My WI Life

Last week, my first paid writing commission came out in print.  I have to confess that I just keep looking at it.  After years of researching magazines, and a lifetime of reading them, it feels strange to see my own words (and a little headshot of me) actually in one.  Entitled ‘Seen and Heard’, it is a one-page piece about attitudes to glamour in Home and Country, which for many years was the title of the Women’s Institute magazine.  Aptly enough, ‘Seen and Heard’ appears in WI Life, the organisation’s current publication.  It came about after I approached the magazine’s editorial team to get permission to use some images from Home and Country in an academic article that I’ve written (‘“Beauty isn’t all a matter of looking glamorous”: Attitudes to glamour and beauty in 1950s women’s magazines’, which will be published in Women’s History Review in early to mid 2014).  The Editor was interested in the topic and asked me about it for WI Life – and now it is in print, complete with a couple of the images that will feature in the journal article too (cont’d).

Seen and Heard

This assignment has generated a range of emotions.  As well as the flurry of excitement when it landed on my doormat, there was a sense of amazement at the speedy turnaround time; my deadline was mid-July and it has been included in the October issue.  None of the delays that academics get used to with two stage peer review processes and publication backlogs (I am an editor with a history journal and already the words ‘twenty sixteen’ have been uttered in relation to our special issues schedule).  It is of course also flattering to be asked to write something, and reassuring to feel that there is a broader interest in one’s research topics.  At the same time, sharing findings with a much bigger audience brings its own difficulties.  WI Life goes out to every one of the Institute’s 210,000 members.  That is a lot of women to inform and entertain!  There is the challenge of writing for a general audience too.  I had to think very carefully about every single word that I used.  Was I being clear?  Was I using jargon?  Of all the points raised in my 8,000+ word journal article, which ones should I select for this 600 word column?  My style needed to be tighter than ever before if I was to distill the essence of my argument without dumbing it down.  My anxieties about trying to communicate why researching women’s appearance is important were exacerbated when I saw the print copy and realized that my piece is on the page after the brave and remarkable Caroline Criado-Perez talking about the vile abuse that she received on Twitter after the successful women on banknotes campaign.  As Christine Boydell observed in 2004, insecurities ‘continue to be expressed’ in terms of seriousness and justification in studying dress history*; I certainly have moments of feeling such insecurities about researching beauty almost a decade later.

Furthermore, whilst sharing research through mediums such as WI Life is a great form of outreach, it is hard to discern what, if any, ‘impact’ it will have.  I know that one person has read it, but she is the wife of a friend and was looking out for its appearance!  There is no saying how many more of the 209,999 members will read it.  This uncertainty around readership levels is where my biggest anxiety has arisen.  To be specific, will anyone in my WI read it?!  Apart from the two women that I go along with, no-one else in the group knows that I look at the movement and its magazine.  For many years, I said I would not join the organisation because of this research interest, but when a branch opened within walking distance of my home I decided it seemed too much fun to miss out on.  And it is hugely enjoyable – so much so that when I am there, I do not even think about analyzing it.  Afterwards I may see points of comparison, particularly when reading the magazine, but I have largely managed to keep it in a nice, neat, separate non-research box.  Until now, when work and personal identity have come together in one simple sentence: ‘Rachel Ritchie PhD is a member of Purl Jam WI, Warwickshire Federation, an Associate Research Fellow at Brunel University and Editor, European Review of History’.  Tonight I will find out if anyone has recognized that it is me on page 23 of the magazine; but, of course, there is no saying that they will have read it.  Worse still, they might have thought it was boring.

* Christine Boydell, ‘Fashioning Identities: Gender, Class and the Self’, Journal of Contemporary History 39 (2004), 137-146, p. 146.

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