Women’s History Month Part 2
March is Women’s History Month aimed at celebrating the contributions and involvement of women throughout History. To celebrate this month with some volunteers (Dr Grace Redhead , Dr Lydia Plath , Professor Roberta Bivins and Postgraduate student Sonia Mistry ) I interviewed a cross-section of women within Warwick’s History department to learn about their personal experiences in academia.
Below is part (2) of the interviews and the first part of the interviews can be found here.
What would your advice be to women entering academia?
Grace: I guess a few different things. I don’t like to generalise, but I feel like there’s maybe a tendency among the women I know to underrate themselves and feel less confident, in terms of speaking up and having things to say in seminars. When I first started going to them, I often felt really intimidated – not necessarily because I’m a woman, but maybe that was a factor.
Try to get involved in as much as you can and try to fight down the instinct to be like “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. Just go for it!
Another thing I would recommend is making friends with lots of people. Treating conferences and seminars as opportunities to seek out people who you think look friendly and nice is a good thing, especially seek out other women because it can be so nice to feel supported by someone who gets it.
Lydia: Yeah… that’s a big question. I’m trying to think how my advice would be different for women, rather than anyone entering academia. Entering academia is really hard and it gets harder and harder. I finished my Phd in 2009 and, at that point, basically the good people (and I don’t think I was in that group!) all got jobs. It was hard, but it wasn’t that hard. Basically if you could hang on doing temporary teaching for a couple of years, chances are you’d get a permanent post. My supervisor, who was a man, before he’d even finished his Phd got a permanent post. But now it’s just impossible, so I think my advice is to be sure that you want to put yourself through that.
Use conferences and other networking opportunities, not to network in a professional sense, but also to make friends, to make sure that you have fellow travellers along this journey. I think that other people, not necessarily women, who you’re going through this with are the most helpful allies, rather than trying to suck up to all the people who’re much more senior than you! So: thinking about your peers as fellow travellers is probably the main advice I’d give.
Roberta: I think the first advice I would give to women, and indeed to anyone entering academia, would be to be absolutely certain that this is what you want to do. Don’t go into it with visions of smoking jackets and sharing a glass of port with your students after your seminar, or any of these other romantic visions. It’s a hard job, it’s a wonderful job and I wouldn’t want to do anything else – but it is very difficult. It’s very multi-stranded: you need to be a good administrator; you need to be a good teacher; you need to be a good researcher and increasingly today you need to be a really excellent communicator, because one of the things universities are being asked to do now is to really reach out to local, national and international communities to share their research and to engage wider publics with the research that they do.
This is a challenging job. It’s also very unpredictable, so to become an academic in any field, perhaps especially in a field like history, you have to invest an enormous amount of personal energy and creativity and an enormous amount of time before you have any chance of starting to make a living. And that is very unpredictable: you can be fabulous, you can be a brilliant researcher, a really creative teacher, an incredibly skilled communicator… and still end up at the end of your PhD without even a temporary job, much less a permanent one. So what I say to my students is “don’t do this, if there’s anything else you’d love to do!’
And that’s not because it’s not an amazing career. You get to influence people’s lives, shape their prospects, you get to help them. Your students, your colleagues, people in the wider community: you can, if the field you write in is of the right nature, you can influence policy. So I’ve been able to speak to the WHO’s migration summer school about migrants and health. I’ve been able to talk to Parliament about the ways in which migrant communities contribute to the NHS. And these are pretty amazing experiences, it really feels worthwhile to do it! But it does take a lot of commitment and it can be very grinding. This is a career where you’re constantly submitting yourself to the judgement of others and sometimes people can be mean. So it is amazing, but it is not for the faint of heart.
Is there an under-acknowledged woman in history that you think people should know more about?
Sonia: I do not have a background in history and so I was keen to expand my knowledge of women in history when I started this MA. Through my reading I have come across incredible stories of women from around the world who made their marks in history. Sex and Family in Colonial India: The Making of Empire by Durba Ghosh introduced me to Begum Samru, an Indian 18 dancing girl whose ambitions resulted in her becoming the ruler of Sardhana in India. Her political and military success is admirable. However, there are also those who survived in unimaginable circumstances and whose stories should be uncovered.
Grace: The women in history that I’ve studied the most are probably expert nurses in the NHS who worked to raise awareness about sickle cell, the condition which I study. But more widely, the discrimination against black patients from the NHS. And so much of what they did was hard graft, behind-the-scenes, trying to get funds together to do pilot projects and trying to push back against various colleagues and superiors to get a bit more recognition of their experience as a black patient. Lots of them are under-acknowledged and I tried in my work to shine a light on their experience. But there are many many women who’ve done that work and there’s lots more work that needs to be done, so we can talk about their contribution I think.
Lydia: Um, so my favourite historical figure – the person I’d most like to go back in time and meet – is Ida B Wells, who is not that under-acknowledged. If you know about American history or know about black women’s history, then she’s a really major figure. But I think in the general public, she’s not as well-known.
She was many things: she was a journalist, she was a sociologist and she was an anti-racist and an anti-lynching activist. She led the charge to try to end lynching in the US around the turn of the 20th century. She also travelled: she came to Britain and gave lectures. She’s just a phenomenal woman who I really admire. But she did that so much earlier than we think about women organising in the civil rights movement. She was doing this as basically one of the only women doing that at the time.
Roberta: I would say Hillary Marland. She is an incredible servant, to not just the department but to the discipline. I think, in every strand of our profession, she has excelled. So her work in terms of funding research, in terms of mentoring students, mentoring colleagues and her peers… she works on committees at the national level, she works internationally – it’s just an incredibly impressive field. And the department does recognise this: I mean, she is a professor. But the depth and strength of her commitment to Warwick and to the field that we’re both in (the History of Medicine) across all of these years is just astonishing. For someone who’s been working in the field so intensely for so long, to still to be carrying such an enormous leadership role for us, but particularly in the wider discipline of the History of Medicine, it’s impressive.
(Image by Izzy’s Art)