If there were a first prize for coming first, Professor Brenda Stevenson would surely be in the running. She has been first a lot. She grew up in a working-class African American neighbourhood in Portsmouth, Virginia, following the official end of segregation but when the reality had not caught up. And her first first was to be first in her family to go to the University of Virginia, a largely white and very prestigious college. She went on to be the black postgraduate among her year group at Yale and she was the first woman to be a full chair of department at UCLA and the first black woman to be a tenured professor in the department.
And, last year, Professor Stevenson was named as the first occupant of Oxford’s inaugural Hillary Rodham Clinton chair of women’s history.
Professor Stevenson laughs when asked if she minds being first. She is frank over something about which many women in academia and beyond talk privately: being a token –the token woman and the token person of colour.
Yale took one black person a year. They did not say they were doing that, but there was only one black person in a year. And, in my year, I was that person
‘No. I don’t mind,’ she says emphatically. ‘I don’t mind being first and I benefitted from tokenism. Yale took one black person a year. They did not say they were doing that, but there was only one black person in a year. And, in my year, I was that person.
‘The thing is, it’s down to people like me to make sure we are not the last and we are not tokens.’
She adds, ‘I want to make sure other people are coming. I have been so blessed by God; I need to do that.’
Although this is her second year in her current role, Professor Stevenson is still clearly pleased to be in Britain, in general, and Oxford, in particular.
‘I always wanted to live in England,’ she says enthusiastically. ‘I grew up in Virginia, where history is very important.’
She reels off a impressive list of very English-sounding placenames, ‘And my college was founded by Thomas Jefferson.’
The thing is, it’s down to people like me to make sure we are not the last and we are not tokens....I want to make sure other people are coming. I have been so blessed by God; I need to do that.
‘But what better place to be than a medieval city?’ She pauses. Her only real disappointment, since being in Oxford, was the lack of excitement around the jubilee. She and her husband had been looking forward to what they imagined would be celebrations in the university city. But, it was term time, and celebrations were muted. She had even bought a pair of Union Jack boots, but ended up watching it on television (possibly wearing her boots).
But it is not just the change of location, she says. It was unimaginable, that the young Brenda, whose father was a longshoreman, would be a professor at Oxford.
Integration came late to Virginia and it was very much a southern state, full of hubristic monuments to the Confederacy. Her father did not go to high school and even going to university was not something that happened to many children in her neighbourhood. Did she find it oppressive, being surrounded by ‘rebel’ monuments as a child?
‘I grew up with it. I was going about my life. I was more worried about doing well in school,’ she recalls. ‘A tourist once asked me what I thought about the statues [of Confederate war leaders]. Of course, we didn’t celebrate that history, but I wanted to move forward.’
A tourist once asked me what I thought about the statues [of Confederate war leaders in Virginia]. Of course, we didn’t celebrate that history, but I wanted to move forward
And she did – going to a mixed high school, where she had an all-American schooling – even being a cheerleader and joining the French club.
‘My parents were very focused on education,’ she maintains. ‘My mother went to nursing school and we grew up as Christians. I worked hard and I wanted to go to the University of Virginia because it was a good school and then I went to Yale for grad school.’
Although she had been the class valedictorian and had been loaded down with other honours, going from Virginia to Yale was a very significant achievement, although she brushes it off lightly. From Yale, she went to her first academic post in Texas. But it was a fleeting time, because she soon travelled to Los Angeles and UCLA, where she spent the next 25+ years before taking up residence in her study, overlooking the ancient thoroughfare of St Giles.
It could not be less cliched, though. As the first occupant of the Hillary Rodham Clinton chair, Professor Stevenson is at the heart of the Women, Gender and Queer strand, part of Oxford’s History department. She is also the course convenor, responsible for admitting new postgrad students, and she teaches part of the Masters’ courses in women’s history. Eight new students have been welcomed onto the Masters’ programme this year. She says, ‘It’s a very exciting strand, a very lively programme.’
Women’s history and studies were at the cutting edge of the feminist political culture flourishing in the 80s on US college campuses, when the young Brenda was a student. And she has been a passionate advocate for women ever since. She talks with admiration of the leadership of women at Oxford.
‘Louise Richardson [the vice chancellor] shows incredible leadership,’ she says. ‘And St John’s [her college] has been led by two female presidents.’
‘I still haven’t got over it. Hillary Rodham Clinton was a great loss for the nation and the world,’ she says, completely baffled. Is it to do with funding?
‘No,’ she says. ‘Did you know, 50% of white women did not vote for Hillary? It’s tragic.’
Professor Stevenson’s amazement is compounded by the fact that, although the US has not had a woman leader, Britain has had three women prime ministers [although it was pointed out that was not a reflection of women’s solidarity in the UK].
She is determined to use her post, however, to help develop interest among girls in governance and government. In an entirely new venture, alongside her academic work, she is working on a flagship summer programme, probably starting in 2024, which will be for girls from Britain and the Commonwealth.
‘The idea is to inspire girls to take part in governance. Girls are often on the margins of society. Female representation, from local to global level, is essential. The programme is aimed at younger, pre-college girls. I hope it will have a global importance. If you’re going to have an important programme, where better to do it than Oxford?
Britain had a queen for 70 years – it made it believable that females could be in government and in power
Professor Stevenson, talking about a new programme to encourage girls to be involved in governance
‘Oxford, as a leading university, should be part of this flagship programme. Whether you like particular women politicians or not, they have a different perspective.’
She adds, ‘These girls need to know they have a right to be in the seat of power…Britain had a queen for 70 years – it made it believable that females could be in government and in power.’
Professor Stevenson talks passionately about the need for women in power and in history,
‘Women need to know that women can lead….shake things up a bit,’ she says. ‘Women need to know women’s history.’
She emphasises concerns about the current situation in Iran, where women and girls are protesting in the face of violence. But she says, ‘I’ve heard it described by men and women as a women’s revolution.’
Women’s stories have been central to Professor Stevenson’s own work since she was at college. But, she says, she first learned about women’s history, her family history, from the powerful voices of her mother, who had learned from her mother and her grandmother [who, just three generations back, had been among America’s enslaved peoples].
Initially, however, the student Brenda was not actually a history major. Going to Virginia, she wanted to be a doctor and was all about sciences and Maths. But she decided to take a few other subjects as well – religion, literature and history. It was a mistake for medicine, but not for history. She never returned to science.
‘I was swept away by history and literature. It was a complete turnaround…who can believe it?’ laughs Professor Stevenson.
And her research has focused on women and families ever since. One highly praised book was on the killing of a young African American girl, by a Korean shopkeeper at around the same time as the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles: The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots.
Next year, sees the publication of three major books: a textbook on women’s history in the United States and another work focusing on the family lives of people taken from Africa to America and their descendants ‘What sorrows labour in my parents’ breast?’.
Professor Stevenson has been researching her study of this monograph for some seven years and has tracked the impact of enslavement on family life going right back into the 17th century. Although records contain testimony from the people who were freed in the 19th century, her work tracks the enslavement back to Africa.
She is also working on a biography of Maria Stewart, a free-born 19th century African American who came to prominence as a public speaker on women’s rights and against slavery.
There was a myth that black fathers are not present, that black people don’t care about their children, which made it alright to take the children away and sell them…You still see that in relation to the way black children and teenagers are treated today in the US
‘There are digitised records available,’ she points out. ‘These are mainly accounts given by travellers. And very few female enslaved voices have survived. But I’ve been looking at people from West Africa who were enslaved due to the trade and at how their lives change in North America – in British, French, Spanish and Dutch colonies and in the United States. It was very diverse, what happened to them – depending on where people were living – in the North East, South or South West United States.’
Some of the tropes about the lives of black people, claimed at that time, says Professor Stevenson, underpin myths about black families today. She says, ‘There was a myth that black fathers are not present, that black people don’t care about their children, which made it all right to take the children away and sell them…You still see that in relation to the way black children and teenagers are treated today in the US.
Professor Stevenson likes telling stories which have not been told, she insists the aim is not to rewrite history or cancel the past. But the historian says, ‘Text books need to be more inclusive...We need to hear other voices
‘I hope people will begin to stop saying this sort of thing - that you’re not like us. This work is an attempt to show that enslaved people recreated families against the background of enslavement, only they didn’t look like white families, because they didn’t have the legal status of white families. But black families found a way to have authority within themselves. We have to rewrite that history and those myths.’
Professor Stevenson likes telling stories which have not been told, she insists the aim is not to rewrite history or cancel the past. The historian says, ‘Text books need to be more inclusive and show greater understanding of the lives of indigenous peoples, the impact of empire and of enslavement. We need to talk about how some of the Founding Fathers were slave owners. We need to hear other voices.’
She adds, ‘For some people, everything was glorious. And many things were glorious – but people paid a price, including people from many of the immigrant groups which went to America, especially Jewish people and Irish and Italians…It’s important everyone knows their history.’
[Woke] is a pejorative term in the US as well. People are afraid. They fear change and they are afraid about what is going on. I understand that...They are worried about losing their share. But there is enough for everyone
Professor Stevenson emphasises, ‘This is not to say we can’t move on but we can’t move on if we don’t know what’s problematic.’
Is she concerned such re-assessment has become controversial and political, in the US and in Europe, where ‘le Woke’ is a pejorative term?
‘It’s a pejorative term in the US as well. People are afraid. They fear change and they are afraid about what is going on. I understand that,’ says Professor Stevenson, who was at UCLA when the Black Lives Matter movement started among the student body.
‘People can’t see what the benefit is to them. They are worried about losing their share. But there is enough for everyone. There are more millionaires than ever – 10% of African Americans are millionaires. But it is about opportunities – giving people who have not had any opportunities opportunity.’
Professor Stevenson speaks gently, but firmly, ‘People want their children to have opportunities….It’s not about losing, it is about sharing.’