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Dr Elizabeth Bird MBE, 1945-2021

Dr Elizabeth Bird

11 November 2021

Dr Elizabeth Bird, Emeritus Dean of the Faculty of Arts and former Head of Continuing Education, passed away in October. Her friends and colleagues Jo Elsworth, Jackie West and Hilary Land offer this remembrance.

Dr Elizabeth Bird made a major contribution to University life for more than 40 years. She was passionately committed to adult education, especially for women, and an inspiration to colleagues and students, many of whom have spoken of her transformative impact on their lives.  

Throughout a distinguished career, Liz worked to integrate adult education, and women’s studies in particular, into core university provision, which was often controversial. Her distinctive research analysed the relationship between gender politics outside and within the academy. Undaunted by disciplinary and departmental boundaries, and a feisty defender of feminist and other principles, she was widely admired for her dedication and energetic pursuit of diverse projects. Her contribution to education within the University and wider community was recognised by an MBE in 2002.

Following a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, a year at Cornell, an MA and DPhil at Sussex and research and adult education posts at Glasgow, Liz joined Extra Mural Studies (later Continuing Education) in 1976. She led on the expansion of social science courses but, above all, was key to the development of women’s studies delivered through evening classes and day and weekend workshops. She was a founder member of the Bristol Women’s Studies Group which brought together academics from the universities of Bristol, West of England (then Bristol Polytechnic) and Bath to produce Half the Sky (1979), the first British women’s studies reader. Liz’s innovations included courses for women returners whose employment had been interrupted by motherhood. These gave them self-belief and confidence as well as practical skills to return to their careers or embark on new ones.

Liz was a prime mover in the development of the MSc in Gender and Social Policy which, when launched in 1988, was Bristol’s first interdisciplinary taught Masters. It enabled many to enter equalities work in the public and private sector, pursue academic careers or progress in professions such as nursing. The MSc had initially faced stiff opposition from some senior men: as Liz wrote in Gender & Education (2004), the introduction of such courses was ‘inextricably connected to feminist activism including collective working in women-only groups but the academy was male-dominated and the consent of male colleagues indispensable’.

Her comparative research drew on historical documents and interviews with academics in Britain and North America, through which she also explored the processes whereby ‘past events and personal memoirs move from stories to histories, enter the archive and begin to acquire the status of history’ (Women’s History Review, 2006). Her research found parallels with earlier debates surrounding the introduction in 1926 of a long-forgotten BSc in Domestic Science in Bristol’s Science Faculty, developed with Gloucestershire Training College and related to the technical education movement (Gender & Education 1998).

Her own teaching specialisms were in Culture, Film, History of Art, and also Literature, on which she contributed an extremely popular undergraduate option in Sociology. In the 1980s she initiated the Certificate in Social Science, which became a route into year two of BSc (Hons) degrees, principally Social Policy, Politics and Sociology. Students completed their degrees part-time, foreshadowing later part-time degrees in Arts, but – importantly – studying alongside full-time students.

In 1985 Liz became Senior Lecturer and then Head of Continuing Education. But in 1998 she had to preside over the department’s dissolution and dispersion, a task accomplished with great skill and empathy for the many relocated staff. She moved to Drama: Theatre, Film and Television where her literary and cinematic interests flourished, as was particularly evident in her co-taught series on film at Watershed. Liz continued to provide invaluable personal support to academic, administrative and technical staff across the University and was hugely respected by staff at all levels. As an active member of the AUT, Liz assisted individuals in dispute with senior colleagues or management with a clear-sighted approach. Her wise strategic and leadership skills were put to excellent use as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, a position she held for six years (until 2004).

After retirement, Liz undertook an Arts Foundation and then an MA at UWE, and her striking work was exhibited at the RWA and in London and elsewhere. She also became a very valued, and much loved, volunteer with the University’s Theatre Collection. With her boundless energy and enthusiasm, she combined her passions for visual arts and education (in its broadest sense) through the projects she led and exhibitions she co-curated with Bristol printmakers.

Liz’s return to her early interest in fine art combined her narrative and visual skills in particularly creative ways. In her Tyneside Legacy, using text, photographs and etchings, she links the northeast’s industrial history to her family’s biography and her own legacy and celebrates multigenerational, familial commitment to women’s education: Liz continued that tradition in pioneering ways. She was supported throughout by her life partner, Brian, and their son, Francis. They shared the same values: the vital importance of education and social equality.  

Liz Bird touched many lives within, and beyond, the University, and she will be sorely missed by all her family including the grandchildren, her brother and sister, her colleagues, and her many, many friends.

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