Cambridge’s history faculty responds

Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Nick Guyatt are historians at the University of Cambridge and form part of its Gender Working Party. The organisation was formed to address issues relating to gender inside the history faculty, including recently the number of firsts going to female students being disproportionately lower than those to males. They respond below to Hannah Wilkinson’s previous article published earlier this month.


We note with concern (and appreciation) Hannah Wilkinson’s frustration with the integration of women’s history in the Cambridge History Faculty’s undergraduate programme.

Women’s history is a challenging and interesting field, and it should be impossible to teach any subfield of history without full consideration of the role of women – regardless of whether their importance has been fully registered by the sources available to us. Having one’s attention drawn to the absence of women from political history, most social history and many text books changes the way one thinks about the past.  The sources and methodologies used to study women can be different; traditional chronologies are often disrupted; silences must be noted and interpreted. Women’s history is central to understanding the history of labour, migration, culture, popular protest, the body, sexuality, and emotions, to name just a few areas where women’s history has driven forward innovation in methods and concepts. It is notable that many students – again, both male and female – take up women’s history projects in their Part II dissertations. One such last year on Pakistani-British women migrants to West Yorkshire gained the prize for best performance.

The current History Tripos papers attempt to integrate women’s history into their wider sense of the field. For some students, this allows for a full and satisfying engagement with women’s and gender history approaches. For other students, as Hannah fears, patterns of teaching may serve to isolate women’s history in a single topic or week. There are some methodological problems with studying women as a category, and assuming a shared biological history: but this is not a reason for not teaching women’s history. Moreover, with a rapidly increasing scholarship on the experience of women across the entire range of historical research, the idea of containing women’s history within a single “gender week” is becoming an anachronism.

The History Tripos changes from year to year, and there have been a number of papers which deal exclusively or very largely with the concerns of women’s history. Hannah’s suggestion that the Special Subject on nineteenth century masculinities represents a backwards step, however, is mistaken. Historical work on masculinity has always been built on the insights and methods pioneered by historians of women and gender, and the new Special Subject is a good example of this. Indeed, it was designed to engage critically with precisely the traditional male-centred approaches in political history that Hannah describes.

The most prominent gender history course (‘the Politics of Gender’, a Part II Specified) was in fact one of the longest running papers in the entire Tripos, spanning 2001 to 2015. Its popularity reflected the central importance of the study of gender within the more advanced areas of the Tripos.  Nonetheless, Hannah is right to prompt us to do more to make women’s history available – and not just as a ‘bolt on’ to more ‘mainstream’ (or malestream) topics. We are particularly keen to motivate all of our colleagues to teach it routinely, and to deter anyone from delegating this task to historians who specialise in women’s or gender history. The reform of Part I of the Tripos offers an immediate opportunity to ensure that women’s history features more prominently in undergraduate study.

As the reform process gathers pace in the next year or two, we will continue to encourage new papers and teaching methods that inspire undergraduate historians at Cambridge – and that fully address the concerns Hannah has registered.


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