Women's History

Spaces of #womenhistorians

Just over a year ago we organised a one-day event at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) in London, ‘London’s women historians: a celebration and a conversation’. The idea emerged from discussions within the history department at King’s College London, especially at our ‘women’s lunches’, newly-inaugurated as part of our submission for an Athena SWAN Bronze award. At the heart of the day was the unveiling of a ‘pop-up’ exhibition of portraits of women historians who worked in and around London during the twentieth century. The portraits, which are still there, run along the main IHR staircase, interspersed with and alongside the existing parade of former male directors of the IHR since 1921. Since we put up our pictures, the IHR has welcomed its first female Director, Jo Fox.

‘Women Historians: Agnes Willoughby Hodgson, Elsa Goveia, and Enid Porter’ by Jon Long: @lifedrawmycenae.

We’ve already written a blog post about the motivations behind the event and the exhibition. And the IHR have created a bespoke website that showcases the exhibition digitally and hosts video and audio from the ‘London’s women historians’ event last March. Here we want to talk about a multiplicity of activities triggered by the event and exhibition, and to reflect on how women can shape the intellectual agendas of historical research and teaching in modern Britain in a university landscape that often remains hostile to female scholarship and leadership. Finally, we call for a crowd-sourced approach to generating spaces and stories of women historians.

Place and space matters in the production of history; it determines what resources and networks you have access to, and who bothers to listen to what you have to say. The IHR itself is a good example of this, as the research for our exhibition demonstrated. Women such as Joyce Godber, who was assistant secretary and clerk of records at the IHR in her early career as an archivist, and Dorothy M. Meads, who did her doctoral research at the IHR in the late 1920s, never achieved professorships. They both used the space of the IHR to exist on the fringe of academe, while making important contributions to their fields. Other mid-twentieth century women historians found a platform in museums and BBC radio booths, and never made contact with university institutions. In the 1970s, radical feminists, many of whom were also (re)writing history, used community activism and discussion groups to rethink spaces of academic production. If you only look to the lecture hall, your list of opinion makers and generation shapers will overlook many names, especially those who popularised history.

Making space: portraits of women historians intersperse those of male directors at the Institute of Historical Research

In 2018 it’s becoming a cliché to say that social media is now a primary space of history making and debating, evident in the ‘Ethics and Empire’ debacle or Mary Beard’s Oxfam twitterstorm. The most vibrant debates and legacies of our event and exhibition have also spun out in these spaces. We made a conscious decision not to formally publish anything emerging from the endeavour in academic journals. The event and the exhibition were never imagined as an end-point, a final word that could be settled in print, but as a stimulus to conversation, for which the internet was a critical forum. Flash reactions can be found on Twitter, where the hashtag #womenhistorians was used around the event and exhibition; this activity has been captured here on Storify.

We’ve also been working on more permanent digital legacies. Since last September, Laura has been working with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) on a special release this year of new biographies of women historians identified by our research for the IHR exhibition. This project has focused on identifying individuals not represented in the Dictionary, i.e. women of colour and non-academic historians. We are delighted that the ODNB has now commissioned new entries for Enid Porter (1908-1984), Agnes Willoughby Hodgson (d.1949), and Elsa Goveia (1925-1980). This trio are depicted in the cartoon above, drawn by former King’s College London history undergraduate and illustrator, Jon Long, which provides a long overdue counterpoint to an illustration accompanying an article on ‘The Beginnings of Modern British History’ in History Workshop Journal in 1997.

Goveia’s story in particular illustrates why an attempt to assess women’s contribution to history in the last 150 years must be framed around nodes and networks and not exclusively institutions, especially if we are to comprehend the relationship between history, activism, and imperialism. Born in British Guiana, she was the first woman to win the British Guiana Scholarship, which allowed her to read history at UCL from 1944. She went on to postgraduate study at the IHR, working with Eveline Martin on Caribbean history, and moving in London amongst the anti-colonial circles of Forbes Burnham, Michael Manley, Lucille Mair, and C. L. R. James. Her historical thinking about how to understand slave societies was intertwined with her presence in the liminal intellectual spaces of mid-century London.

Another digital legacy in progress, co-ordinated by Dr Philip Carter at the IHR, is a phased project seeking to excavate the lives of the first generation of female graduates from the University of London between 1868 and 1926. The initial phase involves creating a comprehensive digital database from matriculation records, after which it is hoped that funding will be secured for post-doctoral research on women graduates’ experience of Higher Education, their careers after graduation, and their contribution to British society. A short graphic novel has emerged from a strand of this scoping research, illustrating the Higher Education leadership and public life of Lilian Faithfull, the beloved Vice-Principal of King’s College London Women’s Department (1894-1908).

Alana has also been involved in co-organizing broader public engagement activities, including a forthcoming IHR Women’s History roundtable on 8 June 2018 on teaching gender history as part of a more inclusive curriculum. Linking to Bee Rowlatt’s identification of a ‘bronze ceiling’ of gender representation in public monuments, Alana is also involved, as a historical consultant and local resident, in a grassroots community initiative to erect a bronze statute of Emily Wilding Davison in Epsom’s market square.

As our initial project and these on-going activities indicate, women historians in the twentieth century ‘did’ and continue to do history in many places and spaces beyond the university. Gendered, classed and racialised assumptions govern what kind of history can be produced and valorized. As our exhibition of pioneering women seeks to prove, teaching and administrative duties, whether in teacher training colleges or archives, alongside public history activities, also profoundly shape the pasts produced. All of these factors must be taken into account when thinking about women’s contributions to historical knowledge over time.

Working on biographical research for the exhibition, the ODNB entries, and in public engagement activities has made us hyper-aware of the tools needed to weave individual life stories into a narrative that has both historical meaning and a potent feminist message with continuing resonance. Perhaps the most important of these methods is a crowd-sourced approach – a modern reworking of older tactics used by feminist collectives with unabashed consciousness-raising agendas.

In this vein, we have made public here an open, editable #womenhistorians spreadsheet containing names and details of all the women historians encountered in the course of this initiative. This has been collated through the intellectual generosity of many supporters and our hope is that it will continue to be amended, adapted and extended, serving as a resource for all interested in making sense of the stories of #womenhistorians in Britain over the past century.

Please share the #womenhistorians spreadsheet widely and help us continue to conversation: https://goo.gl/1y7Bkz.

One Comment

  1. Fabulous project!! It’s going to make a big difference.

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