Thoughts Before the ‘Women in Science’ Interview

Within the next two weeks I will have completed my interviews for the Women in Science Oral History Project. Due to the fact that this is my first oral history project and that the history which I present will be vital to the archives at Royal Holloway, I have had to put a lot of thought into the processes leading up to the interviews.

Before contacting my assigned alumni I had to make sure I had enough background knowledge on her life and her education. From the information in her student files I discovered that my subject graduated from Royal Holloway in 1947 and went on to pursue further study at many prestigious institutions before landing a job in the medical research field. Therefore, she is clearly a very well educated and elderly woman and I will need to take both of these factors into account when conducting the interview

My assigned alumni had also prepared some short notes within the files that I was sent. Within these she expressed her concern over the content of the interviews. She specifically requested that the interview should be conducted under her maiden name and should primarily focus on her working life and education at Royal Holloway, not her private life. The subject’s privacy and wishes are of upmost importance within this process; therefore I will be complying with her requests. I hope to be able to gather interesting and relevant information while adhering to my subject’s wishes.

Speaking to the subject over the phone prior to the interviews was a great way for us to get acquainted with each other. I believe that our 20 minute conversation that included introductions, further explanation of the project and the arrangement of interview dates helped to put us both at ease about the upcoming interviews. She was even kind enough to send me very detailed instructions for the public transport I need to find her house. I am looking forward to meeting my subject for the Women in Science project. I believe that her long and seemingly very interesting life will make a vital oral history for the often-overlooked story of women in science.

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Women and Technology

When choosing a topic for my oral history project I wanted to ensure that it had a link to the ideological origins of British Oral History. For example, I want to understand and uncover the stories of those who have traditionally been overlooked by history. Therefore, I have decided that I want to look at women who were pioneers in working with technology in the 20th century. In a profession that has traditionally been perceived as ‘masculine’, I think it will be interesting to hear the stories of women who undertook these roles. As someone who has always been heavily invested in gendered history I think it is important to look to project like this. Interviewing these women will allow us to comprehend changing gender roles during this era within a professional setting, but on a personal level.

I decided to pursue this particular idea as I was inspired by a recent visit to the Science Museum. The switchboard, which is displayed in the new ‘Information Age’ exhibition, was a brilliant example of how oral history can enhance and bring life and meaning to public history in museums. The switchboard, which originated from Enfield, was purchased by the museum as a display of communication technology from the 20th century. However, it did not showcase any history of the object itself. Ultimately, it was the women who worked with the switchboard and their stories that gave the piece of equipment historical significance.

The Science Museum recognised that simply displaying a historical object was not enough and reached out to the general public in hope that they could speak to people who understood the profession. They were lucky enough to be able to contact and interview nine women who worked as operators in telephone exchanges. Their stories of their working experience and the implications that it had on their lives during the 1950s and 1960s not only made for a much more interesting piece of public history, but it also opened up a new area of historical study that I had not considered previously.

Therefore, I hope to be able to conduct an interview for my project with a similar significance. Interviewing women who were involved in technological developments in Britain will be significant as I aim to discover just how far women were in the ‘background’ of the profession. In this sense I want to attempt to combat stereotypes about women and technological developments in the 20th century. However, in looking at their working lives I want to discover more about how it affected their private lives. In particular, how their work was received in terms of the perceived gender roles of the time.