Great Expectations in Zimbabwe: (White?) Femininity and Womanhood, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Summer in Zimbabwe is a time of expectation. As the days become warmer, eventually the nights lose their biting cold, and the breath is no longer visible in the morning. It is a time of waiting for the rain. With only one rainy season to bring the sustenance that ancestors, god, and climate – despite its change – provide in nurturing the nation, the waiting can turn into joy or eventually to desperation if the rains fail and drought leads to famine. Meanwhile rural landscapes are transformed, announcing impending summer, as msasa trees sprout new leaves, red before changing into magnificent fresh green. With the relentlessly bluest late winter skies, free of clouds, the shade of msasa trees creates hues of red and pink, and beautiful views stun as the spectacular.

Msasa Tree, Nyanga, © Heike I. Schmidt

One legacy of white settler rule that lasted until 1980 in Zimbabwe is that urban planning included the creation of colour schemes for each city through the planting of at times exotic trees, seasonally turning entire streets and even boroughs violet, yellow, read, or orange. During summer, descending the mountain pass into Mutare, it looks as if the city is on fire, dowsed in the red blossoms of the flamboyant trees.

Flamboyant Tree, The Avenues, Harare 1975, © Wikicommons

                       

Cassia Tree, Mount Pleasant, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

Most resonant with the theme of summer love are the jacaranda trees that line the Avenues in Harare, originally a middle-class neighbourhood reserved for white residency, just north of the capital city’s centre. Their effect is quite similar to lilac, evoking the senses and enticing desire. But experiencing jacaranda trees in Zimbabwe is also decidedly different from early summer lilac in Europe.  Jacaranda begins to blossom as winter vanes and the rising temperatures and the expectation of rain settles into one’s body, noticing the first clouds arriving, walking along the Avenues under the canopy of light purple blossoms, the scent caressing one’s senses. When wind, and eventually the rains, strike the trees, the petals tumble to the ground in a shower of violet scent that in darkness resembles snow.

Jacaranda trees, Avondale, Harare, © Heike I. Schmidt

From the perspective of white lives, Zimbabwean summer as a time of love, passion, and self-recognition, has maybe been best expressed by Doris Lessing. Already in her debut novel, The Grass is Singing (London, 1950) did Lessing capture the colonial encounter between white and black lives in the colony magnificently, by directly addressing gender in juxtaposing her main characters, the white madam and the African worker on a run down farm. The novel shows the necessary and tragic failure of the primacy of white privilege, here in the guise of a poor white farming couple. The crackling of the tin roof of the farmhouse under the stifling summer heat, as these white lives become undone, remains a palpable reminder with the reader long after setting the novel aside.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013), © Wikicommons

Born to British parents in Iran and having spent most of her childhood and formative years in what then was Southern Rhodesia, Lessing published a series five fictionalised memoirs, Children of Violence (1952-1969), four of which are based on her life in Zimbabwe until she left for London, thirty years old, in 1949. In the second volume, A Proper Marriage (London 1954), her protagonist Martha lives in Harare during World War II. Pregnant with their first child, her husband occupied with his own concerns, Martha feels overwhelmed, lost, and recognises that having become a colonial wife did not bring her the freedom and self recognition for which she is yearning. She struggles with her life, doubts her decisions, and finds herself reduced to her heavily pregnant body that makes her uncomfortable and restless as she is expected to be out of sight, proper and respectable, in a small flat in the Avenues. The summer heat and the pounding rain make her feel isolated, lonely, and undone, until one day, when her friend Alice visits, also expecting, they decide to go for a drive. Lessing observes that even before they leave the flat the decision and getting up to act upon it recovers the women’s self respect. It is that moment of no longer seeking validation from their husbands and society, of recognising that they connect with the world they live in themselves, that the curtain of rain is not a prison wall, in and of itself is an act of self-recognition. Lessing then has the women move beyond the confines of marital and maternal respectability by driving through Harare with Martha’s friend Alice heading for the maternity clinic. They move with hardly any visibility, themselves invisible in the summer rain. After stopping, Lessing first lets an African man, a ‘worker’, walk by, with Martha assuming all he is thinking of is shelter from the rain. This is a significant pause in the narrative, a reminder that these women inhabit a white world, driven by white privilege. There are no African characters that appear, only African workers and servants at the margins, expected to be loyal, subservient, and unnoticed. Seeing this man, his wet clothing stuck to his skin, rain water running down his chest and splashing up his feet, is a potent reminder of this artificially created world of white privilege and at the same time the reality of a lived experience that entails more than one masculinity, more than white manliness as the guiding light into femininity and womanhood.

Gloriously, forcefully, with the reader invited to feel passion, relief, joy, to read on smiling, taking deep breaths and being breathless simultaneously, Lessing has Alice park the car opposite the clinic, next to a stretch of veldt, an open area of uncultivated and unused land one can find to this day in inner city areas. As soon as the African man is out of sight, the women undress and run screaming through the grass, relishing even the cuts on their skin, embracing every sensation. It is the touch of rain, of water on the ground, of the grass, the mud under their feed, not a man’s touch – in this strictly heteronormative account – that gives pleasure and sets the women free. Martha, seeing a water hole in the ground glides in and shares her euphoric experience with a frog and a snake. She transforms the desperation of loneliness into the joy of solitude. Martha is whole – without her husband, without society. As the rain eases and the sky lightens Martha lets the rain wash the mud off her body and runs back to the car where she and Alice get dressed just in time before being discovered. Back in her flat she takes a bath to cleanse herself of the experience, albeit reconciled with the corporeality of her pregnancy.

At a time when body shaming and mental health are prominent in the (social) media and impact all genders and all ages it may just provide a moment of reprieve to read Lessing’s account of a young woman empowering herself by reclaiming her body, and here embracing the sensual pleasures of summer. For Martha, love does not require a romantic partner or societal approval. What is transformative is a mindful moment as she allows herself to lose her bearings in the summer rain and experiences finding herself in doing so.

Much can be added, such as the choices of young African girls, climbing hills and mountains in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe in 1918/19, praying, seeking authority from the Holy Spirit to stay out all night, unsupervised, with some emerging as prophetesses. The sheer joy in the faces of postmenopausal women claiming authority as they are the only members of local communities safe to enter the spiritual forests of the highlands, stripped down, bared breasts, to gather food when the rains do not arrive and for ritual purposes, while all others are prohibited. The rural female sphere of riverbed gardens, where males have to ask permission to even transverse and are not permitted to join, a place of banter, speech, and exchanges. Married women joking about a soldier who ‘lost his penis’ as he was lured by a juzu (Shona: female water spirit) and was then punished for his sexual appetite aroused by what appeared to be a young beautiful woman. An elderly female chief enjoying that men who suffer from old age impotence have to wear something red to signal this malady to the world.[1] It is easy to forget such sheer joy of femininity and womanhood and Doris Lessing reminds us magnificently that sometimes letting go of our boundaries, of the norms we embrace or wrestle, may allow us to find ourselves – or indeed just to practice at times the sheer childlike delight of a daring nude splash. The dramatic tension built up with the coming of the rains, the sensuality of the red leafed Msasa trees, and the seductive embrace by Jacaranda’s scent, colour, and touch are one path one can follow to such an experience of empowerment in a summer of love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Heike Schmidt, Colonialism and Violence in Zimbabwe: A History of Suffering, (Oxford & Harare, 2013), chapters 3 and 6 and ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule,’ in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

Love is an action word: Reconciling academia and activism, by Chessie Baldwin

Tigray Youth Network, 25 April 2021

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
– 
Elie Wiesel, US News & World Report (27 October 1986)

Over the past ten months, I have used my academic research to speak about the ongoing Tigray War in Ethiopia, specifically the weaponization of gender-based and sexual violence. As deliberate communication blackouts continue across the region, the federal government has benefitted from the ambiguity allowed through the spread of misinformation and disinformation about the war, the crimes, and the perpetrators. In response, academics, journalists, humanitarian workers and community leaders have stepped up to their intellectual responsibility to combat harmful manipulation of history and politics as tools of the conflict. I suppose I am one of them.

There are those who don’t think academics should engage in activism at all, claiming it compromises the objectivity of academic research.[1] The two are indeed not always natural companions; scholars, after all, trade in complexity and depth while activism requires snaps and facts. Nonetheless, many historians and philosophers have engaged in activism quite openly and successfully, from Voltaire, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Benedict Anderson. The rise of public history and public historians since the 18th century has certainly made this more mainstream, with organisations like History Workshop and Subaltern Studies Group forming explicitly activist agendas in their research orientation.[2] Alongside these movements has been the quite phenomenal historical work by non-academic activists, whose efforts to uncover, explain and ‘do’ history should not be underestimated.

Challenging dominant scholarly perceptions of knowledge production, Aziz Choudry suggests, requires recentring understandings of activist scholarship that are not tied to higher-education models and practices.[3] LGBT+ history, anti-racist work, intersectional feminism, indigenous knowledge system preservation and anti-war theorising (amongst others) are negotiated and enacted in public spaces. The resulting interventions in human rights and social justice both inform and are informed by intellectual frameworks, resources, and contributions.[4] In other words, academia and activism exist in a mutually dependent relationship. They enhance each other and, most importantly, they exist together, whether they want to or not.

There are four ways in which academia works explicitly as a site for activism:[5]

  • As a means to produce knowledge to inform progressive social change. In this category, academic research can help disrupt systems of oppression or injustice and direct action, in policy, law, and public debates.
  • As a means for conducting research which itself involves social change. This might be called ‘action research’, where activism is academic work in that it holds intellectual value for its own sake.
  • As a site for progressive strategies of teaching and learning. Pedagogy can be a means for mobilisation, organisation, learning and un-leaning as a form of activism. As undergraduates spend a great deal of time revising the myths of history taught in schools and public discourse, the classroom is a space to critique which voices have been privileged in collective historical narratives, and why.
  • As an institution whose power relations themselves may be challenged and reconstructed. As structures which can perpetuate elitism through hierarchies of class, age, gender, and race, higher education institutes can themselves challenge dominant power relations in their decisions and practices.

The process of historical research and writing (or, perhaps more accurately, rewriting) takes this further still. Despite claims of objectivity and neutrality in pursuit of a reasonable representation of ‘truth’, the epistemic is political and it is personal. The past is always framed through the lens of the present, and of the individual context of the researcher. Choices about which voices to include, which voices to exclude, which scholars to engage (and not engage), what language to use, which methods, mediums of public engagement, and more, are all decisions imbued with reflections of the person. Even those most committed to their rationality cannot escape such choices. Howard Zinn contested that archivists (deciding what to preserve, where, and how) are not neutral actors as they tend ‘to perpetuate the political and economic status quo simply by going about [their] ordinary business’.[6]

Historians who sincerely consider, analyse and critique their interpretations are themselves engaging in a form of activism. They ask difficult questions and face difficult answers, like: ‘Who am I to speak about this?’, ‘Does my position uphold systems of injustice?’, and, when history becomes a question of national security, ‘What space should I take up in this discourse?’.

Engaging in activism as a historian, and engaging in history as an activist, compels the researcher to explicitly address their positionality, focus, relevance, and which voices they centre in their work. It complements and improves accountability, representation, and integrity in the research. More than this, however, the act of ‘doing’ history is inextricably about change. Change in re-evaluating narratives, re-interpreting sources, revising theories and reviving debates; change in the way we remember the world as it was and how we see the world as it is. Perhaps then, it is not that historians can be activists, nor that they should, but simply that they are.

Chessie Baldwin is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Reading, specialising in women’s narratives of conflict in Tigray. You can watch Chessie speak about the ongoing war on Tghat Forum, or visit Tigray Youth Network to learn more.

[1] Thomas Wells, ‘Academics Should Not Be Activists’, 3 Quarks Daily (2018).

[2] Yuliya Yurchuck, ‘Historians as Activists: History Writing in Times of War: The Case of Ukraine in 2014-2018’, Cambridge University Press, 29, 4 (2020).If this is an article then reference incomplete.

[3] Aziz Choudry, ‘Reflections on academia, activism, and the politics of knowledge and learning’, International Journal of Human Rights, 24, 1 (2020).

[4] Choudry (2020).

[5] Michael Flood, Brain Martin & Tanja Dreher, ‘Combining academia and activism: Common obstacles and useful tools’, Australian Universities’ Review, 55, 1 (2013).

[6] Howard Zinn, ‘Secrecy, Archives, and the Public Interest’, The Midwestern Archivist, 2, 2 (1977).

Gender identity and Sexuality: A Fiery Relationship, by Amy Austin

While researching the history of gender identity I have come across numerous debates over a variety of issues. Appropriate terminology, categorisation, the genesis of gender fluidity are all hotly contested issues and let’s face it, as historians we love a good debate. One of the most contentious issues is the relationship – or lack thereof – between gender history and the history of sexualities. Scholars such as Jay Prosser have expressed the legitimate concern that combining studies of historical sexuality and gender identity leads to the silencing of gender fluid individuals who become amalgamated into narratives of same-sex attraction or economic necessity. This silencing is particularly prevalent in cases of individuals who presented as male before the advent of sex reassignment surgery. Billy Tipton and James Barry are among the historical figures who have been ‘reclaimed’ by women’s history as ‘passing women’ who adopted male identities to follow their chosen careers and pursue female same-sex relationships.

This antagonism between gender and sexuality is not only an academic concern. A cursory look at LGBT+ activism reveals the frequent marginalisation of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conformity within the movement as a whole. Equally, the countless cases of sexual and physical violence against transwomen speaks to the degree to which the conflation of gender and sexuality can have devastating results. Gwen Araujo’s murder in 2002 by four cisgender men, two of whom she had previously had physical relationships with is a case in point.[1] Their use of the ‘panic’ defence allowed the defendants to misgender Araujo as male, thereby portraying her as a man who ‘deceived’ them into homosexuality.

Gwen Araujo

Araujo’s gender identity was reduced to her genitals by her murderers. Historical gender non-conforming figures often suffer the same fate. Bernice Hausman has argued that transgenderism – or ‘transsexualism’ to use Hausman’s term – cannot exist before the development of sex reassignment surgery.[2] The reconstruction of the genitals is what makes a person transgendered. It is true that the individuals considered in my own research would not have recognised the term transgender or identified with it. However, their personal testimonies mirror modern autobiographical accounts from transgender individuals and their experiences are evidence of gender fluidity that predated surgery and modern terminology. The category of transgender may be a modern construct, but it seems very misguided to assume that a label creates an identity. Hausman’s argument not only ignores the numerous individuals who identify as trans who do not physically transition, but it also returns us to the preoccupation with genitals in determining gender. This begs the question, has the merging of gender and sexuality led to the dominance of genitals in LGBT+ studies?

Despite the array of potential sexual activities, the focus often rests on penetrative heterosexual intercourse which excludes a myriad of experiences. In terms of gender identity, the focus on genitals is even more reductive. As a cis gender woman, the idea that my female gender is solely dependent on my biology is diminishing and misguided; how much more insulting for individuals who are misgendered due to their bodies?

All of the points above suggest that a complete separation between gender history and the history of sexualities is needed. At the start of my research, I was certainly passionate about stressing the difference between gender non-conformity and sexualities, partly due to the constant assumption that transgender history was an offshoot of queer sexualities rather than gender identities. However, I have quickly discovered how frequently the two areas not only overlap but impact on each other. The lives of Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon, the first trans woman and trans man respectively to undergo sex reassignment surgery are prime examples.

Michael Dillon

Michael Dillon identified as male from childhood. Dillon acknowledged his female physicality and in his early years was compelled to live as a woman, but his gender identity was always unequivocally male. For Dillon, his transition merely enabled him to live more easily as a man without being questioned by outsiders as to his gender. It did not originate his male gender. Dillon’s physical transition also did not influence his sexual preference for women. On the other hand, his inability to father a child led Dillon to avoid any romantic relationships throughout his life with the exception of Cowell who ultimately rejected him. Dillon believed that ‘[o]ne must not lead a girl on if one could not give her children’,[3] and when the only woman whom Dillon felt would understand his experiences refused to marry him he remained celibate.

Roberta Cowell

In contrast, Roberta Cowell’s sexual orientation was inextricably linked to her gender identity. Vehemently homophobic, Cowell stressed her heterosexual attraction to women prior to transition when presenting as Robert, marrying and fathering two children. Following her surgery, Roberta was again heterosexually attracted to men while during the transition Cowell identified as asexual.[4] Clearly then, in certain cases gender and sexuality cannot be completely segregated without losing the nuances of individual narratives.

Dillon and Cowell also demonstrate the importance of a more individualised case study approach to queer histories. As historians the obligation to impose our own interpretations on individuals is often inescapable, particularly where no concrete information remains. The reclaiming of figures as either homosexual or gender variant leads to the construction of rigid categorisations which do not account for the rich variety of identities and sexualities that exist both historically and in the present. The best approach then would seem to be that of any good relationship, where both parties – in this case gender identity and sexuality – are considered in tandem as complimenting one another in the light they can reciprocally shine while maintaining their status as distinct facets of identity.

Amy Austin is a PhD Candidate in History, specialising in transgender history of modern Britain. You can also catch Amy on the podcast Surprisingly Brilliant, discussing transgender identities in 1800s Britain with Susan Stryker and Laurie Metcalf.

[1] Anon., The Murder of Gwen Araujo and the “Panic” Defense, [website], (N.D.), https://www.queersiliconvalley.org/the-panic-defense, (accessed 21 July 2021).

[2] Bernice L. Hausman, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender (North Carolina, 1995).

[3] Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York, 2017), 125.

[4] Roberta Cowell, Roberta Cowell’s Story (New York, 1954).

The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Colonial History, by Dr Joseph O’Mahoney

At first, we were surprised.  My co-author Enze Han and I had started looking into how many countries around the world it was illegal to be gay in.  We found that 72 states formally criminalized some homosexual conduct (today it is 67 UN member states).  Penalties ranged from fines, through prison terms of 10 years or life, up to the death penalty.  Our next question was why?  Why, given that some countries were moving to legalize same-sex marriage and protect other LGBT rights, were others so repressive?  Why was there this variation?

To begin with, we correlated these laws with other factors, like wealth, economic development, religion, etc.  But when we included a variable called ‘legal origin’, that’s when we were really surprised.  The effect size was so large that it explained almost all of the variation we see in the world today.  ‘Legal origin’ means where a state got its legal system from.  And from a lot of countries, this meant colonialism.  British colonies got a common law system, French colonies got a civil law system, and so on.  And it turns out that if you had to know one thing about a country to have a good chance of guessing whether it criminalizes homosexuality, that one thing is whether it used to be a British colony.

The relationship can be starkly illustrated with an example.

There are three Guianas.  British Guiana was a British colony, and is now called Guyana.  Dutch Guiana is now called Suriname.  French Guiana was a French colony and is now a French department (and part of the EU).  These three colonies were very similar in lots of ways, except for the big difference of which Europeans controlled them. And, also, the legal status of homosexuality.  French Guiana decriminalized in 1817, Suriname decriminalized in 1869, and Guyana… Actually, homosexual conduct (“buggery”) is still illegal in Guyana and has been since the colonial period.

Is this correlation between the three Guianas’s colonial heritage and sexuality laws a causal relationship?  And does this generalize to the rest of the world?  We next wanted to go beyond this high level quantitative analysis and look into the actual historical pathways whereby states acquired laws criminalizing homosexuality.

We looked at legal history and got hold of the texts of colonial penal codes and criminal codes to compare them.  There are some complexities and some false positives, which shows the value of detailed qualitative historical research. But the general pattern is borne out.  For many countries around the world that criminalize homosexual conduct, they do so because these laws were imposed on them during the colonial period by the British Empire.

If you want to read more detail about this, Enze and I published a book with Routledge about it.  In this blog post, though, I wanted to reflect briefly on part of my experience doing the research. I had to really engage with the complexity of historical reality.  Political science tends towards aggregated concepts and seeks causes that travel across many cases.  I think this is a worthwhile quest, but there is a danger that you can miss important specificities.  Historical work brings you face-to-face with the multifaceted nature of human social reality. This is perhaps especially the case when dealing with the British Empire, which not only covered a wide variety of local conditions around the world, but also seemed to delight in ad hocery and exceptions to the rule.  That is, if there even was a rule in the first place.

This complexity manifested in several ways.  One interesting way was that we commonly use the word ‘colonies’ to describe the UK’s relationship with polities and communities, but the politico-administrative arrangements were often very different in different places.  They also often changed over the decades.  For example, the current West African states of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria were previously made up of five colonies, four protectorates, and two League of Nations mandates and later trust territories.

In addition, there were several criminal codes circulating, with different implications for homosexual conduct.  Seemingly accidental judgments and choices by colonial administrators could have repercussions over a hundred years later.  For example, the colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, got a criminal code in 1892.  The colonial administrator modeled this on a code that differentiated between nonconsensual “unnatural carnal knowledge”, deemed a felony, and consensual acts, deemed a misdemeanor and ‘only’ punishable by 2 years imprisonment.  Other colonies’ codes had different model codes that did not make this distinction and had much longer sentences.  Today, in 2021, Ghana retains this distinction in its criminal code, and has a sentence of 3 years, compared with the 7, 10, 14 years or life imprisonment in other ex-British colonies in Africa.

For me, one of the takeaways from this research is that combining the empirical detail of historical research with the conceptual and causal abstractions of political science can lead to more accurate, richer, and more useful knowledge.

Dr Joseph O’Mahoney is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, specialising in how norms and rules about war affect state behaviour. Alongside co-author Enze Han, his research has explored the role of colonial heritage in the criminalisation of homosexuality. 

Verdant Coloured Glasses: Rural Studies through a Gendered Lens, by Tamisan Latherow

Gender history permeates every field of study where women are concerned and since women account for 49.5 per cent of the global population (some 3.908 billion persons)[1], that’s a lot of fields. I’m researching the Homefront during the Second World War and the women left behind to keep the home fires burning and the war machines running by focusing on the women who toiled in the fields to grow and process the food needed to keep Britain alive and fighting, or what I’m calling rural studies through a gendered lens. It’s ended up being much more than I anticipated.

From 1920 until 1960, agriculture in England and Wales changed drastically and nowhere was the arrival of ‘modern’ machinery more pronounced than on the farms and in the factories. While the Industrial Revolution saw the first use of mechanized equipment, the 1920s-60s saw a conglomeration of technology and swift improvements in chemical and biological understanding. It was not unusual to see women reapers with sickles working alongside coal powered threshing machines in one field while internal combustion engine driven Fordson tractors ploughed up the neighbouring field, all while under the constant threat of bombardment. Yet for the mostly young, urban women who took up the mantle of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) and became the Land Girls or the Timber Corp’s Lumber Jills, their new set of skills often came with a steep learning curve.

Most of these women received very little training. Some were lucky and went to a WLA hostel and training center before being sent on to farms, while others were called up and dropped off in the same breath, and for a seventeen-year-old hairdresser from London or thirty-year-old secretary from Manchester, suddenly being left on the roadside and trekking across a field only to find a small cottage with no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing must have been daunting. Thank goodness for the Women’s Institutes and the County Advisory Staffs!

Begun in 1915, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) were formed to address the concerns and issues of the everyday woman and by 1925 had established firm ties with both the Boards of Agriculture and Education and held as one of it’s primary tenets the goal of filling the gap of countrywomen’s education through short courses, lectures and demonstrations in what came to be known as courses in Rural Domestic Economy (RDE). Meeting minutes from the WI and county sub-committees on Agriculture and Agricultural Instruction show thousands of participants from the first RDE course in Berkshire in 1932 until the end of the research period in 1960. In 1943 alone 2,259 individuals participated in RDE courses which covered everything from war-time cookery to domestic poultry keeping. For comparison, the total WLA numbers for that same year in Berkshire was less than 1,400, showing that most of the participants were normal countrywomen.[2]

Additionally, cooperative cheese schools and fruit and vegetable preservation centres dotted the countryside under the watchful eyes of Instructresses like Miss Matthews, the Dairy Instructress for Berkshire County. The minutes show a steady increase in both her salary as a full-time county advisor and her participation as a member of the county sub-committee on Rural Domestic Economy under the auspices of the WI. She travelled throughout the county and even abroad on behalf of both, learning new techniques to bring home and show her fellow countrywomen in town halls and the WI’s travelling lecture van.

For rural women, as well as the Land Girls, these instructresses became a key factor in learning their new roles milking cattle, culling chickens and harvesting eggs, fruits and vegetables for the greengrocer and butcher. A civilian organization, the training certifications the Land Girls undertook, often given by these instructresses, became key selling points when they applied for positions at farms. The instructresses also worked closely with local schools, young farmer’s clubs and farm institutes, and pushed for government and county grants to promote the education of women and girls in the new university degree programs and trainings at RDE centres.

The blueprints found in the Berkshire Records Office shows a building featuring large handicrafts and lecture rooms and three kitchens for preservation, demonstration and preparation, as well as various storerooms, including a bacon curing and storage room to go along with the courses offered showing the newest technologies in food preservation. The Marcham Society’s Denman College collection gives us a unique look inside the demonstration kitchen in a series of photographs. Here one can see an electric chest freezer and range along one wall while the traditional paraffin range sits on the back wall; a combination of old and new technology common during the 1940s and 1950s as the electrification of villages increased.

Figure 1: Inside the Rural Domestic Economy Centre, Marcham, 1950s.

Female farmers were also not unheard of for the period. The popular bi-weekly newspaper Farmer and Stockbreeder promoted Successful Women Farmers throughout the country in 1935. One such was Mrs. Taylor of Oare Farm in Hermitage, Berkshire. The article concludes by stating:

“Mrs. Taylor manages this big farm entirely by herself, she has no bailiff or foreman, and superintends all the work. It is difficult to see how she can find time for outside work, but last year she was chairman of Newbury F. U. [(Farmer’s Union)] (the first woman to be elected to such an office), and is now a member of the Berkshire County Milk Committee and of other agricultural bodies[1].”

Such multi-tasking was common for women, many of the members of the Berkshire WI appeared in various sub-committees and ran events, attended trainings and managed their own families and businesses.

Figure 2: Successful Women Farmers, Farmer and Stockbreeder, 1935 (MERL)

These types of archival items combined with diaries, meeting minutes and census reports, paint a picture of a tireless group of women striving to make the most out of what they had available to them while breaking barriers in both gender and ethnicity, such as the first black Land Girl, Amelia King. And as government policies changed and women were allowed to attend universities and sit for examinations, more female scientists such as Dr. Elfreida Mattick broke historic barriers to participation. Dr. Mattick researched calcium chloride’s use to alleviate the symptoms of milk fever and was also the first woman to receive a Board of Education Agricultural Scholarship from the Ministry of Agriculture and received her PhD from the University of Bristol in 1923.[1]

By reviewing the archival records found in museums and historical societies, doing ethnographic interviews and biographical information on scientists, nutritionists and farmers, we find the women behind the curtain. The forgotten and often overlooked voices from the past that have made a future where we have female scientists making lab-grown food, female MPs and a female president of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU)[2]. Gender history isn’t just about the politics, it’s about the people-both male and female-that tells a story from multiple angles and through multiple lenses. As one of my interviews said, “without those girls, we all would have starved. They won the war and it’s a damn shame they haven’t been given the respect they deserve.”[3] While I’d like to think we’ve come a long way since 1945, we still have farther to go, and yet, every voice raised is one step closer to when Gender History will just be called History.

Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences. To read more about Amelia King, go to the Museum of English Rural Life’s blog. https://merl.reading.ac.uk/news-and-views/2020/08/breaking-the-colour-bar/

@SeshatofMars

[1] Sussman, M. Society for Applied Microbiology: a short history. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006.

[2] The largest farmer’s union in the UK at over 55,000 members.

[3] Interview with farmer, Roy Barwick (2020).

[1] Farmer and Stockbreeder, April 1, 1935, pg. 753.

[1] https://countrymeters.info/en/World as of 24 May 2021.

[2] WLA participant numbers taken from the monthly WLA’s The Land Girl newsletter and RDE numbers from the various meeting minute notes.

An Interdisciplinary Approach: Gender and Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales c. 400-1200 CE, by Arica Roberts

There are a total of 565 monuments for Wales c. 400-1150 CE. which cover three geographical regions: the South-East Wales and the English Border (Redknap and Lewis, 2007), South-West Wales (Edwards, 2009) and North Wales (Edwards, 2013). The three regions have 191, 216, and 158 number of monuments respectively. My questions about how gender was constructed and manipulated by high-status men in Wales through the surviving evidence of stone monuments relies on an interdisciplinary study that includes their archaeological, historical, and art-historical context.

Most of the stones with inscriptions include a name in the nominative or genitive case, which implies that the stone is the ‘monument of X’ and includes the filiation, frequently using filius or fili, followed by the name of the father in the genitive ‘X son of Y’. The stones also contain the formulaic Latin ‘hic iacit’ ‘here lies’and ‘pro anima’ ‘for the soul[s] of’, commemorating the dead and their souls in Christian fashion. The imagery on the stone monuments includes human figures, most of which are arguably Christian and depict familiar Biblical scenes or ecclesiastical figures. There are also identifiable secular masculine warrior figures.

The Pillar of Eliseg is one such exceptional stone monument in Wales that I employ interdisciplinary methods. This stone was erected by Concenn ruler of Powys (c. 854 CE), to honor his great-grandfather Eliseg, who had expelled the Anglo-Saxons from that part of Powys. The pillar is a round-shafted cross that stands on a barrow near the Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis. The lengthy inscription carved into the monument is now illegible, but two copies of the transcription in 1696 by Edward Lhuyd have survived, enabling a study of the inscription and its significance. The archaeological context of this pillar has recently been reconsidered, illuminating how its form and function emphasized the link of the rulers of Powys with the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus and the sub-Roman ruler Guarthigirn. The inscription was intended to be read out loud and that the monument was as an important piece of public propaganda erected at a time when the kingdom of Powys was severely under threat (Edwards, 2009).

Figure 1. Eliseg’s Pillar near Llangollen, Denbighshire, Wales. Photograph © 2006 by Jeffrey L. Thomas(http://www.castlewales.com/eliseg.html)

The separate elements of the inscription as well as its landscape context and function can be pulled together to present a clearer picture of elite masculine constructions of identity. What does the evidence reveal? Firstly, that the Pillar of Eliseg had commemorative functions, both political and religious.

The masculine names and filiation demonstrate patrilineal kinship and seek to commemorate Eliseg, the great-grandfather of the 9th century ruler, Concenn. It praises Eliseg for defending Powys from the Anglo-Saxons, using the words in gladio suo parta in igne “with his sword and with fire” demonstrating the importance of a forceful warrior masculinity amongst Welsh rulers. The inscription asks that those who read the stone give a blessing to the soul of Eliseg, “det benedictionem supe/[r animam] Eliseg,” an example of the “pro anima” commemorative Christian formulae. The inscription ends by Conocenn legitimizing his rule by explaining his Roman lingeage through “Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans” and asks for a blessing of the Lord upon Conocenn, his household, and the entire kingdom of Powys. The entirety of the inscription and its phrasing demonstrates a masculine construction of power and legitimacy through secular patrilineal kinship, links to the distant past via Roman rule, as well as Christianity.

The Pillar of Eliseg is only one example, but it clearly shows how men constructed their own intersecting identities of gender, status, religion, and ethnicity using an earlier Roman and pre-Christian past to assert the legitimacy and power of warrior-kings. It also reveals how high-status men also constructed their identities via patrilineal kinship, ethnic names, and patriarchal Christianity. These men engaged with gendered symbols of power and legitimacy across a variety of different cultures and the acceptance of a plurality of models of masculinity served political ends in helping to promote order and coherence for hegemonic masculinity in early medieval Wales.

Arica Roberts is an international student from the United States and a PhD Candidate in Archaeology  specializing in gender of early medieval Wales.

References:

Edwards, Nancy. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume II: South-West Wales, University of Wales Press, 2009.

 

——— A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume III: North Wales, University of Wales Press, 2013.

 

——— ‘Rethinking the Pillar of Eliseg’, The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 89, September 2009, pp. 143-177.

 

Redknap, Mark and John M. Lewis. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales Volume 1 Southeast Wales and the English Border. University of   Wales Press, 2007.

On ‘Education’, by Dr Katherine Harloe

Watching Steve McQueen’s Education (Small Axe, BBC 1, 13 December 2020) put me in mind of my mum. She was always there for me during my education. As assertive as she is diminutive, she came to the UK from Trinidad aged 11 in 1961, following her mother who had arrived in 1953 in search of a new start and a better life for herself and her children. I know that life in London was a shock for mum after Port-of-Spain, and schooling in England perhaps – apart from the weather – the biggest shock of all. She went from the (I think) relatively genteel setting of St Joseph’s Convent, an all-girls’ school run by Irish nuns, to Priory Grove Secondary School in Stockwell.

Mum has not told me much about her time at school, though she did reveal that the kids in her class teased her on account of her accent and that the teacher responded by telling them all that she spoke better English than they did. I suspect that didn’t help with the bullying, but it may explain why she is the family member who has the closest to RP. She has told me about her mother working two jobs in order to save up for the house they eventually managed to buy in Ribblesdale Road in Streatham, about how she and her sister did the cooking and cleaning at home in order to make time for her mother to work, and about her own comical attempts to help by running up the extra pieceworks her mother brought home on her sewing machine (the seams were never straight enough, and my grandmother would have to unpick them all and start again from scratch). She has also talked about the shock, and excitement, of meeting people from other Caribbean islands, especially Jamaicans (whom she says far outnumbered everyone else) and getting to know these people whose language and culture seemed in some ways so different from her own but with whom, now in England, she discovered an affinity. Married with a child at 17, she did not have the opportunities to participate in higher education that she was so keen to secure for me and my siblings. Somewhere during these years, between Stockwell, Streatham, and Norwood, she developed the grit and ferocity that characterised her attitude towards my education.

When my parents left London in 1980 and moved to north Essex it often felt like we were the only Black children in town. Mum watched our education like a hawk. She was always down to the school – much to my mortification – telling the teachers just what she thought of what they were doing. I realise now, and perhaps I always knew, that this embarrassing level of engagement was fuelled by her concern that we would be underestimated and dismissed in the British educational system on account of race. I remember the anger in her voice when she recounted how, even in London, a teacher at my older sister’s primary school suggested to her that ‘Perhaps reading isn’t going to be her thing’. (Shortly afterwards it turned out that my sister was severely short-sighted; glasses solved the literacy issues.) Or her frustration at the decision my brother’s new school took to place him in the bottom group for reading, when he’d been reading since nursery and, before we left London, doing really well in his primary there.

Her vigilance in the case of me, the youngest, was informed by what she had seen happening to my brother and sister, but also by her wider political awareness and her knowledge of the ways in which schools and other authorities were letting down Black Caribbean children. Certainly she knew the work of Bernard Coard, whose pamphlet, ‘How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System’ featured in McQueen’s film. This knowledge also came from her own work, for after we moved to Essex she qualified, and then practised, as a child social worker (she had previously done youth work in London). She found that work stressful and at times traumatic and would later say that she would rather have stayed at home with us. I also suspect that it gave her additional insight into the harms being inflicted on kids by the care system – looking back I have no idea how she managed to deal with all that and come home to her own kids at the end of the day. Frustrated in her own career progression in ways she attributed to racism, she founded a Black social workers’ group and later, when she acted as a placement tutor to social work students, was keen to foster their political and multicultural awareness as well the more immediate practical aspects of the qualification. She found in her social work colleagues of the 1980s some of those same, dismissive attitudes she had seen in teachers of the 1960s and 1970s (see Small Axe Alex Wheatle for this). Nothing angered her more.

‘Small Axe: Education’, Steve McQueen and Alastair Siddons (December 2020)

I related to Kingsley’s mum in Education, in the scene where she gave her son a slap for staying up late at night drawing pictures of rockets and told him to go to bed. Not because I have ever smacked a child, nor was I ever smacked. But the frustration and despair of the mother, trying to do well by her kids in a basically hostile society and feeling impotent and resourceless, came across so clearly, as did the way in which, despite parental love, that trauma could be transmitted through the generations. My own education could not have been more different than Kingsley’s: a primary-school headteacher who believed in me, sent me on curriculum extension courses and advised my parents to put me in for the 11-plus, which then got me onto the royal road of the inequitable, two-tier educational system still operational in Essex and eventually to a place at an ancient university. No Supplementary School for me, then, nor really any need for the three Rs since my mum made sure I was reading before I got to school, and when it looked as if I was falling behind in maths around Year 2 or 3 she bought copies of the school textbooks and worked through them with me at home. But my mum did what she could for my Black history education (US-centric as it then was), buying me books on ‘Black history for beginners’ and even J.A. Rogers’ ‘100 Amazing facts about the Negro’.

Most of all, however, I knew she had my back. She would be down the school complaining if she thought there was even a hint of a teacher treating me unfairly or with disrespect. And she also made sure I was offered every opportunity going, if they were being offered to other kids. I remember when, in the first- or second-year juniors at my primary school (Year 3 or 4), those children who had shown talent at music were offered violin lessons. I was terrible at music – but my mum was straight away down the school asking why her child had not been offered this opportunity. When I wanted to take three science GCSEs as well as German and French and my grammar school said it could not accommodate this, my mother found a French teacher (the parent of a friend) who could teach me; she then kept on at the school until they grudgingly agreed to enter me for the examination. And when I got into the sixth form and decided to apply for a Classics degree my parents supported me in applying against the advice of my school, and helped me contact a retired teacher who lived in a nearby village and was willing to teach me Latin on weekend mornings.

All this added up to a hefty dose of educational privilege, fostered by parents who had the financial means to pay for extra opportunities. And I look back on it with mixed feelings. I can see that I benefited from a system designed to promote a minority while others lose out, and the academic focus of my school ultimately fostered some fragile ego formation that I struggled to overcome in graduate days.  But one thing I can also see now is how far my mum had my back, even and perhaps especially against my teachers. And the context for all that care and vigilance was the framework presented in Education: a Black mother’s awareness that she was navigating a path for her kids through a system that might well be stacked against them.

It’s no accident that education emerges as a theme through the Small Axe series as a whole. From Altheia Jones-LeCointe’s activism in Mangrove, to Simeon, the Rastafarian cellmate who lent Alex Wheatle a copy of C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, McQueen showed how African-Caribbean (now joined by African) people in Britain placed their hope in education as a means of betterment, even in the face of racism, and developed their own resources to support and provide for the next generation. We see their legacy in this generation in the priorities of young leaders like Stormzy, who has funded educational scholarships. Like Lewis Hamilton, who is working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to create routes for Black people in STEM. And like Marcus Rashford, who after feeding the bellies of hungry children in the UK turned to feeding their minds through his book club. In the awful year 2020 it lifted my heart to see these young Black men rising to the top of their fields and then turning to uplifting others.

Professor Katherine Harloe teaches in the Department of Classics. She specialises in the history of classical scholarship and the reception of classics in the context of other humanities disciplines and broader political, cultural and intellectual currents, from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present. She’s presently writing a book on the queer love letters of eighteenth-century classical art historian, Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

‘Useful’ Old Women: ageing women in the dual role of patient and caregiver in early modern England, by Amie Bolissian

How did the older gentlewomen healers and caregivers of early modern England feel about providing hands on care when suffering illness and infirmity themselves? Amie Bolissian provides a historical perspective on being an ageing and infirm carer. [Content Warning: injury detail]

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Despite being disparaged as ‘quacksalvers’, or marginalised, witch-like ‘crones’ by qualified doctors, ‘old women’ played a crucial role in the care of patients at every level in Tudor and Stuart cities, towns, and villages. Most of these women were also usually suffering from some sort of illness or infirmity themselves. Why did these ailing women continue to care for the sick into their old age? Some, of course, may have needed the income for everyday subsistence. Parish records have shown that poor women with ‘nursekeeping’ experience might be pressured into caring for patients by the authorities, on pain of losing their own poor relief of money and food.[1] But what of wealthier older women, who cared for patients in their families and communities while also suffering from disease or disability? These women were entirely capable of paying for others to provide care, but they chose to persist, working on through feelings of fear, ‘grief’, pain, and discomfort. Why might this have been? Affection for an ailing relative may have played a part, and a feeling of duty towards kin and friends, but my research into diaries and letters has also revealed the particular importance of feeling ‘useful’.

An example of this can be found in the extensive writings of English gentlewoman Lady Anne Halkett (1623-1699), who suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, a chronic cough, and breathing problems but continued to care for the sick up until months before her death aged seventy-six. Former courtier and staunch royalist, Halkett was schooled in medicine and surgery by her mother – Jane Drummond Murray, previous governess to King Charles I’s children – and treated patients for most of her life. This included stints during the civil war, and within her community in Fife, Scotland, where she lived with her husband until he died at age sixty, then as a widow for a further 29 years.

 

Wax figure of Lady Anne Halkett at her desk in Abbots House, Dunfermline, Wikimedia Commons

Halkett made and distributed remedies, but her ‘meditations’ reveal that she also provided in-person care, day and night. Descriptions of her attending patients, including her own son, as she entered her seventies, show the toll that could take on her health – causing neck pain, cramps and worse. In 1696, at the age of seventy-three, she described a charitable care visit one evening but explained that, while she had little ‘paine or sickness’ at the time, after supper her painful ‘fitt of the stone… grew so much worse as I could get noe rest’. She eventually passed the stone, described as ‘a Pea & sharpe att one end’, and felt much better, but she directly linked her relapse with her caring labours.[2]

Directly after her ‘fit of the stone’, she wrote that she had declined to take in a sickly child for care because, as she put it, ‘I absolutely refused […] in the reason of my old Age & unfittnese to undertake new trouble of others when I had so mych of my owne’, referring also to her substantial debts. But then she had a change of heart. The pious Protestant wrote that she began to interpret the petition to help the child as a sign from God. ‘Perhaps’, she wrote, ‘the Lord in his Providence had sent this occation to lett mee see hee would have mee still continue to bee usefull to others.’ The word useful appears twice in this passage, and she also refers to her practice as doing God’s work.[3]

An old woman wearing a black veil; head and shoulders. Etching by or after Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631. Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

While the term ‘useful’ does not (curiously) appear in the King James Bible, the notion of being of use and in service to God was commonly expressed. ‘Useful’ as applied to a person appeared with greater and greater frequency in Protestant religious commentary over the seventeenth century. The theologian Richard Steele’s 1688 Discourse on Old Age suggested that before decrepitude set in, old age might even be considered the ‘best parcel of our Life’, because ‘our impetuous Passions being already spent, we are furnished by great experience to be very useful’.[4] Halkett may have felt that, as long as she maintained her ‘usefulness’ in her medical care-work, she might avoid entering the culturally dreaded decrepitude of extreme old age – what a contemporary diarist of hers, Lady Sarah Cowper, called the bitter ‘dreggs’ of life and what is now often referred to as ‘the fourth age’.[5]

Early English Books Online, Burke Library, Union Theological Seminary

Yet there were other routes to feeling useful for ageing women in early modern devout Protestant culture. Printed religious discourse, following the teachings of Cicero, assured the aged that, despite being infirm and unable to work as they formerly had, they could turn to studious, religious contemplation, edifying reading and writing, and a pious preparation for death – thereby avoiding ‘idleness’ which was considered a gateway shrug to sin. When describing the ideal old man, Steele recommended that ‘Aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in Faith, in Charity, in Patience’, but added, ‘The aged Women likewise, &c.’[6] As customarily found in published works, ‘old women’ were an addendum, an afterthought, a postscript, inhabiting the &c. This also occurred in texts on women’s health, where postmenopausal women past childbearing were found relegated to parentheses and consigned to caveats. On the rare occasions that old women were addressed in spiritual literature, they were urged to be exemplars for younger women. The cleric and author Thomas Becon, used the image of a mirror, claiming the ‘dutie of olde women’ was to ‘shew themselves … naturall myrrours of all godlines and honestie’.[7] To be useful, they could erase their own decrepit, post-menopausal, post-protagonist body by becoming a reflective surface representing a purely spiritual ideal for the reproductive-age women who mattered.

Page from Lady Anne Halkett’s ‘Meditations’, Image: Public Domain, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/autobiography-of-lady-anne-halkett

As a devout, literate woman with visibility, and some means (despite her debts) Anne Halkett had access to these forms of cultural identity and validation in old age. Nonetheless, despite her prodigious efforts in spiritual writing and religious practices, something about her medical ministry still called to Halkett, and made her feel that she was truly the ‘worke’ of God’s ‘owne hands’.[8] It appears her characterisation of ‘usefulness’ was far more active and embodied than that recommended by religious doctrine.

My research has shown me that there is no doubt ageing women like Halkett, and others, believed their medical care-work was hazardous to their health and emotions, but the desire to be ‘useful’ to God, those they loved, and the wider community seems to have compelled them to continue. In a cultural context which largely ignored, vilified, or ridiculed older women, unless you were the actual Queen of England (and even then… ), they may well have gained a valued identity and sense of continuing relevance from their medical roles.

Amie Bolissian is a Wellcome-funded PhD Candidate researching ageing patients in early modern England, examining medical understandings of old age and the experiences of sick older people from c.1570-1730.

****************************************************************************

  1. See: Harkness, Deborah E., ‘A View from the Streets : Women and Medical Work in Elizabethan London: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the history of medicine, 82/1 (2008), 52-85, 66; Munkhoff, Richelle, ‘Poor women and parish public health in sixteenth-century London’, Renaissance studies, 28/4 (2014), 579-96, 587; Wear, Andrew, ‘Caring for the sick poor in St Bartholomew’s Exchange, 1580-1679’, Medical History; Supplement, 11 (1991), 41-60, 46. Also: Pelling, Margaret (ed.), The Common Lot : Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (London: Longman, 1998), Ch.8: 179-202.
  2. National Library of Scotland, Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’ NLS MSS.6489-6502 (Mid seventeenth century), MS 6501, fol.246.
  3. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.249.
  4. Steele, Richard, A discourse concerning old-age tending to the instruction…of aged persons (London, 1688), 11.
  5. Kugler, Anne, The Diary of Sarah, Lady Cowper, eds Lynn Botelho and Susannah R. Ottaway, 8 vols. (The History of Old Age in England, 1600-1800, 7; London, 2009), 87; Gilleard, Chris and Higgs, P., ‘Aging without agency: Theorizing the fourth age’, Aging & Mental Health, 14/2 (2010/03/01 2010), 121-28..
  6. Steele, Richard, A discourse, title page.
  7. Becon, Thomas, The sycke mans salve, (London: 1561), unpaginated.
  8. Halkett, Lady Anne, ‘Meditations’, MS 6501, fol.246.

‘Why are adolescent girls so awful?’ Challenging stereotypes of teenage girlhood by the readers of ‘Just Seventeen’ magazine, 1987, by Amy Gower

“So who are these people, these thirteen- to nineteen- year-olds? Is that all we know about them? What is their function in society, what do they look like, how do they dress, how do they smell, etc? But, most of all we need to know, is it true that their only interest in life is a dog-like interest in sex?

Well, I can start to make these points clear to you by introducing myself on the scene. Here is a real life teenager.”

Hilary Edwards, in Bitter-sweet Dreams

In 1987, Virago published a collection of writing by the readers of teenage girls’ magazine Just Seventeen. The essays, poems, and short stories aimed to counter stereotypes and misconceptions about teenage girls, as the introduction by Janice Long made clear.

“It wasn’t that long ago that ‘teenage’ books were written by doctors, educationalists and the like – establishment figures with textbook ideas. The danger with these books was that if you didn’t fit with their theories, you were made to feel odd. To me, the only valid words, thoughts and opinions of girls and young women are their own.”

Just Seventeen had replaced Jackie as the most popular teen magazine in the UK, substituting the chaste romance of Jackie with an edgier, more assertive, ‘street-wise’ femininity for the 1980s adolescent girl. This collection then provided a space for girls who identified with the new femininity of Just Seventeen to question normative assumptions of their age and gender, drawing on their lived experiences to challenge the expertise of professionals and adults.

Ideas of teenagers as self-centred and impulsive were evident in developmental psychology and in educational circles throughout the postwar period, and were also informed by stereotypes about class, race, and gender. In the 1970s and 1980s, as language and policy around equal opportunities entered education discourses, ideas of ‘natural difference’ between boys and girls were used to explain gendered disparities in academic and professional achievement. In a 1981 opinion piece in The Guardian, former headteacher of Oxford High School and philosopher Mary Warnock attributed what she saw as girls’ lack of ambition to sexuality.

“Little girls are bright, bossy, competitive and ambitious. Big girls are passive, conservative, intellectually vapid and without ambition. This is the story every school teacher tells… Why are adolescent girls so awful? What happens to them? Why do they make such depressingly predictable choices at school? Why do they not want to compete? Alas, it seems that the cliché answer is right. It is sex.”

Girls were, according to Warnock, rejecting work and study because of social pressures, and instead were focusing on boys, sex, marriage, and children, making poor choices, and ‘wasting’ their futures. In her attempts to account for girls’ apparent lack of drive, Warnock drew on ideas of girlhood as sex- or boy-obsessed, with girls unable to overcome the short-term enjoyment of romantic relationships and consider their futures.

This idea of girls as sex- or boy-obsessed was not entirely refuted by the girls of Bitter-sweet Dreams. Some acknowledged that their peers were often discussing boys, but that they did not fit this mould. ‘Niamh’ expressed her understanding that adolescence was a time ‘when you find your sexual identity’, but that she was as an ‘outcast’ for not having a boyfriend. Other girls also described their difficulties in living up to unrealistic expectations and the pressures to date and be sexually active. But, this was not, as Warnock described, a distraction to their other roles. ‘Niamh’ also asserted that girls were highly ambitious.

“They want to get to the top of the profession they choose, or exam they take…I still feel, though, that this country will see an upheaval in the traditional role of the woman, and a new generation will emerge whereby women and men are equal. Possibly another fantasy of the teenage mind?”

‘Niamh’s’ use of ‘fantasy’ can perhaps be read as a jibe aimed at adults who did not take teenage girls’ viewpoints seriously, another common contention in Bitter-sweet Dreams. ‘Maisy’ asserted that adults did not appreciate that ‘…us young teenagers have lots of bright ideas…To them we don’t know anything’. Hilary connected this to ideas of biological development.

 

“As an adult, your views can be heard…You may be classed as a ‘teenager’ by society, but by your family, your school and your teachers you’re thought of more as a kid who has just embarked on puberty.”

For Hilary, being a ‘teenager’ should have been different to being a ‘kid’, but assumptions of adolescence based on biological development – puberty – shaped her interactions and relationships with her parents, who dismissed her as she was ‘at that age’. The language of biological development could therefore be used to undermine and demean, reinforcing teenage daughters’ place within the power dynamics of the family.

Many girls also expressed their anxiety at an unjust and violent world to emphasise that they were not as passive or clueless as adults imagined them. The National Front, apartheid, nuclear war, unemployment, crime, drugs, sexual assault, and divorce were all topics covered by the young writers, many of whom recounted their own personal experiences. ‘Karina’ stated that learning about the darkness in the world was part of growing up.

“Being a teenager? I’m not sure what it means…I want to change things. I want to help the poor, I want to ban the bomb, I want us all to live in harmony, black, white, yellow, blue, whatever. I want to make my impression on the world, on this cold and bitter and confused place I live in.”

Another author, Vickie, highlighted the hypocrisy of her parents’ generation who came of age in the 1960s, ‘making love not war’, but who now wanted ‘to ban abortion and confidential contraception for the under-sixteens’, a reference to the attempts of campaigner Victoria Gillick to restrict teenage girls’ access to the Pill without parental consent. At a time when girls’ capacity to make choices about their lives and bodies was being dissected in the press and in the courts, the Bitter-sweet Dreams writers aimed to prove their capability to make informed choices and affect change.

Within this collection, teenage girls contested adult assumptions of teenage girlhood which they felt adults used to restrict their lives. By demonstrating their individuality as ‘real-life’ teenagers, these girls tackled stereotypes of teenage girls as boy-mad, vapid, or shallow, and asserted their expertise over adults’.

All extracts from: Bitter-sweet Dreams: Girls’ and Young Women’s Own Stories, by the readers of Just Seventeen, Virago Upstarts, 1987.

Mary Warnock, ‘Why are adolescent girls so awful?’, The Guardian, 17th August 1981.

Amy Gower is currently writing up her PhD on girlhood, feminism, and schooling in late twentieth century England, and can be found on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry 

“The master whished to reproduce”: The (Forced) Reproduction of Enslaved Life in the Antebellum South, 1808-1865′, by Aisha Djelid

“When my babe was born, they said it was premature. It weighed only four pounds; but God let it live. I heard the doctor say I could not survive till morning. I had often prayed for death; but now I did not want to die, unless my child could die too. Many weeks passed before I was able to leave my bed. I was a mere wreck of my former self. For a year there was scarcely a day when I was free from chills and fever. My babe also was sickly. His little limbs were often racked with pain. Dr. Flint continued his visits, to look after my health; and he did not fail to remind me that my child was an addition to his stock of slaves.”

– Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (1861)

Spring and Easter is a time of year that many begin to ruminate on new beginnings and the circle of life. Chicks, bunnies, and lambs are the general motif of this new life. However, for enslaved people in the pre-Civil War US South, life cycles and reproduction were a daily concern within plantation communities, with many enslavers comparing enslaved people to livestock such as cows, calves, horses, and pigs. Slaveholders actively encouraged their enslaved ‘property’ to reproduce by cajoling, threatening, and coercing them into intimate relationships. Enslavers then either sold or exploited the children born of these sexual relationships for labor, earning themselves a profit. In this way, enslaved women were both producers and reproducers of slavery, and these children also grew up to unwillingly follow in their parents’ footsteps. This was known, at the time, as ‘slave-breeding’, but will be referred to here as ‘forced reproduction.’

Houghton, G. H., photographer. (1862) Family of slaves at the Gaines’ house. Hanover County Virginia, 1862. [Hanover County, Virginia] [Photograph], Retrieved from the Library of Congress

Forced reproduction manifested itself in the emphasis on what enslavers deemed ‘healthy’ and ‘strong’ infants absorbed into slavery. A 1662 law originating in Virginia, known as partus sequitur ventrem, meant that children followed the status of the mother. So, if the mother was free, so too were her children. But if the mother was enslaved, her children inherited the same status. By reproducing, enslaved men and women increased the enslaved workforce, which was especially important after 1808 when the international slave trade ban came into force. Enslavers could no longer traffic people from West Africa, and so had to concentrate on the internal market and ‘natural growth’. Thus, enslavers coerced enslaved men and women to procreate, supervised their children’s exercise and diet in an attempt to control their growth, and raised them as laborers and commodities to be sold on the market.

Harriet Jacobs (1894)

The above quotation from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) demonstrates the different motivations enslaved parents and enslavers had for the survival and health of children (1). Harriet worried for the wellbeing of her premature baby, praying for his recovery and growth. Dr Flint (whose real name was actually Dr James Norcom) saw Harriet’s baby not as a sick infant, but ‘an addition to his stock of slaves.’ Harriet later wrote that her children ‘grew finely’, and that Norcom often remarked to her ‘with an exulting smile, “These brats will bring me a handsome sum of money one of these days.”’ Enslavers shrewdly calculated the life of enslaved children. As they grew older, they grew more valuable, and enslaved boys and men were valued higher at market than girls and women.

However, the commodification and marketisation of ‘breeding women’ – enslaved women either at the prime of their fertile lives or who had already proven to birth multiple children – were a more complicated story. Some enslavers preferred to avoid purchasing particularly fertile women as they could not labor as productively in the fields due to their pregnant state and were reduced to what was known as a ‘half-hand’, rather than a full hand. Others, however, saw potential in fertile women, and valued women that produced lots of children as they were reproducing the workforce with their ‘natural increase’, and thus increasing the number of slaves that could be sold or exploited through labor. Thus, the value of these ‘breeding women’ at auction varied depending on whether enslavers viewed these women as the creator of potential lives and profit. In particular, slaveholding women saw value in these ‘breeding women’, and financially savvy white women purchased them with the intent to exploit their ‘future increase.’ (2)

The children born of relationships forced by slaveholders were kept under the watchful eye of their enslavers, and white men and women often took them away from their parents and into the ‘Big House’ to utilize them as domestic ‘servants’ and keep a close eye on them. Many enslavers also carried out a feeding regime by forcing the children to eat from long troughs, not unlike those they used to feed livestock. In this way, enslavers systematically controlled what and when children ate. Slaveholding women also gave the children medicine such as ‘Jerusalem Oak’ to cure parasites like worms, and forced them to run around the plantation, and engaging in races to see who the fittest was. All of this was to make sure that the children grew up to fit their specifications for the labor they intended them to carry out (3).

Many of these enslaved girls and boys were singled out as potentially productive producers and reproducers. Just as their enslavers had forced their parents to reproduce the labor force, they also forced the next generation to do so, too. Slaveholders forced mothers and fathers to witness their children experience the same violent and traumatic ordeal that they did – forced reproduction. Some enslaved men and women resisted forced reproduction through what has been termed ‘reproductive resistance’ – the use of natural contraceptives, long periods of nursing, abortions, and infanticide (4). However, those who did not choose or were unable to carry out this method of resistance witnessed their enslavers forcibly march their children down the same path they themselves were forced down. Life cycles and the reproduction of life was thus a huge part of enslaved peoples’ day-to-day lives in the early- to mid-nineteenth century (5).

(1) Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston, 1861) https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html

(2) Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (Yale University Press, 2019).

(3) Easter Wells, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 13, Oklahoma, (1936), https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn130/, p. 318.

(4) For works on reproductive resistance see: Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty”: Sexual Exploitation of African-American Slave Women,’ Journal of Women’s History, 1 (1990)45–74; Liese M. Perrin, “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South,” Journal of American Studies, 35 (2001), 255–74; Emily West with Erin Shearer, ‘Fertility Control, Shared Nurturing, and Dual Exploitation: The Lives of Enslaved Mothers in the Antebellum United States’, Women’s History Review, 27(2018), 1006-1020.

(5) For more on forced reproduction see: Gregory Smithers, Slave Breeding: Sex, Violence, and Memory in African American History, (University Press of Florida, 2001); Thomas Foster, Rethinking Rufus: Sexual Violations of Enslaved Men, (University of Georgia Press, 2019).

Aisha Djelid is a second year PhD student at the University of Reading, currently researching her thesis on forced reproduction in the Antebellum South. Her work explores the intersection of race and gender and considers how while enslaved people were raising their families, enslavers were raising them as bodies for exploitation. Aisha is also a postgraduate representative for the association of British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH), and co-convenor of the Reading Gender and Sexuality Research Network.