A familiar face to anyone who has taken part in past T2M conferences, this newsletter’s Spotlight falls upon Maggie Walsh. She has been active in the organisation of T2M, serving on the EC in the past, and is always keen to encourage new scholars. Her research into transport and mobility has included exploration of the dynamics of long-distance bus travel in the US, gender and transportation and women and automobility in the US after the Second World War. Reflecting this trans-national interest and her mobile career, Maggie has just become Emeritus Professor of American Economic and Social History at the University of Nottingham.
You’ve worked on a diverse body of topics in your career – including mobility, labour, business & gender. How did you end up in the academic world, and how did you come to explore transport and mobility?
I moved into the academic world as much by chance and good luck as by choice! Having finished my undergraduate degree at St Andrews in Modern History & Geography I was fortunate enough to win an English Speaking Union Fellowship to Smith College, one of the US’s Ivy League ‘Schools’. My MA thesis ended up looking at industrial decline in New England, 1919-39. I was also fortunate in then moving to a Teaching Assistantship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I completed my PhD in History in 1969 and wrote my thesis in Midwestern economic history. By 1968, the year of crises, I was rather disillusioned with American foreign policy and domestic upheavals so I returned to the UK.
After my first academic post in American Studies at the University of Keele, I managed to obtain another post in the Department of Economic History at the University of Birmingham, where I stayed 23 years! I moved to the University of Nottingham in 1994 into School of American & Canadian Studies because my partner was in Nottingham and we were tired of commuting. It was a major change as American & Canadian Studies was oriented towards American literature and was very cultural. I never taught economic history again, though I specialised in the American west and women’s history, an area which I had started to develop in Birmingham.
I have been ‘in transport’ for a long time! My father was a civil engineer and as young children my brother and I would go out with him during the school holidays and see the local government employees building as well as repairing roads or we would play in the depot among the equipment and materials! But my research and writing in transport and mobility stems from the second part of my career. I turned to transport when my department in Birmingham wanted me to concentrate on twentieth century history. I looked for a topic that was not popular because this would give me more time to do trans-Atlantic research which would have to be funded by grants. I picked the intercity bus industry because I knew that little had been written on this subject and because as a student in the US in the 1960s the only way I could afford to move between places was by the cheapest way, the bus. I pieced together a general history of the bus industry with details of particular facets of the industry as and when I could locate materials. It was a long and patchy trawl and not one which I would recommend, particularly if there is an ocean in between the researcher and the sources.
Recently I moved my transport/mobility research into women and car driving in the US. This was another academic ‘by chance’ opportunity. I was asked if I could write a piece on gender and American automobility for a major web-based project at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. I said yes almost without thinking as I knew my women’s history and my general road transport books. Only when I started doing research did I realise what a mountain I would have to climb to get anywhere. By dint of web-based materials, produced by the federal government, my long-time knowledge of American history and some indirect sources I managed to accomplish the task. It made sense to stay in the area, which brings me up-to-date and my Emeritus Leverhulme Fellowship.
Of your work on transport, your research on long-distance buses is well known. Is there more to be done on bus travel, and what are you working on at the moment?
Yes there is a lot more to be done on bus history. It is a subject which is very much missing from mobility history. There has been some research done in the UK and there is a little done and ongoing in one or two European countries, but there is a lot of room out there for budding PhD students. Some of the research may be on individual bus companies, whether in regular service or in tourism; some may be done at national level on public policy; some may be done on bus passengers. The last named topic is the most difficult to research because of the problem of resources. Yes there are memoirs of bus travels, but these are few and far between and few companies appear to have retained passenger surveys. I am sure, however, that new researchers can be creative about the materials that can be used for bus travel, particularly the pictorial sources.
I am working on women and cars, primarily after the Second World War. I wanted to concentrate after 1945 because these were the years of mass consumption of motor cars and the years when most women learned to drive. I wanted to get a clearer picture of how and when women became as accustomed to driving as men and when the car ceased to be a masculine technology. We may think of obvious answers to these questions, but how can these answers be documented? My search has led me to quantitative sources and to policy documents and reports. I want now to examine qualitative sources, including pictorial representations.
You’ve been involved with T2M for a long time. What would you say the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses are?
Yes, I have been involved with T2M from the start. I joined the Mobility Research Group of the Tensions of Europe Project in 2001. Here Gijs Mom was very much in the driving seat and had it not been for his initiatives and energy I don’t think the mobility group would have been so successful. T2M emerged out of this group, but it was really Gijs’ brain child and he has remained essential to its emergence and growth. Without his planning and organisation T2M would not be where it is today. Yes it is still a very young organisation and one which is in sore need of a ‘pot of gold’, but it keeps going and it grows, which is essential for a young organisation.
One of the great attractions of T2M is its focus on mobility as distinct from transport. For too long transport history has been in the hands of economic and business historians and (dare I say?) in the hands of railway historians. There is nothing wrong with the economic history of transport modes and organisations and this type of history has provided a solid foundation on which to build. But history as a subject has undergone major changes since the 1960s and 1970s, most notably in terms of social and cultural approaches. No longer can history be written from the top down as perceived by policy makers, governments and monarchs. So mobility gives transport history the opportunity to engage with people of all kinds and to be much more aware of how people use transport or consume travel. It also encourages the use of a wider range of sources and approaches.
It is difficult to comment on the weaknesses of T2M because everyone carries their personal baggage with them and one person’s champagne is another’s poison. There are two weaknesses that are crucial. The first and rather obvious one is lack of capital. T2M really needs an injection of money, which can be invested so that it provides both stability and will generate interest that can be spent on projects and running costs such as administrative support. Having a journal which can provide some finance helps considerably, but a journal cannot produce the required income by itself. Starting a journal in the highly competitive academic market is difficult and risky unless there is some solid financial and membership base. Currently T2M does not have the membership base to persuade a major press to take on a new print outlet. Though there have been difficulties with linking into the Journal of Transport History this organ does have standing as does the Spanish –based journal, Transportes, Servicios y Telecomunicaciones. I am not sure that there is room for another transport history journal, albeit it may publish electronically. The sociological journal Mobilities may also cut into the potential market.
The second weakness is organisation. Here I am not referring to the Executive Committee which does a splendid job under difficult circumstances. I am referring to trying to build a truly international association without having a solid groundwork either nationally or continentally. Currently T2M is spread too thinly. It is impossible for individual members to participate on an intercontinental basis unless they are giving papers and even then financial support may not be forthcoming from their institutions. Some long-standing academics can afford to attend ‘out of their own pocket’, but not graduate students and younger academics, particularly if they need to present at other conferences in order to establish themselves in their posts.
I think T2M needs a firm footing in order to grow. If that is currently in Europe, then so be it. Yes, the North American contingent is necessary, but that might have to grow within North America. Perhaps the Ottawa Conference will give a big and non-temporary boost to membership there. But we must look to Asia, which is rapidly growing and overtaking some European economies, and Africa must not be neglected. It may be that a fully international meeting will only take place every third or fourth year, while national or possibly continental meetings take place annually. There is good precedence for this in other historical areas. The model of the Society for the History of Technology may be too advanced to follow for such a young organisation as T2M. I can remember conversations in the US in the mid-1970s about this society and it was still having growing pains. It is now a major international organisation, but it has long-standing solid foundations in the US and it is interdisciplinary.
Gender has long been a subject of particular interest to you. What place does gender have in T2M, and what developments would you like to see?
Gender is an analytical tool which I started using initially for teaching in the 1980s. Once understood it is impossible to ignore. Looking at the past with eyes that appreciate that women were there too as well as men makes such a difference about how history is viewed. Initially I added women into existing modules, but it felt like a separate piece rather than an integral part of the whole. Once there were enough books in the university library to underwrite a module, I taught a women’s history module in preference to a business history module. At first it was challenging and then it became interesting.
I have taken both women and gender into my research and writing. Some of my best experiences in this context have been at women’s history conferences where speakers do not have to set out a gender agenda and justify their approach. The atmosphere is at times electric. Giving gender or women’s history papers at business history or transport history conferences can be and often is a nightmare. Speakers are either isolated into a gender session where only the converted appear; or if, as has happened, there is only one gender paper, the presenter is placed in a session which is so diverse as to be nonsensical. It is both demoralising and frustrating and only the stalwarts persevere. They have probably already established their careers and so can afford to ignore being marginalised. Many would-be mobility historians try a Transport Conference once and then head out elsewhere. This is such a pity and such a waste of talent and new ideas. I do not know if or when this may change. I would hope it would in 2008.
Finally, congratulations on your retirement! What will you be doing in the future? Do academics ever retire, or does the research carry on and the funding come from another source?!
I will continue with my research on women and car driving in the US for as long as the research money lasts and maybe longer. I am also training to join the voluntary sector and that is truly a humbling experience. I feel as though I was a first year undergraduate again and know very little. There is so much to take on board and though volunteers have an excellent website on which to draw, even knowing where to start is a little like running a marathon.
Many academics do not retire from their research provided they can access sources. No academic ever retires from engaging with ideas.