How important are famous individuals? It seems that “great (wo)men” histories have become less and less important in the wider discipline of history. Yet we have many examples of organisations where one or two leaders have been seemingly central to the very identity of those groups. Can we acknowledge that individuals have agency, whilst avoiding the pitfalls of “whiggish” history?
From Eglantine Jebb through William Beveridge to Mary Whitehouse, the biographies of individuals matter. These ‘charismatic’1 personalities help shape the direction of organisations. At the same time, they are products of their upbringing, social class and the political climate of their day. As historians, it’s possible to feel uneasy about putting undue prominence on leaders. They do not succeed on the back of their “genius” alone. If the cause of their organisations didn’t appeal to a base of volunteers and funders, they would not exist. However, organisations (particularly in their early days) are often coloured by the personal priorities of one or two hard-working individuals.
There needn’t be a contradiction between placing organisations and their leaders in historical context, while explaining the development of organisations through the actions and personalities key individuals. Would the Disablement Income Group, for instance, have campaigned so hard for benefits for disabled women if its founder had been a man rather than two disabled housewives? Given the politics of the 1960s, a movement to promote the welfare of disabled people would most likely have developed anyway. But would it have had the same flavour?
Biographies are often used by organisations to explain where they have been and how they should develop. This can, of course, be constraining or divisive if factions within an organisation disagree on how best to “honour” their founders. But it can also give an organisation a sense of identity, through a creation “myth” that helps to embody the values that future leaders believe should be maintained.
Above all, such tales of hard working men and women sending and replying to thousands of letters by candle light are inspirational. They’re interesting. They give institutional histories character. As long as they are placed in social and political context, they can serve as microhistories to better explain wider historical processes. This is especially true when we take what we know about an individual other like-minded people and groups.
Explaining the political developments in my own work would be impossible without individual biographies. Acknowledging the existence of “great (wo)men” needn’t lead to a revival of whiggish “great (wo)men” history.