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John Simkin

An interview with Angela V. John

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Angela V. John is Professor of History at the University of Wales. She has published extensively on women’s employment in nineteenth and earl twentieth century Britain and was one of the founders of the international journal, Gender & History. Books by Angela V. John include: By the Sweat of Their Brow (1984), Unequal Opportunities: Women's Employment in England, 1800-1918 (1986), Coal Mining Women: Victorian Lives and Campaigns (1987), Lady Charlotte; A Biography of the Nineteenth Century (1989), Our Mothers' Land : Chapters In Welsh Women's History, 1830-1939 (1991), Elizabeth Robins: Staging a Life, 1862-1952 (1995) and War, Journalism and the Shaping of the Twentieth Century: the Life and Times of Henry W. Nevinson (2006)

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become a historian?

(2) How do you decide about what to write about? Is this a political decision?

(3) Have you any opinions on how gender issues should be taught in the history classroom?

(4) Your two biographies have been about people (Elizabeth Robins and Henry W. Nevinson) who were involved in the struggle for universal suffrage? Is that a coincidence?

(5) Unfortunately, very few history teachers are aware of the existence of Elizabeth Robins and Henry Nevinson. Yet both are extremely important in understanding the struggle for democracy. Have you any views on why they have been largely ignored by historians?

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(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become a historian?

It's easy in retrospect to come up with pious statements about the reasons forbecoming a historian! As usual, the truth is more prosaic! I always managed to do well in History and so a Masters degree seemed the next step after my first degree. But it is only fair to add that I was also stimulated by being a student of Dorothy Thompson's (at Birmingham). I was lucky enough to come under the influence of the all-important Thompsons in the 1960s, just when 'The Making of the English Working Class' was making its mark. Being Welsh I also became interested in the Welsh equivalent and did the MA in Swansea. After teaching in a Sixth Form College for a couple of years I was itching to get back to research so went to Manchester to do a Ph.D. From there it was a short step to moving into higher education. Eventually I became a university history professor but always made sure that I taught all levels of students - from the first year undergrads. through to doctoral students.

(2) How do you decide about what to write about? Is this a political decision?

It varies. Sometimes a publisher will ask me to do something. More often it emanates from own interest. I started as a labour historian ( for many years I chaired Llafir, the Welsh Labour History Society and am currently a vice-chairperson - it is now known as the Welsh People's History Society). Soon, however, I also became involved in feminism and women's history. Publishing on this was in its infancy in the early 1970s.My Ph.D was on women's employment in the coalmining industry. My first book 'By the Sweat of Their Brow. Women Workers at Victorian Coalmines' came out of that doctorate and helped shape the direction for a few more of my publications - an award-winning book for schools on women miners and editing two books of essays on English and Welsh women's history.

My interest in women's history widened into working on gender more generally and I edited a book of essays on men's support for women's suffrage. I also developed my own fascination with biography and harnessed this to my interest in literature. My three biographies to date have been about people who were also literary figures as well as keeping diaries: Lady Charlotte Guest (translator of The Mabinogion, businesswoman, educator, collector etc) Elizabeth Robins (actress, writer, suffragette) and most recently Henry Nevinson ( war correspondent, essayist and campaigner for justice).

There needs to be a demand for the subject but in the case of biography, I prefer also to write about somebody who has not already had a biography but who was important in his/her own day. I love working on people who kept diaries and this is a common factor in all my biographies to date, including my new research on the writer, suffragette and pacifist Evelyn Sharp, Henry Nevinson's second wife. The decision is political in that I prefer to write about people who I admire and who I think have something to teach us.

(3) Have you any opinions on how gender issues should be taught in the history classroom?

I'm wary of suggesting how teachers (the experts in the classroom) should teach. But I would hope that they and others would recognise (to put it rather pompously!) that gender encompasses a critical examination of the construction of masculinity and the problems that might produce as well as looking carefully at what concepts of femininity suggest historically.

I also believe that students of all ages react best if something can be made directly relevant to them and that family history in its widest sense is often a good way to enable people to start seeing issues like gender bias for themselves.

(4) Your two biographies have been about people (Elizabeth Robins and Henry W. Nevinson) who were involved in the struggle for universal suffrage? Is that a coincidence?

My first biography was not about somebody involved in suffrage though the next two were. Evelyn Sharp, the subject of my new bio., was twice imprisoned for suffrgette activity and I have also written chapters in books about individuals like Cecil Chapman and Margaret Wynne Nevinson who were also active in women's suffrage. They weren't necessarily all arguing for universal suffrage or, at least, their priority was that women should first get the vote on the same basis as men before moving on to universal suffrage!

It's not a coincidence that I write about people interested in voting rights since a historian who publishes naturally writes about the subject that s/he knows most about and that interests her/him. Moreover, Henry Nevinson knew Elizabeth Robins and Chapman and was married to both Margaret Wynne Nevinson and later Evelyn Sharp. So the worlds overlap. Women's Suffrage was, however, only a part, albeit an important part, of Henry Nevinson's struggle for human rights and is best seen in that wider context.

(5) Unfortunately, very few history teachers are aware of the existence of Elizabeth Robins and Henry Nevinson. Yet both are extremely important in understanding the struggle for democracy. Have you any views on why they have been largely ignored by historians?

Much depends on who is publishing and writing history text books as well as what is deemed to be significant at any time. Robins is becoming reasonably well known amongst drama and literary students and hopefully this in time will filter through to teachers in schools. Nevinson was well known in his lifetime but it's an uphill struggle to get him back into the limelight. Publishers will publish yet another bio of Virginia Woolf or Disraeli but hesitate if the person isn't currently a household name. Yet this can create a vicious circle! Nevinson was also a journalist and although he published over 30 books, journalists are not always as well remembered as those who achieved one big thing.

Britain is often worryingly insular and the fact that much of Nevinson's life was spent in remote parts of the world probably adds to this. But what better way to learn History and enthuse people than through personalising hisotrical accounts. If there is a common thread in my biographies, it is that I seek to tell the story of a period through a person and thus, hopefully, humanise and illuminate our understanding of both the time and the individual.

Hope this is of some interest. How do teachers think school students could best learn about people like Henry Nevinson (within the constraints of the curriculua in England and Wales) ?

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Thanks for your contribution Angela, I really enjoyed reading your responses. I teach at an all boys school in Fulham and have tried to integrate women's history into the curriculum in the same way that I have tried to integrate black and asian British history. However, if I am honest I still tend to focus on the Suffrage movement and a little bit on second wave feminism. I must also confess to not having heard about Nevinson, which is a bit strange as my Masters thesis partly looked at the contributions that men like Hugh Franklin and Victor Duval (both of the MPU) made to 'the cause'. I have also been chastised (gently) for giving over an International Women's Day Assembly to the men I mentioned! You ask how best students can learn about individuals like Nevinson? Mainly (sadly too often) it is still down to the individual teacher's motivation as to whether they make the effort to work outside the box of the national curriculum and as a consequence the history curriculum is very static (and stagnant!). I believe that there are moves to 'free up' the curriculum under the 2008 review which a call for more diversity in what is delivered. However if teachers don't know about people like Nevinson then there has to be a way of promoting him / his ideas. That is where the Internet is such a powerful tool - I have set up a website to promote the teaching of black and Asian British history, maybe someone has/should set one up for feminist/egalitarian history.

I have a few more questions for you:

1) How do you think academic historians can best reach out to school's history departments?

2) Do you have any good recommendations for accessible books that history teachers could look at to develop their understanding of history from a feminist/gendered perspective?

Thanks

Dan

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How do teachers think school students could best learn about people like Henry Nevinson (within the constraints of the curriculua in England and Wales) ?

I used to look at Henry Nevinson when studying the Boer War, universal suffrage and the First World War. In fact, I used radical journalists a great deal in my teaching. In my view, crusading journalists have played an important role in the development of democracy (today they help to protect it). The problem is that very few history textbooks provide much material on these people. That is why I created my website on journalists:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/journalists.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAjournalists.htm

We can never expect textbooks to produce materials that really question the dominant ideology. We can either produce it ourselves or use resources from the web.

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I used to look at Henry Nevinson when studying the Boer War, universal suffrage and the First World War. In fact, I used radical journalists a great deal in my teaching. In my view, crusading journalists have played an important role in the development of democracy (today they help to protect it). The problem is that very few history textbooks provide much material on these people. That is why I created my website on journalists:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/journalists.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAjournalists.htm

The website is a really useful and interesting resource - many thanks.

1) How do you think academic historians can best reach out to school's history departments?

2) Do you have any good recommendations for accessible books that history teachers could look at to develop their understanding of history from a feminist/gendered perspective?

I think that academic historians need to go into schools wherever possible, be school governors (I learned a lot that way) and get teachers involved in universities, ideally in joint projects. MAs have also proved to be a good way of getting practising teachers involved whilst many former undergrads. become teachers who can help liase. But I'm no longer actively involved in university teaching - my position at Aber is an honorary one as I am now writing full-time.

As for the other question, to my mind a book that gets people really interested in the subject is an autobiography: Hannah Mitchell's 'The Hard Way Up' published by Virago. It's a powerful read.

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