Introducing New Lecturer in Gender History, Dr Annabelle Baldwin
Newly appointed Lecturer in Gender History, Dr Annabelle Baldwin, is a specialist in twentieth-century European and global history, with a particular interest in Holocaust studies, focusing on Jewish women’s and girls’ experience of sexual violence during the Holocaust.
Annabelle will be teaching two brand-new undergraduate subjects: the first-year subject Gender Rights and Leadership in History (HIST10017) (Semester 2), and the third-year subject Gender in History, 1800 to the Present (HIST30075) (Semester 1). These form part of a new Gender History pathway in our undergraduate History program.
Dr Henry Reese interviewed Annabelle for a new episode of the SHAPS Forum podcast series. Listen to the interview on the player below, or read the transcript (with a suggested further reading list) that follows.
Welcome back to the SHAPS Forum podcast for 2021. My name is Henry Reese, and I’m a historian and early career academic. Today I’ll be speaking with Dr Annabelle Baldwin, the newly appointed Lecturer in Gender History in SHAPS, the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.
As well as working in the field of gender history, Dr Baldwin is a specialist in twentieth century European and global history, with a particular interest in Holocaust studies. Annabelle’s current research project focuses on Jewish women’s and girls’ experience of sexual violence during the Holocaust and it’s part of a wider concern with violence against women and children during conflict.
So, it’s fantastic to be speaking with Dr Annabelle Baldwin today. I’m looking forward to getting a sense of Annabelle’s own research background, as well as her contributions to the exciting new Gender Pathway in the History major at Melbourne University.
Annabelle, welcome to the podcast!
Thank you for having me! It’s great to be here.
No worries! Thanks for joining us.
So, firstly, I’d like to ask you about your journey thus far as a scholar. So, what shaped you into the historian you are today? What drew you into conducting history research?
I did my undergrad at Monash University in Melbourne and I did an Arts degree with a major in Psychology. And, in my first year I had to choose other subjects and I chose Criminology and Sociology because they went along with Psych and I needed another subject and I thought, well, I just loved history at school, and so I threw in a first-year History sequence. And I loved it so much! The next year I dropped Sociology and Criminology, and just loaded up everything that wasn’t my Psych prerequisites with History. I just did as much as I possibly could, because I loved it so much.
And by the end of my second year, I realised I really enjoyed History so much more than I was enjoying Psychology, that I found so much freedom and joy in research. I had fantastic lecturers who encouraged their students to develop their own research questions and to go deep into primary sources and things, and I was just getting a joy out of History that I didn’t get out of my other studies. And I made the decision in my third year to switch pathways and move into History.
I haven’t looked back after that closing of the door when I chose History over Psychology.
Another question that I always love to ask academics, and students actually, is, hearing about the books or ideas or writers whose work has shaped researchers that are working today. It’s something I certainly think about a lot when I reflect on my own experiences as a PhD student recently. What were the key ideas, key texts, key thinkers, that really set you on your journey?
If you were to put together some kind of recommended reading list for our listeners, what would be on it? What shaped you as the historian you are today?
I guess the first thing that I read on gender by a historian was Joan Scott, which is probably most people’s answer to what is the first thing they read on gender in history – Joan Scott’s essay on gender as a part of history. I guess that was the first time that I really thought about looking at women and history as being a particular field of history. When I reflected, I realised that, yeah, most of the history I’ve done so far hasn’t really talked about women, and that is obviously something that I’m particularly interested in, and I was really drawn to it from that point.
The first thing that I think I read on gender in the Holocaust was another Joan – Joan Ringelheim, and Myrna Goldenberg, who were the pioneers of this subfield of Holocaust history in the 1980s, who looked around at this burgeoning vast field of literature on the Holocaust and genocide and realised that, really, no scholars were paying attention to women and, in fact, when they questioned other scholars as to why there wasn’t more work on women, it was seen as a ridiculous thing to do, because the Holocaust was about targeting all Jews as Jews, not targeting Jewish women, or Jewish men, but targeting all Jews, and that was the important part of the Holocaust, because this was a new facet to war, targeting one entire group of civilians, and not just male civilians, but an entire group of civilians, and trying to wipe them out. So, the idea of them focusing on women within that field was shocking and sometimes seen as offensive because that went against our understanding of the Holocaust.
Reading Ringelheim and Goldenberg really showed me that women’s experiences and girls’ experiences during the Holocaust were very different to men’s experiences, and that that was something that we needed to investigate. We needed to look at why but, also, we needed to understand their everyday lives during the Holocaust, that this would provide a more complete understanding of the Holocaust, that we couldn’t as historians claim to be understanding Jewish experience without really digging into, not just how Jews were all treated the same but, also, how they were treated differently. That really resonated with me, especially because I already had an interest in looking at gender history and particularly women’s experiences. I was particularly drawn to studying sexual violence and violence against women already, from my Psych background, so these early readings, Ringelheim and Goldenberg, really connected with me and sent me on that path.
Another really great work that I’ve come back to quite a bit and that I often teach with is Joanna Bourke’s History of Rape, which was published fairly recently, I think, about 2008. This was a book that really made me think about how rape and sexual violence functions in society. How does society impact how it’s experienced and how it’s perpetrated? But also, how does society itself think about sexual violence or violence against women?
Towards the end of her book, she really complicates this 1980s, 1970s feminist idea that rape is about power, it’s not about sex – this was this idea that 1970s to 1980s feminists had pushed forward. Joanna Bourke questioned that and said, well, if it’s just about power, and it’s about violence but it’s not about sex, why doesn’t he just punch her in the face?
That was a lightbulb moment for me, where I realised that this element of gender and sex and violence connecting and interweaving together was really important, and that this was something that I wanted to write about, to research and know more about. Because ignoring that was denying a really important part of the experience of victims and survivors – but also because ignoring it meant not properly understanding the perpetrators. Her work for me was a really big push towards where I actually wanted to go with my own research and how I felt I should be thinking about sexual violence – it progressed my own thinking from what I’d thought to be true. Her work was really influential.
I’m also an oral historian, so I use testimony and video testimony in particular, and I guess I sort of fell into being an oral historian. I took a class in my Honours year with Professor Al Thompson who ended up being my PhD supervisor [at Monash University] – he’s a very important oral historian. I started using video testimony of survivors in my research, first in my Honours year, and then I used it for my PhD.
[I was also influenced by] Al’s work and also the work of feminist oral historians about how oral history or video history, particularly in the case of survivors of conflict, can really democratise history. It gives all survivors a chance – not everybody can write, or publish a memoir, or write a diary, but most people find that they’re able to talk to a historian, either with a microphone or in front of a camera. It might be difficult for them but it’s a way for so many more survivors to talk about their story, and that was something that I really liked. I felt it fit so well with what I wanted to do with my research. It was about hearing about experiences that often are not written about, in more formal writing or in memoir. And that barrier doesn’t exist as much in testimony – it’s still there, but with good rapport with the interviewer, a lot of women survivors have been able to talk about sexual violence that they’ve experienced during the Holocaust or during war in ways that they wouldn’t have written about it.
So, I found that oral history was a natural fit for where I wanted to go, and Al Thomson’s work and the work of oral historians such as Sherna Gluck and Susan Armitage really helped me to see how for feminist historians and gender historians, oral history was a great way to incorporate women’s voices and women’s experiences into our work.
Following on from that, would you like to give us a bit of a rundown of some of the research projects that you’re currently working on?
My PhD looks at sexual violence against Jewish women and Jewish girls during the Holocaust. It’s an oral history, so I make use of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s Visual History Archive. Some people might know this as the video testimony archive that Steven Spielberg set up after he created the film Schindler’s List. He funded and set up this centre for gathering Holocaust testimonies and it now has around 56,000 interviews. So, I used that particular database or collection.
When I started out my PhD there was some [things that had been] written about sexual violence against women but it wasn’t particularly comprehensive. A lot [of historians] used this particular archive, but what I really wanted to do was look for patterns and trends, like in what ways were Jewish women vulnerable to sexual violence? How did they experience it differently, if they were in a camp versus if they were in hiding? And, so, what I decided to do – something that I regretted in the midst of my PhD, trying to wade through a lot of material! – I decided to watch all of the English-language testimonies that referenced sexual violence in the archive, which ended up being 989 testimonies.
So, at some point I regretted that decision but felt that I was locked into it; but I knew that this was a way to make a really original contribution and to really look at all of these testimonies as a collective and see what they were saying. And this is something that oral history doesn’t do a lot of anymore, it’s sort of coming back around and oral history is tending to look a little bit more at bigger projects like this but, by looking at individual testimonies but also looking at them as a group, I was able to identify larger trends. It’s only a beginning point for research on sexual violence against Jewish women but it’s an important beginning point, because it gives us a way to think about how women are vulnerable in particular circumstances. So that’s my big project that I did for my PhD that I’m now working on as a book project to publish.
I’ve also got a side project from that, looking in terms of oral history at body language – this was something that I started out because my testimonies were visual. I thought, Oh, I really need to get a handle on body language – and I started looking for literature and found there was just almost nothing! And I realised this was such a massive gap, because what I was seeing in these interviews was so important to how I interpreted what they said, and how I wrote about these interviews. So, I’m also working on developing my ideas about body language and how body language is critical for understanding and interpreting oral testimony as well.
My next big project that I’m hoping to start in the next few years takes this idea of gender and the Holocaust but takes it one step further by looking at men and masculinity in the Holocaust. This is a very underdeveloped field. There have been in recent years a few studies on Jewish men and masculinity in the Holocaust, one in particular by Maddy Carey, who’s working in the UK.
What I’m really interested in doing is taking these testimonies and looking at how Jewish men talk about masculinity and talk about their role as men, in their families, how they’re targeted as men during the Holocaust, and placing gender into that context, I suppose. So, while most gender historians of the Holocaust obviously focus on women, and obviously I do as well, this is another field that I would like to explore a little bit more, particularly through oral testimony as well. So those are the things I’m working on at the moment on the sidelines of my teaching.
Wonderful – that’s such thrilling work. I personally can’t wait to read everything you come up with from this.
So, it’s a question we often think about: the place or the value of historical research. Given your subject matter, I think it’s a particularly apposite question, even if it’s not necessarily an easy one. How can an understanding of gendered violence in history inform contemporary understanding and policy around violence against women and children? Is that something that you’ve engaged with much in your research so far?
That’s a great question! Not so much in my research, although a little bit, because oral testimony always involves some element of memory and, so, survivors are often talking about changes in perceptions about sexual violence and justice and those sorts of issues.
I think gender history and feminist history has always been really critical to understanding gendered violence from a contemporary standpoint, and understanding what violence against women is, how it manifests, what motivates perpetrators, how survivors, women survivors of violence, particularly in domestic violence situations, how they behave, and how they react.
There was a big shift in the 1980s about understanding how survivors of sexual violence reacted, which was really influential in justice, in the court system – if a victim wasn’t seen to be behaving appropriately after a rape, if they didn’t react the way they were expected to, then they weren’t believed. Feminist scholars and feminist history became really important there in changing that attitude. That led to an overhaul of how rape cases in particular were handled in the judicial system, and it’s from that kind of research that scholars were able to influence that court process.
It’s not by any means perfect now, but there is at least an acknowledgement and an understanding that victims behave differently and that they may behave differently to the way a judge or a jury may expect them to. So, I think this is a really important development, and something that we still see happening today, with particularly grassroots activists trying to change the way police and the court system and society at large thinks about crimes against women and violence against women as well.
So feminist history and gender history have been really important in that as well. And I think issues of justice have always been particularly important in my work because a lot of the women whose stories I listen to never got any kind of justice. This is a preoccupation for them in the interviews. They talk about how after the war nobody cared about what they had been through as women, the violence they had experienced – nobody talked about it, and this was really important to them.
I think that contemporary activists who are working against violence against women are very aware of the importance of telling stories and making sure that women’s experiences are understood in greater society. So, gender history and gender scholarship has had a really big impact on changing perceptions about what motivates perpetrators, what motivates and influences victims and survivors, and what influences their behaviour after being victimised. There’s still a long way to go, but I think back to even when I started doing this research, society has moved, even just a little bit, which is really promising, that it is having an impact on how society tends to view violence and crimes against women and children.
I’d like to turn now to think a little bit about your teaching work as well, which has obviously been a huge part as well of your career as a historian. So, in particular, I’d like to start by asking you about the new Gender Pathway in the History Program at SHAPS. I know that in my five years of undergraduate teaching to date, I’ve found that the most rewarding and productive class discussions have tended to be around various topics relating to gender in history. There seems to be a genuine eagerness among many undergrad students to explore gender history in much greater depth than they’ve been able to hitherto in a lot of university history curricula.
How do you think the Gender Pathway caters to this interest among the cohort, and what do you hope that students will get out of taking this Gender Pathway through their History major?
I think a lot of students are really drawn to topics of gender and sexuality because I know certainly for me, a lot of students that I’ve spoken to in the past feel like when they study gender history that they’re looking at a more complete version of history – more complete, not complete, but they’re finally seeing an experience that not mirrors their own, but acknowledges different experiences within history, and they’re able to become aware of this impact of gender on daily lives. This is something that now our own society talks about a lot more, it’s gotten a lot more media attention, people are a lot more aware of the impact of gender on women and men, on non-binary people, and this is something that people want to learn more about. And they want to examine the history that they really enjoy through this lens.
So, the subjects that we’re offering for the Gender Pathway will give students a lot of different ways to look at gender and sexuality. There’ll be different subjects that they can choose from, and hopefully many will choose to do several of them, that will allow them to look at men as men, women as women, and also issues of sexuality and gender non-binary people as well, and look at how history has impacted these people, and how these people have impacted history.
And, so, the Gender Pathway is intended to bring new challenges to our history, to encourage students to look at new approaches to history, and to think about history in different ways.
So, for example, instead of thinking about war in terms of combatants and the home front, thinking about the impact of war on men and masculinity. That’s something we’ll be talking about in Gender in History. Or looking at the period of decolonisation and the construction of new nation-states – what was women’s role in that? How did women to contribute to revolutionary wars against colonisation, and then how did they contribute to rebuilding society, and how is that reflected in the new nation-state that was built after decolonisation?
These are questions that are not often addressed in history subjects about these particular events; and sometimes they are, but not in as much depth as hopefully we will be able to do in these subjects. So, it’s about encouraging students to think about history in different ways, and to challenge themselves to think about history through a different lens.
I’d also like to ask about the role of empathy and emotion in teaching as well. Obviously, your research and teaching and especially in terms of the Holocaust and thinking about gendered violence has focused on some understandably extremely difficult and upsetting subject matter. Do you have any insights you’d like to share from your experience of studying and teaching this kind of subject matter and how that informs your teaching practice?
Yes, that’s a good question – it’s something that I think about a lot when I’m teaching.
Obviously, I’m very clearly drawn to emotive and very traumatic topics in my own research, and this can be difficult at times, particularly because I’m using testimony; so, while I’m not in the room conducting interviews with women talking about sexual violence, I’m watching them remember sexual violence on my screen, which can be very difficult at times.
What draws to me these types of really traumatic and difficult stories is that I feel that it is important to give voice to these experiences. I don’t mean that in the way that I am a conduit for these women to talk about their experiences but, rather, that it’s my job to tell everybody about those experiences. It’s really important for a lot of the women that have been interviewed, that have talked about sexual violence for this project that I was using. A lot of them are quite angry about history ignoring their experiences and are very motivated to talk about their experiences in this project, and several of them talk about how they’ve talked about it off the record, they don’t tell their family members, they don’t tell people when they do museum tours and things like that, taking groups around Holocaust centres; but that this time, in this project, the Shoah Foundation, their experiences are going to be on the record. For me, hearing this, and I heard someone using this exact phrase in a very early testimony, one of the first ones I watched, and it really hit me how important it was that historians like me don’t shy away from that trauma, and don’t say, this is too messy, this is too traumatic – that these women want their story to be told, that they don’t want it covered up or glossed over. And, so, I try to remember that when I’m finding it particularly hard.
I encourage students to think about how they’re feeling; that if they’re feeling that it’s really difficult for them to listen to it, why is that? It’s because they know that these experiences are horrible. Sometimes they’re too horrible for students to listen to and that’s okay, they should just talk to their tutor or their lecturer about the fact that they’re having difficulties with that, they need to take care of themselves, and their own mental health.
But it’s also worth examining your own feelings and sitting with that, and thinking about, why is it that I’m feeling like this? Is it because I’m angry? Is it because I’m sad? Is it because this is cutting really close to my own experience? Thinking about things like this I think is really important when dealing with traumatic and difficult historical topics. I really encourage students to think about that but I also don’t push them if they feel that they can’t.
I’ve found that students really appreciate that more reflective approach and the space in the classroom to talk about that and to talk about how these topics made them feel, what it made them think about, and how it made them think about what they often hadn’t thought about before. So, I think sometimes even though it’s challenging to deal with difficult and traumatic topics, generally I find that students appreciate that, that they don’t want a history that’s glossed over either, just the same as survivors don’t want their history glossed over.
We need to take care of ourselves as researchers and people doing this history, and one of the ways that I do that is to remind myself of why I’m doing it, and why it’s important, and I think students respond to that.
Thinking about the Gender Pathway in particular at SHAPS, this year marks the introduction of two new History subjects dedicated specifically to gender history, which sound very exciting. The first of these is the first-year subject Gender Rights and Leadership in History. Could you tell us a little more about this subject and what sorts of questions you’ll be tackling in it?
This is going to be a really great subject I think that is taking two ways of thinking about gender history. We’re looking at gender rights – such as the right to education, the right to vote, women’s rights at work, reproductive rights, and so on, rights within the family and marriage. And we’re also talking about issues of leadership – women’s leadership in politics, in business, in activism. We’re asking the question: why aren’t there more women who are in positions of leadership? And how can gender history help us answer those questions?
We’ll be bringing together those two streams, rights and leadership, and looking at these in a global context – not just a Western perspective, but looking at Europe, America and Australia but also Asia, the Americas, and the Middle East, and a global perspective. But we’re also going to look at it through time. So, we have a really broad timespan for this unit, and we’ll be looking at how women’s rights evolved over time.
What were women’s rights like in different time periods? At what point did this change, and why? And we’ll be looking at those circumstances and the context in that and asking the question about how women’s rights and women in positions of leadership have changed over time – it’s not a linear progression, it’s up and down throughout history. We’ll be looking at the context of that and asking, why is this the case? Why are women in many countries not allowed to vote until the beginning of the twentieth century? What’s going on there? What forms of leadership in activism led to women getting the vote – what’s going on there? And we’ll be really focusing on that context around it and putting it into a global historical context as well.
That sounds wonderful! Such a great way to organise a global gender history. It sounds really exciting.
As well as that, you’re also teaching the new third-year subject, Gender in History, 1800 to the Present. What are some of the key topics and focuses that you’ll be tackling in this class?
This is a different kind of class to the first-year unit in that in this class we’ll be looking at big events that happened in the nineteenth and twentieth century but looking at them through a gender lens. So, looking at events such as industrialisation, empire and slavery; we’ll be looking of course at war and conflict and genocide, revolution and decolonisation, and looking at them instead of what happened that led to these things, looking at how these events impacted on people of different genders, men, women, non-binary people, people of different sexualities as well, and looking at how gender shaped these events, but also how gender has impacted upon people’s experiences of these events.
So, looking at women’s roles in war or decolonisation or revolution, and then how they experienced, say, a revolution or decolonisation after their participation in making it successful. What changed for them? What didn’t change? What were their experiences? How did women’s, for example, role in the family change at different points in time? How did women contribute to industrialisation? How did they work in this new industrialised world? And what changed in their society to allow them to do this? But, also, how did this cause issues or changes in society because women were so important to the workforce following industrialisation?
I think it’s a really great way to show students that gender is always impacting history, that it’s always there, even if you might not think about it or know about it – here’s a way into history that allows us to look at men and women and people of different sexualities and other gendered subjects as well in a way that allows us to understand these events better, which is I think the big point of this unit – that looking at gender isn’t just another perspective; it’s a way towards a more complete history, a better understanding of these events.
That sounds wonderful! I can’t wait to check in with you in a few months and hear how these subjects have been going.
Yeah, it’s really exciting! I think they’re going to be great and I think students are really going to enjoy them.
Do you have any experiences to share regarding the impact of the COVID pandemic and the impact on the student experience? How’s your thinking about tertiary teaching changed over the last year, if at all?
I think 2020 has really shown that of course there’s a big spectrum of experience for students. Some students I found last year enjoyed the freedom of being online and having their lectures online and having more of their readings online and things like that. But many others I think found 2020 to be especially isolating, and I did spend a semester last year teaching first-year students who had never been on campus, and for them I think 2020 was a particularly hard year. The first year of university is hard anyway, but to not be able to go on campus and access the types of support that are usually there physically on campus made it particularly hard.
Many students had a lot of anxiety about the online platform – they didn’t like talking in Zoom, they found that it was much more difficult for them to contribute. So as far as my teaching went, trying to make sure that I’m incorporating different ways for them to contribute in an online classroom setting, so that they can still contribute, still feel that it’s worthwhile them coming, whilst not putting them on the spot and making the situation worse for them.
The other big thing that a lot of students felt was disconnected – they felt disconnected from the university because they couldn’t be there and, in a lot of cases, they felt disconnected from their peers, but also from the staff as well. So, something that I was very conscientious about and very focused on was making sure that I communicated not just effectively but fairly regularly with students and made sure that they knew what was going on at my end, what I was doing to help them with their experience. I made it very, very clear that they should come and talk to me on Zoom or they should email me if they had any type of concern, and being really available for that.
I found that a lot more students made use of online consultation times to talk about their assessment, or to talk about their classes and things like that, that this helped them I think to get over some of the hurdles of the online space. I had a lot of success doing that and that’s something that I will continue with this semester online, and I’ll obviously continue it in the physical classroom as well.
Annabelle, it’s been fantastic to get to know you a little bit more this morning. Thank you so much for your time and for being so generous and warm in your responses to my questions, especially at such a busy time of the year.
Suggested further reading:
- Baldwin, Annabelle. ‘“And What Happened Next?”: Emotions and Sexual Violence in Holocaust Interviews.’ Oral History Association of Australia Journal 41 (2019): 32–42.
- Baldwin, Annabelle ‘Sexual Violence and the Holocaust: Reflections on Memory and Witness Testimony.’ Holocaust Studies 16.3 (2010): 112–134. doi: 10.1080/17504902.2010.11087264
- Bourke, Joanna. Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present. London: Virago, 2007.
- Goldenberg, Myrna. ‘Memoirs of Auschwitz Survivors: The Burden of Gender.’ In Dalia Ofer & Leonore Weitzman (eds). Women in the Holocaust, 327–339. New York: Yale University Press, 1999.
- Hedgepeth, Sonja M. and Rochelle G. Saidel, eds. Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2010.
- Ringelheim, Joan. ‘Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research’. Signs 10.4 (1985): 741–761.
- Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018 [Originally published 1988].
- Thomson, Alistair. ‘Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History.’ The Oral History Review 34.1 (2007): 49–70
- Waxman, Zoë. Women in the Holocaust: A Feminist History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.