Introducing … Men, Women and Care

It has been nearly five months, I realise, since I started my new project, and I have yet to formally introduce it to the public.  There are reasons for this.  Much of the past five months has involved rather more administrative work discussing the project than actual research.  And even then there doesn’t seem to be a great deal to show for it.  The website is still being built, I am still working out the nuts and bolts of the project’s centrepiece, the team is still being recruited.  But last week we made the first formal appointment to that team, a skeleton website should be up and running soon, and we are on the cusp of the new teaching semester, so now seemed a propitious moment for slightly more formal introductions. So here goes.

Star and Garter poster

Fundraising Poster for the British Red Cross Star & Garter Home

Men, Women and Care: The gendering of formal and informal care in interwar Britain is a European Research Council Starting Grant funded research project based in the School of History at the University of Leeds.  Over five years, it will explore the ways in which the State, charities and, above all, the family provided medical and social care to disabled ex-servicemen in the aftermath of the First World War, particularly the relationships which developed between these three groups in the course of care provision.  It asks how State, medical and charitable institutions, often dominated by men, interacted with the wives, mothers and sisters who found themselves caring for men who had suffered life-altering wounds and illnesses as a result of their war experiences and how these interactions shaped social and cultural understandings of care-giving as a gendered practice.

At the heart of the project is the creation of a database of the material held in PIN 26, the section of The National Archives which contains nearly 23,000 First World War pension award files.  This is not a digitisation project; many files contain medical records which it would not be ethical to digitise.  Rather, the database will collect demographic information and give an indication of what supplementary material the files contain.  This will allow for both quantitative analysis of the entire sample, as well as helping researchers identify relevant files for further qualitative analysis.  The project will work closely with The National Archives to enable the database to be made freely and publicly accessible upon completion.

In addition to working with the National Archives, the project is looking to build relationships with local, national and international partners to explore how this research might shape and be shaped by contemporary understandings of medical and social care provision, particularly in relation to the role of the family.  The project itself is a central element of the Medicine and War strand of the Legacies of War research and engagement hub based at the University of Leeds, and we are looking forward to building on the strong relationships and innovative work that Legacies of War has developed since its inception.

The Men, Women and Care team, at present, is made up of me as principal investigator and Alexia Moncrieff, who will join as postdoctoral researcher fellow over the summer.  Currently completing her PhD on the Australian Army Medical Services in the First World War at the University of Adelaide, Alexia’s research for the project will focus on the ‘Overseas’ subsection of PIN 26, to explore how ideas of distance shaped the provision of care by different institutions.  We are also in the process of recruiting two PhD candidates who will start their research on related questions in October.  Given the richness of the PIN 26 archive, as well as the range of related material in the archives of local government, charitable institutions and personal narratives, I am very interested in hearing from anyone who would like to collaborate or contribute.

As I say, there will be, in the near future, a project website and Twitter feed (@WW1PensionsCare – as soon as Twitter allows me to register it).  Please bookmark and follow us to see how we develop and do get in touch if you want to find out more.


Breaking the silence

It’s been a long time since I have posted, over three months in fact.  This is not down to a lack of material to write about (I have pondered at least a post a month which has never been written) and only slightly to do with lack of time (although I am pleased to say that the book is now four draft chapters long and well on the way to being completed in draft form).  Rather, I have got out of the habit of blogging and have struggled to get back into it.

Posting on here requires me to make the time to identify subjects, think them through and actually write posts down. Other things have to take a lower priority for this to happen and, as Matt Houlbrook recently pointed out, there are times when other things need to be prioritized.  Life can be more than history, and neither history nor historical blogging can alway console us for everything life throws us.

But there comes a point when even the priorities beyond history cease, at least temporarily, to be so compelling, when the deadlines retreat for a while, when the business of teaching and admin and childcare and housework have the potential to be treated as background noise rather than the narrative itself. But restarting old habits, however beneficial we may know them to be, can be difficult.  Blogging, like any other form of writing, at least for me, is a form of concentrated labour that needs time and space, time and space which need to be consciously carved out of already crowded days.  Forcing myself to do something that is difficult and time consuming but which has no deadline may be a very good self-mortifying discipline; that doesn’t mean I can or will do it.

So, in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of finding some time and space to write in this voice, a voice which I know is important to me both personally and professionally, I present you with the following query and half-formed thoughts which arose yesterday when I asked on Twitter whether any historians had included details of childcare responsiblities in their grant applications.  I received no more than a dozen responses, so this is a deeply unscientific survey, but the results interested me on a number of levels.  From the answers I did receive the following information emerged:

– The inclusion of childcare most often occurs as an explanation for past behaviours (time off for maternity leave) rather than as justification for proposed future behaviours (such as why a certain number of research trips of a certain length have been budgeted for).

– Some funders (take a bow, AHRC) have specific policies for taking childcare responsiblities into consideration. I did not know this. I am very glad I do now.

– There is a US/UK divide, with US applicants much more willing to view childcare as a legitimate concern of funders than UK applicants.

– Almost all responses were from women. Where men did responded it tended to be to be in relation of their female partner’s applications, rather than their own.

– All responses expressing anxiety about how the inclusion of childcare would be viewed by funders came from women, but so did the cheerleading for funders who explicitly stated that childcare consideration could and should be included in applications.

As I say, the tiny sample of responses makes any conclusions difficult to draw, even if I had any, but I remain interested in seeing where this discussion might take me, not least because of my own responses.  I have never included childcare in any application beyond the statement of maternity leave taken and the inclusion of my children’s birth certificates as evidence of my qualification for time credited for leave.  But now I am seriously questioning whether I should have done or do so in the future.

Thinking about it, I realise the extent to which I still separate my caring responsiblities from my professional identity, despite the immense impact they have on each other, an impact I freely acknowledge here.  How I ensure my children are properly cared for while fulfilling my obligations as a researcher and a teacher is an immensely complicated issue requiring great good will from many others (as I was reminded when my son fell ill two hours before my husband was due at work and 2.5 hours before I was due to teach as seminar).  Yet I still assume that sorting them out is my responsibillity rather than my funders.  That others, funders and academics, don’t see it as such is both cheering and challenging.

There is also a question of gender to be addressed, a question that seems obvious but which I find surprisingly hard to articulate.  Is childcare still a dominant concern of women? Are men more confident in asserting their right to have childcare responsibilities taken into account?  If so, why?  And what about other caring responsibilities?  Like so many of my colleagues, the necessity of caring for aging parents is becoming an increasing demand on my time and emotional energy, time and emotional energy that cannot then be invested in research.

I will need to think more about this, ask more questions, have more discussions, write more blog posts.  If I want to change the status quo, my own as much as anything, I need to break silence.


The things we do not talk about

Things have been a bit quiet on the blogging front for the past couple of months. This has been for a few reasons.

a) I have been preparing for the end of my current project (which officially finished last week) by doing rather a lot of other writing – conference papers for the imminent summer conference season, a book proposal, detailed chapter outlines, even some things that some day may actually start to look like chapters of the book I want to complete this summer.
b) I have been preparing for the beginning of the next project, which should start in September, by finalising a number of administrative details including, most time-consumingly it turns out, organising an ethical review of the project and responding to several ethical queries raised by the body funding the work. Because the basis of the project involves documentation relating to the medical histories of ex-servicemen from the First World War, this has turned out to be more complicated than anticipated, as I will come back to in a minute.
c) Three members of my close family are suffering from illnesses which have involved a significant commitment of temporal and emotional resources from me, including multiple trips to the US. The severity of these conditions ranges from the life-threatening to the debilitating but all have been life-altering, both for the sufferers and for those of in their immediate family who, along with a variety of medical professionals, are seeking to care for them.

Now, you may have noticed that I am being rather vague about the specific details of the illnesses that have become such a central part of my life recently. This is deliberate. I have spoken in more detail about what is happening with various friends and colleagues who may be able to identify some or all of the family members I am referring to. Even then, outside my family and one or two very close friends whose support in maintaining my own equilibrium has been invaluable to me, I have not confided the precise details of diagnosis, treatment or prognosis.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, these medical details are not mine to share. They are, by all accepted ethical standards, the information of the patients. They have chosen to share this information with me (thankfully, as this has allowed me to offer what support I can to people I love very much and who are important to me), but have not necessarily chosen to share it more widely. It is not my right to share it in ways that they might not wish me to, however much the information shapes my own life. Indeed, on at least one occasion I have been asked specifically not to discuss the situation in detail with people outside the immediate family.

But, even if I had the explicit permission of the primary individual to share this information, there are other important considerations I need to take into account before discussing these illnesses. Because the sufferer and I are not the only ones involved. Coping with these conditions has, in all three cases, involved important interconnected networks which include, from my perspective, my husband, my parents, my siblings, my dad’s wife and her daughters, my children and my in-laws. All of us within these networks have our own emotional relationship with the illnesses and those suffering from them (as well as a variety of other additional stresses in our live – new jobs, house moves, professional concerns, etc.) Not all of us might be comfortable with a public discussion of the details of the medical matters that are shaping all our lives so profoundly.

Which brings me back to those ethical questions that I have been attempting to answer over the past six weeks. I was asked, among other things, to confirm that the information I will be collecting and analysing for the project is in the public domain and does not contravene any data protection laws. As it happens, the information is all publicly available and, because the subjects whose data is being scrutinized are dead, data protection laws do not apply. However, I was also asked to consider whether I was likely to reveal information (specifically medical details) that might be considered sensitive to those who are living. And here the issue of confidentiality arises. Because while the data involved may not be that relating to any living person, there is the possibility that the stories the data has to tell – about medical conditions and the care provided and received for these conditions – might be considered sensitive by surviving family members. Information about the nature of a wound or illness might be exposed which challenges the family stories told about a relative. Details of care might reflect new light on the behaviour of surviving family members. Embarrassing details about the effects of wartime injuries might emerge. As I haven’t yet done the research, I don’t know if such information will emerge; even if it does, I cannot predict whether any individual family or family member might be negatively affected by the information if they ever become aware of my research. Ethically I cannot ignore the possibility and must consider what contingencies I must put in place to ideally prevent and, in the worst case, remedy, any such effect.

The result has been a number of long and very fruitful conversations, in person, on the phone and via email, with a variety of archivists, data protection officers and researchers working in related ethical fields. The ultimate conclusion is that I will keep the sensitivity of the information I am dealing with in mind as I undertake and eventually publish my research. I will pseudonomise sources, although this will have to be balanced by the necessity of maintaining appropriate conventions of citation for my field. And I will continue discussing, with peer reviewers, with colleagues, with archive and university officials, the appropriate course to take in the specific contexts that may (or may not) arise.

There is, it turns out, no simple concrete answer to this sort of ethical question, and nor should there be. But I think it is helpful for me to acknowledge that, throughout this process my sensitivities and consequent decisions will be shaped, in part, by my awareness of my own willingness to share my family’s medical history in public. If I am unwilling to discuss certain details of my own family’s situation, including both the patients and carers, in public, how much can I ask of the families of the men I am researching? The answer is, at the moment, I don’t know, although I suspect it will change over time. However, I can say that my personal experience has re-emphasised for me the importance of the project I will be undertaking. Because to fully understand medical care-giving, whether historically or today, we must acknowledge and understand the role, and consequent sensitivities, of the family.

A letter to the Imperial War Museums

The following post contains links to a pay-walled site, for which I apologise, but I hope the gist will be clear. On 24th February, 2015, The Times published a brief report on plans by the Imperial War Museums to introduce reduced hours and daily charges of £14 a day for use of their London reading room, the only place scholars and researchers can access the unique collection of documents and books relating to modern warfare which form the basis of the Museums’ collection. This plan is modification of an original plan to close the library and Explore History facilities. It has, however, caused great concern among scholars, myself among them. I was one of over seventy academics and historians to sign a letter to The Times, written by Dr Clare Makepeace of University College London and published on 26th February, expressing our belief that these plans will negatively impact on future scholarship, impair understanding of modern conflict, and silence the voices of veterans of two world wars who are no longer with us, voices that continue to need to be heard in our society. There was not space in the letter to give voice to the huge range of concerns about specific impacts that these plans may have, but one that was voiced by many involved was the impact on post-graduate and early career scholars, those whose work has the potential to be most original but who are often shortest of discretionary funds for research. I am taking this opportunity, therefore, to host the publication of an open letter to the Imperial War Museums, written by Christopher Phillips of the University of Leeds and signed by seventeen other postgraduate students, which clearly articulates these concerns. If you are a postgraduate and would like your name added to the list of signatories, please contact Chris at with your name and institution.

Dear Ms Lees,

Having read the letter to The Times by Dr Clare Makepeace and seventy-six academic colleagues (published 27 February), we would like to place on record the reservations of the postgraduate and undergraduate communities over the proposed changes to IWM’s research provision.

The decision to charge £14 per day for researchers to access IWM’s collections will have a disproportionately negative effect on the student population and will materially alter the manner in which researchers approach IWM as an institution. At best, the £14 per day charge will lead undergraduate and postgraduate researchers to rely upon material which has already been highly cited in academic and popular works, leading to a narrowing of focus upon a relatively small number of the collection’s holdings and a commensurate reduction in the development of original, ground-breaking research based upon the exploration of previously under-used material. At worst, IWM’s decision to charge researchers £14 per day will result in a significant number of students choosing to forego any engagement with the collections whatsoever. As the letter signed by our academic colleagues makes clear, such actions will serve only to impair our understanding of modern warfare.

Primary research at undergraduate and postgraduate level is a significant aspect of academic learning. The writing of dissertations and theses plays a fundamental role in introducing new material to the historical conversation and in testing, challenging, and improving the work of established academics, many of whom have already registered their concern and discomfort at the proposed changes to IWM’s services.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Phillips, PhD student and Postgraduate Tutor, University of Leeds
Christina Andrew, President of the War Studies Society, King’s College London
Aimée Fox-Godden, PhD student, University of Birmingham
Alina Enzensberger, PhD student, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin
Carlos Alves Lopes, PhD student and integrated researcher, Instituto de História Contemporânea, Lisbon
Linda Maynard, PhD student, Birkbeck, University of London
Meighen McCrae, DPhil candidate, Linacre College, University of Oxford
Margarida Portela, PhD student and integrated researcher, Instituto de História Contemporânea, Lisbon
Adam Prime, PhD student and Postgraduate Tutor, University of Leicester
Philippa Read, PhD student and Postgraduate Tutor, University of Leeds
Claire Rennie, PhD student and Postgraduate Tutor, University of Leeds
Olivia Tidswell, MA student, University of Leeds
Michael Reeve, MA student, University of Leeds
Melyssa Dawson, MA student, University of Leeds
Patrick Watt, PhD candidate and Postgraduate Tutor, University of Edinburgh
Vicky Davis, PhD student, Institute of Historical Research, London
Ashleigh Gilbertson, PhD student, University of Adelaide
Caitriona McCartney, PhD student, University of Birmingham

Tears, idle tears

Never let it be said that the BBC’s flagship television programme marking the centenary of the First World War, Britain’s Great War, has had no impact on academic research. Following a flippant comment on Twitter, in response to Jeremy Paxman’s description of members of the British cabinet crying at the outbreak of war, I seem to have rather publicly committed myself to writing an article on British soldiers crying during the First World War.

This is actually slightly less ambitious and out of left field than it might first appear. I have a number of examples of men crying, and commenting on crying in relation to their masculine sense of self, while at the front. I am also actively looking for examples of men showing emotion through tears in hospital. These are examples of men crying as a response to fear or to pain. Following from André Loez’s article in Macleod and Purseigle (eds.), Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in War Studies (Brill, 2004), on French soldiers’ tears, I suspect there are also men who cry out of grief and relief/joy.  I would love to find more examples of these, so if anyone comes across any, please do let me know.

I have also been working my way through quite a lot of literature on the history of emotions, as I try to work out my theoretical and methodological approach to the study of masculine subjectivity, something that has definitely changed since I published my book five years ago.  This is a fascinating and complicated subject that I will be posting about at greater length in the near future.  Having a discrete, concrete project to work on that allows me to put a mass of theory into some sort of practice should be quite a useful discipline.  I have always been the sort of researcher who needs to write as she goes, if only to keep my ideas in order.

So I will keep hunting for examples of men whose stiff upper lip trembled far more often than we might believe, and work at locating them in the context of the history of emotions in wartime.  Thank you, BBC and Twitter, yet another job to add to my list!

Scribble, scribble, scribble

So, it is the first week of October and I find myself faced with a series of deadlines for pieces of written work.  In the next two months I need to give a conference paper on voluntary medical services during the First World War, complete an encyclopedia entry on subjectivity and emotion in the British armed services and submit a preliminary application for a grant.  All three are fairly major, if short, pieces of writing for important and potentially (at least in the case of the encyclopedia article) extensive audiences.  They also all need to be constructed in different registers – one to be delivered verbally, one with objectivity (about a highly emotive subject) at its core and one aimed at a non-specialist but nonetheless highly erudite audience. This is going to be a unique challenge for me, both in terms of tackling new forms of written work and new research ideas, and in terms of the amount of work and flexibility that is going to be required of me.

I have been thinking about them all for a considerable period of time, including writing outlines, but it is only this week that I have started putting pen to paper to flesh out my ideas.  Already I have found myself coming up against questions about how I organise my ideas and my time.  Today’s experiment involves using very short periods of time to work intensively on several projects in rotation.  Next week, when I have scheduled a day in the library to flesh out my references, I will be able to compare my productivity with a day spent concentrating on just one piece for a more extended period.  It will be interesting to see how things turn out and to see what approaches work at different stages in the writing process.

Time permitting, I hope to blog about the process and use the opportunity to reflect on how (and why) I write history.  With any luck, by the end of the month I will have drafts of all three pieces and avoided a nervous breakdown.  Then the fun of editing will begin…

Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers?

A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post.  While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:

The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces).  My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor.  My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.

Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in.  And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow.  Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course.  Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.

Is this because of their respective sexes?  I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex.  And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).

And yet, and yet…  My son has always built things.  He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work.  My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can.   I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex.  As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.

Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the  war.  No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.