Historian in focus: Kate Mahoney

  • Date

    Fri 6 Jul 18

Dr Kate Mahoney

Kate Mahoney's historical interests include feminism and radical politics, gender, health and medicine, community-based and voluntary organisations, as well as psychology and psychotherapy

She received her PhD from the University of Warwick.  Kate joined the University of Essex in 2017 as a Postdoctoral Research Assistant. 

She has been assisting Dr Tracey Loughran, alongside Daisy Paisling, with running a project called Body, Self and Family: Women’s Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain, c. 1960-1990. As well as this, Kate has been associated with presentations and events relating to Gender and Mental Health History, in countries as far as Germany and Spain.

How did you become a historian?

I think it’s really tricky to pinpoint exactly when I became a historian. I have always been interested in history. At primary school, we did topics on the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece, and Tudor England. I loved finding out how people’s everyday lives in the past were both similar and different to my own. History remained one of my favourite subjects at secondary school and I decided to study it at university.

I didn’t feel ready to stop researching the areas of history that interested me at the end of my undergraduate degree, and so continued to pursue them at Masters-level. Thanks to my brilliant lecturers, I started to see how I could make a career out of history by researching and teaching the topics that I was passionate about. As a result, I chose to complete a PhD at the University of Warwick.    

Could you tell us some more about the project you are currently working on at Essex?

I am a Post-Doctoral Research Assistant on the project Body, Self and Family: Women’s Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain, c. 1960-1990. It is convened by Dr Tracey Loughran, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and will be running in the Department of History at Essex until September 2020.

The project investigates women’s everyday experiences of health in post-war Britain. It therefore moves beyond histories of women’s health that focus on certain illnesses, reproductive health, or clinical approaches. Drawing on newspapers, magazines, feminist publications, activist campaigns, and oral history interviews, the project documents women’s changing perceptions of their health; the interrelation of their health, work, and politics; and how women obtained information about their health through their family, friends, magazines, and medical professionals. It adopts an intersectional approach, exploring how women’s health experiences were influenced by changing factors relating to gender, race, and class. In doing so, the project not only explores women’s health, but also what it both meant and felt like to live through the significant social developments that frame post-war British history. 

Who inspired you to become interested in History? 

My interest in twentieth-century British History was definitely inspired by the stories my parents and grandparents told of their childhoods in Cumbria and South Wales. I was also fortunate to have teachers who demonstrated that even the most complex ideas can be made accessible if those teaching have a passion for their subject and a respect for their students.

I had a brilliant teacher in Year 6, Carol Thomas, who taught us about Shakespeare. I am still amazed how she aided our understanding of Shakespearean language, and the historical context in which he worked, when we were just ten or eleven years old. My history teacher throughout secondary school, Adam Osborne, also taught me that historical study could be enhanced by recognising how historians identify with the individuals that they research; history was not just about what happened, but also how it felt.  

What did you focus on in your PhD? How did you become interested in this?  

For my PhD, I examined the development of mental health activism in the women’s movement in Britain in late twentieth-century Britain. This interest stemmed from undergraduate modules that I completed on women’s health and history of psychiatry in modern Britain.

I produced my final year dissertation on feminist attitudes to body image from the late 1960s onwards, and realised that there were no full-length histories documenting how mental health was regarded in the women’s movement. This seemed strange, especially because the influence of psychoanalysis on feminist academic theory has been readily recognised. I therefore decided to explore how members of the women’s movement in Britain from 1968 to 1995 sought to support women experiencing mental health concerns and emotional distress by developing community groups and feminist therapies.

Do you think there are any particular challenges or demands for women entering the history profession?

When I initially started researching feminist history, I encountered opposition from people who didn’t think that the history of the women’s movement was a viable area of interest, or who routinely tried to question whether feminism was relevant to contemporary society. I found it incredibly frustrating to have these conversations, and I often felt obliged to justify my research.

Thankfully, these confrontations occur less frequently now. I think that this is due to the fact that, over the past five years, popular discussion around feminism has become increasingly prominent. In a lot of ways, this is very exciting.

Despite this, academia can still feel like a male-dominated space. Women are entering the academy in increasing numbers, yet men are still more likely to hold positions of authority. In the United Kingdom, twenty percent of professors are women, and black women make up just two percent of the professoriate. There are numerous academics and students, however, who are promoting equality at universities by adopting intersectional approaches, and calling out how subjects are taught, whose voices are heard at meetings and conferences, and the varying forms of work that academics undertake. Through the development of support groups and events, the publication of personal experiences, and the rewriting of reading lists, they have demonstrated how inequality can, and should, be tackled on a daily basis.