Fellow’s ‘landmark history’ of the lives of working mothers shortlisted for top writing Prize

“It displays a deeply-felt respect for the subject’s significance”

St John’s Fellow Dr Helen McCarthy has been shortlisted for the UK’s largest history writing prize for her critically acclaimed book about mothers in the workplace.

Dr McCarthy, College Lecturer in Modern History and Reader in Modern and Contemporary British History, is one of just six authors shortlisted for the 2021 Wolfson History Prize for her book Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood, published in April 2020 by Bloomsbury.

Prize judges described it as ‘a stylish, lively account of the emotionally-charged issue of working mothers’, adding: “Based on intensive research, it displays a deeply-felt respect for the subject’s significance.”

Dr Helen McCarthy
Dr Helen McCarthy. Photo credit: Jonathan Ring.

The shortlist was announced today (21 April) for the annual £60,000 Prize, for which the winner receives £40,000 and the five remaining authors are awarded £4,000 each. It celebrates the best historical non-fiction titles that combine excellence in research and writing, with readability for a general audience. The other shortlisted book topics include child survivors of the Holocaust, attacks on truth and knowledge, and the life of Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution.

The titles are: Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (Yale University Press) by Rebecca Clifford; Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture (Allen Lane) by Sudhir Hazareesingh; Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe (Allen Lane) by Judith Herrin; Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack (John Murray Press) by Richard Ovenden and Atlantic Wars: From the Fifteenth Century to the Age of Revolution (Oxford University Press) by Geoffrey Plank.

David Cannadine, Chair of the judges and President of the British Academy, said: “This year’s shortlist shows us that, despite the unprecedented challenges of the past year, the diversity and quality of history writing in the UK continues to endure. As judges we were absorbed and impressed by these six books and the commitment of their authors to uncover some of the lesser-known narratives of the past.”

Double Lives was published during the UK's first lockdown when The Guardian hailed it a ‘landmark history of the lives of working mothers’ that ‘highlights the discrimination that remains to this day’ while The Times described it as ‘an epic history’. Judges noted that it was published amid conversations around the gender pay gap and experience of working mothers during the pandemic. “McCarthy forces us not only to re-evaluate the past, but to ask anew how current attitudes towards mothers in the workplace have developed.”

Dr McCarthy said: "To see Double Lives, a book about the labours of mothering, shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize is overwhelming. It feels like a wonderful affirmation that such subjects are the stuff of ‘serious’ history, especially at a time when understanding the politics of work and care has never seemed more urgent."

Double Lives is Dr McCarthy’s third book. Her first was The British People and the League of Nations and her second, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat, won Best International Affairs Book at the Political Book Awards 2015. In July last year she was also named in a list of the world’s 50 top thinkers of 2020 by Prospect magazine.

“The Wolfson History Prize serves as a reminder of the importance of historical research and writing to British society”

Double Lives

The Wolfson History Prize is awarded by the Wolfson Foundation, an independent charity that awards grants in the fields of science, health, heritage, humanities and the arts. The Prize was first awarded in 1972 and, since then, over £1.3 million has been awarded to more than 100 historians. The 2020 Prize was won by Professor David Abulafia, Emeritus Professor of Mediterranean History at the University of Cambridge and Papathomas Professorial Fellow at Gonville & Caius College, for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans. Other previous winners include Mary Beard, Cyprian Broodbank, Simon Schama, Eric Hobsbawm, Amanda Vickery, Antony Beevor, Christopher Bayly and Antonia Fraser.

To be eligible for consideration, authors must be resident in the UK in the year of the book’s publication (the preceding year of the award), must not be a previous winner and must have written a book that is carefully researched, well-written and accessible to the non-specialist reader.

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation, said: “The Wolfson Foundation has awarded the Wolfson History Prize for nearly 50 years but its mission – to champion the importance of high-quality, accessible history writing – is as critical now as it has ever been. This past year has revealed much about how history is valued (and contested) in today’s society and why it is vital for us to engage carefully and thoughtfully with the experiences of those who came before us. These six books offer the opportunity to hear often forgotten or neglected voices from the ancient world to the modern day. The Wolfson History Prize serves as a reminder of the importance of historical research and writing to British society – a reminder that is as important as ever in these turbulent times.”

The shortlisted authors are due to feature in a forthcoming special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking and will also be speaking at the Hay Festival on Wednesday 2 June. The overall winner will be announced in a virtual ceremony on Wednesday 9 June 2021.

The Wolfson History Prize 2021

Published: 21/4/21

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