Historian Highlight is an ongoing series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students. In our tenth post, Rebecca Turkington talks about her research into feminist networks in colonial Tunisia and what a global history of feminism can teach us about activism in the present.
What are you currently researching?
My dissertation focuses on international women’s networks in the mid-20th century and asks how anti-imperialist women’s groups functioned in colonial settings. To answer that, I’m looking at chapters of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in colonial Tunisia. Both the Tunisian WILPF and WIDF chapters were originally founded by leftist French women, but to different extents became ‘Tunisified’ over time. I hope to take a closer look at this process, at each group’s relationship with a broader constellation of political actors, and especially at how their membership in a global network internationalized their work.
I’m also currently researching a couple of side projects related to women and American statecraft history—one looking at women and security thinking in the 1930s, and another on U.S. participation in the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women.
What led you to research this topic?
Before Cambridge I worked in policy research on global women’s issues, and much of my current work comes from an interest in historicizing some of the assumptions that govern the gender and foreign policy field. But more than that, it comes from opportunities I had to travel and interview women about conflict, peace, and political transitions around the world. My interest in transnational organizing was driven by hearing over and over how important women’s networks were to advancing equality – whether in Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement negotiations, the 2010 redraft of the Kenyan Constitution, or the #MeToo movement in China. Looking to how international networks like the WILPF and WIDF functioned in the past speaks to broader questions about the opportunities and limits of global feminist solidarity that remain salient for activists.
What’s one thing you wish more people understood about your topic, and why?
I wish there was a greater awareness of the longstanding diversity of the global women’s movement. There’s often a belief that feminism did not truly become global until the 1970s, but a wave of excellent recent work shows the women’s movement was far more international than earlier research suggested, and that those on its ‘margins’ contributed significantly to debates about women’s rights. I think acknowledgement of the role those voices played earlier in the 20th century can bolster local women’s movements today, and dispel the idea that feminism is a foreign imposition – while checking the self-righteousness of some Western governments and NGOs…
What’s one of your favourite historical sources?
I’m working on a paper now about an American disarmament activist and security analyst in the 1930s, and her writings are extremely technical. One of my favorites is a letter she wrote to the Spanish delegate to the League of Nations Disarmament Conference who’d asked her for a primer on the difference between offensive and defensive weaponry and its policy implications. Her response is so detailed at one point gives him a numeric breakdown by gun-calibre of the artillery used during the 1917 Messines attack to argue that converting naval armaments to land use is an unlikely work-around to a ban on heavy land artillery. I have a MA in Security Studies instead of History, and wasn’t sure that it would be relevant to my PhD, so it was gratifying to be able to draw on a body of knowledge about weapons technology I never thought I’d need again.
Have you had to adapt your work to suit recent travel restrictions? If so, has this changed how you approach your topic, or the kinds of sources you use?
Absolutely. I ended up leaning much more on French sources than I might have otherwise, simply because it’s easier to find digitized publications from the French chapters of the WILPF and WIDF. It’s helpful to see how French left feminists thought – or didn’t think – about the colonies, but I’m more interested in what was going on in Tunis than in Paris. Since things have started to open up, I’ve gotten some great microfilm resources, and fingers crossed will be in Tunisia in a couple of weeks for real archive time.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian?
While I was at the Schlesinger Library this winter, I went through the papers of Gerda Lerner —one of the most influential scholars in the development of the field of women’s history in the US. She corresponded with a lot of young historians working on the history of the American women’s movement, and I like her (second-hand) advice about not over-asserting the importance of your own research subjects: ‘History consists of constantly changing interpretations, and claims to primacy of ideas and leadership are really not all that significant. […] What is much more important is to reconstruct the lives, activities, and thoughts of participants with accuracy, wide research, and in such a way that they come alive as persons to the present-day reader.’
And the worst?
This might actually be good advice, but it’s advice I chafe at. I was told that when writing for policymakers one can only expect to move the needle by 3 degrees in either direction – which implies you shouldn’t bother with transformative ideas and should just push for practical adjustments. It’s a prudent reminder of the constraints of policy writing, but I like to think big ideas still matter.
Finally – what’s your must-do Cambridge experience?
There’s so much great chamber music around! The Kettle’s Yard concert series is particularly cool since the venue is Jim and Helen Ede’s art-filled living room, unchanged since 1966.