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Professor Emily West: enslaved women – University of Reading

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  • Breaking the chains of history

    Learning from the past to change the future

Professor Emily West: enslaved women

​When Emily West took an undergraduate module on 'race' in the US, little did she know this would spark an interest that would inform her life's research. Today, she is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of American slavery.

"I've always been interested in subaltern history, people who have been neglected in traditional historical analyses. Enslaved women are one such neglected group and, as a result, they didn't leave many sources. It's those hidden histories that fascinate me - slaveholders forbade slaves from reading and writing, so the majority of sources are from slave owners and therefore don't paint the whole picture. Slavery presents tough methodological challenges for research but can also be highly rewarding when I find evidence from enslaved women themselves."

“The duality of being a slave and a woman interests me; how did these women negotiate issues such as marriage and children - which have affected all women across time and space - in such unforgiving circumstances?”

Watch this video to find out more about Emily's research into slavery and female runaways:

championing changeMothering Slaves conference poster

Emily actively attempts to engage the wider public with her research, through events such as 2016's 'Mothering Slaves: Motherhood, Childlessness, and the Care of Children from Slavery to Emancipation' conference:

"With so much ethnic and gender discrimination in the modern world, I feel it's important to learn from the past to help understand and tackle current issues of social justice and racism.

By informing people and by discussing these issues with students and how they manifested themselves through slavery, we can pave the way for change.

Thinking about and discussing these issues creates tolerant, more aware people - it's not always a 'measurable' impact, but it's incredibly important.


A 2015 Royal Historical Society Report showed that only 20% of History professors in the UK are female. As gender issues are prevalent in my research, I was inspired to apply for a promotion, which I'm proud to say I was offered. Our Department at Reading has more female members of staff and an equal number of men and women are professors - it's unusual, and it's important. We're pioneering in that respect."

research intertwined with teaching

Emily teaches a variety of modules at Reading and engages students with her research:

"All of my teaching is research-led. It spans from the American Revolution right through to the social protests of the 1960s in America.

"In higher education, teaching is a two-way process - we continuously learn from discussions with our students. History, at this level, is much more about examining past events as interpretation and exploring different viewpoints."

I have worked with two students on the UndergraduateDr Emily West with a research student Research Opportunities Programme (UROP). One student researched enslaved women's wet nursing of babies other than their own, and the other researched enslaved mothers more broadly in the US South. I worked closely with both students over the six-week placement, discussing and analysing our research together. Both co-published articles on the research with me, and both won UROP prizes for that research strand. One then went on to present her research at 'Posters in Parliament'.

I really enjoy working with students on my research, whether through seminars or the UROP scheme. Students at all levels - undergraduate, master's and postdoctoral - offer new insights into material, helping me to delve deeper into my research and contributing to the creation of knowledge."

[Banner image: Sculpture dedicated to victims of slavery, Zanzibar]

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