Gender, Power, and Agency: Re-evaluating the British Imperial Experience, by Dr Apurba Chatterjee

File:Suttee scene, with circle of spectators (6124598495).jpg

The representation of Suttee, or widow burning by an Indian artist working for British clientele, dated c. 1800. Europeans considered Sati as the absolute scourge, leading them to understand Indian society as notoriously cruel. British government saw the banning of Sati (wherein Indian initiative was nothing less than that of key importance) as the triumph of its civilizational values⁠— the ultimate gift to downtrodden native womenfolk. In reality, however, women’s question was rather marginal to colonial overtures on Sati, which were aimed more towards the domination of Indian life and culture. 

Eighteenth century was a global age for Britons: the burgeoning British Empire made it possible for them to travel and produce verbal and visual narratives of the sites visited, that in turn, came to inspire their compatriots at home to venture out, enamoured by the lure of new sights, senses, and tastes. This lure hardly just experiential; the material dimension of travel and settling in alien lands was not lost on the British. New places brought them new opportunities of livelihood, social status, and not to forget, cultural and intellectual capital. While novel geographies altered Britons, impacting their health, habits, lifestyles, and even personal relationships, they gave their imperial presence meanings in ways that suited their own ideas of self and identity. As a result, visions of no man’s land, savagery, adventure, discovery, and civilization were conjured, that validated Britons and their actions with regards to the vistas they found themselves in.

As historian Dror Wahrman has pointed out, the latter half of the eighteenth century saw the emergence of gender distinctions that we now understand as normative. An important factor that warrants an equal consideration is that of the idea of race. The confluence of race and gender in this period was crucial to the formation of standards of masculinity and femininity and the limits of those. Empire was a driving force in this process, and the notions of the feminine or masculine had come to be defined and determined by the dynamics of power and differentiation. Imperialism brought into sharper relief the ideas of gender and gender-based roles considered (or not) as appropriate. Empire was a gendered business and its attitudes reflected back on a world brought closer through movements of goods, peoples, services, plants, and animals, based again on imperial nodes and networks. The results, however, more often than not, were those of estrangement, violence, decay, and destruction.

The ideas of virgin, feminized lands to be controlled by European male explorers, visions of the exotica surging an erotic charm, and of lascivious, local women with insatiable sexual appetites leading the vanguards of empire astray— became parts of the imperial imaginary. When it came to British women abroad, their potential was discernible from the very outset. Empire gave them the opportunity to ‘man-up’ and take charge in a manner that often would not be possible at home. Managing large households teeming with native servants, British femininity got a first-hand taste of what it meant to keep together and rule an empire. Women got to become domestic goddesses, embodying marital loyalty and the charisma of virtuous motherhood as bearing and rearing generations of imperial statesmen.

British women were also proud of themselves as ‘free’, unlike their counterparts in eastern despotic lands who were castigated as backward, downtrodden, and unfortunate victims of their own societal conditions. These assertions came at a time when British administrators were confronted with resistance from native female rulers and stateswomen who, in contrast to British women, enjoyed real socio-political power. The idea of colonized women as inferior, in fact, was part of limiting their agency. It enabled the British to exploit the sexual, maternal, diplomatic, and political labours of their native partners and concubines, known as bibis in India. Children born of such unions were taken and shipped away to be raised as British, while their mothers faded away into obscurity, having almost never been acknowledged publicly in the first place.

Native men were also entrapped within the hierarchies of race and gender. While the African hypermasculinity baffled Europeans, to British artists like William Hodges, Indian men looked like tender females with slender bodies. British idea of colonial masculinity veered constantly, according to their interests of imperial power and authority. For example, Belligerent native rulers were viewed as tyrants and those whose kingdoms were taken over by Britons were deemed as meek, effeminate and inept, in early colonial India. In the later period, criticism of colonial administrators became a mark of effeminacy while fighting on the British side signified true-blue martialness. British manhood was forged in the crucible of empire; its representation extending beyond war and administration on to the pursuits of pleasure, sports, and cultural refinement.

Although largely denied, empire remains at the heart of our existence. As we understand gender as a socio-cultural construct, it is imperative that we acknowledge how imperialism is an inextricable component of the social and political order in question. This, in turn, would help us evaluate how gender bias is ultimately connected to a discriminatory schema that has benefitted and unfortunately, still benefits some parts of the world at the cost of others. The recognition of our imperial inheritance is the way forward as we seek to imagine and build more inclusive, equitable, and above all, humanitarian futures together.

File:Boating (6124606361).jpg

Boating, dated c. 1920, by one of the renowned Indian painters of the twentieth century, Jamini Roy. 1920 was a crucial year in Roy’s career, as he moved from a predominantly Western aesthetic to Indian folk artistic traditions. The painting here is vibrant, in the spirit of celebrating the Indian everyday life. The centrality accorded to three women in the image (with one of them raising a finger, perhaps a sign of her esteem) is worthy of note. 

Dr. Apurba Chatterjee is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Humanities and Social Science at the Department of History, University of Reading. Her present research deals with the visual regime of medicine in late colonial India.

A Brazilian Woman’s Story: Changing Identities between Slavery and Freedom in the 1880s, by Visiting Professor Maria Helena Machado

On 2nd March 2022, Visiting Professor Maria Helena Machado delivered a fantastic presentation to the Gender History Research Cluster students and staff at the University of Reading. If you missed the Women’s History Month event, read on for brief summary of Professor Machado’s lecture. You can also read her forthcoming chapter in the edited volume Boundaries of Freedom.  

Mina Yoba, Augusto Stahl, Rio de Janeiro, (1865) Peabody Museum, Harvard University.

In the 1880s, a woman known by two names — a “25 year-old fula (dark skin mixed race), missing her front teeth” — zizagged between the coffee regions of the Vale do Paraíba and the Capital of the Brazilian Empire. Always itinerant, always seeking the freedom to come and go as she pleased, the free Benedicta Maria da Ilha (who was also the enslaved Ovídia) rambled from place to place, hiring out her domestic services and forging bonds with multiple protectors, who would later willingly defend her when she was “unjustly” imprisoned as a fugitive slave. In a peripatetic life that always circled back to the capital city of Rio de Janeiro, Benedicta/Ovídia protagonized multiple flights, misadventures, and hairpin shifts in fortune. An extensive judicial complaint detailed Benedicta/Ovídia’s many comings and goings. In it, our protagonist presented a narrative — her own narrative — of an identity built around constant displacement. Yet meticulous subsequent investigations — which privileged the voices of her master, of judicial authorities, and of medical-legal experts — toppled this constructed identity, concluding that she was indeed Ovídia, a woman enslaved to Major Fernando Pinheiros, a well-established resident of the Imperial Capital. This study unravels during the final years of slavery in the 1880s, a time marked by the widespread dislocation of people at various stages of liberation — slaves, fugitives, and the newly free, seeking new social and geographic spaces in which to recommence their lives. Yet these processes of physical displacement were highly gendered. Men and women coming out of slavery clearly faced different social challenges: among women, the path to autonomy had to be continuously negotiated within the private realm of domestic labor and explicit personal dependency.

Professor Maria Helena Machado is a Levehulme Visiting Professor from the University of São Paulo. We are delighted to have her with us for Women’s History Month.


LGBTQ+ History Month: Coming Out in the Archives, with Amy Austin and Vicky Iglikowski-Broad

Join PhD Student Amy Austin in conversation with Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, principal records specialist in diverse histories at the National Archives, as they discuss accessing LGBTQ+ histories within the archives.

Together, Amy and Victoria explore the challenges of navigating hidden material, and the opportunities for uncovering rich and diverse life histories if you know where to look! From national police archives, to regional records, to personal papers and family histories, research of sexualities, queer histories and gender nonconformity is reaching new heights.

Listen to their discussion below to find out more about LGBTQ+ histories ‘coming out’ in the archives.

You can visit the National Archives new exhibition ‘Beyond the Roar‘, which explores forgotten histories and includes collections on LGBT lives.

If you are interested in conducting archival research of your own, this handy National Archives guide will point you in the best direction to start!

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.

Vicky Iglikowski-Broad  works as Principal Records Specialist in Diverse Histories at the National Archives, developing collections on the black British civil rights movement including the UK Black Power Movement and the trial of the Mangrove Nine, as well as the development of LGBTQ rights and queer spaces.

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.),, (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).

‘Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry and U.S. South’: Emily West in Conversation with Beth Rebisz for Women’s History Month

Launching Women’s History Month for the Gender Research Cluster is Professor Emily West, here in conversation with Beth Rebisz about her exhibition Hidden Voices: Enslaved Women in the Lowcountry and U.S. South. Developed in collaboration with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative at the college of Charleston, this amazing exhibition explores the history of Black women in the American South from the Antebellum era to the Reconstruction era. Focusing on the experiences of enslaved women in the South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry in both rural and urban contexts, the exhibit examines African American women’s labour, interconnected relationships, and cultural practices. It reveals the types of violence they were subjected to as well as the joys and triumphs they created for themselves. By exploring the history of slavery through the lens of gender, Hidden Voices illuminates African American women’s specific experiences and contributions.

Emily provides an invaluable insight into the design of this exhibition, from the choices raised by including problematic sources, to ensuring audience members are free to interpret the material in their own ways. She emphasises the obligation of historians to share their research outside of academia, particularly to include a better integration of women’s history in accessible mediums.

We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to speak with Emily for Women’s History Month, and to spotlight this incredible exhibition as an important window into enslaved women’s hidden histories. Thank you, Emily!

Click the image below to watch the full video.

Don’t forget to access the exhibition here.



‘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.
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.

‘Belonging’ – Shepherd Mutswiri in conversation with Beth Rebisz

Next in our series on ‘Belonging’, we hear from Shepherd Mutswiri, a PGR student in our network. Shepherd joined the University of Reading’s history department in January 2020, having completed an MSc in International Development and Development Economics at SOAS, London. His PhD research focuses on Zimbabwe’s decolonisation in which he challenges the master narrative. While Zimbabwean public discourse, as well as much of the scholarly debate, has been to celebrate the liberation war, Shepherd intends to complicate this understanding. Shepherd is exploring the relationship between nationalism and religion in the decolonisation process, and the important role women played in the years leading up to independence in 1980.

‘People don’t want to be tolerated, they want to be accepted’.

Shepherd was generous enough to spend time talking to Beth Rebisz on the theme of ‘Belonging’. In his research on the decolonisation process in Zimbabwe, belonging plays an important role in relation to nationalism. How do you bring people from different backgrounds together to form a nation? Shepherd also spoke of his own experience navigating UK academia, emphasising the impact citizenship can have on a sense of belonging. Where is home for a transient researcher?

Click on the picture below to view the full video

Shepherd Mutswiri in conversation with Beth Rebisz


Black History Month Events 2020

Monday 12 October 12.00-13.00 BAME Students in English Literature: A Network

Dr Nicola Abram, Department of English Literature

Yinka Olaniyan, UoR 2020 Graduate

Wednesday 14 October 12:00 – 13:00 Decolonising the Curriculum

Dr Sarah Cardey, International Development

Dr Matthew Windsor, School of Law

13.00-15.00 Blacklisted? Are Black people excluded from institutions in the UK?

Professor Leslie Thomas QC, Garden Court of Chambers,

Professor Kehinde Andrews, Birmingham City University

Dr Foluke Adebisi, University of Bristol

Use this link to join the event

Friday 16 October 10.00-11.15 Race and trans-Atlantic experiences of the ivory tower-1

Professor Nduka Otiono, Institute of African Studies at Carleton University

Use this link to join the event

Tuesday 20 October 12.00-13.30 Race and trans-Atlantic experiences of the ivory tower-2

Professor Katherine Harloe, University of Reading

Professor Olufunmilayo Arewa, Beasley School of Law, Temple University

Use this link to join the event

16:00 – 17:00


RUSU: Black History Month

Rachel Wates, RUSU Diversity Officer 2020/21

Ruth Adeniyi, RUSU BAME Officer 2020/21

Wednesday 21 October 14.00-16.00 Race at the School of Law

Dr Matthew Windsor, Lecturer

Alex Ojo, BAME rep for Law Society

Suralini Fernando, Widening Participation Officer

Dr Ana Cannilla, Lecturer, Chair Student Experience Committee

Use this link to join the event

15:00 – 16:00



Virtual Roundtable: BAME Students in the UoR History Department

Dr Natalie Thomlinson, Department of History

Students, Department of History


Monday 26 October 19:30 – 21:00 Decolonising Gospel Music

Professor Robert Beckford, The Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham

University of Reading Chaplaincy’s Café Théologique


Facebook Event Link (Zoom Details in the Description Box)

Tuesday 27 October 12.00-13.30 BAME Allies launch and discussion: anti-racism and allyship


Dr Natalie Thomlinson, Department of History

Dr Heike Schmidt, Department of History

Use this link to join the event

TBC TBC In conversation with Joanna Abeyie, MBE


Wednesday 28 October 14:30 – 16:00 If Not Now, Then When?

Rob Neil OBE

UoR Colleagues representing students, postdoc/early career researchers, academic and professional services staff.

Image-ining Gender: ‘medieval sisters are doin’ it for themselves’ by Charlotte Crouch

(Arch. de la Côte-d’Or, P.S 440)

Opening a box in the archives and seeing a medieval seal like this one can be breathtaking. Finding this 733 year old seal certainly brightened a particularly rainy day in Dijon last year. This seal belonged to Margaret, countess of Tonnerre in Burgundy and for a time, queen of Sicily. Seals were attached to documents to authenticate their contents. This particular seal is still attached to a charter, issued by Margaret in 1287, regulating her portion of her uncle’s inheritance. It signalled the beginning of the end of a decade-long inheritance dispute after the duke of Burgundy’s heir died, leaving behind three daughters, one of whom was Margaret.

Her seal contains many signs of her status; her crown signifies her title of Queen of Sicily before her husband’s death; the heraldic shields either side of Margaret show her familial links to the French crown and the duchy of Burgundy and her titles circling the outside of the oval seal gave her the authority to make the decisions concerning her lands in the charter. Margaret’s seal was designed to identify her individually, but also to represent her status as an aristocratic woman and heiress.

As recently as last year, the editors of a new collection on aristocratic women lamented how little the work on women like Margaret has permeated the discourse concerning the aristocracy.[1] Unlike England at the time, the French aristocracy had far more flexibility and control over their own inheritance, which opened the door for aristocratic women to make politically consequential decisions concerning their own lands. Yet women are still too often seen as exceptional when they occupied positions of authority, and still seen as ‘a cipher’ in relation to their husbands or children.[2] The charter and Margaret’s seal can be used to further show the need to nuance this narrative. The context around this charter and the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reveals the diversity of experience of aristocratic women.

There are many different layers that we must consider when researching medieval women. Hearing women’s voices can be particularly difficult considering that most of the written sources which have survived come to us through the voices of educated church men. Very few chronicles and literary sources can shed light on Margaret’s life, or indeed the lives of most medieval women. Yet when we begin to piece together different types of evidence, such as the many charters Margaret left behind, and her religious and artistic patronage, we can start to build a picture of Margaret’s own experiences.

Studying seals and how they change across women’s life cycles, for example, can be revealing.[3] By comparing Margaret’s two seals from before and after her husband’s death, we can see key differences in how she wished to be portrayed.

 Marguerite’s two seals, before and after her husband’s death[4]

Her seal during her marriage showed her wearing  expensive jewellery and clothing lined with ermine, befitting for the queen of Sicily. In her widowhood, and during her extensive programme of religious patronage, Margaret’s second seal removed such obvious displays of wealth.


The back of Margaret’s second seal, the counter-seal, contained Margaret’s family arms within a daisy; very possibly linking her name in French (Marguerite) to marguerite daisies. Her impressive religious patronage, including the foundation of an important religious hospital in her county of Tonnerre, perhaps continued to show her influence with marguerites dotted all over tiles and stained glass.[5] Some of her surviving charters were also decorated with red marguerites, suggesting that Margaret held an element of control over how she was represented, in both documents and material culture.

After her father’s death, Margaret was drawn into a decade long inheritance dispute with her two sisters, Yolande and Alice, concerning both their maternal and paternal inheritance. Yolande, as the oldest daughter, believed she was entitled to inherit all of her mother’s and father’s lands. Alice, as the youngest, believed that at least the maternal lands should be divided equally between the three sisters. Charters like the one pictured above depict the youngest sister, Alice, nominating representatives to make her case at different aristocratic courts, pleading that her sister Yolande was unfairly withholding lands. Eventually, the case was referred to the king’s court, where it was decided that the daughters would have a county from their maternal lands each, and the rest of the maternal inheritance would be split equally.

It was common for siblings to refer inheritance cases to courts and does not necessarily represent sour relations between the sisters. Their great-grandmother was reprimanded by the pope for engaging in violent action against her half-brother to defend her own inheritance but there is no evidence this sort of thing happened between the three sisters. Whilst Yolande would pursue a court case for her paternal inheritance for ten years, this charter describes Margaret declining her own share of her father’s inheritance and settling it outside of the court case. The charter marks the beginning of the end of the ten year long dispute in which all three sisters made decisions concerning their own inheritance. Yolande and Alice chose to vehemently defend their rights to their own lands, whilst Margaret appears to have taken a back seat in the negotiations; she did not send a representative for the earlier court case and decided to settle her paternal inheritance directly with her half-brother.

Out of the three sisters, Margaret does appear to have had a better relationship with her younger sister, Alice, who visited her whilst Margaret was on crusade with her husband. Indeed, without any heirs, Margaret decided to leave her own county of Tonnerre to Alice’s son.

The change in the way Margaret chose to be depicted in her seal reflects her changing priorities across her lifetime. The charter to which this seal was attached also describes her reaction to the inheritance dispute, which was different to that of her sisters. Whether or not the sisters got the results they had been hoping for, they all acted with different motivations and from different perspectives, a long way from the ‘ciphers’ of men or ‘exceptions’ they might still be labelled as today. Whilst Margaret’s seal is exceptionally beautiful, the charter she issued and the actions of the siblings were expected and completely unexceptional.

Charlotte Crouch recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter : @CharCrouch

[1] Ed. H. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power, 1100-1400: Moving Beyond the Exceptionalist Debate (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

[2] Ed. Tanner, Medieval Elite Women, p. 1-2

[3] See, for example, E. Jordan, ‘Swords, Seals and Coins: Female Rulers and Instruments of Authority in Thirteenth-Century Flanders and Hainaut’ in ed. S. Solway, Medieval Coins and Seals: Constructing Identity, Signifying Power (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015) pp. 229- 246

[4]  M. P. Lillich, The Queen of Sicily and Gothic Stained Glass in Mussy and Tonnerre (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1998) p. 33

[5] See Lillich, The Queen of Sicily, esp. p.29-37 and p. 81


Problems of Inequality: A Short Reading List

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




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


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


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




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


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




Wail Qasim explores police violence in the UK:


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


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




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


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