How to Cite a Woman: Resistant Bibliography and Early Modern Archives

When an early modern man and woman co-author a manuscript, who gets credit?

What if database notes and bibliographic software have intrinsic structures that hinder the simple citational acknowledgement of women’s contributions?

Does it matter who gets official credit and unofficial credit?


I’m back to recipes, after completing a chapter on crises of knowledge in poison plays and trials. After reading mountains of trials in which women’s words disappear, are written out of surviving documents, or simply don’t even warrant quotation marks, the politics of citation has been on my mind.

Now that I’m prepping for chapter #2, I encountered a different shade of a related problem: although my own notes to 17th-century recipe manuscripts showed that women co-authored books with their husbands, the original database notes give the husbands authorial credit and efface the women’s contribution.

When I tried to capture this complex relationship in my citation software (Zotero), I found that I couldn’t quite squeeze the story into the preset boxes. When your bibliographic options are author, contributor, editor, or translator, how can you make a citation reflect that while a husband may have begun a book, a wife finished the majority of it? Or that a husband and wife co-authored the book while they co-ran a household?

Take Alice and Arthur Corbett, for example (Wellcome MS 212). In the Wellcome’s database notes, Arthur gets the authorial position, despite a descriptive note that reads “the Compiler’s name is in the lower margin of the first leaf.” The Compiler? That’s Alice.

Now, these notes were likely written in 1908 when the text was purchased (and before women could vote in the UK), but: Arthur gets authorial credit and Alice is the unnamed “Compiler”?

Or the book of Caleb and Jane Lowdham (Wellcome MS 7073). Again, Caleb gets the entire authorial credit, but a descriptive note acknowledges the contributions of “Jane Lowdham, his wife or daughter.” Caleb and Jane shared the book–he wrote primarily medical recipes and copied extracts out of Boyle’s Usefulness of Experimental Philosophy, and Jane contributed cookery recipes.

Within the book itself, interestingly gendered citational practices emerged. Despite sharing the receipt book with his wife, Lowdham cites only men–and fancy experimental science men at that (Robert Boyle, etc). The physical proof that women created and shared medical recipes was in his book and in his community, yet Lowdham only references male authority. His wife, on the other hand, cites both male and female experimental authority liberally–her recipes and remedies are attributed to her family members, “A Worthy Lady,” and copied out of books. So we have a text which preserves women’s contributions to early modern medicine and experimental science while also (partially) embracing citational structures that erase female authority.

John and Joan Gibson (Wellcome MS 311), on the other hand, give a different picture of collaborative authorship. According to the handwriting in the book, John and Joan alternated writing medical receipts for 20 pages or so, and then the book switches to Joan’s handwriting for cookery recipes. Both John and Jane claim authorial credit on the flyleaf, and both add Latin inscriptions below their names, suggesting they were both invested in thinking of themselves as authors.

Much ado about citation? Possibly. Or perhaps this most basic level of recognition and entrance into scholarly study–the citation–has larger political impact. Sara Ahmed has written extensively about the politics of citational practices: how citing only or mostly men reifies existing gender and race hierarchies, how citation can preserve what she calls the “fragility of feminist archives.”

Because citation suggests, or leads to, use. And in the case of manuscript recipe books, that’s starting to happen–work on early modern recipes is exploding in exciting ways, from simply transcribing them (yay EMROC!) to rigorous analysis that treats them as worthy scholarly and literary objects (go read Wendy Wall).

But when database notes inaccurately portray women’s relationship to these texts, that leads to wonky citations. And when our memorial & bibliographic systems don’t accurately represent women, how can we guarantee that our scholarship will? Zotero isn’t actively trying to marginalize women, but when a huge body of texts don’t “fit” in existing citational systems, what does that suggest about that same body’s “fit” into existing academic representation?

So the question I keep asking myself is: How can I tell the stories of these awesome scientific ladies (and their collaborating husbands when necessary) when writing a dissertation? Maybe the answer is to start with the basics: make a space for women’s authorship even at the level of citation. Maybe it’s time for feminist bibliographic software–because there are whole archives out there that don’t fit a traditional model.


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