Her-Story: Kate Wills

Each month, Herstory Club feature 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.

Kate Wills

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.

Kate Wills (KW):

I’ve been a journalist for 15 years and I specialise in travel writing. I host a podcast about solo female travel called Ticket For One and my first book, A Trip of One’s Own, is all about female explorers through history and retracing their inspiring journeys. 

HC: What period of history are you interested in?

KW: The book features women from the 4th century to the present day so it’s a pretty broad area of focus! But my favourite period to research was the turn of the 19th century – there were so many interesting things happening for women around then, from the rise of the New Woman to women’s suffrage. This was also a really exciting time for female solo travel, as more women started to get in on The Grand Tour which their brothers and fathers had been on, and were able to throw off their chaperones and have adventures alone.

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

KW: My favourite woman in the book is probably Nellie Bly. She was born in 1864, one of 15 children in a very poor family, but went on to become one of the most famous journalists of her time. She made her name through ‘stunt reporting’ – going undercover in a mental asylum and trying to buy a baby among other things – but her most celebrated feat was travelling around the world in 72 days in 1889. She really captured the public’s imagination and there were board games based on her trip, women started dressing like her and Fitzgerald based a character in The Great Gatsby on her. In her later years she became a notable war reporter, one of the first foreigners to enter the warzone between Serbia and Austria during WWI. She really was fearless and formidable and also a really talented writer so it’s a joy to read her articles.

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

KW: I studied English Literature at university and got my first taste of travel on a study abroad year to California. After university I got a job as an editor’s assistant on a glossy magazine (it was a bit like The Devil Wears Prada) and from there I worked my way up to writer roles on various newspapers and magazines, from The News of the World to Grazia. I’ve been freelance for the past six years, writing for Vogue, The Guardian, The Times and many others. 

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

KW: I discovered a travel writer called Emily Hahn while I was on a work trip to Shanghai and was instantly intrigued. She lived in China in the 1930s and wrote over 50 books about her colourful and glamorous life. I was surprised that I’d never heard of her and nor had anyone I spoke to. I thought I might write a book about Emily Hahn, but as I looked into the subject more I realised there were so many amazing female travel writers and explorers throughout history. It struck me that male explorers are household names but many women who also had pioneering adventures have been overlooked, and so the first kernel of the idea for A Trip of One’s Own was born!

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!

KW: I was lucky that it was relatively easy for me to research these women at the level I was writing at. Although some of their books were out of print, the wonders of the internet meant I was able to track them down. The living women who are featured in the book were only too happy to share their stories with me. Obviously the global pandemic made travel much harder – I had initially intended to retrace all the womens’ journeys but had to find another way around this problem, but I think it’s a better book as a result of that.

HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your sector/this field?

KW: Journalism and travel writing in particular is still very male-dominated  (not to mention extremely white and middle-class), so I’ve definitely felt like I’ve had to shout a bit louder to make my ideas heard. Stories about women are often derided as ‘fluff pieces’ and subjects women are interested in on a newspaper such as fashion are considered less important than other sections such as sport which really frustrates me. It was interesting to me that the barriers I’ve faced as a solo female traveller and as a female travel writer were all things experienced by the women in my book. Things are getting better but on many levels not much has changed.  

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

KW: I think at times I felt quite daunted by the subject of my book and the need to do these women justice because there was so much information about them and it was hard to distill it all. Eventually I realised that my book is just a jumping off point and if readers are interested in these women they can hopefully find out more on their own. So my advice is not to be put off if a project feels too big for you to tackle, you just have to take the first step. 

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