Last Tuesday the workshop was delighted to welcome Professor Susan Pedersen, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University, to speak about her career as a women’s and gender historian.
Pedersen opened by noting that to tell the story of one’s career as a historian inevitably involves talking about oneself. She reflected on how her unconventional background has been a resource for both her historical training and work and described how personal circumstances influenced each of her book projects in different ways. It was this interweaving of the personal, political and professional that made the talk so compelling. I was left with a real sense of the potential that bringing ourselves as historians into more conscious dialogue with our research subjects has to enrich the histories we write.
Hers was a particular story based on individual experience, but with wide-reaching questions for how we practise history and understand our place within the academy. Pedersen reflected on how her work has been profoundly shaped by two kinds of politics: the politics of the academy and the politics of the women’s movement.
It was women’s liberation that first introduced Pedersen to history. Starting out as an undergraduate planning to major in marine biology, it was her commitment to only take courses taught by women that prompted a change of direction and provided Pedersen with a foundation in women’s history. This strong connection with women’s movement politics has gone on to profoundly shape her research career. As one example, Pedersen’s biography of Eleanor Rathbone, Eleanor Rathbone and the politics of conscience (2004), drew in part on her own involvement with faculty politics to explore how feminists work in institutional structures.
Pedersen described the difficulties early in her career of being one of very few women in the faculty of her age and seniority. How could one juggle the disproportionate committee responsibilities placed on women faculty members? What could be done to broaden the behaviours available to women in academia? However, in institutions such as Harvard, gender was just one of many power dynamics at play. The challenges she faced were often ones of hierarchy in general and were not always gendered.
Highlighting the tendency of institutional cultures to self-perpetuate, Pedersen noted the opportunity to drive change through administrative roles. She seemed particularly proud of initiatives she had helped enable in her years of administrative work – to diversify the academic community and broaden undergraduate opportunities. It was clear that the intersection of Pedersen’s feminist politics and academic work came not just through the subjects of her research but her academic leadership.
Pedersen has had a hugely successful career, publishing influential works in various areas of modern history; the workshop is excited to see how her current research on the Balfour family develops. But throughout her talk, Pedersen emphasised the serendipity of her career and the role of chance – no doubt alongside hard work and talent – in shaping her research. Various appointments and projects, she described, were about being in the right place at the right time. For a profession that relies so often on contingency as an explanatory framework, perhaps we would do well to reflect more on the historical accidents that shape the researchers we become.