Empowered by Pankhurst's struggle and other square pegs in round holes

January 7, 2005

What makes a hero? Dying used to be a prerequisite - but these days a good right foot is enough. Over five pages, we ask who makes the grade

June Purvis takes inspiration from historical battles for equality and her female friendships

My chequered academic career is quite typical of many married academic women with children of the Seventies era who became feminists later in life. I have never had a mentor who guided, helped and advised me, but I have been inspired by the struggles of women in the past for equality and by the friendship of those in the present who have shared my interests.

I am now a "professor of women's and gender history" and, although there is a tendency these days for academics in my field to label themselves as "gender historians", for me retaining the word "women" in my title is critical for my sense of wellbeing and for my professional identity. I find the very words "women's history" inspirational, a place where I belong. Yet I have had a long journey in reaching my destination.

My days as an undergraduate at Leeds University in the Sixties, where I studied sociology, were academically unremarkable. But I loved them, especially the lectures devoted to social history themes. Unsure of what career to follow, I returned home to Essex and became a temporary schoolteacher. That autumn, I married and moved to the North West of England, where I tried my hand at town planning in Liverpool. But I knew that what I really wanted to be was an academic, so I enrolled at Manchester University and took a masters degree in the sociology of education, which I then taught for a number of years in various polytechnics.

Early on in my lecturing career, when my husband, Michael, returned to Leeds to study for his PhD, I applied for a mortgage and was refused, on the grounds that I was a married woman. I was incensed. Such discrimination added to my growing feminist awareness. A critical turning point came in December 1972 when our daughter was born. The only job that Michael had been offered was in Portsmouth. My mother offered to look after the baby while I returned to Manchester, after seven weeks' maternity leave, to complete my contract. Something had to give and the expectation all around was that it should be me. I left my lecturing post that summer of 1973, a few months after I had my first article accepted for publication in the British Journal of Sociology.

In Portsmouth I knew no one and, despite Michael's support, I wasn't happy.

Finding another post equivalent to the one I had left was not easy.

Apprehensively, I accepted a lectureship in social and liberal studies at a nearby college of technology. Although it was wonderful to be back at work, organising good childcare was a problem. But, above all, teaching liberal studies to uninterested students, however good-natured, was soul-destroying. Michael and I talked it over and I left my job to study at the Open University full time for a PhD in the education of working-class women in 19th-century England, supported by a Social Science Research Council Studentship.

The OU was my salvation. I still hold fond memories of the place and of the staff I came to know, including my supervisor, Madeline Arnot, a feminist sociologist. These were heady times. By the late Seventies, second-wave feminism had made an impact in the academy and by 1982 the OU was offering its influential women's studies course, "The changing experience of women".

I worked hard in the archives in the old British Library reading room, giving papers at and organising conferences, writing articles for publications. I knew I had to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

But it was particularly the blossoming of scholarship in women's history that fired my imagination. These were the wonderful days when book after book was published on women's struggle for equality in education, the workplace, the family and suffrage.

Dale Spender's Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them (1982) was particularly influential, especially the section on how the suffragette leaders, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, campaigners for the vote for women in Edwardian England, had been maligned by historians. Since they were for me inspirational feminists, I couldn't understand why they were so disliked.

The "problem" became lodged in my brain. During these years I developed an intermittent correspondence with Olive Banks, a professor of sociology who had an interest in the history of feminism. We were both square pegs in round holes, and knew it. Banks was an important role model for me, at a time when there were few women academics in senior positions. What we were writing was marginal to the male-centred academic enterprise anyway.

I was sharply reminded of this by one male professor who chaired the opening session of a 1984 conference at which I was speaking. When I told him that the title of my paper was "Feminist approaches to the history of women's education", he informed me that if he had known beforehand, he would not have allowed me to give it. Under such circumstances, the friendship of other feminist academics became critical. I also became emboldened to speak out, and still do, against the old boys' network in higher education that favours some, although not all, men and discriminates against women.

By the mid-Eighties, my three-year temporary lectureship at the OU had ended. Despondent again, I applied for posts that were not too far from Portsmouth. After five months I accepted a job at Oxford Polytechnic, where the modular system allowed me to spread my interdisciplinary wings so that I taught women's studies as well as education - with which I was rapidly becoming bored.

But I hated living away from home for most of the week and was jubilant when, in 1988, I was offered a lectureship in sociology at Portsmouth Polytechnic. Yet again, I found some flexibility with regard to my interests in women's history. I finally moved into the history section of our department some six years ago.

The publication, in 2002, of my biography of Emmeline Pankhurst, was an event to which I felt I had been heading all my life. Contrary to the popular view, the courageous and determined Pankhurst had a broader vision than "votes for women". "We are fighting for a time when every little girl born into the world will have an equal chance with her brothers," she cried in 1914, but such views had been ignored by too many historians, who condemned her as a deeply flawed bourgeois figure focused on a single issue. The denial of the greatness of her campaign for parliamentary democracy is a salutary lesson on how powerful feminist figures can be misrepresented in a male-dominated mainstream history. She roused women to demand their citizenship in a mass movement that has been unparalleled in British history.

Today in higher education there is a greater awareness of the equal opportunities issues for which so many feminists in the past and present have campaigned, but too few of our universities take such matters seriously. Sympathetic mentors for younger women is one way forward. But it will have little impact unless our senior managers act in a concerted manner to eliminate what a recent report from the Association of University Teachers terms "institutionalised sexism". Such discriminatory practices are intolerable in an advanced democracy such as ours.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, Portsmouth University.

John Sutherland, reader in arts and media, School of Computing and Creative Technologies, Abertay Dundee University, and developer of the first degree in computer games

"In setting up the games degree courses, I was inspired by Malcolm Jeeves - recently retired professor of psychology and once vice-principal of St Andrews University, where I was a research masters student in the Eighties.

"He set up its psychology department in the Sixties and refused to allow problems to get in his way.

"But he had more money and was in a generally expansion-led sector at the time. It has been far harder in a Nineties university, as league tables no longer allow a struggling small university scope for individuals to make such an impact and create true centres of excellence.

"My other inspiration was the late William Barclay, one-time professor of the New Testament at the University of Glasgow, where I did my undergraduate degree. He was deaf but he got his work done by turning his hearing aid off.

"I have been in computing since the Seventies, but I make selective use of electronic and communications technologies to make sure I get my work done and avoid stress and the poor-quality output produced by overwork.

"Were they mentors? No. I personally don't like people fawning at me, and I wouldn't do that to others. They are just men, with lots of flaws. And, I reckon in academia, students/trainee academics are often so smart that they see all your flaws."

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