On Sunday, the final day of CVHF 2015, award-winning historian Amanda Foreman will be speaking about the history of the world, as made by women. Writing as a woman with a particular interest in women’s history, I am understandably extremely interested to hear Amanda’s talk. More importantly, I am excited by what such a high-profile discourse signifies – the growing public interest in women’s history, as evidenced by the ever-increasing number of books, TV programmes and films dedicated to female narratives, let alone the academic work that is going on behind the scenes.
Women’s history doesn’t get much more powerful than the suffragettes, and it has been fantastic to see their story given a new lease of life in a year in which female politics have been very much in the public eye. Later this year comes the much-anticipated film Suffragette, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, but at the festival on Saturday night the acclaimed journalist and writer Anita Anand will tell the story of a far less well-known suffragette: Sophia Duleep Singh. Dispossessed Indian Princess, godchild of Queen Victoria and society darling turned revolutionary, Singh has been described as one of the ‘unknown giants of women’s suffrage.’ The suffragette story was also the inspiration for Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, a recent TV series presented by previous CVHF speaker Amanda Vickery, a powerful and inspiring advocate for women’s history. As well as this series and other television appearances, Vickery has published numerous books in which the lesser-known stories of women’s lives are told, often through the objects and material culture of their social spheres.
The life of Joan of Arc – a similarly powerful woman from a very different era – will be the subject of a talk by medieval historian and BBC broadcaster Helen Castor at CVHF on Sunday morning. The story of the French peasant girl who heard the voice of God has become somewhat lost in myth and legend, and it is fantastic to hear an old tale re-told with a new clarity. Castor demonstrated the depth and magnetism of this gripping history in her recent BBC Two programme on the same subject, Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior. Alongside festival co-founder Tom Holland, Castor also hosts BBC Radio Four’s Making History programme, and last year made a number of recordings live at CVHF will are still available as podcasts on the BBC website.
There is perhaps less drama in the smaller social and cultural details of women’s history, but the resulting stories can reveal a huge amount about the experiences of our female ancestors, whose lives have been less extensively or formally recorded that those of men. Julie Summers is a writer who often dwells on historical subjects, and this year has most notably written the accompanying book to Fashion on the Ration, the Second World War fashion exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, and seen her recent book Jambusters translated into a successful ITV series: Home Fires. The book and consequent TV adaptation tell the story of the Women’s Institute during the Second World War, and it is on this subject that she will be speaking at CVHF on Friday afternoon. For myself, I am hoping that some forties fashion makes it into her talk also!
It is important to note, of course, that female historians are interested not only in women’s history. At the festival this year we will be lucky to witness the work of some of the UK’s biggest names connected to the broad field of historical study. Speaking on Thursday is the internationally bestselling author Kate Mosse, who has shown in her incredibly popular novels the way historical fact can be interwoven with fiction to extraordinary effect. Awarded the OBE in 2013 for services to literature, I am personally very excited to hear from such a successful female writer on how she has shaped historical narratives into a world of her own creation. I am also particularly looking forward to talks from Alice Roberts and Janina Ramirez, both of whom have made regular TV appearances alongside their successful academic careers. Ramirez, most recently spotted as a panellist on BBC museum-based quiz show The Quizeum, will be speaking about the Private Lives of the Saints at the festival on Wednesday.
Alice Roberts, meanwhile, will be speaking on Tuesday about evolution, the human body, and our historical understanding of anatomy – which, based on her compelling on-screen presence, is sure to be a highly engaging and fascinating event.
It is great to see – in both private research and the public eye – how female historians are re-shaping history in the present day. Forging a career in academia or writing is no mean feat and it is wonderful to see how many women are juggling roles in broadcasting, teaching, publishing, science, museums and more to do just that. The increasing respect for female historians bodes well for an ever more diverse and dynamic history of the world, as made by women.
On Saturday, 27th June at 5pm, fashion historian, Lucie Whitmore, will be giving a ‘Pop Up History’ talk at Chalke Valley History Festival, discussing how women’s fashion changed and was influenced by the conflict, and how we can study the garments today to learn more about women’s experience of war.