On 11 May, the International History Department hosted a workshop led by PhD students on integrating gender into historical research. As a PhD student in the throes of conducting historical research on women’s rights myself, I naturally jumped at the chance to hear from experts in the gender history field about their current research. But this conference wasn’t just for those already on the path of the study of gender or feminism – it was also for those looking to better integrate gender into their general historical research, to ensure that they are alert to the patriarchal biases present in the institutions they study (since so many historians before them have failed to do so). I’m not going to attempt to summarise all the great presentations, but would like to pull out the key lessons for all historians to take away from the workshop:

Every historian should do a basic gender analysis in the early stages of developing key research questions.

This doesn’t mean that a gender lens will be relevant to each and every historical research project. But its relevance is so much greater than is often perceived, and understanding this requires an interrogation of gender relations and the oppression of women at the point of setting out the key questions for historical analysis. In short, as Professor Diane Jeater of the University of Liverpool explained, you need to have the tools to be able to make a gender analysis at the outset of a project to know whether it is a relevant lens or not, and then reframe those key research questions as needed. So, if you don’t know any feminist theory go and learn about gender and power dynamics, and the nature of patriarchal oppression. Professor Diana Paton of the University of Edinburgh highlighted some key places to start:

  • Joan Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 5 (Dec 1986), pp 1053-1075
  • Sally Alexander, ‘Women, Class and Sexual Difference’, History Workshop No. 17 (1984), pp125-149
  • Elsa Barkley Brown, ‘“What has happened here”: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 18, No.2 (Summer, 1992), pp295-312

This doesn’t mean we need to be armed with immensely terrifying jargon. But we must understand in essence that gender is a social construct with associated relationships based on perceived differences and power, and then explore the implications this has on the relative positioning of different groups within certain contexts and institutions.

Lend greater support to research which utilises a gender lens in order to fill the gaps in history

Using gender as an analytical lens in historical research is critical to understanding how the position of women has changed over time, and the role of women’s movements and activists in achieving this. The workshop participants discussed the way in which biographies are one way of helping to bring a spotlight to otherwise hidden women.

We also discussed how integrating gender into historical research can help us to better understand gender as part of transnational and global history. Professor Paton highlighted that it has been wrongly argued that global history and gender history are incompatible since the latter is perceived to always focus on the micro level of the individual or family, or reach a national frame at most. In fact this is not the case, and her research has brought together global history of slavery with a gender lens in order to show how women’s reproductive labour was exploited as part of the global slave trade.

Whether helping to uncover the role of women’s movements at national level or looking at gendered aspects of global history – these gender perspectives are important and need more support from universities and journals (rather than a one-week focus on gender at the start of an undergraduate history syllabus).

Gender-focused historical research often requires ingenuity – which should be better appreciated

Historians working on gender relations and women’s rights aren’t just a bunch of radicals working on the fringes of historical research. Actually, they have to go above and beyond, working twice as hard to capture these histories because sources are often hidden or never captured in archives in the first place (since patriarchal biases have shaped the construction of archives). Often the figures we study had ‘off-stage’ roles (as Dr Tanya Harmer of the London School of Economics so neatly put it) which need a great deal of investigative work to unpick through diaries and oral histories with other women who may not even realise they have an important story to tell! So we have to get creative and look beyond traditional sources. Dr Ben Griffin of the University of Cambridge, whose research focuses on how gender has shaped political processes in Britain since the late eighteenth century, explained how his research into the gendered aspects of MP performance led him to look beyond the Hansard records of parliamentary speeches to the sketches of the delivery of these speeches. Dr Imaobong Umoren of the London School of Economics highlighted the importance of looking at poetry and song to capture women’s history.

A really important thread running across the workshop was a reminder to us all as historians that we approach our research as people – people shaped by ideas that we have encountered throughout our lifetimes and that we have our own biases as a consequence. Historians of the past may have ignored gender as a lens because it was not an issue they had been conscious of, or perhaps because they did not want to challenge patriarchal systems. What is exciting today is that we have a cadre of historians who are cognisant of gender inequality as an issue and wish to explore gender and other intersecting lenses – such as class, race and sexuality – in order to gain a fuller understanding of the social relationships operating within key moments of history.

A big thank you to Grace Carrington, Judith Jacob and Eline van Ommen for organising such an interesting workshop!

Additional recommended reading from the workshop:

  • Mia Bay, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Barbara D Savage and Martha S Jones, ed., Toward an intellectual history of black women (University of North Carolina, 2015).
  • Juanita De Barros, Reproducing the British Caribbean: Sex, Gender, and Population Politics After Slavery (University of North Carolina, 2015).
  • Lara Putnam, The Company They Kept: Migrants and the Politics of Gender in Caribbean Costa Rica, 1870-1960 (University of North Carolina, 2002).
  • Ben Griffin, The Politics of Gender in Victorian Britain: Masculinity, Political Culture and the Struggle for Women’s Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
  • Ben Griffin, ‘Masculinities and parliamentary culture in modern Britain’ in Sean Brady, Christopher Fletcher, Rachel Moss and Lucy Riall, eds., The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Political Culture in Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), pp. 403-33.
  • Martin Francis, ‘Tears, Tantrums and Bared Teeth: The Emotional Economy of Three Conservative Prime Ministers, 1951-63’, Journal of British Studies (2002), pp. 354-87.
  • Jon Lawrence, ‘Class and Gender in the Making of Urban Toryism, 1880-1914’, English Historical Review, Volume CVIII, Issue 428 (1993) pp629-625.
  • Matthew McCormack, ed., Public men: Masculinity and Politics in Modern Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

Caroline Green is a PhD candidate in the Department of International History at the London School of Economics. Her doctoral thesis is on British colonial policy and women’s rights. She is being supervised by Dr Joanna Lewis, our expert on Modern Britain and Africa History.