Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.
—Claude Cahun, Aveux non avenus (1930)
The heyday of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop and lending library coincided with a period of upheaval and experimentation in gender and sexual expression. In Paris, Coco Chanel pioneered the style garçonne, which combined boyish and androgynous elements to remake women’s fashion. Simone de Beauvoir, herself a member of the lending library, publicly drew a line between sex and gender with her assertion that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”1 Sylvia Beach’s circle included the artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, a couple who lived their early years as women before adopting gender-neutral identities and defying convention in their art and lives. Cahun’s Aveux non avenus—translated by Chicago Tribune correspondent Golda Goldman as “Denials”—is a vivid portrait of a person who refuses to accept the strictures of society.2
Attributing gender to historical figures is fraught. The Shakespeare and Company Project does not have reliable accounts of how the vast majority of lending library members self-identified. Beach did not explicitly track the gender of library members. But the lending library cards and logbooks do contain information that helps us understand the gender demographics of Shakespeare and Company. The sources often include the first names and titles—Mlle, Miss, Comtesse, Mrs., Captain, Marquis, Mr., Baron, etc. This information is not definitive—indeed, it might reveal more about how Beach and her assistants identified members than how members identified themselves—but it provides a way to begin our analysis.
Using these archival traces, the Shakespeare and Company Project has inferred and encoded the gender of lending library members, and exposed this data in its search interfaces. When we have additional information—from first-person accounts and reliable secondary sources—we revise the data. (For example, Beach identified Cahun as “Mademoiselle Lucie Schwob” in 1919.) Some members are still unidentified: occasionally, lending library cards and logbooks only include a member’s last name.
With this data exposed in search interfaces, researchers can get a better idea of the gender distribution of lending library members, and how that distribution changed over time. Researchers can also investigate communities of readers by gender: the books they borrowed and how the books they borrowed circulated. Other questions quickly announce themselves. Were male readers more likely to read books by male authors? (The gender of authors has been identified using the Virtual International Authority File [VIAF] and other sources.) Were female members more likely than male members to read novels, or vice versa?
Since its inception in 2014, the Shakespeare and Company Project has adopted different schemes for documenting, inferring, and encoding the gender of the people it represents. The first digital incarnation of the Project’s member list—or personography—was as a single TEI XML file, a standard which provides the term “sex” from the ISO/IEC 5218 standard. Values are encoded as a single number—1 for male, 2 for female, 9 for not applicable, and 0 for not known. The shortcomings of the approach are obvious: not least among them that it literally renders women as “the second sex.” In response to these shortcomings, the Project included an explanatory disclaimer in November 2015. Changes to the personography file that fall show the inference and encoding process, which often added a link to a member's entry in the VIAF along with the ISO 5218 code matching the member’s listed gender. For Claude Cahun no gender information was recorded because no suitable descriptive value existed: VIAF lists Cahun’s gender as female.
By December 2016, the Project switched its encoding model to the vcard4 standard, which represents the term “sex” as a single letter. At the time, the hand-encoded personography was undergoing substantial computational cleanup and enrichment. A variety of changes reveal this process, including a large search-and-replace operation that transformed “1” and “2” values to their “M” and “F” equivalents.
In the summer of 2017, the Project began its transition to a relational database. The data in the “sex” field was imported into a database field of the same name, with the possible values “Male,” “Female,” and “Unknown” since no other values were present in the personography at the time. For members without an identified gender, new information was added to the “sex” field programmatically using a script, which identified titles such as “Madame” as markers of gender.
In 2019, the Project developed a set of protocols for attributing gender information, including a hierarchy of sources that placed self-identification over authority records such as VIAF. Based in part on the approaches of other databases such as the Linked Jazz Project, the “sex” attribute was renamed “gender” and the database was altered to allow the assignment of four possible values: “nonbinary,” “male,” “female,” and “unidentified.” In its present context, “nonbinary” has come to encompass a wide variety of gender identities.
The goal of the Project is to enable demographic research that respects the lives of individuals in the Shakespeare and Company community. Our changing approach to documenting the gender of lending library members reflects an ongoing evolution of best practices in representing gender more broadly. The Project will continue to grow—we invite you to become a part of this process.
Cite this document
“Representing Gender in the Shakespeare and Company Project.” Shakespeare and Company Project, version 1.5.6. Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton University. December 12, 2019. http://shakespeareandco.princeton.edu/analysis/2019/12/representing-gender-in-the-shakespeare-and-company-project/. Accessed September 27, 2023.