An Interview With Laura Tisdall

In light of Women’s History Month, I interviewed assistant professor Laura Tisdall on her views on women’s history and what she finds most interesting. Laura specialises in the histories of childhood, adolescence and ageing, and is also particularly interested in the history of sexuality, psychology and oral history. She came to Durham in September 2017 after spending three years teaching at the University of Oxford.

What interests you most about the history of women?

I’m especially interested at the moment in what the lesbian Jewish feminist Adrienne Rich calls ‘the lesbian continuum’; how connections between women, whether these are sexual connections or not, need to be centred both in history and in the present day.

What is your favourite moment in women’s history/ what do you think was the most important development for women in Britain in the 20th Century?

I think the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state after the Second World War was hugely important for women, who benefit disproportionately from healthcare and social security provision as unpaid carers and lower-paid workers. The NHS has also been a very significant employer of women, notably ethnic minority and immigrant women.

How do you think women’s history as a discipline has grown or progressed over time?

In short, it has changed from a history that mainstream historians didn’t take seriously to something everybody has to at least pay lip service to. Keith Thomas, an historian of early modern Britain, remembered that when he gave his first lectures on women’s history at Oxford in the early 1960s ‘virtually nobody came’. Nowadays, I find that when my colleagues and I teach courses on the history of sexuality and gender they are consistently oversubscribed.

What do you think the next ‘big thing’/development in women’s history will be?

Difficult question! I think there is an increasing awareness of the need to think about feminism more globally. In my own work, as I mentioned above, I’m interested in linking the histories of adolescence, sexuality and gender by thinking about how assumptions of heterosexuality condition girls’ narratives of ‘growing up’ in post-war Britain. In other words, could girls in the 1950s and 1960s only see themselves as ‘grown up’ once they had got married to a man, and what impact did this have on young lesbians?

In terms of the history of gender more broadly, do you think it is important to consider ‘women’s history’ as a separate branch?

Yes. If we take women’s history to be the study of the female biological sex class, then I think female relationships with their own bodies and of the oppression surrounding common experiences of e.g. menstruation, pregnancy, child-bearing and menopause is an important and little-studied topic. If we think women’s history should be about all those who identify as women (and I think we can do both), it is still important to separate it from gender history more broadly so we continue to centre the actual experiences of women in history, not just changing ideas of femininity and masculinity.

Feminism is obviously still a much debated and discussed idea. In your own opinion, and with knowledge of its origins, do you think feminism still has a place today? Why/why not?

Yes. Because we still live in a patriarchy. Unfortunately, patriarchy is generally very good at convincing people that there is ‘no need’ for feminism or that earlier problems of misogyny and oppression are either not problems or have already been solved. We need feminism to remind us that patriarchy is neither confined to history, nor an inevitable fact of life.

What do you think the impact of movements such as ‘HeforShe’ will be on the study of women over history?

As I understand HeforShe, it’s about getting men and boys more involved in movements for gender equality. This is great – I think men can be feminists and that they have a part to play in feminism. However, from an historical perspective, it’s worth noting that second-wave feminist movements in the 1970s often foregrounded female-only space because of the tendency for male voices to dominate, especially because, it was argued, women are socialised and conditioned to make space for men.

Men suffer under patriarchy but are still advantaged by it relative to women – so it’s important that women lead the resistance to patriarchy. Men have done brilliant work challenging toxic masculine norms e.g. in relation to men’s mental health, male rape victims and gay/bisexual identities, and it seems to me that this should be a priority for feminist men.

Do you have a favourite woman in history?

To me, one of the good things about women’s history is that it discards the ‘great men’ theory of history and focuses on collective effort and struggle. So not really – but I particularly admire the work of second-wave feminists, especially the black feminist writers bell hooks, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis.

If you could go back to any era/place in history, what would it be and why?

Provided that I don’t have to stay there, I would love to go back to the late medieval fenland because I am currently writing a novel about time travel to the late medieval fenland and this would make it surprisingly accurate.

A big thank you to Laura for sharing her insights and expertise on women’s history and for educating us on her experiences studying in this field.