Reflections 2 – Planning a Conference on One’s Own: Women in Punch Symposium


The prospect of planning and organising your first academic conference often leads one into expressing mixtures of panic and dread, or perhaps very rarely excitement. Reflecting on the conference, which was a long time in gestation, it was an intellectual exercise. But I cannot simply forget the administrative and organisational tasks that are involved in running a conference, including, the site and scope of the event, budgeting, delegates’ needs, and collaborating. Despite a plethora of tasks involved in organising this event, it was a learning experience, as it certainly helped with my research ideas and simultaneously introduced a thought-provoking discussion on this subject.

In organising a one-day conference on Women in Punch, I had some guided principles in mind: that this conference should bring together researchers from different disciplines interested in Victorian journalism and gender studies; that it should itself be a thought-provoking experience and that it should exemplify the contributions of women in magazines like Punch. Indeed, the collective efforts of presenters made this completely successful.  

With the aim of celebrating the end of Punch’s 175th birthday and interrogating the issues around gender and sexuality in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the first ‘Women in Punch’ conference curated a line-up of papers within a range of disciplines, including literature, arts, and history. This one-day symposium explored the most significant and pressing questions in journalism and gender studies, such as: representative cartoons from Punch which depicted ‘women as objects and property’, how Punch ridiculed women in legal professions and at the same time exploited ‘the law’s gender monopoly’, how anonymity in Punch allowed women to engage with topics that were considered masculine, and Punch’s reluctance to engage with the ‘Girl of the Period’. In doing so, rethinking about the gender of journalism and particularly gender and anonymity in Victorian periodicals, suggested the current scheme – especially at a time of immense popularisation, multiplication, and digitisation of periodical studies – inspired a return to archives, the tracing of women journalists, and the recognition of these contributors.

The day began with an archive session held in the appropriate setting of Durning-Lawrence Library room, an impressively restored room at the Senate House Library; one could not help but gaze at the remarkably preserved scrolls from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century tucked behind the glass-panelled showcases. The session focused on aspects of the relationship between periodicals and their readers. The attendees had the opportunity to study various Punch issues and experience its vigour and humour.

Each paper provided its own point of argument, culminating in a brief discussion. In the first, discussion pointed to Punch’s treatment of women in legal professions and brought to attention the depictions of women as objects. This was followed by other presentations and careful examinations of Punch’s cartoons, which illuminated various facets of Punch’s uncertainty as to whether it offered women liberating visions or conflicting grounds. Each subsequent paper allowed participants to immerse themselves into the different periods and discuss issues of gender, sexuality, and journalism.

The conference was fittingly concluded with a Roundtable discussion, led by Laurel Brake. The discussion addressed the limitations of academic borders and the importance of interdisciplinarity; it further questioned the absence and the presence of epistemological frameworks. In her concluding remarks, Brake emphasised the value of interdisciplinarity and using it to locate the contributions of female journalists in Punch and other publications. Brake also discussed the feasibility of producing a platform that locates women contributors and journalists perhaps in corporation with other Victorian Studies associations.

The conference was reflective of my own research interests and I believe that there should be a record of bibliographical study on women journalists in the past in order to establish a database or a platform that is more in line with the ever-diversifying gender and Victorian studies. ‘Women in Punch’ was just as much a conference about exploring the contributions of women to Punch as it was a conference that suggested different ways for undoing particular disciplinary boundaries and epistemological frameworks for understanding sexuality and gender in journalism.

Mariam Zarif  is a second-year PhD student in the Department of English at KCL. She is also the Chief Editor for the Still Point Journal. The conference the submission refers to was the Women in Punch Symposium held at Senate House on the 2nd November, 2017 . The event was sponsored by the Institute of English Studies and Gale.

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