International Women’s Day: The women that shape my PhD

March is Women’s History Month, and today (March 8th) is International Women’s Day: a global celebration (which has apparently been observed since the early 1900’s) of ‘the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women’, and a ‘call to action for accelerating gender parity’. There are lots of ways that you can take part in this global event, from simply celebrating the women in your life to taking part in a strike, march or organised event.

Today, I’ll be spending the morning at the Centre for Textile Conservation learning about costume mounting, meeting some PhD friends after lunch to do some group writing, and then heading to my weekly pottery class. None of this feels particularly International-Women’s-Day-ish, and so this blog post is my own little way of celebrating. I am going to tell you about the women that inspire and shape my PhD research & my academic life. 

The Supervisors

I’m so lucky to have two totally amazing women as my supervisors. They are both brilliant at what they do and conduct research projects that are just so cool I sometimes can’t believe that people get paid to do that (obviously not doubting that they should be, they work very hard). They are so generous with their time, patient with my countless changes of tack and kind with their criticism. One of them even allows a solid 15 minutes for dog chat at the end of our meetings. I’m not sure how I’ll make any significant decisions without running it by them when I finally finish this PhD! I am also lucky to have extra support from the awesome women I work with as part of my museum internship, from whom I have learnt invaluable practical skills, professional conduct, patience, organisation and the importance of always having biscuits close to hand.

The Academics

As academic fields go, dress history is a field lucky to be led by a high proportion of women. Women – and a few men – have worked hard over the last century to prove the worth of the study of dress, and to make sure dress has a presence both in academia and museums. There are so many women whose work I could praise here, but it seems logical to mention Lou Taylor, one of the pioneers of the field who is also quick to praise the work of other women. I have a quote from Taylor’s essential  2004 publication, Establishing Dress History, stuck over my desk at all times:

‘Museums may be carriers of memory, but for all too many years this excluded women’s memories.’  – Lou Taylor

As far as the First World War aspect of my research goes, there are two academics without whom my own work would not be the same. Archeologist Sarah Tarlow, who completely changed the way I think about emotion and objects, and historian Susan Grayzel, who wrote the book on women during WW1. The following quote is not specific to women, but it beautifully demonstrates the power of objects, and how they can potentially be used to explore women’s lives, which are so rarely documented in text. (This is also the quote I always use to explain my research to new people).

‘If we find an ancient shoe in an archeological context, it might tell us about ideas of the body, habitual activities, aesthetic preferences, gender, economy, and all manner of other cultural information. The least interesting thing it tells us is that people in the past had feet.’ – Sarah Tarlow, The Archaeology of Emotion and Affect


‘The War Brownies’ – munitions workers, 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Journalists  

I have spent every single day of my PhD with a number of women about whom I know very little except their names, and even those may not be real. Florence “Butterfly” Roberts, Mrs Jack May, Ella Hepworth Dixon and “Juno” were all journalists working for fashionable women’s magazines during the First World War. They wrote beautifully, enthusiastically, honestly and hopefully about fashion, lifestyle, etiquette, women’s war work and even gender politics during four harrowing years of war. They advised women who’d been three or four times bereaved on the correct etiquette for mourning dress, they spoke practically of the need for women in work to don trousers for the first time, and they even shared their thoughts on what to wear in the case of bombing raids.

Most significantly, as far as my research is concerned, they defended the right of women to enjoy fashion and clothes despite the apparent frivolity of this within the context of war. They argued not only that continued expenditure on fashion would preserve female jobs, but also give many women the inner-strength they needed to face another day at war. As observed by Ella Hepworth Dixon in June 1916:

‘The fact is that clothes […] are among the few weapons with which women are permitted to combat the world. Great things hang on their personal appearance, and women are quite aware of this. The wise ones cherish and sharpen this weapon, which is, at the present stage of civilisation, of the utmost importance.’ – Ella Hepworth Dixon, The Lady’s Pictorial 

The Peers

I have written in two recent posts (here and here) about how much I value my PhD-peers, and am inspired by their dedication, ingenuity and huge intellect. These (mostly women) work SO hard, and without exception tackle about a billion other projects while also powering through their PhDs. They do jobs and internships, plan conferences, write blogs, teach, get married, have babies, establish societies, publish books and articles, make things and also manage to lead regular lives.

On this subject, I’d also like to mention something I helped to achieve recently about which I feel massively proud. Of the 14 panels at the conference I co-organised last month (with two brilliant PhD-women), 13 had more women than men or a 50/50 balance, and women also outnumbered men at our museum evening event. Men’s contributions were of course both welcome and valued – particularly our brilliant keynote Professor Tony Pollard – but the predominance of women was unusual for an event focused essentially on war studies. We managed to highlight and celebrate both women in research and women’s history, and I really could not have hoped for anything more.

The Others 

There are so many other women whose work and influence I would like to discuss here; those who may not directly influence my research, but who have changed the way I think about something, or distracted me when I needed it most.

As many PhD students will attest, it can be hard to keep up with non-PhD reading. However, there are some books that just can’t be ignored for long, and for me, many of those books are  published by the amazing (women-run) Persephone Books, who primarily publish early twentieth century fiction by overlooked or forgotten female writers. Two of the books that have provided the most absorbing and enjoyable PhD distraction are Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson and The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby. Both these books star apparently quiet women leading apparently quiet lives, who turn into the most unlikely of heroes.


The house once lived in by Winifred Holtby & Vera Britain | A pile of Persephone books

I have also become a total Podcast-addict since starting my PhD, and both The Guilty Feminist (presented by the brilliant Sofie Hagen & Deborah Frances White) and You Must Remember This (made and presented by Karina Longworthhave become real favourites. From the latter, I have learned so much about the achievements and struggles of some early Hollywood film stars about whom I knew nothing beyond their most famous films. Did you know, for example, that during WW2 Austrian born actress Hedy Lamarr invented a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the principles of which are now incorporated into WiFi technology?


Hedy Lamarr in ‘The Heavenly Body’, 1944 | Patent Drawings, 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

This may sound like a list of women that I like, but it is more than that. It is my own celebration of the women that I spend time with, both literally and metaphorically, on a daily basis. These are the women that inspire and shape my own work, and hopefully, make me a better human. I advise you all to think about who would be on your list, and give a little time to thinking about (and thanking) those women. (And maybe end the day by re-watching your favourite episodes of Parks & Rec, because we can all learn a lot from Leslie Knope). 

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