Feminism, history and Suzannah Lipscomb

was glad, and unsurprised, to hear that Suzannah Lipscomb is an out-and-out feminist. “I don’t think anyone of sound mind could be otherwise”, she tells me. The plight of feminists has changed significantly in the last twenty years, and it is certainly still needed now. Lipscomb points to the regressive steps that have occurred regarding gender equality – namely the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies.

But the academic realm of Oxford was not where she came across sexism. Lipscomb says that here she felt she was in a safe place as a woman, as both under- and post-graduate. Nor is it especially sexist in the higher echelons of the academic world to which she now belongs, it’s a progressive area with positive changes being made regarding gender equality. Yet she was stunned to find that in the working world, after many years of studying at Oxford, she was minimised because she was a woman. A common and unwelcome reaction from people meeting Lipscomb for the first time is to say: “you don’t look like what we’d expect a historian to look like” – an indicator of the inherent sexism of society, the misconception that a historian would be older, perhaps rather plain looking, and probably male.

In a recent article on feminism, Lipscomb commented on “the media adulation of women who have achieved nothing beyond looking good, be they Jordan or Kate Middleton.” Reading this, I was struck – could a historian who writes of past monarchs with such vitality, possibly think that the monarchy today is irrelevant? Confining them within a critique of glossy magazines rather than giving them proper recognition for their pertinence? No, not at all – Lipscomb describes herself as a monarchist (admittedly probably conditioned by the nature of her work and interests). By making the remark that she did, Lipscomb was finding fault not with Kate Middleton, but with the media and its absurd obsession with the appearance of public figures. Yet she admits that “looking good” is a large part of what Kate Middleton’s job is. It is difficult for a royal to make a political statement or opinion without an uproar from the media; theirs are the faces of Britain, but not its voices. And so yes, maybe Kate hasn’t achieved much beyond an impeccable dress sense and taming her mane, but in this day and age it’s actually not for her to be doing much more.

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Considering today’s obsession with aesthetics, it’s hardly surprising that TV history is so popular. When I asked whether televised history lacks the depth and quality of written history, Lipscomb emphasised that TV history has a number of benefits that academic books are without. Yes, the average documentary has far fewer words than an academic article, or even a lecture, but what the production team do with the visuals is invaluable. Places, objects, re-enactments – television has a very different impact to a book; it can provoke empathy and stimulate the senses, making the past more accessible. If anything, history on the television leans towards empathy with the past at the expense of how different it actually was. As the popular adage goes, ‘history belongs to everyone’. It is important to have it in the public forum, on the TV, to interest people who are not yet interested.

On the topic of commemorating the World Wars whilst conflicts still ravage the world today, Lipscomb was definite that it was right and proper to memorialise those who fought in World Wars One and Two, especially considering veterans still live today. These conflicts were significant to the formation of our people. Lipscomb noted that, as a historian, it is important to prevent false narratives being spread; when topics are popularised in this way they are inevitably taken out of the diligent and professional hands of the historian, yet the accuracy of these formative events is crucial. Lipscomb believes that a ‘Just War’ is possible, and pacifism is not an appropriate response to the current situation in the Middle East, for example. Britain’s response to the situation in Syria regarding refugees is not ethical, and this is a consequence of not getting involved militarily.

Discussing war and defence, I wondered whether that should be a factor in the EU referendum. With the current focus being largely economic, was it not also appropriate to discuss potential inter-European war and peace? That was, after all, the very reason for the formation of the European Union; to keep the peace in the wake of World War Two. The pro-EU politicians can count on Lipscomb for her vote. The defence point, she commented, makes a lot of sense. Organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations are flawed, but they are the best options we have regarding working together and ensuring peace. “Leaving the EU would be foolish – we would suddenly realise how small an island we