Exclusive Interviews With Influential Female Historians at Oxford

In commemoration of International Women’s Day 2021, OHR is featuring two of its interviews with some the most influential female historians at Oxford. For more, check out our Michaelmas 2020 edition.

An Interview with Professor Brenda E. Stevenson – Hillary Rodham Clinton Professor of Women’s History

Professor Brenda E. Stevenson, an influential female historian at Oxford.

On the 6th of October 2020 the Faculty of History announced that Professor Brenda E. Stevenson would be appointed as the first Hillary Rodham Clinton Professor of Women’s History. The creation of the chair, and Brenda’s appointment to it, are exciting steps forward in women’s history at Oxford. Not only will this encourage a surge in women’s and gender history, but Professor Stevenson’s own specialities will shift the focus away from Eurocentric, white history. Brenda is currently the Nickoll Family Endowed Professor of History at UCLA and studies race, gender, family, slavery, and conflict. She particularly researches women of colour in America. OHR spoke to Professor Stevenson about her career and new position…

Q: Why is the creation of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History important for women studying history at Oxford?

A: The Chair in Women’s History signals the university’s (and its supporters’) deep financial and intellectual commitment to women’s history.  Women’s history is a serious intellectual pursuit that can be applied with great facility to addressing many societal difficulties—poverty; political inequalities; human trafficking; refugee population integration, to name a few. Moreover, a chair named for one of the most influential persons on the planet for the past several decades, who is also a woman, assures women studying history at Oxford that the university not only understands the essential intellectual importance of this area of research, but also that the university is committed to preparing its female students for an equal and transformative place in our future world.

Q: Have you witnessed changes in how gender has been studied and intersected with race during your academic career?

A: Much has changed since I began my career in the way that gender has been studied and intersected with race.  I began studying race and gender at the same time, so it seemed natural to me that the two intersected, and not only with one another but also with class, generation, time period, locale, etc.  Many others, however, worked specifically with one social characteristic or the other.  Now, it is almost rare that race is considered in an analysis of a person’s life or in a scholarly discourse on social, political, economic or cultural expression or experience without thinking of the intersection of multiple variables, particularly race and gender. Social historians like myself have digested this methodology. What complicates these intersections now, and rightfully so given that both race and are socially constructed, is the impermanence of racial and gender identities and the imprecise definitions. It is an exciting time to be contributing to the scholarship on women’s history.

Q: What does becoming a woman at Oxford mean to you?

A: Oxford has a rich history of female students, scholars, mentors, athletes, artists, innovators and administrators.  It is a history that has somewhat slowly, but certainly, grown and is ripening.  I am honoured to have been chosen to become part of this tradition.  I look forward to contributing to its forward progress.

An Interview with Professor Lyndal Roper – The first female holder of the Regius Chair in History

Professor Lyndal Roper was the first woman to hold the Regius Chair in History, and also the first Australian. The first appointment to the chair was made in 1724, there being 23 holders since then, including Lyndal. She has held a number of positions at a variety of universities, including King’s College and Royal Holloway, where she introduced the first gender studies module. Professor Roper specialises in the history of witchcraft, the German Peasant’s War, and the biography of Martin Luther. Her work explores themes of gender, sexuality, and womanhood, not only making Lyndal an advocate for women in history through her impressive positions, but also through her work. OHR spoke to Professor Roper about her career as an influential female historian….

Q: What was your inspiration behind setting up the first Master’s programme in Women’s and Gender history at Royal Holloway?

At that time, there was no programme in Gender or Women’s History, only in Women’s Studies, and yet I knew from being in the London Feminist History Group and from going to the Institute of Historical Studies seminar in Women’s History that there was a real need for one. I was very lucky that, although I was very junior, Royal Holloway was supportive, and they appointed Amanda Vickery, so we set it up together. Little did we know what would happen. Within a decade there were nearly a hundred graduates of the programme, many of whom had gone on to do doctorates and who transformed the scene in London. I blush to think of what Amanda and I didn’t understand then: many of those doing the course had children, and they had to explain to us that they were mothers, and this meant they couldn’t just come to class at half term; or that sometimes things took longer because they were up all night with sick children.

Q: Do you feel that you faced more challenges than others who were the Regius Professor of History due to being a woman?

Being Regius is difficult whoever you are! I’ve been very lucky in having great support from all my predecessors and those at Cambridge too, especially John Elliott, Bob Evans, Richard Evans and Chris Clark; and I have a wonderful ‘regial sister’ in Sarah Foot, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, who also gives me great advice. But yes, it isn’t easy being the first woman. When I started, there was not a single image of a woman in the whole Faculty building. I was the only woman with a statutory Chair in History, and there were very few women on Faculty committees. It’s different now.

Q: What does being a woman at Oxford mean to you?

I didn’t do a degree at Oxford, and when I was a Junior Research Fellow back in the 1980s, I was at first the only woman in my Senior Common Room. I really couldn’t cope, so I spent as much time as possible with the Oxford Women’s Studies Committee, which was where feminists gathered. It met in what is now the History Faculty Common Room and was then part of Social Studies. When I came back nearly twenty years later, the university was unrecognizable – there were lots of women. But I still find that it’s not easy to be a woman at Oxford. For starters, the architecture isn’t designed with women in mind. You feel out of place. The whole idea of the ‘tutor’ is still very much a paternal model, though I think that students are now finding it easier to feel more secure with a woman in that role.

Q: How have you seen the History Faculty change during your time at Oxford to become more inclusive of women’s and gender history?

The arrival of Brenda Stevenson as the first Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History will transform the field in Oxford.  Deb Oxley, Ruth Harris and I worked with Allida Black in Hillary Clinton’s office and with Michael Cooper in the US Development office; and we had the support of John Watts and Martin Conway as Faculty Chairs.  We also have our own pioneering new MSt in Women’s Gender and Queer History, thanks to Sian Pooley and Dan Healey. The Working Group on Gender Equality, CGIS and Athena Swan are all groups that made these and other things happen. Women’s and gender history are now part of the curriculum and a third of Faculty members list gender amongst their research interests. Many of our Statutory Chairs are now women. We have an extraordinary group of leading historians of Gender, Sexuality, Women and Queer history. But there is still a lot to do, especially in race equality, and in changing our curriculum.

OHR thanks Professor Brenda E. Stevenson and Professor Lyndal Roper for their wonderful contributions. To read more from students on women’s history, visit our tag herstory. Happy International Women’s Day 2021!

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