Women & Power: Reflections by Laura Hampden

‘Women & Power: Redressing the Balance’ was a 2-day conference which took place on the 6th and 7th March 2019 at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. The conference was jointly convened by the National Trust and the University of Oxford to reflect on programming around the 2018 centenary of the Representation of the People Act which granted some women the right to vote. Contributions were invited through an open call and the resulting programme brought together academics and heritage professionals from a wide range of institutions, roles and subject areas to share their work, reflect on practice, and look forward to the future of researching and programming women’s histories.

Thanks to generous support from TORCH and the Women in Humanities programme, it was possible to offer a number of bursary places at the conference. Recipients have contributed to a blog compiling reflections on the conference; the full blog series can be viewed here.

I’m an archaeologist at Historic England working within the Greater London archaeological advisory service in London (GLAAS) as a Historic Environment Project Officer. I have a number of interests including the Archaeology of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and the hidden histories of diverse communities within the Historic Environment here in the UK.

For me the journey through the City of Oxford is always interesting, every time I come to Oxford I see new buildings, or features that I’m compelled to learn more about. Like the Jam Factory opposite the station, an important part of Oxford’s social history often overlooked by the grand municipal or university buildings. Conference locations are always a big part of my experience. As I entered the gates of St Hugh’s college to attend the Women and Power: Redressing the Balance conference I was uplifted by the beautiful architecture. The history of the building wasn’t lost on me, this was a space founded in 1886 by Elizabeth Wordsworth, a woman who wanted to make a difference for women who otherwise couldn’t afford accommodation in other colleges.

Entrance to the building itself is controlled (as most campus buildings or places of work are), but I entered easily. By easily I mean without question or inquisitive looks, or comments about my person that might ‘other’ me from people who usually occupy the space I’m entering. It’s amazing that this still happens, especially in more rural, or non-urban places. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, as a black woman, if this would have been the case 100 years ago. Even today the admission rates of BAME and especially black-British Caribbean students at Oxford are renowned for being very low.

Like Wordsworth I’d like to use the power I have to make a difference. For me this means asking questions, challenging the status-quo, raising awareness, taking and creating opportunities to enter spaces not traditionally (consciously or unconsciously) meant for me. So naturally I jumped at the chance to attend the Women and Power conference, to see how others are trying to make a difference, and to take inspiration from the people behind the National Trusts suffrage campaign. I was particularly interested to hear how the stories of neglected and/marginalised people could be told at Historic sites. And to see the approach taken by an organisation with a different structure (to that of Historic England), with different funding streams and stakeholder expectations.

The address from Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust, ‘The Women who Shaped the National Trust’, raised interesting questions about social responsibility and the challenges we all face in enhancing the current historical narrative. It is impossible to please everyone, and as a charity the National Trust has a responsibility to all of its stakeholders, including those who have questioned the National Trust’s social or political agenda by telling stories of women’s suffrage.  I had mixed feelings during the address, while I fully appreciate that organisations must consider the needs of all of their stakeholders, I do feel that all of us working within the heritage sector have a social responsibility to persist in challenging the status quo. If we want to attract and retain diverse audiences we must continue to find creative ways to expand the range of stories we tell.

I loved spending my day hearing about the inspiring women that walked the halls and shaped the history of various National Trust properties. The ‘Reimagining Women’s Histories’ session presented an interesting exploration of how the behaviour of women in the past relates to their histories, and how we should acknowledge that historical events or stories don’t happen within a vacuum. When we are telling stories it is important not to exclude multiple perspectives and experiences. I enjoyed hearing about the covering of the portraits of men in historic properties to provoke a response from visitors. For me this summed up how I feel when I visit historic sites that don’t acknowledge or reference their colonial history. So it’s exciting to see change, and I look forward to seeing the National Trust continue to tell diverse stories in the future.

For me the concluding panel of extraordinary and diverse women speaking about the leaders of today was the highlight.  It really hammered the point home that in order to ensure that we continue to develop on this path and tell untold stories, we must support and raise each other up.

Laura Hampden is a Historic Environment Record Project Officer within the Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service at Historic England. She is co-chair of Historic England’s Racial Equality Staff Network, and is also a committee member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeology Equality (CIfA) and Diversity group.

Image: Louise Jordan performs as part of the ‘Reimagining Women’s Histories’ session at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb

Louise Jordan performs as part of the ‘Reimagining Women’s Histories’ session at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb