Seminar Review: Subjectivity and gender in oral history

Posted on 12/04/2013 by


Penny Summerfield (pictured below), professor of modern history at Manchester University, led the latest Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research joint seminar, focusing on oral history, subjectivity and gender.

Prof Summerfield, author of the book Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives, began her seminar by talking about the work of oral history scholars such as Alessandro Portelli and Luisa Passerini, who highlighted the importance of silences, omissions and misremembering to our understanding of historical events.

penny summerfield picShe described interviews she had carried out with two women who had been members of the Women’s Home Defence League, neither of whom could remember the name of the organisation. She said this was not an issue of “two elderly women forgetting a name”.

“”I think it’s to do with the public forgetting women’s struggles. The Women’s Home Defence League is not publicly remembered, neither is women’s membership of the Home Guard even though 32,000 women are officially recorded as members,” she said.

She said the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army was the main vehicle for popular memory of the home guard and that when the women tried to talk to friends and family about their role they were greeted by “laughter and disbelief”. Women who did relatively masculine war work encountered the same problem, she added.

“The history of women and home defence is fraught with gender politics. Men in the War Office saw home defence as a male prerogative,” said Prof Summerfield.

She added: “Women are located in a disadvantaged cultural position. Women find it difficult to be heard and to find a place in public discourse.”

She then went on to describe interviews she carried out with two women, Jean and Joyce, who had been brought up in remote parts of the High Fells in Cumbria in the 1930s and 1940s. The interviews were part of a project to highlight traditional farming practices that have died out.

Neither women could talk about farming practices as Jean was required to do hard domestic labour and help with her younger siblings. In Joyce’s case gender segregation was enforced and she was kept away from many farming events. She was not allowed to see the ewes lambing, for example, as her parents thought “reproductive scenes were inappropriate for a young girl”, said Prof Summerfield.

She describes their narratives as “muted”, in that their stories of how they managed to escape their remote farms, the struggles and joys they experienced over their lives, were not seen as worthy of recording or remembering.

“This does not mean that I think men never produce muted narratives,” said Prof Summerfield. “But my experience of interviewing men is that they resist producing a narrative focused on the inner self, offering factual description and enjoying telling good yarns,” she said.

The next OHS/IHR seminar takes place on May 16th at the Institute of Historical Research in London. It will be led by Dr Toby Butler from the University of East London, who will be talking about place-based oral history. Dr Butler has recorded the Memoryscapes audio walking tours of the Thames.

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