A male voice in a female chorus.

Hall headshot

Richard Hall

Richard is a post-graduate student at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge, you can find our more about his work here. He is working on A Social and Emotional History of Fathers and Sons in Post-war Britain. He is on Twitter: @rrichhistorian

As it was in 2015, one of the best things about MBS in 2017 was the opportunity to share ideas in a stimulating and supportive space. There seems to be a particular energy around MBS, which inspires productive and challenging conversations with like-minded souls. Certainly, a sense of solidarity was powerfully represented in the round-table on feminism and history. It was – fittingly – impassioned, consciousness-raising, and sisterly.

It was an impressive line-up too: Sally Alexander, Hester Barron, Caitriona Beaumont, Claire Langhamer, Lucy Robinson and Penny Summerfield. They spoke passionately, about theory, about practice, about being surprised (and admitting it), about children, about self-reflection, about disempowerment, about working with not on sources, about working collaboratively, about being nice, and about being angry. They spoke about being feminists, and being historians. And being feminist historians.

This last point inspired several thought-provoking questions. Is a feminist, historian, who does not work explicitly on gender, a feminist historian? Is all history that acknowledges patriarchy feminist history? How do the personal and the political inform the intellectual? Responses to these and other questions led to a discussion that rested very much on the present, rather than the past: on gender prejudice and what it is to be a woman in a history department.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only man in the room to feel a little discomfited by what followed. Certainly, no-one felt inclined to add a male voice to the female chorus of discontent. I imagine most of us fancy ourselves as fairly liberal: acutely aware that battles for equality are far from over; gender-blind in all our workplace and studyplace interactions. We might also imagine that, save for a few crusty old misogynists, most history departments are relatively progressive environments. We might put the gender pay-gap down to structural issues happening outside departments; we might think everyday sexism is mercifully uncommon in them.

If any of us did harbour such misconceptions, they were quickly laid to rest. What we heard from women across the room was a catalogue of prejudice and exploitation: having your work quoted un-cited; doing more administration than men; seeing more students than men (for pastoral and academic purposes); dealing with all male reading lists; dealing with initial-surname formats that lead to false impressions of all-male reading lists; being asked to sit on panels or attend meetings simply because you’re a woman; being ignored in those panels and meetings; checking men’s work for unconscious bias because they’re too lazy to check themselves; not being taken seriously in a whole host of ways… the list went on.

Of course I am not naïve enough to say that I wasn’t previously aware of these issues; but I am saying that the vociferousness and unity of the discussion shocked me a bit. What also shocked me a bit was the complete absence of men’s voices. It got me thinking about recent work by Lucy Delap, which investigates feelings of guilt and shame among anti-sexist men in the wake of Women’s Liberation Movement politics in the 1970s and 1980s.[1] Since that moment, the study of men, as well as women, as gendered actors has become more established.[2] More recently still there has been some public debate around male feminists.[3] But given our silence about feminism both past and present at the MBS round table, perhaps we still have something to learn from the emotional journeys these anti-sexist men went on 30 or 40 years ago.

Of course, similar points might be made in relation to anyone both supportive of, and outside of, a marginalised group, for whom the political will never be quite so personal (I wonder how many white voices were heard at the Black Lives Matter workshop at MBS, for example, which unfortunately ran parallel to this session). These are difficult conversations to join: the debates presently raging within feminism around issues of white colonisation illustrate some of the complex and fiercely felt views that relationships of power give rise to.

Nonetheless, I feel like these are conversations men could and should be having: just because we believe it intellectually, it doesn’t always follow that we’re conscious and diligent in the workplace.[4] For example, when men choose to use female, rather than male, pronouns where the gender is undetermined, it can shake listeners and readers out of lazy normative practices; or when men take on the leg-work to make a panel more female (an example a female colleague recently shared with me), it can change behaviours as well as attitudes. At the very least we can be alert to the day-to-day prejudices that were reeled off all too readily in the discussion at the MBS round-table. Perhaps the best way to join the chorus, is to sing.

[1] Lucy Delap ‘Uneasy Solidarity: The British men’s movement and feminism’ in Kristina Schulz (ed) Women’s Liberation Movement: impacts and outcomes (Berghahn, 2017).

[2] Among many, see Joan  Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’ in The American Historical Review, 91 (1986); Michael Roper and John Tosh ‘Introduction: Historians and the politics of masculinity’ in M. Roper and J. Tosh (eds) Manful Assertions: Masculinities in Britain Since 1800 (Routledge, 1991); Judith Bennett ‘Patriarchal Equilibrium’ in Judith M. Bennett (ed) History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester University Press, 2006).

[3] See for example http://girltalkhq.com/feminist-conversations-the-growing-trend-of-men-speaking-publicly-about-feminism/

[4] On women working with men to improve gender equality in the workplace, see https://30percentclub.org/assets/uploads/UK/Third_Party_Reports/Collaborating_with_Men_-_FINAL_Report.pdf


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