department to write our own ballad and print it on a Vandercock 325 printing press; applying best practices in DH indexing, editing, and publishing; and reading and discussing all 113 of Dugaw’s ballads in the context of race, class, ability, and gender. 

In a Skype meeting, Dugaw told of how the natural elements affected her dissertation writing: At one point, a blizzard stalled her research, snowing-in her, her truck and her ballad-boxes for days. Although we did not leave campus, we were not kept to the confines of one classroom as per the typical graduate seminar but, instead, met in various rooms across campus; technical issues threatened to thwart our Skype meetings; and a Detroit thunderstorm did invade our meeting and render it difficult to hear Forbes in Santa Barbara.

We set several goals for our first semester of work on the WWP. First, in homage to Dugaw’s scholarship, part one of our mission was to produce and make public a searchable, PDF version of Dugaw’s catalogue, itself a valuable artifact. Part two involved producing a searchable database which sorts, organizes, and maps the ballads according to thematic categories that supplement the folklore-centric and alphabetical structures that Dugaw used for her dissertation in folklore/literary studies. Finally, we researched and composed “context” and “critical” essays about the ballads and their backgrounds, toward the goal of a digital critical edition of the catalogue.

Building our database was one of our biggest methodological challenges. One of her concerns for our project, Dugaw told us, was “the dilemma of over-particularity of information bits”–you “can just get snowed under.” For her part, she said, “There’s a resonance to how human beings organize their collected story forms”; she categorized the ballads not necessarily for scholars but by “how people think about songs.” To that end, our database preserves Dugaw’s categories and the sequence in which they initially appeared in her book, adding categories and keywords that serve as a thematic lens through which to see the ballads in a literary/cultural studies perspective. Much like Dorothy Kim writes of The Orlando Project in “Building Pleasure and the Digital Archive,” “we have prioritized the experience and interaction with the material” and “we have decentered the archive, flattened subject/object relationships, allowed for a multiplicity of views” (Losh, chapter 14). This enables users to “choose their own adventure” when sorting and exploring the warrior women ballads. 

The categories and keywords that we chose to track and therefore to emphasize for our public and scholarly target users reflect our intersectional approach and our positionality as individuals and as a team. As Kathryn Holland and Susan Brown put it in “Project | Process | Product: Feminist Digital Subjectivity in a Shifting Scholarly Field,” “Lou Burnard has observed that markup systems reflect the priorities and research agendas of their creators and users, and identifies one of the most critical functions of markup as its ability to map ‘a (human) interpretation of the text into a set of codes on which computer processing can be performed’” (Losh, chapter 22). Our categories and keywords may be translated into XML (tags and attributes respectively) in a future project iteration; they nonetheless reflect our research agendas and human interpretation, which we seek to make transparent to users. Some categories we decided to track, in roundtable meetings governed by consensus, include: Does crossdressing actually happen? Is the ballad sung by a narrator or outside observer? Is a specific audience targeted? Does marriage happen at the end of the ballad–or death? Do the parents approve, disapprove of the warrior woman’s wish to marry the soldier or sailor who is the object of her affections? Does the soldier or sailor approve or attempt to dissuade her from accompanying him to war? Is class and/or racialized language present in the ballad? Where in the expanding British Empire does the warrior woman travel? Delving even deeper into the ballads than these categories allow, some of the keywords we tracked in order to better comprehend the structure and commonality across these ballads include: soldier or sailor, virgin, maiden/maidenhead, (objectified female body parts such as) waist, cheeks, fingers, hands, hair, heart, and (actions such as) fainting, crying, and bleeding. Another set of individuals with another set of experiences and research interests might have focused on different categories and keywords–although with how similar these ballads in fact are thematically, it is likely they would share several. 

An important function of Dugaw’s original catalogue is a finding aid for where the ballad and its copies are located in various (brick-and-mortar) libraries, which the new, digitized catalogue expands upon by tracking facsimile scans and/or transcriptions, recordings, and other aspects of the ballads that have made their way online, and to reveal those that have not so they can eventually be tracked down, scanned and uploaded since Dugaw first compiled the ballads. Digitized early English broadsides are now widely available copyright-free, indexed and searchable complete with high-resolution images of their signature woodcut illustrations, transcriptions and facsimile views on well-established databases including EBBA, Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO), Proquest LLC, University of Michigan and Oxford University collaboration Early English Books Online (EEBO), and the Oxford University Bodleian Library’s Broadside Ballads Online (BBO). With this plethora of acronymed databases, why the WWP? EBBA houses about 9,250 (90 percent of) early English ballads, as of this writing. EEBO and ECCO span multiple genres. The BBO holds nearly 30,000 songs. Our project does not duplicate the work of these sites; it builds upon and organizes their data so that they are viewable on one site, rather than scattered across the Internet, for warrior women fans and scholars. 

Our mission has involved discovering how we can provide more sharply focused digital tools if we hone in on this small but important set of ballads–while building on the aforementioned archives. The WWP seeks not to bury these databases, but to praise them–or, at least, not to duplicate their work, but to unite the warrior women ballads, made granular and reconstructable for our users, in one public (free) space. The WWP houses searchable data on the ballads, allows interested readers to sort the ballads by several categories and keywords of their choosing, and, where possible, links externally to facsimile and transcription versions of the ballads on EBBA, EEBO, ECCO, BBO, and to the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC). EBBA and BBO are not paywalled, but EEBO and ECCO are; thus, our database serves as a useful cross-reference for users whether they can breach the paywall or not. 

Relevant and responsible DH theory and praxis in alignment with intersectional theory and praxis structure the WWP. When Tonya Howe assumed the position as Aphra Behn Online (ABO) Editor, in her article “WWABD? Intersectional Futures in Digital History” she posited “three important and interrelated places for development,” which happen to line up with the three ways to practice intersectionality outlined by intersectionality scholars outside the field of literary studies to include education scholars Sarah Robert and Min Yu in their article “Intersectionality in Transnational Education Policy Research”: (1) the “group-centered” approach, or representation of multiply marginalized persons, (2) “process-centered or capturing analytic interactions of oppressive regimes,” and (3) “system-centered or institutional complexity” (Robert & Yu 97). Howe argues for (1) “theorizing the feminized labor of digital recovery, editing, and textual preparation,” (2) “offering thoughtful and feminist approaches to digital pedagogy that are specific to the work we do in the period,” and (3) critically assessing the absences in existing digital projects.” 

In framing our project with intersectionality theory, which, rooted in civic justice, transcends multiple academic disciplines such as education policy and DH publishing as outlined above, we strove to: (1) mindful of the feminized labor of digital recovery, use ethical means by which to represent multiply marginalized persons, (2) provide a tool to assist with digital pedagogy that captures the historical, oppressive structures in which these warrior women appeared from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries through today, and (3) through democratically decided, sortable categories and keywords, spotlight system-centered complexity as exhibited in these ballads. 

Scholars frequently present either DH or intersectionality as messianic: the way, the truth, and the light that will intervene to save us all from STEM and reduced funding. Some see DH as a deal with the devil; others see it as the next (or current) big thing in literary studies. We have chosen to harness DH in service of creating an intersectional digital catalogue of these important ballads–not the other way around. The intersectional design, layout, and context of the WWP’s digital catalogue (output) and the culture, intent, management of goals of the team (input) together inform the project’s relevance, usability, and sustainability. Much younger than the aforementioned, well-established early-modern databases, the WWP is undergoing a crawl, walk, run lifecycle; as of this writing, it is in its infancy. The WWP-spotlighted categories and keywords can, in future iterations, become tags and attributes within the catalogue if/when it is translated into TEI-compliant XML. For now, it is a simple yet functional DH site that unites and shelters all these (known) warrior women under one roof. From analogue to digital–from being hawked on sixteenth- to eighteenth-century Trans-Atlantic street corners, to brick-and-mortar library archives into Dugaw’s truck, her dissertation and book and into the WWP digital catalogue–these 113 warrior women have ventured, protagonists in their own stories. We are proud to continue the tradition of hawking these stories to their newly expanded, twenty-first century audience.  

Works Cited

Dugaw, Dianne. Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850. 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1996. 

Howe, Tonya. “WWABD? Intersectional Futures in Digital History.” ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, vol. 7, no. 2, 2017, Accessed 10 September 2019. 

Losh, Elizabeth, and Jacqueline Wernimont, editors. Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and the Digital Humanities (Debates in the Digital Humanities). University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Kindle file. 

Robert, Sarah, and Min Yu. “Intersectionality in Transnational Education Policy Research.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 42, 2018, pp. 93-121.