Image-ining Gender: Finding ‘sanctuary’ with the US Army, by Liz Barnes

Edwin Forbes, ‘The sanctuary,’ ca. 1876, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington DC. 


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy. 

In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.

Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.

In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.

Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved. [1] Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation. 

Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.

The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.


[1] The young black men that Forbes did depict were generally labourers rather than fighters. See, for example, ‘a mule driver’ (1863); ‘Dick, the cook’ (1863)


Liz Barnes recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @E_M_Barnes.

Image-ining Gender: ‘a good breedin’ ‘oman sho did fetch de money,’ by Aisha Djelid

On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.  

After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’

The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away. 

Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.   

What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women. 


  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”. 


Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid

Problems of Inequality: A Short Reading List

In place of promoting our own research this week, the Gender History Research Cluster is instead sharing links to accessible pieces that explore the current situation in the United States. Also linked are some articles that expose similar issues in the UK, as well as material relating to the still relevant report from the Royal Historical Society about inequality in the British History profession.




In The Washington Post, Keisha N Plain explores racist violence across US history and police involvement in that violence:


Kali Nicole Gross reflects upon the unique challenges that face black women in the United States, including disproportional experiences of violence at the hands of police:


Ibram X Kendi outlines the ‘American Nightmare,’ detailing how black Americans have been excluded from equality:




In gal-dem, Kemi Alemoru analyses the impact that viewing videos of racist violence can have, and reflects upon how we should share such harmful content:


Nesrine Malik urges ‘white allies’ to continue the fight for equality even when large protests are not dominating the news cycle:




Wail Qasim explores police violence in the UK:


In Elle, Marcia Rigg shares the story of her brother, Sean, who died in police custody in South West London in 2008. Police violence is not just a US problem:


George the Poet highlights the links between racism in the US and the UK:




History is an overwhelmingly white profession in the UK. See the October 2018 report by the Royal Historical Society:


Meliesa Ono-George, Historian at the University of Warwick, reflects on broader problems of this stark lack of diversity:



Image-ining Gender: Highbury Hill High School: Girls’ school identity and educational change by Amy Gower

School Bulletins of Highbury Hill High School, 1977 and 1978 – personal collection. Copyright: Seona Myerscough


School newsletters or bulletins were a common feature of grammar schools, especially in the late-twentieth century. Used to share news with parents, alumni and pupils, communicate important changes, and celebrate the achievements of pupils, the newsletters also communicated a sense of institutional identity. These two covers show scenes from the life of Highbury Hill High School in Islington: girls on their commute, and the taking of school photo, likely to have resulted in panoramic snapshot to be rolled up and taken home. By delving into the history of the school, it is clear that these images served a particular purpose during a moment of potential crisis in the history of the school, by attempting to unite the wider school community and preserve a sense of institutional identity.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, local education authorities nationwide began a process of ‘comprehensivisation’, as the tripartite system of technical, grammar, and secondary modern schools was replaced with mostly co-educational comprehensive schools. Critics of the tripartite system saw the selection process for grammar schools as inherently unjust, sorting pupils at age 11 by supposed intellect, and replicating an unequal class system. Yet in some areas, such as Reading and parts of London, single-sex grammar schools persisted. Many girls’ grammar schools prior to comprehensivisation promoted a strong sense of school identity, sometimes rooted in the long historical legacies of such schools as spaces of academic and social achievement for girls.

Such schools were also seen by some pupils, parents, and teachers as spaces in which girls could flourish and be free from unwanted male attention and distraction. Research in the fields of sociology and education in the late-1970s and early-1980s had found that girls benefitted in many ways from the absence of boys in the classroom. Education researcher Sheila Riddell observed that in mixed settings, the dominance of loud male classmates in drawing teachers’ attention meant that girls were at times deprived of support and could easily abandon their work for quiet chats with friends. Harassment and victimisation of girls by boys was also a major concern for supporters of single-sex schooling. These understandings of the benefits of single-sex schooling meant that across the country, some single-sex schools survived the spread of co-educational comprehensivisation.

Highbury Hill High had become a comprehensive school in 1976 after decades as a grammar school, expanding its pupil base from those who had achieved higher results at age 11+ to an intake of varied academic success. This new intake drew in girls from across the bands of the London Reading Test. Some years later, it was revealed that administrators within the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) had an unfortunate habit of reclassifying some top performing girls into lower bands. This was to maintain a truly ‘comprehensive’ intake in co-educational schools but meant that many high-performing girls lost their first preference of secondary school. This tension for local authorities between balancing the egalitarian spirit of comprehensives with the problems girls faced in co-educational spaces proved a difficult issue for educationalists, feminists, and teachers throughout the late-twentieth century.

Highbury Hill was unusually left as a single-sex school, despite co-education generally accompanying comprehensivisation. In the 1977 School Bulletin, the headmistress, Mrs Butcher, commended the successes of the school in adapting to this new mixed-ability intake. Yet she also alluded to tensions, drawing parallels between the academic ability and behaviour of the new comprehensive intake, as she warned newcomers of the ‘self-defeating habit’ of truancy and the danger of future unemployment should such behaviour continue. Conceptualisations of intellect and class fundamentally shaped how teachers saw and interacted with their pupils; many former grammar schoolgirls from working-class backgrounds have reflected on the hostility and elitism they faced from teachers and peers. Such tensions between staff and new pupils had the potential to jeopardise the harmony of the school.

In contrast to the concerns of the Headmistress, the School Bulletin cover of 1977 shows happy, cheerful girls with handbags, bicycles, and a mix of hairstyles heading towards the school, a picture of youthful enthusiasm. Similarly in 1978, the cover shows the taking of a whole school photo, girls cheerfully sat cross-legged in the playground. Both depict moments of social cohesion and school pride. If considered alongside the recent changes to Highbury Hill High and the threat of comprehensivisation to school identity, the images can be seen as representative of the need to unify the student body and project an image of harmony to potentially concerned parents and pupils. The covers were drawn by a pupil from a cohort of exclusively grammar pupils. Whether the representation of unity was encouraged by teachers or not is uncertain, but the decision of the pupil to present a harmonious image of this new mixed student-body suggests the possibility that for pupils, these supposed tensions were less threatening than they were for some teachers.

The illustrations and accompanying newsletter provide a snapshot into the life of one London school, and suggest that while comprehensivisation was regarded as a mission in equalising educational opportunity for all pupils, in some areas it led to unforeseen complications – particularly for girls’ schools. The images on the covers of the School Bulletins represent the efforts of schoolteachers and pupils to unify an ever-changing student body and wider school community, and to preserve the identity of Highbury Hill High School in an era of transformative local and national change.


Amy Gower is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry.

Image-ining Gender: ‘They are ordinary working-class women living in ordinary working-class houses,’ by Melanie Khuddro

Betty Le Cras, ‘Petition to Stand’ 29/10/1919.  University of Reading Special Collections, Political Elections 1919-1935, Best Wishes Before Election MS1416/1/1/1730.


The 100-year anniversary of women in Parliament brought with it a host of celebrations, discussions, and reflections on the achievements and legacies of women in British history. Among the various events hosted at the University of Reading, an online exhibition was produced with 50 archival records digitised relating to the political career of the first women to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, Nancy Astor of Plymouth Sutton. The first document published on the Astor100 Twitter page exactly 99 years after her election success was a petition written by the women of her consistency.

The petition featured a series of names from the new female electorate in the Plymouth Sutton constituency demonstrating their support for Astor to run for election. With the anticipation that Nancy’s husband Waldorf would vacate his seat in the Commons to occupy his late father’s seat in the House of Lords, the voting public began to speculate his replacement. The enthusiasm for Astor to represent Plymouth Sutton extended beyond the female demographic. Remarkably popular in her constituency, Astor won the by-election by a large majority, securing 18.6% more of the vote than her closest competitor, and enjoying 26 uninterrupted years in Parliament before resigning in 1945.

The publication of the petition in the digital exhibition immediately captured the attention of the people of Plymouth, being shared across several social media platforms and featuring in local news outlets. Characterised as perhaps the first ever #AskHerToStand moment, the impact of circulating the petition was remarkable. The names were retweeted by the official Lady Astor Statue campaign alongside the caption ‘Let’s find their granddaughters…’, sparking a revival of interest in local women’s history and new wave of support to the crowdfunding campaign.

Its significance extended beyond the scope of women’s history and provided the foundation for a discussion on the local history of Plymouth. The addresses listed indicated the existence of areas of Plymouth that had been lost during the Plymouth Blitz in WWII. Not only were streets physically lost, but the series of bombing raids eradicated historical records of them – something that the circulation of the document has began to help fill the gaps of.

Reactions to the exhibition emphasised the importance and power of material culture in modern history. Everything from the handwriting of the participants, to the nail holding the business card of Astor’s counting agent, Betty Le Cras, aroused the attention of members of the public. Small idiosyncrasies were reminisced and speculated upon by potential descendants of the constituents.

The nostalgia from the people of Plymouth that emerged from the search brought about a sentimental value to the anniversary. Members of the public contacted researchers associated with the Astor100 project offering information about their relatives and street names in the communal effort to identify the signatories. The enthusiasm behind it underpinned huge part of the centenary that sought to address the effort and progress of all women in the political world; notwithstanding the contribution of ‘ordinary’ women. An initial response from a historical researcher based in Devon articulated this feeling: ‘These aren’t the wives of “the great and the good” of Plymouth. They are ordinary working-class women’. The interest that developed from this document captured the essence of the centenary; great achievements for women by women.


Melanie Khuddro is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading, and a member of the Astor100 team. 

Congratulations to Dr Jacqui Turner and the Astor 100 Team!

The Gender History Cluster would like to extend our warmest congratulations to our own Jacqui Turner and the rest of the Astor 100 team – including cluster member Melanie Khuddro, and our wonderful students Rachel Newton, Abbie Tibbott, Molly Edwards and Bronwyn Jacobs – on winning a 2020 University of Reading Research Engagement and Impact Award. The Astor 100 project celebrated the centenary of the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor. We enjoyed a year of memorable events, culminating in the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor in Plymouth last November. Jacqui used the centenary to highlight the importance of women in politics, demonstrating the value that historical research can have in ongoing activist efforts.

The main site for the Astor 100 project can be found here. You can find a range of short pieces about Astor and the project here. Visit the online exhibition, ‘An Unconventional MP’ on Twitter.

Congratulations! Liz Barnes will deliver the Fairbrother Lecture 2018

Our own Liz Barns won the highly competetive selection process and will deliver the Fairbrother Lecture 2018 on her doctoral research on sexual violence, slavery and abolition in the United States. Congratulations!
Liz will deliver the lecture 21 May, further details to be confirmed.

LGBT+History Month

Februrary is LGBT+History Month. The events below are confirmed at this point, but do check for updates and details at our D&I Events page here.


Jessica Lynn’s Transgender Journey, Wednesday 6 February, 17:00, Room 108 Henley Business School, Whiteknights Campus

In recent years, Kinsey Institute Global Ambassador, Jessica Lynn, has become well-known for her activism on behalf of the transgender community. Her experience, exuberance, and extraordinary life produce a presentation that has put her on over 700 stages in 22 different countries. After a prejudiced Texas judge stripped her of all parental rights to her youngest son, Ms. Lynn dedicated her life to combating the intolerance and ignorance of the public toward peoples who share her plight. Addressing audiences unabashedly and answering any-and-all questions has earned Ms. Lynn worldwide renown, the prestige of a Stonewall School Role Model, and a position advising the medical community by request of the National Health Service England.

All (staff, students, local community, etc!) welcome. Click here for more details and to book.


Offences against the person? Discovering hidden LGB histories in Berkshire court archives, Monday 11 February, 16:30-18:00, Berkshire Record Office, 9 Coley Avenue, Reading RG1 6AF

As part of LGBT History Month, join us to hear University of Reading students Amy Hitchings and George Stokes discuss the findings of their summer 2018 UROP research. Learn about some previously forgotten lives, see some of the documents Victorians and Edwardians used for research and enjoy tea and cake. Exhibition and refreshments from 16:30pm, discussion from 17:00

All (staff, students, local community, etc!) welcome. Admission free, booking via email to


Becoming a UoR LGBT+ Ally: Information and Recruitment Session, Wednesday 13 February, 13:00-14:30, G01, Building L22, London Road Campus

This is a recruitment event for our new LGBT+ Allies Programme, hosted by the RUSU Diversity Officer and the Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and led by LGBT+ staff, students and allies. The event will focus on:

  • Are LGBT+ allies needed for UoR staff and students?
  • What is an ally?
  • What do we want allies to do?
  • Q&A.

The session will be followed by a networking lunch.

All students and staff welcome. Booking (for lunch numbers) via email to Sinead O’Flynn for students, via the usual booking system on ESS for staff.


Trans Awareness Training (led by local teacher and former UoR student Rosemary Taylor), Thursday 14 February, 10:00-12:00, Room 128, Edith Morley, Whiteknights Campus

The Transgender Spectrum is complex. This session looks at the range and variety of people who identify in one way or another as Transgender. An important aspect of this is to realise that there are many misconceptions that come from media coverage of trans people. The variables of gender, sexuality and other aspects are explored and explained, including: What it is like to be Trans; Coming Out; Being Trans in Public; Being Trans at work; How do staff react to trans people? The session includes time for discussion, questions and answers.

All students and staff welcome. Booking via email to Sinead O’Flynn for students, via the usual booking system on ESS for staff.

Developing the African Woman

by Beth Rebisz, PhD student

For six weeks this summer I was based in Nairobi conducting research in the Kenyan National Archives. As this was my first fieldwork trip to Kenya I was excited to see what the archives held and was able to use this opportunity to scope out further sites for research, meeting individuals I will be able to conduct oral history interviews with. As part of my PhD thesis aims to explore the experiences of Kenyan women during the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s, I was intrigued to learn more about the community development programmes enforced during this decade by the British colonial government to boost ‘self-help’ amongst African women during this period of intense warfare. Maendeleo ya Wanawake was an organisation established by the colonial government in 1952 with the proclaimed aim of encouraging the ‘advancement of African women’. So, what were these advances and what did the colonial government mean by ‘self-help’?

It is little surprise when placing this in the context of the 1950s that classes run by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, often with the support of the British Red Cross, centred on domestic duties and crafts. Kenyan women attended training on how to keep their homes clean, how to wash their babies effectively as well as cooking classes focused on preparing typical British recipes. In terms of their recreational sessions, sewing, crocheting, singing and dancing took centre stage. It is important to note that membership to Maendeleo ya Wanawake was not free, however with joining the organisation women could access resources for their homes, childcare to attend classes as well as further incentives such as competition prizes and promotions to become paid leaders of their village and district clubs.

Photo credit: ICRC archives (ARR)

Delving into the monthly reports of the organisation, there are clear signs of disengagement of Kenyan women towards certain classes. Colonial officials saw this as an indication of Africans not wanting to help themselves. As a historian critically analysing this evidence, it is important to explore other reasons behind this and to consider the context of the proclaimed ‘civilising mission’ behind European colonisation of Africa. The described purpose of Maendeleo ya Wanawake may have been to encourage the ‘advancement of African women’, but this advancement was focused on Western ideals of women with little consideration of African womanhood. This sat within a wider aim coined by historians D. A. Low and John Lonsdale as the second colonial occupation. This aimed to develop African populations in a manner that prepared them both for independence and to ensure citizens became more governable.[1] By viewing these signs of Kenyan women’s disengagement to the classes organised by British officials within this wider context, one could instead interpret this as an act of defiance.

Curiously, Maendeleo ya Wanawake was established in 1952, on the eve of the declaration of a state of emergency across Kenya. While the British were fighting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against Mau Mau guerrilla fighters calling for land and freedom from colonial rule, the Ministry of Community Development and Rehabilitation were not only forming Maendeleo ya Wanawake, they were also ‘rehabilitating’ detainees suspected of being part of the Mau Mau movement. This begs the question whether this organisation really centred on the ‘advancement of African women’, or whether their aim was two-fold; engineer Kenyan women into the idolised Western mother within the patriarchal household and steer them clear of any Mau Mau involvement. What is notable is that to this day Maendeleo ya Wanawake is thriving, now seen as a vehicle for women’s rights and gender equality within leadership and economic sectors, in Kenya. Despite the alarming purpose behind its formation, Kenyan women have transformed the society to fully embody the definition of ‘Maendeleo’; the Kiswahili term for ‘progress’.

[1] D. A. Low and John Lonsdale, ‘Towards the New Order 1945-1963’, in: D. A. Low & Alison Smith (eds) History of East Africa Vol III (Oxford, 1976), 13.