Joanna was born in the town of Blenheim, in the Malborough province of New Zealand. As a young child, she lived in Zambia and Solomon Island, before her parents and four siblings moved to Haiti. Although she returned to New Zealand regularly, much of her education was conducted via correspondence school. She went to Auckland University (New Zealand) to do her BA and MA and, from there, to the Australian National University in Canberra to complete a doctorate on women in nineteenth-century Ireland. After brief posts in the 1980s and early 1990s at the Australian National University and Emmanuel College, Cambridge, she was appointed to Birkbeck College in 1992.
Her first book was From Husbandry to Housewifery, a history of female labour in rural Ireland in the nineteenth century. After writing a book on the British working classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1860-1960), her interests turned to the experiences of men and women in wartime. After a number of books on the cultural history of modern warfare (including Dismembering the Male and An Intimate History of Killing), she turned to the history of the emotions (especially fear: a book entitled Fear: A Cultural History) and, most recently, to the history of rape (Rape: A History from the 1860s to the Present).
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