Students Staff

15 October 2015

Fellowship offers Essex PhD student the chance to study at Library of Congress in United States

Essex PhD student Emma Milne has been awarded a prestigious International Placement Scheme Fellowship at the Library of Congress by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Emma is studying for a PhD at Essex through the CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and the main focus of her research is the response of the criminal justice system to women who are suspected of killing their new-born children.

The International Placement Scheme aims to offer early career researchers, doctoral-level research assistants and AHRC/ESRC-funded doctoral students the chance to have dedicated access to internationally renowned research collections, programmes and expertise at leading institutions around the world. It also offers the opportunity to network with other international scholars.

We spoke to Emma, who also completed her undergraduates studies and Masters at Essex, about her research and the opportunities offered by the Fellowship.

Can you tell us a little bit about your research?

"I research the responses by the criminal justice system to women who are suspected of killing their newborn children. I am examining the decisions that are made in regards to prosecution, conviction and sentencing from a feminist perspective, looking at how accused women are judged against expectations society holds for all women and mothers. My research is interdisciplinary and so although I am a criminologist, I draw on data and theory from other disciplines, such as history, law, sociology and philosophy. My research is mostly focused on the criminal justice system of England and Wales, but as part of my AHRC IPS award I will be building an American comparison into my work. During my time at the Library of Congress I will be examining the history of American Federal Law and criminal law of the states of Maryland and Virginia to understand why they did not create an infanticide law as England and Wales did. I will also be looking at a small number of cases of women who have been convicted of crimes relating to newborn child death and considering how they compare to cases from England."

Why do you think it is important?

"Immediate reaction to women who cause the death of their newborn children is often horror, disgust and disbelief. It is often assumed that women who commit such acts must be insane or monsters. However, when you examine the context and situations surrounding these women it becomes clear that they are living in incredibly difficult situations and have limited choices. They are often very young women, with little or no support from their family and friends and feel like they have no option but to hide their pregnancy resulting in them giving birth alone and then not knowing what to do. For example, Mary, was terrified of how her family would react to her pregnancy, believing that they would completely reject her due to the shame of her being pregnant outside of a relationship. Consequently she hid her pregnancy and gave birth alone in her bathroom, the baby died soon after birth of natural causes. Mary must have been extremely scared and confused at the time of birth. I’m hoping that my research will change public understanding and the responses of the criminal justice system to women such as Mary and will result in more support being made available so that women in these situations feel they have someone to turn to and help them deal with their pregnancy in an appropriate and safe way. It is my hope that this will prevent not only the death of newborn children, but also stop young women from having to go through the trauma of hiding their pregnancies out of fear and then giving birth alone, which must be agonisingly painful and scary."

Can you tell us how your fellowship will extend your research to the United States?

"Criminal law and public opinion of newborn child death is very different in the US compared to the UK. Now, I’m not saying that English and Welsh criminal law has all the answers to this issue, but I do believe we have a more humane response. In certain American states Mary would have been convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to up-to 15 years in jail. In England Mary was not convicted of a homicide offence, but of child cruelty and concealing the birth of a child, she received a suspended sentence and community rehabilitation. This issue needs to be addressed in the US. Current research misrepresents English law and dismisses the responses of criminal law as a medicalisation of the issue. I’m hoping that my research will work to present a more measured understanding of the position of English law and will highlight the issues that surround the actions of women such as Mary. I am presenting my research at the American Society of Criminology and should also have an opportunity to present my work at events hosted by the Library of Congress. I also plan to involve myself in the work of think tanks that focus on women’s issues and women’s rights."

What do you hope to gain from the fellowship?

"It’s an honour to receive the funding and it is hugely exciting to have the opportunity to work at the Library of Congress. The knowledge of the library staff and the resources held in the library will massively further my research. I’m very excited about building in an American comparison to my research and having the opportunity to explore my topic within the context of a different legal system. I believe this will expand my thinking and understanding of women who are accused committing of newborn child death. The opportunity to study and live in Washington DC is also very exciting."

You’ve studied at Essex as an undergraduate, masters student and for your PhD – what do you think is special about Essex?

"The people. Academics at Essex provide opportunity and space for students to explore new ideas, develop thinking and challenge the status quo. I believe that Essex’s history of activism and being on the left of the political spectrum makes it a unique place to explore difficult subjects such as the subject of my PhD. The support of my supervisor, Dr Jackie Turton, and of the Centre of Criminology has been exceptional. I’ve only gotten where I am today because of the people at Essex encouraging me all the way.".

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

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