Welcome to the University of Reading research cluster in gender history. Our purpose is to explore gender in its complexity. Across time and space gender has often been viewed and imagined as binary. However, the construct of heteronormativity – the belief that people fall into two distinct and complementary genders with natural roles in life – must be questioned, examined, and investigated. Our work uses a range of approaches, such as political, cultural, and social history, all thoroughly anchored within gender history but with a cross- and interdisciplinary perspective.
About our banner image: This rock art was created at least 6,000, possibly 10,000, years ago in a cave in the Sahara Desert. At a time when the Sahara was green, wet, and featured lakes, our ancestors chose to draw swimmers, bodies unsexed, and no gender division of labour visible.
Astor100: Disrupting the male narrative of parliament
Jacqui Turner works with the British Parliament on the national Vote100 project, a major series of significant exhibitions and events to engage the public with the UK Parliament and enhance the understanding of the struggle for the vote. Her national Astor100 project will begin in 2019. This is a programme of public, community and academic events to coincide with the centenary of the first woman to sit in the House of Commons: Nancy Astor.
Working with diverse partners, Jacqui’s research group will establish a home for a series of events and exhibitions to continue to address gender balance issues and disrupt the male narrative of parliament. They will aim to encourage education policy makers and schools to think beyond suffrage and more broadly about minority access and contributions to politics and power.
Medieval marriage contracts and female power
Charlotte Crouch’s research concentrates on the on the marriage contracts of a medieval aristocratic family who saw a sustained period of female inheritance, during an era of increasing French royal control. It can be difficult to research women and medieval marriage; chroniclers presented an ideal version of women as humble, maternal and pious, and vilified those who transgressed such ideals in reality. Marriage contracts from the time are like medieval ‘prenups’ and can tell us about how wealth and resources were divided in marriage between both spouses, and how far marital strategies were controlled both by rulers, and the Church. By placing these contracts in a wider context, we can reassess the role women played in larger cultural and social transformations in the medieval period.
The manliness of nationalism in Africa
Heike Schmidt's work concerns nation and nationalism with a special interest in the manliness of nationalism in Zimbabwe. Africanists have observed since the mid-1990s that the oldest and most important debates in the field of African Studies have focused almost exclusively on anti-colonial nationalism – party politics and writings and speeches delivered by party leaders. Because party positions were nearly all occupied by men, research has centred on male voices. This challenge has since led to an emerging Women’s History and Cultural History of nationalism that has so far neglected the maleness and manliness of those nationalist voices that often played pivotal roles in mobilization and party politics but also those of everyday life. As the major outcome of this research, Heike's monograph 'Nation and Nationalism in Zimbabwe: The Life and Times of King Itai David Mutasa' will be published in 2018.
Photo credit (3rd image): United Methodist Archives, Africa University, Zimbabwe
Dr Heike I. Schmidt, gender history research cluster lead: firstname.lastname@example.org
News and events
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Academic staff within the gender history cluster are drawn from a range of locations and research specialisms. Read on for an introduction to each member and their research.
Richard Blakemore works on the social history of seafarers during the early modern period, their connections with society ashore, and their role in the development of imperial and commercial networks.
Rachel is interested in gender as it relates to the history of political thought. Her work focuses on the English Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s, and its aftermath. These political events created anxieties about political order which were intertwined with, and sometimes expressed through, anxieties about gender.
Hannah Newton is a social and cultural historian of early modern England, whose research centres on what it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of a loved one, in the past. Gender is a vital theme in this work: Hannah’s first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England, explores how ideas about masculinity and femininity shaped parents’ emotional responses to the pains, illnesses, and deaths of their sons and daughters.
Rebecca Rist is interested in male and female piety in the High and Late Middle Ages. Alongside her primary research on the medieval papacy, she writes on various aspects of popular piety including crusader motivation, devotion to saints’ cults and the boundaries between heresy and orthodoxy.
Heike is a historian of nineteenth and twentieth century Southern and East Africa. She is writing a history of nation and nationalism in Zimbabwe that considers the manliness and the role of women in nationalist discourse and activism both in Zimbabwe and its diaspora from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Natalie Thomlinson is a historian of gender and feminism in modern Britain, though her work is fundamentally concerned with how both gender and feminism are mediated through categories of difference such as race and class.
Jacqui Turner is a modern British political historian and her research examines the parliamentary contribution of early female MPs, sex-candidacy and marriage during the interwar period in Britain. She has a special interest in Nancy Astor.
Emily West is an historian of slavery in the antebellum US South. All of her research has focused upon the ways in which gender shaped the everyday experiences of enslaved people, be this in terms of their labour, their family lives and intimate relationships, or physical abuse and sexual exploitation.
My research focuses on transgender identities in Britain from 1870 to the 1940s. Through an analysis of medical literature, legal documentation, press coverage and autobiographical material I aim to discover to what degree there was a cultural and medical awareness of trans identities and how these were expressed and treated. I am interested in the changing medical treatments, from hormonal therapy to the advent of sex reassignment surgery and the influence of Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering Institute on British medical practice.I explore the work of British sexologists, particularly Havelock Ellis and John Symonds Addington, with regards to gender-crossing behaviours. I compare both the medical and cultural experiences for transmen and transwomen. I engage with debates surrounding terminology and how best to categorise gender fluidity in a period that predates modern terms. I also examine the extent to which a transgender subculture existed in Britain and the outlets for and modes of expressing gender variance before medical procedures were available.
My research focuses on racialised sexual violence in the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction South. Within this, my primary aim is to analyse continuities from the antebellum period through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. My work also explores the ways in which black women seized upon the opportunities that freedom gave them to challenge and reshape prevailing narratives of gender, race, and sexuality. In particular, I analyse how women’s testimony addressed ideas of rape and consent, and how women used their voices during Reconstruction to redefine their past abusive relationships with white men. In this way, I explore the testimony that women gave as not only stories of abuse, but central facets of Reconstruction battles over social boundaries and relations.
Through analysis of mostly original marriage contracts and charters, I ask how powerful a tool marriage could be for the aristocratic family, and how regulated this tool was. The family I am researching passed their comital title through the female line for nearly a century. These women held a special status as landowners, lords of their lands, which held obligations regardless of gender, even if those obligations themselves could be seen to be highly gendered. I question how these heiresses navigated such waters, and to what extent marriage could be utilised as a tool of power for the aristocracy as a whole, for a specific aristocratic family, and for these heiresses themselves.
My research interest focuses on the religious identity of the first woman to take her seat in British Parliament: Viscountess Nancy Astor. Astor not only entered an exclusively male domain, but adopted Christian Science - an ideology that was somewhat conflicted with the interwar Established Church of England. This devotion was evident for much of her Parliamentary career; she used it to foster friendships with several of her influential male peers and it was simultaneously the source of some hostility. The most conspicuous feature of the early Christian Science movement was its founder, Mary Baker Eddy. In creating the dogma Science and Health, Eddy challenged both the masculine archetype of ‘traditional’ religion and male-centric Biblical readings. Nonetheless, the extent to which these approaches were applied and created female accessibility in the hierarchical structure of the church has been contested.
My research is on Elizabeth, 6th Baroness Craven's public position in society, in terms of the wider historical context of female autobiographical writing and changing attitudes to women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The research examines Lady Craven's memoirs, travel-writing and the material culture of her portraits and country house, in order to establish her public position in society, during a period of intense social and political change. In particular it considers the challenges posed by the publication of women's memoirs and travel-writing for consumption in the public sphere, in terms of gender, genre and ideology.
My doctoral research project seeks to examine international humanitarian responses instigated due to the effects of counter-insurgency warfare. By focusing on the successful British counter-insurgency campaign against Mau Mau, 1952 - 1960, and the failed settler campaign in Zimbabwe, 1964 – 1979, this project will attempt to identify key individuals from several international humanitarian organisations active in Kenya and Zimbabwe during both conflicts. By doing so it will examine the role played by European and African female welfare workers and the relationship they had with displaced indigenous women and their children. The aim is to uncover the instrumental role played by women in the wellbeing of those affected by armed conflict and how they contributed to an improved humanitarian discourse during the decolonisation period.
Image credit: copyright Perez, Francois, ICRC Archives (ARR). Reproduced with permission.
Foxley, R.H. (2006) Gender and intellectual history. In: Whatmore, R. and Young, B. (eds.) Palgrave advances in intellectual history. Palgrave advances. Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke, UK, pp. 189-209. ISBN 9781403939005
Newton, H. (2012) The sick child in Early Modern England, 1580-1720. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp262. ISBN 9780199650491
Rist, R.A.C. (2017) The crusades, Catholic piety and chivalry in the novels of Walter Scott , Reading Medieval Studies, 43. pp. 99-122. ISSN 0950-3129
Schmidt, Heike I. (2018 - in press) Nation and Nationalism in Zimbabwe: The Life and Times of King Itai David Mutasa, Harare.
Schmidt, H. I. (2015) Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule. In: Shetler, J. B. and Hodgson, D. (eds.) Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women's Subversive Performance of Ethnicity. Women in Africa and the Diaspora. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison WI, pp. 265-289.
Schmidt, H.I. (2008) Colonial intimacy: the Rechenberg scandal, homosexuality and sexual crime in German East Africa. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 17 (1). pp. 25-59. ISSN 1535-3605
Thomlinson, N. (2016) Race, ethnicity and the women's movement in England, 1968-1993. Palgrave Studies in the History of Social Movements. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke. ISBN 9781137442796
Thomlinson, N. and Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, F. (2018) National Women Against Pit Closures: gender, trade unionism, and community activism. Contemporary British History, 32 (1). pp. 78-100. ISSN 1743-7997
Turner, J. (2018) The Labour Church: religion and politics in Britain 1890-1914. International Library of Political Studies. I.B. Tauris, London, UK, pp304
Turner, J. et al (2018) Voice and Vote: Celebrating 100 Years of Votes for Women (London).
Turner, J. (2017) Women and the Vote: Nancy Astor
West, E., Paton, D., Machado M.H.P.T., Cowling, C. (2017) co-editor and introduction co-author, Mothering Slaves: Comparative Perspectives on Motherhood, Childlessness, and the Care of Children in Atlantic Slave Societies, Slavery and Abolition 38 (2) and the Women’s History Review (forthcoming 2018).
West, E. (2014) Enslaved women in America: from colonial times to emancipation. African American History Series. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, Maryland, USA, pp160. ISBN 9781442208711