Laura Biesiadecki was a stubborn child.
“If someone tells me that I should do something or that I have to do something a certain way, my first instinct is to ask why and then figure out a different way to do it,” said Biesadecki, a third-year English Ph.D. candidate.
Since her “rebellious” years, Biesiadecki has been fascinated with the idea of women who misbehave. She’s now a fellow at the Loretta C. Duckworth Scholars Studio at Charles Library, where she is digitally researching 250 etiquette books published between the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted white women the right to vote.
One of her favorite books she’s come across is from 1913, “Dame Curtsey’s Book of Salads, Sandwiches, and Beverages,” by Ellye Howell Glover, which sets rules for what sandwiches women can make for specific holidays.
“I want to see as women are becoming more public figures, as they’re asking for things and as they’re asking to participate, was there a kind of stricter limit on what they could do socially, or were the etiquette books moving with the times and getting a little more loose?” Biesiadecki said.
Her fellowship runs for this academic year, and she’ll present her finished project at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference, an annual conference to advance collaborative scholarship, in Charles Library next summer.
“I think that’s the coolest thing in the world when you can see someone in history or in literature go against what they are supposed to be doing,” she added. “I very much want to know how were women supposed to behave, so I can go find the women who misbehaved and see how strong their deviance was.”
Biesiadecki is learning how to code R, a programming language, to analyze the frequency of certain words or themes, like “woman,” “man” or “conduct.”
“It’s taught me to be more open in terms of tools and techniques for my work, but also I am a badass coding woman and ready to dive in,” she added.
She found the 1849 book, “Advice to Young Ladies on their Duties and Conduct in Life” by Timothy Shay Arthur. It mentioned the word “man” 13 more times than the word “woman.” The words paired most frequently with “man” included “exist,” “holy” and “difference,” while “woman” was most associated with “limit,” “man” and “look.”
“If men are most closely related with holiness, with difference and with existing, men are just like born to be better, that it’s what they were and women were born to be limited, to be related to men, and to be objects to be looked at,” she said. “The fact that these are nonfiction, widely regulated and circulated books, this is going to tell me how people thought of women and how people thought of men.”
Jasmine Clark, the digital scholar’s librarian, said that Biesiadecki’s research will explore the roles of womanhood and gender in society over time.
“We shame the feminine,” Clark said. “We see it as light and fluffy and you’re supposed to be hard and emotionally stunted and angry all the time. But as a result, we also don’t always attribute in seriousness how meaningful the feminine is.”
Biesiadecki is using HathiTrust Digital Libraries, a partnership of academic and research institutions offering digitized books worldwide, for her research. She uses it to convert PDFs of original etiquette books into text files and edits and annotates them.
“A digital space is going to be a male-dominated space, and so to be writing about women and their bodies and their sexuality with tools that were used to repress women and their bodies and their sexuality, it’s very liberating,” she said. “It’s cool to set everything free.”
Katherine Henry, chair of the English department, taught Biesiadecki in “Transatlantic Romanticism in the Age of Revolution” in spring 2018.
Henry said there is a push in the last 20 years to critically analyze advice manuals and etiquette books, which were not considered worth examining in the past.
“Looking at them through a critical lens can really illuminate certain things about how were women encouraged to see themselves in a certain historical period and what were the normative gender roles and what constitutes a good marriage,” Henry said.
Biesiadecki hopes that the project will become part of a larger dissertation on how past women used different societal expectations, like sex and sexuality, to break free of constraints, she said.
“It lets me see myself in a new way because I’m seeing all these expectations hefted on these women for 50, 60 years and then finding women who said no, it makes me feel very proud to be a kind of person who questions and also a person who doubts,” Biesadecki said.