Women ask different questions
Dr Lucy Robinson, senior lecturer in history, teaches contemporary British history and is the academic lead for the digitisation project Observing the Eighties and a founding organiser of the Network for Subcultures, Popular Music and Social Change.
I had a baby at 17, which was a big gamble. This happened after I had politely been asked to leave school at 15. I haven’t got the sort of brain that works very well in that sort of disciplined, tidy way. My teachers thought I was really smart, but lazy. I thought I was really stupid.
Fortunately I was able to access courses through the youth service. By the time I was 19 I was running two youth clubs and working with young people who were actually older than me. I knew I needed to be a graduate to move on.
It took me three years to get an A level, but I was able to use it to get onto a Bachelor of Education course at Oxford Polytechnic [now Oxford Brookes University]. I was going to be a primary school teacher, but I realised I wasn’t cut out for the bureaucratic rigours, so I swapped to a joint degree in English and History. A whole generation of kids has been saved!
I was reading Lenin for love at home. I didn’t have a lot of the basic skills to study, but I was politically active and I know I had done more reading than my fellow students. At the end of my degree I thought, now I get this. I can do this.
I came to Sussex to do an MA in sexual dissidence and it was just incredible. It totally challenged lots of my ideas. It made me think about community in a different way. I had shared houses with gay men during Clause 28, and it didn’t take a lot of political theory to work out that gay people and teenage mums were being vilified.
I see myself as a cultural and political historian. A lot of my research is inspired by conversations with my family or thinking about what matters - from the memoirs of Falklands War veterans, to the rise of charity singles, to the fandom of One Direction, to everything about the 1980s.
I leave other people to tell the stories of dead white European men. All the female historians I know are producing amazing work. I think we are asking different questions. It’s pretty hard to be a female academic and not be aware of the complex intersections between race, class and gender.
Historians have a social role today – to act on the world that they are in. The most radical thing you can do with history as a discipline is to move beyond that idea that we can learn lessons from the past and apply them today.
We can put ourselves alongside the people we are studying and have conversations with them. It’s democratising because it allows their experiences and memories to be as important. Historians aren’t the only ones thinking about the past and asking where the power lies, where the money goes.
I like things that are messy and make people slightly uncomfortable. Five years ago I was diagnosed with an inherited condition – ehlers-danlos – which is a connective tissue disorder and probably explains why my early school years were difficult. My handwriting was quite a bone of contention. My condition means that my body has no sense of its own boundaries, which also sums up my approach to academia.