BA (Melbourne), MA, PhD (West Australia)
(Deceased), 2009-04-28
History, Heritage And Archaeology

The historian Patricia Crawford, who has died aged 68, was a feminist pioneer. In 1980, when she started writing about 17th century women, there was almost nothing in print on the subject. Today there is barely any aspect of ordinary women's lives in this extraordinary period that has not been written about; and in very many cases, the groundwork was done by Crawford. It was customary, until recently, for historians to lament the dearth of sources for the history of women in an era when most women were illiterate. Trish was among those who refused to believe this was the case: she learned to look, not just for the presence of women in archival documents, but for their absence.

Born Patricia Mary Clarke in Melbourne, Trish was the daughter of Jim Clarke, a marine surveyor, and Enid Fussell. She studied history at the University of Melbourne. In 1962 she moved with her husband, Ian Crawford, to Perth, where he took up a post in Aboriginal studies at the Western Australian Museum, and she began postgraduate work at the University of Western Australia (UWA), where she was to spend the rest of her career.

Her early research reconstructed the complicated internal politics of the Long Parliament of the 1640s, resulting in a book, Denzil Holles, 1598-1680, which won the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield prize in 1979. Her first scholarly article, ‘Charles Stuart, that man of blood’, published in 1977 in the Journal of British Studies and still much valued, explained with stark clarity the contemporary rationale behind the trial and execution of Charles I. He had endangered his people; he was no longer immune to the laws of the kingdom.

Like others of her generation, Crawford was to turn from parliamentary political history to popular radicalism and eventually to social history; but for her, this transition also brought a move into women's history. Her passion for archival research, her conviction that the words of contemporaries were the place to start, and her tenacity with ill-preserved documents and difficult handwriting resulted in a series of articles and books whose topics included motherhood, religion, sex, embroidery and dreams. Her fascination with the 1640s led her to ask what social radicalism meant for women: even in the heady days of the revolution, she pointed out, women were never considered citizens, and after 1650, the wild voices of prophets and activists were no longer welcome in public politics.

Latterly, she began to ask how the patriarchalism of early modern Britain had affected the colonists of Australia. Perhaps most startlingly to her peers, in 1981 she convinced the historical journal Past and Present to publish an article – still almost the only one on the subject – on Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England. She noted wryly that some of the most unlikely beliefs ("Why does a menstruating woman cause flowers to wilt?") were still being debated in the Lancet in 1974.

Trish's historical method was born of an immersion in the sources she came to know so well, and a conviction that the most obscure 17th century text had something to tell the early modern reader about the apparently irresistible imbalances of power in societies and households. Discussing at a seminar the criminalisation of 16th century women as scolds, Trish once mused: ‘I sometimes feel, there but for the grace of God go all of us’. Her insistence on the connections between then and now brought feminist politics into the seminar room.

For her there was no disconnection between life and work. Her own working life began with 12 years of temporary contracts, the only way that the university was prepared to employ a married woman, until she achieved tenure in 1976, and was promoted to be the first female professor in the department of history at UWA in 1995. In public, and behind the scenes, she fought persistently, and eventually successfully, to change a rigid and discriminatory institutional culture.

Part of a generation of women trying, through the 1960s, to re-imagine the relationship between life, politics and the academy, she was acutely conscious of gender at work and her support for other women was enormous. At UWA, her students found a mentor of extraordinary generosity who never forgot how huge the leap into higher education could be, and who was watchful for all those traps which continued to catch women out. A young woman student expressing some sense of lack of self-worth was told firmly: ‘We are not into self-deprecation here’. In 1993 she was elected to the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia; recognition of a skilled and dedicated historian.

At the heart of all this work was collaboration, which always interested her much more than competition. Working, very often, at a great distance from her sources and many of her colleagues, she built bridges and friendships that spanned the gap. One triumphant result was Women in Early Modern England (1998), the culmination of nearly two decades of work and friendship with her co-author Sara Mendelson.

Trish was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. She faced it with typical courage. In her last months of treatment she completed her final book, on parenthood among the poor, communicating always with friends old and new. Parents of Poor Children in England, 1580-1800 is due to be published by Oxford University Press in 2010.

Trish is survived by Ian, their son Rupert, and their two grandsons.

Laura Gowing

This obituary, which has been slightly modified, first appeared in The Guardian on 25 May 2009 under the heading ‘Pioneering feminist historian who focused on women's lives in 17th century England’.

  • Patricia Crawford and Ian Crawford (2003) Contested Country: A History of the Northcliffe Area Western Australia. Nedlands, Western Australia: UWA Press.
  • Patricia Crawford and Philippa Maddern (eds.) (2001) Women as Australian Citizens: Underlying Histories. Melbourne: Melbourne UP.
  • Patricia Crawford and Laura Gowing (2000) Women's Worlds in Seventeenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. London: Routledge.
  • Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford (1998) Women in Early Modern England. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Patricia Crawford (1993) Women and Religion in England 1500-1720. London: Routledge.