Her-Story: Emily Rees Koerner

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.

Emily Rees Koerner

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.

Emily Rees Koerner (ERK):

I’m a historian, currently at the University of Leeds, working mostly at the intersection of gender and science, technology and engineering, though the current project I’m working on is about decolonising and diversifying palaeontology. 

HC: What period of history are you interested in?

ERK: I have mostly looked at the 20th century in Britain, with a focus on the second half. Since working on the history of women in engineering and science, this has broadened out to the Victorian era and early 20th century. More recently, I’ve started to investigate transnational histories of women in STEM and in a separate project the colonial history of fossil collecting, which has broadened the temporal and geographical reach of my research. 

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

ERK: I’ve done a lot of research on the Victorian naval engineer Henrietta Vansittart, whose story I find really captivating. Born in 1833 in Surrey, she gained her engineering knowledge through her father. After his death, she took over his work on screw propeller design, holding patents across the world for the Lowe Vansittart propeller (a model of which is in the Science Museum collections) and speaking before engineering societies, at a time when married women were ‘supposed’ to remain in the domestic sphere and did not have legal status in their own right. Her personal life was pretty unconventional too. She took Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the novelist and MP, as her lover for over a decade, living estranged from her husband for many years. She died an untimely death in 1883 in an asylum in Newcastle. We can get a sense of her work and life through a pamphlet she wrote and surviving letters from her to Bulwer-Lytton, exposing both her scientific prowess and romantic nature. 

HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current research interests? How did you get to where you are now? 

ERK: My academic path hasn’t exactly been direct – I’ve ended up working as a historian without ever being in a history department, though now I reflect on it I realise I’ve always indirectly dealt with historical concepts and ideas. For my first degree, I studied Classics, with a large interest in English language translations of Latin poetry and the context in which they were written. I followed this with a Master’s in Film Studies (in between my BA and MA I worked as a cinema attendant at an art house cinema which cemented my interest!). In my MA dissertation, I looked at the ways Britain’s colonial past was framed in television and film in the 1980s, which is where I really started to realise that I wanted to explore media history for my PhD. I’d always been interested culturally – in terms of music, film and design – in the 1950s and 60s, so it felt logical to look at television’s arrival en masse into the home in this period. Instead of looking at television content though, I decided to focus on television as an object and its position within the domestic interior. It was through this that I ended up working on gender and technology, which is what led to my post-doctoral research assistant position on women in engineering. 

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!

ERK: It has been quite mixed. Academia can feel a bit like a battlefield at times. I’ve not always wanted to stay in it, but found that taking a step back after my PhD allowed me to engage with it on my own terms, to some extent. The work I do is project-based so it is funding dependent which means life can feel very precarious at times even though you’re working on research that is very meaningful to you. I’ve moved around disciplines and universities quite a bit and there are similar challenges across all – not enough jobs, a high demand on staff, with burnout and mental health problems resulting. You do, however, get to work with brilliant people, with expansive and exciting ideas. I love doing work that moves between academic and non-academic spheres, which is a growing trend that I think can bring enormous value to academic and non-academic communities (though there are of course big caveats involved as to ensuring the work is done in an equitable, meaningful way).

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

ERK: Like all areas, I think women’s expertise is frequently challenged or denigrated in the history field. I’ve certainly been spoken down to by older men at conferences, though I’ve always moved through with a certain degree of privilege. As with most subjects, there’s a larger number of men in the highest positions, such as professors. When you factor in race, the statistics become a lot worse: Olivette Otele is currently the only black female history professor in the UK. I think the precarious experience of early career researchers places women in a harder position as they try to balance career and having/raising children without a permanent position. Again, when you bring in other intersecting factors like race, class, sexuality and disability, the field of history is quickly exposed as a fairly traditional, non-diverse space. However, in studying the history of women in engineering, it is apparent how much worse the situation is in STEM fields and the challenge to reach close parity at even an undergraduate level between male and female students is still a large one. 

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

ERK: I often have to remind myself that even though my research may sound less important than traditional historical areas, it matters just as much. So stick with it if that is what you want to know more about. In my experience, women often end up researching areas that are deemed somehow trivial because they deal with aspects of everyday life, or areas formerly marginalised from academic enquiry, for example, childhood, domestic experiences, or soap operas, to name only a few! I’d also say there are plenty of different routes in, not necessarily via a history department (which might not even be the best way to research what you want to research), so look to a variety of different subject departments to see where might be a good fit with your historical interests. 

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