Redesigning WOAH: Women of Ancient History

For a long time now, I have been interested in the ways in which digital humanities projects can be used to amplify, to visualize, and to give agency to underrepresented groups. Put another way: How can digital humanities contribute to social justice?

One of the shining examples of this type of DH project is the “Torn Apart/Separados” map, which visualizes the geographic impact of Trump’s immigration policy in 2018.  As the “Torn Apart” map attests to, data visualization can make a compelling argument and unveil unforeseen patterns. This is true for historical GIS projects as well, as demonstrated in the “Placing Segregation” project by Rob Shepard or the “Visualizing Emancipation” project out of the University of Richmond. In short? Digital Humanities projects can be a form of resistance through the raising of popular awareness of problems, biases, and injustices.

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Screenshot of the interactive map at the “Torn Apart/Separados” Project.

This was certainly my belief when, after a demoralizing experience with a manel at the SCS in 2016, I began a crowd-sourced list of female ancient historians called WOAH: Women of Ancient History. The objective was to provide a digital “binder of women” that allowed editors, conference organizers, authors, schools, and reporters to find women who study ancient history––and in the process banish the idea that there simply weren’t any women working on, say, ancient coins or the Greek phalanx.

I thought that the next time a man told me they “just couldn’t find any women who study ______”, I would pull out my phone. Struggles with manels and the low number of women asked to give keynotes at many academic conferences was also the impetus behind a similar digital project launched just this year called “Women Also Know History.”  These projects all attest to the potential for digital tools to connect and to amplify. What still remains to be seen is whether people use them.

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The new interactive map at the WOAH project, designed and coded by Ed Keogh. 

To that end, it was a disheartening week for those of us who work in Biblical Studies and Late Antiquity after discovering (thanks to Prof. Eva Mroczek) that the new special issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament was filled with 9 contributors––all men, put together by a male editor. Online reactions were swift and damning from both women and men in the field, but it was clear to me that the manel and the edited volumen were persistent problems. The lesson? Just because a digital tool exists does not mean people will acknowledge it, use it, or see it as something they should adopt.


But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on DH projects or that things aren’t changing. In terms of WOAH, the redesign had been in the works for over four months. Over the course of the summer, there were already changes afoot for the over 400 current entries within the database.  University of Iowa Research Assistants Tyler Fyotek and Ed Keogh had helped to clean, edit, and then augment the data in the summer of 2017,  and this summer, Ed received a summer fellowship from the University of Iowa Graduate College to work in the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio to create new network visualizations and design a Leaflet map to replace our old Google Map.

The Digital Studio’s graphic designer Alyssa Varner redid the WOAH logo and interface and Matt Butler modified the database and helped integrate the new map. In short? this redesign took a mix of both female and male classicists, artists, digital humanists, and the general public, all of whom contributed to creating and sustaining the project.

The hope is that people will be able to use the site more easily, update their entries, and find female ancient historians near to their own city––but I really can’t guarantee this. What I can confidently state is that digital humanities projects not only provide tools for users, they provide experiences for creators. I have learned more about the many women in my field than ever before and gotten the chance to work with some fantastic digital humanists over the past two and a half years of developing WOAH. I just wanted to take a minute and remind myself and my readers that DH projects can also teach us as much as they teach others.

Charging polychromy Amazons from Canosa (300-280 BCE; Princeton University Art Museum).

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