Dr Laura King, a university academic fellow in the history of health, family and the everyday at the University of Leeds, discusses her research that includes investigating the role of children as ‘agents of future’ and the meaning of families’ personal archives.

Tell us about yourself
I moved to Leeds in 2012 to join a project called ‘Arts Engaged’, which focused on thinking about how arts and humanities research could be relevant to a wider audience, and how arts researchers could collaborate in interesting ways beyond the academy, particularly within the current ‘impact agenda’. The fellowship I now hold is part of a big scheme for early career researchers, and is a tenure-track style position which currently gives me plenty of time for research. The theme of ‘health, family and the everyday’ reflects my interests in changing family life in 20th-century Britain. Before I came to Leeds, I held a postdoctoral position at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, where I focused mostly on public engagement – and particularly a project called ‘Hiding in the pub to cutting the cord? Fatherhood and childbirth in Britain, c.1950s to the present. I studied at the University of Sheffield for my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

What is the area of your research?
I am a social and cultural historian of modern Britain, and in particular, I’m interested in everyday, private and family life. Basically, I’m nosy, and like to find out what goes on behind closed doors! My research focuses on ‘ordinary’ people and their lives, and so takes a bottom up approach to writing history.

My thesis, and most of my published research so far, has focused on fatherhood and masculinity in the 20th century, exploring men’s roles in family life and how they understand their identity as parents. My first book, Family Men: Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914-60, was published last year. Recently, I’ve been researching the history of childbirth in the 20th century, and I’m also working on two collaborative Arts & Humanities Research Council-funded projects. The first investigates the role of children as agents of future promise: how they are used as symbols of particular political and cultural visions of the future in modern Britain and France. The second analyses the meanings of families’ personal archives, exploring what people keep and why, and how the practices of family archiving have changed across centuries.

What is the importance of this research?
Throughout my academic career, I’ve been interested in exploring the wider significance of this research through collaboration with non-academic partners. Better understanding of the history of parenting is really important to understand policies, practices and ideals about motherhood and fatherhood today. For example, I argue that men have actually been more involved and invested in family life in the past than we assume, and that by recognising this, men’s greater practical involvement in childcare today is normalised. I set up the History & Policy Parenting Forum with Angela Davis [University of Warwick], and we’re working to support better policy making and delivery through collaboration with historians. One example of this is a current project creating a film and resource pack about fatherhood with West Yorkshire probation services.

Investigating the history of childbirth is also very important to help think through some key issues today – such as where women should give birth. One current project explores this further; over the next year, I’ll be working with curators at the Thackray Medical Museum and local parents to tell stories about childbirth in the past and present through an online exhibition. This collaboration, we hope, will allow us to tell a much bigger story about how childbirth has changed – looking not just at changing medical intervention and technologies over recent decades, but featuring the perspectives of mothers and fathers too. Knowing about this changing history of childbirth is really important for policy makers, medical practitioners and parents themselves as they navigate often controversial decisions about pregnancy, birth and infant care today.

Dr Laura King’s research focuses on the family, parenting and gender. She completed a PhD entitled ‘Fatherhood and Masculinity in Britain, c.1918-1960’ at the University of Sheffield, which was supported by an AHRC Doctoral Award, and awarded in 2011. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick, she moved to Leeds in 2012, and now holds the position of University Academic Fellow in the History of Health, Family and the Everyday.