June Purvis Emeritus Professor of Women's and Gender History
How did you end up in the position of professor?
I came to Portsmouth University in 1998 and was appointed to a Chair in Women’s and Gender History six years later. Although I have had many set-backs in my career and at times felt very low, especially by some of the sexism I have encountered, I have usually bounced back. I have worked hard, published a lot, spoken at many conferences and also been successful in being awarded some research grants. I am the founding and managing editor of the journal Women’s History Review and also the editor of a Women’s and Gender History book series. All these academic credentials are important for promotion to a professorship. This was an exciting time since women’s history was largely absent in university history departments and mainly taught, if at all, on education or sociology courses, or in adult education centres outside higher education.
Did you always know you wanted to study history?
History had always interested me and when I was a student at the Open University a Women’s Studies course was being developed there, with a lot of women’s history in it. I was fascinated by it all. I like the specificity of history, the excitement of working in the archives and finding out new material that no one has written about before.
Why is it important that we study history, particularly women’s history?
The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s was a key favour in the development of women’s history in the UK. We Second Wave feminists asked – what were our foremothers? Women had been ‘hidden’ from history which has largely about men’s lives in war, politics, diplomacy, business. When women were present, they were usually represented in sex-stereotypical roles in relation to men, such as wives, mothers or mistresses. Women’s history makes women visible in all their many roles, including being key political figures. My own research now is on the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain. I have written a well-received biography of the great suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and am currently working on a biography of her eldest daughter Christabel, a co-leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most notorious of the groupings campaigning for the parliamentary vote for women.
What is the best thing about working in higher education?
My key enjoyment is being able to teach and research a subject about which I am enthusiastic. I love the excitement of researching in the archives, finding a long lost letter or a document that no one else has referred to before. Following the lives of women activists in the struggle for the granting of the parliamentary vote to women never fails to inspire me. How did they achieve so much? And with the Pankhurst women there are many twists and turns as they journeyed through life, but they were always feminists.
The education sector is often seen as quite female dominated, but when it comes to teaching at university level we can still see there is a very low percentage of female professors in some institutions. Why do you think we are still seeing such low numbers of female professors in some places?
Women in our UK universities make up 49% of the academic staff but only 23% of the professoriate, of whom only 18 are black women. Many factors contribute to this. Despite the liberal ethos of our universities, there is a whiff of sexism which still lingers on in some campuses. Sometimes different criteria are used to assess the ‘success’ of women – ‘she has no life outside the university’, ‘she is not a team player’, ‘she is too quiet’. Women too are often the main carers for children and dependents. Universities are greedy institutions and a work/life balance is often difficult, especially in the increasingly competitive context of higher education today. Women academics need more encouragement to apply for promotion, more support and more confidence building.
Can you tell me about what the Women’s History Network does and why it is important?
The Women’s History Network, of which I am currently the Chair, was founded in 1991. It is a charity concerned with promoting women’s history and encouraging women interested in history. The Network’s business is carried out by a National Steering Committee which is elected by the membership and meets several times a year. It holds an annual conference and offers Small Grants of £1,000 to members for organising various events. The Women’s History Network is important because it supports the history of one half of the human race who, in the past, have often been forgotten. Further details about our work can be found on www.womenshistorynetwork.org. We link up to a worldwide network through the International Federation for Research in Women’s History, of which I am currently the Secretary and Treasurer.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, I do consider myself a feminist. And that can make life difficult at times since I want equality for women. Women have made much progress over the last 100 years or so but are still not equal today. Thus today women form only 29% of MPs, 39% of senior civil servants and 21% of high court judges. The pay gap between women and men stays stubbornly at 14% for full time work while two women die each week at the hands of a partner or ex-partner.
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life, that could apply to any career, that you would like to pass on?
Work hard and fight for just causes that you believe in. Try not to get too downhearted by the setbacks but remember all those women who have trodden this earth before you and what they have achieved. Find your voice, whether it be in the solitary activity of writing, speaking on a public platform or joining a supportive network.
Interview by Laura Makin
What did we learn from June?
Stay positive – even when we face challenges, continuing to work hard is the key to success
It’s all about passion – doing what you love is so important and June’s excitement about her work was definitely inspiring
History is a dynamic field – contrary to what some may believe, it is an active and evolving subject
"Despite the liberal ethos of our universities, there is a whiff of sexism which still lingers on in some campuses."
June Purvis, Professor of Women’s and Gender History at the University of Portsmouth, tells us why women’s history is so inspiring and the importance of hard work despite setbacks
A Levels: English, History, Geography
Leeds University – BA Sociology
Manchester University – MA History
Open University – PhD History
Lectureships at Manchester Metropolitan University, Open University, Oxford Brookes University