Celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law

“Get thee behind me (Mrs) Satan!”  A caricature of American suffragist and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull by Thomas Nast, published in Harpers’ Weekly (February, 1872)    [Wikimedia Commons]

Women’s history has always been ‘political’ but following the US Presidential election it has taken on a new significance, as campaigners for Hillary Clinton revived memories of American suffragists and  the media sought comparisons with previous female presidential candidates.  Former lawyer Katie Broomfield teamed up with fellow Public History MA student Emily Petretta to write this post about the effect the US election result had on them and a conference run by the First 100 Years campaign, which aims to promote gender equality by commemorating inspirational female lawyers.


Waking to a cold, rainy, November morning last week, many of us were hoping to hear that America had elected its first female president and despite losing, former lawyer Hillary Clinton certainly came closer than any woman before her.   She was not, however, the first woman to run for president nor was she the first woman to seek selection as the Democratic Party’s nominee.  Those honours fall to Victoria Woodhull, who announced her intention to run for president in the New York Herald in April 1870; and to the first black congresswoman  Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 also became the first woman to contend (albeit unsuccessfully) for the Democratic Party’s nomination.  Unsurprisingly, at a time when women were still denied the vote, in both Britain and America, Victoria Woodhull also failed to win the nomination of any major party.  A prominent women’s rights campaigner and advocate of Free Love,  she was known as Wicked Woodhull and spent election day in prison after having been arrested under the Comstock Laws for sending ‘obscene’ letters.  Hillary Clinton faced similar media attacks and, following accusations that she should be in jail for her use of a private email server, was dubbed Crooked Hillary by supporters of Donald Trump.  Many commentators have viewed these as misogynistic,  and speaking in 1982, Shirley Chisholm was clear that she ‘met more discrimination as a woman than for being black’.

have-women-been-trumpedPanel, chaired by Dame Jenni Murray, discussing ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’   [Image: Katie Broomfield]

On the day of the election results a more positive outlook for women was presented at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference organised by the First 100 Years project with the aim of celebrating the past to shape the future of women in law.  Starting with a video interview of Baroness Hale, the first and still the only female Justice of the Supreme Court, the overriding theme of the day was one of optimism and courage.  A panel discussion on ‘Have Women Been Trumped?’ ended in spontaneous applause following a comment from the audience that Hillary Clinton should not be dismissed as a loser but celebrated for her courage, resilience and tenacity.  She gave it a go and as Chantal-Aimee Doerries QC said this is the best advice for success.  Sharing advice that she was once given Vanessa Davies urged women to have courage and remember that we have as good a chance as any and a better chance than many.

Speakers highlighted that by supporting each other women can achieve greater equality and diversity. Caroline Criado-Perez emphasized that she tries never to criticise other women on social media; Sarah Davis explained that by exerting their buying power women can and should support each other to force change; and Funke Abimbola emphasised how mentoring, coaching and sponsorship can provide mutual help and support.  Of course, this does not always happen.  On Tuesday, we assumed that the women pictured on twitter queuing to place ‘I voted’ stickers on the grave of suffragist Susan B Anthony were representative of broad female support for Hillary but, while New York State voted for her, over 50% of white women who voted, did so for Trump.  This highlights the importance of women’s history and the need for more public role models, like the suffragists, to remind women what we can achieve when we work together.

Underlining why the First 100 Years project is so important, Katherine McMahon revealed that when she was researching her book The Crimson Rooms she found virtually nothing written about early female lawyers.  In an attempt to rectify the absence of pioneering women from our public history, Caroline Criado-Perez, having already led a successful campaign for a woman (Jane Austen) to appear on a Bank of England bank note, outlined her next campaign to put the statue of a suffragist in Parliament Square in celebration of the centenary of votes for (some) women in 2018.


liz-trussLiz Truss speaking at the Second Annual Spark 21 Conference before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award [Image: Katie Broomfield]


As public role models go, Liz Truss, the first female Lord Chancellor in 800 years, is surely high on the list.  Although her appearance at the conference was overshadowed by recent events she certainly had some promising things to say about the judiciary, gender equality and diversity before presenting the Inspirational Women in Law Award to Keily Blair.  Keily’s prize was a limited edition toilet roll in a presentation bell jar symbolising the alleged lack of female toilet facilities at law firms and legal institutions which was used as an excuse to avoid the employment of women.  It is a striking visual representation of the barriers put up to women entering the legal profession; a reminder that these barriers can be overcome; and a demonstration that learning about women’s history can give us courage to overcome the barriers put up today.


Katie Broomfield (@KRBroomfield) and Emily Petretta (@EmilyPetretta) are both students on Royal Holloway’s MA in Public History



Swimming with the Spit: Feminist oral sport history and the process of ‘sharing authority’ with C20th female swimming champions in Sydney

Swimming with The Spit cover art_final.indd

 By Tanya Evans (Macquarie University, Sydney)

Thursday 6th October, 6-7.30 pm

McCrae 336 in The Department of History

 at Royal Holloway, University of London

Tanya’s talk is based on her research as part of a local and community history of the Spit Amateur Swimming Club, which began on the lower north shore of Sydney in 1917. It reveals some of the tensions involved in writing feminist oral sport history and the ways in which shared authority can be negotiated between historians and sportswomen when writing a community sport history. Competitive male and female Spit swimmers were segregated into separate clubs, swam in different baths and at different times until the mid-1960s.

Tanya used feminist oral histories of the Spit’s female swimming champions in order to trace the ways in which swimming and its historical meanings have changed for women in twentieth-century Australia. Her research reveals the lack of cultural scripts local female swimming stars could call upon to narrate their life stories and sporting success, the different ways in which they want their lives remembered and how historians might approach the construction of these histories.


Tanya Evans is a Senior Lecturer in the Modern History Department at Macquarie where she teaches Australian and Public History and we are delighted to welcome her as a Visiting Fellow to the Bedford Centre. She specializes in the history of the family, poverty and sexuality. She is passionate about researching ordinary people and places in the past and incorporating ordinary people and places in the process of her research.  Her three books so far have been about the history of ‘illegitimacy’, poverty and philanthropy.  Her previous book, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (New South, 2015) which examined the history of Australia’s oldest surviving charity, The Benevolent Society, was written in collaboration with family historians and won the NSW premier History Award for Community and Regional History in 2016. She is currently writing a history of motherhood in Australia while continuing to research the different ways in which family history is practiced in Australia, England and Canada.

As always, our seminars are open to everyone but this one will particularly appeal to Gender, Public, Family and Oral History researchers and students, but Tanya is keen to pitch her work to a very wide variety of audiences.  So do join us for what promises to be an illuminating and enjoyable evening followed by refreshments. If you have any questions about this event please email: N.J.Phillips@rhul.ac.uk.


From Bloomers to Burkinis: The Same Old Story? by Sarah Ansari

While we were on our summer break, Sarah Ansari, Professor of South Asian History at Royal Holloway and a member of the Bedford Centre wrote about her views on the controversial treatment of Muslim women wearing ‘Burkinis’. It was first posted on the Historians for History blog in August and we are pleased to be able to reblog it here.

Historians for History

194d1b1f784d4a3e99d71358a2473da6 Bathing Dresses, as featured in Godey’s Lady Book, 1864

The recent photos in the media showing armed police apparently forcing a Muslim woman wearing a burkini on a French beach to remove it, or alternatively some of her outer clothing, in public, and then seemingly fining her, highlight beautifully the challenges facing historians in a post-modern historical world. What the ‘facts’ of the matter really are is no longer relevant. It is what we believe to be happening that counts, and so it is our interpretation of those facts that matters.  Whether or not it was really a dreaded burkini (an outfit “not respecting good morals and secularism”) – at best, unhygienic, or at worst, to quote the French Prime Minister, part of the “enslavement” of (Muslim) women, this episode underlines yet again how central Muslim women’s bodies are to wider questions of identity, community and ‘modernity’. For the last…

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Society for the History of Women in the Americas Annual Conference



The Society for the History of Women in the Americas Annual Conference ‘Gender, Activism and Religion’ at Royal Holloway, University of London on Wednesday 29 June 2016

The Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) welcomes proposals for its ninth annual conference, co-organised with The Bedford Centre for the History of Women, Royal Holloway, University of London. The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Gender, Activism, and Religion.’ We welcome 250 word abstracts for 20-minute presentations on the intersecting relationship between gender, activism, and religion in the Americas across any geographical period or chronological time. We welcome comparative papers between two countries in the Americas or one in the Americas and a country outside the region. Please submit abstracts and 100-word biography to shawconference2016@gmail.com by the 4th April 2016. You will be notified of the outcome by 22nd April 2016. Papers chosen for the conference may be selected for inclusion in a special issue of History of Women in the Americas Journal subject to peer-review.

Conference co-organizers (Dawn-Marie Gibson, Royal Holloway, University of London and Imaobong Umoren, University of Oxford).




Welcome and Explore our Resources


This blog is still under construction but we will be going live very soon.  In the meantime please do explore the wide range of resources that are now available here. If you would like to contribute a post, add a resource, share your views, or publicise an event or women’s history project, please contact Nicola Phillips or Direct Message us on Twitter via @RHBedfordCentre or @NicolaHistorian