Remembering Heather Hopfl


This is a slightly unusual post today.  My very good friend and mentor, Heather Hopfl, died this week and this is a short tribute to her.

A couple of years ago, my colleague, Mary Phillips and I co-edited an issue of Management and Organization History on lost women in management history.  We had hopes of producing a roster of women who had contributed to management thought but had been airbrushed out of the official lists of theorists.  I was certainly thinking of Judy Chicago’s foundational work on great women in her Dinner Party installation, or more recently, Sue Tate’s work on reinstating Pauline Boty in the story of British Pop Art.  Unfortunately, we did not uncover some hidden-away founding mother, but we did get an inter-disciplinary mix of pieces looking at women’s largely unsung leadership.

Heather Hopfl contributed a lovely, and typically Heather-ish piece, on the heroines that she grew up with who provided moral leadership, and she went on to trace the way that late-stage Western capitalism had neutralised, and denigrated their contributions.  It is a scholarly piece which is fully informed with Heather’s enormous range of theoretical understandings from economics, psychology, philosophy, theology and sociology, but it also gives a very clear insight into why so many of us really loved Heather and her work: she shines through every page with wisdom, compassion, courage and love.

The article begins with the book of stories of heroic women that she received as a school prize for English.  Returning to the book years later she concludes the heroines abound in virtue, a term she wants to reclaim and rescue from its associations with prudery and passivity:

Before virtue came to be equated with the idea of moral exploitation, these stories invited readers to see the virtues of compassion, determination and resilience as human qualities to be acquired.  Nowadays, the acquisitiveness of late capitalism has succeeded to the extent that is has persuaded us that our greatest accomplishment is to lose our humanity.

Having set up her argument, she goes on to describe the virtuous heroines she would like us to contemplate:

What is remarkable about the stories of heroines is that they offer accounts of women who are strong and determined.  Sometimes, the women are determined in the face of male opposition and resistance which by stealth and perseverance they almost always overcome.  They show women as resourceful and clever: able to turn their hands to most tasks.  The stories tell of women who  are natural leaders, who take command under the most difficult circumstances.  These women have courage and fortitude.  They endure hardship in order to achieve their goals.  They show remarkable commitment to whatever cause they choose to take up.  They are dedicated to others, to science, to an ideal, and they are shown as resolute and unyielding in the service of this cause.  The stories tell of women who taught, nursed and sat in judgement and did these things well.  They are shown to be skilled able to make things from mundane domestic items to scientific discoveries.  They are women unimpressed by pomp and ceremony.

Those who knew Heather will recognise her in that description.  She was tireless in her challenge of what she saw as injustice and institutionalised cruelty.  She was absolutely unflinching in her attitude towards her illness, and wrote about the details of it as an inspiration to others to be brave and face reality with cheerfulness and resilience.  The only element is misses out is a keen wit and a sense of humour, which Heather had to the end.

I could go on to quote from the article, which is full of wisdom, and righteous anger, but I want to end with Heather’s own conclusion.  She was appalled by the way that the advances of feminism from its very first official wave in the nineteenth century had been subverted:

The stories of the heroines of fifty years ago and more are stories of recusancy.  They are stories of opposition.  They are in almost every case stories of gender politics.  We are deceived when we are told that they are stories of female oppression.  Where, at this distance in time from these stories, we feel uncomfortable is with our own persuasive narratives of liberation and heterogeneity.  But, this is the seduction and the capture.  We are so easily conciliated that we are unaware of the loss.  A deception has been perpetrated.  These women faced enormous obstacles but squared themselves off against them and responded with integrity and courage.  I want to end with the heroic view of women because the alternative is to proclaim women’s liberation by pointing to the freedom to drink in the street, to display one’s body for consumption by others, to see liberation as the lack of restriction to perform in the lap-dancing club, to talk about sex on late night chat lines, to have abortion as a right.  Of course, this does not reflect the day to day lives of most women but it does reflect the notion of freedom that is offered to women without shame or irony.  Rather then an exhortation to the good.  Give me virtue and courage any day…

Heather was ground-breaking in her thought, and able to explain those insights clearly and succinctly.  She never entered that ‘I have read more books than you’ competition which seems to have replaced originality of thought, insight or contribution on contemporary academic scholarship.  You had to admire her for her mind.  But she was also a great friend to me: the first person to see that I had the potential to be an academic with something to say and a distinctive, individual, interesting way to say it.  Her written style influenced me enormously, and every time I start a presentation or an article with a story which seems unconnected but which makes my point in a different way, I am following Heather’s example.  Every time I express outrage I am continuing Heather’s project.  Every time I ask myself whether my work is intelligible or just trendy academic-speak I am carrying on Heather’s commitment to education.

I will miss her, but I am very glad to have known her.

2 thoughts on “Remembering Heather Hopfl

  1. Lovely tribute. I endorse every word. Heather was a unique, original and scholarly academic who enacted the highest academic values. She was a warm, generous and empathtic person with a wicked sense of humour. She will be missed enormously. My deepest sympathies to Harro, George and Max. May Heather rest in peace and rise in glory. May perpetual light shine on her.
    Karen legge

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