AHA Member Spotlight: Victoria Haskins
Victoria Haskins is a historian at the University of Newcastle, Australia. She lives in New South Wales, Australia, and has been a member since 2015.
Alma mater/s: BA Hons, University of Sydney 1990; PhD, University of Sydney 1999
Fields of interest: gender, colonization, crosscultural, domesticity, labor
Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?
My direction as a historian was set when I was researching my dissertation by the wholly unexpected discovery of my great-grandmother’s papers documenting her involvement, as a white woman, in the Australian Aboriginal rights movement of the 1930s. I was not sure about academia as a career and first worked as a history museum curator before taking my first university appointment; valuing the intellectual stimulation and freedom it offers, I have stayed on.
What do you like the most about where you live and work?
I live and work on the beautiful coastal land of the Awabakal and Worimi Aboriginal nations at Muloobinba (“place of sea ferns”), the city of Newcastle, in New South Wales, Australia. It is an idyllic place, and I am really proud that at my university we have the highest number of Australian First Nations students, and graduates, of any university in the country and indeed the world.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now I am researching a history of the traveling ayahs and amahs—nursemaids of South and Southeast Asia who traveled with colonial families around the circuits of the British Empire. It is a history that highlights the demand for highly mobile yet controlled carework in colonization—and it is also packed with compelling human stories.
Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?
At graduation I was mostly concerned, as a non-Indigenous white female historian, to address the complicity of white women in colonization. I published my great-grandmother’s story (as One Bright Spot) and another co-edited book, with Anna Cole and Fiona Paisley, Uncommon Ground: White Women in Aboriginal History, in 2005. My focus shifted in the coming years to consider transnational histories of women’s relationships in the home, on the gendered mechanisms of state oppression and control in Australia and the United States. I published a study of the domestic placement program run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the early 20th century, Matrons and Maids, and co-edited a volume, with Claire Lowrie, on Colonization and Domestic Service: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. More recently Claire and I, together with colleagues Frances Steel and Julia Martinez, published a history of Colonialism and Male Domestic Service across the Asia Pacific. I am still intrigued by how colonization works through the family, gender and gender relations; but now I am finding myself turning back in some ways, to wanting to know more again about ways that diverse people could challenge colonial domination and injustice, and the way that past struggles inform those of the present. I continue to prioritise working in ways that are respectful, collaborative and consultative with communities and knowledge-holders, and to “give back” in any way I can.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?
Hands down: opening the old boxes of my great-grandmother Joan Kingsley-Strack’s papers, lying in my aunt’s garage untouched for decades. It was incredibly special to find letters written to her by Indigenous women, who were so often silenced and marginalised. More recently, I was thrilled to find a letter written by—or more likely, scribed for—an Indian (South Asian) woman in Sydney, Australia, in 1822, protesting that she was “traited no better than a slave” in the colony, and wanted to get back to Calcutta. It is probably the earliest letter we have from a South Asian nursemaid in Australia, and the fact that she was standing up for her rights is really exciting.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I would have to ask members take a look at the digital historical exhibition that my colleagues and I have developed in association with our “Ayahs and Amahs” project, http://www.transcolonialjourneys.com
What do you value most about the history discipline?
History requires you to develop the skills of empathy and imagination: done with integrity, history is tremendous force for compassion. I appreciate the carefulness of the way that we approach evidence, too, and the way that history makes us alert to all the alternatives and potentialities that are lie ahead of us, as well as behind us.
Why is membership in the AHA important to you?
As an Australian, it is a great way to stay connected with developments in the discipline in the United States.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Hanging out with international historians at Times Square on the eve of the COVID pandemic in 2020! It was my last overseas adventure before COVID for three years, although I was not to know it at the time.
AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.
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