A Discussion with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler

June 2021

Interviewer: Tanya Schmidt                                            Discussant: Dr. Georgianna Ziegler

Welcome to the SSEMWG Blog! In today’s post, Tanya Schmidt, a PhD student in English at New York University, interviews Georgianna Ziegler about the Society’s formation, her work at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and her current scholarship on women book owners. Dr. Ziegler is the Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita at the Folger. She is also the recipient of the Society’s 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award. This interview represents the inaugural post of the Society-sponsored initiative Founding Mothers, an open-access digital history project dedicated to exploring the Society’s origins and evolution as well as the larger history of Renaissance women’s studies in the American academy.


Schmidt: Dr. Ziegler, it is an honor to speak with you today! Your reputation precedes you: I understand that you were a founding member of the Society. Could you walk me through your relationship to the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender? How did you first become involved, and what positions have you held?

Ziegler: I’m going to refer here to correspondence I had with Betty Travitsky when a few of us were first beginning to think about creating a society back in the fall of 1992. (Betty was a pioneer in publicizing works by early modern women, and she was an active member of the New York Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance. Eventually, she was one of the general editors of the Early Modern Englishwoman Series, published by Scolar Press, then Routledge, as well as creator of the eventual electronic resource, Bibliography of English Women Writers 1500-1640, now part of ITER.) I will also be referring to correspondence I had with Margaret Hannay in November of 1993. In that letter, Margaret was writing to the Organizing Committee with details on how the society would be set up.

The idea of a society was first raised when Margaret Hannay, Betty Hageman and I had dinner together at Restaurant 701 in Washington, DC in the fall of 1992 while they were doing research at the Folger. We got to talking about the work being done on women in the Renaissance, and our conversation came around to the thought that what was needed was a national group to act as a central point for information exchange. There were several local groups in New England, New York, and Washington DC, but we knew there were many other people around the country, and internationally, who were working on early modern women, and we saw a need for better cross-communication in the days before so much moved online.

From the beginning, we wanted to make the society interdisciplinary, so we invited a group of about twelve scholars from various disciplines to a follow-up dinner at 701 before the conference on “Women and the Arts in the Renaissance: Women and Power,” organized by Elizabeth Welles and local members of the DC Early Modern Women group and held at the National Museum for Women and the Arts. (The conference was in March of 1993, and I remember there was a surprise snowstorm the night before, meaning that scholars who had already arrived in DC were able to attend, but we could not get the local teachers we had wanted to include!) The SSEMWG’s initial Organizing Committee formed after that dinner and included people from art history, French, English, history, Italian, librarianship, music, Spanish, and theology.

We were determined to keep the Society simple: keep in touch with people via a newsletter; low dues ($20 regular, $10 student, part-time, unemployed); meet in conjunction with another conference such as RSA. We also thought of giving an award for the best book and article by younger scholars. I was mainly involved in helping the Society establish its tax-exempt status by working with Melody Fetsky, at that time Controller at the Folger Library, who gave us her expertise, pro-bono.

Schmidt: I understand that you attended the Society’s inaugural meeting on April 23, 1994. That must have been an exciting time; what was that experience like?

Ziegler: This inaugural meeting took place at the April 1994 Attending to Early Modern Women conference, an event sponsored by the Center for Renaissance and Baroque Studies at the University of Maryland and held every three years at Maryland from 1990 to 2011. I don’t actually remember a lot about the meeting itself except that we used to pass around a log book for everyone to sign, and we are still doing that, using a virtual book at the most recent SSEMWG meeting via Zoom in May 2021. Our wonderful keynote address was given by Natalie Zemon Davis.

For the first year of the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women or EMW as it was known early on, Josephine Roberts from Louisiana State served as chair for the Nominating Committee, and we had to vote for a President and Vice-President; after that the VP became President. We also had to elect the entire Executive Committee and stagger the terms, so that two people served for one year, two for two years, and two for three years. Jane Donawerth served as our Acting Vice President and as liaison to the University of Maryland. Margaret Mikesell set up and edited the first newsletter and asked that a term limit be set for the editor. It was therefore decided that “The Secretary, Treasurer, and Editor of the Newsletter shall be chosen by the Executive Committee, and shall hold office for terms not longer than five years, under such conditions as the Committee may specify.”

Schmidt: A follow-up question: you mention that there were other groups working on women’s history at this time; could you speak more about the relationship between the early Society and other professional organizations dedicated to gender studies and women’s history? That is, why create a group specifically for the study of early modern women?

Ziegler: The whole point of creating the Society was to rectify the lack of any central organization focused on early modern women at a time when a lot of work was being done in the field over a variety of disciplines. In London, the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 was founded in the early 1980s by American ex-pat Yvonne Noble, along with some British scholars. It first met in Senate House and subsequently moved to the Foundling Hospital where it continues to meet. In New York, the Society for the Study of Women in the Renaissance was founded in 1988 and is still meeting. The Attending to Early Modern Women conferences at the University of Maryland always drew enthusiastic crowds, including people from Canada, but those only occurred once every three years. In Washington DC, a local group had grown up at the Folger after a seminar led by Sue Lanser; it was called the Folger Institute Colloquium on Women in the Eighteenth Century. When the Folger stopped sponsoring that in the early 1990s, Elizabeth Welles (then at the NEH) spearheaded the organization of a new interdisciplinary seminar on early modern women that met at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. .  While some of these local groups still function today (for example, the Seminar on Women, Gender, and Culture in the Early Modern World at Harvard), the (then) SSEMW filled the need for an international interdisciplinary organization that could serve as a robust center for exchange of new information and works-in-progress through its sponsorship of sessions at a variety of national and international conferences, and its development of a first-rate journal.

Schmidt: For a long time, the Society was called the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women. Recently, the Society voted to add “Gender” to the title; could you reflect on the addition of “Gender” to the Society’s name and intellectual focus? Does this change mirror any disciplinary shifts or the evolution of your own scholarship?

Ziegler: I have to say that it doesn’t necessarily reflect an evolution in my own scholarship, but I do understand that in the broader academy responding to new movements within society at large, the concept of “gender” is more inclusive than just “women.” It opens up the possibility of thinking about femininity and masculinity as well as queerness, and it intersects with thinking about such other broad constructions as race, ethnicity, sexuality and religion. Many of these concepts are related and their inclusion encourages us to contemplate what being a “woman” really means now and what it meant in the early modern period. A good example of this kind of work currently being done looks at gender and race in recipe studies.

Schmidt: Do you see your work with the SSEMWG as overlapping at all with your work at the Folger Shakespeare Library? (I ask this, having myself appreciated some of the wonderful exhibits that you’ve curated at the Folger, such as Shakespeare’s Sisters and Elizabeth I: Then and Now!)

Ziegler: Personally, I’ve been interested in women in literature and history for a long time.

My PhD dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania was on Guinevere in English and French medieval romance, and I’ve kept going ever since! My first exhibition at the Folger centered on Shakespeare’s Unruly Women (1997), and it involved looking through a lot of (then) uncatalogued material on actresses as well as the art collection, and writing a catalog. This was an excellent way to delve into the collections, as I had just come to the Folger in 1992. Elizabeth I: Then and Now in 2003 also involved writing a catalog and provided an opportunity to find the extraordinary amount of material on and by the queen in the collections and also to collaborate with Education and other public outreach (including a private tour for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Conner).

I always felt that more could be done to highlight the European parts of the collection, and in 2012, the opportunity came with Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700 which featured French and Italian writers as well as English. Instead of a printed catalog, we created a robust website for the exhibition, including taped remarks by the women scholars who had contributed their expertise, some of whom were founding mothers of SSEMWG. (Unfortunately, the site went away when the Folger moved to a new web platform several years later, but much of that information can still be found on Folgerpedia.) The exhibition was timed to coincide with the meeting of the RSA that year in Washington, for which I organized two sessions on English, French, Italian and Spanish women writers that met at the Folger. Because of my work presenting rare books to high school students in the Folger’s seminar on “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Five Centuries of Poetry by Women,” I knew Gigi Bradford, Teri Cross Davis, and Louisa Newlin from the Poetry and Education programs. They organized a limited-edition chapbook of poetry and prose by well-known current women authors, inspired by some of the early women writers from the exhibition. The chapbook was designed, with letter-press printing, calligraphy and binding all produced by women. Authors included Elizabeth Alexander, Eavan Boland, Rita Dove, Linda Gregerson, Maxine Kumin, Linda Pastan, Jane Smiley, Rosanna Warren and others. Some of them participated in a fabulous evening of readings.

Part of my duties as Reference Librarian involved the acquisition of rare books. I was always on the lookout for books connected to women writers, and encouraged the Folger in their purchase. Two of my favorites are a copy of Jean Le Petit’s Grande Chronique (Dordrecht, 1601), a history of the Low Countries, presented to Mary Wroth by her father Lord Viscount Lisle, and a newly discovered manuscript by calligrapher Esther Inglis. I continue to work on Esther Inglis and on women owners of early books at the Folger. Right now, over 2,000 of my photographs documenting these owner signatures are being mounted in LUNA, the digital image database.

Schmidt: I’d love to hear a little more about your current work on women book owners, particularly as it relates to the creation of digital archives. When the pandemic began, I was teaching a Shakespeare class at NYU and had to cancel archival trips and pivot to remote learning. I missed making a group trip to the rare books section of the library, but I was so grateful that LUNA had such a robust database of performance and theater images. The platform was a lifesaver, and my students learned a lot and enjoyed using it.

With that in mind, may I ask if you work with digital tools yourself? How are you thinking about digital exhibits and archives and the possibilities and/or the problems that they may present to scholars?

Ziegler: I took over 2,000 photographs of signatures, annotations, bindings, etc. in STC and Wing books (English books 1475-1700) at the Folger owned by women. The Folger has now mounted over 1,000 of the Wing images (1640-1700) in its LUNA database and will be adding the others as they have time. I’m hoping that these images will eventually be linked to the bibliographic records for the books in the Folger’s online catalog, and that the large spreadsheets I created might be turned into a searchable database. In the meantime, I’m staying in touch with others who work in this field including David Pearson, creator of BOO (Book Owners Online) and with the group of us who submit to the blog Early Modern Female Book Ownership, created by Martine van Elk. I’ve also created my own blog, Esther Inglis Creative Woman, which includes lists of the dedicatees of her manuscripts and their current locations, as well as links to any digitized images, and an updated bibliography.

In my own work, especially during the many months that most US research libraries have been closed, I use digital material a lot, relying on the robust offerings of places such as the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Folger’s digital collection, and bibliographic consolidator sites such as EEBO (Early English Books Online), HathiTrust, and Google Books. Obviously, there are limits—and warnings—about what one can do with online materials. Many items in libraries have never been digitized, and there is no substitute to going to an archive and deep-searching in person. It is also important to see the materiality of books and manuscripts—how they are put together, what the stains and watermarks are, whether something has been drawn on or engraved. And in recent years, scholars have warned about relying entirely on the images in EEBO because the scans are taken from old microfilm and are sometimes difficult to read. I myself had to change a portion of a paper once because when I looked at an actual copy of an early book, it turned out that a word was different from what I had read on EEBO. Furthermore, the way some books were photographed makes their bibliographic format unclear.

While I am lucky to be able to access a number of useful databases via the Folger (these include the ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), Bibliography of English and Irish History, and the OED), I realize that there are many scholars working independently or at institutions which do not have the resources to provide access to such online tools. Too many scholarly resources are still behind paywalls, and while I applaud the fact that many institutions are making more of their own materials available via Creative Commons, we need to do more to level the playing field for our colleagues.

Digital exhibitions and websites take much thought and time to create, but if they are not maintained or are migrated to new software platforms, all that work can get lost in the ether. This is partly what happened to the wonderful website we created for “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers, 1500-1700.” While most of the textual material still lives on the Folgerpedia site, the original website experience integrating that with additional visual and audio material is no longer available, and the url is gone, meaning that those who were using it for teaching purposes would have a harder time finding the material. This moving around of digital material is also frustrating for those of us wanting to link to online resources in books and articles that more frequently are published in both digital and print format. I have recently encountered that problem in an essay on women’s manuscript resources I wrote for the new Palgrave Encyclopedia of Early Modern Women’s Writing. Of course institutions need to constantly update and monitor their online offerings, but it would be helpful if they provided direct links to new urls instead of sending us off on another search.

I applaud the rich variety of offerings now freely available in the digital world, but I hope that the individuals and institutions that support them will do so with constant thought for their users.

Schmidt: In your work with the Society, what are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you hope for the Society in the future?

Ziegler: I’m most proud of having been in on the beginning with Margaret Hannay, Betty Hageman, Sheila ffolliott and others when we first voiced to each other the need for such a Society and then made it happen! I am proud that from the very beginning we wanted to include men (J. Leeds Barroll and Noel Kinnamon were on the organizing committee) and scholars from a variety of disciplines.  Now I hope the Society continues to remain strong in membership, keeps attracting young scholars of various genders, and maintains the high prize-winning standards of its journal.

Schmidt: What do you see as the most important issue facing the academy today?

Ziegler: I see several important issues facing the academy today. The first is encouraging students to keep open minds, not to be afraid of knowledge, and not to make quick judgments, but to develop their own critical skills to reach a better understanding of the ideas that come their way. The second is to encourage more interdisciplinarity. Early modern studies have already set the path in this direction, but other disciplines need to join in. The third is to continue to try to make what we do in the humanities understandable and interesting to the general public, so that they will see how and why civilization does not run on STEM alone.

Schmidt: It has been a pleasure to conduct this interview with you, Dr. Ziegler. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate you again on receiving the Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of your many contributions over the years. Thank you for your service to the Society and also to the academy in general!


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.




Georgianna Ziegler is the Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and taught at several institutions before returning to Penn as Curator of the Furness Shakespeare Library. In 1992, she moved to the Folger where she headed reference services, aided in rare book acquisition, gave tours, and curated major exhibitions including: Shakespeare’s Unruly Women; Elizabeth I: Then and Now (both with catalogs); and Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Women Writers 1500-1700.  She has served as President of the Shakespeare Association of America and on various committees of the Renaissance Society of America. In addition, she has published widely on early modern women in literature and art and has written blog posts for the Folger’s Shakespeare and Beyond and Collation, and for Female Book Ownership and ArtHerstory. Her most recent publication is an essay on early women as book owners, in Women’s Labour and the History of the Book in Early Modern England (2020), ed. Valerie Wayne. She has written the entry on calligrapher Esther Inglis for the Routledge Encyclopedia of the Renaissance World and is currently working on essays on the self-portraits of Inglis, on the relationship of her work to calligraphic and lace manuals, and on Elizabeth of Bohemia and Queen Esther.  Her larger project is a co-edited edition of the liminary texts and poetry of Esther Inglis.


Tanya Schmidt is a PhD Candidate in English at New York University. With the support of NYU’s MacCracken Doctoral Fellowship, she is completing a dissertation titled The Resources of Fancy in Early Modern England. Tanya’s research interests include theories of the imagination; early modern epic, romance, and classical reception; early modern literature and science; and women’s writing. Her scholarship has been supported by a number of institutions, including NYU’s Global Research Institute in Florence, The Remarque Institute, and The Folger Shakespeare Library. Among other awards, Tanya has been recognized by the NYU English Department for Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching. She currently serves as the Graduate Student Representative on the Executive Committee for the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender.

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