Susan Pedersen

Susan Pedersen is busy writing a book about marriage and politics in the Balfour family.

Flocculent and Feculent

Susan Pedersen, 23 September 2021

Of the many​ hardships visited on New York in the first months of the pandemic, food shortages weren’t among them. Supply chains held. Cleaning products vanished from supermarket shelves but there was still plenty to eat. The system showed its tensile strength, its eerie ability to deliver food of all kinds even to a population pinned in place, unequally able to purchase it. When the...

On​ 18 June 1914, Sylvia Pankhurst was released from Holloway prison. She was in bad shape. A year earlier the Liberal government had passed the so-called Cat and Mouse Act as a response to the hunger strikes undertaken by militant suffragettes in prison. Under its terms, women could be released when they became dangerously weak (not just from hunger, but also from the travails of...

Mothers were different: The Breadwinner Norm

Susan Pedersen, 19 November 2020

Fathers sat down to a kipper or a boiled egg at breakfast (and gave one fav­oured child the top); their dependants ate porridge. Kind fathers sometimes shared tidbits; others avoided the whole drama and ate alone. It’s true, of course, that many men were doing hard manual labour: they needed those hearty meals. But these be­ haviours were also about status. Even men in sedentary jobs ate eggs and bacon while their children ate bread and dripping.Mothers were different. Mothers fed you, sent you to school, decided when you’d go to work – and, if you were a girl, pulled you out of school when you were needed at home. Mothers ruled every aspect of your life.

Ruin it your own way

Susan Pedersen, 4 June 2020

When​ Shelagh Delaney, all of 19, started writing A Taste of Honey, it had only two characters: Jo, the 15-year-old Salford school-leaver whose choices and chances structure the story, and her forty-year-old often skint but always cadging mother, Helen. Other characters were added later. Peter, the louche businessman with a ‘wallet full of reasons’ to lure Helen offstage and into...

Shock Cities: The Fate of Social Democracy

Susan Pedersen, 2 January 2020

These​ two books will be read, inevitably, as studies of neoliberalism, a world order – and a word – that has snuck up on us in the last few decades. I say ‘snuck up’ for a reason. I remember the 1980s, when our antagonists were identifiable and embodied: the one with the handbag, the one with the cowboy hat, and then their grey successors. We were so happy when...

Was Eric Hobsbawm interested in himself? Not, I think, so very much. He had a more than healthy ego and enough self-knowledge to admit it, but all his curiosity was turned outward – towards problems, politics, literatures, languages, landscapes. Never without a book, whether bound for a tutorial or the local A&E, for decades he disappeared off for tramping holidays or conferences anywhere from Catalonia to Cuba the moment term ended. One friend, on holiday in southern Italy in 1957, saw two men in a field and said to her husband: ‘But look, it’s Eric!’ And, she recalled, ‘it really was Eric, with a peasant. He was interviewing the peasant.’

One might make the case that the women’s suffrage movement constituted a comprehensive challenge to the political order: an attempt to substitute sex for party or class as the primordial division in political life. This could not succeed, not least because many suffragists never supported it, and dynastic and caste loyalties would re-emerge once the vote was won. But if the suffrage movement didn’t change the party system, it did foster a specifically female genre of political performance.

One-Man Ministry: Welfare States

Susan Pedersen, 8 February 2018

There’s something really wonderful, and also very funny, about Beveridge’s hubris. He’d been asked to figure out how to co-ordinate insurance and pension schemes. He’d done so, but only by taking much larger commitments – full employment! a national health service! – for granted. It’s rather as if, today, an official were asked to propose a national transport policy and took as an ‘assumption’ that we’d solve global warming first.

Mass Observation​ was the brainchild of the charismatic ornithologist turned anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the Marxist poet Charles Madge and (briefly) the experimental filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It attempted to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ by ‘observing’ ordinary Britons as they went about their ordinary lives – and by enlisting those same people as...

On the March

Susan Pedersen, 16 February 2017

Most​ of the signs at the Women’s March on Washington on 21 January were hand-lettered, idiosyncratic, fierce, personal and often very funny. Hats off to the folks who thought up ‘Hell Toupée’, or the junior doctor type carrying a clinical description of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or the bearer of the Magritte pipe with Trump’s face superimposed...

Destined to Disappear: ‘Race Studies’

Susan Pedersen, 20 October 2016

At the moment of its American birth, ‘international relations meant race relations.’ Races, not states or nations, were considered humanity’s foundational political units; ‘race war’ – not class conflict or interstate conflict – was the spectre preying on scholars’ minds. The field of international relations was born to avert that disaster. A blunter way to put this is that international relations was supposed to figure out how to preserve white supremacy.

In the explosion​ of recent books about the First World War – many of them excellent, almost all packed with narrative excitement, but not all breaking new ground – Isabel Hull’s stands out. There is no human interest, no lice and dysentery, but it is as gripping and important as any. It is concerned not with the experience of war but with legal arguments over its...

Only Men in Mind: R.H. Tawney

Susan Pedersen, 21 August 2014

On​ 1 July 1916, Sergeant R.H. Tawney led his platoon over the top on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, holding a gun to one young man’s head to get him to stop crying and keep going. Almost immediately afterwards, Tawney himself was shot through the chest and abdomen and lay for 24 hours in no-man’s-land before being rescued. Although he lived with pain for the rest...

Among left-leaning right-thinking Britons of a certain age, Shirley Williams is the embodiment of lost hopes and lost opportunities, a living reminder of a more harmonious Britain that might have been, if … If what? If the times had been less polarising, the parties less bloody-minded, the principal herself more adept? Facing up to that question Williams concluded that she lacked not only the ruthlessness needed to make it to the top but also the boundless self-confidence and (for much of her career) the supportive spouse that a woman in a man’s world needs.

After the ‘turnip winter’ of 1916-17 and with no sign of war abating, my husband’s grandfather, the oldest child of an impoverished widow in the central German town of Kassel, ran away to join the navy. He was hungry, and though underage and not really military material imagined sailors probably got enough to eat. This was a good guess, and while he had a chancy time of it – surviving the loss of his ship, the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow and more than a year’s internment in a Merseyside POW camp – he never starved.


Susan Pedersen, 6 October 2011

Publishers hate festschrifts, but scholars love them, and this has been a good year, with the publication of collections honouring three men who have done much to shape British social history over the last four decades: Ross McKibbin, Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce. I should say before I go any further that I too am a modern British historian: this is my subject and my tribe....

Nurses are tough subjects for biography. Their ethos of compassion and, sometimes, self-sacrifice can lead to hagiography or – when times change – invite satire. It’s hard to forget Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale, her health broken by her exertions in the Crimea, issuing breathless directives on sanitary reform to the secretary of war, Sidney...

Suitable Heroes: Home from the War

Susan Pedersen, 25 February 2010

Whatever sort of welcome the former Eighth Army driver Maurice Merritt was hoping for when he walked out of the Second World War and in through his front door, it probably wasn’t the note on the kitchen table that greeted him: ‘Make a cup of cocoa if you like and there’s a tin of pilchards in the larder if you feel peckish. Joan.’ Of course, Merritt was luckier than...

Going up to Heaven: Before the Pill

Susan Pedersen, 28 May 2009

John Sayles’s film Lianna broke new ground in 1982 with its portrait of a young wife and mother who comes out as a lesbian. Equally ground-breaking was a scene early in the film in which Lianna’s husband, a philandering, self-obsessed academic, suggests that she have sex with him. Lianna looks at him with a mixture of indulgence and exasperation and says: ‘I’ll go put...

A Babylonian Touch: Weimar in Britain

Susan Pedersen, 6 November 2008

The Left Book Club edition of The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 with a print run of more than forty thousand, had an inset of a dozen or so grainy photographs. They offered shocking visual confirmation of Orwell’s already shocking text. There were the bent figures scavenging for loose coal on slag heaps, the squashy-faced women and children crowded into damp basements, the...

Poor Lord Cromer. The great imperial proconsul returned to England in 1907 after more than two decades governing Egypt to find his homeland awash with suffragists and socialists, Irish nationalists and trade unionists. The swelling women’s suffrage movement especially appalled him. Few things were more likely to undermine the British Empire, he was convinced, than the entry of women...

Heat-Seeking: A.J.P. Taylor

Susan Pedersen, 10 May 2007

This is the third full biography of A.J.P. Taylor to appear since his death in 1990. I find this fact almost more interesting than anything in the biographies themselves. For more than two decades after the war Taylor was, very nearly, the public face of the historical profession in Britain, delivering his pugnacious, often revisionist, views on television and radio, in more than two dozen...

In the Front Row: Loving Lloyd George

Susan Pedersen, 25 January 2007

Imagine you are hired, fresh out of college at the age of 24, as tutor to the teenage daughter of the chancellor of the exchequer. His wife is away in the country much of the time; he wanders about 11 Downing Street in his carpet slippers. He looks at you a lot, and brushes up against you in the hallway when he passes. You know he has a terrible reputation but if you are honest with yourself...

When I was an undergraduate in the United States in the late 1970s and early 1980s, social history was a much admired discipline. We trudged across campus lawns with sacred texts in our rucksacks (The Making of the English Working Class, Work and Revolution in France), convinced that we were acquiring the tools to explain – and, we naturally assumed, alter – relations of power and...

Anti-Condescensionism: The fear of needles

Susan Pedersen, 1 September 2005

Simply explaining the revolting details of mid-19th-century vaccination does much to render its critics understandable. Vaccination was hardly a matter of ‘clean needles’: at that time it did not involve needles at all. Instead, the infant’s skin was scored with a lancet in several places and viral material rubbed into the wound. Eight days later, the parent was required to bring the child back: those who had developed vesicles had the lymph harvested for direct application to another child. This ‘arm to arm’ method was cheaper than vaccination with calf lymph but was, unsurprisingly, much resented by the poor, who could neither prevent their children from being used as a sort of petri dish for the cultivation of vaccine material.

In January 1866, on a bitterly cold night, a man dressed in ragged clothes begged for a night’s lodging in the male casual ward of Lambeth workhouse. On entering, he was made to strip and plunge into bathwater so polluted with use that it looked ‘disgustingly like weak mutton broth’; he was then issued with a towel and a regulation striped cotton shirt, and shown into a...

Parcelled Out: The League of Nations

Ferdinand Mount, 22 October 2015

I have often thought​ of writing a history of own goals. It would try to identify the factors common to the great boomerangs of the past: the conceit that mistakes itself for cunning, the...

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Associated Prigs: Eleanor Rathbone

R.W. Johnson, 8 July 2004

When Susan Pedersen writes that Eleanor Rathbone was the most significant woman in British politics in the first half of the 20th century she might have added that another Somerville alumna,...

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Here’s to the high-minded

Stefan Collini, 7 April 1994

In the Seventies and Eighties, right-wing think-tanks and their academic lapdogs put about the idea that the ills of contemporary Britain were fundamentally due to its genteel aversion to...

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