Women’s History in the Department of Economic and Social History. Rosalind Mitchison (1919-2002) and Leah Leneman (1944-1999).

Portrait photograph of Dr Mitchison, date and photographer unknown (Coll-1066)

Stana Nenadic

In 1986 I was appointed to a temporary lectureship in Social History in the Department of Economic and Social History in the old Social Sciences Faculty. My PhD from Glasgow University was the same year.  It was a two-year replacement post for recently retired Professor Rosalind Mitchison and my brief was to take on, organize and teach the courses that Rowy had organized and taught.

Rowy Mitchison did not willingly retire from her hard-won post.  It had taken her years of fighting against a male establishment to get to her position – the first and at that time the only female professor of history at Edinburgh University – and at 67, the age of compulsory retirement in the university, having raised four children and supported her husband’s academic career (the Mitchisons were an impressive academic clan, mostly working in the sciences) she was just coming into her peak of academic research and writing.  She had spent most of her early career in short and part-time teaching contracts and it was only in middle age that permanent employment was secured. She held the Chair of Social History for just five years before being obliged to step down – its no wonder she resented having to go.

Rowy, Oxford born into a rather grand academic family, was not a feminist as such, but she held strong opinions on women’s roles in intellectual life and always championed female colleagues and the study of women’s history. She was close to and influenced by her distinguished mother-in-law, the novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison, a feminist who campaigned for birth control in the 1930s.  The courses that I took over from Rowy included the hugely popular, team-taught ‘Social History 1: British Society Since 1650’ whose gendered themes included the family and household; population change, sexuality and fertility issues; childhood and old age; wealth and poverty.  Her honours courses on Scottish history in the eighteenth century were also focussed on population and fertility, reflecting her research from the 1980s in connection with the bigger ESH funded project on the demographic history of Scotland, led by Michael Flinn and Mike Anderson, which was linked to a famous Cambridge-directed population history of Britain.  Rowy’s particular interest in eighteenth-century Scotland led her to identify high levels of illegitimacy in some parts of the country – what she called ‘bastardy sub-cultures’ – and together with collaborator Dr Leah Leneman she published a series of pioneering books on the topic, starting with Sexuality and Social Control, Scotland 1660-1780 (1989) and two later studies on connected themes, Sin in the City and Girls in Trouble, both published in 1998.

Leah Leneman (undated. source: scottishwomenshistory.org)

Leah Leneman was as unlike Rowy as it was possible to be, but their partnership flourished and was rewarding for both.  Born in California of European-Jewish parent who worked in Hollywood, Leah was a stage actress in New York in her twenties and then worked in the airline industry in London.  She was a well-known vegetarian and vegan cookbook writer who also edited the Vegetarian Society magazine before arriving in Edinburgh in the late 1970s to take her degrees, with a PhD supervised by Rowy.  She was a freelance academic researcher and writer, the former mostly on fixed term contracts in ESH at Edinburgh University which suited her – she never cared for teaching.  She collaborated with Rowy and also sole-authored several histories of women – In the Service of Life: The Story of Elsie Inglis and the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (1994); A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland (1995); and most important of all, Alienated Affections: The Scottish Experience of Divorce and Separation, 1684-1830 (1998).  Leah was a force of nature, a true original – as was Rowy – and she died young aged 54 of breast cancer. She was a dear friend and missed to this day.

Though the history of women’s lives was integral to Rowy’s scholarship and teaching – as it was for other colleagues, notably Mike Anderson and his work on the nineteenth-century family, which started in the Sociology Department – it is elsewhere that we see the first full ESH course with a focus on women’s experience.  As far as I can recall, this must have been the honours course offered by Bob Morris, historian of the Victorian middle class in Britain, who taught an option titled ‘The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870’ from the mid-1990s.  Since then, women’s history and gender history in all its glorious complexity have flourished in ESH teaching, research and publishing.

Stana Nenadic is Professor of Social and Cultural History at University of Edinburgh

If you have memories to share of early women’s, gender and feminist studies teaching and research at University of Edinburgh please contact GenderED gender.ed@ed.ac.uk