Prof Helen McCarthy

Faculty of History Director of Postgraduate Studies
Professor of Modern and Contemporary British History
Dr Helen McCarthy

I am a historian of modern Britain and an author of three books, most recently, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020), which was shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize. Before joining the Faculty in September 2018, I taught at Queen Mary University of London for nine years. Current projects include the life-writing of Fabian socialist Beatrice Webb, British society, politics and culture in the 1990s, and the social and cultural history of retirement since 1945.

I have broad research interests in the social, cultural and political history of Britain since the late nineteenth century. My first book, The British People and the League of Nations (2011), explored the dynamics and popular reach of liberal internationalism between 1918 and 1945, taking as its focus the League of Nations Union, one of the largest voluntary associations of the period. My second book, Women of the World (2014), is a pioneering study of the role of women in British diplomatic culture over the past century and a half. This interest in the social and cultural history of British diplomacy led to a successful bid in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Historians for two AHRC-funded collaborative doctoral studentships (2013-7).

My third book, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood was published by Bloomsbury Books in April 2020. I was awarded a Mid-Career Fellowship by the British Academy in 2017-8 to work on this project, which included co-creating with the photographer Leonora Saunders an exhibition - These Four Walls - on the theme of women's home-based work. This was launched at the British Academy's Summer Showcase in June 2018 and has appeared as a pop-up at the Women’s University Club in London, the Treasures of the Brotherton Gallery in Leeds and the University Library, Cambridge.

I am happy to receive enquiries from prospective applicants, particularly those with interests in:

  • Histories of gender, especially work, mothering, and feminism
  • Popular politics and participation, especially non-governmental activism
  • The social and cultural history of diplomacy 
  • Histories of Britain since the 1980s

I am Director of the MPhil in Modern British History and lecture for paper 6 and Historical Argument and Practice. I offer supervision for papers 6 and 11. For Part II, I offer a specified paper on Women, Gender and Paid Work in Britain since 1850.

I am a member of the Advisory Board of Twentieth Century British History and was Managing Editor of the journal between 2015 and 2020. I am a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, Senior Associate of History and Policy, and member of the British Academy's Public Policy Committee. I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.


Tags & Themes


St John's College
Cambridge CB2 1TP


Key Publications


Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (Bloomsbury, 2020) - shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize and the PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize, and longlisted for the Historical Writers Association Non-Fiction Crown Award

Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014) - winner of Best International Affairs Book at the Political Book Awards 2015

The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c. 1918 - 1945 (Manchester 2011) 


'Flexible Workers: The Politics of Homework in Postindustrial Britain' Journal of British Studies (2021) Published on advanced access: doi:10.1017/jbr.2021.126

'Social Science and Married Women's Employment in Post-War Britain' Past & Present 233 (November 2016), pp. 269-305. Open access:

‘Women, Marriage and Paid Work in Post-War Britain’ Women’s History Review 26(1), 2017, pp. 46-61. 

‘The Diplomatic History of Global Women’s Rights: The British Foreign Office and International Women’s Year, 1975’ Journal of Contemporary History, 50 (2015), pp. 833-853

'Whose Democracy? Histories of British political culture between the wars’ Historical Journal 55(1), 2012, pp. 221-238

‘Democratising British Foreign Policy: Rethinking the Peace Ballot, 1934-5’ Journal of British Studies 49(2), 2010, pp. 358-387

‘The League of Nations, Public Ritual and National Identity in Britain, c.1919-1956’ History Workshop Journal 70(1), 2010, pp. 108-132

'Petticoat Diplomacy: The Admission of Women to the British Foreign Service, 1919-1946' Twentieth Century British History, 20(3), 2009, pp. 285-321

‘Parties, Voluntary Associations and Democratic Politics in Interwar Britain’ Historical Journal, 50(4), December 2007, pp. 891-912

Other Publications


'Women's International Thought: A New Field?' International Politics Reviews (Online First, October 2021, DOI: 10.1057/s41312-021-00125-x)

'Pearl Jephcott and the politics of gender, class and race in post-war Britain’ Women’s History Review (published online June 2018)

'Women, Marriage and Work in the British Diplomatic Service' Women’s History Review 23(6), 2014, pp. 853-873

'Whose Democracy? Histories of British political culture between the wars' Historical Journal 55(1), 2012, pp. 221-238

(with Pat Thane) 'The Politics of Association in Industrial Society' Twentieth Century British History 22(2), 2011, pp. 217-229

'Leading from the Centre: The League of Nations Union, foreign policy and “political agreement” in the 1930s' Contemporary British History, 23(4), 2009, pp. 527-542

'Service Clubs, Citizenship and Equality: gender relations and middle-class associations in Britain between the wars' Historical Research, 81(213), August 2008, pp. 531-552

Book Chapters

'Feminism, selfhood and social research: professional women's organisations in 1960s Britain' in Heidi Egginton and Zoe Thomas, eds, Precarious Professionals: Gender, Identities and Social Change in Modern Britain (London, 2021) - open access pdf available:

(with James Southern) ‘Women, gender and diplomacy: a historical survey’ in Jennifer Cassidy, ed., Gender and Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 2017) 

'Gendering Diplomatic History: Women in the British Diplomatic Service’ in Glenda Sluga and Carolyn James, eds., Women, Diplomacy and International Relations since 1500 (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 167-181

‘Shut Against the Woman and Workman Alike’: Democratising Foreign Policy between the Wars’ in Julie Gottlieb and Richard Toye, eds., The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp.142-158

‘The Lifeblood of the League? Voluntary Associations and League of Nations Activism in Britain’ in Daniel Laqua, ed., Internationalism Reconfigured: Transnational Ideas and Movements Between the Wars (London: IB Tauris, 2011), pp. 187-208

‘Voluntary Action in Interwar Britain’ in Matthew Hilton and James McKay, eds., The Ages of Voluntarism: Evolution and Change in Modern British Voluntary Action (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 47-68.

‘Gender’ in Pat Thane, ed., Unequal Britain: Equalities Since 1945 (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 105-124