The Importance of Sherry Receptions; or, Where Are All The Women In This Archive? First Impressions as the Cadbury Library BAAS Archive Intern

Internship at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham

In spring 2017, BAAS and the Cadbury Research Library became partners in a project to develop and promote use of the BAAS archive, held in Special Collections at the University of Birmingham. They sponsored an internship open to PGRs and ECRS to conduct a piece of research exploring gender, race and class in BAAS and British academic life. The internship also offered the opportunity for researchers to receive training in archive skills and gain experience in disseminating research to a wider public. The award was made to Sabina Peck, PhD student in U.S. history at the University of Leeds. Sabina’s internship project examines the history of women and gender since its founding in 1955. In addition to a series of blog posts featured here on USSO, Sabina will present her findings in an exhibition at the 2018 EBAAS conference in London.

When I initially contacted archivist Mark Eccleston to schedule my first trip to the Cadbury Research Library Special Collections, I felt confident that I knew what my research trips would look like. I had been awarded the BAAS Cadbury Library Archive Internship, which encouraged applicants to develop their own project on an ‘aspect of the intellectual cultural and social history of American studies in Britain’. The call for applicants particularly encouraged proposals that would explore race, gender and/or class in BAAS. As someone whose research interests are based within the intersections of race and gender, this seemed like a natural approach to me, and I began to think about the possibilities of this research.

There were a wide range of potential avenues: from exploring how gender and racial diversity had shaped BAAS, and how BAAS had attempted to create diversity through the years, to tracing how the research interests of BAAS members shifted between 1955 and the present day, and whether that was reflected in shifting patterns of membership, or research outputs, or funding awards. I even wondered if I could ascertain how BAAS’s approach to gender had affected the state of scholarship and American Studies in Britain more broadly.

When it came to writing my proposal, however, I was shocked by the relative absence of diversity evident in the finding aid. Searching for the words ‘gender’, ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’, ‘sexuality’, ‘equality’ and ‘minority’ provided no results. The words ‘women’ and ‘diversity’ each only appear in the finding aid once. I was surprised by this – after all, this is the organization that recently has prohibited applications from all-male panels for conferences. I assumed that these apparent shortcomings were simply an oversight; after all, the finding aid was fairly brief, and I had definitely had experiences before of finding much more than the finding aid suggests in archives. Not feeling too concerned, I decided that I would volunteer to update the finding aid as and when I found the (I presumed plentiful!) materials about diversity, women, and gender in the collection.

Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 1, Folder A1, British Association for American Studies, ‘Articles of Association’ (1955)

Of course, it is important to note here that the finding aid, the archival materials, and BAAS itself are all different beasts. Archives privilege a certain type of knowledge; in this case, much of the collection privileged meeting minutes and official documents, particularly from the early years. The nature of these documents indicates the clear limitations to the written archive; the issues and concerns of the rank and file of the organization were not necessarily reflected in the archival materials. Similarly, the finding aid itself was compiled as a basic box list of the archive by Cadbury Library staff, based on details from their accession database. The first accession entry for the BAAS collection was created in 1998, when material was first deposited, and the finding aid was compiled in 2011. It is impossible to know the attitudes of the creator of the original accession entry, and what they deemed important to highlight in the collection. In short, the finding aid does not represent the archival material in its entirety, nor does the archival material represent BAAS in its entirety.

When I arrived at the Cadbury Research Library at Birmingham University, then, I was confident about this project and excited to begin. On my first day at the library Mark gave me a guided tour of the facility, and explained how the archival storage systems worked and how the records were protected against water, fire, humidity and a whole raft of other threats. The Library holds extensive collections of both archival material and rare books – which all come with their own particular requirements for protection and preservation. After this tour, I was introduced to more members of the team, and given some handling training with a conservator. She explained to me the different materials that were used in the archive, and the different strategies that they had for ensuring that the materials were protected from damage and degradation as much as possible. It suddenly became clear that things that I had given no thought to on previous research trips – the types of folders used, for example, and the carefully-designed blocks, stands and rests to ensure that bound materials were not put under any strain – did not just materialise from nowhere. The amount of thought, energy and consideration put into conserving printed materials at this archive, and presumably many others, was fascinating and oddly heart-warming. I finished the training feeling well-informed and with a slight desire to store all of my own possessions in acid-free containers.

Feeling motivated to begin, I ordered my first few boxes. Mark had told me that there were some new boxes that had not yet been added to the online finding aid – so I ordered these first. Within them I found Martin Halliwell’s Chair’s Report from 2011, in which he describes his own visit to the BAAS archive in the same year. Having pulled out the articles and constitution from the very first BAAS meeting from 1955, he commented that ‘it’s heartening to know that we have stuck to our core principles and purpose over the last 56 years’.[1] Keen to find out more about these core principles and original articles, I requested some boxes that contained meeting reports from the first few years of BAAS’s existence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Articles of Association contained no references to gender, or diversity in any way. Concerned with the practicalities of creating the new Association, the articles emphasised the foundations of the organization. BAAS’s main purpose was to ‘encourage study and research in the history, institutions, literature and geography of the United States’.[2] It outlined how the committee would be elected, the membership criteria (membership was open to university teachers, and ‘others concerned with American studies’ – and was subject to approval by the Secretary), and the going rate for membership – one guinea per year, which equates to a little over £25 today. It was then signed by the thirteen attendees of the first meeting – all of whom were men.

As a historian of the feminist movement, it is possible to forget how pervasive this situation was and is within academic circles. In my own research it is inconceivable that one of the groups or organizations that I examine would have been founded only by men. Irrespective of this, though, I was still shocked that it took until the fifth committee meeting for women to be mentioned at all – two women applied to be members – and until the twelfth meeting in June 1957 before two women were interviewed for the role of secretary, though not within the executive committee. In fact, the executive committee remained all-male until April 1962, when Dr. Charlotte Erickson was elected during the 41st committee meeting. Simply put, women were just not on the agenda of early committee meetings…literally.

It became clear from an early stage where the committee’s priorities lay, though; in the third meeting held in January 1956, the secretary reported that ‘it has also been suggested that sherry might be served before dinner’.[3] The preparations for subsequent years’ sherry receptions seemingly filled more time in committee meetings than discussions of gender. By 1967, for example, the idea of a sherry party to kick off the annual conference was mentioned with an air of nostalgic fondness, and a vote of thanks was extended to Dr. Pole, who had suggested returning to the noble tradition of the former days of the organization.[4] Two full years passed before the idea of studying women or gender entered these meeting minutes – in October 1969 the topic of ‘Women in Britain and America in the Colonial Period’ was suggested as a potential subject as a panel for the following year’s conference at the University of East Anglia. This came alongside such topics as ‘the International Novel’, ‘the Celluloid Arts’, ‘American and British Techniques of Frontier Administration’ and, vaguely, ‘a Negro topic’.[5] Clearly, topics about identity politics and diversity were in their infancy. Concerns about the inclusion of sherry receptions also took precendence over considerations of women’s positions within the organization.

Clearly, the presence of women has not been highlighted in the BAAS archive until recently. Serious discussions about women’s roles and positions within academic positions in general and BAAS in particular did not emerge in the archival material until the early 1990s, when a women’s network was formed. The next installment of this series on the Cadbury Library Archive will explore this women’s network more deeply. For now, though, I am left wondering how the kinds of information that are privileged in archives can affect the future working practise of an organization. Yes, BAAS is now, in many ways, an organization which is aware of and seeks to reverse sexist attitudes and practises within the academy. Its archive, though, misrepresents the organization by suggesting that women have had no substantial part to play in its history – a suggestion which is clearly untrue and deeply unfair to folks in the rank and file of BAAS. The third installment of this series will delve more deeply into this and critically discuss the ways in which the material we choose to save can and does represent us, and the strategies that we can use to ensure fair and diverse representation.


[1] Birmingham, Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 59, Martin Halliwell, BAAS Chair’s Report, Annual General Meeting, UCLAN Preston (April 2011) p2

[2] Birmingham, Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 1, Folder A1, British Association for American Studies, ‘Articles of Association’ (1955) p1

[3] Birmingham, Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 1, Folder A1, BAAS, Minutes of the Third Committee Meeting (7th January 1956) p2

[4] Birmingham, Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 5, Folder 1, BAAS, Minutes of the 67th Committee Meeting (14th October, 1967) p2

[5] Birmingham, Birmingham University, Cadbury Research Library, BAAS Papers, Box 5, Folder 1, BAAS, Minutes of the 77th Committee Meeting (11th October 1969) p2

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About Sabina Peck

Sabina Peck is a fourth-year PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on multiracial activism among second wave feminist groups in the USA under the supervision of Kate Dossett and Simon Hall. Though not a sherry drinker, Sabina is not opposed to the continuation of drinks receptions at academic conferences – provided, of course, that the importance of inclusion and diversity is prioritised.
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