From suffragettes to Mumsnet

Published: 07 Jul 2016

Professor Sarah Pedersen, 50, is an expert of two halves, from blogs and Mumsnet to Edwardian women and the suffragettes.

Sarah has a long-standing interest regarding women’s use of the media. Originally from Coventry, she is now professor of communication and media at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. She also writes a blog for the online Press and Journal on social media trends.

Sarah Pedersen

YOU HAVE VERY VARIED AREAS OF EXPERTISE.

Half of me researches social media and the other half of me is a historian.

I’ve done a lot of research about social media, particularly on the subject of women online and teenagers taking risks online.

In particular, I have worked a lot on Mumsnet, the big parenting network, and why women use it. That is one half of me. But the other half is originally a historian.

YOU DID YOUR PHD LOOKING AT THE PRESS AND JOURNAL IN THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?

It was the Aberdeen Free Press and the Aberdeen Daily Journal. They were two different newspapers that didn't come together as the P&J until 1921.

My PhD looked at women’s use of these two newspapers in the early years of the 20th century, so about the time the suffragettes were around.

WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO ABERDEEN?

I’ve moved around a bit and did a couple of degrees in history down in England. Then I worked in publishing and 20 years ago we moved up to Aberdeen because of my husband’s job.

I freelanced as an editor and journalist for a while. Luckily there was a job here at Robert Gordon University going in the communication and media department.

HOW DID YOU MAKE THAT JUMP FROM WORKING IN PUBLISHING TO TEACHING?

I suppose I used to work in magazines and now I teach women’s media. I teach magazines and journalism, so it’s all related in that way.

HOW DO ALL THESE ELEMENTS COME TOGETHER IN YOUR CLASSES?

There are two things I mainly teach. Women in the media, so obviously women’s use of newspapers, and the internet. That’s really important. The other thing I teach is a module called celebrity culture. All my research feeds into what I am also teaching about.

We are talking about celebrity politics and the rise of the celebrity politician, like Donald Trump. The idea that celebrity politics is great for certain men, such as David Cameron, Donald Trump, Tony Blair, but not so good for women.

WHY IS CELEBRITY POLITICS BAD FOR WOMEN?

Celebrity politics for women is really focusing on the body – in celebrity magazines, it’s all about weight, or “look at her in her bikini”.

If we translate that celebrity discourse about women into politics, then that is what we are still talking about – “Oh Nicola Sturgeon has lost weight”.

Celebrity culture is very problematic for women politicians, both because of the focus on appearance but also because celebrity culture is more interested in private lives than public affairs. We want to know about politicians’ families and relationships, sometimes more than we want to know about their policies.

HOW IS THAT RELEVANT TO YOUR STUDIES ON SUFFRAGETTES?

If we look at Scottish newspapers, like the Free Press and the Daily Journal, they talked about the suffragettes, who are the original women politicians.

They are talking about what they are wearing. They are talking about their bodies. They made smutty jokes about them. So we’ve got that discourse already happening 100 years ago.

The Suffragettes

DID IT MATTER WHAT THE SUFFRAGETTES WERE WEARING?

The suffragettes pushed the issue themselves. They were saying they wanted the vote because you need the female point of view – you need the mother, the person who knows about children and sick people.

Mrs Pankhurst, the leader of the suffragettes, always said that if you were to sell their newspapers or going to speak, you should be well dressed. You should be in your nicest clothes and the best hats.

ARE YOU WORKING ON MORE RESEARCH?

I’m writing a book at the moment, coming out next year. It’s about the Scottish suffragettes and the press.

There were few female journalists at this time. However, there was one Aberdeen woman journalist, her name was Caroline Phillips. She was also a suffragette and she chained herself to railings in Aberdeen. She was the secretary of the Aberdeen branch of the suffragettes, but she fell out with Mrs Pankhurst and was forced out.

I have been asked to write about Caroline for the new edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women, which I am very pleased about. Hopefully it will mean more people learning about her.

I’m also continuing my work on Mumsnet and the other ways in which women use social media.

WILL YOU CONTINUE TEACHING AS WELL AS RESEARCHING?

I really enjoy my job because it offers the opportunity to undertake research but also to be involved with the students.

I get a lot out of working with them on their own research and introducing them to the new concepts and theories.

I work with final year students and they enjoy working on subjects that they have chosen themselves. It is an annual delight to see them graduate in the summer having achieved so much.

WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE FOR ANYONE STARTING OUT IN THEIR STUDIES?

I say go for it. There are so many interesting things to go and research and study. Every day there’s a new thing I can research.

Celebrity culture is very problematic for women politicians, both because of the focus on appearance but also because celebrity culture is more interested in private lives than public affairs

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