‘Eternal Glory to Our Martyrs!’: Gendered Memories of War in Ethiopia’s Civil Conflict, by Francesca Baldwin

The northern state of Tigray in Ethiopia is at the centre of the current civil crisis embroiled in the Horn of Africa. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has ordered all civilians remaining in the capital of Tigray, Mekelle, to surrender to government forces in the next two days or face a full-scale artillery attack, while the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leading the region have vowed to continue fighting. The conflict has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and civilians, displaced tens of thousands and threatens a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Communication in and out of Tigray is nearly impossible so the total human impact of this conflict has yet to be fully revealed.

In many ways, this war is a continuation of problems raised during the Civil War of the previous century (1974-1991), where the TPLF led a coalition of liberation movements to victory over the repressive Derg regime governing Ethiopia at the time.

Tigray, Ethiopia

What has gender got to do with it?

A whole lot. Gender is the stage and language of militarism in Ethiopia and is deeply entangled with the representation of Civil War memory throughout the country.

Much of the current rhetoric in the country is characterised by fierce debate over historical narratives and contested memory surrounding regional groups’ contributions to nation-building, with, unsurprisingly, explicit gendered dimensions.

Gail Hershatter writes, ‘Memory appears to be created anew whenever it is called upon… [memories are] a product of the confluence of past events and present circumstances’.[i] Memory, and memory culture, is a process, inextricably informed by social constructions and distinctions of gender. Questions of who remembers, and whose memories are publicly legitimised, also address parallel questions of who is represented, authenticated and heard. Debates over historical narratives are less about the ‘truth’ of past events and much more concerned with ‘who’ is authorised to speak for the past in the present.[ii] Gender is an inevitable dimension to differential power relations, and memory is created and deployed during discussions of contested claims to power.[iii] Thus, what is collectively remembered (and forgotten) is closely bound to dynamics of power and hegemony and, therefore, gender.[iv]

The Tigray Communications Media Bureau recently posted on its social media a declaration littered with references to a uniquely Tigrayan experience and memory:

The illegal, unitarist and, personalistic dictatorship currently in charge of political power at the federal level, in a move that reaffirms the adage that history repeats itself, finds itself repeating the injustices committed by the previous imperial and military regimes, conspiring with external actors with the sole purpose of bringing the people of Tigray to their knees.

It is well known that you, the people of Tigray, have continually tolerated the numerous acts of injustice perpetrated against them thus far and have paid tremendous sacrifices for the sake of saving the country from destruction…we call upon you to make extensive preparations to, as always, counter your enemies and make a glorious history in the process.

Eternal Glory to our Martyrs!’

The Martyr’s Memorial Monument, Mekelle

The TPLF famously included a high proportion of women in its military during the liberation war, offering a taste of gender equality to combatants that was not tangibly translated into post-war society. Nonetheless, the TPLF continues to draw upon memories of its female soldiers to mobilise residents in support of its political legitimacy, espousing a specific Tigrayan history that was built from its foundations to victory by women.

In times of social and political upheaval (and perhaps beyond), ‘memory work’ can become ‘memory politics’; no longer situated in the field of history but firmly in the public domain. Collective memory represents history as meaning or, in other words, the ways in which a shared narrative is crafted to make sense of historical occurrences and translate them into something tangible and accessible. Understood in this way, memory works as its own kind of archive that reveals as much about the present as it does the past.

Book Cover, Sweeter Than Honey: Testimonies of Tigrayan Women, ed. by Nell Druce and Jenny Hammond (London: Links, 1989)

In the case of the Ethiopian crisis, collective memory of the creation of the transethnic federation at the end of the war in 1991 illuminates a distinctly and deliberately gendered social structure. In public discourse, hypermasculine operational and theoretical frameworks are glorified. The war is romanticised, military values of discipline and order are reminisced, and organised violence in response to political division is legitimised. In what Jacklyn Cock terms an ideology of militarism, collective memory allows us to see the gendered order put in place in the post-war state to embolden the specific political and social hierarchies designed by the federation.[v]

Scholars of feminist theory have investigated the dynamics of states as gendered, redefining the interaction between women and the political sphere to encompass the mutually constitutive relationship of women and the state.[vi] The concept of gendered states inspired the theory that key binaries associated with war and peace, order and disorder, security and insecurity are themselves gendered and rely on particular forms of gendered order. We see this in Ethiopia now more than ever in repeated references to the responsibility of ‘Mothers of the Nation’ to call for peace, and reports that stress the devastation caused by the fighting to women and girls.

The discourse masculinizing violence and feminizing victimhood and peace – while neither conceptually valid nor particularly useful – is not new and does depict the ways in which gender is constantly constructed and renegotiated in the interaction between the realms of state, war and memory.

There is undoubtedly a gendered dimension to the humanitarian crisis emerging as the number of refugees in Sudan reach 40,000, aid is restricted and reports of shortages of water and fuel circulate. But, the relationship between gender and humanitarianism deserves a blog (or several books!) all of its own….

Francesca Baldwin is PhD research student at the University of Reading. Her doctoral project researches the complex narratives of female combatants in the TPLF during the Civil War, and their post-conflict experiences.

[i] Gail Hershatter, The gender of memory: rural women and China’s collective past (California: University of California Press, 2011), p. 22.

[ii] Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory, ed. By Katharine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 1.

[iii] Marianne Hirsch and Valarie Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory: An Introduction’, Signs, Vol. 28, No. 1: 1-19 (2002), p. 6.

[iv] Hirsch and Smith, ‘Feminism and Cultural Memory’, p. 6.

[v] War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa, ed. By Jacklyn Cock and Laurie Nathan (Cape Town: David Philip, 1989).

[vi] Alicia C. Decker, ‘African Women and the Postcolonial State’, in The Palgrave Handbook of African Colonial and Postcolonial History, ed. by M. Shanguhiya and T. Falola (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 1,139.

Recommended readings:

Conjugal Order: Megan H. MacKenzie,, Female Soldiers in Sierra Leone: Sex, Security and Post-Conflict Development (NYU Press Scholarship Online, 2016)

Militarism: Alicia C. Decker, In Idi Amin’s Shadow: Women, Gender, and Militarism in Uganda (Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2014)



‘Stool’ Crazy After All These Years – Amie Bolissian asks why older women diary-writers in early modern England were more likely to mention their bowel movements than younger women

Science Museum Group. Chamber pot, Netherlands, 1651-1780. A1189Science Museum Group Collection Online. Accessed 9 November 2020. https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co146585/chamber-pot-netherlands-1651-1780-chamber-pot.
Portrait of Anne Clifford, Countess of Dorset and later Countess of Pembroke (1590 – 1676), Wikimedia Commons

In the journal sections of the indefatigable Cumbrian noblewoman Lady Anne Clifford’s (1590 – 1676) manuscript diaries, she wrote of her occasional distempers, swooning fits, and medical treatment. It was not until her final diary entries in the last months of her life at the impressive age of 85, however, that she shared details of her bowel movements. Never would I have imagined, that this small finding would promote a whole blog-post.

When I set out to research the experiences of ageing patients in Tudor and Stuart England, I did not anticipate that pooing might be a gendered topic. Studying medicine in this period means that the evacuation of faeces, or ‘stools’, is difficult to avoid. The flux and flow of fluids and substances around and out of the body was considered essential for health, and promoting them the primary treatment for most diseases. Medical writings were particularly keen on bloodletting, and the use of plant-based or chemical laxatives (referred to as purging or ‘physic’). As Suffolk preacher and medical practitioner Simon Harward explained with undisguised enthusiasm, ‘purging, and letting of bloud’ were the two ‘great helps’, not just ‘because they are applyed unto great diseases’, but because

‘they do bring the greatest and most present eases and remedyes, that ever either inwardlie or outwardlie were devised for mans health’.[1]

Lay healers (mostly women), who provided the majority of medical care, also purged the body therapeutically, as shown by the number of loosening remedies in manuscript recipe books. The phrase ‘better out than in’ neatly sums up Humouralist medical attitudes to any matter they felt was obstructing or corrupting the body. Purging was also supposed to be strong-acting. Shakespeare’s son-in-law, the physician John Hall treated the poet Michael Drayton with syrup of violets for a fever and wrote that it ‘wrought very well both upwards and downwards’. The definition of ‘very well’ can be put into context when considering that Hall regularly administered preparatory purging concoctions which ‘gave five or six stools a day without griping’, ‘five or six stools without pain the following days’, or ‘seven vomits…[then] eight stools for four mornings’.[2]

The ‘Aged’ patients that I study were thought to suffer from both diarrhoea and constipation as they aged, so I did expect this subject to be important in my research. But why would poo be gendered?

The main reason stems from scholarship that has highlighted how rarely early modern women’s writings mention bowel movements, in comparison to men. My research into ageing patients has found that this gender disparity then decreases with age. Why would this be? It seems that older women tended to refer to purges and stools a little more as they aged, while the proportion of men stayed the same. But what caused the initial gender difference and why did this change in old age?

Lady Anne Halkett figure at the Abbot House, Dunfermline Fife, Wikimedia commons

From costume dramas of courtiers in floor-length gowns and puritan women in austere body-concealing garments, we might assume that elite women diary-writers may have been deterred from sharing their bowel movements due to delicacy or demureness. It is possible that cultural feminine norms at this time precluded discussion in writing or in person about bodily evacuations, especially in gentrified circles, but this notion is somewhat challenged by details of other bodily excretions in diaries and letters. Women mentioned bloodletting, urine, phlegm, and kidney stones but rarely ‘stools’ or purges. The author and medical practitioner Lady Anne Halkett, for example, vividly described how she passed a bladder or kidney stone that ‘came away Longer than a Date Stone & very neere as big’.[3]

One explanation highlighted by historian Olivia Weisser in her ground-breaking 2015 book on illness and gender, stems directly from the production and preservation of the sources themselves.[4] Women’s diaries that have survived from this time were overwhelmingly written by intensely devout noblewomen or wealthy elite. They generally follow the literary tradition of the spiritual diary. The largely Protestant trend for self-examination and spiritual practice through diary-keeping became increasingly popular into the latter half of the seventeenth century for both genders. Published manuals such as John Beadle’s 1656 The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian instructed the devout in how and why they should keep a journal. The practice was encouraged to prevent believers from the ‘root-sin’ of forgetting God’s power and benevolence and had step-by-step guidance on what to write.[5] They cited the advantages of meticulous ships’ diaries to successful journeys, and suggested the journals might be left to future generations as examplars of a pious life. Women wrote often of their health and illnesses in these diaries, but usually within a larger framework of the health of their faith and soul. Any meticulous record-keeping of the form and frequency of their faeces does not seem to have made the cut.

The journals of men, on the other hand, while also following the spiritual diary tradition in many instances, also tended to demonstrate other textual influences. Diarists such as Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, and Elias Ashmole (who all mentioned purging) were exposed to a classical University education, scholarly and business record-keeping, and intellectual circles promoting empirical investigation – or scientific exploration as it would come to be known. They attended lectures and meetings at the newly-formed Royal Society ‘for Improving Natural Knowledge’ on the new mechanics of the body, and had physician friends who promoted detailed observations of patients’ symptoms. Making careful notes and ‘readings’ of their body’s workings would not have seemed out of place in this intellectual context. The antiquarian Elias Ashmole’s diary of 1683 contained daily entries of:

‘-I took purging Pills, which wrought very well.

-I took my Pills, and purged very well.

-I took Pills’[6]

Elias Ashmole by an unknown artist (detail), c. 1688, after the portrait by John Riley, Wikimedia commons

Women, meanwhile, were excluded from University educations, the Royal Society, Royal College of Physicians, and the Guilds of Surgeons and Apothecaries. Some women fought against these restrictions and became medical practitioners and/or intellectuals via various oblique routes – such as Lady Ranelagh, Robert Boyle’s sister – but this does not seem to have resulted in a greater tendency to track the quantity and quality of their stools in their diaries in the way that men did.

Another possible contributing factor to the gender differentiation may stem from traditions of oral transmission and memory. There are very few explicit references to women’s periods (‘flowers’, ‘courses’ or ‘termes’) in their diaries either. Yet, from the few mentions available, and evidence from doctors’ case histories, it is likely many kept track of them. Perhaps, in an environment where women used repetition and memory to practice and pass on much of their skill and knowledge, they had methods other than the written word for remembering and recording when they had menstruated, as well as any pertinent defecatory details. There is also the possibility that they did record them in a material way, but these systems have not survived for various reasons. Women might not have thought them valuable enough to keep, or they may have been inscribed on perishable materials.

In which case, why did a greater proportion of older women record their purges and stools in their diaries? Back to the force of nature that was Lady Anne Clifford in her eighties. She described both the quality and number of her stools in the last few months of her diary. An entry for 6th January 1676, penned by one of her scribes, reads:

‘this morning after I was out of my bed I had 7 or 8 great loose stooles downards, which I thought did me much good, but withall weakened my Body so much that it cast me into a Swoning fitt. But God be praised I recovered soon after’[7]

Lady Clifford is not the only older women to mention the state of her bowels or purging, either. Why were older women writers more likely to be open about this subject?

Old woman, After Rembrandt, Wellcome images

An obvious explanation may simply be that almost all diarists tended to focus more on health and bodily matters as they aged. Perhaps, with the accumulation of what they frequently called ‘the infirmities of old age’, women’s bowel movements seemed even more significant to their health. Moreover, with the passage of time, women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties may have been less confident of the powers of their memories to recall their evacuations. Women past childbearing and/or child-rearing age, especially gentlewomen, may also have had fewer demands on their time, to allow them to go into greater detail about their evacuations and medical treatments, as well as fulfilling their spiritual duties in writing. When suffering from chronic diseases and ageing infirmities, older women sometimes found themselves bed-bound or confined to their chambers for months on end.

On top of this, older bodies were believed by doctors and ordinary people to be weaker and less able to withstand strong purges. We find ‘gentle’ purges recommended to both children and the elderly in remedy books. My research has shown that those accustomed to purging as a remedy in their youth defied doctors’ warnings, and usually continued into old age, but with some concern over the effects on their vulnerable health state. Although older patients may have wanted to feel as if their purge had ‘wrought well’ and done them ‘much good’ they might also have felt the need to monitor the outcomes in order to judge the strength and resilience of their physical health – just as Lady Clifford did above.

It is impossible to know for sure if younger women were too busy or too constrained by writing conventions to record their bowel movements, or even if they had other methods of monitoring them which are lost to us. But these bodily evacuations were perceived as crucial to health by both genders, and the fact that older women did refer to them in their writings does tend to suggest the roots of the gender disparities in younger diarists stems from gendered cultural differences in writing and recording practices. A few weeks after Lady Clifford’s entries about her stools, she began to regularly note in her diaries about her ‘ill fits of the wind’, but farts are a whole other blogpost.[8]

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.

  • Recommended reading: Weisser, Olivia, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (New Haven & London, 2015); Churchill, Wendy D., Female Patients in Early Modern Britain: Gender, Diagnosis, and Treatment (Fredericton, Canada, 2016); Read, Sara, Menstruation and the Female Body in Early Modern England (Basingtoke and N.Y., 2013); Smith, Lisa Wynne, ‘The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth‐Century England and France’, Gender & History, 23/1 (2011), 26-46.
  1. Harward, Simon, Harvvards Phlebotemy, (London: 1601), unpaginated.
  2. Hall, John and Cook, James, Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases first written in Latin by Mr. John Hall (London, 1679), 18.
  3. National Library of Scotland National Library of Scotland, ‘Meditations’ by Anne Lady Halkett, Mid seventeenth century, MS 6501, f.350/348.
  4. Weisser, Olivia, Ill Composed: Sickness, Gender, and Belief in Early Modern England (New Haven & London, 2015).
  5. Beadle, John, The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (London, 1656), 171.
  6. Ashmole, Elias, Memoirs of the life of that learned antiquary, Elias Ashmole, Esq; drawn up by himself by way of diary. With an appendix of original letters. (London, 1717), 69-70.
  7. Clifford, D. J. H. (ed.), The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 2003), 233.
  8. Ibid, 243.

Expert Witnesses? Army Surgeons, Army Law, and Black Women during the Civil War, by Dr Liz Barnes

‘Court martial – Army of Cumberland, Chattanooga, Tenn. 1865’ (1865 – printed between 1880 and 1889), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. [https://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.34060/]

On September 1st 1863, Eugene Hannel faced three Army surgeons who had been gathered to testify against him in a court martial. [1] Hannel had been accused of rape by a formerly enslaved woman living and working in the Union-occupied city of New Bern, North Carolina. The testimony of the assembled experts was damning. They spoke to the serious injuries that Hannel’s victim, Rebecca Ann Cradle, had suffered, as well as her continuing mental and emotional distress. The three physicians leveraged their professional expertise to bolster Cradle’s claims of rape, in the process undoubtedly swaying the court to convict Hannel of the crime. While such testimony may seem routine, even expected, to a modern audience, the involvement of surgeons in this proceeding was unusual. Members of a vocation that had only recently been professionalised, these three men used the court martial to assert the value of their skills and establish their special authority to speak before the law.

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, such a proceeding would be unthinkable in North Carolina. Under civil law in the South, enslaved women could not be raped and had no right to testify against a white person in a court of law. The US Army, however, made no racial distinctions – at least in the letter of the law – when troops raped women during the conflict. In occupied areas, this marked a dramatic legal shift for Black women, some of whom seized on the opportunity to hold attackers legally accountable for the first time. Eugene Hannel was one of dozens of troops court martialled to answer allegations of raping a Black woman; the extensive medical intervention in his trial, however, was unique.

Like many Black women during the Civil War, Rebecca Ann Cradle fled slavery and dedicated her efforts to supporting the cause of the US Army in the American Civil War. She was working as a laundress for the camp at New Bern, one of the thousands of Black women whose labour supported efforts to quash the Confederate rebellion. We know very little about Cradle’s life, and what is left to us highlights one of the worst experiences she faced: Cradle was violently raped by a US Army soldier, an ostensible ally of enslaved people and a man who was directly supported by her labour. Hannel’s attack on Cradle reveals some of the dangers that Black women continued to face even once they had escaped slavery. US Army camps were dirty and disease-ridden, and full of soldiers who were often openly and violently racist. Although the nation was divided over the question of slavery, most Americans from the Northern states were not abolitionist or anti-racist.


‘The effects of the proclamation – freed Negroes coming into our lines at Newbern, North Carolina,’ Harper’s Weekly, February 21, 1863 via the Library of Congress [https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c12158/]

Hannel’s attack on Cradle was vicious. The three surgeons spoke about Cradle’s wounds at length and, by nineteenth-century standards, in jaw-dropping detail. The description of their examination of Cradle should give us pause, however. The three men recalled gathering around Cradle’s prone body, forming themselves into a panel to deliberate upon whether or not she had indeed been violated. We know from the testimony of modern rape victims that medical exams after assaults can be unpleasant, painful, and deeply traumatic. In August 1863, the doctors were unaware and seemingly uncaring about Cradle’s comfort during the exam. All three men poked and prodded, both physically and with words, trying to establish for themselves the truth of what had happened to Cradle. One recorded Cradle’s testimony for the court in a rare moment of lucidity during an extended period of extreme emotional distress. Another passed judgements on her sexual health and sexual history.

The three doctors then offered their conclusions to the court. The men testified in Cradle’s favour, asserting that they had seen physical injuries indicative of rape, adding that they believed this to have been Cradle’s first sexual experience. In a time with a very limited understanding of who could be raped, this claim of virginity strengthened Cradle’s allegations. The surgeons also took steps to link Cradle’s emotional distress to the assault itself, asserting professional jurisdiction over matters of the mind as well as the body. Hannel tried to claim that Cradle was delusional, mentally deranged, and therefore not to be believed. The surgeons, on the other hand, testified to Cradle’s lucidity when she offered her own version of events, presenting her disturbed emotional state as temporary and fleeting rather than a symptom of prolonged illness.

In the end, the testimony of the Army surgeons convinced the court. Hannel was convicted of rape, despite his vocal protestations about Black women being traditionally excluded from understandings of victimhood. Hannel’s objections did not fall on deaf ears: his initial sentence of 2 years imprisonment was commuted to just 3 months. Hannel got off incredibly lightly – rape was a capital crime under Army law during the Civil War. The prisoner went a step further, however, requesting a full pardon the month after his conviction. Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General of the US Army, rebuffed Hannel’s request, arguing that the short sentence Hannel was serving fell ‘far short’ of what he ‘richly deserves to suffer.’[2]

In testifying to Cradle’s injuries and distress, the three surgeons from New Bern helped to secure the conviction of Hannel and his expulsion from the Army. They also asserted their expertise, establishing the ability of members of the medical profession to claim special authority over matters of the body and mind in legal settings. These three men contributed to a growing trend: the medicalisation of the rape victim’s body and mind. Previously a matter settled primarily by questions of social status and eyewitness testimony, the inclusion of the surgeons in this case made rape into a medical event that could be examined and diagnosed. While for Rebecca Ann Cradle this ensured justice, for rape victims broadly this posed new challenges. What about women who were not physically injured by their assailants? What about those with no access to medical care? In paving the way for Cradle to be believed, these surgeons erected new barriers for other women seeking justice.

The professionalisation of medicine in the mid-nineteenth century also encouraged male intrusion into traditionally female spaces and experiences. Customarily women would speak to the evidence of violation on their fellows’ bodies. Women would step in to provide treatment, and women would tend victims’ bodies and minds. In their drive to establish their own professional reputations, men disrupted long-standing folk healing traditions, absorbing the knowledge of women medical practitioners and claiming it for themselves. The testimony of the surgeons against Eugene Hannel exemplify this moment of transition in women’s healthcare; the legacies of the exclusion of women from medical expertise continues to plague women, especially women of colour, today.

Dr Liz Barnes is working as a Lecturer for the University of Reading History Department. Her recent PhD thesis explored the ways in which Black women’s responses to sexual violence shaped authority in the Reconstruction US South. Her new project focuses on Black women’s experiences of healthcare after emancipation.