2019 WHN Conference Report: ‘Professional Women: the public, the private, and the political’

Women’s History Network Annual Conference
LSE Library
6-7 September 2019

In acknowledgement of the centenary of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act (SD(R)A), the Women’s History Network (WHN) held a two-day conference at the London School of Economics Library on Friday 6 – Saturday 7 September 2019 entitled ‘Professional Women: the public, the private, and the political’. It was organised by Dr Gillian Murphy, Curator for Equality, Rights and Citizenship at LSE Library and Dr Judith Bourne, Dr Caroline Derry, and Dr Kate Murphy from the WHN.

In total, the conference was attended by 130 delegates, of which, seventy-three were speakers, including three keynotes and twenty-one panels of three to five presenters. There was also a poster competition and bookshop at the conference, promoting the latest research in the field of women’s history. The majority of panels were organised thematically around papers which explored women’s involvement in a range of professions, including law, civil services, writing, engineering, politics, arts, broadcasting, nursing, film, and accounting. In addition, some panels and roundtables explored other particular themes and topics relevant to women’s history such as gendered identities, gendered spaces, emancipation, activism, and the usefulness of oral histories for accessing women’s voices.

The conference was particularly valuable as it brought together historians, archivists, and curators interested in the history of women in the professions which sparked fascinating discussions around compelling primary materials and sources. The venue facilitated these interdisciplinary discussions as it is home to The Women’s Library, a collection with an overarching theme of campaigns for women’s rights and for women’s equality. This enabled items from the collection to be used by speakers in their presentations, for example, Teresa Doherty, Joint Manager of Library and Archive Services at the Royal College of Nursing, used multiple physical copies of the nurses’ register from throughout the twentieth-century to illustrate how they hold a wealth of information that can be used to explore gender, race, and class in women’s history. In addition, the venue provided access to a fascinating, and highly relevant, exhibition entitled ‘The Sacred Year 1919: women and the professions’ at LSE Library.

After warm welcomes and introductions from Dr Maggie Andrews, Chair of the Women’s History Network, and Martin Reid, Deputy Director of LSE Library, Dr Mari Takayanagi who is a Senior Archivist at the Parliamentary Archives, gave the first keynote address on the SD(R)A. Takayanagi detailed the fascinating history of the SD(R)A explaining how it was successfully passed, owing to it being less radical than the proposed Women’s Emancipation Bill, as it did not include clauses for equal franchise. Takayanagi argued that although the SD(R)A has been viewed as a ‘dead letter’ and a ‘broken reed’ by some scholars, that it was in fact remarkable considering the national and international political context of Britain in 1919.

The need to view subjects and individuals in women’s history in the context of their social, cultural and political milieu in order to recognise their achievements was a connecting theme linking many of the papers throughout the conference. Particularly interesting was Gail Savage’s paper which examined how four women who held the position of Director of Women’s Establishments impacted the civil service following the SD(R)A. Savage questioned the tendency of women’s historians to view those who first entered male dominated professions as ‘activists’ or ‘campaigners’ for women’s equality and rights, and reasserted the need to consider them as professional, working women, first and foremost, pursuing a career for themselves. Savage’s paper, like the vast majority of papers given at the conference, consisted of case studies of individual women which offered an insight into how women’s lives were both symptomatic of wider social, cultural and political influences but also driven by their own personal motivations and subjective experiences.

How women involved in medicine and healthcare negotiated gendered roles and assumptions to their benefit was also a prominent theme in papers throughout the conference. Anna Muggeridge demonstrated how two women working in local government in the West Midlands in the interwar period constructed and consolidated professional identity by drawing on their own experiences and working on matters such as infant welfare, birth control, and the treatment of the elderly. Elise Smith, Linda Martz and Frances Cadd spoke about female doctor’s and nurses’ status within the rigid, hierarchical structures of hospitals. Smith analysed characterisations of female doctors in mid-twentieth century novels by Elizabeth Seifert and explained how the characters were not taken seriously by their peers and patients as their femininity was considered compromised by their ‘cold, clinical competence’. Conversely, in the case of nurse, Avis Hutt, Cadd showed how a workplace romance between Hutt and her husband-to-be, surgeon Ruscoe Clarke, at Mile End Hospital in the late-1930s led to their development of an equal professional relationship on the wards, working together, in their separate roles, but towards the same goal of helping patients, challenging hospital staff hierarchies along class and gender lines. Linda Martz’s paper explored issues around standards of nursing education and training, aroused by the Nurses’ Registration Act in 1919, arguing that this caused tensions around the professional status and respectability of nursing which pitted nurses against their employers, peers, and nursing superiors in the interwar years.

All papers presented were insightful and encouraged thought-provoking questions during the panel discussions, generating a friendly atmosphere of knowledge sharing and support amongst like-minded researchers. Following this year’s event the WHN’s next annual conference in September 2020 on ‘Homes, Food, and Farms’ is greatly anticipated, turning the focus from ‘the public’ and the professional’ to the domestic and the private.

Frances Cadd, University of Nottingham

Originally published in the SSHM Gazette, Autumn 2019