Rainbow Murray is Reader in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. She publishes widely on elections, parties and parliaments and is a specialist on women’s representation, in France and comparatively. Rainbow shares her early love of fiction, how George Orwell’s work inspired her into politics, and how an encounter in the Pompidou Centre library left her with a book she still regularly turns to.
I have been a bookworm since early childhood. My first (and enduring) love is for nineteenth-century fiction. As a child, I began with books such as Little Women, What Katy Did and The Secret Garden. I recently picked Little Women back up; it charms me still as it did then. My childhood copy contains a dedication from my American relatives: “To a young lady who treasures the written word and whose thirst for knowledge will always be an inspiring and exciting part of her life”. I had always thought I had fallen into academia rather by accident, but perhaps not!
In later childhood, I progressed onto authors such as Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Wilkie Collins. My first introduction to political writing came through the inspiring works of George Orwell. Aged 17, I spent a year in France before going to university, and would devour books in my room of an evening. By the end of the year, you could actually see the change in the language of my letters home, as my only exposure to English came through nineteenth century fiction!
At university, I read European Studies and French at Manchester as an undergraduate, combining my love of French with my interest in current affairs. I read many interesting books for the French component of my course; the one that stays with me the most is Jorge Semprun’s Le Grand Voyage, depicting his deportation to a concentration camp during the second world war. It is an astonishing work, combining a detached, non-judgemental style with vividly evocative and disturbing scenes. As a reader, you are compelled to form your own opinions of the characters; the cellmate who secretly hoarded food and gorged silently during the night so that he would not have to share, or the young man on the train who had the foresight to bring apples with for the journey and the generosity to share them with Semprun, thus saving his life.
Despite my enduring love of French, I discovered at Manchester that my true passion lay in the study of politics. From my first year readings of Dahl and Michels, I was hooked. I spent my third year studying at Sciences Po in Paris, where my interest in France’s gender parity law really took off. The law was being implemented for the first time during my stay in Paris. I took a course on gender and politics taught by Mariette Sineau, one of the founding scholars of the field. I was so fascinated that I dropped some of my other classes in order to maximise the time I could spend researching my new interest. I spent countless days in libraries, both at Sciences Po and at the national library in the Pompidou Centre, working my way through the canon. At the end of the year, an American student asked me very casually whether I would be interested in a book she had bought but did not wish to take home with her. The book in question was Femmes/Hommes pour la parité by Janine Mossuz-Lavau, one of the most important texts on gender parity in France. More than a decade later, I still refer to and cite this book in much of my writing.
Once back in Manchester, I began reading the English-language gender and politics literature in earnest. One author whose imprint seemed to be all over this literature was Joni Lovenduski. Such was her influence that I sought her advice on where might be a good place to pursue postgraduate study in this field. She encouraged me to “go where the supervisor is”. I duly followed her advice and moved to London to complete a PhD under her supervision. Her many books continue to be an important influence on me, especially her works with Pippa Norris, including Gender and Party Politics and Political Recruitment: Gender, Race and Class in the British Parliament. After renewing these books from the library for years on end, I finally treated myself to my own copies earlier this year.
In the second year of my PhD, I reached a turning point after reading Alan Ware’s Political Parties and Party Systems. This prompted a change in direction for my research, with a greater emphasis on the role of political parties, candidate selection and institutions in explaining why gender quotas do not always fulfil their promise. I found myself reengaging with many of the works on representative democracy that had drawn me into political studies in the first place, even though my reading of these works was now more critical, especially with regard to their gender-blindness. I love Sartori’s classic text on Parties and Party Systems and, despite the criticism it has received, I still think that Downs’ Economic Theory of Democracy is a seminal contribution to political science (as is his Issue-Attention Cycle).
In my current research, I am privileged to work with many of the authors whose writings influence my own. They are too numerous to mention, but include Sarah Childs, Susan Franceschet, Farida Jalalzai, Mona Lena Krook, Katherine Opello, Jennifer Piscopo, Réjane Sénac, Michelle Taylor-Robinson, Aurélia Troupel and Khursheed Wadia. Although my work has always been primarily empirical in nature, I am also working on a political theory piece that builds on some of my favourite writings, including the ground-breaking Politics of Presence by Anne Phillips.
I read more for work and less for leisure than I once did, but I still love novels. Last year, Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) kept me going through a bout of bronchitis, while many people have recently bought me books with war themes, including the powerful Suite Française (Irene Nemirovsky) and the moving Cellist of Sarajevo (Steven Galloway). I also enjoy autobiography, especially of inspiring women such as Hillary Clinton.
Rainbow Murray is Reader in Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. She publishes widely on elections, parties and parliaments and is a specialist on women’s representation, in France and comparatively.