Emeritus Professor of Modern History, University of Manchester

Like many key figures over the history of the Social History Society, Penny has strong links with Lancaster. She arrived in the History Department just two years after Harold Perkin established the Society, remaining there until 2000 – by which time she was Professor of Women’s History. She then moved to the University of Manchester as Professor of Modern History. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Science and was Chair of the Social History Society between 2008 and 2011.

She spoke at our 40th Anniversary Conference in 2016. While the new social history and history from below of the 1970s, reflected in the founding of the Social History Society, did much to broaden out to recognise the importance of social forces and social groups, she said, it also tended to treat “subjectivity as a defect for which historians needed to compensate. Since then there’s been quite a change, and I see the 1990s as a key decade. A decade in which there was growing interest in the self, in selfhood and a sort of humanisation to humanise and democratise history and rehabilitate the individual in history… And there was not so much of a concern to establish typicality than to ask what the exceptional and unusual and obscure person could tell us about the rest of society, about social relations, about ways of thinking and feeling, about strategies for living… Over the last four decades, subjectivity and the self have been put on the agenda for social and cultural historians, and that’s in complete contrast to how things were in the 1970s, when subjectivity was almost a dirty word. Whereas now, for many, though obviously not all social and cultural historians, subjectivity is a legitimate matter for historical inquiry and a route to understanding the past.”

Her work has explored these themes primarily in relation to women’s experiences of the Second World War in Britain. She examines the pull of contrasting cultural imaginaries of the women at war – either active and embracing a patriotic wartime role or traditionally feminine, providing a stoic domestic comfort during times of hardship – on the memory stories of women who lived through the war years. More broadly she works on theories and methodologies of oral history and the formation of gender identity, with her current research projects on ‘Personal Testimony and Historical Research’ and ‘The Second World War in British Popular Memory’.

Key Publications