Interviews with Women Historians for International Women’s Day

8 March 2016

To launch a new series of interviews, the RHS talks to three inspirational women about their careers as historians.

Just over a year ago the Royal Historical Society published its influential report, Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education, described by Dame Jinty Nelson as “an urgent summons to greater institutional engagement. The report was based on an RHS survey which received 707 responses from historians working in UK HE (21% of the sector). This data provided clear evidence that significant barriers to the advancement of women in the discipline still exist: the pay gap, variations in contract, challenges in returning to academic careers following parental leave, promotions, the limited number of female professors, and the persistence of unconscious bias. These issues remain live and pressing. However, many historians have since committed to tackling them within their departments. The RHS has been active in keeping gender equality high on the disciplinary agenda, while a significant number of departments are in the process of applying for the Athena Swan Charter Mark, coordinated by the Equality Challenge Unit. The RHS report was the subject of a THES article on International Women’s Day in 2015


Visible role models continue to inspire women, help them dream, and therefore achieve.” Dr Anindita Ghosh


International Women’s Day is just one day, but we need to appreciate the challenges women face in the Academy each and every day, and only by doing so can we bring about long term cultural change. Our report identified the importance of role models in inspiring all historians: 69% of respondents said someone in their department or faculty had served as a role model; 86% an individual in their field of history. Accordingly, the RHS will publish a series of inspirational interviews over the next twelve months. To launch the series we interviewed three distinguished senior historians – Margot Finn, Roberta ‘Bobby’ Anderson and Anindita Ghosh. We asked them about key moments in their careers; their attitudes to support (either the support they received or offer to others); and how life has changed during their careers. Margot Finn, RHS President-elect, had no one particular role model, but rather “a bricolage” of inspirational behaviour, drawn from observing the different ways historians conducted themselves and selecting what she found to be “admirable, efficacious and impressive”.  We offer these profiles in this spirit in the hope that you may draw inspiration from aspects of the experiences, insights and advice shared.


Professor Margot Finn is Chair in Modern British History at UCL.  Her work has covered a wide range of topics in British and imperial history from 1750 to 1914: Chartism, credit, legal culture and family networks. Some of her most pioneering research has brought together economic history and gender history, notably in her recent Leverhulme-funded project, The East India Company at Home, 1757-1857, which has also engaged her in extensive public history work. She was formerly Head of Department, then Pro-Provost, at Warwick University and she served as a member of the REF History panel and a Trustee of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Key moments:  Margot’s career to date has been an impressive success in all aspects of the academic role, but it has not always been easy. She started out as a historian with two formidable obstacles: her first degree was in science and then, just as she was making the transition to a new discipline and beginning archival research, her PhD supervisor died. Looking back, Margot recalled the two things that saved her. First, she was helped by several exceptionally kind and generous individuals, but second, she became very proactive in looking for opportunities for herself, which eventually led her to a two-year fellowship at the University of Chicago. There are several turning points in the career of a historian, Margot notes. “We still have incredible freedom to choose what we work on”, she emphasises, despite all the increasing pressures in academic life. “I especially love the exploratory stage, when you have finished one project and are thinking about what to do next.”  This is a wonderful moment, when you can decide to become a different kind of historian, meet new people, plan new research in new places.  As you progress through your career, you can help to shape a field, not just respond to it; you can create the dynamic of what people will do afterwards. And teaching can be immensely rewarding, an annual source of intellectual renewal, if you approach it in the right way.


Control what you can. It always helps to find out what’s available and plan ahead.


Support:  Margot focuses on the ways in which historians may support themselves and one another. She emphasises the importance of not isolating yourself: if you take the time to create networks, both formal and informal, at an early stage, they will sustain you throughout your career, as has the group of friends she made during her post-doc in Chicago. She has always been generous to junior colleagues, inspired by “the huge and disproportionate difference that even small acts of kindness can make”. She also values the opportunities in the discipline to push outside of our comfort zones, “whether that means going to a seminar outside your sub-specialism or forcing yourself to engage with the theoretically abstruse.”

How life has changed:  Margot again emphasises the importance of taking control as much as possible. You don’t have to be available 24/7; indeed, you should not be, otherwise you will be taken for granted.  For example, if you want to spend the afternoon researching in the British Library, don’t log in to their Wi-Fi, so you can’t check your email. Take decisions about when you’re off-line and put in place strategies that suit you to make it happen.


Devise your own strategies to work through constant noise or create silence. You don’t raise your market value by being constantly on the market”


roberta-andersonDr Roberta (Bobby) Anderson  is Senior Lecturer in History at Bath Spa University.  She works in the fields of early modern diplomatic and religious history and directs the university’s archive, which has developed from a collection of papers kept temporarily in the boot of her car to a permanent archive and repository.  After leaving school at 16 and working as a computer programmer—a role she has not yet managed to escape—she returned to education in 1992, converting from a BEd to a BA and going on to a PhD. She taught on a part-time, hourly paid basis for ten years, moving to a part-time and then a full-time contracted position.  In 2007, she was awarded the Higher Education Academy National Award for the Teaching of History in Higher Education.

Key moments: These often seemed accidental.  With children approaching secondary school and settled in a career, she wanted new challenges. She was tempted by an advert for an access course for local people that would lead to teacher training, but when her placement revealed she preferred academic work to working with children, she changed course, completing a BA and MA in her early forties.  A conversation with her undergraduate dissertation supervisor led her to apply successfully for a PhD place at Bath Spa University and she began teaching within six months of starting.  Historians know the importance of serendipity—the chance find in the archive—but this was also about taking opportunities as they arose and using them to strike out into new areas.


Historians know the importance of serendipity—the chance find in the archive—but this was also about taking opportunities as they arose and using them to strike out into new areas.”


Support:  At every career stage, the most important source of support has been other people, particularly colleagues who were also mentors and friends. She remained close to her undergraduate supervisor, who was a constant source of support and honest advice. Another close friend has provided research advice, reading drafts and giving honest feedback. These small acts have helped overcome the inevitable crises of confidence and the mutual support that these friendships provide has been invaluable. Institutional support has also been important, for example working with the Vice-Chancellor to establish a permanent university archive.


Small acts have helped overcome inevitable crises of confidence and the mutual support that these friendships provide has been invaluable.”


How has life changed?  Changes in employment law have improved conditions for hourly-paid staff, though they are still too widely used. She remembers the sense of ‘not having a home’ as particularly hard and regrets not asking sooner for a better contractual position. The position of women has, though, improved and the challenges facing early career historians are, she feels, largely the same for all.  She regrets the increasing paperwork and the tendency to homogenisation in teaching, the unintended consequences of quality assurance and ‘teacher training’.


Anindita GhoshDr Anindita Ghosh is Senior Lecturer in Modern Indian History at the University of Manchester. Her work focuses on colonial South Asia, looking at questions of culture, power and resistance, through a diverse range of topics: print culture in Bengal, the colonial city of Calcutta and how power operated in women’s daily lives.  All these themes coalesce around ideas of identity and resistance, illuminated by often-overlooked source material such as photographs, embroidery, songs and cheap print. She studied for a BA at the University of Calcutta and an MA at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi before moving to Cambridge to study for a doctorate with Polly O’Hanlon, (now Professor in Indian History and Culture in the Oriental faculty at Oxford University.)

Key moments:  Two stand out in her early career. Moving to JNU for her MA introduced her to an international academic environment, which she loved. She began to think about a PhD, having seen that women could excel in academic careers in India. She had no plans to move abroad, but was encouraged to apply for the Cambridge Nehru Scholarship by her father who sent her a paper cutting of the newspaper advertisement for it. The scholarship took her to Cambridge, where the research excitement she had first experienced at JNU deepened. Like many ECRs, she applied for anything going and was appointed to a Simon Fellowship in Manchester in 1999, assuming she would return to India in a few years. When an academic post in her field was advertised in Manchester, she excluded herself as having insufficient teaching experience and only applied after encouragement from her Head of Department. She got the job.


We can limit our ambitions unless they are pointed out to us.” 


Support:  The support and encouragement of those in senior positions has been crucial, and more important than formal mechanisms. As she says, “we can limit our ambitions unless they are pointed out to us”, which is just what her Head of Department did for her. A Vice-Dean, a senior female academic elsewhere in the Faculty, organised a one-off open meeting for women academics, which got a huge response. Sharing experiences was transformative, often in unexpected ways, not least when other women spoke of feeling intimidated by male colleagues or even some students.  But Anindita felt unaffected by this; as she came from a different culture, she ‘could not read the codes’.  So, while she has never felt her body space invaded or experienced direct sexism, this may be in part because she “may not have perceived sexist intent”. But, having been taught by women herself, she also had access to strong role models, notably the “supremely confident” and fiery women academics she saw at JNU. It is hard for women with familial responsibilities to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and one has to work doubly hard, but friends and colleagues make it possible and bearable.


We should encourage young women to be more assertive, to challenge unfairness and raise their voices. Young women should also be ambitious and push themselves forward.”


How has life changed?  Coming from a different academic culture made for a steep learning curve, particularly once she started teaching, but interaction with students was always very enjoyable. Academic life is now less formal; department meetings are no longer characterised by tweed jackets and addressing people by academic titles. This is important not only because younger members of staff found them intimidating but because young women, in particular, often moulded their presence and responses to fit in with the environment. We should encourage young women to be more assertive, to challenge unfairness and raise their voices. Young women should also be ambitious and push themselves forward. Often they are not very good at that. Mentorship has a really important role to play here; it would be great to see more ‘nurture groups’ for women across all levels and ages, not least as it is much easier to feel strong when you realise that it’s not just you.  This is particularly the case for women of colour. There are so few BME historians and even fewer women of colour in senior academic positions. It feels doubly hard for them to navigate the same obstacles and ‘being feisty’ does not suit everyone. But they need to make a difference; they need to be at the top.  A student of Bangladeshi origin asked Anindita recently “how did you get to be where you are?”  She then touchingly said: “I want to be like you”. Visible role models continue to inspire women, help them dream, and therefore achieve.


There are so few BME historians and even fewer women of colour in senior academic positions. It feels doubly hard for them to navigate the same obstacles and ‘being feisty’ does not suit everyone. But they need to make a difference; they need to be at the top.”