Women and the Levellers: Beyond Domesticity, by Dr Rachel Foxley

Participating in politics forces women in any male-dominated society and political system to make a whole suite of decisions, conscious or otherwise, about how to present themselves and their aims. The Leveller movement of the 1640s pressed for a representative, non-monarchical settlement after the civil war which would rest on the electoral consent of a broadly inclusive male electorate. When women appeared in print or in public as part of the Levellers’ campaigning, they had to navigate the gender expectations of society without (further) alienating those suspicious of Leveller radicalism.

Women who engaged in the politics of the English Revolution did so in a period when women’s formal involvement in politics (now that the line of male Stuart monarchs had succeeded Elizabeth I) was assumed to be entirely unnecessary and illegitimate. The arguments for this were hardly rock-solid: even some relatively modest male property-owners and household heads did have political representation when parliament sat, and many women – particularly widows – might be property-owners and household heads of very similar status. What is more, these widows really did have some of the status which went with their economic and household roles, for example in actively continuing their husbands’ businesses in their own names. Nonetheless, the largely customary way in which politics was done meant that these inconsistencies over representation went undebated before the English Revolution.

The Levellers, however, brought the issue of representation to the fore as they developed an argument that (in John Lilburne’s words) ‘the poorest that lives’, not just the propertied, were entitled to vote. For the Levellers, all legitimate government was founded on the consent of the governed, and this, in the Levellers’ radical constitutional proposals, was to be granted both through popular subscription of a new constitution, the ‘Agreement of the People’, and thereafter through the annual re-election of the new unicameral Representative which would govern the country. In seeking to radically expand the electorate, the Levellers found themselves having to define its limits in ways which had not been so urgent before, and they were explicit that the new electors were to be malean assumption which echoed Colonel Rainborough’s telling version of Lilburne’s demand: at the Putney debates in 1647 he argued that even ‘the poorest he’ had the right to vote, ‘as the greatest he’.

But there were active Leveller women. Katherine Chidley’s role in the movement grew from her involvement in the radical religious congregations which formed the base of Leveller support in London. Writing to justify religious separatism against its opponents, who accused it among other things of encouraging wives to disobey their husbands, she accepted that a husband had authority over his wife ‘in bodily and civill respects, but not to be a Lord over her conscience’. Only Christ could govern the conscience.[1] Other individual Leveller women, unlike Chidley, are known to us almost entirely through their husbands’ pamphlets and their own individual petitions on behalf of their husbands when they underwent imprisonment. This is not to underplay their extraordinary grit and political engagement, which indeed their husbands paid tribute to: Mary Overton, for example, even when imprisoned herself, refused to obey the authority of the House of Lords, regarded by the Levellers as illegitimate, for her transfer to another prison, but (in her husband Richard’s words) ‘to the utmost testimony of her weake power, made opposition and resistance against it… like a true-bred Englishwoman.’ Not only did this refusal lead to her being brutally dragged through the streets and verbally abused with her baby still in her arms, but, as her husband stresses, any onlooker would have concluded that she was ‘no woman of honest & godly Conversation, whom they so barbarously abused, but a vile strumpet or whore’, endangering her ‘reputation’ for ever.[2] While even a ‘weake’ woman could be courageous and principled, it was evidently the Levellers’ enemies, not the Levellers themselves, who were violating gender norms by treating a respectable woman so outrageously. Thus Ann Hughes has argued that the Levellers invoked the idea of a politics fundamentally based not on individuals but on households when they publicised the travails of their wives in their writings, and ultimately sought to claim full citizenship only for male household heads.

In spite of these claims for the protection of respectable domesticity against the incursion of the authorities, Leveller women did also sometimes act collectively, as women, in a way which made explicitly gendered statements about their stake in the radical politics of the English Revolution. Rather than simply petitioning individually on behalf of their husbands, in 1649, on the eve of the crushing of the movement by the new post-regicide regime, they also presented two notable collective petitions, as women, which – to reinforce their message – were physically taken to Westminster by a crowd of women to be presented to the House of Commons. A Commons official predictably told them to ‘goe home… and meddle with your huswifery’,[3] but the women’s petitions made very clear that it was the violation of their households which had forced them to come out and petition in the first place:

“We are so over-prest, so over-whelmed in affliction, that we are not able to keep in our compass, to be bounded in the custom of our sex; for indeed we confess it is not our custom to address our selves to this House in the Publick behalf, yet considering, That we have an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth, and it cannot be laid waste… and not we be the greatest & most helpless sufferers therein… and we are not able to see our children hang upon us, and cry out for bread, and not have wherewithall to feed them, we had rather die then see that day…”

Nonetheless, the women’s claim of ‘an equal share and interest with men in the Common-wealth’ was bold, and they made entirely clear that they knew and agreed with the causes for which their ‘husbands, sons or servants’ were campaigning and being arrested.[4] In a further petition on 5 May 1649, the women reported themselves ‘no whit satisfied with the answer you gave unto our husbands and friends’, implying, as Gary de Krey comments, that they as well as their male colleagues could hold the government accountable.[5]

However clever their rhetorical moves, the sight of a crowd of perhaps 500 women, bringing a printed petition perhaps signed by hundreds more to a parliament which even their male colleagues in the movement did not intend them to vote for, was certainly unprecedented. But so were the times. As one of the women retorted when an MP told them it was ‘strange’ that women should petition, ‘It was strange that you cut off the King’s head, yet I suppose you will justify it.’[6]

Rachel Foxley is Associate Professor of History, specialising in the history of political language and political thought, particularly in seventeenth-century England.

[1] Katherine Chidley, The Justification of the Independant Churches of Christ (1641), p. 26.

[2] Richard Overton, The Commoners Complaint (1647), pp. 17, 19.

[3] Kingdomes Weekly Intelligencer, 24 April – 1 May 1649.

[4] To the Supreme Authority of this Nation, the Commons Assembled in Parliament, The Humble Petition of divers Wel-affected Women (April 1649), p. 4.

[5] Gary de Krey, Following the Levellers (London, 2017, vol. 1), p. 245.

[6] John Rees, The Leveller Revolution (London, 2016), p. 291.

Gender and Memory in British Maritime History: In Conversation with Richard Blakemore

Next up in our gender and memory series is Dr Richard Blakemore, who kindly agreed to participate in a short video podcast about his work with two important sailor autobiographies in the Early Modern Period. Richard discusses performances of seafarer masculinity, the interaction between private memoirs and public memory, and the complexities of family relationships in which the sailors act as absent patriarchs of the household. Thank you, Richard, for sharing this fascinating research with us – we can’t wait to read the book!

Click the image below to watch the full podcast



Dr Richard Blakemore is a historian and lecturer of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research explores the social history of seafarers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you would like to find out more about Richard’s work on the maritime world of Early Modern Britain, you can do so in his recent edited collection here.

Don’t miss Richard’s children’s Christmas lecture: What is a Pirate? 16th December, 16:00!

‘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.

‘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.

‘Belonging’ with Alice Mpofu-Coles

On the 1st October 2020, The African and Gender History Research Seminar hosted Alice Mpofu-Coles a PGR student in our network. Alice’s paper, titled ‘Study Hard, Work Hard and Get Married’ – A Generational Gap in the Aspirations for Young Zimbabweans in the UK, was one of our best attended seminars of the year and was a testament to the important conversation she was sparking. During her paper, Alice explored the challenges young Zimbabweans face navigating education, employment, and relationships as part of a diasporic community in the UK. Alice reflected on her own positionality having arrived to the UK as a refugee. Alice wears many hats, as she explained in her seminar, she is a researcher, she is an activist, and she is a mother. At the core of her paper and at the core of the discussion which took place after was the question of belonging and how this impacts identity. This felt like a conversation that needed to go further.

Let’s spill the tea, or in Alice’s words, we need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Alice Mpofu-Coles was generous enough to spend time talking to Beth Rebisz on the theme of ‘Belonging’. Her research centres the experiences and narratives of young Zimbabweans in the UK. She explores the pressures and expectations young Zimbabweans must navigate as part of the ‘1.5 generation’. What does it mean to find a sense of belonging as part of a diasporic community? How does racism impact this? Alice spoke of her own experiences of navigating UK academia as a Black scholar. What does it mean to belong in a system where Black people face exclusion?

Click on the picture below to view the full video.

‘Belonging’ – Alice Mpofu-Coles in Conversation with Beth Rebisz

Collaborative History Education: Final Thoughts and Reflections, by Charlotte Crouch

Firstly, Will and I are extremely grateful to the participants of the placement for giving up their precious time to offer their reflections and feedback. For the three years that the placement has been running, I’ve come to really look forward to May and the two weeks we spend collaborating with PhD students, ECRs, and PGCE students in the final phases of their course. This positivity, and the meaningful relationships that were established this year, shone through the blog posts. This year, in our ‘new normal’, participants all reflected on how refreshing and uplifting it was to be able to share ideas and research in such a convivial setting- even if it was online! This online setting also allowed us to open the placement further to industry experts, and we are grateful to everyone who attended sessions and offered advice and feedback; the placement was better for it. 

Every year, we work hard to improve the PGCE enrichment placement and our adapted focus naturally affects the tone and content of discussions each year. The first year was an initial test to see how we could all work together; the second year had much more of an emphasis on curriculum; this past year, it really felt like the focus was on collaboration. The discussions we had in each session were honest and frank about who owns history and how we can move to dismantle structures of hierarchical knowledge.  There was a great respect for each other’s areas of expertise in the reflections. As sessional lecturers, we have very little teacher training, but the feedback from PhDs/ECRs comfortably discussing scaffolding, enquiry questions and understanding why certain seminars ‘don’t land’ is a testament to one of the core values of this placement. There were also some terrific discussions about bridging the gap between A level and undergraduate. There’s no magic switch the summer between school and university for the many students who go straight on to undergraduate History. Understanding those students’ experiences of studying history before they come into our seminars will enable us to make that switch much more accessible. 

Equally, there was also an emphasis this year on seeing students’ journey from KS3 to undergraduate, and even observing each others’ school history lessons and seminars. As many of the reflections noted, participants also considered the students who do not continue their History education past KS3 and how we can ensure that history remains accessible outside of the academy. 

Many of the responses from the now History Teachers feed into this further, highlighting how the research they discussed during the sessions can help to humanise the past for their pupils, and broaden the human experiences that their pupils encounter during lessons. As some of the answers mentioned, the small group discussions were an important space for discussing silences in collective memory and how we can better connect our students to the stories we present. Collectively, participants could offer each other little known sources and stories, new trends in historiography but also a knowledge of school pupils themselves and how to connect with them. The many references to future collaborations in the feedback makes us confident that we haven’t heard the last of these discussions. 

This is an uncertain time for everybody, as yesterday’s post highlighted. Many of us researchers have no idea if we will have teaching jobs next year, or a stable post in the future. The newly qualified History Teachers are about to enter their whirlwind first year of teaching, with perhaps little time and space to consider the collaborations we discussed. How do we continue these important discussions as the wider history community sees cuts unlike we’ve seen before? What spaces can we use for these important discussions between educators? Will there be new spaces as we step into the unknown next year? For the moment, our participants all reflected that their teaching practice has improved from the placement, but they also expressed a sense that what we all do matters. Each of our particular areas of expertise is strengthened by working together and exploring how we can help each other. I think we all left the placement this year with new stories to tell and better methods to tell them. Ultimately, I also hope we will all have a better chance of being able to support each other in the future, whatever that brings.

Collaborative History Education: Final Reflections on the Value of the Placement

Today our participants offer their final thoughts on the placement. For most, this was a positive experience at what can be a difficult time of year. Many of the historians brought attention to the problem of precarity, and we would encourage you to think about how we could continue this kind of collaboration beyond the academy. It’s clear from everyone involved, however, that there is real enthusiasm for educators to continue to work together across the school/university boundary to improve our teaching. The personal connections forged during the placement will hopefully prove fruitful in future; our hope is to expand this beyond small personal networks and encourage more researchers and teachers to work together to improve History education in the UK.


How do you hope to benefit in future from the collaborative relationships established during the placement? Do you think the placement was a good forum for discussions about improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices?


Alistair Ward, History Teacher, former PGCE History Student [@alistairward]

The relationships we have forged during this placement will enable us to better diversify the history we teach. They will help us enrich our lessons with new angles, fresh research and intriguing new sources. This placement was absolutely a good forum for discussing gender representation in history teaching. The fact is that today’s teacher is desperate to enrich history by putting back the stories of the people who are missing. The placement has enabled us to start doing this.

History teachers need to be proactively anti-misogynist. This placement provided us with ways to achieve this.


Amy Gower, PhD Student [@AmyG_Historrry]

One commonality we found, as newly qualified teachers and as late-stage PhD and early career researchers, is the practical challenges we all face in the coming years. For the PGCE teachers, joining new schools with already established curricula, whilst finding their feet in the whirlwind of their first year as qualified teachers, will be a feat of endurance. For us PhD/ECRs, job precarity, looming staffing cuts across universities, and a potential gap in

institutional affiliation will also create additional obstacles to meaningful collaborations. But, universally, we are all dedicated to, and enthusiastic about, sustaining connections and nearly unanimously, we saw this placement as the starting point for a longer term collaboration, perhaps dormant temporarily, but one we all hope to return to when circumstances permit.

Building on discussions around David Hibbert and Yasmin Khan’s collaboration about the demystification of the role of the historian is one aspect that I think is key to future collaboration. Demonstrating to pupils that historians, whilst experts, are also individual people whose analysis is part of a wider, always changing and evolving, historical discussion I think will be crucial in developing pupils’ understanding of what history is as a whole, and seeing themselves as part of the process of ‘making history’. One of the key things that came up in most of our sessions was the refrain: people in the past were real people. Whilst this might seem obvious, building pupils’ understandings of and connections with people in the past is vital, not just in relation to gender, race, age, nationality, and so much more, but in developing a nuanced, engaging, and most of all empathetic history curriculum.


Becca Grosse, PhD Student [@Becca_Grose]

Local collaborative relationships will help me develop more inclusive outreach and undergraduate pedagogy by helping me scaffold material better and think about the leaky pipeline: when do students disengage with history and how can we use this to help us create outreach events that engage with people who didn’t or don’t choose to study history.

By consulting with experts (in pedagogy or otherwise) rather than trying to do everything ourselves we have opportunities to learn from other approaches and criticisms. Through collaborating, we can better understand where our understandings of historical practice align, where they diverge, and what assumptions underpin the elements we pick from other disciplines.  For example, rather than simply copying a pedagogical technique we can understand its place in a broader method and what theories we are co-opting by using it. It is a good space to discuss this. But, doing so currently relies upon decisions by individual PhDs and teachers. I work on gender and am part of my Doctoral Training Partnership’s  gender and sexuality cluster, but it wasn’t central to my topic and the discussion didn’t focus on it because so much groundwork had been provided by other speakers.


Beth Rebisz, PhD Student [@BRebisz]

Our conversations reflected the mutual desire to continue collaborations with a clear view that it is beneficial for all parties. I personally hope to benefit by improving my own teaching skills and knowing who I can turn to when I need support and ideas for this. I also think it will be imperative in the movement to decolonise school education and university teaching that teachers and academics are working together on this. We recognised that this collaboration will also be strengthened when extended to those working in museums, as archivists, or activists etc. Our discussions emphasised the need to continue actively widening who is represented in the topics we teach. Our ongoing collaboration will help by empowering us all with more knowledge to broaden representation effectively.

I believe the placement created an excellent forum to discuss improving how gender history is represented in our teaching practices. Each PhD student who contributed a session assessed gender history in their own topics and this common approach demonstrated the breadth of representation that can be included in teaching. When the PGCE students presented their new curriculum to us based on our sessions, we were all blown away by how representative it was when considering gender, race, age and class. It showed the value in avoiding approaches where ‘women’s history’ is a supplementary add-on, for example. Instead the PGCE students demonstrated how vital and enriching it is for students to learn about gender history in all their topics.


Charli Burns, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@cburnshistory]

There are so many more things that came from this placement that I could ramble about for pages and pages of writing – the importance of portraying a gendered experience of slavery, how vital it is to weave a coherent story of decolonisation into a study of empire, how the use of material culture in lessons can be a fantastic way to get students into the past, but for me it all centres in on the same key takeaway – humanising the past and those who write it. If your approach to history is a human one in the classroom, it becomes much easier to weave in stories of gender and experiences in such a way that it feels less tokenistic, and more nuanced. Undeniably, students should be exposed to a wide range of stories in the classroom, and from this placement, I have learned that by appreciating the humanity of the past, perhaps these stories are better told.


Liz Barnes, Early Career Researcher [@E_M_Barnes]

The question about future collaboration is an emotionally complicated one. I think this placement was vital, and something that all university history departments should be engaging in if we hope to keep our discipline relevant and appealing to young people. We are all educators, and working

together to face the pressing issues of our time is critical. Personally, I now know that I have established working relationships with seven teachers who I can turn to if I have any questions about what’s going on in schools, need advice approaching a problem in the classroom or some ideas about how to build schools into grant applications. I’ve also been introduced to the world of history teachers more broadly, mostly on Twitter, and have already benefited from some fascinating pedagogical discussions. These sessions encourage a more personal level of engagement – we were able to share individual dilemmas and work through them together, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach that you might find in general advice essays or presentations. When it comes to sensitive issues like inclusivity and ethics, I think that this personal approach is really valuable.

While I will be doing some teaching in the next academic year, at this point I (like all ECRs) face a job market in tatters. I am without a permanent post, and given the plans for redundancies at universities across the UK I am unlikely to get the opportunity to secure one for some time, if at all. Moving beyond the academy and disrupting the hierarchies of knowledge that we discussed in our opening session is important, but realistically no one can do this kind of work for free.


Tom Collins, History Teacher, former PGCE Student [@Tomcol23]

I would certainly like to see this continue in the future! I have already informed my new school of the collaboration placement and we are trying to come up with ways of incorporating historians from Reading and elsewhere into our A level History modules (we have just opened our Sixth Form this year). I will be teaching Politics A level next year, and if some of the historians are considering working for think tanks (which I remember some of them saying) that would be amazing to get them involved in a politics session. Furthermore, if we ever need any resources for these modules the historians said that they would be more than happy to help us which is great to hear! Something that I found really interesting from our discussions and how we can continue these relationships post-placement is looking into how we teach at Secondary level and undergraduate.

Regarding Secondary level, it would be great for the historians to observe some of our lessons, learn a few forms of pedagogy and give us feedback. We could also do the same thing for the historians; some of the teachers could observe lessons and give feedback. What we also discussed, which is really exciting, is the possibility of marking work and getting an A level teacher to mark an undergraduate piece of writing and vice versa. This creates further understanding of the transition from A level to undergraduate level.

That’s it for reflections from our participants! Check back in tomorrow for Will and Charlotte’s closing remarks.

Please do join in the conversation using the hashtag #Rdgcollab2020