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A woman's history

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A woman’s history

Former Head of History and Art History Professor Barbara Brookes is a leading women’s historian. Over her 35-year career, she has published numerous books, articles and essays on a variety of women’s issues, giving a voice to a side of history previously untold.

When a 17-year-old Barbara Brookes first walked through the gates of the University of Otago armed with a teacher studentship and a passion for the arts, she didn’t expect to embark on a world-leading area of study.

But history has a funny way of repeating itself and, as the first Australasian university to admit women to study law, Otago was a natural home for women’s accomplishment. In her fourth year of an honour’s degree in history, the young Brookes started researching a topic that would take her in a completely new direction to the histories in the books she studied in high school.

"It wasn’t until I began my dissertation [with Erik Olssen] on abortion that I really got interested in women’s history,” says Brookes. “At the time, it was a completely new field and I became fascinated that this whole history of fertility control hadn’t really been told.

“I interviewed some of the women who had founded what was then called The Sex, Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society in the 1930s, and the stories they told me about the desperation of getting pregnant during the depression and arranging back-street abortions were just incredible. Here was this whole untold story. I wanted to know more.”

With Olssen’s encouragement, Brookes won a scholarship to the elite women’s college, Bryn Mawr, in Philadelphia where she completed an MA and, later, a PhD.

“It was fantastic going to the States because that was really the beginning of a burgeoning interest in the study of women’s history,” says Brookes.

“I was able to do both women’s history and the history of medicine with the people who were shaping the field at the time. Before I went to the States, I was in Christchurch doing some relieving teaching, and I remember reading this article by Charles Rosenberg and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg called The Female Animal. It was about medical and biological views of women in the 19th century – and I ended up working with both of them.”

Brookes’ research for her PhD on abortion in England during the inter-war period (which later became a book) broke new ground in the study of history.

“I was often thought to be a sociologist because I was working on abortion and people didn’t really regard that as a historical topic.

“It’s hard to believe now, but it was really new at the time. I went to London to do the research in 1980 and there found a very active feminist history group and that was fantastic because there were people from England, New Zealand and America, and we all met up. We did a book together called The Sexual Dynamics of History. We felt that we were at the forefront of rethinking history around issues to do with women.”

After being awarded her PhD on the day of her 27th birthday, Brookes received a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Otago. A year later, she was offered a full-time job in the Department of History.

Much has changed since Brookes first took up the post in 1983. The department has long since ditched the floating typewriter, while the papers on offer bring the study of history firmly into the present by embracing digital resources and offering a more diverse and interdisciplinary approach. Brookes, with her colleague Dr Dorothy Page, was behind introducing the first women’s history course in the country in 1986 but, 26 years later, the study has become so entrenched in the mainstream that it no longer needs its own papers.

“When we first wanted to introduce a course in women’s history, there were still people saying, what about the men? – even though every other course that was taught was all about the men,” Brookes says.

“Today, there are no specific women’s history papers. That change has come about gradually as more people joined the department who thought about gender.

“We’ve had fantastic students and we’ve probably produced more research on women’s history than any other department in the country – and that’s something we’re really proud of.”

Brookes’ own personal achievements within academia are extensive and varied. Not only to date has she produced nine books, including two collections on New Zealand women’s history, 36 book chapters, around 50 journal articles, numerous conference papers, reviews and seminars, she has also sat on various academic committees, supervised countless PhDs, MAs and dissertations, and been instrumental in creating a community for women academics. Part of this was helping establish the Staff Women’s Caucus at the University, ensuring women had collegial support. She is also the mother of three children and says the success of her career is, in part, due to the University of Otago’s excellent childcare centre.

Brookes’ interest in medical history (abortion was also a medical issue) has also led her to creating a more interdisciplinary approach to medical study through establishing the medical humanities’ electives with her colleague Professor Charlotte Paul in Preventive and Social Medicine. Started in 1996 through a Committee for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CALT) grant, Brookes examines the history of public health through film, one of 18 different humanities’ papers compulsory for third-year medical students.

In 2004, Brookes became Head of Department. While she came to the role with extensive “University experience”, she was faced with leading the relatively recently amalgamated Art History and History Departments and bringing the department into the digital environment.

“It was difficult for Art History – they went from being an independent unit to being part of a larger department,” Brookes says.

“One of my aims was to get people collaborating together. We set up a regular ‘work in progress’ session where we would peer review each other’s work. That’s been really good for everyone, finding out what their colleagues are doing and building trust within the department.”

One such collaboration has been the recently published book, Early New Zealand Photography, edited by History lecturer Dr Angela Wanhalla and Art History lecturer Dr Erika Wolf, which explores the development of New Zealand photography through 24 short essays on individual images.

“I wanted to play to the strengths of both departments and I think the book does that,” Brookes says.

 “We’re the best department in New Zealand. Everyone here is research active, we’re continuing to grow our postgraduate numbers and, increasingly, our reputation is attracting more international postgraduate students.

“When we were joined, students rarely did both subjects, but more students are now likely to do history and art history together and I think that’s beneficial to both subjects.”

Exploring new, innovative ways of teaching history as the department embraces the digital environment has also been a key aim under Brookes’ watch. With the help of CALT grants, the department has grown its “visual” component to course work through papers such as the 200-level Packaging the Past, which explores history in the public realm through structures (such as monuments and buildings), documentary and film.

Brookes’ expertise in archival research from hours spent gleaning court and police records, newspaper reports and medical journals for her PhD has been shared more recently with students through a new first-year paper, Forensic Histories, bringing a more practical dimension to history study. The paper teaches students how to use a variety of research skills, including extensive digital databases, to find out “how we know what we know”.

“To understand the present, you have to understand the past,” says Brookes. “That’s true on a very small scale. In an institution, you have to know how things run and why they did run a certain way, but it’s also true of understanding things on a global stage.

“For a good deal of the 20th century, political and constitutional history were what mattered, but social history has brought the everyday life to the fore. It’s no longer about remembering dates and names. It’s an exciting change in how we study history now.”

Brookes stood down as HOD this year after more than eight years in the job. Her latest project – a book on Anna Longshore-Potts, a member of the first graduating class of the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania – has brought a “nice circularity” to her career. When Brookes first started teaching Early Modern History following Michael Cullen’s resignation, the future Deputy Prime Minister gave Brookes a 19th century book – by Longshore-Potts. Years later, when Brookes was looking for a seminar subject while in Canada, she typed Longshore-Potts into the online resource, Papers Past, and discovered her connection with New Zealand.

“She came to New Zealand twice and had crowded houses both times,” says Brookes. “I want to look at the performance of medicine on the 19th century stage. Anna Longshore-Potts’ journey from Philadelphia to New Zealand in 1883 was one I took in reverse, in 1977. It’s a really exciting project.

“To be a good HOD you have to feel generous to everyone else, so you shouldn’t do it until you’re at that stage of your career when you can put everyone else’s interests first. I was in a position to be able to do that and it’s nice now to be able to take some more time for myself.”

– AMIE RICHARDSON