Rights work: Women, Writing and History Rights work: Women, Writing and History

Professor Lyndsey Stonebridge


War, racism, genocide, statelessness...As a literary and cultural historian, I have long been fascinated by the darkest experiences of modern life.  Gender is a central part of the story of modern atrocity, not least because violence follows power. But this is not a just a story about victims. I would argue that uncovering the work of imaginative resistance – rights work – is one of the central tasks facing contemporary humanities scholarship today.  

Research Overview

My most recent book, The Judicial Imagination: Writing After Nuremberg (2011) focused on the rights work of an extraordinary generation of women writers, philosophers and journalists. Hannah Arendt, Rebecca West, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Bowen, Martha Gellhorn and Iris Murdoch were all directly involved in the history of restoring and creating new terms for justice and human rights in the wake of World War Two.  Their responses to the Nuremberg trials (West), the trial of Adolf Eichmann (Arendt, Spark), the Paris Peace Conference (Bowen and Gellhorn) and the refugee camps of postwar Europe (Murdoch) forged new, critical, terms for thinking about justice that went beyond the politically compromised terms of human rights then and the emphasis on trauma today. Those women threw out a challenge -- one that we need to respond to now more urgently than ever.  

What Next

Hannah Arendt’s important arguments about refugees and human rights are at the core of my current work on refugee writing and history. Placeless People: Rights, Writing and Refugees (forthcoming 2017) is a transnational study of how the literature of exile gave way to a more complicated and vexed articulation of statelessness in the twentieth century. The first study of the refugee crisis of the 1930s was written by woman, the American journalist, Dorothy Thompson. Controversially, Thompson was also one of the first advocates for Palestinian refugees in the 1950s. I’ll be retracing some of Thompson’s steps in my new collaborative work on contemporary refugee host communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey next year (https://refugeehosts.org/), learning about the new forms of rights-work that are being forged in the grimmest of circumstances today. 

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