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Response to Review of The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945

We are grateful for Dr. Goskar’s generous and thoughtful review of The Aftermath of Suffrage as it invites us to think more deeply about the status and scope of women’s history at present. In our collaborative work on this volume, we were forcefully reminded of the persistent barriers between historical fields and approaches, and the difficulty of convincing the majority of political historians of modern Britain to prioritise gender as an analytical category, and even to include women as subjects of their research. Perhaps less has changed in the mind set of political historians, despite the ‘new political history’ (itself not of particularly recent vintage) and the seeming status quo of the trinity of class, race and gender in teaching and scholarly endeavour. In planning the volume and the accompanying conference in 2010–11, we did try to break through these boundaries, and one of our aims was to rethink the advent of universal suffrage in 1918 alongside that of women’s partial suffrage as granted by the Representation of the People Act. There remains, however, considerable work to be done in that respect.

It is still very difficult to get women’s history out of the ghetto, it would seem. On the other hand, women’s history, in the modern British context, has not been static. It has also gone through different phases, from the liberationist agenda of those conducting recuperative studies in the 1970s and 1980s; to the next generation in the 1990s and 2000s ready or compelled to accommodate the ‘turn to gender’ into their analytical frameworks, which also tended to set aside the overt feminist purpose of women’s history research; to the present when we might well be seeing the rebirth or a ‘new women’s history.’ Goskar is gratifyingly optimistic in calling this a ‘return’ to women’s history, but we may also note that, like all returns, much has been assimilated along the way.

Perhaps the most striking feature of this new women’s history is how it has taken the ‘political turn’, bringing us back to researching women in politics, women politicians, and the interaction of women’s organisations with national and political superstructures. If the old(er) women’s history luxuriated in unearthing women’s separatist struggles and achievements in the suffrage movement, in all-women associations, and as rebels and sexual revolutionaries, the new women’s history is more integrative. We are delighted that Goskar feels that our book asked the ‘right questions’ about women in, and as part of, the system.

Yet as women’s historians reach out to colleagues in the academy and beyond, it has not got much easier to get admitted to the bigger conversations, as evidenced by the largely male-dominated representations and commemorations of the First World War so far. However, there remains an opportunity, over the next four years, to address this problem. We hope that, with sufficient effort on the part of public historians, the 1918 centenary of the female suffrage will not be marked merely by some nominal media engagement, but by a broader societal appreciation of women’s political contribution in its broadest sense. If our volume makes at least a small contribution to initiating that process then we shall be very satisfied.