New season of Gender and History in the Americas at the Institute of Historical Research

The Gender & History in the Americas seminar at the Institute of Historical Research will begin its 2016/2017 programme on Monday 3rd October. Full details for this academic year will be available at very soon.

In the meantime, please join the convenors and regular attendees on Monday 3rd October for our first session: a roundtable discussion on Hillary Clinton, gender and the US election. Professor Iwan Morgan (UCL), expert on the US Presidency, and Dr Sylvia Shaw (University of Westminster), socio-linguist with expertise on gender and language in political institutions, will share their perspectives on an election campaign which continues to be uniquely ‘gendered’. 

The event takes place at 5.30pm at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London in room 204, Senate House North Block. All are welcome to attend and to join us for drinks and dinner afterwards.

Please share this on relevant mailing lists, or with colleagues and students who may be interested in attending.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Will You Settle For Some Nostalgia?

Last Sunday I went to see the new exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebels and Records, 1966-1970’ which has recently opened at the V&A. For students of the 1960s, like me, this has been much anticipated, although with equal measures of hope and anxiety. As Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, the V&A’s treatment of the end of a ‘radical decade’ is not particularly revisionist. The curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes give us a rollicking ride through the more notorious happenings of the 1960s. In the words of Martin Roth, the Director of the V&A, the aim is to frame the counterculture in a way that “shows the incredible importance of that revolutionary period to our lives today”. But by maintaining the focus on the music and the ‘rebels’ of the decade, there is little real room for critical thought about the ways that music and rebellion were often uncomfortable bedfellows. After all, this was also the period when the modern music industry was born, and anti-establishment figures like Bob Dylan profited greatly from a new music capitalism and the cultural appropriation of African American musical genres. This is not to say that the exhibition is badly organized, or badly curated: it is not. Quite the opposite: it is a completely immersive experience of music and 60s nostalgia, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. But if you say you want a revolution, well, it doesn’t really give you that.

The first thing to say is that the exhibition is sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser. The product placement is everywhere. If one of the legacies of the 1960s is the monetization of what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’, then the V&A have captured the sentiment perfectly. Several corridors before you get to the entrance of the exhibition space proper, a V&A assistant gives you a pair of Sennheiser headphones, and once they go on, you enter into a totally individual experience, with few points of communal reprieve. My wife Fiona was with me, and as soon as she put on her headphones she blew me a kiss goodbye from the tips of her fingers. Well, it wasn’t quite as final as that, but if we wanted to exchange any commentary as we walked around, we had to yell at each other. As we walked towards the entrance, stories of community and shared experience streamed through these personal headphones, a strange contradiction between the notional shared trip of the decade and the isolation produced by Sennheiser.

On Sunday afternoon, the V&A was already busy. The exhibition space itself was packed. As you enter, the first section is an assault of nostalgia: perhaps unsurprisingly, Beatlemania reigns supreme, and there is an impressive selection of handwritten Beatles lyrics and notes. Of course, all of this coincides nicely with the London opening of Ron Howard’s new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: a veritable cocoon of sixties nostalgia. An array of LP covers juxtaposed with paperback novels attempts to set the ideological tone of ‘revolution’. All the usual suspects are there: Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse. Not many women: the exception is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which shares a display case with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, symbolizing an ideological mishmash that we often forget was part of the youth experience. John Peel’s musical soundtrack is fabulous, but everybody was on their own individual trip (as Ken Kesey might have said), bopping to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel or clips from Radio Caroline or Radio Tiger, ‘the radio that listens to you.’ I felt controlled by the curation: the music transitions as you move from one part of the space to the next. It is relentless. It is inescapable. To paraphrase Kesey again, you are on the bus and you can only get off by throwing off the Sennheiser.

Around the corner in the next section, a large poster of a Blow Up magazine cover, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, reminds us how the 60s generation continues to occupy a significant place in today’s cultural imagination. While Redgrave kept her radical and left-wing credentials, many others did not. Most of the hippies grew up and got jobs in the new corporations of the 1980s. Jerry Rubin of the Yippies became a banker. Tom Hayden of SDS went into mainstream politics. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee asked whether the baby boomers brought revolution, or neo-liberalism: the display of the first Barclaycard credit card is perhaps a nod to the answer. Not far away from the V&A, the gentrification of King’s Road is a testament to the failure of revolution.

There is no denying that the exhibition is slick. It is beautiful. It holds over 350 items, including album covers, books, posters, letters, clothes, furniture. It is incredibly impressive in its breadth, and it is visually impressive. There were some things that I hadn’t seen before. In the Psychedelic section, a poster for the AntiUniversity of London reminds us of a time before mass-availability of education raised the technocratic university to an art form.


Against the strains of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I could hear well heeled ladies in their sixties discussing which of the wide array of albums they owned. Ravi Shankar, Syd Barret, Black Widow’s 1970 Prog Rock album Sacrifice. Album covers are placed alongside iconic novels of the era: Hunter S. Thomson, Erich Von Daniken, the Children of Albion’s Poetry of the Underground, Theodore Roszak’s Making of a Counterculture. The maleness of it all is overwhelming. The women, in keeping with almost all narratives of the 1960s, have their own space towards the ‘end’ of the decade, alongside the gay rights section, and near the black power section. This is a classic sixties: the ‘identity politics’ that emerged towards the turn of the decade. It was an international movement: Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Angela Davis and her raised fist: the movements that transcended and sought to undermine borders. This is further underscored by materials relating to the student movements in France and Germany, accompanied by the wonderful soundtrack of Claude Nougaro’s Paris Mai.

Two of my favourite objects are in this part of the exhibition. The first is Huey P Newton’s throne, immortalized by Sam Durant’s famous photo. I have seen reproductions of the photo hundreds of times, but the empty chair was striking.

Credit: American National Biography Online

The second item that really caught my eye was the papier-mâché figures of Lyndon B. Johnson and a Vietnamese mother and baby, which was produced and used by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. No photo: there is a strict no camera policy.

The rest of the exhibition asks us to think about the ‘defining moment’ of the 1960s. Is Robert Poole right when he says that the space programme was the ‘defining moment of the twentieth century’? Did Al Aronowitz get it right when he wrote in the New York Post that Woodstock was ‘probably the single greatest moment of the sixties’? Festivals, the space race, the Oz trial, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup: idealism gives way to consumerism. The ‘recreation’ of the Woodstock festival space is the only part of the whole exhibition that is designed to be experienced communally: time to ditch the Sennheisers, sit on bean bags and experience images and sounds of Woodstock via huge cinema-style screens. Country Joe’s anti-war anthem was accompanied by karaoke lyrics, but I think it was just me and a couple of old guys who were singing along. By the time we arrived at this point, all the bean bags were already occupied. Some people were having a better version of the sixties than others.

The experience ends as it begins, with a nod to the Beatles. Or at least, with the remnants of a split Beatles. John Lennon’s Imagine plays unironically at the end, juxtaposed by newsreel catastrophe: Donald Trump, Wikileaks, the Paris attacks, Police brutality and #blacklivesmatter in the US. Did these things start in the sixties? Are they the legacy of the ‘excesses’ of the decade? Or did the revolution simply not happen? Even as the screens remind us of the important legislative changes (civil rights laws, the Equal Pay Act, decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality, among others) we are painfully aware that we are nowhere near the alternative that Lennon imagined. And as we emerge into the shop at the end, we could hear the woman ahead of Fiona say to the assistant, as she handed her Sennheisers back, that the whole experience was exhausting. It was. Relentless, immersive. But really worth a visit. #RecordsandRebels

Autobiography, women and movements for African American rights: a list

This is a bit of an experiment. I’m currently writing about autobiography, protest and gender in the Civil Rights, and Civil Rights-related, movements of the 1950s-1970s. I am particularly interested in female-authored texts, and so far my main targets have been Elaine Brown, Anne Moody, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, JoAnn Robinson and Winson Hudson. My plan is that over the next couple of years I want to work through a project to  examine the ways that women activists saw, and continue to see, the act of writing about their lives as an act of continued protest. There are many texts that I already know, but many others that I do not. I’m open to considering any variation on ‘life narrative’, at least at the outset, so I’m eager to hear of poetry collections, edited collections, and even fictionalised first person accounts by activists. The best thing to do at the start of these kinds of projects is to make a list, and so I’m going to start the list here. I hope others will add to the list in the comments section.

Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (1992)

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)

Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974)

Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (1988)

Afeni Shakur (with Jasmine Guy), Afeni Shakur: Evolution  of a Revolutionary (2004)

Winson Hudson, Mississippi Harmony: Memoir of a Freedom Fighter (2002) [with Constance Curry]

Constance Curry (ed.), Hands on the Freedom Plow (2010) [not strictly an autobiography, but a series of autobiographical sketches]

Judith Rollins, All is Never Said: the Narrative of Odette Harper Hines (1995) [an oral history, recounted to Rollins]


10 books by women to read before you start a History degree

Since Fiona de Londras posted her 10 books by women to read before starting Law School, I’ve been thinking about how to narrow down some reading suggestions for students who are due to start university degrees in History over the next month or so. In truth, many of the books on Fiona’s list could easily be recommendations for history students, and the reality is that the overlap is large between the disciplines of history and law. At least five of Fiona’s suggestions fall into the genre of historical fiction. Although not a new genre, historical fiction has become really popular in recent years: Toni Morrison, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters and many others have demonstrated how historical research and fiction can so successfully bring stories of the past to new audiences. The arbitrary lines between ‘expert’ historian and master of fiction have never quite been clear, but are becoming even more murky as history becomes more accessible and agreement on what ‘history’ is becomes less fixed. Hayden White’s position on historical writing as interpretation of the ‘real’ rather than production of a ‘truth’ is much more mainstream in history writing (especially outside the academy) than it was when he first invoked literary characters in his critique of historical dogma in his 1966 article, The Burden of History. Historical narrative can be fiction, and fiction can be historical narrative.

I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of the kings and queens literature of Gregory and Mantel, and much more interested in the grittier stories brought alive by authors like Waters. As it turns out, my list includes none of these three, and instead suggests some slightly less mainstream fictional, semi-fictional, autobiographical, and scholarly texts that I think will provide students of history with a sense of what is possible in thinking, writing and imagining things about the past. It is not intended to be a definitive list: if you have other suggestions, please use the comments box to add to the list.

1. Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)

Caroline Elkins’ controversial account of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for nonfiction. It also earned her  widespread criticism for the way she used ‘unconventional sources’ like oral testimony, and the way she questioned colonial official accounts of the ‘savagery’ of the Kikuyu. The Guardian recently ran an excellent review of the book, including  the fallout. For budding historians, this is an excellent example of a book that created debate and forced re-evaluation of assumptions we make about empire, the value of official sources, and the erasure of certain kinds of voices in the stories we tell each other about the past. Elkins does not write dispassionately: her style conveys her anger about imperial atrocities that were covered up for years. For undergraduate students, who are often overly-preoccupied with what they call ‘bias’, this is a great example of how historians can take a political position while producing an important and thought-provoking discussion about the past.

2. Annette Gordon-Reed: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997)

When this Pulitzer prize-winning book came out in 1997, it shattered the efforts of generations of historians who attempted to ‘protect’ the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the USA and noted slaveholder. Gordon-Reed, a lawyer by training, set out to build a case that the liaison between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings could have existed, and to question the reluctance of historians to give credence to the story over the previous two centuries. It is a critique of historiography, a criticism of the ways that histories preserve myths, and the architecture of historical research that privileges the voices of ‘great men’ over those deemed less important. Through a series of biographical portraits, Gordon-Reed helps us to see Jefferson and his environment through contemporary eyes, and to examine the assumptions we make about the character of ‘untouchable’ figures in history. Gordon-Reed’s prose is sharp, insightful and engaging: this is a book that sucks you in, and then makes you spit out all of your preconceived notions of what we accept to be possible, or plausible in the lives of historical giants.

(Gordon-Reed spoke at one of the Gender and History in the Americas seminars that I co-run at the IHR: you can dowload the podcast of her talk here)

3. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

One of Canada’s most important authors, Margaret Atwood writes extensively about the condition of women and how we can assess the strengths and weaknesses in our society through the experiences of marginalized women. In this novel set in the mid 19th century, Grace Marks is imprisoned for life for the double-murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The key theme of the book is imprisonment: Grace is metaphorically imprisoned by her condition as a woman, her view of the world is restricted even before she is sent to prison, and of course she is physically imprisoned for much of the book. Set in an era when prison reform was becoming an important political issue, Grace’s story is told in her own voice, and through the voice of a fictional doctor who is researching conditions in prisons and asylums. This is based on a true story, but with a heavy dose of fiction, and the constantly changing voices challenge us to question what we actually know: the book is an excellent example of how the historical imagination can go beyond the ‘true’ and represent the ‘real’.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

I read this book as an undergraduate as part of a survey course on the 19th century US. I must confess that I didn’t like it much as a book; it’s not terribly well written, and I found the main character Tom really quite unsympathetic. But this is an extremely important book that draws together lots of the narratives of antebellum US history. Stowe was the daughter of famed preacher Lyman Beecher, and sister of Catharine Beecher who was the ‘inventor’ of what became domestic science. An abolitionist, women’s right advocate, and social reformer, Beecher Stowe became internationally famous as her book became a bestseller. It personalised the condition of slavery, and although radical abolitionists thought it was too conservative, it was a useful propaganda tool to galvanise support for the anti-slavery movement. Stowe was keen to prove the historical veracity of the book, and even published a ‘key’ to the book, mostly to respond to criticism that her description of the horrors of slavery was fictional and had no basis in real experience. Whatever the flaws of the book, it was the most influential book on slavery in the years before the Civil War, and it also demonstrates the ways that American women reformers were able to establish themselves as political actors in a system that continued to deny them political autonomy through suffrage.

5. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince: Life of a Slave (1831)

Before there was Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs, there was Mary Prince. Born into slavery in Bermuda, Prince spent years working on the salt flats in Grand Turk, before eventually having to leave her family in Antigua and come to London with her owner. Even though slavery was not legal in England in the 1820s, her owner refused to release her from slavery. Without independent means, it was extraordinarily difficult for her to leave her enslaved position. Her story follows the style of what we call ‘slave narratives’, a certain kind of autobiography which gives the account of a slave’s family origins, early life, life as a slave, and then eventual escape from slavery. Slave narratives (including Prince’s) were usually published by anti-slavery societies, who would use them as a way to increase support for the abolition of slavery. This book is important for several reasons: first, it is the first account of the life of a female slave, related by herself. In an era when women’s voices were easily silenced, and when Victorian ideals around womanhood and respectability largely excluded non-white, and especially enslaved, women, the fact that this book was a bestseller in England in the 1830s indicates a shift in the way women’s voices were being represented in the public square. Secondly, it is easy for us to think about slavery as a phenomenon specific to the United States; set mostly in the Carribean, Prince’s tale explores the experiences of slaves outside of the archetypal ‘plantation’ system. Finally, her story highlights the informal ways that slavery continued to exist even after abolition: Prince could leave and be ‘free’ in London, but was for a long time constrained by lack of means. And she could not return to Antigua without being re-enslaved; freedom in England simply did not translate well back to the Caribbean. This is a salient lesson: it is easy to assume that a legal position on rights (abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights) solves inequality; Prince’s story reminds us that custom often outweighs law.

6. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Hurston was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, and is often eclipsed by her more celebrated male contemporaries, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay (many of whom criticised the book). This is a mistake. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman in Florida who struggles with her identity as woman and free, as the slave system is dismantled, but ‘freedom’ remains elusive. Janie just doesn’t fit anywhere: she is perceived as too white, or too black, and her sexual conduct challenged the ‘racial uplift’ movement which advocated that African Americans would ‘prove’ their social and political worth through positive engagement with the economy and embracing respectability. The book is great: it is challenging, and thought provoking, and forces you to think about the ways that identity is shaped by external conditions.

7. Martha Freeman (ed.) Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952–1964 An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship (1995)

I first came across Rachel Carson when I started studying the protest movements of the 1960s, and read a book about the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson was a scientist whose research into the environmental damage of pesticides like DDT eventually contributed to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. Carson had died by then, of breast cancer probably caused by her constant exposure to chemicals. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published just over a year before she died, changed the conversation about environmental responsibility. I’m not recommending that book as one of my 10, but instead this collection of letters between Carson and Dorothy Freeman, the woman who may have been her lover, and was definitely her love. Over years, Carson and Freeman exchanged thousands of letters, some of which Freeman shared with her husband so that he would understand her relationship with Carson. For historians, letters are wonderful. The intimate details revealed in these letters (published by Dorothy Freeman’s granddaughter in 1995) give unique insight into a story of the past that so often eludes us. Freeman and Carson destroyed hundreds of letters before Carson’s death, but even this partial collection is a wonderful example of how letters can help craft beautiful narratives of the past. Goodness knows how long this will last; how are we to deal with a historical future where intimacy will be deleted with the transience of e-mail, facebook and snapchat?

8. Emma Donoghue, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002)

I bought this book primarily because I enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier books Hood (1995) and Stir-fry (1994), both coming-of-age and coming-out novels set in the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s that I grew up in. I expected The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits to give me more of the same. It did not. A historian by training and fiction writer by profession, Donoghue gives us a collection of short stories which revolve around historical ‘oddities’ in Scotland, Ireland, England and even Italy, from the 1400s to the end of the nineteenth century. Using recorded historical episodes (like the story of Mary Toft, who became notorious in 1720s England for giving birth to 18 rabbits) Donoghue mixes realism, fantasy and history to create a tapestry of the past that is alive and malleable. Not to spoil the story, but Mary Toft’s story was a hoax. Originally Donoghue was going to call the collection Histories of Nothing: the book reminds us that for most of history, the most interesting things that happened were the nothings.

9. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Many years ago, one of my students undertook a final year dissertation on Civil War photography, with a focus on the work of Matthew Brady. One of the things he found fascinating was the ways that Brady would re-arrange the battlefield in order to make the photo more aesthetically pleasing, or to imply victory or loss had occurred in a particular way. My student was intrigued that photography was not ‘real’, and that the presentation of an image of the past was no more ‘true’ than a text created about the past.  Sontag’s book on photography grapples with these kinds of questions, exploring the connections between truth, reality, image, and history. Look, it’s not a history book: it’s full of theory, and examples of photography, film and image, and it is a challenging read. The book is a collection of essays, each dealing with variations on the theme. But it is a wonderful book, and challenges the ways that we think about representations of the past. And Sontag’s writing is exciting.

10. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

I first read this as an undergraduate, and it was probably the first book I ever read about women’s frustrations with social constraints. Friedan was not the first to write about such things: Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe was published in 1949 and is arguably a better discussion about attitudes towards femininity and the political marginalization of women in the post-war era. But Friedan’s book appeared at a time of social and political change; the reaction to the book was not universally positive, but it provided a language to a new generation of college-educated women who were increasingly unhappy at their suburban lives that were sanitized and disconnected from the kind of fulfilment they craved. I could have picked Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch here, or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (both published 1970) but Friedan’s classic manifesto is a must-read. It claims to be the cri de couer of a whole section of womanhood in the 1960s, but in reality it fails to represent the voices of poor women, women of colour, or non-heterosexual women. But it is accessible in ways that Greer and Millett’s manifestos are not, and it continues to be a useful springboard for today’s young women to think about the genesis of the kind of feminism that many now find quite suspicious.