Helen McCarthy

Senior Lecturer, Queen Mary University of London

Contextualising the past, enriching the present

Helen McCarthy studied history at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. After completing her degree in 2001 she spent a year as a Kennedy scholar at Harvard, where she took the opportunity to branch out beyond history, taking courses on policy making in the European Union, contemporary women’s social movements and theories of democratization. After returning to the UK she worked briefly for the thinktank Demos, before deciding to pursue a career as an academic historian. She is now senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London.

Although she enjoyed her work at Demos, she found that the short timescales for writing reports and the heavy emphasis on strategic, political or presentational issues were an obstacle to the deep, reflective and historical thinking that she had come to value through her academic training at Cambridge.

'Thinktanks tend to focus on the communication and presentation of issues and how they might win political support, whereas my historical training at Cambridge had taught me the importance of exploring the substance of an issue from first principles and with scholarly rigour.'

After completing her PhD at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the University of London’s Institute for Historical Research, she was a Junior Research Fellow at St John’s College, Cambridge, 2008-09. She used this year to revise her PhD thesis for publication, which appeared in 2011 as her first book, The British People and the League of Nations: Democracy, Citizenship and Internationalism, c.1918 – 45 (Manchester University Press).

McCarthy was drawn to studying the twentieth century because of her interest in contemporary social and political issues, and because her time at Demos had convinced her that understanding the present always involves looking back to the past. Since completing her PhD in 2008, she has noticed that universities now place far more emphasis on communication and engagement beyond the academy, driven in part by the requirement to demonstrate ‘impact’ in research council applications and the Research Excellence Framework. 

'Nowadays so many academics – from research students to senior professors - are blogging or on Twitter or getting involved in public or policy engagement activities of one kind or another. They feel they need to be able to communicate their research to others and be engaged with people outside academia.'

‘Women of the World’

Her policy engagement began when she was working on her second book, on women and diplomacy. She wrote to Sir Peter Ricketts, then Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office (FCO), to make them aware of her work on women diplomats. She also hoped the FCO could provide introductions to former diplomats she could interview for her research. Ricketts put her in touch with the Foreign Office historians, who provide a long-term, policy-relevant perspective on international issues, and contribute to the collective knowledge and understanding of British foreign policy.

'Although they did not introduce me directly to anyone, I found it very useful to be able to say in my letters and emails to former diplomats that the project had the FCO’s blessing – I think it made respondents more likely to agree to be interviewed.'

McCarthy was invited to give a seminar on her research at the FCO:

'Many of those attending, including the then head of the Human Resources Directorate, told me they found the seminar interesting and relevant. Most FCO staff are so focussed on day-to-day business and short-term deadlines that they don’t have time or space to reflect on the bigger picture of change and continuity over time. The subject matter of my talk was very pertinent, as improving diversity remains a key strategic objective for the FCO. They filmed the talk and made it available to FCO staff not based in the UK via the FCO intranet, but I don’t know if it changed policy in any way. Assessing the ‘impact’ of my work on policy makers remains a challenge.'

The results of her research, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014) won the International Affairs Book of the Year Prize, at the Political Book Awards 2015.

As a result of her work with the Foreign Office, she secured an AHRC collaborative doctoral award in 2013 for the project, ‘Representing and Belonging: Social and Cultural Change in the British Diplomatic Service since 1945’. McCarthy now supervises two doctoral students, one studying social class and the other diplomatic families - subjects she chose, which build on her research.

Her engagement with government policy makers helped her academic career progress from conducting research herself, to acting as a project leader and facilitating the research of others.

The AHRC project supports the remit of the FCO Historians, which includes drawing on the expertise of external organisations and building relationships with academic institutions. McCarthy’s PhD students spend some of their time working in the Foreign Office, which significantly increases their awareness of the department’s perspective on their research issues, and also enables Foreign Office historians to demonstrate that they are actively engaged with academia.   

Media activities

McCarthy’s book on women diplomats generated considerable attention from the media, especially radio. She has been interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight, the BBC World Service, and appeared several times on Women’s Hour. Her publisher, Bloomsbury, facilitated many of the media contacts. As the book was designed for general readers, she benefitted from the support of a PR specialist, rather than having to generate publicity herself or through the Queen Mary press office.

Media training acquired earlier in her academic career, including a course organised by History & Policy, was useful, and enabled her to approach her interviews with confidence.

'Sometimes interviewers might oversimplify a point I was trying to make, but historians have to accept that the way journalists approach an issue will always depend on their understanding of the interests and attention span of their audience.'

Working with the media became easier as her academic career progressed and she gained a broader understanding of her subject. Teaching undergraduate students gave her the confidence to respond to questions that were not directly related to her specialist area.

McCarthy has reached a substantial audience through media engagement:  Woman’s Hour alone has three million listeners.

'I really enjoyed doing media work for Women of the World. As an academic, it’s gratifying when people outside the field take an interest and seem to find your research enlightening. That said, it’s impossible to know what they are really taking away from it. I think you just have to hope that by putting yourself out there and talking about your research in an accessible way you’ve made a small contribution to enriching general public understanding of the past.'

The Mile End Institute

In 2015 McCarthy was appointed Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute (MEI) at Queen Mary, which promotes debate on public policy issues and the UK’s role within the wider world.

'The MEI builds on and expands the work of its predecessor, the Mile End Group, which had a focus on large-scale events. Our aim is to develop a wider set of activities including funded research projects and collaborations with non-academic institutions from government and NGOs to business and think tanks. The Mile End Group always brought a distinctive historical perspective to bear on the issues that it debated at its events, and I see it as imperative that historical knowledge should remain integral to the work of the MEI.'

The first event she organised, in March 2015, marked the centenary of the Women’s Peace Congress in The Hague, in April 1915. Contributors discussed the history of women’s peace activism and reflected on the past, present and future of women’s transnational organisations. They also explored how far feminist perspectives have entered mainstream international debates on security, development and human rights.

Policy makers speaking at the event, including an international lawyer, a former ambassador, and representatives of charities and other NGOs engaged in negotiations at the United Nations, said they found the contributions from historians very useful. Understanding the historical context and the long tradition of women’s activism in international affairs, and discussing how far women’s rights are now recognised as human rights, can help inform and guide their work today.

McCarthy said that her books and articles do not include policy recommendations. Although some historians, for example those studying the history of pensions, may address specific policy issues, this is not her aim. Instead she provides historical background and rich context. Decisions made 50 or more years ago still affect the pensions people are paid today. Issues such as social and cultural diversity or gender discrimination may not require the same detailed technical understanding as pensions, but policy makers still need an accurate and nuanced understanding of the origins, the background, the implications and the consequences of the policy issues they grapple with today.

'For me, policy engagement isn’t about research driven by contemporary public policy concerns. If you want to do that, then you should work in government or for a thinktank. The point is that historians have deep knowledge and a rich understanding of the context in which contemporary policy challenges have evolved, and we have a perspective which can help policy makers frame problems more productively. Sometimes that perspective can prevent policy makers repeating past mistakes or misreading the lessons of the past. So it’s also about ensuring that historical knowledge is used effectively and responsibly by those in power.'


McCarthy believes that policy engagement has become an essential part of her work as a twentieth-century historian. Based on her experience, she believes that:

  • Historians can make a valuable contribution to policy debates through providing detailed historical background and context.
  • Through organisations like H&P and the Mile End Institute, historians can provide a framework for discussion that enables civil servants and other policy makers to reflect on the history of the problems they grapple with today.
  • Historians can add to the quality of public debate by engaging with the media. Historians should take advantage of opportunities offered by press specialists in their institution, their publisher, or via H&P.
  • Media training can help historians convey the complexities of their research accessibly to a wider audience.

Further Reading

Women, peace and transnational activism, a century on

Prostitution and the law in historical perspective: a dialogue

Related Policy Papers

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  • Helen McCarthy is Senior Lecturer in History at Queen Mary University of London. Her research interests include the social and political history of the interwar period, women's work and professional identities, and the social and cultural history of diplomacy. Her first book, The British People and the League of Nations (Manchester, 2011), explored the place of popular internationalism in British society and politics between the wars. Her latest book, Women of the World: The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury, 2014) won the International Affairs Book of the Year Prize, at the 2015 Political Book Awards.

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