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.
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.
Vicky Iglikowski-Broad (VIB):
I am Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, and I work at The National Archives as the Principal Diverse Histories Specialist. The National Archives is the official archive and publisher for the UK Government, and for England and Wales. We are the guardians of over 1,000 years of iconic national documents. In my job I get to focus on the traditionally hidden and marginalised bits of our collections – which ultimately are some of the most interesting bits! Women and gender history and the history of sexuality both fall under this remit, as well as race, disability and mental health history.
Our records have tended to represent the interests and biases of past governments, which have been largely white and male. I research the histories behind people whose voices may have been traditionally silenced, but whose archival footprints can actually be found throughout our collections. Often this includes the records of campaigners wanting to change the system, such as supporters for women’s suffrage or leaders of the British Black Panther Movement.
Although I work in an archive, I am not a qualified archivist. That requires a whole different skill set. I work with the historical narratives in the records, not on the accessions process or organisation of the collections.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
VIB: I’ve always had a particular interested in nineteenth and twentieth-century social history and political movements. In particular I have focused on key historical flash points, such as the militant suffrage movement from 1908-1914 and the build up to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. The beauty of my role is that I get to work across lots of interesting areas of our records, rather than specialising too much in one area. One day I could be working on collections relating to the Grunwick Strike, the next on the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Acts.
A particular area I focus on in our records relates to LGBTQ+ history. We have some wonderful records relating to gay men in our collections, but less on women in relationships with other women. That makes it even more rewarding to find something relating to historic lesbian relationships. My colleagues and I recently researched our records relating to Anne Lister, after the TV series Gentleman Jack attracted attention. This revealed the will of Anne and her lover, Ann Walker. In these records, we can find fascinating traces of the lovers’ relationship.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
VIB: What a question! I love anyone who defied the gender expectations of their era to boldly live their lives. I love April Ashley, an iconic woman who worked as a model and restaurant hostess in the 1960s. April was one of the first people to have sex reassignment surgery – when it was still a highly risky procedure. In 1961 she was outed against her will in the newspapers as a transgender woman. We hold April’s divorce records and these include some stunning black and white photographs from her modelling career. Her actions also helped change the law and influenced the creation of the Gender Recognition Act, 2004. While this is now considered an outdated piece of legislation, it was very progressive and influential at the time it was introduced, affecting many transgender people’s lives.
HC: How did you get to where you are now?
VIB: Hard work, but also a lot of good luck!
At university I studied Women and Gender History at Royal Holloway University, which had led me to focus on the history of women and sexuality. I loved using original archival sources during my degrees, such as the records of the Abortion Law Reform Association records at the Wellcome Collection and the Royal Holloway archives on their first women students. Working closely with these archive materials is what originally drove me to want to work in archives.
I was then fortunate to get a role in the Document Services Department at The National Archives, delivering document orders to our readers. After a year and a half, my dream job at the archives came up, working on diverse histories. I progressed through the different iterations of this role into my current position as the Principal Diverse Histories Specialist. I am fortunate that I have been able to shape the role in various ways, making it both research-based but also public engagement focused – reaching out to new audiences with the diverse histories in our collections.
The bit of my job that really excites me is coming across a great record and trying to find a way to get that across in a public engagement activity.
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!
VIB: Archives are trying to do more to promote diversity and engaging new audiences, so it is a really exciting time to be involved. The biggest challenge and opportunity at The National Archives is our collections. There are so many fascinating stories to tell, but also lots of dominant narratives that need to be unpicked or explored with more nuance. I’ve generally had great experiences and a lot of support for trying to do new and innovative things (like re-opening a 1930s gay club with The National Trust and running a performance event at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.)
It sometimes feels like archives get a little forgotten about compared to other cultural and heritage organisations, but they are great place to work, especially if you love lots of contact with original material.
HC: If you could give any advice to females in this sector or those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
VIB: Be bold and ambitious. You have something to add to the conversation.
If you are running events, then make them the kind of events you would want to attend.
If you want to make your first steps in the cultural sector, then try and volunteer or find trainee schemes. That first bit of experience will really help on future CVs.