In March 2019, over 130 delegates came together at the ‘Women and Power: Redressing the Balance’ Conference at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford, to discuss the representation of women in our collective history, to celebrate recent achievements that have brought women’s stories into the spotlight, and to consider how we can ensure they never slip into darkness again.
The centenary anniversary in 2018 of the Representation of the People Act, which granted some women the right to vote in British parliamentary elections for the first time, saw a diverse range of activity as heritage, cultural and academic institutions initiated new projects and programmes to explore, celebrate and share women’s histories. Many of those who responded to the centenary not only explored the stories of 100 years ago but openly questioned the representation of women’s lives in the histories inherited by curators and researchers, and seen and experienced today.
‘Women & Power: Redressing the balance’ was a two-day conference that sought to reflect on the legacy of this anniversary and to look forward to the future of representing women’s histories. The conference was jointly convened by the National Trust and the University of Oxford and brought together professionals from more than 50 academic and heritage institutions. It was the first major event from the new National Trust Partnership, which was established in June 2018 to create new opportunities for interdisciplinary research and public engagement centred around National Trust properties and collections.
St Hugh’s College was a particularly pertinent location to be discussing women’s histories as the college has a long history of support for women’s education and empowerment. St Hugh’s was founded by Elizabeth Wordsworth in 1886 to provide opportunities for poorer women to access an Oxford education and has strong links to the suffrage movement with a number of students taking up the cause including, most notably, Emily Wilding-Davison who read English at St Hugh’s in 1895. Today it is home to the Women in the Humanities (WIH) programme within the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), directed by Professor Senia Paseta (a co-convenor of the conference) and Professor Selina Todd. With the presence of so many strong women built into the fabric of the building, there was a feeling of excitement amongst the gathered delegates as they looked forward to the busy programme of keynotes, panel discussions, and workshops ahead of them.
The conference programme was designed to create opportunities for honest and open discussions, where it would be possible to celebrate achievements but also consider the difficulties inherent to researching and sharing women’s histories. Papers were invited through an open call and speakers were encouraged to share their experiences and reflect on what they had learned through trialling innovative new working processes and collaborations.
The session ‘No Matter What the Differences, No matter what the Dangers’ explored the challenges and the benefits of collaboration between academic and heritage institutions, looking in detail at five different projects from a range of institutions. Representing the National Trust in this session, Professor Suzannah Lipscomb (University of Roehampton), Dr Emma Turnbull (University of Oxford), and Polly Schomberg (National Trust), discussed their project ‘We are Bess’ at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. ‘We are Bess’ sought to challenge long-standing interpretations of the life of Bess of Hardwick by examining new research and inviting new perspectives from the public and from local women. The participants brought their own experiences to bear on the understanding of Bess and her story and shared their interpretations in temporary exhibition of unique photographic portraits.
Collaborative approaches such as this are at the centre of the National Trust’s strategy as it continues to explore and interpret its incredible sites and spaces. In her keynote address ‘The Women Who Shaped the National Trust’ on the second day of the conference, Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust looked back to the charity’s foundation, reflecting on unshakable belief of its founder Octavia Hill in the importance of protecting and preserving spaces where all would be welcome. Hilary stressed need to remember this during turbulent times and to always seek to provide opportunities where different, even opposing, views can come together and coexist.
The importance of finding and championing different voices, both past and present, was highlighted throughout the conference:
“It made me think about how we encourage our museum participants, staff and volunteers to build their own material legacy”, Rachel Crossley, Director of the East End Women’s Museum (read more).
In a breakout session at the Pitt Rivers Museum, delegates were given an opportunity to find out about the award-winning Multaka-Oxford volunteer programme. This innovative programme creates volunteering opportunities for forced migrants, inviting them to share their knowledge of the museum’s collections with the wider public and research communities.
“I was struck by two instances in which women who previously lacked confidence were empowered through their work to make significant contributions in the field”, Polly Richards, Interpretation and Master Planning Consultant (read more); by empowering women today, we ensure that their stories will be heard tomorrow.
It’s clear that heritage and academic institutions have an important role to play in preserving the voices of different, and marginalised communities, but as well as looking outwards, we must also look inwards at ourselves. Concluding the conference, the panel discussion ‘Women Making History: The Leaders of Today’ looked at the personal legacies that we might leave behind, as individuals and as professionals within our fields. Virginia Tandy (Co-Founder of the Women Leaders in Museums Network), Hilary Carty (Director of the Clore Leadership Programme), Kate Clark (Visiting Professor in Heritage Valuation at the University of Sussex), and Sara Wajid (Head of Engagement at the Museum of London) shared their experiences of their personal leadership journeys. In a series of inspiring presentations they called out to the next generation:
"Hilary Carty urging the audience to, “Count yourself in!”. I for one, will be doing just that." Lynsey Rutter, Community Engagement Team Leader, Birmingham Museums Trust (read more).
More reflections from ‘Women and Power: Redressing the Balance’ conference delegates are available on the National Trust Partnership blog page. The featured delegates were able to take up bursary places at the conference made available thanks to generous support from TORCH and the Women in Humanities programme.
Films of the conference keynotes are available on the National Trust Partnership resources page.
Vanessa Moore was the National Trust Partnership Support Officer in 2018 and 2019, and was part of the team that delivered the Women & Power conference in March, 2019. Twitter: @vjamoore