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Women’s History Network Book Prize 2021: Chair’s Report


This year eight books were submitted for the Women’s History Network book prize. It was a wonderful set of entries: every book was of a high academic standard, every book was well researched, every book made an original contribution to women’s history.

The judges – myself Paula Bartley, Prof Barbara Bush, Prof Krista Cowman, Prof Ann Hughes and Prof Emily West – found it hard to choose a winner. We were all delighted that women’s history is attracting such a high calibre of researchers.

I would personally like to thank the publishers who submitted their books – particularly editors like Emma Brennan at Manchester University Press and Emily Russell at Palgrave Macmillan – for their commitment to publishing women’s history. MUP is a shining example – it published four of the eight books submitted this year, each one of which was worthy of an award.

In the end, the judges all agreed the winner should be Zoë Thomas’ Women Art Workers and the Arts and Crafts Movement published by MUP.

As in many historical studies, women have been written out or overlooked. Indeed men like William Morris and John Ruskin dominate the narrative. Zoë challenges the assumption that Arts and Crafts revolved around celebrated male designers and shows that women were active participants in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

However, Zoë’s book is more than recovery history. The judges all admired Zoë’s innovative thematic structure which is based around the spaces in which women arts and crafts workers operated – clubhouses, guildhalls, exhibition spaces, artistic homes and studios, businesses and workshops.

We all liked the way in which Women Art Workers links an important artistic movement with key social/political movements in women’s history. For instance, Zoë showed how members of the Art group supported suffrage by making banners and other visual ephemera.

Finally, we were impressed by Zoë’s meticulous research. The range and depth of archival sources used is remarkable: eg manuscript papers, posters, post-cards, institutional archives, memoirs, diaries and letters.

As I mentioned, the entries this year were all of an exceptional quality. We have ‘highly recommended’ three other books.

The first is Victoria Phillips’ Martha Graham’s Cold War published by Oxford University Press; The second is Angela’s Muir’s Deviant Maternity published by Routledge, and the third is Tanya Cheadle’s book, Sexual Progressives published by MUP.

The judges all enjoyed reading Victoria Phillips’ Martha Graham’s Cold War. This is an impressive, engaging and original study that addressed the role of dance in the cultural strategies of Cold War diplomacy. It is a highly interesting exploration of ‘soft power’, written in a lucid and accessible style yet maintains scholarly rigour, incorporating a wide range of archival and secondary sources.

Angela’s Muir’s Deviant Maternity makes an important contribution to women’s history, the history of medicine and the history of Wales. Her study of a number of Welsh counties – Denbighshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire – draws on an impressively wide range of archival sources both in English and in Welsh. The judges were impressed that she combines both a quantitative and qualitative approach – analysing the date from parish baptism registers to plot trends and using individual court records to bring individuals to life.

Last, but not least is Tanya Cheadle’s book, Sexual Progressives published by MUP. This is a study of feminists and socialists who fought against the moral strictures of the Victorian period. All these activists envisaged a new form of sexual intimacy which was based on women’s sexual equality, mutual respect and elevated standards of morality.

Next year, Prof Krista Cowman takes over as Chair. It’s been a great pleasure reading so many superb books over the last four years, and I congratulate all those who have entered the prize for their scholarship and their innovative work.