Image: IHR’s pop-up portrait exhibition of London women historians
Despite two wide-ranging feminist movements, the position of women historians – both as subjects of historical study, and as modern-day researchers and teachers – still leaves much to be desired, says PhD student, Rozemarijn van de Wal.
Many women historians who shaped the profession during the 20th century remain unknown or neglected, while today numerous women struggle to get ahead in their careers. There remains an urgent need to address these shortfalls and problems.
In mid-March, King’s College London (KCL) and the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) at the School of Advanced Study, hosted ‘London’s women historians: a celebration and a conversation’ – a conference to discuss important contemporary issues, and to draw attention to forgotten women historians associated with the University of London from the early 1900s onwards. The event was a ‘celebration’ of the women who have preceded us and a ‘conversation’ about where to go next.
The one-day event was initiated and organised by two KCL academics, Dr Laura Carter and Dr Alana Harris, and saw presentations by 12 leading historians and stimulating discussions among a 100-strong audience. To coincide with the conference, the King’s convenors also organised a pop-up portrait exhibition of 20 notable London women historians, ranging from Caroline Skeel (1872–1951) (see image left) to Lisa Jardine (1944–2015). These 20 portraits, revealed on the day of the conference, were displayed on the wall going up the IHR’s main staircase where they remain on display.
The first panel of the day, ‘Women historians and London institutions’, celebrated some of the forgotten women historians once associated with the university. Despite the efforts of both feminist movements to write women back into history, there are still many scholars we just don’t know about.
Professor John Beckett, former editor of the Victoria County History (VCH), has discovered 115 women who worked as researchers and authors for the VCH in the early 20th century, and featured leading figures in his presentation. He was followed by Dr Linda Clark, a senior editor at the History of Parliament, who highlighted the contribution of women historians to the biographical study of parliament since the 1950s. Dr Clark described how many of the women employed to write for the History of Parliament in its early years had not been adequately credited for their contributions.
In the final presentation of this session, Professor Caroline Barron (Royal Holloway) provided a statistical survey of women employed by London history departments over the course of the 20th century. Her study revealed an increase in women’s employment during the interwar years. This was followed – after the 1930s and the so-called ‘Eileen Power effect’ (named after the influential LSE historian Eileen Power, 1889-1940) (see image right) – by a decline in the number of women working as historians across the colleges during the 1960s and ‘70s.
The second panel looked specifically at women historians at King’s College London. While King’s is celebrated today for its feminist culture, the college’s earlier history was often one of resistance to change. The medievalist Dame Jinty Nelson – a KCL historian since the early 1970s, and herself the department’s first full-time female member of staff – spoke of women’s repeated exclusion from King’s in the post-war decades.
Professor Nelson’s departmental colleague, Professor Laura Gowing, broadened the focus to discuss women’s history in the King’s curriculum. How, she asked, can we make women’s history a more accepted topic, and what are the possible benefits of opting for a more integrated approach? Alana Harris concluded this session by discussing her involvement in KCL’s recent Athena SWAN application, and the opportunities this offered to identify and address instances of gender inequality.
The next ‘roundtable’ session, on the theme of gender and the historical profession, combined insights from four panellists with a wide-ranging audience discussion. The Cambridge early modernist, Dr Amy Erickson, told the cautionary tale of Ellen McArthur (1862–1927), a pioneering academic who – despite efforts to improve the position of women historians – has almost completely disappeared from modern historiography.
UCL’s Professor Margot Finn, who is also president of the Royal Historical Society, called for a broadening of the discussion. The conference audience, she argued, consisted largely of white women discussing strategies that have worked principally for themselves; this, she maintained, was not full equality as a comprehensive survey must also include and provide solutions for historians from all under-represented minority groups.
Professor Jo Fox of Durham University spoke next about the challenges that, as a successful historian in a senior position, she currently faces – including questions of life-work balance and the many requests she receives to represent her institution. Professor Pat Thane, a scholar of contemporary Britain who often engaged with policymakers, ended this session with her observations on working as a historian outside traditional history departments.
The fourth and final panel, on ‘current initiatives on gender equality’, brought together Professor Peter Mandler of Cambridge University and Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of history at Oxford. Professor Mandler called for measures not just to address inequalities facing women historians but also those confronting university researchers and teachers from racial, ethnic and religious minorities. Professor Roper advocated a number of changes to make professional life easier for women historians – among them more part-time working, family friendly schedules, and further events such as that held at the IHR.
True to its title, the King’s / IHR conference made possible a much-needed ‘conversation’ on the many challenges facing women historians today – as graduate students, early career researchers and faculty members. And the day was also a ‘celebration’ of those women historians who’ve shaped the development of historical research and teaching across the University of London – from the first decade of the 20th century to the second decade of the 21st.
This celebration continues with the portrait exhibition of 20 notable women historians, now on display in the main entrance of the IHR. You’re encouraged to visit the institute in the coming months and see for yourself.
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Rozemarijn van de Wal is a PhD student at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. She obtained her MA in cultural history in 2014 and is now undertaking doctoral research as a member of Project SPICE: Scientific Personae in Cultural Encounters. An international research project, SPICE examines the concept of ‘scientific persona’ understood as ‘scientific identity’. Within the project, Rozemarijn is researching a biography of the British medieval historian, Eileen Power (1889–1940) in which she seeks to understand how Eileen Power – as a woman – became so successful in her profession.