I’m really pleased to say that I’ve been awarded my first external grant since my PhD. It’s not exactly news anymore by now, but last semester was so busy that I just couldn’t find the time to record things as they were happening. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking about two things in particular: how can I start working with people to whom my research on widowhood really matters; and what is my research and career strategy for the next few years. I regularly advise doctoral students and fellow early-career researchers that, in order to stay sane and be successful, you need some sort of strategy: where do you want to go from here, what are the gaps in your CV you need to fill to get there, and what are the other things that are important to you professionally and that you want to fit into this plan. We can’t say yes to everything, and we can’t be doing everything equally well if do it all at the same time. It took me a while to find my strategy, but I feel like I’m finally getting there.
My first book, The Widow: A Literary & Cultural History, is due to be published by the end of the year, and while I’m proud of the monograph, the idea that this would be all that has come from this work seemed depressing. The stories I discovered were filled with injustice, prejudice, and hardship in many different forms. Yet very few people seem to be aware of the challenges widowhood has presented for women in Britain over the past two centuries on economic, psychological, and social levels, and even fewer are aware that to this very day there are battles left to be fought. Of course one group of women is very much aware of these issues, and that is widows themselves.
I often go on about the benefits of blogging your research, and often I get incredulous looks that suggest it’s not something worth doing – after all, some say, it’s not “proper” publishing, and just a distraction from writing books that a total of ten people will ever read. But it’s because of my blog post on the (frankly appalling) history of widows’ pensions in Britain that a former trustee of the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA) became aware of my work and invited me along to the Association’s annual general meeting a couple of year ago, and allowed me to build a relationship with a political pressure group whose sole purpose is to improve the lives of widows and their families. I remember my first dinner with “the war widows” well. The stories that were being told were the stories I had seen over and over again – with variations – in my research, and to hear them first-hand was both affirming (because my research was uncovering a real problem and filling a real gap in academic and public knowledge) and infuriating (because that often seems the only right response to injustice). Anger, as Maya Angelou said, can be a force for good. Bitterness eats away at its host, but anger can be a catalyst for change. Many of the war widows I have met, and many of the relatives of war widows who are no longer with us, are angry at how they and their families have been treated, and many want their own and others’ stories to be known. War widowhood has conveniently been written out of the history of war, out of the lessons we teach children at school, and out of public narratives of remembrance.
So, supported by the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, I was awarded a Sharing Heritage Grant of £9,800 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to launch the pilot phase of War Widows’ Stories, a project that will raise awareness of the lives of war widows past and present. Over this coming year, together with WWA members and the project’s amazing research assistant, Dr Ailbhe McDaid, we are training war widows and their family members as oral history interviewers and recording the life stories of war widows and their close relatives. These recordings (and transcripts) will be published on the War Widows’ Stories website – http://www.warwidowsstories.org.uk – together with a wealth of other material, such as images, videos, and historical resources that help us contextualise war widows’ stories and build up a sense of the history of war widowhood in Britain. At the same time, of course, we’ll be looking to secure more funding for the project so that we can grow it and involve other partners and more volunteers, and I’m working on several parallel ventures that will hopefully help us spread the word. So stay tuned, and visit the War Widows’ Stories website, where you can subscribe to updates and news as well as discovering what we’ve created so far.