Podcasting Material Culture! Our MA history Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

Episode One: Fin Barringer asks, ”Who Put That There?’ Finding Letters of Robert E. Lee in Reading Archives’

For the MA Historical Skills and Resources Module, our brilliant students were asked to put together a podcast or vlog on an item they found in the archives. They could pursue their own interests and find something unexpected, underappreciated, or just downright exciting!

We’ll be sharing a few of the short podcasts produced by the students to showcase their fantastic work in this module. First up is a passionate American historian, Fin Barringer. Fin chose a letter from Confederate General Robert E. Lee written to his daughter on the eve on the American civil war, held in Special Collections at the University of Reading.

”I think the main thing for me was that it was an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone in history, and with that came a surprising number of challenges to the ways in which many historians and myself are used to thinking. Definitely an interesting experiment.” – Fin Barringer, MA History Student

You can listen to Fin’s short podcast below:

Fin Barringer, ‘Who Put That There? Letters of Robert E. Lee in the Archives’ (2022)
Robert E. Lee, photograph by Mathew B. Brady (MET, 2005.100.1213)

There’s still time to sign up for an MA in History at the University of Reading. From America, to South Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe, we offer global pathways in history right up until present day. To find out more about our MA course, click here.

For more information about our Department and the study options available, visit our website.

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So here we are again… sex and misogyny in Parliament, by Dr Jacqui Turner

So here we are again, after a weekend of press and parliamentary misogyny, the subsequent outrage will inevitably simmer down and go away until the next time…and the next time… and the next time.

Angela Rayner called out “sexism and misogyny” in politics, after the Mail on Sunday claimed that she crosses and uncrosses her legs during prime minister’s questions to distract Boris Johnson. The report was universally condemned by Johnson and MPs from across the House of Commons. The Mail on Sunday reported that an unnamed Conservative MP said Rayner’s actions constituted “a fully clothed parliamentary equivalent of Sharon Stone’s infamous scene in the 1992 film Basic Instinct”. I am not going to include a photograph of Angela Rayner’s legs here, rather her own take on the issue:

Of course, she is right, from the outset women in the House were considered an aberration, a passing phase, a temporary blip that would go away allowing business to return to normal.  That clearly didn’t happen and while we may not yet have equal representation in parliament, things have improved.  Unfortunately, the misogyny that lies just below the surface has not altogether, it is very often simply shielded.  Edwina Curry’s confident statement that women were no longer at any disadvantage over men continues to be risible. From Sturgeon and May in ‘Legs-it’ to Tracy Brabin’s off the shoulder top, the obsession with women’s appearances and how this indicates or constructs their sexuality is never ending. Let’s not even go there with Diane Abbott who regularly receives more than half the abusive Twitter trolling of all women MPs.

Beyond comment on women’s sexuality, in 2016 the outrageous representation of Theresa May as Cruella Deville by the Scottish nationalist newspaper, The National, evidences the media continuing to question that second prong of femininity – women’s ‘special feminine qualities’ as wives and mothers and the fact that women who do not openly exhibit these are also questioned and pilloried.

Thus it is and always has been. The first woman took her seat in Parliament against a maelstrom of press comment. Press comment was intrusive, invariably hostile and focused on her marital status and dress.  Nancy Astor was elected to parliament for Plymouth Sutton at a by-election in November 1919 replacing her husband who had previously been MP.  She stood as a Unionist candidate though many in the party had reservations, including the Unionist Party Chairman, Sir George Younger, who felt that ‘the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in’. She did get in and on 1 December 1919 when she stood at the bar in the House of Commons, Astor’s words as she took the oath was the first time a female voice had been heard in the Chamber. The Chamber was not full but the Manchester Guardian reported that the proceedings generated a ‘flutter of altogether pleasant excitement’ though Astor sensed an undercurrent of nervousness: ‘I was deeply conscious of representing a Cause, whereas I think they were a little nervous of having let down the House of Commons by escorting the Cause into it’. Astor’s presence in the House had been commented on in The Times the day after her election. A woman MP, was a ‘tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition’.  The language used by The Times strongly suggested that Astor was an unwanted intrusion, an illegal intrusion and she was forcibly overcoming a bastion of male dominance.  The notion of a woman had been ‘almost inconceivable’. Astor had to cope with a constant and insidious sexism that undermined her attempts to be taken seriously.  She avoided comments on her clothing, by adopting a uniform of dark coat and skirt, white blouse and tricorn hat but she was less successful in evading the patronizingly flirtatious and ribald comments of her male colleagues.

Astor’s maiden speech in 1920 was in opposition to a proposal to relax wartime restrictions on opening hours for public houses.  Sir John Rees, who was well aware of Astor’s abstentionist politics, concluded his speech by looking directly at her, and archly remarked:

I do not doubt that a rod is in pickle for me when I sit down, but I will accept the chastisement with resignation and am indeed ready to kiss the rod.

Astor wittily demurred, replying that Rees had gone ‘a bit too far. However, I will consider his proposal if I can convert him’.  No such witticism is recorded for the occasion on which an inebriated Jack Jones, Labour MP for Silvertown, interrupted Astor.  Refusing to give way, Astor told Jones he was drinking too much and should think of his stomach, to which he answered to loud guffaws, he would push his stomach up against hers any time she liked.

While the medium was different, the sexualised trolling was the same.

Possibly all of this may have been considered ‘understandable’ in the context of the interwar period BUT the insidious sexism that Astor experienced remains overlooked and often sniggered at, over a century later.  It might best be equated to the statement made by comedian Jo Brand on BBC One’s Have I Got News For You in 2017: within the context of the #MeToo movement and in the wake of a series of resignations over what Sir Michael Fallon had described as behaviour that had “fallen short” of expectations, the all-male panel discussed the issues raised.  With a smirk, regular team captain Ian Hislop described some claims of harassment as “not high-level crime … compared to say Putin or Trump”. Brand’s response was measured but spoke volumes:

If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today, I know it’s not high level, but it doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons. And actually, for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.

Questions of severity and degree are, for most of us, an ‘insidious’ undermining of sexual harassment which will never change until we have an equal power balance in society and in Parliament.  All of this said, and with absolute support for Angela Rayner, not long ago, Rayner could not or would not define what was meant by ‘woman’. Here is the reality of being a woman – Rayner can’t always have it both ways.

You can find out more about Turner and her work here Dr Jacqui Turner – History (reading.ac.uk) and her work on the centenary of women in parliament here Astor 100 – Celebrating 100 years of women in parliament (reading.ac.uk)

For more historical comment on women MPs, the press and their appearances see:

Cowman, K., (2020) ‘A Matter of Public Interest: Press Coverage of the Outfits of Women MPs 1918–1930’, in Grey D. and Turner J. (eds), ‘Nancy Astor, Public Women and Gendered Politics in Interwar Britian’, Open Library of Humanities 6(2), p.17. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.583

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The census: a treasure trove of material for social historians, by Peter Jolly

READING HISTORY

“The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census.”

The census has always provided a treasure trove of material not merely for family historians and genealogists, but also for social historians. The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census. It is unfortunate too that the present commercial pricing structure of 1921 entries seriously inhibits their use for wider analysis, as for the first…

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The census: a treasure trove of material for social historians, by Peter Jolly

“The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census.”

The census has always provided a treasure trove of material not merely for family historians and genealogists, but also for social historians. The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census. It is unfortunate too that the present commercial pricing structure of 1921 entries seriously inhibits their use for wider analysis, as for the first time this census required everyone to reveal not merely their occupation, but also their actual workplace.

Although the first national census took place in 1801, that of 1841 was the first to contain any individual details, whilst that of 1851 importantly required details of the relationship, familial or otherwise, of all persons within the household. Each subsequent census modified and often extended the range of information sought, which can mean that some direct decadal comparisons of data become problematic. For example, that of 1911, sometimes called the ‘fertility’ census, sought details of how long women had been married, and how many children, both living and since deceased, they had produced, a feature missing from the 1921 census.  Each Victorian and Edwardian census was rapidly followed by Command Papers, each with explanatory narratives, and tables galore, dividing the statistics between geographical areas, occupations, age, status, disabilities and the like, with separate analyses of workhouses and institutions, and those on-board ship. How, before computer technology, they were produced in such depth by so few civil servants is little short of amazing.  These reports are readily accessible through the UK Parliamentary Papers site as an e-resource. 

Command Papers can be found here.

But whilst these government reports enable me to discover fascinating minutiae such as the existence of just one female plumber, a widow, in 1911 Berkshire, and similarly the county contained a single female boatbuilder, who was married, occupational statistics are largely confined to county or county borough level, and we need to look at and search through all the individual census schedules better to explore details of personal and economic relationships, particularly within towns and villages.

“Research such as this provides not merely a fascinating insight into community life and allows inter-community comparisons to be drawn, but enables wider social, gender and class agendas to be addressed.”

My research over the past few years concerned domestic servants, most of whom lived in their workplace.  It was an empirical and largely census-based study, which involved transcribing and placing onto spreadsheets the individual householder schedules for several different communities. The search facility of commercial genealogy websites has enabled me to trace patterns of employment continuity within families, and the broad brushstrokes of migration patterns. The census has facilitated analysis of the different size of houses in which servants were employed, as well as of the numbers in each household, the types of persons, whether by gender, occupation, or social class, that kept residential servants. I have also examined not merely geographic origins of Berkshire servants, but the sort of families in which they grew up and the different types of position they occupied. 

Research such as this provides not merely a fascinating insight into community life and allows inter-community comparisons to be drawn, but enables wider social, gender and class agendas to be addressed. Sadly, however I am still searching for both female plumber and boatbuilder, and I have also failed to locate the only 14-year-old girl who worked in paper-bag manufacturing!

Peter Jolly is a PhD Student of History, specialising in using the early twentieth-century censuses to study patterns of female domestic service in rural Berkshire.

Find the National Archives Guide to using the census here.

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Women’s History Month: Mary Turner Wolstenholme, by Dr Jacqui Turner

During Women’s History Month we often focus on great women and women pioneers. But for Women’s History Month 2022, here at the Department of History, we are privileged to be able to concentrate on one of our own, Mary Turner Wolstenholme. Mary represents so many women who might have considered themselves ordinary but whose achievements tell us so much about women’s lives and opportunities.  With the kind permission her daughters Gilly Pinner and Julie Wolstenholme and through their generous donation of their mother’s documents and photographs from her time at Reading we present:  Mary Turner Wolstenholme.

Mary Turner completed a BA Hons in Geography and graduated on 1st July 1948. She graduated in the same year that the eminent historian Doris Stenton received her doctorate in History. 1948 was also an auspicious year that saw the founding of the NHS. After graduating from Reading in 1948 with a BA Hons in Geography, Mary (known as Molly) went on to complete her teacher’s diploma at Manchester Victoria University. She subsequently became a teacher at a local high school in the Rossendale Valley, Lancashire, known as Whitewell Bottom. She married Robert Wolstenholme in 1952 and her daughter Gilly was born in 1956 and Julie in 1959. Mary retuned to teaching when her own daughters started school, as a primary school teacher, first at Stubbins County Primary then Edenfield CofE Primary. She continued teaching at Edenfield, later becoming Deputy Head, until taking early retirement in the 1980s. Through the kind gift of Mary’s personal papers we can see her journey to becoming an educator herself though her time at Reading.

Female undergraduates and academic staff at Reading, 1947

Rag Week 12th March 1947

Rag week is almost a lost tradition, it was a designated week when the university and the town came together; students organised fayres and a procession of floats to raise money for local charities.

Students attempt to kidnap Phoebe Cusden, first female mayor of Reading and eminent peace campaigner. Read more about Phoebe Cusden at the Berkshire Records Office where her papers are held The Berkshire Record Office.

Kimber, Bill Ashton, The Mayor, Brian Robinson, Roger Williams

Final Examinations

BA Geography examinations consisted of eight 3-hour papers.  How would you have done?

Other papers included: Human and Historical Geography, Geography (PRACTICAL), Physical Geography, Regional Geography (EUROPE), Regional Geography (BRITISH ISLES AND FRANCE), Economic Geography, Cartography.

Graduands for presentation

When Mary graduated there were a surprising number of women gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Faculty of Letters.  For the Bachelor of Science degrees however the number of women dwindles hugely!

Doris Mary Stenton (Lady Stenton), was awarded her doctoral degree D. Litt. from the Faculty of Letters at the same presentation.

Reference in application for Education Methods (modern PGCE)

What Mary made of her reference from Professor Austen Miller in 1949 we do not know but it is eye-wateringly misogynistic by C21st standards! While Mary was of a ‘frank, cheerful and warm-hearted disposition’, she might not make ‘a great scholar’. In fact

‘The qualities that recommend her are the more personal ones of appearance and presence…’

In 1878, the University of London was the first to award degrees to women.  Both Oxbridge universities were among the last to grant women degrees on the same terms as men: Oxford in 1920 but not until 1948 at Cambridge, the same year that Mary Turner graduated from Reading. The granting of degrees by Cambridge caused a huge amount of unrest with male undergraduates burning effigies of women students and throwing fireworks at the windows of women’s colleges. Even then, the university was allowed to limit the numbers of female students relative to men and continued to exercise that power to the full. The University of Reading awarded degrees to women on the same terms as men from its inception in 1926.

Mary Turner, BA Geography, 1st July 1948

By Dr Jacqui Turner, with great thanks to Mary’s daughters for sharing these wonderful images with us.

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