Women & Power: Reflections by Victoria Fischer

‘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.

The programme of the conference combined a most interesting and stimulating mix of academic topics and issues of daily working life for women. How enriching to see the research outputs the centenary of women’s suffrage produced and how inspiring to listen to women working in leadership positions!

For me, as a student of Public History, Lyndsay Jenkins’ talk as part of the session ‘Deeds not Words: Sharing and Celebrating Research’ was particularly striking as she noted that the suffrage centenary was a good case study in order to examine the pros and cons of Public History. The centenary presented a great opportunity to attract new and multigenerational audiences while feeding into the general drive to locate current activism in past politics. The problem, however, was that often the focus lay on individual suffragettes and therefore the wider context was neglected. Instead, she suggested that individuals could have been used as a hook in the first instance. Also, on a more general note, there was no critical engagement with the topic in public.

Another talk – ‘Accessing Women’s History’– reframed a recent experience I had at a placement where a Wikipedia article on a woman scientist needed to be edited online. Neither I nor my placement supervisor, also a woman, could figure out how to do it. It was only when Lucy Crompton-Reid of Wikimedia UK explained the huge gender imbalance, not just concerning the articles but also in terms of the editors, that I saw there was no need to regard myself as a hopeless (female) case when it comes to technology. I’m now determined to attend a training session where women can learn how to edit a Wikipedia article.

Most of all, however, it was great to meet and talk to so many inspiring women and to reaffirm that we are not alone in our causes,  shedding light on the still mostly-hidden stories of women. I could not have hoped for better encouragement for the research of my MA dissertation.

It was amazing and inspiring to see such an awareness of unequal presentation of women’s stories and workforce in the heritage sector and the calls for action to redress the balance.

An important point repeatedly mentioned throughout the two days was that all the exhibitions and projects about women wouldn’t have been possible without the centenary and most of them were only temporary. Therefore a lot of work still needs to be done to create long lasting stories; HER story.

Victoria Fischer is an international student from Germany studying an MA in Public History at the University of York, where her research focuses on the representation of women and their influence on society. She is also currently undertaking a placement at the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, revealing the hidden histories of female geologists working in the early 19th century.

Image: The ‘Accessing Women’s History’ panel at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb

The ‘Accessing Women’s History’ panel at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb