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.

Charlotte Young and Hannah Jeans awarded WSG bursaries

The WSG is extremely pleased to announce it has awarded bursaries to Dr Charlotte Young, an early career scholar who gained her PhD in History at Royal Holloway, and Hannah Jeans, a PhD candidate in History at the University of York.

Charlotte will use the bursary to research her project on women’s involvement in the Canterbury sequestrations, 1643-50. She tweets as @charlie_l_y. Hannah will use hers to take up a Kanner Fellowship in British Studies at the Willam Andrews Clark Memorial Library, Los Angeles where she will research the Pole family newsletter collection, c.1680-1710, which will inform her thesis ‘Women’s Reading Habits and Gendered Genres, c.1600-1700’. She tweets as @HannahJeans1.

The WSG bursaries are intended to support early career researchers, PhD students and independent scholars research “any aspect of women’s studies in the period 1558-1837”.  Previous winners have worked on topics from the experience of early modern female service to friendship, and pregnancy. Bursaries can be awarded for new or continuing, single or multidisciplinary projects.  They can be used to subsidise any costs incurred by the project.  To be eligible, applicants must be a member of the WSG.  The WSG bursary panel wish to thank all of this year’s applicants for their applications, and encourage those who have been unsuccessful to consider re-applying the following year.

Reminder: Booking still open for WSG seminar and book launch 8 December

A reminder that the special Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 seminar takes place 8 December, when WSG launches its 30th anniversary collection, Exploring the Lives of Women 1558-1837 (Pen & Sword Books, 2018) at the Foundling Museum, London. Reserve your place now to hear a special set of papers, ‘Women’s and Gender Studies in 2018 and Beyond’, drink a glass of wine (or soft drink), and get a copy of the book.

Speakers are:

Louise Duckling: Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837: A Journey in Images
Bernadette Andrea: ‘English Daughters’ in Eighteenth-Century Morocco: Abjection and Assimilation in the Narratives of Thomas Pellow and Elizabeth Marsh
Felicity Roberts: The Academic Precariat: Writing Women’s History Now

Seminars take place at the Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, starting promptly at 1pm (doors open 12.30pm) and finishing at 4pm. The Foundling is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including for those who are partially sighted. This seminar will be a parent and baby-friendly event.

WSG seminar and book launch December 2018

Come and help the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 celebrate the launch of their 30th anniversary book, Exploring the Lives of Women!  On 8 December at the Clore room in the Foundling Museum, London, WSG will be holding a one-off edition of one of their winter seminars, featuring a special set of 3 papers, ‘Women’s and Gender Studies in 2018 and Beyond’, followed by the book launch.  Booking for this seminar is now open on eventbrite. Reserve your place to join us for three stimulating papers, a glass of bubbly or a soft drink and an opportunity to peruse the new book.*  Hardback copies will be available for purchase on the day at the special pre-order price of £15.99 and editors and contributors will be there to sign or dedicate your copy. It would make an ideal Christmas present…

Speakers are:

  • Louise Duckling on ‘Exploring the Lives of Women, 1558-1837: A Journey in Images’
  • Bernadette Andrea on ‘‘English Daughters’ in Eighteenth-Century Morocco: Abjection and Assimilation in the Narratives of Thomas Pellow and Elizabeth Marsh’
  • Felicity Roberts on ‘The Academic Precariat: Writing Women’s History Now’

The Foundling Museum, 40 Brunswick Square, WC1N 1AZ, is a wheelchair accessible venue, and directions for getting to the Museum can be found here, including for those who are partially sighted. Seminars are free and open to the public, start promptly at 1pm and finish at 4, doors open at 12.30pm, and those attending the seminars are welcome to look round the museum before or after.  This seminar is a parent and baby-friendly event.

*Once you have booked, no printed ticket is necessary to attend this event. Just turn up and give your name. If you are experiencing trouble booking, please email the WSG organisers on wsgpostbox@gmail.com.

*If you are intending to purchase a book, please also indicate to the organisers by emailing wsgpostbox@gmail.com. Please bring cash.

To order a copy online, see our publisher Pen & Sword’s page.