I awoke this morning with the brilliant idea to play with one manifesto per day.  That way I can control the overwhelming urge to just play around with all the cool digital history tools all day.  Recently on the twitters, those tweeps way more experience that I debated the career-advancing merits of doing digital work.  I have the relative luxury of already having a job and tenure, but I share the concern that the “so what” question may dog digitally-produced work unless it can answer what we called in graduate school “the so what” question.

In other words, why should a historian go digital and how should that historian “use” digital evidence.   Just this week I began merging my digital explorations with my pre-digital work an article on feminist manifestos (my #AcWriMo project).

IMHO historians need to use digital tools.  I’m most interested in digital applications in order to answer some big historical questions about how feminist discourse changes over time.  I’m not seeking to do digitally what I can do cerebrally, a point well made by @Ted_underwood here, but to do what my brain cannot, which is to mine and model, in deep detail, large amounts of text.

I’m also pretty convinced that historians use digital tools differently than other humanities people doing digital work.   So up today, the SCUM manifesto (which I managed to resist yesterday, but apparently must have been tempted by earlier as I found a .txt file from two weeks ago).   I was tempted by Valerie Solanis’ screed because Janet Lyon uses it in her book on manifesto.   I admire the book greatly but I found the choice of Solanis’ text odd as a historian as she was peripherally involved in the social movement of women’s liberation.  Lyon includes a footnote that connects Solanis to several early radical feminist groups including Cell 16 and, but as someone who has studied women’s liberation for several decades I would not rank it as highly influential. (here is a brief example of Solanis in a digital humanities course and I could see a def application for feminist rhetoricians using digital tools that would ask very different questions than I’m asking beginning with the fact that I wouldn’t use Solanis necessarily!)

This gets at a difference between #digitalhistory and #digitalhumanities that I keep repeating, historians ask  questions that differ from those posed by other humanities disciplines.  As a rhetorical text the SCUM manifesto is fascinating.  As a historical document though it over emphasizes violence and misanthropy (in the literal sense), and reinforces the mythology of the man-hating feminist.

Text mining reveals this in lovely detail.  While women or woman has so far proven the most common word in the manifestos I’ve mined (exception Ukeles Art manifesto), male is the most frequent word in the SCUM Manifesto followed by men.  In other words, the subject of the manifesto is not women, but rather men.   5 of the top 11 words are referents to men.


The position of “scum” at the top in the frequent word list hints at how these masculine referents are use.  However using a word tree (which first requires scrubbing for stop words and punctuation, then loading into Many Eyes) shows the connections made between words.

The most frequent association with male is female, suggesting either opposition or conjunction.   As I’m quite familiar with Solanis’ thesis I’m fairly certain it will be opposition, and indeed zooming in on the word chains reveals  chains of negative associations (which I figure out using my brain of course)

Looking at Solanis allows me to address some of the questions already generated by my prior efforts.  For example, so far I’ve looked at three indivdually authored manifestos.  Jo Freeman’s Bitch Manifesto, Mirielle Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art)

The Bitch Manifesto word tree runs along some fairly negative lines.

Joreen’s 1969 Bitch Manifesto word tree reveals, not unexpectedly, that bitch is the word most frequently associated with women.  However what is quite interesting is that the threatened, supposed, trained, (relate), and taught all speak negatively, about the pressures of gender roles and socialization on women.  

I just realized I failed save the voyant data for Bitch so I quickly redo.  Most frequent words confirm this idea of socialization creating negativity for women with social, role and society popping up.


Ukeles’ manifesto on the other hand contains only the word “woman” and only once, which makes it difficult to compare (the bulk of the manifesto explains Ukeles’ proposed project and thus maintenance and art tops the list).  However, it does have man at the 5th most frequent spot.  I apparently didn’t do a word tree for it (doh need to be consistent here), so off I go to do that for man.  However, because the document is short, and the occurrence of male is low (5), my tree has only one branch and not a very helpful one.  In fact because of the Ukeles’ writing style, I decide to try running the text through without stop words, and then use my brain to do that in the results I need

MUCH better.  This tree reveals a not dissimilar narrative to that of the BITCH manifesto, one that focuses on roles.

In looking at the three manifestos, BITCH and SCUM share a disdain for the limitations placed on women (I know this from reading them) but text mining shows that BITCH focuses on the roles and how they are created, while SCUM focuses on men who perpetuate these roles.  Ukeles also focuses on these roles but with the “negative” so subtly implied that they don’t show up on the visualizations. She speaks for example of the tedium of housework

Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)
The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom 

yet rather than rejecting it, she will “reclaim” it as art.

I am an artist. I am a woman. I am a wife.
I am a mother. (Random order).
I do a hell of a lot of washing, cleaning, cooking,
renewing, supporting, preserving, etc. Also,
(up to now separately I “do” Art.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things,
and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.

I’m interested to see how, as I gather a larger data set of women’s manifestos which I’m crowdsourcing, I’m able to draw more or different comparisons.  Ultimately though, I can already see how digital tools are enhancing an argument I already made.  In future I cannot imagine writing history without using them.  Perhaps this is because I already engaged in things like counting words etcs, and I love close reading.  However I tend to think it is more because these tools allow me to do history better.  My favorite definition of digital history comes from the relatively new Princeton Digital History lab which proclaims on its home page

Many people assume that historians concern themselves only with archival documents and individual facts: dates, events, births and deaths. In fact, most historians concentrate on making connections among past people, documents and systems and then in drawing inferences from these. They find patterns, make comparisons and try to visualize and experience what can no longer be seen, touched or witnessed first hand. More and more historians are embracing technologies previously used only in the sciences and engineering in order to do these jobs, using large bodies of data.

Yup, that why historians need the digital and why the things we will do with it will be different from what other people do!

If you want to play along, URL for SCUM in Voyant, for BITCH, for Ukeles

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