Emily Faithfull

In 1860, Emily Faithfull led a group of women’s-rights activists in founding the Victoria Press. The London-based business published a variety of books, tracts and periodicals, notably the monthly English Woman’s Journal, whose articles advocated for female employment opportunities. And the press itself offered such opportunities, involving women from many walks of life in every part of its process, from writing to editing to typesetting to distribution.

Miranda Marraccini ’12 was in the third year of her Ph.D. program in Princeton University’s English department when she started learning about all of this.

“I realized that the Victoria Press had everything I wanted to write about: feminism, print culture, poetry and periodicals,” Marraccini says. “I also saw that it had the potential to be a great digital project because the women of the Victoria Press were constructing a social network for themselves, and I wanted to recreate that.”

“English

With headlines such as “My Great
Aunt Polly’s Elopement” and “Two
Graves—A Poem,” this monthly
found eye-catching ways to
discuss serious issues.

Starting in 2016, with financial support from Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, Marraccini set to work organizing information about the press into spreadsheets, creating visual representations using the program Cytoscape, posting it to the web and presenting at conferences.

Today the project lives at VictoriaPressCircle.org. Visitors can search a database for facts about more than 2,000 contributions to the press, and interact with network graphs that show connections between the contributors.

“There’s also a pretty fun blog, which I wrote while I was entering all of my data and finding weird things in these periodicals,” Marraccini says. One blog entry gives examples from the English Woman’s Journal of the 19th-century equivalent of sensationalistic “clickbait” headlines, including “GLIMPSES INTO A RURAL HOUSE OF BONDAGE,” “A WELL-AUTHENTICATED GHOST STORY” and “WHY BOYS ARE CLEVERER THAN GIRLS” (which turns out to be a sober article “about the poor quality of female education in England,” Marraccini writes). She has also used the blog to grapple with such topics as the racist ways in which the white feminists of the Victoria Press often wrote about people of color, even as they denounced slavery.

“The Victoria Press isn’t very well-known, even among people who study the Victorian period,” she says. “There’s no definitive book about it, which is why I’m writing my dissertation.” She was selected by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation as one of only 10 Dissertation Fellows in Women’s Studies for 2018. Her nearly completed dissertation, Feminist Types: Reading the Victoria Press, draws on results from her digital project.

“My approach to scholarship is rooted in work I started at Amherst,” notes Marraccini, who learned to do archival research as a Folger Fellow and as a student employee in the College’s Archives and Special Collections. Professor Andy Parker advised her to begin using digital methods for her English thesis about the poetry of Thomas Hardy and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Now she herself is teaching courses in English. “I’ve incorporated digital work in my teaching,” she says. “Last year I co-taught a class called ‘Virtual Victorians’ with my adviser Meredith Martin.”

Two women working together, taking a modern approach to their field? We can guess that Emily Faithfull would approve.


Marraccini photo: Xinyi Li; Journal photo: Harvard University Library

This One Weird Trick Will Give Women Property Rights

By Miranda Marraccini ’12, adapted from her blog

Thumbs up illustation “Clickbait” headlines are not a new thing. Since before the time of clicking, periodicals have been trying to attract your attention and your money. The more controversial or unbelievable something seems, the more likely you’re going to read it, at least until you realize YOU’VE BEEN DUPED. The English Woman’s Journal wants to dupe you too. Here are a few headlines (which they actually did set in ALL CAPS):

WHY BOYS ARE CLEVERER THAN GIRLS
A RARE OLD LADY
GLIMPSES INTO A RURAL HOUSE OF BONDAGE

These are pretty tame for the period. Victorian newspapers delighted in discussing (and illustrating) brutal crimes and bloody accidents. What’s interesting is that the English Woman’s Journal is by no means a sensational publication. It had strong ties to the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, and erred on the side of facts and figures. Its tone is often sober, and sometimes so painfully straightforward that it is actually hard to read.

In the case of EWJ clickbait, articles with flashy titles turn out to be earnest, fact-based examinations of issues related to women’s rights. “Why Boys are Cleverer than Girls” (October, 1858) for instance, is about the poor quality of female education in England. Even though they’re paid lower wages and are thus a tempting source of labor, women aren’t competitive in many jobs (as shop assistants, for instance), because they’re not educated enough to be competent.

EWJ headlines aren’t written to shock so much as to suggest that what’s in the article might be shocking (when it usually isn’t). What would this look like today? Perhaps:

THIS WOMAN GETS AN EDUCATION…YOU WON’T
BELIEVE WHAT SHE DOES NEXT!!!
SINGLE MOMS EARN £200/HR WORKING FROM HOME
12 GIFS THAT WILL GIVE YOU HOPE YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO VOTE SOMEDAY

These are fun to make up. This is how I should title the chapters of my dissertation.


Illustration by: Christine Rosch