Natalie Thomlinson: What it all means

Natalie Thomlinson

Natalie Thomlinson

Natalie Thomlinson works on feminism, gender and race in modern Britain. After having finished her PhD at the University of Cambridge in 2013, she taught modern British history at the University of Sussex, and is about to start her first permanent post at lecturer in history at the University of Wolverhampton this September. Her not-particularly-snappily-titled book Race and ethnicity in women’s movement in England, 1968 – 1993, will be published at the beginning of 2016.


More than a week has passed since MBS2015, and, like everyone else, I’m still trying to process What It All Means. I certainly know that for me, and, it seems, for most people, it was a fantastic experience. The papers were some of the highest quality that I’ve ever witnessed (was this because everyone was required to submit papers to their panel chair before the conference?); indeed, I don’t recall going to a single duff one. There was a genuine sense of collective endeavour, and an at times rather self-conscious rethinking of the field. Complaints that there wasn’t always enough time for questions simply highlighted the amount of discussion that was generated.

Certainly, my own field of post-war, and particularly post-68, Britain, has come a very long way since I was an undergraduate ten years ago. Then, I took a paper entitled ‘British Society in the Twentieth Century’ that essentially stopped in 1970; historical literature dealing with the 70s, 80s, and 90s barely existed outside of debates on the rise of Thatcherism. Teaching the same areas today does not present the same problems. As I heard many people comment, the idea that Modern British History is a field currently in crisis was rendered slightly absurd by the sheer amount of innovative work being showcased! Despite this, however, several issues were raised for me by the conference.

First, the conference was heavily skewed towards post-war Britain. Whilst this reflects the amount of work that is being done in this field, those of us who work in this area must be careful to make sure that we understand how our work first into much longer trajectories of British history: there was a sense at times that our work did not necessarily make the bridges necessary with earlier periods to provide us with this bigger picture.

Secondly – as Jessica Meyer has already highlighted – there was relatively little explicit analysis of gender. Partly, I think, this was because it has been mainstreamed to an extent: many papers discussed gender even when they were not explicitly advertised as being ‘gender history’. If so, this should be a cause for some optimism; and yet, as a gender historian myself, I also share Jessica’s disquiet that this could also reflect a sidelining of gender as a field of central concern to the historical project. It was notable that there was no roundtable at the end focusing on gender – was it perceived that a roundtable on sexuality would ‘cover us’ too? Perhaps   – and it is certainly true that the two fields share much intellectual territory – but even if so, I find it worrying that one of the primary sites of inequality in British history has become apparently marginal to historians’ concerns. This also reflects what to me seems like the greater vitality of the history of sexuality as a field at the moment as compared to gender history, possibly because many of the originators of modern British gender history have recently retired. It is up to us as a newer generation to revitalise it: certainly, there is an immense amount of research left to be done on the postwar period.

Thirdly – and this itself is a legacy of the concerns of feminists and gender historians – the popularity of the ‘emotional turn’ was one of the dominant intellectual trends of the conference, a trend controversially questioned by James Vernon the closing session. As one who has dabbled in the history of emotions myself, I find it a very useful tool for deepening our understanding of how it is that political ideas get converted into personal action, and for understanding how communities and solidarities are formed. Yet I wonder about its power as a larger explanatory paradigm. How different would these histories look if we took the emotions out, as a friend said to me? Does looking at emotion fundamentally change our understanding of historical causation, or alter our sense of the chronologies of British history? Or is it unfair to ask emotion to do this work in the first place? Do analytical frameworks always have to speak to these larger questions, or is it enough that they enrich our insight into a particular historical moment? Answers on a postcard, please…

Finally, in the panel discussion on race, many from across the pond noted the difference between British history as a field in American and British universities in terms of the dominance of the new imperial history in the States, relative to the predominantly domestic focus of British historians (a discussion that was carried on on twitter). This led to a critique of the relative lack of interest in race and empire in the work of much of those writing British history from within Britain, a critique I’d largely agree with. Nevertheless, I also don’t find it particularly surprising that historians within Britain are more interested in domestic history than those working on Britain from outside the country. I heard it claimed several times that the history of Britain IS the history of empire, which in the broadest sense is true enough, but it is also obvious that an imperial lens is going to be of limited analytical value to those working on, say, the miners’ strikes. Perhaps we need to be more sensitive to a range of contexts.

Discussing race brings me neatly to the last point about the composition of the conference itself: whilst it was not particularly male, it was definitely very pale, and as ever, very middle class. Whilst some postgrads and ECRs raised some important points about whose voices in the room got heard , I’d wager that the biggest problems about whose voices didn’t get heard came not from within the conference itself, but rather, from those who weren’t there at all. I doubt this was the fault of the organisers, given that it reflects the constitution of British academia as a whole; but it does underline the need for us all to think about who gets to access university spaces in the first place. And with that appropriate political call-to-arms, I will sign off: all the remains is to say a huge thank-you to Chris and Daisy for organising such a wonderful event.

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