These shoes and this handbag

These shoes and this handbag

Unworn and unwanted, yet issued

Somehow didn’t fit in with the rest of the kit

Hardly the stuff of hardy seafarers, naval engineers.


These shoes and this handbag,

Unchanged but unused, yet issued

A bygone relic

Of wartime telephonists, radio operators.


These shoes and this handbag,

Unexpected and unchallenged, yet issued

Amusingly compensating for skirts with no pockets

Yet reminding us of our place, don’t forget.


These shoes and this handbag,

Of limited combat utility, were issued

I find out when the men got their weapons

To the women before us who couldn’t bear arms.



‘Warrior boys, warrior girls’

My four year old son’s favourite colour is pink. Will it still be his favourite colour when he is fourteen, I wonder? Maybe he will just prefer another colour by then and, ‘what does it matter, anyway?’ I hear you ask. I question whether he has a choice or if it has already been determined that pink is just not an option for a boy. Maybe the question, ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ will get nothing but a shrug of the shoulders from my then fourteen-year-old. But, as I see him running around with his classmates, unconscious that there might be different expectations on the futures of the boys when compared with the girls, it makes me think about what else we have already decided for him.

Looming large is the influence of the ‘alpha’ male. Whether it is the brash successful businessman, the rippling sportsman or the school bully, boys learn from an early age that these characters seemingly come out on top. Boys come to realise that they either have to adopt these characteristics or negotiate a path alongside them. This pressure on boys and men, to be this ‘alpha’ male, is born out of the warrior ideal. If you think of war, you will think of men. Men as fighters, as soldiers. War is thought of in male terms – aggressive, decisive, rational. It shapes our idea of what it means to be a man – a warrior, a defender. What does this mean for women? Well, if you think of women, you think of peace. Women as mothers, as peacemakers. Thinking of women as the opposite of this warrior stereotype shapes what it means to be a woman too.

The military is run by men, and it is populated by men – yes, there are women but they are in a significant minority of about 10% in the UK. What does this mean? Well, like my son as he grows up, women have to find a way to fit in. I know… I was one of these women – I served for over ten years as a naval engineer. So, although on paper women bring diversity, when you join young and are trained together you most likely start to think in the same way too. For me, it has taken the transition from military service into research to gradually realise that by ‘getting on with the job’ I felt my gender was irrelevant – I have heard it called ‘gender-blind’. It stopped me noticing that some of my military experiences were affected by being a woman and the dominance of men in the military hierarchy was affecting how military strategy was developed. Sharing the experience of this transition from military service to research and what this has revealed to me can help the military to realise its blindspots.

By recognising these blindspots, it is possible to challenge the assumptions made about women and men in relation to war. This will start to break what feels like an impenetrable hold over what society, expects from men and women. My research strives to understand the involvement of combatants who were women in order to challenge the mainstream narratives about war and question a history of war written by men. Specifically, the study will expose the forgotten stories of women involved in outreach programmes during the Malayan Emergency and women employed on covert operations in Northern Ireland. Questioning the accepted landscape of these campaigns, I am asking how women’s involvement can be used to help us to think about the realities on the ground of these contested operations. As the British Army is refocussing on traditional forms of war, I am also speaking to veterans of the Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan and asking how it can be that even this recent history is starting to be ignored. Although in a minority, unravelling these stories and listening to forgotten voices can help us to question how we think of the contemporary female combatant and broaden our understanding of what it means to be a woman today.

We are in the era of #metoo and #thisgirlcan, and it is one hundred years since women enlisted in the British military and the first women’s votes. Now is the time to question the place of women in the public conversation about war and in doing so, loosen the hold of this warrior ideal on what it means to be a man. I want my son to grow up in a world where he is not limited by the pink and blue divide and his life can be bettered by real diversity in what it means to be a man or a woman.

What it means to be a veteran-researcher

Originally appeared on

This post by Hannah West and Sophy Gardner picks up from the debate captured by Ben Schrader, Daphne Inbar and Aviad Levy following their panel discussion at EISA 2018 on military veterans in International Relations and Critical Military Studies and discussed on this blog post.  

 The Defence Research Network held a workshop in Bristol on 6 October 2018 to bring together veterans to explore what it means to traverse the military-academic divide. We considered questions including, whether veterans’ military experience and identity shape their research agendas, methods and interpretative frameworks; what unique opportunities and challenges veteran researchers whilst conducting research on defence; and what it means to be reflexive about their positionality within their research. The workshop was funded by Volkswagen Foundation as part of the Military Afterlives project.

Hannah shares her reflections:

‘Entering a room full of veteran-researchers is at once comforting – to find others who are going through the same transition from the military to academia – but at the same time there is an unspoken dynamic going on that I found fascinating. It happens in everyday life of course, we make judgements, some conscious, some unconscious, when we meet and interact with others, but with veterans it feels there are a set of questions framing how we understand each other. And as I stood next to my civilian supervisor, Sarah Bulmer, who was chairing the workshop, I was struck with how the subtleties of this interaction might appear or be invisible to an outsider. How long had they served for? Did they serve as an officer or NCO? Were they a regular or reservist? What was their regiment/trade/branch? Did they deploy? And these questions are not necessarily answered in a brief resume on meeting but in the subtle and silent assessment of how someone dresses and presents themselves, and also what they share about their military career. So, whilst I can’t speak for the other participants this was definitely somewhere in my mind when I met this group. I also noticed that Sarah was left out of these discussions, and it was strange to see my supervisor needing my guidance to interact with this group.  And this was just the opening of the workshop. But it got me ready to talk about what the ‘shared experiences’ of being a veteran are.’

It was a fascinating and useful day connecting with fellow veteran (and in fact serving and reservist) researchers, hearing about their research and identifying common experiences. The points below capture some of the observations emerging from our discussions:

  • Experiential knowledge. We talked about what our military experience brought to our research, and what this allowed us to see, say and understand when compared to a civilian researcher. We recognised how we bring a particular understanding both to the interpretation of texts and in interactions with military research subjects and institutions but we were challenged to think about our blindspots too. We acknowledged the importance of the veteran experience to academia but shared our nervousness sometimes in sharing personal experiences and overcoming traditional cultural stereotypes about what it is to be a veteran, especially with colleagues critical of military power and militarisation.
  • Pride and criticism. Reflecting on their military service, participants had varied responses to their own past roles but we agreed there was potentially a tension between pride in our service and being critical of the military. We explored the idea of critical practice and needing time to reflect on our service to be able to understand what we had normalized or been desensitized to through serving. This linked to the idea of becoming more politically active following military service, catalyzed by reflections on our military experiences. However, another perspective reconciled critique and pride because through critiquing the military we support it to reform and improve.
  • Intersections of organizational culture. Military culture and language is second nature to us but we discussed that academia has its own culture and language too and that our challenge is negotiating the intersections of these two cultures. Perhaps the challenge for the veteran researcher is navigating the journey between the two and being able to accommodate and draw on these two cultures in different contexts.
  • Societal understanding. This debate also led us to reflect on being part of a diminishing band of veterans with fewer families knowing someone with military service and how this impacts on how we are understood in society, and, in particular, by our civilian academic colleagues. We remembered how there had been a time when most scholars had done military service.
  • Instrumental advantage. We did not dwell on, but did acknowledge, the instrumental advantage of military service in military research in terms of access and credibility but were challenged to think about the methodological implications of our blindspots, for example what we might assume because of our familiarity with military norms.
  • Blurred lines. For some, the line between the military and academia is not distinct – they perhaps started doing research, in some form, whilst still serving or in fact are still reservists or regulars now, only adding to the blurry nature of this transition for some people. We considered whether the distinction between the two spheres was as distinct as it seemed.

We are intending to hold a follow on workshop in Autumn 2019 on the subject of ‘The voice of the veteran as researcher’ to present papers for discussion and build towards publication. Our aim would be to bring together veterans who are also researchers and would be interested in contributing to this debate.

At this time when the notion of the expert is under fire in the popular press, what is the value of military experience in scholarship? We have seen the emergence of soldier-scholars and social media has amplified military attempts to engage with critical thinking e.g. Wavell room, BRAIN and Dragon portal. With this increased visibility, there is now an opportunity to encourage a more diverse commentary on defence and specifically reflect on the contribution of the ex-military-scholar.

We would be interested to hear from any veteran-researchers who would like to engage with the following themes:

  • What is the value of war experience as the basis of scholarship?
  • What do veterans’ voices add to critical commentary on war and the military that other voices might miss?
  • How does the scholarship of veterans differ methodologically?
  • How does engaging with academia affect veteran’s reflections on the military and their service?
  • What are the cultural barriers to veterans participating in the academic community?
  • What are the blindspots for veterans researching the military/defence?
  • How do veterans engage with politics and critical practice following their transition from service?

A call for papers will follow. In the meantime, expressions of interest would be welcome to

Authors: Hannah West, Sophy Gardner

Women and Creativity

Originally appeared in South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) Newsletter:

On 28 September, I took part in one of the ‘Up Late’ events at the Holburne Museum, entitled ‘Women and Creativity’, as part of the FUTURES 2018 European Researchers Night. This event was funded by the EU Commission and aiming to engage the European public in celebrating the latest and most stimulating research as a local and international level (with simultaneous events taking place in over 300 cities, spanning 24 European countries). Our event was a collaboration between the Holburne Museum and the University of Bath Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster 

The event explored the connections between Women’s Creativity and their place in society and included pop-up talks, body mapping and a scavenger hunt as well as an opportunity to engage with academics from the University of Bath involved in the research of gender across a number of disciplines. As part of this event, I co-curated a display on women and warfare. The Holburne family has a military history through Captain William and Admiral Frances and the museum includes their traditional representation in the form of uniformed portraits as well as artefacts such as Captain Holburne’s sword. Our display aims to challenge these traditional depictions by including representations of women and warfare and as the accompanying image shows it was both powerful and jarring to see these images alongside more traditional artwork.

The women and warfare display included my own (winning) submission for the University Images of Research competition 2017 entitled ‘(Wo)Man of war’, alongside display boards from an illustrated essay, ‘Living on the Margins’, on the role of borderland brokers in post-war transitions based on the research of my supervisor, Dr Oliver Walton ( and a digital display including the ‘reimagining’ of murals in Northern Ireland to be more positive cultural expressions through the representation of women rather than paramilitary weaponry put together by Dr Sophie Whiting (POLIS) as well as photographs from an exhibition entitled ‘Soldier – Women in the British Army’ ( by Alison Baskerville, an ex-military photographer.

Parenthood and PhDs

Originally appeared in South West Doctoral Training Partnership (SWDTP) Newsletter:
Thinking of starting a family or having another child during your PhD? Not sure how compatible parenthood might be with your studies or where to turn for advice on suspending studies? I am a second year SWDTP student at the University of Bath and suspended studies mid-January to have a baby (I am writing this whilst my eight week old is napping!). I am a second-time mum and started my MRes when my first child was 18 months, suspending studies just before his fourth birthday for the birth of my second. So, I have also experienced juggling parenting, childcare and studying. I know I am not alone as I was surprised and encouraged at the SWDTP induction to find so many parents amongst our cohort. I’m sure they have lots of different experiences of parenting and studying but I hope these comments help anyone considering how it might affect them.
I know how difficult it can be sometimes to dig out the maternity and paternity guidance, not least if you are not ready to make public your news or intentions. So, in terms of the practicalities of maternity leave, in principle, assuming you are funded by an ESRC studentship, your entitlement is not dissimilar to that of most workplaces. That is 52 weeks of maternity or shared parental leave with the first 26 weeks paid at full stipend rate and the following 13 weeks be paid at a rate roughly equivalent to statutory maternity pay. If you are looking for more specific detail then I’d advise checking out the RCUK and ESRC guidance (there will also be some university specific guidance also) (page 26). Suspending studies is procedural and can be done directly through your institution, fairly late on in the pregnancy.I thought it might be handy to share one perspective of combining pregnancy and parenting with studying. For me, pregnancy had a limited impact on my studies. Being pregnant towards the end of my first year, I was fortunate in being able to read and type with my feet up on the sofa when feeling rough and exhausted. I was about five months pregnant at confirmation and following this imagined I would get as many interviews done as I could before suspending studies. I rapidly realised that I was slightly less inclined towards long days of travelling in the latter stages and consequently shifted my plan to writing in the interim. Since suspending studies, I have certainly found it a different experience compared with going on maternity leave from my previous job given the consuming nature of a PhD. However, as with the latter stages of my last maternity leave when I was applying for the MRes and PhD, I found having the PhD on the backburner to pick up and think about in the long periods of patting little ones off to sleep or lengthy walks with the pram, to be a much needed source of perspective.

I can’t speak for what it is going to be like having two little ones but prior to the recent arrival, other students have often asked me how I can combine parenting and studying and, sometimes to their surprise, I often find myself saying that I think it has helped. I find looking after my son so all consuming that you have no choice but to switch off from your studies – dashing off to toddler swimming lessons or playing games in the garden is the perfect antidote to hours of reading. And during his time at nursery I am forced to be efficient and get down to work as I know I only ever have about a four hour window until I need to collect him. It will certainly be a new challenge come January to return to studying with two little ones but I hope studying and parenting continue to bring as much to each other as they have so far (and I welcome any tips from any of you who have already been through this!).

Good luck to all those student parents out there and I hope this has been a useful insight for anyone in a similar position. If I can answer any questions then do please get in touch and I will do my best to help.