RHS News

RHS Programme 2017

Friday 22 September, 6 pm, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL
Professor Chris Marsh (QUB)
‘Woman to the Plow and Man to the Hen-Roost:
Wives, Husbands, & Best-Selling Ballads in Seventeenth-Century England’

Thursday 26th October, Museum of London
Colin Matthew Memorial Lecture for the Public Understanding of History

Professor Mary Beard (Cambridge)
‘How to spot a Roman emperor’

Friday 24 November, 6pm, Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre, UCL
2017 Presidential Address

Professor Margot Finn (UCL)
‘Material Turns in British History I: Loot’


RHS Annual Newsletter 2016

The RHS annual newsletter for 2016 is available here, and includes:

  • Articles by our outgoing President Peter Mandler and incoming President Margot Finn.
  • Updates on education policy by outgoing Vice-President for Education Arthur Burns.
  • Dr Olivette Otele on challenges and opportunities for black history.
  • Vice-President Suzanne Bardgett on her work with Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships at the Imperial War Museum.
  • Vice-President Mary Vincent on progress for the RHS’ widely-cited report on gender equality for historians.


‘Educating the Nation’

Over the past four years, RHS President Professor Peter Mandler has presented a series of Presidential Addresses on ‘Educating the Nation’, charting the impact of mass education on Britain since the Second World War.

I: Schools (video, text)

II: Universities (video, text)

III: Social Mobility (video, text)

IV: Subject Choice (video)


RHS Letter Regarding the EU Referendum

Dear Fellows and Members,

The recent EU referendum has brought the issue of how international exchange and collaboration enrich history as a discipline to the forefront of the profession’s attention.

Whatever our position on the outcome of the referendum, I’m sure that as historians we want to ensure that our discipline remains outward looking and global in perspective. Only 13% of historians in UK university departments study the non-Western world;  the equivalent proportion in Canada is 20% and in the US 27% (see the revealing study by Luke Clossey and Nick Guyatt in AHA Perspectives, May 2013).  Surely we must want in the coming years to become more comprehensive in our understanding of all the world’s peoples and their histories, rather than less.

The Royal Historical Society is committed to this goal and to keeping our discipline as diverse and capacious as possible, both in terms of academic employment and in terms of the scholarship that we support. We are particularly conscious at this moment of the precarious situation in which citizens of EU nations who are working as historians in the UK find themselves, and are keen to gather information about their situation that would allow us to support them in any way we can.  We also wish to facilitate collaboration between UK-based historians and others abroad, both in the EU and in the wider world.  If you have any information about or experience of threats to employment or collaboration, please do write to us at info@royalhistsoc.org.

Council will keep these international issues at the head of its agenda and I hope to be able to report to you in the autumn on further developments, both the challenges that we are encountering and the opportunities that we hope to open up.

With best wishes,

Peter Mandler







Response to Stern Review of the REF

Lord Stern’s review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) issued a call for evidence in January 2016 (read the full call here). The review will have important implications for the scholarly community and for history as a discipline, dealing with the mechanisms for allocating QR (quality-related research funding) and the shape of future REF exercises.

The Royal Historical Society has provided a robust and thoughtful response to Stern’s call, challenging the notion that metrics can be used to measure research quality in the arts and humanities and pointing to the consequences of the present system for our discipline, whilst reflecting on the positive changes to research culture engendered by the REF. Read the Society’s full response below, or download a PDF version.


Response to Stern Review of the REF


  • What changes to existing processes could more efficiently or more accurately assess the outputs, impacts and contexts of research in order to allocate QR? Should the definition of impact be broadened or refined? Is there scope for more or different use of metrics in any areas?

It is essential that an exercise such as the REF commands wide support within the academic community and that its conclusions are respected.  This is currently a clear strength and would be compromised by wider use of metrics, which simply do not work across the board. A main finding of The Metric Tide is that, in contrast to peer review, academics are sceptical of metrics, which are particularly problematic when assessing outputs in the Arts and Humanities.  In terms of historical scholarship, there are no current measures which provide reliable data, and this is not likely to change given the broad range of types of publications in which scholars publish quality research, including book chapters, websites, and datasets.  History has no established rank order of periodicals and impact factors—as in Humanities more generally—mean very little e.g. http://guides.temple.edu/c.php?g=78121&p=509794

There are two additional difficulties.  The first is that, for historians, books are of primary importance in disseminating research.  This was demonstrated in REF2014 where ‘books and parts of books’ were most likely to receive scores of 4*. There is no way of evaluating this type of output other than through peer review.  In a discipline where so many outputs are submitted in book form, either as monographs or as chapters in edited volumes, metrics thus pose a particular problem.  Second, the download half-life of journal articles in History—and Humanities articles more generally—is very much longer than it is for the Sciences.  This is insufficiently recognized. The point is made in the British Academy report on Open Access which nevertheless severely underestimated this half-life as the report did not include downloads from heavily used archive sites such as JSTOR.  The RHS estimates that the true download half-life of a History article is at least 12 years.

The RHS would therefore argue strongly that the quality of scholarship in History, as in Humanities more generally, is not quantifiable by metrics and its full value and impact become apparent over a significantly longer term than a REF cycle.  Greater use of metrics in place of peer review would not only fail to capture the nature and quality of world-leading scholarship but is also likely to have a distorting effect on the methods by which historical scholarship is disseminated.  As peer review offers the flexibility to assess research in new, minority or unfashionable fields, any downgrading, or substitution by metrics, is also likely to distort subject matter by encouraging publications on well-worn or voguish topics.

The RHS thus remains strongly committed to peer review, which is widely and routinely used to assess research quality in, for example, employment, promotion and publication decisions.  It is, in fact, the only expert device we have to assess quality.  After consulting REF2014 panel members, the RHS is confident that the workload in terms of the peer review of outputs was manageable, and the process very conscientiously carried out.  Panel membership attracts outstanding academics who benefit from the opportunity to survey the field and in whom their peers have confidence. Maintaining this calibre, and this level of participation, is essential to the REF process.

The assessment of impact was new to REF2014 and here some doubt has been expressed, both over the volume of material to review and the fact that inevitably peer reviewers had less experience of evaluating impact.  Academic assessors are trained to assess intellectual quality rather than impact. There was also less time and information available for review.

This issue is likely to diminish as the accumulated experience of impact grows within the research community.  The RHS moreover believes that impact has benefitted the historical profession as it has underlined the deep public interest in History and the relevance of our research to various fields, including education, digitization, and policy.  Although the definition of impact for REF2014 excluded the kind of broad expertise of a historical field that is evident in much public engagement work—and which should be reflected in how the underpinning research is defined and understood—it is valued by many.

However, research undertaken by the RHS demonstrates that, in terms of authorship, ICSs, are not representative of the wider research community.  The ‘impact case study’ is an artificially constructed exercise, but the fact that 75% of identified PIs were men and just under 65% of PIs were professors is of real concern.  One simple way of making ICSs more representative of the historical profession would be to make impact portable.  There is an obvious logical inconsistency in having outputs transferable and impact not as both rest on underlying research usually undertaken over a number of years.  The RHS is clear that it is highly discriminatory against ECRs not to allow them to transfer impact from one institution to another, or to include that based on unpublished research in a PhD thesis. This makes it almost inevitable that institutions will rely on case studies contributed by people at mature stages in their careers.

A further consideration is how the requirement that departments submit one impact case study plus one other for up to 10 researchers has affected very small research clusters, for example, in universities where a department or school might only have 2 or 3 historians.  The RHS is concerned that various REF measures put this kind of unit at risk (see the remarks on environment below).



  • If REF is mainly a tool to allocate QR at institutional level, what is the benefit of organising an exercise over as many Units of Assessment as in REF 2014, or in having returns linking outputs to particular investigators? Would there be advantages in reporting on some dimensions of the REF (e.g. impact and/or environment) at a more aggregate or institutional level?

The benefits of organizing returns by unit of assessment are most apparent in the evaluation of outputs, where subject-specific specialists are clearly best placed to conduct peer reviews. History is represented within the great majority of universities as well as in other cultural institutions.  Large disciplines need their own UoA; the volume of outputs is substantial and the variety of expertise already contained within the discipline is broad.

In History, as more generally, REF owes its credibility as an assessment exercise to its expert review panels.  It is clear from our consultations that the History panel worked very effectively, with a shared understanding of criteria and quality.  In contrast, colleagues on panels that covered a range of disciplines found the task of assessment could be more difficult and even conflictive.  Departments within these broader panels, for example Languages, experienced more uncertainty preparing for REF.  REF ‘scores’ based on amalgamated disciplines may also be misleading in terms of individual departments or schools and we would certainly resist History’s incorporation into a wider UoA.  The international strength of historical research in the UK is reflected in the large number of high performing units, which has been confirmed in all previous REF exercises. We believe it is important to showcase this; any move to amalgamation would occlude the proportion of world-leading historical research for which British universities are responsible.

It is hard, if not impossible, to see how outputs could not be linked to individual researchers in History.   This means that, while allocated scores—at least in terms of QR—go to institutions—and so, in a sense, it is the headline institutional score that matters—it is not clear how this could be obtained without expert peer review, which has to take place at the level of the individual outputs or ICS.  There is also a further point, in that the granular detail of REF feeds into, for example, university guides, admissions league tables, and wider research rankings and here the disciplinary picture is crucial.  This a particular concern for small, strong units within less-research intensive universities; these are not uncommon in History.

In broad terms, the RHS believes that the current arrangement for outputs (four, with differentially weighted monographs), impact and environment is manageable and effective with outputs as the main weighting. There is some feeling that environment should not weigh more heavily in the process.  While, in a ‘bundling’ category such as environment, some form of metric evaluation is conceivable—research income and PGR numbers are two of the very few measures that can be aggregated across all subjects and both relate to environment—we see real difficulties with evaluating environment simply by metrics.  REF is designed to recognize and support essential research activities, including a rich academic culture represented by seminars, workshops, conferences etc, participation and leadership in learned societies, editorial work, peer review and collaboration across institutions.  Not to assess these vital academic functions would be to undermine them.


Wider use of metrics would also raise real issues of equity even at UoA level.  It is clear from the RHS’s analysis of REF2014 that research income and PGR numbers were crucial to success in terms of research environment. Every university in the top 22, bar one, graduated at least 1 PhD per FTE over the REF cycle and 10 more than 1.5; the best predictor of rank in research environment was the number of PhDs per staff FTE between 2008 and 2013.  Given the concentration of AHRC funding for doctoral study in a small number of consortia, in which Russell Group institutions predominate, this makes it almost impossible for small units in less-research intensive universities to do well in terms of environment no matter how strong their collective research endeavours.  The RHS views this with real concern.



  • What use is made of the information gathered through REF in decision making and strategic planning in your organisation? What information could be more useful? Does REF information duplicate or take priority over other management information?

This is not primarily a question for representative bodies such as learned societies.  Indeed, as REF information is provided at aggregate levels, and only every seven years or so, it is hard to see it as a significant source of management information.

The RHS believes that there is a useful purpose to having research, particularly research outputs, evaluated by independent external assessors.  However, if, as we believe and as is set out in question 2, REF is a tool to allocate QR then it should be used for this purpose.   It should not be for government to suggest or draw on other uses of REF by individual universities and the RHS would resist any move to embed REF as a performance management tool.


  • What data should REF collect to be of greater support to Government and research funders in driving research excellence and productivity?

The RHS is sceptical as to whether data in and of itself can be used to drive research excellence.  We are strongly committed to research excellence, and to research publication in all its various guises, but see academic freedom, research time, the availability of funding and an atmosphere of creativity and communication as being far more pertinent to those working in Humanities as guarantees of research excellence and productivity. However, there are areas where data gathering as part of REF would usefully highlight areas of concern, for example historical research conducted in other languages and linguistic skills that need developing and/or support.

It is also the case that the suggestion in the recent Green Paper that measures of casualisation might serve as a measure of teaching quality could equally be applied to REF.  The close link between teaching and research is one of the great strengths of the British university system. This is reflected in the high proportion of staff on full academic contracts, which should be protected.  Collecting such data would also provide a clear picture of the employment position and foreground an issue that is of particular importance to ECRs and the future shape of the profession.


  • How might the REF be further refined or used by Government to incentivise constructive and creative behaviours such as promoting interdisciplinary research, collaboration between universities, and/or collaboration between universities and other public or private sector bodies?

This is in some ways a curious question: how can REF be used in support collaboration between universities when by its very nature it makes them compete?  However, the RHS is confident that collaborative mechanisms—which are often informal—are strong and that historians collaborate with as much or more vigour as ever.  There are also examples of strong regional partnerships that encourage and fund research and doctoral studentship collaborations, for example the White Rose.  These are, however, not directly related to REF.

Interdisciplinary research is stimulating and valuable but it is also important to defend multi-disciplinary collaborations and the single-discipline scholarship on which these rest.  Promoting interdisciplinary research is not in itself a guarantee of improvements in research quality and the RHS would encourage the review to address this directly.

In terms of REF, impact has clearly encouraged collaborations with other private and public sector bodies and there may be scope to adjust output criteria to acknowledge this.  The arrangements for cross-referencing interdisciplinary work to other panels and interdisciplinary specialists appear to have worked effectively, another strength of the flexibility provided by peer review.


  • In your view how does the REF process influence, positively or negatively, the choices of individual researchers and / or higher education institutions? What are the reasons for this and what are the effects? How do such effects of the REF compare with effects of other drivers in the system (e.g. success for individuals in international career markets, or for universities in global rankings)? What suggestions would you have to restrict gaming the system?

There is widespread concern over the potential for departments to score highly in REF by only submitting a small proportion of their staff.  There is a division of opinion among historians as to whether this should be addressed through a 100% return of eligible staff, given that a possible response would be to increase the use of teaching contracts and so alter the proportion of staff employed on full academic contracts (see the response to Qu. 4 above).

However, there is a clear desire to prevent—or discourage—institutions from gaming the system.  Not only can this have detrimental consequences for those omitted for strategic reasons but it can also lead to bad management decisions, as the 2/3 borderline is by far the most difficult to predict in internal assessment exercises. The RHS would therefore strongly favour restoring the previous system of requiring UoAs to identify the proportion of staff submitted.

It is hard to see how the other identified drivers affect historians or, indeed, most individual academics.  Only a handful of scholars operate strategically in ‘international career markets’ while ‘global rankings’ are of little relevance below institutional level and then only to a select group of universities.


  • In your view how does the REF process influence the development of academic disciplines or impact upon other areas of scholarly activity relative to other factors?  What changes would create or sustain positive influences in the future?

There is no doubt that REF has affected scholarly behaviour in History and that it will continue to do so.  The introduction of impact, discussed above, has encouraged the academic community to be more outward facing and has also diversified the understanding of academic merit. Promotion criteria, for example, now commonly reflect the importance of external engagement.  Less happily, the pressure for outputs has downgraded the status of the book in several disciplines—especially, but not exclusively, in the social sciences—where such publications used to be common.  The differential weighting of monographs has prevented this in History and other Humanities subjects, and the RHS sees this as essential both to prevent distorting the research process and to reflect the research and scholarship that goes into producing such a substantial piece of work.

There is some suggestion that triple or quadruple weighting of monographs, and other very substantial outputs, would be beneficial, removing what may be seen as a perverse incentive to produce lower-quality article-length outputs to meet the output requirement.  A single-authored 80-100,000-word monograph—the norm in our discipline—represents greater productivity than that required in other fields where team based research is the standard mode.  Against this is the point that book authors seldom write nothing else and the greater complication it would give to panel deliberations.  The RHS notes that the panel accepted 97% of double-weighting requests for REF2014, but this might change if the weighting rises.

One final concern is that REF pressure has downgraded the value of producing synthetic books and articles, which have an interpretative function and are primarily used for teaching purposes, including postgraduate teaching and training.  Though pedagogically important, these are unlikely to be included in TEF and so run a real risk of falling between two stools.  It would be helpful to have the value of these outputs recognised.


  • How can the REF better address the future plans of institutions and how they will utilise QR funding obtained through the exercise?

This is not a question that a learned society is well suited to answer but we are quite sure that our Fellows would resist adding bureaucratic requirements rather than taking them away.  There is also a concern that the ‘strategy’ sections of the environment and impact statements were the least valuable parts of all the submissions: they are brief, rhetorical, and impossible for the panel to check.


  • Are there additional issues you would like to bring to the attention of the Review?

The changes to the last REF were very profound and the RHS believes that there is a strong case for little or even minimal change to allow the present system to bed down, particularly in terms of the new emphasis on impact.  Institutions are already undertaking extensive planning for a future REF and there is no doubt that radical adjustment would be disruptive and costly.  As stated above, REF affects both individual and institutional choices; as research planning should look to the medium and long term, this is all the more reason not to keep moving the goalposts.



Interviews with Women Historians for International Women’s Day

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.” 



History in the News: Susan Cohen ‘Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees’

2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the death of the independent MP, Eleanor Rathbone. Known as ‘the MP for refugees’, her campaigns on behalf of refugees in the Interwar and 2WW period have a strong resonance with the current crisis, carrying a powerful message as pertinent today as it was then. 

eleanor-rathbone-and-the-refugees GRDr Susan Cohen’s monograph Rescue the Perishing: Eleanor Rathbone and the Refugees was published in 2010. She is currently researching the role of women within refugee organisations in Britain before and during the Second World War. Susan is co-founder of the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group.

holocaust-memorial-day-2016-themeThe theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year was ‘Don’t stand by’, a salutary reminder of the duty we all have, as responsible citizens, to speak out on behalf of people who are being oppressed or persecuted. Following the family motto ’what ought to be done, can be done’, Eleanor Rathbone, Independent MP for the Combined English Universities from 1929, embraced this obligation, devoting her working life to the needs of the under-represented in society, regardless of race, religion or gender. She never had a plan in her mind, but instead took up causes that came to her attention and which called for a strong advocate, moving seamlessly from national, social and welfare concerns, equality for women, eliminating child poverty, improving housing and a host of other injustices. As a parliamentarian, only one of fourteen women returned in the 1929 election, she put her skills to good use, becoming the most powerful backbencher of her time.

She extended the scope of her activism to Britain’s colonies, and to Palestine, then ruled under a British mandate, with feminist issues at the heart of her work. But it was the refugee cause, precipitated by Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in January 1933 that set her on a path that was to literally exhaust her, hastening her untimely death in January 1946. An anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi and anti-appeaser, she was the only female politician to denounce the new Nazi regime when the House of Commons met on 13 April 1933, warning of the dangers the regime posed to world peace. Presciently, she spoke of how the Nazis were “inflicting cruelties and crushing disabilities on large numbers of law-abiding peaceful German citizens, whose only offence is that they belong to a particular race or religion or profess certain political beliefs.” These were the very people whom she came to support, and for whom she became the most outspoken critic of government policy.

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1938

Duchess of Atholl, 1938, NPG

In 1937 she and her fellow MP, Katharine Stewart-Murray, Duchess of Atholl, organised the rescue of some 4,000 children from the Basque combat zone during the Spanish Civil War and when Eleanor and her allies found out, in early 1939, that more Republicans were at risk of summary executions and reprisals, and that the British government was unwilling to help rescue them or offer protection for rescue vessels, they simply circumvented officialdom. Ships were organised to run the blockade and the National Joint Committee succeeded in getting several boatloads of refugees out, and to safety. But it was the fateful events of 1938 – the annexation of Austria in March; the orchestrated anti-Jewish pogroms across Germany and Austria, ‘Kristallnacht’, of 9/10 November; and the intervening signing of the Munich agreement in September, which gave the Nazis carte blanche to occupy the Sudetenland in West Czechoslovakia; that completely altered the landscape. The occupation of the Sudetenland, in particular, created an unprecedented refugee crisis as thousands of people, including but not exclusively Jews, sought safety in, and then escape from Prague.

Eleanor Rathbone felt a personal responsibility for Britain’s part in this human disaster, and in response set up, and led a purely voluntary Parliamentary Committee on Refugees in November 1938, quickly gathering more than 200 supporting MPs. The remit of the PCR was:

to influence the Government and public opinion in favour of a generous yet carefully safeguarded refugee policy, including large-scale schemes of permanent settlement inside or outside of Empire; also, since thousands of refugees would perish while awaiting such schemes – temporary reception homes in this country where refugees can be maintained, sorted out and eventually migrated, except in cases where their abilities can be profitably utilised here without injustice to our own workers.” 

Jewishrefugees pan

Jewish refugees cross from Czechoslovakia to Bratislava. Photo: Getty Images

The remit has an uncanny resonance with the current refugee crises; with some minor alterations, it could have been written in 2016. The Czech refugees were now at the heart of Eleanor’s campaigning activities as she urged the government to issue more visas, relax entry restrictions and make good their promise of a loan to Czechoslovakia. The outbreak of war meant the cancellation of any outstanding visas, and dashed hopes of escape, so she turned her attention to refugees at home, championing their fair and humane treatment. Now considered enemy aliens, and classified by a tribunal system, there were some 55,000 Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria amongst the approximatly 80,000 refugees living here at the time. Some 6,782 in Category B, had mobility restrictions imposed upon them, affecting their ability to work and to be financially independent. Employers were desperate to take on suitable refugee workers, but permits were taking forever to be issued. Rathbone argued that this treatment was counter-productive. It struck at the heart of her sense of justice and she did everything in her power to ameliorate the situation. But she was always patriotic, and never lost sight of the priority, which was the safety of the country and its citizens.

21st May 1940: A British soldier guarding an internment camp for 'enemy aliens', at Huyton housing estate in Liverpool. (Photo by Marshall/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

Internment camp for ‘enemy aliens’, Liverpool, May 1940. Photo by Marshall/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Deputations, questions, letters, phone calls, liaising with every refugee committee and activist, and enlisting the support of other MPs were all part of her armoury. The mass internment of around 27,600 enemy aliens in May 1940 served only to exacerbate an already challenging situation and to plunge Eleanor Rathbone and her committee into a maelstrom of activity as they sought the release of thousands of refugees. She put over 80 parliamentary questions on internment alone; the issues pursued including the importance of separating Nazi internees from non-Nazis; the shocking living conditions in many of the camps; the food shortages and lack of medical care. Once again the parallels with refugee camps and detention centres for asylum seekers cannot be ignored. The response to Rathbone’s urgent requests for a more generous immigration policy followed a pattern, including claims that it would fuel domestic anti-Semitism. In a desperate effort at countering this assertion, in late 1942 she established the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror. The remit was to disseminate information at home about the mass extermination of Jews in Europe (information that the BBC in particular was unwilling to broadcast) and to promote small scale rescue missions. Despite the lack of success, the fact that Eleanor doggedly pursued these goals in the face of government intransigence and kept the subject in the public eye, is testimony to her humanity and determination.

Poignant words, written in 1943, highlight the struggle she envisaged people would have to expiate their shame:

If peace came tomorrow, we could not forget the millions for whom it would come too late, nor wash our hands of the stain of blood.’”

Nor was she able to hide her shame at Britain’s myopia, for she was convinced that with:

…greater foresight, courage (sic) there would have been no war, and if our policy towards refugees had been less miserably cautious, selfish and unimaginative, thousands of those already dead or in danger of death, might now be free and happy, contributing from their rich store of talent and industry to the welfare of mankind.” [i]

Today’s political situation is not the same as that which prevailed during the Second World War, but Eleanor Rathbone’s assessment of the official response to the humanitarian disaster then resonates with the current crisis now. Calls for an imaginative and generous response reflect her belief that Britain’s tradition of liberty, generosity and asylum were of profound importance, even in wartime.

[i] EFR `Speech notes on the Refugee Question’, 16 December 1942. RP XIV. 3.85.

Eleanor Rathbone died 70 years ago in January 1946, and she is being commemorated at various events throughout the year. Her refugee work will be remembered at a one-day conference being held in central London on Monday 20 June 2016, World Refugee DayWelcome to Britain? Refugees Then and Now. A conference in memory of Eleanor Rathbone 1872-1946, the ‘MP for refugees’.


RHS Letter on Initial Teacher Training

Many of you will be aware that current policies on ITT are having a worrying affect on the future provision of History in schools. At the end of last year the RHS and the Historical Association wrote a joint letter to government ministers and their teams outlining our concerns. We have now received a reply from Nick Gibb, Minister of State for Schools. The response is detailed and covers the issues of ITT provision as a whole. However, it does not address the concerns the subject community have about history. We would like to have some assurances and understanding about our subject, it’s not that we think we’re special, it’s just that each subject is different. So we have sent another letter (and some very specific detail) and requested a meeting.

Here is Nick Gibb’s response, our letter of reply, and the detailed reply outlining all our concerns and points on behalf of the subject community.