Her-Story: Gemma Hollman

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.

Gemma Hollman

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

Gemma Hollman (GH):

My name’s Gemma Hollman and I’m a historian and author. I have a Masters in Medieval History out of which came my first book, Royal Witches. I’m currently writing my second book, called The Queen and the Mistress, but in many ways my book writing is done in my ‘spare time’! During the week I work full-time in an archive, and I also run a historical blog called Just History Posts, which has just passed its fifth year. Life certainly feels busy sometimes!

HC: Who’s your favourite female figure in history?

GH: Gosh, that’s always a tricky question! I think my favourites tend to vary depending on who I’m researching at that current time. I’ve always loved Isabella of France, the wife of Edward II of England – she was an excellent queen who was side-lined by her husband and his male favourites, and so she ended up leading a successful military coup against him and ruling herself for three years until her son, Edward III, took control! 

I will always remember the first time I heard about her at University, sitting in a lecture hall thinking ‘how have I not heard of her before?!’. I think she’s just such a great example of how women in the medieval period were not always as pigeon-holed as we tend to think.

HC: What period of history are you most interested in?

GH: My area of expertise is medieval history, and I kind of got into it because at university I found that I enjoyed writing about medieval history far more than modern history. There’s so much I like about it now, though. I love learning about how different life was for people who are so far removed from us now, how they approached their view of the world and how dramatically different society was; but part of what I love as well is drawing out the similarities between people then and now. 

People often use ‘medieval’ as an insult to mean backwards, but generally people were really forward-thinking and inquisitive about the world. I always find it fascinating reading a text from 600 years ago and realising how it could really have been written today. It reminds me that we as humans are not so different.

HC: How did you get to where you are today? Tell us about your journey to your current role and research interests. 

GH: When it came to picking my university degree I realised that history had always been a passion of mine, and as I didn’t know what I wanted to do ‘when I grew up’ I decided I might as well study something I’m passionate about with lots of ‘transferable skills’. I studied all different types of history, from all time periods from all across the world, and while I enjoyed all of them I decided medieval history suited me best. I went on to do a Masters where my dissertation then grew into a book, and from there more books have been coming! 

I also volunteered at my local museum while at university and I loved being able to be so close to these amazing artefacts that were so old. You feel such a connection with the past when you hold an item that someone used hundreds of years ago. I also liked – much like with my writing – my ability to translate the historical knowledge I had gained at university and through my own research into exhibitions or articles for the public. 

Being able to share what I’ve learnt, particularly to people who may think that history is boring or not for them, is one of my greatest passions. So, now I balance working in heritage alongside my writing, which keeps me busy but is very rewarding.

HC: What are your thoughts on how women are treated in your line of work?

GH: I have to say I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my experiences as a woman working in history. As a white, middle-class woman I’ve never really faced roadblocks in what I’ve wanted to do, and I am very aware of how fortunate I am in this. All of the places in heritage I’ve worked at have been female dominated, and even in my author work there are many women who write about medieval and royal history, and so I’ve never felt disadvantaged or the odd-one-out. 

In fact, one of the things I’ve loved about my author work is connecting with so many incredible women in the field of history on Twitter. It definitely makes you feel part of a community, and it’s so important to have a good support network. 

However, as I said, I’m very conscious that my experience is not that of many, and it is always so frustrating to hear experiences of other women who have faced discrimination because of their gender or the colour of their skin or their religion. It always reminds us how far there still is to go, I think particularly in academia and other traditionally-male parts of history like military history.

HC: What advice would you give to women wanting to get into your line of history?

GH: I would say, try as much as you can. I tried studying all types of history, I’ve worked in museums, archives and historic houses, and trying so much really helped me pin down what I like and dislike and what I want for my career. Trying things also led me to discover things I had never even thought about before that then led on to new experiences and opportunities. 

I would also say, be kind and courteous to everyone you meet. Not only is it a good thing to do anyway, but you never know who may be able to help you in the future. Building a great support network has been so crucial both in my work in the heritage industry and as an author and blogger, and I think it’s very difficult to survive in this industry without that!

I think as well, don’t be afraid to reach out to people and ask questions. I’ve found that 99 per cent of the time people are super happy to help you out. 

Find out more about Gemma over on Twitter – @GemmaHAuthor – and check out the Just History Posts blog, which is on Twitter and Facebook too.

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