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.
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 Vigurs (KV):
Hi everyone, thanks for asking me to do this. I am Dr Kate Vigurs. I am a historian, author, live historical interpreter and museum consultant. I think it is fair to say that history, more specifically HERStory is my life. My career began at the Royal Armouries Museum where I worked as a performer, bringing history to life through drama and giving meaning the museum objects through stories. I also learnt to sword fight and was involved in mounted shows such as Elizabeth hunting skills, jousts and military cavalcades owing to my background in riding.
While there I wrote a script on Special operations Executive, which I went on to write my PhD thesis about and then my book, Mission France that came out earlier this year.
I know also run my own company History’s Maid which provide historical characters and horse shows to heritage clients such as English Heritage, various museums and associations such as Women’s Engineering Society.
I am involved in consulting at museums and have put together exhibitions most recently for the National Memorial Arboretum and South Yorkshire aircraft museum.
My horse Daxi and I do many historical activities both for work and fun including sidesaddle, archery, tent pegging and skill at arms.
HC: What period of history are you interested in?
KV: All of it! I love it! Academically I am interested in the Second World War and women’s roles in resistance, SOE and the Holocaust. However, I am a battlefield guide for the First world war battle sites and find this fascinating also, especially the work of FANY. For History’s Maid we undertake a fair amount of Victorian work and research. I am always looking for strong female narratives and stories, something that makes us sit up and pay attention so from Mary Read to Mother Ross, an ATA pilot to Empress Matilda I love it all. WE have so much to learn from the past, and more so from a female perspective, it is time to shatter those illusions and break down the narratives and find out what these people were really like and how they lived their lives.
HC: Tell us about your favourite female figure in history.
KV: I honestly cannot chose – Empress Matilda – she was kick ass, so was Margaret of Anjou. They stood up for what they believed was right in a mediaeval patriarchal society. Florence Nightingale – awful nurse but just brilliant and getting things done, and pushing to undertake a career that was so disapproved of in society at the time. Mother Ross, dressed as man and chased down her husband who had been pressed into the army finding him over a decade later. Fanny Duberly – went to the Crimea and saw the Battle of balaclava whilst sitting sidesaddle on a hill. Her account of the battle and the conditions of the men and horses are phenomenal
HC: How did you get to where you are now?
KV: Hard work, dedication, networking, terrible work/life balance and a lot of tea/gin! I have given up alot of things to become the person I am today. I have sacrificed friendships and family occasions, I have been away when I wanted to be at home, I have worked when I should have called in sick. I have fought very hard to keep going and have had some pretty terrible situations thrown at me that I have had no choice but to overcome.
I have also had tremendous support from my friends, family, partner, publishing house and even total strangers who I have become friends with through my work
HC: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to your current role/research interests?
KV: I have so many, let’s stick with SOE. As I said I began my love of this subject through writing a script. I couldn’t get enough of it and kept reading and talking to various historians. Eventually the RA museum said they would fund a MA by research and I chose the women of SOE F section as my subject. After my first year, I changed supervisors and Katrina Honeyman suggested we upgrade the MA to a PhD. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do something like that, I love a challenge so said yes and after several more years of study and hard graft, I passed. ‘Never again’ I believe were my exact words.
Several months later Yale University Press approached me to do a book on SOE, after several versions my proposal to do a study of all 39 women of F Section was approved. Three massive re drafts later, it was approved to be published and then it was not – we had a massive delay just before it was due out. But, we made it, the book has been a bestseller on amazon, and it has had reviews and articles in both tabloid and broadsheet papers. I have done several TV interviews this year alone and hope the interest in the true stories, not the constructed narratives will grow.
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!
KV: When I told another historian I was doing a book on SOE F section he said ‘bloody hell, not another book on women’. I feel that sums up women’s history quite well, people thing we are banging some sort of drum or trying to prove something, or big up women’s roles. Not at all, we make up a rather large proportion of civilisation and as such women’s stories deserve to be told. During lockdown last year a male historical interpreter told me how hard it was to be taken seriously as a man if you don’t sword fight. I was so angry – try being a woman in what is very much a man’s world, try running a business (I am the only female led business of its type in the UK so far), try fighting prejudice and box ticking every day of your working life. I am well aware that I am often ‘the token bird’ when it comes to bookings!
HC: If you could give any advice to women in this sector/those wanting to get into history, what would it be?
KV: Do it, fight, carve a niche from yourself – but do it for yourself as well as a bigger cause. I am very much a woman in a man’s world, my field fits into ‘military history’ and yet I still have to fight to be heard and to make waves. But I have done it, and so can you!