Her-Story November: Louise Bell

Each month, Herstory Club will be a featuring an interview with a woman currently working in History. We are aiming to share the experiences women face in the industry (the good and the bad!) and to shine a light on the incredible work currently being undertaken by women across a wide range of specialist disciplines.

Louise Bell

Herstory Club (HC): Hi Lou! Thank you so much for taking the time to share you story with everyone. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself and your work.

Louise Bell (LB): My name is Louise Bell, and I am an AHRC CDP funded PhD researcher at the University of Leeds and The National Archives, looking at British state provision of prosthetic limbs in the two world wars. I’ve been working on the First World War aspect of this for a few years now (since my MSc) but the Second World War side of things is entirely new to me. I’m only two months in, when writing this, so there’s not much else to say about that, at the moment. 

Beyond this, I hold quite a few voluntary positions. I am a committee member of Herstory; I am co-editor of the Social History Society’s Community Exchange blog; and I am an oral history researcher with the NHS at 70 project. At the time of writing this, I also volunteer with Glasgow Women’s Library – where I am usually a tour guide, but have been undertaking more digital work during the pandemic –  and Great Place Falkirk – which has been a research-based role, primarily, too, thanks to Covid, and is all about the local area and local history.

HC: What period of history are you interested in?

LB: In general, my research interests lie within the fields of history of medicine and disability history. But I’m also increasingly interested in public history and oral history. Which I know doesn’t quite answer the question. But I think you can guess from above what period interests me most: First World War. I’m not overly into the tactics and battles side of this history, although I do love a battlefield visit; and my interests absolutely lie more with the social, cultural and medical side of this conflict.

HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history. 

LB: I’m not going to choose a single female, because that’s just too difficult. Instead I’m going to go with a group of women: I have such a soft spot for, and interest in, the Women’s Royal Naval Service, in the First World War. I’ve done a little research on them previously, and if I have time for a historical side project, I’m 100% going back to them. The National Archives has the service records for over 5000 women who served in the WRNS between 1917-1919, and there are just some really interesting stories to be found within them. 
I wrote a blog about these women a few years ago, and you can read it here: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/domestic-duties-only-wrns-first-world-war/

HC: How did you get to where you are now? 

LB: Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I think about what I do now. I was terribly shy as a child, and mostly into my teenage years, too – which made undergrad a bit difficult. And then I had to go a year abroad as part of my degree (I did History and German – what a combination….) and I came back a whole new person. I was infinitely more confident, and more independent, and I’d also decided against a career in teaching. I actually came back wanting to work in museums and do learning through a different environment than the classroom – there is no real reason for that, I enjoyed working in my school in Germany, and definitely didn’t have any experience of working in the museum sector. But when I came back, I started volunteering in local museums, and managed to get two part-time jobs in local attractions – both which involved speaking to the public lots and telling them stories and facts. And without all of that, I wouldn’t be the person who I am today. Even 10 years ago, if you told me that I’d quite enjoy giving papers at conferences and even just chatting to people in the breaks, I’d have laughed in your face.

Beyond that, I’m very lucky to have very supportive parents. And I am so, so, so grateful for them and everything they have done for me. They’ve supported me in the decision to go back and do my MSc (a very last minute decision at that); moving to London; being made redundant and having to come back and live with them; and now, my Mum was ready to batter me when she thought that I wasn’t going to accept my place doing this PhD (that was never in doubt, but she knows how much I work myself up about big decisions). Their love and support, and desire for me to be happy, is absolutely one of the best things. 

Also, in hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t get into primary education when I applied, and didn’t like my first-year English tutor, so moved to History for second year. There’s been quite a few times where I’ve tried to escape from history (I honestly don’t know why) and it always pulls me right back. It’s obviously what I’m meant to do, and I honestly love it so much. 

HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?

LB: After undergrad, I panicked and didn’t know what to do with my life, so I returned to university to do a MSc in Health History (because I’d got really into medical history thanks to a tutor in my final year) I knew from the word go that I wanted to look at limbless men in the First World War. I’d been doing reading for an exam or essay and came across a line in one of your more “medical history through the ages” books that said: lots of men lost limbs in this conflict (paraphrasing massively there, but you get the idea) and I needed to know more. So, I decided that I had to research it. Initially, no-one was very keen on the idea and I was encouraged to look at something else – your girl here very nearly had a different historical career, which would have been based on mesmerism as a form of anaesthesia in the 19th century (still a very interesting topic, I think) But I had funded this degree myself, and I wanted to research what I wanted to research, so I made them find a suitable supervisor for me. And that’s what happened, and I wrote a dissertation looking at the hospitals set up at Erskine and Roehampton. 

By the time I graduated, I was 25 and decided that I couldn’t work part-time as a tour guide anymore (I LOVED that job, too – might have been one of the happiest jobs I’ve worked) so I started applying for jobs. Everyone was convinced I was never going to use my actual specialism for anything, and I didn’t blame them – First World War and disabled men, what use was that going to be? And then I got an interview at The National Archives for the role of First World War Diverse Histories Researcher. And then I got the job. Here, we see another time in my life I agonised over a decision. The initial contract was only for 5 months (I ended up getting another 2 years on top of that), which seemed foolish to give up my life in Scotland for. But, eventually, I decided to do it, and honestly one of the best decisions. I genuinely don’t think I would be where I am now without that job. I got to focus on disability history; got involved in so many great public engagement activities; gave talks and conference papers; made friends for life; and so many contacts. And got a book published out of it, too. 

Most importantly, I met Jessica Meyer through my role there, and it was with her support and encouragement that I realised I could apply for a PhD and that I could undertake my research with funding and with institutional backing – because no-one had ever given me that confidence when I was doing my MSc; no-one had ever mentioned that it could even be a possibility for me. It’s taken us a couple of years (with me working part-time jobs and continuing to speak at conferences throughout) but I finally got funding this year, and I am very excited to be able to continue looking at prostheses and disabled ex-servicemen. And, in case it wasn’t clear, Jessica is my main supervisor. 

HC: Can you tell us a bit about your experiences within the wider historical field and your line of work – both positive and negative experiences are welcome!

LB: I think I’ve been mostly fortunate in that I’ve had a very positive experience working in this field. The military history team at The National Archives were always very supportive of me, and even though I wasn’t actually in their team, very much treated me like I was, and always supported and helped me with research queries, etc. I have made so many great friends through my research interests, and it is wonderful to have such a strong and kind group of peers.

However, we all know that military history (in some areas) is still dominated by white men. There are more and more women doing incredible research, but you can’t escape a certain type of people at a conference. Now, again, for the most part, I’ve found conferences very accepting and worthwhile spaces to be in. But sometimes things just aren’t great. I’ll give a few examples below:

  • A man turning to me and my female friend after the Q&A at a conference and asking us why on earth we were in that room and how it didn’t seem like the sort of history we would be interested in.
  • Me smiling politely at a man, and him deciding that was the opportune moment to compliment me on my smile and assume that I “must use that a lot to get what I want”
  • Going to a conference dinner, and the females present all fitting on one side of a table. 

Despite that, I do love a conference and, again, most people attending are very interesting and just genuinely good people. And there are so many great men in this field, too. I don’t want to paint them all in a bad light, because some of my favourite people I’ve met through events and conferences and just throughout the centenary are blokes; and a lot of opportunities I’ve had are because a man suggested me as the person for the job. Equally, there are so many incredible women, doing fascinating research, and it’s promising seeing more and more of us on conference panels and speaking at events and being keynotes. 

Also, if you have an accent, a lot of people aren’t going to like that. A lot of people will be fine; but you’re going to get a lot of comments about needing subtitles, etc. 

I also think this covers how I think women are treated, or sheds a bit of light on some aspects of that. I have taken a few bits out, because I realised I was going off on one about the negative side of things, and mostly I have had very positive experiences. It’s just unfortunate that the negative ones tend to stick with you longer. 

HC: If you could give any advice to females in this sector or those wanting to get into history, what would it be? 

LB: Firstly, just do it! If you have something that you’re interested in and passionate about, and it makes you happy, then please try to pursue it. It doesn’t have to be through study or through employment; it doesn’t have to be academic in nature. It can literally be you spending some of your free hours learning about something that you want to. 

Also remember that there are so many different avenues into history: academia, family history, local history groups, museums, archives, libraries, costumed interpretation, blogs, social media, etc. It’s all entirely valid! 

Finally, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and apply for that job. Work on that project. Whatever it might be. We need to have more confidence in ourselves. I would not be where I am now, if I hadn’t eventually stood my ground, or eventually accepted that job. 

And don’t give up. If academia and a PhD is your dream, then keep at it. I didn’t get funding the first-time round. Or even the second. But I knew I wanted to do it. And I knew that I would keep going. Find yourself a bunch of supportive people and keep hold of them. It’s so important to have friends and allies in this field, and you’ll be happier for it, having people who understand what you’re going through. Herstory is a prime example of that. 

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