Inspirational women: our Humanities showcase

Last month we celebrated International Women’s Day. Each day in March, the University website featured the achievements of a different woman on its homepage.

As April begins, we put the spotlight on some incredible women from the College of Humanities and discover which women inspire them…

Francesca Stavrakopoulou

On the face of it, Francesca Stavrakopoulou is something of an anomaly. Despite being a well-documented atheist, she is the Head of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter, and conducts research specialising in ancient Israelite and Judahite religions. Yet despite working in a field that is traditionally the domain of men of the cloth, Francesca is leading a quiet revolution into our relationship with religion. Her work not only challenges existing preconceptions, but also encourages us all to look below the surface of religion towards the rich tapestry of tradition, history and culture that lies beneath.

Francesca said that she is inspired by “strong women” in her life, a fact reflected in the advice that she would offer to others. She said: “Inspiration for me has come from the strong women in my life, especially my mother. She taught me through example not to believe in stereotypes and prejudice, and that’s shaped my professional life as much as my personal life. It is a belief that I also try and inspire in others. My advice is always not to let the things that make you feel different from the rest marginalise you. Being different is the biggest skill you have!”

Find out more about how Francesca turned a marginal position into a professional strength on The Exeter Blog.

Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor is a Professor of English and the University’s Humanities Arts and Culture Fellow. In the academic community she is best known for her expertise in the field of American Studies where she has added to the body of research for almost four decades. In 2011, she was elected as an Honorary Fellow of the British Association of American Studies. In her Fellowship role, Helen devised and has helped implement a major new Arts and Culture Strategy for the University.

Helen’s work has been inspired by a variety of people and events such as the Second Wave Women’s Movement and the work of feminist theorists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan, as well as feminist critics such as Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, Toni Morrison and Cora Kaplan, who taught her about women’s history and literary culture. More recently, the campaigns of young feminists such as Malala Yousafzai for girls’ education and Fahma Mohamed against female genital mutilation have given her great hope for the future.

Gabriella Giannachi

Gabriella Giannachi, FRSA, is Professor in Performance and New Media, and Director of the Centre for Intermedia at the University of Exeter. One of Gabriella’s current projects is Art Maps, a collaboration with Tate and the University of Nottingham funded by RCUK. Art Maps has visualised the entire Tate collection on an interactive map that can be perfected and annotated by users wherever they may be in the world. Her PhD student Cristina Locatelli has shown how the Migrant Resource Centre in London can use Art Maps to aid familiarisation with British culture. This project won this year’s University of Exeter Impact Award for the Arts and Culture category.

Gabriella has been lucky enough to have been inspired by many others in her life and career, she says: “I have been taught by some wonderful individuals, such as Gianni Vattimo in Turin, my home town, and Tony Tanner in Cambridge, where I did my PhD. I was also fortunate to be able to work for Goffredo Fofi at Linea D’Ombra, who published my first ever article, and to be working for the publishing company Einaudi where I met some of the most brilliant intellectuals of our times, like Eric Hobsbawm, Primo Levi and Norberto Bobbio. I still feel very privileged to be working with exceptional individuals, such as my colleagues in English at Exeter and in Computer Science at Nottingham, artists like Lynn Hershman Leeson, and the company Blast Theory, teachers in a number of Exeter schools, and staff at Tate, RAMM, and the Met Office. Their dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and innovation, mutual support and understanding, commitment to learning and research, and dissemination among different publics are a constant source of inspiration.”

Marie Notermans

Marie Notermans is testament to what can be achieved through determination, dedication and drive. The English and Spanish student was named as the Arts and Humanities Undergraduate of the Year in 2013, beating off fierce nationwide competition from her peers. The awards, with 12 different categories, are designed to identify and celebrate the UK’s best undergraduates in specific areas. The shortlisting process mirrors a graduate recruitment selection procedure, and includes online tests, interviews and assessments.

Marie said that she draws inspiration from people who show perseverance, whether in their work or private life. She said: “I’m inspired by anyone who has made a decision to do something with their life, and made a success of it by sticking with it. My family are a huge inspiration to me to keep going, as well as some of the great people I’ve had the fortune to work with and be taught by, in the UK, Chile and in Spain.”

Jennifer Watling

By looking at fossilised plant remains in the Amazon rainforest, Jennifer Watling hopes to answer questions about how ‘man made’ the Amazon is and how humans have affected current biodiversity. Her research led to Jennifer winning the prestigious UK Scopus Young Researcher Award 2013, recognition that she describes as her proudest moment to date.

Jennifer said that main theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, inspiring change, should motivate women to have the confidence to achieve their potential. She said: “International Women’s Day is about inspiring women to have the confidence to push for whatever it is they want to achieve in life. I believe that society still makes this harder for women than for men, and that confidence in women is a big step towards absolute gender equality. For me, my colleagues are my greatest source of inspiration. Most of my work is inter-disciplinary and I am lucky enough to be part of a network of enthusiastic people, many of them women, with whom I can discuss my work and share new ideas.

Hilary Mantel reads her latest piece

Hilary Mantel (centre) flanked by Professor Nick Kaye and Professor Helen Taylor

Hilary Mantel CBE, one of the country’s most distinguished living novelists and a University of Exeter honorary graduate, read from her latest Man Booker Prize winning novel Bring Up the Bodies to a packed Alumni Auditorium last Thursday, 11 October. Bring Up the Bodies was announced as the latest winner of the prestigious literary accolade on Tuesday 16 October.

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s previous Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall, which is a study of Thomas Cromwell, the man who engineered the dissolution of the monasteries and the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall won not only the Man Booker 2010 but also the inaugural Walter Scott Prize and the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Testimony to Mantel’s gifts as a great storyteller, Wolf Hall is also the biggest-selling Booker prize winner to date.

The evening was introduced by Professor Helen Taylor, the College of Humanities Fellow for Arts and Culture. Professor Taylor gave an introduction to Hilary Mantel, talking about her career in general and her recent successes. When asked what she would spend her Booker Prize money on, Hilary replied “sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll”, before acknowledging that there wasn’t much of this to be found in East Devon so she would pay off her mortgage instead.

Hilary read an excerpt from Bring Up the Bodies, humorously bringing the characters to life. There was time for a few questions from the packed audience, which comprised of members of the public, students and staff of the University, and members of the University Council, including Chair of Council and alumna Sarah Turvill. Hilary spoke about how her recent works are being adapted for the stage and BBC television, and how she would like to work on more big historical fiction once the Cromwell trilogy is completed.

Mantel, a former teacher and social worker, is only the third double winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and was made an honorary graduate of the University in a ceremony at the Streatham Campus on July 17 2012. She moved to the westcountry in the spring of 2011.

Professor Helen Taylor said: “Hilary Mantel’s literary output is the most brilliantly original and varied of any contemporary writer. In 2011, Hilary Mantel became an honorary graduate of the University of Exeter and we in the College of Humanities are delighted to appoint her as Honorary Visiting Professor.”