Her-Story December: Lucy Noakes

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.


Lucy Noakes

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

Lucy Noakes (LN): I’m Professor of Modern History at the University of Essex, where I currently hold the Rab Butler Chair in Modern History.  Before coming to Essex in 2017 I worked for nearly ten years in the interdisciplinary Humanities Department at the University of Brighton.  Working with colleagues from history, philosophy and cultural studies to teach and research important topics like the Holocaust, the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the First World War was a brilliant experience, and reinforced my belief that historians are magpies who work best when we bring historical research into conversation with approaches from other disciplines.  My first degree, and then my PhD (at the University of Sussex) were in history and cultural studies, so I guess that I have always tried to work in an interdisciplinary way.  Outside of my paid academic role I am a Trustee for the mass Observation Archive and one of the Series Editors for the Social History Society Book Series ‘ New Directions’ with Bloomsbury. If anyone is working on a book-length project that takes social or cultural history in a new theoretical/methodological or topical ‘new direction’, get in touch.

HC: What period of history are you interested in?

LN: I focus on the 20th century, particularly the early-mid century up until the 1950s. But I’m also interested in memory and how we imagine the past today, so that means that I spend quite a lot of time ‘in the present’ – most recently I have been reading around the rise of populism in modern Europe as a way of thinking through the current national obsession with the Second World War.

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

LN: That’s a tricky one and I’m going to cheat! I want to nominate all of the women who wrote for, and currently write for, Mass Observation.  The women who wrote for MO in the mid century tell us so much about the experience of being a woman then – the best-known author of course is Nella Last, and her beautiful, reflective writing on her life as a ‘housewife’ in Barrow-in-Furness tells us lots about the social history of the time, but also about dominant emotional cultures, and ideas about class and gender. Women writing for the Mass Observation Project today continue in this vein – in my own work their writing has provided really valuable insights into the ways that we still gender our ideas about war, and privilege male ‘ways of thinking’ over female.

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

LN: Luck and persistence. I was lucky enough to graduate at a point when New Labour were expanding Higher Education, and there were lots of new lecturing positions being created.  However, as today, many of these were temporary and were intensively teaching focused.  Luckily I’m stubborn and stuck with it. I think that publishing my PhD as my first book (War and the British) was incredibly helpful in terms of getting a permanent position, and I have Jon Lawrence (now at Exeter), the series editor, to thank for this as he offered me a contract just as I was finishing the thesis.

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

LN: The very first course I took as an undergraduate was with Alistair Thomson, now a Professor of History at Monash, then a PhD student.  His ideas about history and memory really inspired me – and I have been working on this ever since. My last monograph Dying for the Nation: Death, Grief and Bereavement in Second World War Britain (MUP 2020) focused on the dead of that conflict, who are so invisible compared to the dead of the First World War. I started to work with ideas coming out of emotional history, and this led to a British Academy project and edited collection with Claire Langhamer and Claudia Siebrecht – Total War: An Emotional History (OUP: 2020).  The First World War centenary also provided lots of opportunities for research – I was Co-Investigator on the AHRC  Gateways to the First World War Engagement Centre (2013-2019) and am Principal Investigator on the AHRC Reflections on the Centenary Project (2017-2021). Both of these offer lots of opportunities for collaborative public histories, and for thinking about the cultural memory of the war today. Finally I’m working on a project on gender, citizenship and civil defence with Sue Grayzel at the University of Utah.

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!

LN: Looking at the Royal Historical Society Reports on Gender Equality, and hearing stories from friends and colleagues in person and on social media, I have evidently been very lucky.  The vast majority of people that I have encountered in my career, male and female, have been incredibly supportive, and have often gone out of their way to help and mentor colleagues.  I’m well aware that this isn’t the same for everyone, and that while things might sometimes be hard for white able-bodied women like me, they are far, far more difficult for black colleagues, and colleagues living with medical conditions and disabilities.

As I largely work on the history of war I guess that I work in a field that is commonly thought of as male. Although I don’t think that I have encountered conscious discrimination here as a woman, I do think it’s interesting that the majority of women in the field work on social and cultural history, while military and political history is still dominated by men. And this is where the big money and the big audiences are! 

HC: Following on from that, what are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector?

LN: I think that we only have to glance through the two RHS Reports on Gender to see that the historical professions are far from a level playing field. In 2018 only 26.2% were female, a figure that is more or less the average for all academic disciplines in the UK. Just under 50% of history staff in UK universities are female, so something, somewhere is going really wrong. Of course, again, the figures for Black and Minority Ethnic scholars are far worse: in 2018 96.1% of historians employed in British universities were white, and unsurprisingly, Black and Minority Ethnic students only make up 11% of our undergraduates. In both cases, a lack of role models makes it harder for those who might want to study history, or even train as historians, to see a place for themselves. I’m proud that the University of Essex, where I currently work, takes these issues seriously, and is actively addressing them.  But we can definitely do better and all of us who are lucky enough to work in history need to remember that structural bias limits opportunities for many.  For example, there is a huge disparity in the ways that different universities manage maternity leave and research leave – Laura Kounine at Sussex, with whom I ran a workshop on gender inequalities in history, has been doing some great work on this.  It’s brilliant that we (finally, after 100 years!) have an excellent female Director of the Institute of Historical Research in Jo Fox, and also have female Chairs of the RHS (Margot Finn, and from next year Emma Griffin), the Social History Society (Naomi Tadmor) and the Economic History Society (Catherine Schenk) but these changes at the top of the profession have to lead to lasting structural change.

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

LN: Follow your interests. Don’t pick a topic because it’s fashionable or because you think there might be jobs in that area at some point in the future – the more interested in a subject you are the better your work will be. And stick at it!  There aren’t many jobs in academia right now but there are lots of other ways to be a historian – I’m constantly blown away by the imaginative ways that people ‘do’ history today.

Get yourself a good mentor in your field. This doesn’t have to be a formal relationship, but I think it’s really important to have someone that you can bounce ideas off, moan to, and when necessary, ask for references from. Most university departments now run mentoring schemes but building up contacts and friendships in your field as much as you can is great – and makes events like conferences so much more fun! 

And finally, if you are a female historian in a UK History Department, say no to that admin role that means you are the member of staff responsible for student welfare! These roles are enormously important, but they are also exhausting, time-consuming and are hardly ever done by men. Just ask yourself why…

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