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More than Muses: Recovering Women’s Voices

The writings of silenced women are being recovered and magnified by Drs. Halling and Hegstrom in a remarkable new database.

Saint Teresa by Josefa de Obidos
Saint Teresa by Josefa de Obidos

How many historic female writers do you know from the Iberian Peninsula? It would be surprising if you can come up with more than one or two because not too long ago, most female writers and artists from Iberia weren’t studied much or mentioned in literature classes. In fact, a select few Iberian women were labeled only as “muses” for male writers who were studied, but their own works were not widely known. This gap in the historical records and studies of art and writing culture from the past several hundred years has become a major source of research for Drs. Anna-Lisa Halling and Valerie Hegstrom (Spanish & Portuguese).

Dr. Hegstrom and her former student and current associate professor at BYU, Dr. Halling, are creating an online database, aptly titled More than Muses. The database compiles biographies of, bibliographies about, and texts by Spanish and Portuguese women writers from the Iberian Peninsula. “We want to promote the idea that these women writers are more than muses. They’re not just people who inspire other people, but they are themselves authors who are producing these texts that are really valuable,” says Dr. Hegstrom.

When she was a student in college, Dr. Hegstrom was taught that there “were no other women writers before the late 19th century, except for Sor Juana de la Cruz; she was the only woman who wrote in Spanish.” However, through her own personal studies Dr. Hegstrom came to discover that there were, in fact, many. As a young professor, she sought to correct this misconception by including “at least one woman writer in every class.”

After some early research in national libraries, Dr. Hegstrom found a dozen names of underrepresented women writers. Today, she and Dr. Halling have identified 25 early modern women playwrights and hundreds of poets, novelists, and other writers, and both offer entire courses on Iberian women writers here at BYU. “Women have voices,” says Dr. Halling. “Those voices are often silenced for lots of different reasons. I think it’s our responsibility to recover and to magnify those voices.”

So far Dr. Hegstrom and Dr. Halling have begun to compile bibliographies, biographies, editions, and translated works for ten Iberian women writers. Thanks to the expertise and efforts of Jeremy Browne, an associate research professor from the Office of Digital Humanities, Drs. Hegstrom and Halling have a professionally designed and functioning digital database to display their findings. The goal for the website is “to include all women writers from the Iberian Peninsula, in all languages, from all regions—everybody from the medieval periods to the 19th century. . . . We want to be the source for everything written by women in Iberia.”

With such a large goal, much work remains. Dr. Halling and Dr. Hegstrom teach and enlist students in their classes to research, transcribe, edit, and publish their findings in the database. The students receive several benefits from participating: “They are learning both old skills—reading manuscripts and old, rare texts—and 21st-century skills with digital media,” says Dr. Hegstrom. Students are also getting published: “They have their names attached to these works; they’re really excited about that.”

Dr. Halling noticed that in addition to developing new skills, her students were gaining a “sense of ownership.” Students developed strong feelings of responsibility for the text and its translation: “‘it’s my text. This is my author. I care about these people.’” This summer, some participating students will travel with the professors to do more on-site research in Portugal and Spain, finding and reading original texts and taking pictures of ruins and locations to include on the database.

In the future, the professors hope to expand their scope and enlist more researchers, including specialists in other languages used on the Iberian Peninsula, such as Arabic. “We would love to involve other professors, other universities, countries, other students,” says Dr. Halling. “There’s so much work to be done. We hope that this will have a really broad reach.”

The More than Muses database will promote further research on these women who have been forgotten and overlooked for too long. “We want to promote these writings to be taught in classrooms across the world,” says Dr. Halling. “We’re deeply committed to recovering women’s voices and preserving these texts.”