‘Women & Power: Redressing the Balance’ was a 2-day conference which took place on the 6th and 7th March 2019 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. The conference was jointly convened by the National Trust and the University of Oxford to reflect on programming around the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote. Contributions were invited through an open call and the resulting programme brought together academics and heritage professionals from a wide range of institutions, roles and subject areas to share their work, reflect on practice, and look forward to the future of researching and programming women’s histories.
Thanks to generous support from TORCH and the Women in Humanities programme, it was possible to offer a number of bursary places at the conference. Recipients have contributed to a blog compiling reflections on the conference; the full blog series can be viewed here.
I didn’t know how much I cared about women’s history until 2018. I have always considered myself a feminist but until then hadn’t appreciated that the word should mean a call to action, not a passive following of a movement. Rising to the call in 2018 meant supporting and leading exhibitions and programming in my own institution, while visiting and admiring the National Trust’s offerings from afar. So, when the chance came to learn about the Women and Power programme at the conference I jumped at it!
From the hints of purple and green worn by the delegates to the incredible souvenir guide and the welcoming sight of Oxford’s Women’s Suffrage Banner at the entrance, the suffragette presence was everywhere. Often described as a ‘white women’s movement’ the suffragette connection extended to the make-up of the audience and speakers. The noticeable lack of diversity really stood out and, for me, was the only disappointment of the conference. Prioritising the inclusion of People of Colour both as speakers and attendees at conferences is a task for the heritage sector as a whole, and not unique to this situation, but it is especially important for a conference focusing on marginalised histories.
That said, there were plenty of highlights to take away, including the fantastic case studies of site-specific work at National Trust properties, my absolute favourite being the We Are Bess exhibition at Hardwick Hall. Professor Suzannah Lipscomb, Polly Schomberg and Dr Emma Turnbull gave a masterclass in presenting with a clear structure, personal insights and interjections of humour. Their project demonstrated a truly intersectional approach, gathering a range of people who identify as female to share how they relate to Bess of Hardwick. By using contemporary language, such as slut shamming, the project felt fresh and relevant in a way I have rarely seen in a historic house. It was really inspiring with plenty to take away for my own practice.
However, the conference really saved the best till last in terms of inspiring women. The final panel, ‘Women Making History: The Leaders of Today’, chaired by Virgina Tandy, featured messages about resilience, networking, longevity and a rallying call to action from Hilary Carty urging the audience to, “Count yourself in!”. I for one, will be doing just that.
Lynsey Rutter is the Community Engagement Team Leader for Birmingham Museums Trust. She was part of the team that developed Women, Power, Protest, a contemporary art exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and led the museum’s celebration of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act throughout 2018.
Image: Hilary Carty speaks as part of ‘Women Making History: The Leaders of Today’ at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb