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Reaching through time: approaches to women’s history today

Rosie Finlinson (PhD Slavonic Studies 2015) and Millie Papworth (PhD Italian 2015) describe their very successful Writing Women in History Symposium, Reaching through time: approaches to women’s history today.

On Friday 16 March 2018, as part of Women’s History Month, Fitzwilliam College hosted a day-long symposium on women’s history today, followed by a concert of music by female composers throughout the ages. The symposium was organised by the Writing Women in History reading group, which was set up by a team of PhD students from MML and AsNAC and funded by the AHRC. Our aim was to bring together graduate students and academics from a range of disciplines to provoke discussion about contemporary methodological approaches to women’s history and the ways in which academic study of women has broader social impact. Dr Lucy Delap, historian of modern Britain at Murray Edwards College, opened the day with a talk entitled ‘Rethinking feminism through global history’. She underscored the need to reconceptualise the existing historical narrative to allow for a more diverse, inclusive, less white and Western feminist discourse which acknowledges and incorporates feminist movements across the globe.

After coffee, we reconvened for our first panel, ‘Alternative Sources to Women’s History’. This panel brought together speakers from the history of architecture, history of art and history of literature on a range of topics from the slave trade to womb fumigation. Despite the diversity of the subject matter, these papers spoke to each other amazingly well and sparked a really interesting discussion on the ethical implications of showcasing the contributions of female figures in the past. We then retired for a well-deserved lunch break, and enjoyed a delicious and generous spread from Fitz.

In the afternoon we had a panel on ‘Methodologies and Sources for Women’s History’ which again brought together three speakers from diverse disciplines who sought to revise accepted assumptions about women in their field by bringing to light previously unstudied source material. We learnt about unmarried mothers in 18th-century England, and considered how we might redefine ideas about labour to incorporate the invisible forms of work done by women in 18th-century north west England and in the early modern European court. Our second keynote, Sarah Dunant, an award-winning historical novelist, wrapped up the day by bringing out the ‘story’ in ‘history’ with a fascinating insight into her own approach to Renaissance sources in her novel-writing. Hearing about how she seeks to make history relevant to her audience made way for a discussion about our own motives in our academic work, and about how academic work can and should have impact in the public domain.

After our stimulating discussion, we emerged into a sunny spring evening and walked through gardens filled with daffodils to the Crypt, where we continued to unfold and debate (politely!) the ideas and themes of the day. Refreshed, we joined the audience of Fitz members and other students who had gathered in the Chapel for the evening’s concert ‘A Celebration of Women Composers’. A stellar programme assembled by Anna Wagner (conference organiser) and Catherine Groom (Director of Music at Fitz) saw musicians from Cambridge and the Royal Academy, London, perform a selection of pieces by female composers who have by and large escaped the history books and concert halls. We travelled from the convents of Modena, Italy (with Sulpitia Cesis (1577 – ?) and her Motetti spirituali) to the concert halls of Paris and St Petersburg (with Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) and her Zwölf Gedichte), taking in en route the Imperial Court of Austria (with Maria Martines, (1744-1812) and Scelta d’arie) and prohibition-era Chicago (Florence Prince, 1887-1953). A moving cello lament (Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, b.1939) caused a few damp eyes, before a sparky ending with a selection of Shakespearean sonnets set to music (by Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)) left us all uplifted for the evening. It was real pleasure to see both conference attendees and the wider audience enjoying together such a variety of underappreciated, but glorious, pieces of music. 

The musicians, conference organisers and speakers went on to enjoy the conference dinner, another opportunity to discuss the day’s revelations and insights over wine and pizza, and plan an initiative or two in the future. The interdisciplinary, international nature of the symposium allowed for a huge range of exciting conversations, and it was very fruitful for all involved. We found the setting, moving between the intimate lecture theatre and the sun-drenched common room, particularly conducive to reflection then discussion, fuelled of course by the excellent lunch from Fitz catering. We are hugely thankful to Fitzwilliam (alongside our other funders, the School of Arts and Humanities, the Italianist, and the AHRC) for their financial, organisational and even moral support! We could not have had a better setting for a wonderful day.

Symposium Reaching Through Time