For our Christmas Period Chats Special, we are delighted to present an uplifting and heartfelt interview with the amazing Dr Valerie Wright. Valerie is a huge supporter of what we do, she’s an academic, an advocate for women’s rights, and is an all-around excellent human being. We think she’s super cool, and so will you after you’ve read this. So sit back and relax with whatever festive fare seems appropriate and have a gander at this before you plunge back into Christmas/trying not to murder a family member.
So Valerie tell us a bit about yourself…
I’m a historian of modern Scotland with particular expertise in gender, social and political history. I’m currently working as a Research Associate on the Leverhulme Trust funded project ‘Employment, politics and culture in Scotland, 1955-2015’ based in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. This project focuses on individual and community experiences of industrial closure and deindustrialisation and I’ve spent the last few months out and about interviewing people.
We know you are very supportive of projects/research which promote ‘ordinary’ women. Who is your everyday shero and why?
So surprisingly I’ve found this a difficult question to answer as I have so many everyday sheros! I have many friends, relatives and colleagues that have taught me so much about equality, feminism, motherhood, politics and so many other things I couldn’t begin to list. But in terms of history, and my personal history – well there’s two I could single out.
I’ll start with my great granny Nancy McKernan (nee White) who was what you might describe as ‘a character’. She was strong-willed and had interesting opinions on lots of topics. She once told me when I was around 6 that the famine in Ethiopia was ‘god’s way of reducing the population as there were too many folk in the world’. Her house was what my mum would describe disapprovingly as ‘a guddle’ and she never did any housework if she could avoid it. She wore the same dress every Christmas. She always had a story to tell, like stealing food from the restaurant she worked in during the Second World War.
She was also candid about her personal life. When she was 22 she became an unmarried single mother. She kept her baby who she named after herself, they even had the same middle name. She refused to tell anyone who the father was and claimed that she didn’t care what people thought of her. Her father disowned her, although he eventually forgave her. She later married a man named Joe who adopted Nancy. Tragically my mum’s mum died when she was only four years old. It was a loss that my great granny never recovered from. It was the only thing she wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about.
My great granny McKernan died when I was 18. In the last birthday card she gave me she signed it – ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what to do. Remember, just as I told my father, you didn’t ask to be born’. She was a bit of a rebel my great-granny, and this is what has inspired me. She didn’t care about other people’s opinions, or so she claimed. Sometimes I care too much about what other people think and remember what she might say and then I try and channel her attitude. She could be stubborn and difficult, she had her faults like we all do, but that’s what I loved about her. She wasn’t compliant, quiet and didn’t do as she was told. I only knew her later in her life, I can only imagine what a force she had been as a single mother in the 1930s, who wasn’t ashamed, but instead was fiercely proud of her daughter.
My other everyday shero is my mum Elaine Wright. My mum is the most stoic and selfless person I know. She left school and started work at 15 and as a result has a habit of talking herself down. At one point in the late 1980s when I was in primary school she worked three part-time jobs, as a cleaner in the morning at a police station, then as a dinner lady in a college during the day when we were at school and on weekends she did a morning shift as a domestic in the hospital. She once asked me when I was in secondary school if I was ashamed that she was a cleaner. Why would I be? I wish I had it in me to work as hard as my mum has had to in her life! She’s always liked the people she’s worked with, not always the jobs themselves. I vividly remember her saying to me when I was small, ‘you can be anything you want to Valerie, you could be a career woman’. I might not be a career woman (in 80s shoulder pads and a skirt suit, jetting all over the world) but I’m lucky enough to do a job I love. I know that makes her happy. She is an amazing mum, I could not have asked for a better role model growing up and she continues to be an inspiration to me. I can only hope I’ll be as good a mum to my girls as my mum is to me (but I have nowhere near her levels of stoicism or selflessness!).
How important do feel it is to re-establish gender balance by providing more female role models to young people? How do you think we can achieve this?
For me this is essential to encouraging equality for all, girls have to see women in all sorts of roles in society, as do boys. This is central to realising the change we need. I know my friends with sons worry about this just as much as I do with two daughters. It is important to have prominent female role models in popular culture, pop stars, singers and artists with positive messages for young girls, actors who support equality for all, but for me it’s important for my daughters to see women in science, in academia, as politicians, managing shops and offices, as surgeons, as doctors and dentists, plumbers and tradespeople, and in every other profession and job. As the saying goes ‘you can’t be it if you can’t see it’.
We are lucky that at our primary school we have some excellent teachers both female and male who work very hard to teach the children the value of equity as well as equality – that those that need it the most deserve extra support. We’re also lucky that in Paisley where we live (we’re all proud buddies!) there are some excellent female role models. We have many influential women in Paisley from prominent politicians, artists and singers; strong and vocal women active in a variety of community groups; and last but definitely not least, our very own Jean Cameron who led the town’s bid for city of culture. Jean’s commitment to her job and to our town has been an inspiration for both of my girls and for me too.
In fact, I think that my daughters just take it for granted that girls can grow up in the world and be whatever they want. Perhaps that’s my feminist agenda, with Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls at night, trips to the Women’s Library in Glasgow or Paisley Central Library to borrow books, watching the ‘This Girl Can’ video to encourage them to be active and strong (I’m not very sporty so they need role models elsewhere! Caroline’s started swimming lessons as a result) or constant affirmation that they can aim high and if they work hard they’ll get there. Of course, we also have to acknowledge the barriers that have to be overcome and address inequality wherever it arises – they know that not everyone treats girls the same as boys.
I think that what you are doing as The History Girls is excellent in drawing attention to the many role models in Scotland’s history that young girls and boys can look up to and learn from. My friend’s daughters who attend Burnside Primary recently had a visit from you and could not stop talking about it. They loved it and want to know more. So (and I would say this) history has a really important role to play in highlighting and celebrating female role models from our past, women who overcame adversity and conservative discourses to do important things, not just professionally but in everyday life – from the famous faces to the women who have made a difference in families and communities throughout Scotland.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your research?
In my current job, and in the last research project I worked on, having the opportunity to interview people about their lives has been completely transformative for me in terms of methodology (before I’d worked largely from archive materials). Oral history is not always easy but it is so rewarding. This year it’s been a real privilege for people to share with me their experiences of work, their thoughts and feelings about redundancy and unemployment, and their opinions relating to the long-term consequences of industrial closures on communities in Scotland. Individuals are often telling you things that they’d perhaps not thought about for years, recalling difficult times in their lives and how they overcame this, maybe even experiences they’d not told anyone about. There is a lot of emotion in oral history interviews. There’s also a great deal of responsibility in having people entrusting you with their narratives and I take this very seriously. In the new year, we’ll be holding events to feed back some of our findings so far to ensure that all the people who have shared their experiences feel involved in the research going forward. Also, so far, I’ve been interviewing more men than women, in 2018 we’ll be thinking of new case studies that will focus on female voices in all areas of life.
2017 has not been a great year in general with Trump, Brexit and the public acknowledgement of the sex scandals both in Hollywood and within the UK Parliament. What would you put on your feminist Christmas wish-list for 2018?
Well, it would be a very long list! I’ll try and keep it short. First up, I’d like to see a real ‘sea change’ in attitudes to sexual harassment and assault and not just where it involves women in Hollywood and in prominent positions in political life. While I’m not diminishing the importance of high profile cases in changing attitudes, I’d like to see lasting change for ALL women. This starts with challenging the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality which allows young boys and men to get away with all sorts of behaviour and ‘banter’, which is often simply bullying. The attitude of ignoring and excusing such behaviour ends with a level of male entitlement that is simply unacceptable. Sexism and gender inequality remains a near universal problem. There’s still so much for us to address! Maybe I’m an idealist but we can’t stop until our daughters do not experience the level of sexual harassment that we’ve all had to put up with, that our mothers and grandmothers had to put up with. It’s not ok and we can’t simply ignore it and hope it goes away, or accept it as part of life as a woman.
Also, let’s not forget Trump’s now infamous statement regarding the benefits of his celebrity and power (not to mention the support he has from the alt-right). Explaining the women’s march and the pink pussycat hats to my two daughters remains an important memory from 2017 for me. Sylvie came home from school that Monday and told me that she’d told her friends that the President of America didn’t like women. So secondly, I’d like to see Trump out of the White House too.
My feminist wish list could go on and on, but priorities for me would be equal access to abortion for women in Ireland and an end to period poverty. And, if I had a magic wand (or if Santa was feeling especially generous), I would have a redistribution of wealth and truly intersectional approach to the lessening of inequality at all levels which would benefit everyone (it’s not too much to ask is it!? ;-)).
Lastly, any advice about surviving a PhD and academia in general?
Don’t become too isolated. When you are working on a PhD or are getting stuck in at the archives or with writing, it’s really easy to shut yourself away. It’s important to stay in touch with other PhD students, colleagues and friends within the world of academia who you can discuss your research with and talk through your thoughts on how it’s going. When I was doing my PhD, along with friends and other PhD students we set up Historical Perspectives to create a peer group where we could try out our research, practice presenting and giving constructive feedback. We organised an annual conference to bring together postgraduate students from across Scotland and beyond. I’m happy to say that it’s still going all these years later. Even if you like your own company and work well on your own it’s still good to check in with other PhD students or your friends outside of academia just to get out of the house, office or library. This is part of looking after yourself. Although always avoid overly competitive people, that’s good advice for any walk of life.
In terms of the PhD try your best to finish on time so you don’t have to write up unfunded, but don’t worry if you run over a bit too, life will get in the way of your PhD.
As for surviving academia more generally, well, get to know lots of people and not just in your field. ‘Network’ at conferences but not in a ‘giving business cards out to everyone you meet’ kind of way. Talk to people who give interesting papers, chat to the person sitting next to you at dinner, make small talk, ask about their research. If you are shy or not great in social situations, write an email and tell someone you enjoyed their paper. Everyone likes good feedback on their work.
Thanks again to Valerie for this lovely interview, and for sharing such personal memories and stories with us, and last but not least… Merry Christmas!
-The History Girls