• Kristin Bundesen, PhD

How I became an historian

Notes from a lecture


I met Karen in a community seminar titled "If Rousseau were a woman" at St. John's College, Santa Fe many years ago. At St. John's, the rule is that you cannot talk about anything outside the text. Nevertheless, I spent a chunk of seminar time bemoaning the archival practices that obscure women from history. While some seminar participants rolled their eyes, Karen spotted an opportunity for a lecture. I gave the lecture several years ago. The following are excerpts and revisions from the first.


The lecture was titled, "A Scholar's Journey" so I have tried to make this a personal story.


My formal education includes dropping out of high school, talking my way into college, leaving college to go to Santa Fe, NM, returning to a different college, Bard, where I double-majored in drama and history until my senior year when I realized that I was always on time for rehearsals and performances but my history papers were always late. So I dropped history and graduated with a degree in theatre and dance.


My informal education was equally eclectic. I am the daughter of a woman who challenged gender barriers during the feminist movement of the late 60s and early 70s. She was not always aware that she was doing this. As a single mother, she just wanted to get on with her work which included being the first woman photographer on an NFL field, first woman photographer covering the presidential campaign trail for the AP news service, and running a Ford Foundation funded magazine titled The Black Politician. As a single mother, she often brought me with her to work.


I am also a popular culture junkie. When I was in my late teens, I watched the Masterpiece Theatre/UK TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII starring Keith Mitchell and Elizabeth R starring Glenda Jackson. Some of you may remember these shows. I liked them so much that I went to Georgetown University Library - we were living in Washington, D.C. then and as a drop out I had plenty of time on my hands - and watched them on tape several times. This was well before the World Wide Web and streaming media was not even a glint in a geek's eye at that point.


My interest was compounded and supported by my mother who for my 17th birthday gave me 17 books on history and historical fashion. A couple years later, between college experiences, I bought an 1896 set of Agnes Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England in a used book store. More on Miss Strickland later.


My return to college was inevitable and the lure of the stage was greater than my interest in history - or so I thought. I never lost my fascination with the Tudor period - possibly because of the fashions. Fast-forward 20-odd years. I find myself in Connecticut, with two children in college, divorced, and with what can only be described as an eclectic career background. I had been a dancer, model, owned a clothing store, worked on a couple of films, apprenticed as a knitter, entered the technology field at the same time as the Apple Lisa and had just finished running a private school for pre-professional performing artists.


My body was past performing 32 pirouettes on point, and my acting had always been mediocre. The technology industry had changed from making cool products to pushing products out the door before the end of the financial quarter so that companies would get a high Wall Street rating and boost the golden parachutes for the employees. Women were bing pushed into the pink collar corners of the industry such as marketing and teaching. This seemed boring to me. Standing alone in my house, I saw that my bookshelves were groaning with accumulated history books - including the 17 books from my mother and the Stickland volumes. So, I drove to the local state university campus and enrolled int he Masters program in European history. This university is primarily a teacher's college so there is very little in terms of research and no doctoral program.


Before I continue, Dear Reader, let me ask some questions. When thinking of the early modern period, the Elizabethan period for example, do you believe:

  • That women were subservient to their husbands?

  • That elite aristocratic women by and large were uneducated?

  • That elite aristocratic women were excluded from or chose not to participate in politics?

  • That Queen Elizabeth I left the running of her kingdom to her councillors or favorites?

No substituting what you know by having watched every episode of every series Starz has produced, I'm looking at you Philippa Gregory fans.


To be continued . . .