Charlotte James Robertson – ‘It was just a time when one was hopeful’: Oral History interviewing in the time of COVID-19

A few months ago, before all of our lives were turned upside down by the coronavirus outbreak, I was excitedly planning the oral history interviews I would undertake for my PhD research. I am in my first year at the University of Glasgow researching transnational connections within the anti-domestic abuse movement in Britain. My first interviewees were to be activists involved with the establishment of Women’s Aid back in the 1970s. When news of the restrictions hit, I quickly realised this would no longer be possible and decided to try my hand at remote oral history interviewing. 

I was lucky enough to have Jo Sutton agree to speak with me. Jo was a founding member of the National Women’s Aid Federation (now WAFE). As Jo no longer lives in Britain, it seemed unlikely I would be able to travel to interview her any other way, making her the perfect first remote interviewee. At first, I was a little apprehensive: Would it be possible to build rapport through a screen? Would I be adding more stress to an already harrowing time? Would my Wi-Fi cut out at a crucial moment in the conversation? But in the end, I believe we managed to carve out a valuable, if brief, moment of connection and escapism from the worries of the present by spending an afternoon delving into the past. It was inevitable that the current situation would influence the remembrance of the past, and in many ways, Jo remembered the 1970s as an optimistic time, perhaps in comparison to the anxieties of today. Jo shared some fascinating experiences with me: her first position at Chiswick Women’s Aid, where she was elected to answer the door to abusive husbands looking for their wives; her networking trips with women’s liberation groups around Britain, many eager to establish their own refuges; and a trip to the States, where she was shown around bars in New York by activist Del Martin, the author of Battered Wives.[i]

It was over a month into the lockdown when I conducted the interview, and although I usually enjoy my own company, I was thrilled by the idea of speaking with someone new. Despite the many difficulties of the lockdown, there has also been a feeling of solidarity and an idea that we are all navigating new territory together; this was an atmosphere that helped us connect more quickly during the interview. One positive of the video call was that I felt that we were both in spaces in which we felt safe, sitting at home, having had time to carefully prepare our backdrop and settle in. There is a comfort for both interviewer and interviewee in being able to choose how much of one’s home to show. For example, Jo’s background was a beautiful patchwork quilt, full of personality, while I opted for a more neutral background, thinking it would be less distracting and hoping it would appear professional. Of course, I realise that the home is not a safe space for everybody and should not be assumed to be one. It is especially important to highlight this given the sharp global rise in reported domestic abuse cases since the lockdown.[ii] However, in the case of this particular interview, there was a relaxed atmosphere that perhaps would not have been possible if one or both of us had to travel to an unfamiliar location. 

The observation has rightly been made that you cannot interpret non-verbal cues during a remote interview as well as you would in person.[iii] It is undeniable that subtle changes in mood are almost impossible to spot via video. However, facial expressions could still be seen, which helped me make out how my questions had been received, sometimes with excitement or humour or uncertainty. I also felt that if either of us were a little nervous about the interview it was not necessarily a bad thing that sweaty palms could be hidden from view. I could also take brief notes discretely and it was easy to forget that the interview was being recorded. Although this interview went well, I would be cautious about remote interviewing when more sensitive material might be discussed. There is the risk that some interviewees may be worried about being overheard or interrupted by other people in the home. Moreover, nothing can replace face to face human connection, particularly when comforting someone in distress. My work is with the experiences of activists. However, it was not uncommon for survivors of domestic abuse to become Women’s Aid workers. So, I cannot delineate between the two or be sure what topics might come up in an interview.

In this case, it is of course up to the interviewee whether they want to contribute to a remote oral history interview. However, one way of mitigating issues like these might be to verbally check in with the interviewee more regularly than you might do in person, even if they do not appear to be upset. I’m sure by now, most of us have experienced the phenomenon known as ‘Zoom fatigue.’[iv] As we work harder to read people’s body language, talk louder than normal and have the added anxiety of looking at our own faces for far longer than most of us are comfortable with, we can feel drained after a video chat. For this reason, it may be best to keep remote oral history interviews relatively short. It could also be a good idea to organise two separate interviews or to take breaks, rather than exhausting your interviewee who is already working hard to call up memories. Reflective silences, so important in an oral history interview, can also be harder to navigate via a video call. Delayed responses can cause you to worry whether your internet connection has cut out and there can be more of an urge to fill silences that would be perfectly normal in real life. However, it is important to maintain these silences where possible.

Another thing I felt to be a positive, was that the recording was automatically sent to both of us. This made the interview feel more collaborative, as the interviewee would be able to listen to it as well, without having to go to the effort of asking for a copy. The readily available ability to listen back to the interview might help to soothe any worries about what had been said during the interview or give the opportunity to clarify comments that may have come across differently from the interviewee’s intended meaning. While one issue to flag up, is that depending on the software you use, the provider may claim rights over the recording.[v]

Scottish Women’s Aid Archive, Records of Local Women’s Aid Groups, East Ayrshire to Glasgow East Women’s Aid, Box 9: SWA/2/EA to SWA/2/GE.

Women’s Aid continues to deliver a vital service during this time when the risk to domestic abuse victims is significantly heightened. It’s a privilege to be able to look back at what they have achieved since the 1970s, in Jo’s words, a more hopeful time and in many ways an inspiring one. Although there are challenges to remote oral history I am, nonetheless, grateful to have the opportunity to continue my research, albeit in an unexpected way. 

Charlotte James Robertson (PhD Researcher, University of Glasgow)


To find out more about Scottish Women’s Aid see – https://womensaid.scot

Support is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on Scotland’s Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline 0800 027 1234. Also see https://sdafmh.org.uk for email and web chat

Jo Sutton was a member of Women’s Aid Federation England. Find out more here – https://www.womensaid.org.uk

To find out more about Speaking Out, a two-year project which sought to discover, record, and celebrate the history of Women’s Aid in Scotland see https://womenslibrary.org.uk/discover-our-projects/speaking-out/


[i]  Del Martin, Battered Wives, (San Francisco, 1976).

[ii]  ‘Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence,’ https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/28/lockdowns-world-rise-domestic-violence, (March 2020).

[iii] ‘Advice on remote oral history interviewing during the Covid-19 pandemic,’ https://www.ohs.org.uk/advice/covid-19/

[iv]  ‘The reason Zoom calls drain your energy,’ (April 2020).

https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting

[v] ‘Advice on remote oral history interviewing during the Covid-19 pandemic,’ https://www.ohs.org.uk/advice/covid-19/

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