Oral history and liberating women’s voices

Lynn Abrams offers a short reflection on feminist oral history practice based on her Kathleen Fitzpatrick Memorial Lecture at the University of Melbourne in April 2017. The full recording of the lecture can be found here.

Oral history has been at the core of feminist historical practice and research since the earliest days of women’s history within and outside the academy. Historians who wished to investigate women’s lives in the recent past turned to the oral history interview when they were unable to locate archival sources documenting women’s lives, and when they wished to place women’s voices at the centre of their analyses of the past.

But from the very start of the feminist oral history movement historians were reflexive and reflective on the nature of the relationship within the oral history interview. They called attention to the potential for an imbalance in the power ratio between interviewers and respondents and to the relative absence of public narratives that women could draw on to frame their own life stories.

Oral historians strove to overcome these obstacles to hearing ‘authentic’ voices by identifying methodological and analytical approaches that would liberate women’s narratives from patriarchal frameworks. The influential collection Women’s Words: the Feminist Practice of Oral History, edited by trailblazers in women’s and feminist oral history Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai in 1991, encapsulated the various elements of this debate and inspired historians to adapt their practice.

Feminist methodology has since had massive influence in the field of oral history practice and theory, with the majority of reflexive oral history practitioners drawing on the insights of those who pioneered feminist interviewing and analysis. Many of those insights have been adopted across the oral history practitioner community so that our understandings of intersubjectivity, narrative structures and styles and so on are to a significant degree indebted to the observations and insights of feminist oral historians.

Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 8.57.32 PMIt is undeniable that feminist oral historians of the first wave encountered women whose voices were ‘muted’ or who found it difficult to fit their narratives into publically recognised frameworks which were dominated by public history. Women’s life story telling tended to be conducted in different places and for different purposes. Women in many cultures tend to be the keepers of family stories. Yet while their primary roles as carers and nurturers of the young and the old encourages them to sustain family narratives, women seem less likely to privilege personal ego-stories. We still encounter this as oral historians when a female respondent says to us – ‘I don’t think I have anything useful to tell you’.

In the past – even in the recent past – women may have felt uncomfortable about narrating a life story focused on the ‘I’. As many oral historians have noted, women are often more likely than men to situate their experiences within networks of people; they interpret their experiences as contingent and relative to those of others.

This prompted the formulation of a feminist oral history practice that aimed to facilitate women’s speaking and hear what they had to say despite the barriers to ‘authentic’ testimony. Paying attention to and trying to mitigate unequal power relations, attending to intersubjectivity, and ‘learning to listen’ in Anderson and Jack’s words, were all strategies employed to liberate women’s voices and make them matter. These practices, both in the interview environment and subsequently when analysing and writing about our oral history material, are now second nature to the majority of oral historians.

But some twenty or so years on we are arguably in a different environment – at least in the global north – which enables or liberates rather silences women’s oral histories. The confessional culture that has grown up around varieties of life story telling – in a range of media from the television chat show interview to the magazine feature and more recently via social media – not only offers a series of models of life story telling but normalises the practice of narrating a life story in the public domain. Self revelation is more common seemingly than self effacement. And women are at the fore in this confessional revolution, writing autobiographies, engaging in social media and consuming life narratives in all their forms.

Life story curating and telling has become normalised for many women on a variety of platforms so that the oral history interview taps into a vein of stories that may already have been rehearsed (to the interviewee if not a wider audience). And even if this is not the case for everyone, the models available are now so pervasive that they offer the legitimation of woman stories that in the past may have been regarded as trivial or unimportant.

A second enabling factor in liberating women’s voices has been the framework of understanding provided by feminism and the normalisation of a belief in women’s autonomy, women’s right to make decisions that determine their own lives, and – in the global north – gender equality. The generation of women who gained maturity in the decades after World War Two have been able to narrate life stories informed by critiques of gender inequality; the paths taken, the decisions made in respect of careers, personal lives, sexuality and so on, are narrated within a framework legitimised by post-war feminist discourses on choice, independence and self-fulfillment (in contrast to the self effacement and self denial so often practiced by their mothers’ generation – a theme I have discussed elsewhere).

Rather than positioning their stories within a patriarchal framework whereby autonomous decisions were influenced by structural and ideological restraints on women’s education, careers and life chances, the post-war cohort of women is able to reflect on the ways in which they have negotiated family and societal barriers to advancement, understand and critique their experiences and, as a result, are able to narrate an autonomous self across the life course that coheres with their identity in the present. So when narrators recall experiences in the past when they were treated as second-class citizens, denied opportunities or when they were treated not as independent actors but according to essentialist notions of how a woman should behave, they are able to interpret those experiences from a critical and reflexive stance rather than from a position of subordination. Examples range from the banal and humorous to the profound: memories of being denied credit to purchase a child’s pram (the store required her husband’s permission) on the one hand, and at the other extreme, difficult and painful stories relating to momentous life events – calling off a wedding, going through with a divorce, making the decision to have an abortion.

Drawing on the anthropological insights of scholars like Julie Cruikshank, the linguistic and narrative theory approaches of people like Charlotte Linde and the work of social historians like Penny Summerfield, all of whom have drawn our attention to how oral history narratives are contingent on a discursive and material context, I suggest that women – or at least some women, primarily those who have benefited from the material and ideological change of the post-war decades – have the confidence and the words to speak ‘authentically’. By this I mean they have knowledge of the validity of their experiences and life decisions and in turn they interpret these as valid and meaningful in the context of life stories. They do not need to validate their life stories with reference to the experiences and activities of men or to the public record.

Of course this is not a universal experience. The gender equality framework that liberates some voices inevitably closes down others. Not all of our female respondents will have found their voices but in hearing the stories of those who have we can hope that a virtuous circle is created whereby all kinds of women speaking about their lives in public encourages others to do the same.


Screen Shot 2017-07-11 at 8.57.12 PMLynn Abrams is Professor of Modern History at the University of Glasgow, UK. She has published extensively in gender history and oral history including: Oral History Theory (Routledge, 2016 and companion website), Myth and Materiality in a Women’s World: Shetland, 1800-2000 (Manchester University Press, 2005), and ‘Story-telling, Women’s Authority and the “Old Wife’s Tale”: The Story of the Bottle of Medicine’ in History Workshop Journal (2012). She is currently researching women of the postwar ‘transition generation’. Some of her early findings from this project are published in ‘Liberating the female self: epiphanies, conflict and coherence in the life stories of Post-war British women’ in Social History (2014). 

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