‘Gender and Space’ Roundtable

This week, I attended a lunchtime ‘Gender and Space’ roundtable held by my department.  It was well-attended and there were lots of questions and discussion, which was great - we didn’t actually think it would fill the two-hour slot the room was booked for, but it did!  There were three main speakers, including a visitor to the department I hadn’t met before, and myself and my fellow PhD student Nicolle Watkins (who chaired) also said a few words.

The discussion was started by Amanda Flather, one of the academics in the department and whose idea it was to have the roundtable.  She particularly addressed how the concept of ‘separate spheres’ is too schematic and abstract considering that men and women did share spaces, and used them in different ways at different times.  She also made the very good point that there’s far more to say about a space than that both men and women happened to use it - for example, men and women who used a space were viewed through different lenses; Laura Gowing has shown how there was a sexual dimension in the way women were accused of being ‘disorderly’ in the streets, whereas men weren’t accused of public misconduct in that way so much.  I also liked Amanda’s reference to the disctinction between mental and physical space -  with people having ‘mental maps’ informing them how to use spaces, and which spaces are dangerous for them to enter.

The second speaker was Margarita Birriel Salcedo, from the University of Granada.  Spanish history and historiography was something I’d never really thought about at all, so it was very interesting to hear how historians of early modern Spain are only in the early stages of investigating the history of space, let alone in conjunction with gender.  Spanish historians hope to work with and build on the work of geographers, architectural historians and anthropologists, who have worked on space, but have taken a very traditional view of the past in doing so, and not asked questions about things such as household, gender, family, class and nationality, or looked at rural areas, but they still have a lot of work to do, including clarifying concepts and establishing categories.  It sounds like there are exciting journeys ahead for some Spanish historians!

We also heard from another member of the department, Amanda Wilkinson, about her work on the nineteenth century census, and how working-class women in particular were working a lot more than historians have previously thought.  Some women even turned ideology totally on its head by having permanent, breadwinning roles while their husbands took whatever casual work they could get.  I was particularly interested to hear about a (exceptional) factory where there was a female middle manager in charge of lots of other women, and their area of the factory was decorated in a particularly ‘feminine’ way as they staked out their space.

I thought my paper might be stretching it a bit - tasked with writing about gender and space, I found the only thing I could say anything substantial about from my research was about boys and girls’ use of street space, and whether they played together or not.  Although it appeared overall that over time, boys and girls came to play together rather than separately, I only had a small number of examples and left the explanation for some children playing in mixed groups but not others hanging a bit.  My paper did put across the point that only children weren’t necessarily isolated, though, which is always good.  People responded well to my paper despite my anxieties that I was stretching the ‘gender and space’ topic, so that was nice.

Nicolle also spoke about her research in the Channel Islands, particularly how men dealt with the trauma of concrete fortifications they had been forced to work on by the German invaders still being there after the war.  The Islanders preferred to commemorate their liberation by the British rather than the occupation, so the physical presence of the fortifications was naturally a bit of a headache.  To this end, many of the fortifications have been turned into museums, again displaying things relating to liberation rather than occupation as a way of negating trauma.

So, as you can see, it was a really interesting session.  As I usually work from home, only really coming onto campus for meetings and teaching, it was nice to actually spend some time with my colleagues and have a bit of a think and a discussion!

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

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