‘Celebrating Leonore Davidoff’, Institute of Historical Research, 27/6/15

Last weekend I had the honour of being invited to speak at a symposium commemorating the life and work of Leonore Davidoff, who died last October.  There were moving speeches from scheduled speakers and audience members alike, and I found it a very touching tribute to a sociologist/historian whose substantial body of work broke a lot of new ground, especially in the fields of gender and family history.

I only got to meet Leonore once and exchanged a couple of emails with her (I always say her last book, Thicker Than Water, _inspired my entire thesis, because it’s true!), so compared to most of the other people there, I felt like I didn’t really know much about her, other than her general influence and what books she had written.  For that reason, my paper had a little less to say than other speakers’ about her as a person and concentrated more on her work as a jumping-off point for mine in various ways.  My aim was to show her legacy and helpfulness to young scholars such as myself right up until the end of her life, and I hope that got through.  I also mentioned works such as _Family Fortunes (written with Catherine Hall) which I always turn to first if I need context about gender or the family in my writing.

I also learned a lot of the background behind books such as Family Fortunes and The Family Story (written with Megan Doolittle, Janet Fink and Katherine Holden).  As I entered the academy after social history, including family and gender history, had become accepted fields of study, it had never occurred to me that Family Fortunes and its ilk could ever have been regarded as anything other than amazing.  However, as Catherine Hall described, Leonore faced a lot of hostility from ‘traditional’ male historians, and some of her work didn’t get the initial recognition it deserved due to such suspicion of ‘history from below’.  This, like when I read in Ann Oakley’s biography of her father, Richard Titmuss, about the undermining of the women who worked with him, reminded me not to get too fake-nostalgic about the 1960s,’70s and ‘80s (_Family Fortunes _was published the year before I was born).  Yes, all this ground-breaking, interesting work was going on, Essex was the hot place for radical new research (maybe I’ve read too many Marina Warner articles or I’m too close to university/department politics, but I just don’t feel that sense of excitement there these days), new journals were starting up, and there were conferences I’d have loved to have been at, but it must have been so, so, SO frustrating and dispiriting to be a woman academic.  I came out of the symposium feeling like Leonore should have been much better-known, and that she had to put up with a lot of stuff we (luckily) don’t have to deal with so much these days - though the sniffiness is still around to some extent.

I also learned a lot about how Leonore worked.  When I’m reading history books, I don’t tend to deliberately think about how the author has put the information across, so my attention was very much drawn to discussions of how she used lots of case studies to make her points and show her findings were not just individual one-offs, but never lost sight of the ‘bigger picture’, such as a common idea she was looking to question.  Maybe that’s something I’ve semi-consiously adopted, as I’ve also gone down the case-study route to disprove the only-child stereotypes with my thesis.  However, it sounds like Leonore was a lot more keen on using historical demography than I am!  My brain is just more drawn to stories, though of course it is important to mix your methods in order to give as solid and convincing a picture as possible.  There was also a lot of talk, particularly concerning The Family Story, of how Leonore was very keen on collaboration, and how we should do more of it as it can bring together research from different geographical areas, helps each author see their work from different angles, and generally makes for more considered writing.  There was no doubt that it was a really fulfilling experience for those who worked on Leonore’s books with her, albeit a cumbersome one in the days before computers!  As an introvert, I’m a bit of a ‘lone ranger’ when it comes to my work, but maybe one day…?

Overall it was a lovely event with a large turnout, and everybody was really friendly, which reassured me about having to speak.  It was also nice to put some names to faces of people whose books I’ve read.  I’d really like to see something ongoing or more permanent come out of all the positivity about Leonore’s many contributions to knowledge - perhaps an edited collection or special journal edition about how she influenced several people, or an annual lecture in her name.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, editor of web content, haver of PhD

Colchester, UK https://www.draliceviolett.com