skip to primary navigationskip to content

Ben Griffin

ben griffinName
Dr. Ben Griffin

Girton College

What is your field of history?
Nineteenth century British history, particularly political history, gender history, the history of masculinity and the history of feminism.

How did you come to specialise in this area?
My very first Cambridge undergraduate essay was about twentieth century women's history, which prompted a series of questions about how and why women's rights have changed over time, and how men have responded to feminism since the middle of the nineteenth century. That's what my book is about.

What sort of source material do you tend to use, and what are its strengths and weaknesses?
My major sources have been reports of parliamentary debates. These are problematic sources for two reasons. The first is that the surviving records of parliamentary speeches are unreliable. Until the early twentieth century even the official Hansard reports were not verbatim (word-for-word) records of what politicians said; they were in fact only edited compilations of newspaper reports and the editors were not afraid of 'tidying up' reports of speeches in ways that occasionally changed the meaning of particular passages. The second major problem is that we cannot always tell if politicians really meant what they said in their public speeches. These are problems, but not insuperable ones, and parliamentary speeches remain an excellent source for investigating the ideas and values of the governing classes.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?
I am interested in changing attitudes to gender relations, so the early campaigners for women's rights are particularly significant. The achievements of women like Emily Davies, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, Lydia Becker and Millicent Garrett Fawcett are truly remarkable. I am also interested in the men who were involved in the movement, like the philosopher John Stuart Mill. However one of the things I am trying to do is to look beyond these famous figures to recover the beliefs of lesser-known individuals in order to establish whether the ideas of Fawcett or Mill were widely held.

How has your field developed over the course of your career?
The history of masculinity has definitely moved from the fringes of historical inquiry to the centre in the last ten years. We now have a much better understanding of how the qualities associated with masculinity have changed over time, and how masculinity has shaped men's actions. Even in the course of the nineteenth century there were dramatic changes in the perception of what constituted 'manliness'. This is enormously significant because it means that we need to revise established historical accounts that have previously ignored gender. For example, if masculinity changes over time then we need to start asking questions about how historically specific forms of masculinity influenced the behaviour of men like Napoleon, Gladstone and Disraeli. Martin Francis has shown how the popularity of three Conservative Prime Ministers - Churchill, Eden and Macmillan – depended on the extent to which they lived up to popular ideals of 'manliness'. We need more work like that. Fifteen years ago very few historians were asking questions about the history of masculinity - now it is commonplace.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?
I think that we need to do more to integrate the history of feminism with political history and the history of religion: that is what I am trying to do in my forthcoming book. A second undertaking that is urgently required is to explore the broader cultural, social and political implications of the new economic history of the nineteenth century that has emerged in the last twenty years. Our understanding of the industrial revolution has been completely transformed and a lot of the traditional narratives about the nineteenth century need to be abandoned.

What characterises good history?
It should make you question some of the things that you take for granted.

How did your understanding of history change during your time as a university student?
I realised that my main area of interest was the history of ideas – an area that I had never studied at school. I don't mean ideas in the sense of formal philosophical doctrines, but rather the history of those often unspoken assumptions that structure people's behaviour. For example I am interested in the fact that mothers had no legal right to custody of their children in the early nineteenth century. Why did people think that that was acceptable and why did it change?