Women & Power: Reflections by Anna Fielding

‘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.

It’s an exciting time to be part of the National Trust, especially for me as a former ‘visitor experience’ employee and now PhD researcher. What I love is those occasions when people from across the Trust come together to share their work and motivations and inspire us all to push on with the changes afoot in heritage. The Women and Power conference was one of those occasions. There were many highlights, but the paper I keep returning to is Dr Jenna C. Ashton’s on her evaluation of the Trust’s year-long focus on women’s stories. As well as detailing some of the forthcoming content of the report for the Trust on Women and Power’s contemporary relevance, she also focussed on a topic that ran through much of the conference: intangible heritage.

In answering her research question – “How has the Women and Power programme increased the relevance of NT collections, stories and places to people’s lives today?” - Dr Ashton addressed two issues:

  • The Trust’s traditional focus on bricks and mortar and their vast material collections;
  • The current debates in heritage discourse surrounding the intangible.

The Trust’s focus on women in history was quite often about what is not there. The absence of women represented in portraiture or sculpture at Cragside and Stowe were just two examples. 

This increased focus on what has been overlooked involves the Trust holding up their hands and saying that they’ve not addressed the issues surrounding women at their sites, the colonialism in their collections or the LGBT histories literally hidden in the closets of the Trust’s houses. The momentum was palpable at the conference for the Trust building for a future that embraces plurality, asks questions and has reshaped its heritage values and future-proofed its core. The charity’s National Public Programmes like ‘Prejudice and Pride’, ‘Women and Power’ and ‘People’s Landscapes’ aren’t the end of this process, but merely the beginning.

This is going to involve a move towards what is not immediately there but is hidden in a place’s archives or through discussing the uncomfortable elements of past societies. It is also about re-evaluating what the Trust does have in its collections, reconsidering what is important and turning to what is not immediately visible or previously obscured. In doing this the Trust may well have to let some of its vast collections that no longer speak to us go.

Anna Fielding is a National Trust collaborative PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University whose research centres around communal dining. Anna is working on case studies at Little Moreton Hall, Speke Hall and Rufford Old Hall and prior to starting her PhD had worked in visitor experience at Little Moreton Hall for five seasons.

Image: The Great Cragside Cover Up © Colin Davison

Jenna C. Ashton presenting at the Women & Power conference © Stuart Bebb