Archivists on the Issues: Women Archivist Leaders and How to Become One

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today is the final post from Adriana Flores, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at the University of Puget Sound, who has been blogging at Issues & Advocacy this year.

After attending the Society of American Archivists’ annual conference this past week, there’s no question that women are present in our profession. From the sea of cardigans to the long bathroom lines, women make their presence known. As I looked around at all the amazing female leaders in SAA, the idea of reaching that level of leadership myself seemed daunting. It made me wonder: do most women in SAA feel like they have the resources to claim leadership positions? Do we encourage women to seize leadership roles in SAA, and furthermore, at their own institutions? This blog post will reflect on some of the amazing role models of female leadership in SAA and highlight some resources and tips for those interested in climbing the leadership ladder.

Female Leaders in SAA History

If you look at the numbers of SAA leadership at the highest level, they tell an interesting story. Twenty of SAA’s 72 presidents since 1936 have been women; female presidency started with Margaret Cross Norton as the fourth SAA president in 1943. Since 1972, 7 out of the 9 executive directors have been women. Women archivists can look to this history of female leadership for inspiration as we progress along the leadership path outselves.

As I researched this post, I came across Michele F. Pacifico’s essay, “Founding Mothers: Women in the Society of American Archivists, 1936-1972,” in American Archivist. It is a wonderful read that explores the role that women played in SAA during its early years and highlights discrepancies between male and female membership and leadership.

Since SAA’s conception, women have been guiding and shaping it. In 1935, the American Historical Association created a “Committee of Ten on the Organization of Archivists” to establish a national organization of archivists (Pacifico 372). Two of those committee members were women. Pacifico writes:

Both [Margaret Cross Norton and Ruth Blair] had been active in the AHA Conference of Archivists and were interested in developing a separate professional organization for archivists. As early as 1929, Norton had encouraged archivists to detach themselves from historians. (372-373).

The vision and determination these women expressed is inspirational. Although their male counterparts outnumbered them, they were an integral part of developing the profession we are a part of today.

As archivists, we can learn a lot from Pacifico and the women she writes about. Although her essay was published in 1987, similarities to today shine through. She explains that between 1937 and 1972, only 10.9% of conference presenters and participants were women. She writes, “A close examination shows that year after year the same women were asked to present papers, chair sessions, or teach workshops” (378). During my time as an SAA member, I have seen people present year after year and I encourage more women to step forward and seize those opportunities.

Tips for Seizing Leadership Opportunities

  1. Apply to be an SAA intern for a section or committee. If you are a young professional and looking for a way to experience section leadership, apply to become a section intern. SAA emails about this annually in the spring.
  2. Find an SAA section you enjoy and put your name forward for elected positions. In “Roundtables as Incubators for Leadership: The Legacy of the Congressional Papers Roundtable,” Leigh McWhite writes, “For professional newcomers, the smaller scale of the roundtable environment will prove less intimidating than the much larger organization of SAA. Regardless, leadership often requires that you volunteer yourself” (309:6). Section steering committee nominations are open every spring, also. If you know you’re interested, email steering committee members to let them know.
  3. Write for a blog, section or regional newsletter, Archival Outlook or The American Archivist. Writing for an SAA or SAA-affiliated publication can be a great way to get your name out there, while not requiring the time commitment of section or committee service. Often publications will send out a call for pieces, but if you have a great article idea, contact the publication you are interested in.
  4. Present a poster or be part of a panel presentation at SAA annual conference. Posters are a great gateway to professional presentations if you are nervous about public speaking. That being said, archivists are a friendly bunch and often a supportive audience for people who have presentation jitters. Calls for annual conference presentations usually go out around October.
  5. Find a mentor who you want to emulate and ask questions! Mentors provide professional knowledge, guidance, and support. Even if you are only able to have an informational interview instead of an ongoing relationship, talking with someone who has a job or position that you’re interested in is invaluable. Seek out a colleague, a fellow alum from your graduate program, a professor, or another professional who you have connected with. SAA’s program might be a useful start, too. Mentorship can happen at any stage of your career. Don’t hesitate to reach out to people who can help you take the next step in your career.

I hope my findings and reflections on female leadership in SAA have invigorated you to take the next step in your own career and leadership journey.



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