How to sustain a women’s studies group

After last month’s posts, you might think that organising an informal women’s studies group is a piece of cake. But there are always teething troubles. In the third of our series reflecting on the history of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837, and celebrating our book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), Lois Chaber gives an honest account of how WSG evolved …

Confessions of an OAP Survivor: Out of the thick murky mist emerges an illumined scene of figures around a table—no, not Hrothgar’s mead-hall rising bright from the dark moors, but the blurry memory of my first WSG meeting—female scholars drinking tea, not warriors downing beer, sometime in 1988, the year after the group was founded. But if my first memory is not clear, what is clear is what the Women’s Studies Group: 1558-1837 meant to me and did for me.

Where I was coming from, literally and figuratively, gave special meaning to my entry into WSG.  I had recently come to London after a long sojourn in the Middle East, living through the Iranian Revolution in that country and feeling the effects of the Iran-Iraq War in Qatar, struggling to teach Austen, T.S. Eliot et al., to students with mostly basic English with few intellectual colleagues, and pursuing research with dinosaur technology—no email, no internet, just eighteenth-century articles, photocopied and sent by a hired graduate student of an American friend, making their slow way across continents to my desk, and hefty books ordered from Blackwell’s in Oxford–sent at great postal cost.  Driven to England by my husband’s pursuit of a one-year business degree at LSE, we had hoped to leave London after a year to settle in New Zealand, but for a combination of reasons, London became our default home.  I was an American Anglophile with a skimpy CV, trying to write an article, in isolation, on Pamela’s cheeky treatment of John Locke in Richardson’s unloved sequel.

But serendipity rescued me from wallowing in self-pity.  My American friend, Carole Fabricant, a distinguished Swift scholar, chanced to be in London at the time of our arrival on these shores, and directed me to meet her in a pub—my very first one—where my American naiveté found me trying to order a Brandy Alexander and nearly getting booted out of said pub.  Carole happened to know Yvonne Noble, told me about her women’s studies group, and gave me her contact details.  When I called Yvonne, I was promptly invited to join WSG, and started coming to the meetings. The ‘herstory’ of WSG’s founding belongs to Yvonne; I was just an early member with modest ambitions who fell in love with WSG and became a dogged hanger-on.

At the meetings, I got to know Mary Waldron, another independent scholar like Yvonne and myself, all of us looking for a refuge from scholarly isolation.  I also have fuzzy images over the next few years of getting to know various women withfaculty positions, such as Carolyn Williams, Penny Richards and Clare Brant, as well as graduate students like Sarah Prescott and Emma Clery, who found WSG a resonant sounding board for their work-in-progress before moving on to successful academic careers.  Two WSG presentations particularly stand out.  Isobel Grundy, before the Canadians seduced her away from us with an offer she couldn’t refuse, regaled us with a talk on ‘Cheerfulness in Jane Austen’s Persuasion’—a counter-intuitive view of that notoriously autumnal novel, which won my heart by a close reading of the text that slowly but inexorably proved her case about the sunny form that Austen’s stoicism took. The second is an early talk by Mary Waldron countering another critical truism–a reading of Mansfield Park in which she argued that Austen intended Fanny Price to be a flawed, wrong-headed character–an interpretation which eventually became a chapter in her book, Jane Austen and the Fiction of her Time (1999).  Interesting that my first impressions of WSG were of women going against the grain!

And all this time I was too paralyzed with fear and shyness to open my mouth during the post-presentation discussions.  Even though the first article I’d ever written in my Middle Eastern isolation had wound up in PMLA (beginner’s luck!), I felt terribly inferior to all these British scholars—even the graduate students—partially because I had no academic position (though a few others were in the same boat), but mainly from the conviction of being a country bumpkin, an innocent abroad in the Mark Twain tradition—and those teddiblyeducated British accents all around me were quite intimidating.  The gradual forging of a bond with Mary, and the friendly, non-competitive atmosphere of the group, eventually held sway, and after the first year or two in WSG, I began to find my voice.

*     *    *     *

It was WSG that alerted me to BSECS and encouraged me to attend.  Nevertheless, I have dug up my first ever programme for the annual meeting, only to find a telling example of the sticky conditions women scholars often have to operate within and why it’s so helpful that WSG is a welcoming and supportive place for them to be: threaded in haphazardly amongst the innocent and amateurish single sheet of the 1988 BSECS programme (a far cry from current BSECS slick, professional programmes with their multitudinous parallel sessions!), I had scribbled in biro the following self-instructions in order to accommodate going to the conference while my husband was studying full time: ‘check girls’[my two small daughters’] schedules’; ‘Have to arrange for pickup of girls & possibly (?) getting them to Brownies’; ‘arrange with Denyse for pick-up & keys to house’—and so on.  Evidently it all worked out in the end as I have notes on the various speakers’ talks. 

It is a triumph for WSG’s growing intellectual status–and its persistence—(mainly through the ongoing efforts and enthusiasm of Carolyn Williams) that after many years we eventually achieved a slot as an official panel, within the main time framework of the conference, during the later Oxford phase of BSECS—climaxing in 2015’s TWO WSG panels!

*   *   *   *

Back to our own regular seminars:  I finally worked up the courage not only to take part in discussion but to present my own paper in 1991, encouraged by what I had perceived as the unspoken ethos of WSG: to provide a supportive, constructive audience in an egalitarian context.  I was working on a new project—the treatment of childbearing in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Part II and Sir Charles Grandison and offered a talk on this topic for one of the monthly seminars.  As this was my first speaking occasion before a WSG audience, even my awareness of its usual friendliness didn’t stop me from having the jitters.  When I arrived at the venue, lo and behold, only two other members had turned up to listen—Peg Katrizky and loyal Mary Waldron.  Nevertheless, this ‘fit audience though few’ managed to give me some incisive feedback, which laid the basis for a tighter version of these ideas for the ISECS conference that year and eventually, for a substantial article in Eighteenth-Century Fiction. And this experience underscores one of the major virtues of the WSG seminars—their openness to work-in-progress, work not necessarily complete or perfectly polished, so that authors can receive feedback that helps their work develop further.  This WSG tradition has proven especially useful to graduate students and to young scholars in the very early stages of their career, as well as to independent scholars with no university structure to support them. (The downside of this, I must say, however, is that while some remain fiercely loyal, many fledgling scholars have in the past deserted WSG when their careers took wing.)

This first experience as a speaker also pointed to the flaws in our earlier WSG structure.  The (probably) overambitious goal of having a speaker every month all too often led to similar situations of scholars arriving at the seminar only to discover a disappointingly small audience—since these scholars were sometimes not even WSG members, they often felt let down at the underwhelming reception, and thus not disposed in the future either to join the group or to offer another talk. Later on, when we re-formed, Mary Waldron and I for quite a while had the responsibility of soliciting speakers for the sessions. Eventually, our present system, of having fewer sessions but more speakers at each—to gratify our speakers and make their efforts worthwhile by luring more punters into London, emerged from discussions, and, I believe, has worked well through to the present day.

*  *   *   *

Speaking of burdens, my last concern in these ‘confessions’, by way of enlightening newer members of WSG and plucking the consciences of older ones, is this: Yvonne Noble, as a major founder of the group, initially took on the responsibility of running allaspects of this group on her own—a virtual Atlas heaving under the weight of WSG.  The WSG members from this time period (and I am ashamed to say I was one!) allowed her to carry this burden alone for far too long. With her internationalist viewpoint and idealistic goals of widening the horizons of WSG, she made contact with feminist scholars outside the UK—in not only her native US, but also in many places in Europe, and coaxed them into becoming speakers, or at least members, of WSG. The membership ballooned, Yvonne’s duties swelled to enormous proportions and, inevitably, when Yvonne was offered a teaching post for a year at New York University, the group burst–and collapsed.

Finally, the implications of this crisis became clear to us, and a group of interested members met (at my home, in fact) to re-launch WSG on a more sensible and sustainable basis. We agreed to set up an organising committee and to share out all the responsibilities that Yvonne had taken on singly, a structure that has generally worked well to enable the WSG that we know today—with Carolyn Williams as our gadfly, nudging us into the unknown territory of WSG publications as well.  It’s not a perfect structure, to be sure, as there remain issues of further democratising the group and giving the non-committee WSG members more of a say in suggesting activities and making decisions, a goal rightly insisted on by Yvonne and one highlighted by the members’ survey she created a couple of years ago now.  We still have much to achieve in reaching that goal—one of the sticking points being where and when to have a ‘real’ AGM and how to get our geographically-scattered membership to attend—but as a witness of WSG’s own survival of its ups and downs—most recently our ejection from Senate House and quest for pastures new—I have faith that solutions will be found for this and that the future for WSG is bright and promising: the world is all before us…

Who can start a women’s studies group?

After the first guest post by Isobel Grundy in our new series reflecting on the history of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837, and celebrating the publication of our book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), you might be wondering who can start a women’s studies society, reading group, activist organisation… Well, anyone who feels the need for one can. Find your people, dig where you stand. In this post WSG founder Yvonne Noble explains her decision to start the group and argues for the importance of scholarly community.

Like many Americans of my generation, I come from a small town—right over the hill, four miles from Clairton, Pennsylvania, where the beginning of The Deer Hunteris set. College was a liberation and graduate school, study that could continue the encounter with literature that I had come to love, at last put me into a congenial community.  It took many years before I understood that I should prepare myself for a profession, but finally I proceeded quite successfully with good credentials and tenure at a very good university. When, fifteen years after most of my contemporaries, I found myself with the husband, children, and house that the 1950s had imagined, except located in England, confident of my competence and armed with imperfect advice, I resigned my tenure and found myself right back in the boots of the sixteen-year-old who has had a baby too soon—that is, with no job and therefore no funds to enable me to complete my research.  And no colleagues.

My dissertation had been an edition of The Beggar’s Opera. I had had a lot of trouble because at that time the principles of editing words and editing music were almost opposite, and people in different fields tended not to talk to each other. I was therefore an enthusiastic participant at the founding of the first (the International) Society for [Interdisciplinary] Eighteenth-Century Studies at St. Andrews in 1967. In my isolation in England, the three days of the local affiliate (BSECS) was my only time of professional contact. In their original conception the SECS societies required that all sections of the meeting be interdisciplinary, and it was found that two new fields—garden history and women’s studies—could most easily provide such interdisciplinary sessions. I was very interested to follow both fields, and I began to track where they overlapped, especially in the imaginative arts. (I had taught Paradise Lost and Clarissa and had ideas about the relationship of women and gardens.)

On this basis, supported by Ludmilla Jordanova, someone also interested in gendered imagery, whom I had met through BSECS, I obtained an unfunded but psychologically very valuable fellowship to the Bunting Institute at Harvard, in a program aimed to give a boost to women scholars whose careers had been impaired. There were more than forty of us in a year. We all in turn told our stories—and it was always the same tale. (This is all a commonplace of feminism, but it is always new to each individual woman.) The lesson, of course, was that our difficulties were not largely owing to our own inadequacy, and that it was important to have associates and colleagues.

With this necessity in mind, at the next BSECS meeting I attended, I called a pilot meeting to explore there being a group for women’s studies. I remember Jessica Munns and her sister Penny Richards being there—Penny has worked in 16thcentury history, hence our extension to include that period in the group. I didn’t keep a record of the others who came just then, but Isobel Grundy and Carolyn Williams were certainly members very soon, as well as Jean Bloch (in French at Royal Holloway), who interceded to arrange our meeting rooms at the University of London’s Senate House. Not long after Isobel brought in two mature students of hers, Mary Waldren and Linda Bree.

Our first session at the Senate House was on gendered imagery in Erasmus Darwin by Janet Browne, who went on to edit Charles Darwin (and never returned to us, though it was she who suggested that we name ourselves a “group.”) We tried to have single hour-long talks each month. Many times we also held Day Schools on a particular theme—I remember Marilyn Brooks holding one on ‘Appropriations of Power’ in Cambridge, and Marie Roberts (as was then) on the Gothic (with Devendra Varma in Mourning Dress). My favourite was a two-day meeting at College Hall in Gower Street on Liminality, which ran from boy actors in Shakespeare through the coming of actresses at the Restoration, hermaphrodites by Carolyn Williams, and castrati by me and by Pat Rogers, who embodied liminality by 1) turning out not to be the female Pat many assumed and by 2) wearing blue eyeshadow in accord with the topic.

At this juncture I was suddenly offered a year’s teaching at New York University, with a faculty apartment on Washington Square—first semester, undergraduate eighteenth-century novel and graduate eighteenth-century “intellectual prose”; second semester graduate eighteenth-century novel and freshman composition. My husband in England could manage his job, the house, and our two children, but not WSG and it collapsed.  By that time we had members in nineteen countries.

Carolyn Williams and Lois Chaber will have to tell you how they picked up the pieces and reorganized WSG with a committee, seminar sessions three times a year, a workshop, and an outing, and, with the coming of the web, thanks to Louise Duckling and later Felicity Roberts, invaluable online facilities.  When the changing financial policies of the University of London precluded our continuing at Senate House, Angela Escott found us receptive quarters at the Foundling Hospital. Our existence—and continuing existence, as you see—is sustained by improvisatory efforts of members without institutional support. We could therefore offer members a venue for day schools on new topics they would like to organize, with, as is the fashion, new edited collections to arise from the presentations given. We can offer support for activities yet unimagined that members may propose. We offer support and companionship for unaffiliated people like me.

I would say a word to scholars in women’s studies of our period who are fortunate to have permanent university posts: please keep up your membership!  We need you because it is you who know the men and women who complete PhDs and then cannot find permanent work—you can direct them to us, you can tell us who they are. We understand that you are very busy, that it isn’t convenient for you to come to us on Saturdays, but it is important to us to be able to ask you for advice and information from time to time.

How to start a women’s studies group

Ever wanted to know how to start a feminist network? In the first of a new series of posts reflecting on the history of the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 and celebrating the publication of our book Exploring the Lives of Women (Pen & Sword, 2018), member Isobel Grundy recalls the first formation of the group.

I said I would provide brief reminiscences about the early days of WSG but none would have emerged if I hadn’t, after more than a decade as a Professor Emeritus, been asked to clear out my office at the University of Alberta and move into a less splendid one which lacks the coveted river-valley view. I did some weeding out, and I found a file. Memory stopped corpsing and poured out its material.

How it all comes back! The typefaces alone, which look curiously amateur today. The continuous typing paper, like reading from a concertina. People’s comments on getting to grips with their Amstrad. In those days a student worried about whether Anne Finch was a major figure enough to choose as special author on an MA course. In those days papers I gave, and articles I published, all referred – as did those of others – to the fact that our audience would be unfamiliar with our material. We were in the vanguard of a new direction for literary study, and we loved it. But as the poet Anne Stevenson writes: “We thought we were living now, / But we were living then.”

Nineteen women came to a pilot meeting at the Institute of Historical Research on 7 January 1987 (the month that Gorbachev enunciated his principle of perestroika, a month with publications by Karen Gershon, Mary Stott, and (in translation) Nawal El Saadawi). The nineteen were Vicky Assling, Ros Ballaster, Jean Bloch, Clare Brant, Janet Bowne, Morag Buchan, Estelle Cohen, Maidie Collins, Laura Corballis, Mioko Fujieda, Eithne Henson, Ludmilla Jordanova, Sarah Lambert, Jessica Munns, Yvonne Noble, Penelope Richards, Judy Simons, Carolyn Williams, and myself. We agreed to meet on the last Saturday of alternate months; advice was offered about British Rail Family Railcards. After that meeting Yvonne Noble put out a pilot newsletter, typed by hand on continuous computer paper.

By summer 1990, when I left London for Edmonton, Canada, the Women’s Studies Group 1500-1825 (as it was then called) was closely linked with other feminist networks, particularly the vigorous Northern Network. The newsletter was up to no. 25. A register of members was compiled, the whole consisting of 45 neatly stapled pages with a coloured cover. My own bio there reminds me that Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and I had to fight off a last-minute attempt by Yale University Press marketing department to take the word “feminist” out of the title of The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present (1990).

A year after WSG’s pilot meeting, in January 1988, I spoke to the group on women writing about Eve. That month we listed our total income and expenses: 1339 sheets of computer paper set us back £22.69. It was a £20 contribution from Basil Blackwell publishers that kept us afloat. The same month, too, we listed our members, and our self-descriptions are still fun to read. Asked to enumerate what support we could give the group, many of us cheerfully offered information, advice, reading of drafts, “clues to follow up”, “help in reading 16c German books”, or “ideas on what sex was for”.

Our first Day School was held at Birkbeck College on 30 April 1988, on “The Construction and Representation of the Female Self”. Members were exhorted to “Please try hard to come!” and meanwhile to decorate the flier and display it eye-catchingly. I count the list of day-school participants at 44, including many who have been important in my own life and networks: Linda Bree, Marilyn Brooks, Lois Chaber, Inga-Stina Ewbank, Phyllis Guskin, Tom and Margaret Healy, Elaine Hobby, Vivien Jones, Margaret Kirkham, Marie Roberts, Christine Salmon, Jonathan Sawday, Jane Spencer, and Mary Waldron.

The prompt reminds me how actively the Group was involved in the annual meetings, beginning in 1988, of the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (BSECS). Yvonne Noble was a stalwart communicator and organiser through all problems and setbacks. She found some of her colleagues flaky (not the word we used then); the names of Janet Todd and Olwen Hufton were omitted from the 1988 BSECS programme, though they were speaking (under the Group’s auspices) in connection with the conference, and “the bigwigs from the BSECS meeting did not care to stay on and cross the street to hear” them. At ordinary Group meetings, too, attendance by now often reached forty, but Yvonne said she was always terrified that nobody would show up at all.

She went on to correspond with the International Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ISECS) about the programme for the meeting at Bristol in 1991. No, she did not mean “feminine”, wrote Yvonne, she meant “feminist” – and to members of the group she reported this tactfully as “cultural misunderstanding”. This brings up a personal memory of how the same quarter once offered me the topic of “women’s writing about female fickleness and inconstancy”, and seemed surprised when I replied that women had written a lot more about the fickleness and inconstancy of men.

We listened to some wonderful presentations. Elspeth Graham, Hilary Hinds, Elaine Hobby, and Helen Wilcox, editors of Her Own Life, the pioneering anthology of seventeenth-century women’s life-writing, spoke about it when it was still hot off the press. Olwen Hufton’s BSECS-linked talk on women in the French Revolution, as the Group’s report tartly observed, seemed to be about a different revolution from the one mentioned elsewhere at BSECS, which had plainly “taken place in a country and century in which no woman seemed to have been alive!”. Ludmilla Jordanova supplied her talk on “The Mother” with mind-blowing illustrations.

After opening and going through that long-ignored file, I am left with just a slightly brighter, clearer version of what memory had supplied: faces, names, gestures, topics. Those were heady times, because we stood on the brink of exploring and coming to know a whole field of early(ish) women’s history and writing. Wild surmises then have become almost commonplaces now. I had already been working on the Feminist Companion for several years, so before the WSG was created I had shed my near-total ignorance of 1980. But that creation happened at a time of great intellectual excitement, with a gathering of extraordinarily able scholars, who knew we could play a part in changing the whole approach to literary study.

That time of intellectual ferment gave birth to other organizations, to other events marked by warm and eager exchange of views, to several still-flourishing journals, to an impressive array of monographs about each of which one might wonder, how did anybody understand anything before that was published? In time it gave birth to the Orlando Project, daughter of the Feminist Companion, with its textbase still regularly revised and updated by Cambridge University Press.

After moving to Canada I attended far fewer WSG meetings. But the group is part of a great communal movement which directed, for me as well as for many others, a whole career path and a system of supportive relationships. It helped to shape my way of thinking, and for that I remain deeply grateful.

WSG Bursary 2018 now open

In 2016 the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 established its bursaries for PhD students, early career researchers or independent scholars who are members of the Group to support their research “in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837”.  This year we are pleased to be able to offer two awards again, the first of £500 and the second of £250.  Awards may be made for new or continuing, single-discipline or interdisciplinary projects. Money will be paid on presentation of receipts and the winners will be expected to give a paper at a WSG seminar the following year, or, if based abroad, write a report for the WSG website.

For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form.  The deadline for applications is November 30th 2018.  Applicants will be notified of the outcome by January 2019. For further information on membership, see here.

 

Reminder: WSG Bursary deadline Nov 30th!!!

There are just 2 weeks till the deadline for applications for this year’s Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 anniversary bursaries.  Last year, the WSG offered its first ever bursary to an early career researcher, independent scholar or PhD student who was a member of the Group to  “support research in any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837”.  This year we are pleased to be able to offer it again, but this time to make two awards, the first of £500 and the second of £250.  The money will be paid on presentation of receipts and the winners will be expected to give a paper at a WSG seminar the following year, or, if based abroad, write a report for the WSG website.

The grant may be awarded for a new or continuing interdisciplinary or single-discipline project.  For further information about the bursary, and to apply, please download the application form.  The deadline for applications is November 30th 2017.  Applicants will be notified of the outcome by January 2018. For further information on membership, see here.