Yesterday, 25 March 2017, in the warm spring sunshine, and for free, more than forty members of Llafur, the Women’s Archive of Wales / Archif Menywod Cymru, archivists from across Wales and Britain more generally, and the non-alligned, gathered at the Glamorgan Archives in Cardiff for an historic event in the history of Llafur: the Welsh People’s History Society. In contrast to many Llafur events in recent years, the contributory speakers and the audience was primarily composed of women, many of whom rarely attend Llafur events. Much of the audience was also LGBT.
It is nearly thirty-five years since the very first Llafur day school dedicated to women’s history. This was held at the then Polytechnic of Wales in Pontypridd on the 8-10 April, 1983, and was organised by Deirdre Beddoe. Back then, the aim of the conference was simple, but revolutionary:
To inform people about developments in the study of working class women in Wales. […] to share the research findings of historians working in this area and to encourage others, historians or not, to begin to reclaim their history.
The results of that conference were a steady consolidation of women’s history, particularly in South Wales. Soon after, the Swansea Women’s History Group was established guided by Ursula Masson. The group went on to produce several vital films detailing key aspects of women’s history in Wales, from munitions workers to conscientious objectors to a documentary about the 1984-5 miner’s strike, Smiling and Splendid Women. Several day schools then followed in the mid-1980s, designed to build on the renewal of a strong women’s activist movement in the South Wales Coalfield during the strike, each held at Onllwyn Miner’s Welfare Hall. But the spirit dissipated somewhat with women’s history taking a less significant role in the work of Llafur at the end of the 1980s – the next day school on women’s history was not until 1991, time to coincide with the publication of Our Mother’s Land edited by Angela John. It would lead to a revival. A year later, in an event sponsored by Honno to mark the publication of their anthology of women’s writing from the Second World War, Llafur returned to the University of Glamorgan (as the Polytechnic had become) with a day school headlined by Deirdre Beddoe.
The growth of women’s history in Wales was symbolised by three distinct moments at the end of the 1990s: the archive project conducted by Ursula Masson and Avril Rolph out of the University of Glamorgan, the formation of the Women’s Archive of Wales in Swansea in 1998, and the publication, in 2000, of Deirdre Beddoe’s classic Out of the Shadows. They summarised a movement that had emerged in the 1970s with women’s liberation and given rise to women’s aid, women’s centres, women’s history courses in universities, and a new kind of understanding of the Welsh past. And all this at a time when there was barely any representation in parliament of Welsh women – between 1970 and 1984, in fact, there was none at all.
For the last twenty years or so, the Women’s Archive of Wales has taken on the mantle of organising conferences and day schools about women’s history. They do not act entirely alone, of course, and in recent years Llafur has held a series of joint events (sometimes formally, at other times informally), but for the most part the burden of developing our understanding (and the safeguarding of the records) of that aspect of the past has fallen to them. It is difficult to imagine the landscape of Welsh history, now, and certainly the character of modern research, without them. As it is the legacy of Llafur. For it is in the original spirit of both organisations to seek out ways of engaging the present with the past, and particularly those who are generally forgotten or ignored by mainstream histories. Not all of this work is published.
This week, in an article guaranteed to raise the ire of more than a few historians, myself included, Professor Wynn Thomas published an article in the Western Mail on ‘why Wales Studies needs to be protected and preserved’. In less than a thousand words, a constraint that hardly lends itself to nuance, admittedly, he laments the current threats to the study of Wales – financial, yes, but also educational and reflective of the continuing changes to the world of academic publishing. He lists as the ‘greatest hits’ of Wales studies – a term I have enormous issue with, but I’ll come to that in a moment – essentially the outputs of Swansea University’s CREW, the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth, and Cardiff’s Welsh Governance Centre (which began its life…err yes, in Aberystwyth). No mention of the twenty-year-old Welsh Women’s Archive, no mention of the nearly fifty-year-old Llafur, and no mention of the remarkable work both movements have done in recovering the Welsh past and connecting it to the present.
But although a newspaper article presents a mere summary, the same theme occurred in Wynn Thomas’s recent lecture to an audience at Swansea University. At greater length he dismissed the many achievements of Welsh historians reducing them down to ‘the narrow, distorting lens of a single discipline’. You’ve maybe guessed by now, dear reader, that a search for Llafur or the Welsh Women’s Archive in this lecture text will be in vein. It is literary scholars, and those historians whose work can be comfortably integrated into their project, who are lauded as the guardians and vanguard of this wave of ‘Welsh studies’. By which is meant, really, those who published with the University of Wales Press. It is a jaundiced view quite unfair to countless doctoral studies, non-academic writers, and those who attend and participate in community events the length and breadth of Wales. Is that not Welsh studies too?
So what is this crisis? There are on-going challenges facing the current academy in Wales: there is a crisis in adult and continuing education which has faced enormous cuts in funding but carries on despite that; there is the issue of lack of employment opportunities, something which is hardly new to the present situation; there is a kind of decline in collegiality, and there is the quite depressing push towards the national as the primary framing device. The last is perhaps a crisis manufactured by my own perspective, which rejects that dynamic, but it is no less fabricated than the so-called crisis in Welsh studies which exists, again as a manufacture, to serve the agenda of a group of nationalist academics and their research centres. They remain nameless, here, but it’s not difficult to know, if you need to, which they are. But though they claim a crisis, those same academics are almost never in attendance at Llafur events, at WAW events, and neither do they recognise any of their achievements, past and present. If Welsh studies is in crisis, then, no-one felt it at the Llafur day school yesterday. Should we be surprised? Perhaps not, since, as I say, none of the crisis mongers were present.
‘History alone’, writes Wynn Thomas, ‘cannot provide us with an adequate meta-narrative or grand narrative of the national past and present, nor can it alone provide us with our marching orders into the future’. Quite right, but that’s not the point of it. Most historians do not look to the past to come up with ‘marching orders’. Take yesterday’s day school as a good example. We met, ostensibly, to mark the anniversaries of the Sexual Offences Act and Abortion Act, both of which were passed in 1967, but the conversation and presentations inevitably moved far and wide across the politics of the last half century and beyond. We heard, for instance, from those who moved into Wales in the 1970s from Yorkshire, London, and elsewhere, and helped to form women’s liberation groups, women’s refuges, the women’s aid movement, and ultimately pushed as many boundaries against the staid patriarchy of the old politics as they possibly could. We heard, too, of the flight of some gay men from the traditional boundaries of Wales into the Conservative Party, where, like many women, they found a culture that in between the deference and elitism was about something other than class. And we heard of the many ways in which Welsh women broke the cultural normatives and societal expectations of the nineteenth century and found a way of living as their true selves.
This was not the Wales you supposedly ‘typically’ get in the history books – that is, proletarians and muscular masculinity. Except that is a bit of a stereotype anyway. Nor was it necessarily the Wales of the Labour Party and the trade unions, although neither are off stage. This was the Wales of those who had to find sexual liaisons in public toilets, who broke expectations of femininity by wearing trousers, who made refuges to escape domestic violence; it was the Wales conceived of by the non-Labour left, in countercultural ways, and then implemented by the Labour Party. For the traditional custodians of a kind of nationalist liberalism, Plaid or otherwise, were often as aghast at the idea of social change as the traditional Labourites and socialists were at having to discuss anything but social class and industrial organisation. Elystan Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiganshire, but generally a nationalist, voted against legalisation of homosexuality in 1967, for instance, because ‘I felt […]one was opening the floodgates to what might be described almost as an alternative society’. (He claims to have abstained from voting at all stages, but Hansard shows otherwise.)
Now that the stereotyping of that seemingly ‘proles and mandrills’ historiography serves a purpose, so it’s worth looking at what it is in its entirety. Because it’s possible to do that. Starting with the Studies in Welsh History series published by the University of Wales Press. There have now been thirty-five volumes in this series, beginning with F. G. Cowley’s Monastic Order (1977) and ending (for our purposes) with Martin Wright’s Wales and Socialism published at the beginning of this year. Of these thirty-five volumes, about fifteen deal with subjects before 1800. The rest, then, cover modern Welsh history and focus on questions such as post-war commemoration, women’s munitions work, the women’s suffrage movement, devolution, the nineteenth-century campaign for franchise reform, the North Wales miners, the North Wales quarrymen, the influence of the Marquesses of Bute, schooling, immigration into and emigration from Wales (or its rural counties), the history of soccer, and, yes, industrial workers. But for a literature apparently framed around the latter, the volumes focused on industrial workers and their politics account for no more than a handful of the books in this series – the flagship of Welsh historical studies.
That can’t be right, surely?
So where does the stereotype come from? Clearly not from the ‘Studies in Welsh history’ series. Nor from the gender studies in Wales series, also published by UWP, but perhaps it does derive from those works published by UWP but which were not part of a series. Here, then, there is perhaps more luck: Dai Smith’s Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (1993), Chris Williams’s Democratic Rhondda (1996), the edited collection surveying the history of the Labour Party in Wales (2000), and the older (but still respected) studies of nineteenth century radicalism by David Jones and David Williams. Oh, yes, and Gwyn A. Williams’s The Merthyr Rising. Not quite the stuff of proles and mandrills yet, though. But wait, there’s all that flurry of work produced by Gwyn A. Williams, Dai Smith, Gareth Williams, and Hywel Francis, between about 1980 and 1985: classics such as The Fed, A People and a Proletariat, Miners Against Fascism, Fields of Praise, The Welsh in their History, When Was Wales?, The Search for Beulah Land, and so on. Here we’re on stronger ground, perhaps, for these works are about proles and mandrills; and about internationalism, and about masculinity, and about literary representations of culture, and about immigration, and about the relationship between trade unions and wider society, and about political culture, and about regionalism. That list is hardly exhaustive, either.
My point here, then, is that Welsh history writing about the modern period isn’t static – it is constantly moving, adapting, finding audiences. But it serves a purpose – a quite pernicious purpose, in my view – to suggest that the opposite is true. Underpinning that battle, waged, it must be said, largely by one section of the academic community (never let it be said that literary critics and historians make happy bedfellows in small places), is a much broader political battle about nationhood. One does not need ‘Welsh studies’ as a conceivable model, if one does not buy into the political idea of nationhood. It’s a lovely green, white, and dragon, umbrella, but it has no inherent meaning. But if you do believe in nationhood, then ‘Welsh studies’ becomes something you absolutely must have as part of the nation building project. As Stefan Berger has aptly observed, nations need ‘national history’ as part of their make-up, that’s why national history is still the most common form of history writing. Compare the Studies in Welsh History series, again, with the Welsh Writing in English series:
|Studies in Welsh History||Welsh Writing in English|
|Unemployment, Poverty, and Health in Interwar South Wales||In the Shadow of the Pulpit: Literature and Nonconformist Wales|
|Leaders and Teachers: Adult Education and the Challenge of the Labour Movement in South Wales.||Edward Thomas and World Literary Studies: Wales, Anglocentrism, and English Literature|
|The North Wales Quarrymen||Whose People: Wales, Israel, Palestine|
|Wales and Socialism||Black Skin, Blue Books: African-Americans and Wales|
|The North Wales Miners||Wales Unchained|
|The South Wales Miners, 1964-1985||The Nations of Wales|
|A Forgotten Army: Female Munitions Workers of South Wales|
One series is quite clearly regional, and generally always has been, the other very much focused on a given nation, again pretty much from foundation. So, then, let’s not pretend this is a crisis, let us be honest that this is about a war – an inter-disciplinary war – that the nation builders are determined to win. And historians should be a bit more mindful of that. Otherwise the work that we do, which does not require published outputs as a measure of its esteem, although they are attractive things to have in a collection, will continue to be denigrated. The ‘crisis’ of ‘Wales studies’ is, for the present, fake news, but a lack of historical PR? Well, that’s a problem…and one historians should start thinking about doing something about.
The world doesn’t change in silence, after all.