Alumni Q&A: Professor Katie Pickles

12 September 2022

Katie Pickles is a Professor of History at the University of Canterbury. A scholar of feminist and postcolonial history, Katie completed her undergraduate studies at UC before traveling overseas to gain her MA and PhD. Her new book, Heroines in History: A Thousand Faces has recently been published by Routledge and she is currently writing a new biography of Kate Sheppard.

  • Katie Pickles
Heroines of History

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What excited or inspired the direction for your studies and career in academia?

When I was in my third year at UC completing a double major in history and geography, a visiting Erskine Fellow, Professor Christopher J Smith, suggested I should pursue postgraduate work and assisted me with applying to North American universities. Without his mentorship, I would have unlikely pursued an academic career, let alone have gone to Canada for seven years.

Did you anticipate this as a career path when you first enrolled in your undergrad at UC? 

No. Parents of the Brownie group I volunteered at through my high school years thought I should be a teacher and I pre-enrolled for law.  But at the time I was most keen on being a writer and getting into journalism, leading me to become Canta's literary editor. After I finished my undergraduate degree I spent a year as the full-time editor of Canta, which was an excellent experience. It was suggested that I head to Auckland and try my luck in television reporting. Instead, I went to Vancouver and completed an MA at UBC and then a PhD at McGill University in Montreal. As I was completing my studies I was offered a lectureship in Women's/Feminist New Zealand History at UC. And I've been back enjoying an academic career since 1996.

What was the experience of writing Heroines in History: A Thousand Faces? Can you tell us a bit about the book? 

The book is ultimately about women's changing status in society, which is a huge topic that I've been passionate about since I was radicalised in fourth form social studies at Christchurch Girls' High School. Writing the book was a massive challenge and in it I reveal the patterns that underpin the creation of heroines and argue for a series of transcultural archetypal themes. It's a subject that I've taught about at UC since 1998 and was fortunate to be awarded a Royal Society Te Apārangi James Cook Fellowship so that I could focus on research and writing. In the book, I write about the construction of heroines as either super-womanly or masculine fighters, as icons and role models, as selfless versus selfish, and the value placed on image over substance.   

Who do you consider to be your personal heroines? Can you pick favourites from who you wrote about? 

The conclusion I've reached about heroines in history is that they are restrictively produced by the heterosexist societies that surround them. Why should heroism be gendered at all? The qualities I value in heroes, both past and present, are humanitarian care for self and others, following one's genuine beliefs and acting with integrity, using any influence to make a difference for the greater good, being passionate about daily work and promoting health, safety, peace and joy. These qualities apply to Marie Curie, but they also evoke my mum, Geraldine. Over the years I've asked students at the beginning of the heroines class to name their heroine and mum is the perennial favourite - which doesn't have to mean limiting her to an unnamed maternal selfless carer.      

Can you tell us a bit about your current project, a biography of Kate Sheppard? 

I want to tell the until now unknown story of the real Kate. Sheppard enjoys popularity as an icon for women’s equality, humanitarianism and social change. She has an image that can range from being a puritanical maternal figure concerned with home and well-being to a staunch, outspoken radical. But to what extent do these myths capture who she really was and what she achieved? What is the story behind the icon? Through the award of a Tessa Malcolm Bequest, I have extensive family history research to draw upon. Sheppard lived in Christchurch and I am enjoying re-tracing her footsteps.

Do you have any goals or bucket list things you haven’t managed to tick off yet – professionally and personally? 

As a parent of three teenagers, and amidst the current pandemic, my husband Mike McCosker and I live in the moment and each day our family gathers around the dinner table to discuss our busy day. Professionally, the Heroines in History course will be back in a completely updated form next year and I'm also offering a postgraduate course in Feminist History for the first time in a while. Making sure that my teaching is as innovative as possible is always a goal.

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