Professor Brenda Stevenson smiles as she stands at a window in St John’s College against a background of lush green gardens

Philanthropy Report 2021/22

Leading the way in the field of women’s history


The Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History has been established at Oxford, representing a significant step forward in this area of study at the University and across the globe.

The discipline of women’s history at the University of Oxford is rooted in the feminist mobilisation of the 1960s and 1970s. During this period, author and Oxford alumna Sheila Rowbotham expressed her frustration at seeing no mention of women in the history that she studied. So, she wrote a book in 1973 entitled: Hidden from history: 300 years of women’s oppression and the fight against it. Since that time the field of women’s history has flourished at Oxford, culminating most recently in the establishment of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History, made possible with the support of donors.

The first incumbent of this post, Professor Brenda Stevenson, is very clear on the importance, the relevance and the lasting legacy of her new role. ‘I’ve been told that it is the first actual chair of women’s history known to exist in the world,’ says Professor Stevenson. ‘I thought they were mistaken. I began looking around and I didn’t find another one. I know many historians of women who have endowed chairs, but this was actually named for women’s history, which is just incredible.

‘It means that women’s history is here to stay, not just at the University of Oxford, but globally. Knowing that Oxford has a chair of women’s history brings a lot of recognition and prestige to the subject for young people who are deciding what they want their careers to be like. And it is named for Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the most impactful women alive in the world today.’

‘It’s definitely an exciting time. Whenever you work on people who have been ignored in the past – intellectually, academically, ignored by larger society – that’s quite incredible’

Professor Brenda Stevenson

History has typically been seen through the male lens because, in most cultures, men have defined what the world is – from society and intellect to economy and government. However, half of the world’s population is female. Sharing their history should not be a radical act, but one that recognises women as the agents of change that they have always been.

‘Women’s history really began somewhat traditionally, with people looking at the most important women in our society, for example heads of state, monarchs, the extremely wealthy or what we defined as “elite” in some way,’ says Professor Stevenson. ‘And, then, as part of social history in general, we began to look at women as we did men and their roles within our societies. Now we’ve also come to look at other questions: the definition of a woman. Is it a biological designation? Is it something that is cultivated within our society, with people who we designate as “girls” at birth socialised within their particular culture? It’s an incredible adventure to think of any aspect of life as we know it and investigate it from a perspective of womanhood or femaleness – even that category itself is something that we can investigate and to which we can bring clarity.’

Professor Brenda Stevenson smiles to camera as she stands in one of the quads at St John’s College
Professor Brenda Stevenson in the Front Quadrangle at St John’s College. Photo by John Cairns

In terms of historical sources, Professor Stevenson strongly advocates returning to “traditional” archival sources to discover suppressed voices – re-reading and reinterpreting documents to find women who may be hidden there. She explains: ‘If you say, for example, 52 men did something, but you know there were 100 people in the room, does that mean 48 women were there? We have to actively build archives that also include “marginalised” peoples. We need to properly use material cultural items that we find in museums, at archaeological sites, in landscapes and in architecture that can tell us a great deal about the lives of people that we don’t necessarily think about. Songs, jokes, riddles, folklore, stories of the past, ideas about space and science… there’s so much to be found because everything that is recorded about human life tells us something about people of a particular time or place.’

‘The entire globe can learn about what women have been able to do to contribute and what difference that has made for the world at different times’

Professor Brenda Stevenson

For many generations, women of all ages, girls, and those who identify as female have lived – and continue to live – in societies that are largely patriarchal. There are lessons to be learnt today from the amplification of women’s voices in history, not least how people not only survived, but came to carve out fulfilling lives and made valuable contributions.

‘We can learn a great deal from simply saying what people have done at the edges of society to make their lives pleasant, important and significant,’ says Professor Stevenson. ‘And the remedies that women have created for themselves, their families and their communities are remedies that we can use to help us with problems that we have today: being mediators in disputes and using creativity to solve problems, whether small problems within one’s family, or large problems within wider society.’

A key priority for the Hillary Rodham Clinton Chair of Women’s History now is to create momentum, building on the considerable legacy in this field at Oxford. Already there have been twice as many applications for the Master’s in Women’s, Gender and Queer History this year than in 2020/21, the course’s inaugural year. Fresh, new programming includes a luncheon series through the Centre for Gender, Identity and Subjectivity, which was set up in the Faculty of History in 2014, as well as workshops, talks and events in partnership with other areas of the University and internationally. ‘We’re bringing more people to the intellectual landscape of Oxford,’ says Professor Stevenson, ‘sharing their ideas and their work with people. We’re building up the synergetic forces, because we want to establish programming that really is going to have impact on women, girls and older women across the globe.’

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