- Gender through the Ages: Growing Up and Growing Old
The University of Nottingham has a strong research profile in various areas of gender history, with academics and research students working on gendered themes from medieval to contemporary periods and across a wide geographical spectrum. In recognition of this, members of the postgraduate community established a reading group and its research network, combined with inspiration from a swell in local feminist action in Nottingham, sparked the idea for a conference as a means of drawing attention to the strength of gender research in the Department of History. From the outset, the aim was to bring together researchers working on different periods and on a wide variety of themes in order to share approaches across traditional boundaries. We wanted to encourage postgraduates to attend, particularly those whose research is at an early stage, and to provide an experience of presenting in an informal and relaxed environment. This was aided by the offer of a postgraduate workshop the day after the main conference, funded by the History Workshop Journal.
Drawing on our own research interests, and current historiographical developments, the theme we selected was gender and life-cycle. How did gender and life-cycle intersect in different periods and places and was their force consistent in different settings? We were thrilled to receive an impressive number of abstracts which allowed us to form parallel sessions with both postgraduate and early-career speakers from across the UK, as well as Ireland, Italy and Poland. Themes covered included: gendered life-cycles and work; the role of life-cycle in constructing gendered identities; familial experiences; the gendering of love and relationships; the female body; and growing up in modern Britain. The papers demonstrated the high quality of current research using elements of gender history, with subjects ranging from clerical marriage in Elizabethan England ( Anne Thompson, University of Warwick) to colonial masculinity in twentieth-century India ( Catherine Coombs, University of Leeds) and attitudes to teenage sexuality in contemporary America from Reagan to the second Bush administration ( Charlotte Jeffries, University of Oxford).
Across a range of topics the papers demonstrated the variety of sources which can be used to recreate a sense of gendered experiences at particular ages. This was a particular advantage of the conference’s broad remit. Diaries can provide a sense of women’s perceptions of their own life cycle, as shown by Emma Purcell(University of Leicester) in her discussion of Nottingham diarist Abigail Gawthern, who reflected on events both during and before her life in her ‘book’. Eve Worth(University of Oxford) used a sample of twenty Mass Observation diarists writing during the Second World War to identify a generation gap in the nature of women’s political participation. Together these papers highlighted the potential of diaries as a historical source, allowing access to [End Page 311]both the writer’s subjective identity and age-specific experiences.
Moving away from personal and reflective documents, other papers revealed the value of probate records in reconstructing intergenerational relationships. Jennifer Aston(University of Oxford) used wills to highlight the role of women in long-term business ownership, with commercial identities often taking precedence over gender identities in determining business practice and transfer. Anne Thompsonused the wills of Elizabethan clergy to reconstruct clerical marriage and the role of wives within the family unit. Visual material – always appreciated by conference audiences – was used in contrasting ways by Ya-Lei Yen(Royal Holloway) and Dan O’Neill(University of Nottingham). Yen showed an array of photographs taken of middle-class women between 1851 and 1875, arguing that the composition of these images can tell us about ideologies acting upon women at different stages of the life cycle. O’Neill’s survey of cigarette advertising targeted at the new consumer teenage market during the 1950s provided an entertaining view of the advertising industry’s conceptions of teenage courtship, with the ‘People Love Players’ campaign suggesting that chances of romance would be greatly enhanced by smoking their brand.
Papers from a broad geographical range revealed...