Historian in focus: Daisy Payling

  • Date

    Fri 14 Dec 18

Daisy Payling

Daisy Payling's historical interests are in how expertise around women's bodies and health has been constructed and communicated to women and by women


She is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Body, Self and Family: Women’s Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain, c. 1960-1990’ based in the Department of History at Essex.

Daisy is interested in how expertise around women's bodies and health has been constructed and communicated to women and by women. Her work is particularly concerned with how ordinary people developed agency over their own lives to understand their health and their bodies, whether through activist organisations or in other ways, such as through family, friends, doctors, or magazines.

She is working with magazines aimed at ‘New Women’ (younger, more educated women with incomes), such as NOVA, She, and Cosmopolitan, but in time she wants to explore how the themes of the ‘Body, Self and Family’ project were discussed in magazines aimed specifically at women of colour and lesbian women.

Daisy studied History and English Literature at the University of Birmingham and did an MA in Contemporary History before going on to complete a PhD in Modern History.

Why did you choose History and Literature as your degree, and what made you pursue a career path in History?

I chose History and English Literature for my undergraduate degree because I liked those subjects at school and was good at them! I had considered working for a couple of years and then applying for university when I had a firmer idea of what I wanted to do, but I thought that if I did that I’d never get round to going. I picked the two subjects I enjoyed the most and that complemented each other – and I’m glad I did.

Throughout my degree I sometimes enjoyed the Literature side more, sometimes the History – but in third year I took a module on the history of grassroots activism and people’s engagement in politics in the twentieth century and I found it absolutely fascinating. As I approached graduation, one of my tutors encouraged me to do a funded MA in Contemporary History and to apply for PhD funding to research activism further. I put together an application and was awarded funding. Over the four years it took for me to complete my PhD I just fell in love with doing history.

When I was growing up I never had any idea what I wanted to do, but I liked reading and learning, and as I went through school I liked picking texts apart and building arguments. In hindsight, I realise now that I wanted to be an academic: I just had no idea that this was a job!

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

During my PhD I was encouraged to do a lot of other work alongside my PhD research, such as teaching, working with local museums, organising research seminars, and running a postgraduate journal. I’ve only ever done research in conjunction with other responsibilities, and I’m most comfortable and productive when I’m working on a number of things at once.

The problem with research is that the goals are always very long term. The end point often seems very far away, and tasks so big, even after you’ve cut them down into achievable chunks. I like a to-do list and I love ticking things off a to-do list, so pairing other academic responsibilities with the longer term goals of research helps me feel like I’m making progress.

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

Lots of people. Research can be an isolating process but you don’t get through it on your own. I had a great PhD supervisor: Professor Matthew Hilton. He was the tutor who first introduced me to the history of activism, encouraged me to do the MA and then the PhD. Without his encouragement, support, and constructive criticism I wouldn’t be an academic. He is really passionate about history and is driven to keep asking big questions, which I admire. I was also lucky to meet other brilliant academics at conferences whilst I was a PhD student. Professors Claire Langhamer and Lucy Robinson, both at the University of Sussex, are two other academics I look up to. They both do really exciting, excellent work: on emotions and work, and popular culture and politics, respectively. I admire their work but also the way that they do their work with a kind of radical kindness.

Could you tell us some more about the project you are currently working on at Essex? (Wellcome Trust-funded project ‘Body, Self and Family: Women’s Psychological, Emotional and Bodily Health in Britain)?

Of course! It starts with the premise that the lives of British women changed significantly between 1960 and 1990. Women entered the workforce en masse, second-wave feminism encouraged new thinking about gender roles, marriage and birth rates declined, divorce rates rose, and new contraceptive and reproductive technologies were developed. The ‘Body, Self, and Family’ project is investigating how these social and cultural changes were experienced by individuals, and how these shifts altered women’s emotional wellbeing and their relationships to their bodies. It asks how these experiences were mediated by age, class, ethnicity and sexuality, to explore women’s health experiences from an intersectional perspective.

In particular, my strand of the project explores these questions through focussing on health communication. It asks what women’s major sources of information about health and illness were, what the most prominent messages about health and illness were in different forums, and how these messages were developed. I will be using magazines, newspapers and the women’s sections of newspapers as sources to explore how health was presented to women and how this changed over time. How did the perception of different health concerns change with new technologies, working arrangements, and family dynamics? How did women experience health as individuals, and as part of families and communities? I also want to explore the processes of how health gets into magazines and the ‘communication’ aspect.

What this means is I will be looking to see what health issues made it into magazines, how they were written about, who such articles were aimed at, where they featured alongside other articles, editorials, and advertising…but I also want to look at the processes before and after print. Who were the journalists? What relationships did they form with other writers, with readers, with doctors and public health professionals? What about government and non-governmental bodies? And with campaigning groups?

A lot of history of medicine has been quite ‘top down’ and centred on ‘the expert’. Through my work I’m attempting both a top down and bottom up approach, with the aim to unpack expertise in health to think about how traditional forms of expertise were communicated, translated, negotiated, questioned, adapted and subverted by other actors. I want to explore the tensions between authority and authenticity, and ask how everyday experiences informed other types of expertise.

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

I think there definitely are: from not being taken seriously; to feeling like you’ve only been invited because you’re a woman when you are the only woman speaking at an event; to harassment; to being expected to take on a more pastoral role than male colleagues; to worrying about how you might fit having kids round the precarity of early career academia; to worrying about whether worrying about how you might plan a family is somehow holding you back… etc etc. – but I don’t know if these are unique to the History profession.

I’m lucky – there are many fantastic women further through their careers who I can look up to. I have managed to find a brilliant, lovely, supportive community of early career women and the men we like: the ones who listen, and get it, and try to make academia better. We support each other, and through those support networks you find out who to avoid, which institutions can be characterised by which challenges, and how to tackle certain demands head on when you have to, with your friends at your side.