Professor Dame Olwen Hufton FBA (Doctor of Letters)

Oration by Professor Gordon Campbell

Olwen HuftonDame Olwen Hufton is Britain’s most distinguished woman historian and historian of women. Her specialist studies of eighteenth-century France lie at the heart of a broad range of interests in early modern, West European social and cultural history, particularly on issues of gender, poverty, social relations, religion and work. Her scholarship has had a major role in defining  two related fields: firstly, the study of poverty in France under the ancien régime and revolutionary era; secondly, the experience of women in early modern Europe.  The former is exemplified by her books on The Poor of Eighteenth Century France, which won the Wolfson Prize, and Europe, Privilege and Protest 1730-1789. The latter theme, which has dominated her recent work, was inaugurated with Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution. Dame Olwen’s textbook, Privilege and Protest, was a mainstay of eighteenth-century European history courses from its publication and is still widely used, over 30 years since its first publication.  Her monumental survey of women's history, The Prospect Before Her (1995) was the culmination of many years of scholarship and was one of the first academic works to integrate women's history into a more general synthesis of European history. It was the logical culmination of her seminal article on ‘Women and the French Revolution’, published in Past and Present in 1971, which itself broke revolutionary new ground in directly addressing the consequences of the French Revolution for women. The Prospect Before Her, the first volume of her History of Women in Western Europe, covered the years 1500 to 1800; the second volume, which will bring the history up to 2000, is nearing completion. She is also writing a history of fundraising for charitable and educational initiatives in the Counter Reformation.

Such eminence was not achieved from a springboard of privilege. On the contrary, Olwen's early years were spent in a council house in the Lancashire cotton town of Oldham. Her childhood coincided with the experience of war: blackouts, rationing and V1 flying bombs, one of which hit a row of terrace houses in Oldham, killing 37 people. Food rationing meant, among other deprivations, no imported fruit: Olwen was seven before she saw a banana, at the end of the war. No-one would envy the material constraints of such a childhood, but on one reading it might be deemed good preparation for an historian of poverty.

In due course Olwen was awarded a scholarship at a local grammar school, and became the only council house child in her form. She went from there to University College London, where she encountered Alfred Cobban, the great revisionist historian of the French Revolution. It was Cobban (together with the French historian François Furet) who first advanced the view that the life of most French people (including women) was little changed by the Revolution, and indeed that the urban poor were worse off as a result of the abolition of the tithe by the National Constituent Assembly, because the tithe funded the charitable work of the church. In this perception lay the seeds of what would prove to be a lifetime's work for Olwen Hufton.

Olwen’s academic career began in what is now our School of Historical Studies, where she was a lecturer from 1963-1966. This is a period of which she speaks with enormous affection, readily acknowledging a debt to two of our founding professors, Jack Simmons and Ilya Neustadt, who, at a time when most historians were concerned with male elites, supported Olwen's work on the poor and on women.

From Leicester Olwen moved to Reading, where she taught for more than twenty years, and then to Harvard, where in 1988 she became the University's first Professor of Modern History and Women’s Studies. The appointment was controversial. A Harvard Professor of Government complained that 'courses taught by women under Women’s Studies have been a vehicle for feminist propaganda', and his colleague the Henry Ford Professor of Social Sciences opined that 'people want Women’s Studies as a political symbol, but you’ll find that no one will concentrate in it'. Olwen saw off the dinosaurs, and Women’s Studies became an important discipline at Harvard, and indeed at many universities worldwide.

After four years in America, Olwen returned to Europe to become Professor of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence. Six years later, in 1997, she returned to England to become Leverhulme Professor of History at Oxford. She retired in 2003, and is now Fellow Emeritus of Merton College Oxford. Her honours include a Fellowship of the British Academy (1993), appointment by the Queen as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2004), honorary fellowships at UCL and Royal Holloway, honorary degrees from Reading and Southampton and an Oxford Festschrift called The Art of Survival. Beyond these high honours, there has also been recognition by those at the heart of any university -- the students; University of Glasgow hosts a Hufton Postgraduate Reading Group centred on women's history. It is hard to imagine more gratifying recognition.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present to you Dame Olwen Hufton, that you may confer upon her the degree of Doctor of Letters.

Written and delivered by Professor Gordon Campbell on 10 July 2013 at 11am

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