Historian in focus: Lucy Noakes

  • Date

    Thu 14 Sep 17

Professor Lucy Noakes


Lucy Noakes is a social and cultural historian with specific interests in war, memory, gender and national identity. Lucy became interested in history through political activism as a teenager, after reading the work of historian E P Thompson, and went on to read history as an undergraduate at the University of Sussex where she completed her DPhil.

Lucy has since worked at Southampton Solent University, the University of Portsmouth and the University of Brighton, joining Essex in 2017 as Rab Butler Chair in Modern History.

Our History Frontrunner, Iulia-Andreea Braila, talked to Lucy to find out more about the history behind her current teaching and research interests.

Why did you choose history as your degree? 

“Funnily enough I didn’t originally take history as an A level, but went back to college in my early 20s and studied it in an evening class. I fell in love with the subject then, and studying in the (then) School of Cultural and Community Studies at the University of Sussex meant I could combine courses on women’s history, modern China and Irish history with courses on popular culture and even Shamanism.”

How do you find a balance between being a researcher and an academic at the same time?

“It can be a real challenge to find the space to research and to write. Historians usually have to get to archives and find primary material before we start writing. I find that I can research and write articles for journals and book chapters in a day or two a week, but that writing a monograph takes a longer period of concentrated time, so chapters for my books tend to get written in vacations.”

Would you say there was somebody you looked up to during your studies?

“Definitely! Reading E.P. Thompson in my late teens and early 20s was what bought me to the study of history in the first place. I knew him though CND marches and protests, so found his work that way. Although it was a struggle at times, reading ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ on my own, I found it inspiring as it was the first time I had come across social history.

“When I was a student, I was lucky enough to be taught by some fantastic historians working in women’s and gender history, and in the study of war and memory.  Dorothy Sheridan, the archivist of Mass Observation, has always been an inspiration for the care she takes over her work, and her egalitarian approach to research and writing. Al Thomson taught my first course as an undergraduate (on war and memory), and I am still working on that area! Penny Summerfield’s work on gender, war and memory has been an inspiration, and I found Carol Dyhouse to be a great role model.

“I am still studying now and the historians whose work I find especially thought provoking and useful at the moment include Joy Damousi, Mike Roper, Claire Langhamer and Susan Grayzel.”

Professor Lucy Noakes
"Women and men have had their lives shaped by what we call ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ throughout history."
Professor Lucy Noakes Rab Butler Chair in Modern History

What made you so passionate about gender history and the social and cultural impact of the 20th century's two 'total' wars? 

“Well, gender was never something that I could ignore. I am reminded of being a woman every day, and wanted to find out more about how women had lived, and negotiated gender boundaries, in the past. Women and men have had their lives shaped by what we call ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ throughout history, although even the most cursory study shows that these aren’t fixed or ‘natural’ qualities, however much they might masquerade as such. So I am still interested in points of change, and in what drives social and cultural change.

“I think my interest in war, and especially civilians at war, initially came from family stories. With family living in London and Coventry during the Second World War, I grew up surrounded by memories and stories of wartime life. I am still fascinated by the civilian experience of war, and how people manage these extraordinary and extreme circumstances in Syria and elsewhere today as well as in the two 'total’ wars.”

You are currently working on another research project ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War’. What made you focus on this subject?

“I am interested in the ways that the multitude of centenary activities, run by small community groups as well as by large state institutions, might be reshaping our ‘cultural memory’ of the First World War 100 years on. It seemed too good an opportunity to miss as I have often wished that somebody had studied cultural memory at, for example, the 50th anniversary of the First and the Second World Wars.”

I find that a lot of history students do not know what they will focus on after graduation or have not picked a career path. What would your advice be to them? 

“I think not knowing your focus for a while is fine. Many students have worked so hard for so many years that I think they deserve a bit of time to think, reflect, and to have fun. Longer term, I guess my advice is try to find something that you love, and that inspires you. If you can draw on your expertise as a historian then all the better. Lots of careers really value the research and analytical skills that history students have developed.”