Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Politics, Family and Expenses.

Blink and you might have missed it, but this week the Scottish Parliament says they are to ban MSPs from employing relatives, in the wake of the Westminister expenses scandal. This may seem a rather innocuous decision in light of the egregious abuses of this system that have recently been revealed, but like every story, it has two sides.

Traditionally, parliamentary politics was the arena of the wealthy elite, voted for by a few other rich men. Sitting in Parliament was a privilege that brought significant financial, social and political advantage to the MP and his family, and so no wage was paid. Over the nineteenth century, the franchise was extended and with it the men eligible to sit in Parliament. However, it was still unpaid (although various experimental attempts to pay MPs were suggested and implemented at various points for short periods) and the benefits of the working the system were difficult without good connections, which meant that men from ordinary backgrounds found it hard to afford to sit in Parliament. By 1911, the implications of this for democracy were becoming realised and MPs were given wages. At the same time, it was suggested that perhaps some expenses should be covered, such as postage and travel, but it wasn't until the 1960s that this was really formalised or utilised in a significant way. It wasn't until 1969 that a budget was officially created for secretarial staff.

So who, you might ask, did all the work needed to support an MP, to manage constituents, and to create the publicity campaigns required to get MP's elected? Well, no prizes for guessing here, it was the wives and families of the (mostly male) MPs. Family, but especially wives, were responsible for a considerable amount of free labour required to support the democratic system. And, furthermore, the system operated on this understanding. Traditional notions of the family wage still permeated the public imagination, so that an MP's wage was not his own, but a family wage. Therefore, if the family had to help earn it, then this was perfectly socially acceptable. [And, yes, this did put female MPs at a significant disadvantage as if they were married they were frequently married to working men, who could not offer the same support to their roles.]

By the 1960s, with the resurgence of middle-class women back into the workforce, increasing numbers of female MPs, and a questioning of the concept of the 'family' wage, it became recognised that this 'free labour' from MP's families might actually border on exploitation. Furthermore, this free labour was quickly drying up as the middle-class women who were married to (still mostly) middle-class MPs looked for paid work, or, as the case often was, many women suddenly found themselves with the double-burden of their own careers and the many responsibilities of the political wife. Secretarial expenses, paid to family members, paid women for work they were frequently doing anyway for free, discouraging them from working in other areas. And, it was a system that parliament continued to benefit from, as unlike a non-related paid employee, your wife didn't go home at 5pm if the work wasn't done.

Now, it could be argued in the 21st century where most Scottish women work, and so few work for their MP husbands, and where there is less expectation that 'political wives' work for free, that getting rid of paid expenses for family members prevents corruption and does little harm. Yet, a comment by the MSP Sandra White, who employs her son, perhaps shows that the system hasn't changed that much:

"We are being punished for what's happened in Westminster by some greedy MPs who did rip off the system. If you ask anyone who employs members of their own family, you'll find the trust and the availability of them being able to work extra hours is something that we actually treasure." [My bold]
The exploitation of family members for free (even for those who are paid a wage) continues to be a significant part of the democratic system. And, the concern that banning family members from political work raises, is that rather than seeing the family removed from politics, we go back to a system where the family is exploited for no reward. Furthermore, there are a number of MPs who met their spouses on the job, marrying their aids or other members of staff; are we now suggesting that staff (and who's to bet it would be female staff!) step down from their jobs on marriage? Are we heading back to the 1920s?

Now, I am as concerned with the exploitation of the expenses system as the next person and I even concede that it may be time for the 'political wife' to finally get a divorce. But, a ban on employing family members, that doesn't at the same time recognise that the exploitation of family members is part of the system and try to rectify it, seems problematic. Furthermore, in a system where MP's staff are employed by individual MPs, rather than by the state, there is little room for staff to be moved around if they marry an MP, or even for family members for whom politics is THEIR career. They are instead dismissed from their jobs, as if they had no value, and have to hope they get employment elsewhere. It seems to me that this legislation is a step backwards, rather than a step towards fixing a problem.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Not a real post.

Well, congratulations to me, because the BOOK is now finished and with the publisher, so it will probably come out in the next decade- seriously publishing is SLOOOWWW- unless you're JK Rowling.

But, perhaps, I can now get back to some regularly scheduled posting- but not today. I have no inspiration at all right now and there isn't even anything controversial happening on the news (well yes I could go and read the Daily Mail, but that's just shooting fish in a barrel).

One question for y'all in the know- what 'days' should a good feminist historian blogger remember to celebrate? I recall there is a women in science day, but when is it? I know that March is Women's History month and the 8th International Women's Day, that April is Sexual Violence Awareness month, and that in November/December is 16 days against violence against women- which includes both elimination of violence against women day and Human Rights Day. But, other than that, I am having a blank. I suddenly thought it would be good to commemorate these days with posts, but I never seem to know about them until they happen. Thoughts would be gratefully received.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009


As part of 16 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Tomorrow Night is RECLAIM THE NIGHT GLASGOW 2009.

This year the route for the Reclaim the Night march in Glasgow will be from Botanic Gardens at 6.30 pm, down Byres Road - University Avenue - Gibson Street - Eldon Street and will end with a rally in the STUC, 333 Woodlands Road, Glasgow G3. As always, it will be led off by SheBoom and there will be hot drinks, food, stalls and music at the end of the march. If you need more information you can contact the Rape Crisis Centre at

This years theme for 16 Days of Action for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25th November to 10th December) is ‘Commit – Act – Demand: we CAN end violence against women’. So it is perhaps both saddening and timely that the Daily Record reported that reported domestic violence rose by 8% this year to 53,861 incidents (in a country with a population of 5 million!) If you want to see what's happening internationally to combat violence against women over the next 16 days, please click here.

Now, I have to go finish writing the last chapter in my book, which just happens to be about domestic violence.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A Life of the Over-Worked

Since the 12th October, I have spent one week in large English city (where my university is at) for work, 1 week in major European city for work, 2 days in medium sized European city for 'team meeting', 2 days in large English city for work, and 3 days in Northern English city for getaway weekend with one's spouse. I have also written 3 funding applications for a conference I am organising, one funding application for a post-doc for me, applied for 3 jobs, done all the other admin and research parts on my job and desperately tried to get my book finished. Tomorrow, I go back to major European city for a week of research, but by the end of the month I must also finish my book (yeah!), and one article which I promised would be done (and have been promising for some time), write a book review for a book that I read about two months ago, complete another job application, and ideally find the time to spend several hours on a database that my university is trialling to get the sources I need before it expires on the 30th. By Christmas, I need to put together another post-doc funding application (on a different topic from the 1st), apply for 2 other jobs, and write a half-hour workshop paper (for just after Xmas but who wants to work at Christmas right?). I also have three other books to read and review in the next couple of months, plus turning my workshop paper into a high-quality article and writing a third article which is due for a journal special edition in May. I am also organising a conference in May (which if I get funding will also have a spin-off publication- a book which I will be editor for), and am part of an organising team for a second conference in September, for which I need to write three funding applications all due in Feb/Mar.

The tension with all this being, that I am only employed to do research, so that has to happen every week regardless of whether I have funding/writing/job deadlines. On the otherhand, if I only do research, I will not get a job when this contract expires, because it's all that other crap that gets you jobs. Rather depressingly, since the job market opened at the start of September, there have been in total 6 jobs advertised for which I could apply- and this is really because there is NO jobs, and many of the post-doc people have cut their requirements so you have to be 1 year past PhD, rather than 6!!! Which is fine, if we imagine there is lots of nice jobs waiting for people who have PhD and (by next year) 3 years employed post-doc experience (I know I've been lucky) but there just isn't. It might pick up after Christmas. Here's hoping.

And to top it all off, it's raining and it hasn't stopped for days. And, I have major flooding all around me, which, as I live on a mountain, I am relatively safe from, but when you drive down the mountain to the rest of humanity, you find all the roads cut off. It's actually one of the most visually amazing sights I've seen, but also devastating. On Friday, heading for the train, I was driving along parallel with the river and became conscious that the fields next to the river were entirely flooded and as the road turned to where I would eventually cross the river, in front of me was no road, no sign of a bridge, but a broad river running, very quickly across the countryside over what used to be fields and the road. This river is usually so low down in the bank that you can't see it from the road, unless you stopped and looked over the bridge, and suddenly it's as wide as two football fields and fast-moving. It was quite breath-taking (and I didn't have my camera). But, also stopped me getting my train. And for the villagers in that village two of the main roads into town were blocked by that flood, and you could enter and exit from the other side, but that involved a thirty mile detour. I then headed to an alternative train station, where I got a rail replacement bus, and got treated to similar sights across the countryside. Every river we drove past had burst its banks. The water was literally at the top of bridges, with no space between. It was quite awesome (in its biblical sense), but I think it means I have to start building an ark and I am not sure whether I'll fit it in before Christmas.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Because I am too tired to write.

(Physcially tired, too many deadlines, too much work...) You can appreciate one of my holiday photos and imagine yourself in a feminist paradise.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Charivari, Halloween and the Slutty Witch/Nurse/Bee/...

Festivals and dressing-up of various sorts have a long history in Western Europe. Not just Halloween, but Saints Days (of which there were many before the Reformation), local holidays, and regional traditions offered communities the opportunity to get together, dress up, feast and drink, enjoy each other’s company and air grievances against others in the community. The spirit of costume and the festival could also be recreated in the moment when a social injustice needed recognised or community discipline needed dishing out. So, every now and again, when a wife was being unfaithful, the community dressed up (disguised themselves), and in the UK beat pots and pans or drums, went to the house of the husband, placed horns on his head (a symbol of his humiliation) and rode him backwards on a donkey through the town- a message to the man to get his house in order and a warning to others. A woman who had breached community discipline might be taken by the crowd in a similar manner and ducked in a pond or river to remind her to behave. This style of community discipline is now known by historians as the ‘charivari’, its Italian name. In Northern Ireland, a favourite form of charivari was for the disguised crowd to go to the house of the wrong-doer (from the community’s perspective) and to make a bonfire, dancing round, singing and hitting pots and pans (or whatever else was handy).

The opportunity to think and protest about power structures within the community was often a central part of festivals. Children, the most powerless in the community, dressed up as kings and queens, the most powerful people in the land (still seen in local gala days in the UK); men dressed up as women and women as men, reflecting a questioning of the ‘natural’ order. Festivals were an opportunity to question the status quo in an environment where it would hopefully go unpunished (there were boundaries!), and costume allowed individuals to make political points ‘in disguise’ (although this often was in part an unspoken agreement to not recognise individuals). A central concept within festival tradition was ‘the world turned upside down’, the opportunity for people to become what they were not in everyday life- to don costumes and become for a night what they could only imagine the rest of the year.

In contemporary society, Halloween is one of the only opportunities people have left to engage in this tradition. So, what do their costumes tell us about our society? Some of this is obvious- people dressed up as superheroes are always popular, reflecting a desire to be larger than life, to matter and make a difference, in a world where the individual is seen to be more important than the community and working together. The superhero is the realisation of the individual at its best. Doctors, nurses and surgeons covered in blood is a rather obvious comment on the medical world as people who save lives and yet are never far from death. Like witches or zombies in the past, they increasingly represent the boundary between life and death, the real world and the supernatural. This year we also saw the wider cultural obsession with vampires in numerous costumes on this topic, highlighting our interest in immortality in a world where death seems increasingly distant and scary due to decreased mortality for the young- and living forever seems increasingly realistic.

And finally, we have the ‘slutty witch/nurse/bee’ (seriously, I saw four slutty bees this Halloween) or whatever costume you like but with a lot of body parts showing. If the theory of festival and charivari holds true, women dress as ‘slutty X’ as it is both conventional and denied to them. That is, disguise should be understood by its audience and should be commenting on current social expectations- no thinking outside the box or you become culturally irrelevant (as every historian who chooses to dress as an obscure historical figure to a party amongst non-historians knows)-so it is conventional. It should also be something that cannot be worn everyday- you must become more than yourself, but not so out there that you become meaningless.

So what does the ‘slutty X’ costume tell us about our society? It suggests that the ideal of women as sexual objects is held out to women as an ideal form of femininity, but also one that is unachievable in the everyday, and perhaps even inappropriate (like the child as Queen). Its ubiquity also suggests that it is the central cultural norm that women have to use as a standard for their behaviour. It is notable how few women today now dress up as men for Halloween-a phenomenon that was extremely popular in past generations. Women today no longer see men or manliness as something to be achieved or as shaping the female self- perhaps unlike men’s position towards women (you still get men cross-dressing at Halloween, although again this is becoming rare in the straight community). Instead, the all pervasive sexy, slutty woman becomes the central standard that women are expected to strive for or idolise, when thinking about self. The princess in all of us, that women in the past were thought to desire to be treated as, is gone. Instead, being sexy or ‘slutty’ is the new model for femininity. It may be unachievable, but it is always there, shaping hopes and desires and sense of self. It is also worth noting, like in so many other spheres of life, that men have considerably more options at Halloween than women, who are increasingly homogenised.

Perhaps next year (and look I am giving you ages to think about this), we need to think about costumes that both challenge the status quo and are unconventional; costumes that challenge expectations of femininity and provide an alternative commentary on what it means to be female.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Can't have it both ways.

A politics meets academia post. The Chief Advisor on drugs policy - a scientist Prof. Nutt- has been sacked after he openly spoke out about his opinion on drug classification- a statement that contradicted the government's official policy. Alan Johnson, the MP who sacked him said, 'What you cannot have is a chief adviser at the same time stepping into the political field and campaigning against government decisions. You can do one or the other. You can't do both.' And that all sounds fair, doesn't it? The people who work for the government should agree with the government.

Except that the problem is that this means the government can consult you as a scientist, completely ignore your advice, and still put your name as backing to their political policies. And, how do you think that makes you as a scientist look to other scientists? What scientist wants to be associated with whackadoo, ill-informed government policy? What scientist wants his authority as a scientist used to promote something that is unscientific?

I know the acceptable stance in this case, is to have the government consult you, ignore you and then resign in a big huffy fit, but the problem is that most scientists want government policy to be well-informed; they want the work they do to matter and actually help people, and when your resign you lose that opportunity.

The government can't have it both ways. You can use independent, scientific advice that is well-informed to support your policy or your don't, but you can't make a big show of having a chief advisor who is a scientist to give your policy authority, and then ignore him, and expect him to keep his mouth shut.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Train Tales, Part 2.

So, same journey as last post, but on a different train. Two men, aged 23 an 25, were sitting behind me. They were strangers to each other, but making small talk about their lives and why they were on the train. The 23 yr old had left school at 16 with no qualifications and tried various jobs, before becoming a carpet-fitter to a man who was close to retirement and would let him take over the business in the near future. The 25 yr old was a university educated, newly qualified music teacher, who until recently had been a 'freelance musician'. He was going to visit his girlfriend who worked in a very specialist occupation that requires you to live in certain places in the UK [in the interests of anonymity I won't say what it is, because it actually is that specialist- there are 24 sites in the UK where such a person could work]. They had been dating since high school and had frequently lived separately- for example during university and now. They discussed how this was hard, but 25 yr old, commented that if you made it work, it could work. At which point, 23 yr old asked why doesn't SHE get get a job near you. 25 yr old got a bit flustered and explained that well, she had trained for years at university to do this job. 23 yr old interrupted and said, yeah, but she could work at X [Similar site slightly further south- which was actually laughable as like in academia, I wouldn't imagine these jobs are that common or easily got]; 25 yr old even more flustered tried to explain it was a newish job and maybe in the future... He then changed the subject. At no point, did either man suggest or discuss the fact that as ex-freelance musician was a teacher, HE might find it easier to move near HER.

I thought this conversation was interesting for a number of reasons. First, because I think 25 yr old genuinely respected his girlfriend's career choices and had no expectation that her life would resolve around him, but that he also was unable to articulate that to another man. In fact, he became flustered, slightly defensive, and eventually changed the subject. There was no assertion that the choice they made as a couple was valid. There was also no discussion whatsoever that a man might move for a woman, despite the fact his occupation might point to this as a more obvious choice. 23 yr old to my mind was slightly immature and I don't think he was being intentionally sexist, rather I think he just couldn't envision the alternative options available to this couple. He afterwards commented that he was meeting his 18 yr old sister that night and she was bringing her friends, which was said in such a way as if to suggest she was bringing him a large box of chocolates. And, 25 yr old did the uncomfortable, aren't you lucky laugh, which showed he didn't really agree, but didn't want to offend his conversant- but which subleties the 23 yr old totally missed- as demonstrated by his elaboration of this topic. In some ways, I think this was about two different types of masculinity meeting and not really knowing how to connect- both assuming that the other shared their worldview, and then getting confused when the other wasn't interpreting the conversation in the correct way. But, it also demonstrated the different ways that female autonomy is dealt with by different men. Make of that what you will.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Dear Finnish Female Flatmate

Dear Finnish Female Flatmate,

Yesterday, I was on a train when a group of loud, male Londoners, discussed you. Your male flatmate confessed he had the hots for you, but didn't think you were interested. His louder and more agressive friend assured him that any girl who moves to London to live with three men was just 'looking for a good pole-ing' and he should 'go for it'. Said friend reiterated that Scandanavian girls (brief interlude while they discussed whether Finland was indeed Scandanavia, agreed it was, and continued) were all hot and up for it (unlike English girls), had less sexual hang-ups than 'stereotypically' [I think they were using this term wrongly] English girls, and that all you were looking for was a 'good pole-ing' [he did have a fondness for this term]. Your flatmate plaintively noted that you were here to study, but he was shot down by his mates, as your ethnicity and choice to live with a group of men apparently indicated your real desire was -yes again- to have a 'good pole-ing'.

Just thought you should be warned in case any poles come in your direction.

Best wishes,
Feminist Avatar.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Gude Cause

Yesterday saw the Gude Cause March 2009, a re-enactment of a march for woman's suffrage held in Edinburgh in 1909. It's aim was to commemorate the women who fought for our right to vote, to celebrate woman's achievements over the last century, and to 'draw attention to what still needs to be done'. In fact, there was a brilliant turnout from a wide range of woman's groups, including a huge showing from the various regional branches of Scottish Women's Aid, the STUC with their 50/50 banners- calling for equal representation women at all political levels-, engender with their call to recognise poverty as a woman's issue, Women's History Scotland with their banner reminding us that women's historical contribution is still under-researched and under-represented, and numerous other women's organisation who are fighting to make a change to women's position TODAY. And, it was a fabulous day and great event.

But, it is being reported as a historical re-enactment and nothing more. The BBC reports:

Suffragette march marks centenary

The parade re-enacted the march in Edinburgh 100 years ago. About 2,500 people have taken part in a parade in Edinburgh marking a key suffragette demonstration which took place 100 years ago. Participants carried banners and dressed in historic costumes in Saturday's re-enactment of the original march in the capital in 1909. The movement was a fight for women's rights which lasted almost 60 years. At the time hundreds of people took banners and flags to join a rally along Princes Street on 10 October 1909. Women were finally awarded the vote in 1928, but on Saturday their fight was remembered as people took part in a re-enactment of that day. It is the culmination of a summer of activities that has seen traditional protest banners and quilts being made, and a major exhibition about the movement at Edinburgh museum. Tram works mean the procession could not follow the original route along Princes Street but it started at Brunsfield Links and finished at the top of Calton Hill. The suffrage movement spanned almost six decades. Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who joined the procession, said: "Without the suffragists and suffragettes we would still be stuck in an age when women couldn't own property, they couldn't hold public positions and they couldn't vote. "The suffrage movement made a lasting contribution to Scottish democracy and society. They led the way for women to have their voice heard and towards an end to discrimination and prejudice." Ms Hyslop said some of the biggest suffragette demonstrations were in Edinburgh. "The city saw the first suffragette to be force-fed in a Scottish prison, Ethel Moorhead, imprisoned in Calton Jail," she added. "I think she would have found it hard believe that one day the offices of the Scottish government would stand on that very spot, a government not only elected by women voters, but including women ministers." Anne McGuire, Labour MP for Stirling, said: "I wouldn't be allowed to be a politician today without the struggle of the suffragettes. "These women changed political life forever in the UK, allowing women to enter what was at one stage a male-only arena."

There is no mention that this was a call for future change. The march itself was divided into three sections- past, present and future, with people in the past section dressed as suffragettes, and the rest of the crowd dressed in other costumes or the suffrage colours of white, green and violet. The present was the largest section of the crowd by far and there were several children's organisations (and children!) in the future section, which was fantastic. But the only photographs being shown on the BBC are of women dressed as Edwardian suffragettes. The speeches by the female politicians reported here all included calls for concrete changes that needed to happen to make society more equal, but, there is no mention of this. Their words are restricted to their comments celebrating their forebearers. The radical edge of this movement is quashed and an invigorating and exciting demand for social change is turned into a historical anachronism.

There is a flickr site for people to upload their photos to- I forgot my camera, but I'll try and steal some good one's when they posted.

ETA: Actually, STV is slightly better, it includes this statement: The organisers say the aim of the event is to remember the 1909 march, whilst also drawing attention to the problems women still face around the world, such as domestic violence, forced marriage and human trafficking.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Rehabilitating Maggie T.*

Margaret Thatcher was the first, and only to date, female prime minister of Great Britain between 1979-1990. Her economic policies transformed the British economy, causing great heartache, detroying Socialist Britain, and leaving a political legacy where the only acceptable 'left-wing' political party was New Labour (who brought pseudo-socialism for people who uncomfortable with the harshness of unrestricted capitalism). Her destruction of any true socialist movement in Britain, as well as her economic legacy amongst the lower-classes (mass unemployment, blame Maggie), has meant that the left has done its utmost to denegrate and belittle her. And, I am not unsympathetic towards this approach, but I think that perhaps this needs some feminist analysis.

Maggie T effectively created the current political agenda as well as the terms in which our economy functions. Despite a lot of anti-Tory rhetoric, no major political party has demanded a return to the nationalisation of industry, has given more rights to the Trade Union movement, or questioned whether a strategy of mass unemployment is a natural by-product of the capitalist system. Most major political parties, however, HAVE jumped on Maggie's bandwagon of describing those dependant on benefits as scroungers, scum, chavs and generally not worthy of consideration. They have all actively pursued reduced benefits and distanced themselves from taxation. No major political party represents the working-class anymore. 'Labour' now means middle-class; if you are not middle-class or striving towards it then you aren't worth representation. Now, for the left, this is not a legacy to be proud of, but in the last 30 years, no person has done more to transform the terms in which we do politics. Furthermore, it is the legacy of our only female PM.

What about our relationship with America? Yes, this has a long-history, but it was Maggie who actively distanced Britain's relationship with Europe and situated us alongside America. Where are our pro-European parties now? Oh, sorry don't exist. Blame a woman.

Yet, this legacy is not discussed or critiqued, which is hugely problematic. Our refusal to attribute our current political context to Maggie for the left is about denying a much-derided woman her political legacy, which is one of the only ways we can punish her for creating this situation (so it is understandable). But, because that political legacy is not attributed, it leads to a situation where we think the way the economy operates is natural, normal, inevitable. We think that politics has to take place under the terms Maggie set up, because we don't understand their history. And, the irony is, this makes her victory all the more complete.

So, how do we deal with Maggie? Maggie Thatcher, milk-snatcher; The Iron Lady; 'more balls than Brown'; 'more balls than the whole Nulab cabinet'; 'She is, on the contrary, a patriarch'; 'Mrs Thatcher disguised herself as a man'.

Whether she is being appraised from the left or right, Maggie Thatcher's legacy is that she was more than manly enough to have been prime minister. She had more balls than men of her generation or that following. She took milk away from small children (how unwomanly was that?). She presented herself in manly ways and convinced the nation she was more than a woman. And perhaps, it is true that Maggie did not conform to stereotypically feminine behaviour.

But, what does that legacy say to our daughters? I was a child when Maggie ruled Britain and I remember being told in school what an achievement it was to have a female PM, and I remember thinking that one day I too could be PM if I chose. Yet, by turning Maggie into a man, we remove the political legacy that Britain did have a female Prime Minister, and we can have one again. We create a culture where we say that politics is a man's game and woman have no place, and we remove the legacy of women on the way our society currently operates- so once more the responsibility for making our country what it is, is seen to have come from men. The significant role that a woman played in making Britain what it is today is being erased from popular memory. And that is bad for feminism, bad for women and bad for society.

*Before I begin, I am not politically conservative and do not support Margaret Thatcher's political ideology or the manner in which she transformed the British Economy and the political agenda up to the present day.

** Image H/Tip to Historiann, from this shop.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Patriarchy 101

It occurs to me when reading feminist blogs and comments to blog posts, that there is a lack of understanding about what patriarchy is and means. This is especially obvious in discussions of men's role in feminism, in society and in a feminist society. Many feminists start out with the caveat that they 'like men' or 'don't think all men are oppressors', but few feminist theorists would bother making that point, as 'men are all evil' is not actually what is meant when they refer to patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a social system which includes men and women (as well as people who don't easily define as either). The philosopher Bourdieu argues that power can be direct- such as when you force someone to do something through coercion, or physical violence- or indirect, exercised through culture, social values and institutions, and language. The exercise of power becomes a social system when power moves from being direct to indirect. Patriarchy is not exercised directly by men over women, but indirectly through our involvement in social structures- the way we talk to each other, what we mean when we think 'woman' or 'man' in our heads, our legal system and governance, social customs, traditions and formal institutions like education and religion. Patriarchy is a social system which is built on the concept of gender difference and that gender difference should determine how we think about each other, what our role is in society, and what people get to exercise power. While feminists are usually concerned with patriarchy's impact on gender relationships, it also incorporates other power structures seen in race, class, disability and sexuality politics (and more)- as these power structures all combine and inform each other.

Both men and women live within this system and it is the act of living in it that both creates patriarchy and reinforces it. Men gain from patriarchy, but not exclusively. Some men gain more than others; some women also gain. Furthermore, by the time power is a social system, everybody who is operating within it is participating in its continuation- even if you don't want to be. In this way, women are as responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy as men. And, while men gain more from patriarchy, and so may be more reluctant to give it up, they are just as much 'victims' of patriarchy as women. They can no more choose to remove themselves from a patriarchal world than women.

When power is direct, it is easier (but not necessarily easy!) to address- you can fight back, you can remove yourself from the realm the individual exercises power in, you can resist. When power is a system, fighting back is a lot more overwhelming. First you have to decide what your goals are, but this means changing the way you understand the world. If you have been brought up your entire life to believe that women are lesser human beings than men, taking the conceptual leap to equality is actually a major breakthrough. Yet, we made that leap and we made tangible goals to make change- increased education, votes for women, access to the professions, equal pay, reproductive rights, rights to exercise our sexuality; rights to our own body. Some of those goals have been met; some we are working towards.

However, we are not complete in our dismantling of patriarchy, because we have not yet been able to conceptualise what a world looks like where gender means something different. We talk about getting rid of gender, but we do not know what to replace it with. We talk about rehabilitating gender (different but equal), but we can't get away from the fact that 'different' is used to deny people rights and opportunities. This problem is because patriarchy is not just about individual action- it is a state of mind. It is a state of mind that we all share and as such we are not encountering new ideas or ways of thinking that might allow us to change our state of mind. We don't even have the terms to start this conversation, as our basic descriptors are 'he' and 'she'. The exercise of power is written into the very structures of our language-the language that we use to think with.

This should not make people despair- the fact is we have made huge conceptual leaps in the past which have allowed us to shake the foundations of patriarchy. But, we have not yet dismantled it. And, this is why language, and how we use it, is important- because it shapes our world. It is also why feminism is not about women hating men; it is about challenging the very way we view the world and asking women and men to join us in that.

Illustrated by example: Last week, I pointed out the rather large discrepancy in sentencing between men and women who killed their children. So, how does this happen? Did the judge (male or female) just hate women and want to punish them? This is unlikely. In fact, s/he probably thought s/he was responding to the crime appropriately. But subconsicously, when confronted with a woman who killed her child s/he probably had a thought that went: women = mother> mothers protect, nurture children> this woman killed children =heinous. The judge sentencing the men thought: men + violence = normal masculinity > men killed children = within the boundaries of normal masculinity= standard sentencing. The gender of the criminal had a differential impact on how the same crime was viewed, resulting in different sentencing.

Thus, gender matters, patriarchy exists, women suffer, men suffer= time for change.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

More tokenism.

Women have been practising law in Britain since the 1870s and called to the Bar since the 1920s, but despite several generation of women lawyers in Britain, we could only find one qualified enough to sit on the brand-spanking new Supreme Court. SIGH.

But, actually, the content of this post is a complaint about
the website. In the UK, there are three equal and distinct legal systems, operating in England and Wales, in Scotland and in Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court is to be the final court of appeals for all three systems, so the judges are meant to reflect all three systems. There are eight lawyers representing the English system, two for Scotland and two for Northern Ireland, which given population differentials is not hugely unfair. However, if we read the website, two of the judges practised law in Scotland, two in Northern Ireland, and eight just practised 'law' or were called to regional bars, with no mention that they represent the English and Welsh system.

The effect of this is to imply that the English/Welsh system is the default/the norm, and Scotland and Northern Ireland are exeptional. This denies the equality of the three legal systems and as such devalues the Scottish and Irish systems, making their representation tokenism. Let's hope the practice of law in the Supreme Court does not reflect this.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Spot the Difference.

In Sept 2009, a mother has been given a minimum sentence of 33 years for the murder of her two daughters: 'Rekha Kumari-Baker, 41, stabbed 16-year-old Davina 37 times and 13-year-old Jasmine 29 times at their home in Stretham, Cambridgeshire'.

In January 2009, a father was given a minimum sentence of 21 years for the murder of his two sons: 'Ashok Kalyanjee, 46, who stabbed his two young sons- 6 years old Paul Ross and 2 years old Jay Ross to death, was sentenced to at least 21 years in jail.'

In Oct 2008, a father was given a minimum of 17 years for the murder of his two children: 'Robert Thomson, 50, stabbed his 25-year old daughter Michelle, and seven-year old Ryan, 26 times at their former family home in May.'

In Oct 2008, a father, James Howson, was given 22 years for murdering his 16 month old daughter by snapping her spine.

In 2001, a father, Darren Jenkinson, was given a minimum of 15 years for murdering his two infant sons, by smothering them.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Humanities are Big Business.

The CBI are arguing that students pay more to go to University, because we all know that they have deep pockets and are just holding out on us. And, we all know how making university an impossible option during a recession won’t at all push students out of universities and onto unemployment lists (where they will be entitled to benefits that they don’t receive as students). But more than this, they also want ‘universities [to] focus more on economically valuable subjects such as science, technology, engineering, maths and languages’. Because we all know how humanities are a waste of time, right?

Now, I think humanities are important as they bring social benefits, creating a broader, well-rounded society with an able to think latterly, all of which has an impact of the economy. But in fact, humanities also provide graduates to some of our biggest industries. The book, journal and electronic publishing industry contributes over £5 billion a year to the domestic economy and this is increasing. The value of UK book exports is higher than any other creative industry and we export more books that any other publishing industry in the world. The export value of books to the UK economy in 2008 was £1.1 billion. And, where do you think the people- the writers, editors, reviewers and publishers- who work in this industry come from? Do they just spring, un-nurtured from the ground; is creative writing now a central aspect of the biology degree? No, they come from the humanities.

Our biggest manufacturers include Ben Sherman, Burberry, French Connection, Reebok and Umbro, all clothing companies. And who do you think sits around designing your latest togs, deciding what’s hip and what’s not? Physicists? What about when you need a website designed, a logo made, a brand created, an advertising campaign made- do you think these companies are run exclusively by scientists? What about tourism? Tourism brings £86 billion to the UK economy and a considerable part of that industry is driven by our heritage industry- that is people coming to see our history, our art and performing art, our family history records, our museums, and galleries. And who do you think makes this possible? Biologists and chemists? No, the numerous graduates who come from history, arts and other humanities and who paint pictures, put on shows, and go into museum planning, archives and preservation.

Plus 70% of graduate jobs are open to people from ANY discipline, so why are we pushing the sciences?

Monday, 6 July 2009

Off on Me Holidays...

I am away on holiday and will not be posting until I get back...

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Bad People doing Bad Things.

The recent death of Michael Jackson has raised a lot of discussion about how feminists should approach ‘bad’, by which I mean anti-feminist, violent, abusive, sexist, racist, disablist etc, etc, people. If Michael Jackson was a paedophile, does that mean we should never listen to his music (or, for example, Gary Glitter’s)? Does the fact that men, or women, in our lives sometimes abuse or hurt us mean that we should cut them out of our lives? Is there ever a place to forgive? And why is it that certain crimes are less forgivable than others? Why is it that a man who rapes becomes a rapist, but we are unlikely to think of someone who speeds while driving as a ‘speeder’?

In the medieval periods and really into the eighteenth-century in Western Europe, every person was considered capable of sin (or for that matter had the potential for sainthood) - in certain theologies, we were all born sinners. People at that time believed that some people were more likely to commit certain sins or behave certain ways than others due to social circumstance, and, indeed, there was a strong belief that our social place was set by God, but it was not innate. We were not ‘naturally’ evil or good, or even, for that matter, gay or straight, male or female (well, gender was a complex mix of biology and behaviour, but that’s straying from the point). It was our behaviour that ultimately came to define us, but, equally, if we changed our behaviour we became something else. So men that had sex with other men were understood to commit sodomy- they may even be referred to as sodomites- but they could stop behaving in that way and would no longer hold the label. Homosexual sex was an act that could be performed by anybody; it was not the innate identity of a particular group.

Then came the eighteenth century, ‘the rise of the individual’ and the sense that the self was an innate, unique being that, depending on your philosophy, was with you from birth, or was formed in childhood (so not entirely natural) and difficult to alter once fully formed. Freud followed a century or so after this, and he took this philosophy applied it to sex, and, hey presto, sexual urges are part of your psychological make-up and a reflection of your development in childhood (where ‘deviant’ sexual urges reflect an ‘immature’ mind). This of course had huge implications for homosexuality, which while still considered ‘deviant’, at least was no longer a choice. But, it was not just homosexuals that were created by Freud and his predecessors, but rapists and paedophiles. All forms of sexual activity fell under the same umbrella; whether you got your kicks shagging kids, or jumping out of bushes; or looking at a variety of inanimate objects, or respectfully and consensually engaging in sexual activity with a willing partner, your sexual choices were a result of your psychology and as such were part of what made you – you. And you couldn’t (or at least not without years of professional help) ever get away from that- if you were a rapist that is who you were.

Now a lot of these ideas are now disputed, not least due to feminist analyses of sex and violence, as well as the work of the gay liberation movement, but these ideas continue to have a profound impact on how we view sex crimes. Now, other crimes can be assigned a psychological motive (and thus are seen as the problem of the individual), but we also recognise that the same crimes can be committed by healthy individuals. Some murderers kill due to an innate need to do so; some are normal people in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who make a choice to kill – perhaps for a cause, like a soldier. But, in general, we do not see the soldier who returns from war as innately murderous. Similarly, while some thieves may steal due to psychological issues, most are driven by economic need or desire.

It is much easier to forgive someone who has committed an individual crime, but is not a ‘bad person’, than it is to forgive someone who is innately evil or dangerous. But, the problem is that nobody is entirely without a redeeming feature. Some paedophiles produce outstanding music; some wife beaters are great humanitarians; none of us our perfect. Sometimes the people who hurt us are our families who offer love and pain with the same hand; who perhaps cause us pain not because they are malicious or evil but because they are imperfect individuals in an imperfect world.

And sometimes, it is easy to figure out the right path. Don’t buy music with homophobic lyrics or endorse behaviour which is discriminatory. Don’t buy products that support people whose behaviour is despicable. But, it isn’t so easy to cut off your families and friends. And what happens to the family of the rapist, who have to live with the horror of his crime, without necessarily being the victim. How do they respond to him- do they forgive or cut him out of their lives? And at what point, if ever, does a person earn forgiveness? When he or she says sorry; when they stop behaving in a ‘sinful’ way? And, for how long are they held in purgatory? How long after the rapist commits the crime does he become cleansed of his sin and allowed back into society- when does his music move off the ‘banned’ list? Especially, because the victim of a crime doesn’t just magically ‘get over it’- they often suffer years, if not a lifetime, of trauma; they may have to seek counselling; they may have physical scars; or a crime may affect their life opportunities. The re-integration of the sinner into society makes the sinner visible with the potential to remind the victim of their trauma- which is even more pressing when they are a public figure.

And, yet, is redemption never possible? Are we always the sum of our mistakes? Because none of us are crime free. Most of us hope to be continually learning and growing. How do we move towards a better, fairer society, unless we are allowed to move past our sins?

Thursday, 2 July 2009


When did prenups become uneforceable in England? These were well-recognised documents in the nineteenth century?

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

'Professional' Blogging.

Some copper in Lancashire has received an 'official warning' from his employer- the police- because he kept an anonymous blog, in which he criticised both the government, government ministers and the beaurocracy of the police force. Apparently, this is 'unprofessional'. I have never read his blog, so am not sure what he said that was controversial.

But, it seems to me that as a police officer you have an obligation not to talk about ongoing police investigations or operations, which you are involved in or have 'inside' information on, and not to reveal personal information about fellow officers or about the public who you encounter within your job. This is because it might endanger convictions, people's safety and it breaches privacy legislation. But, why does being a police officer exclude you from having a say on the political process and on government. Yes, police officers are civil servants, who are not allowed to join political parties as they are expected not to be unduly influenced by party politics, but this is not the same as not having an opinion. Do we really think that police officers are mindless organisms who just do their job and have no interest in public affairs? And, do we even want police officers who do not understand the bigger political issues surrounding their job? Or, are they expected to be mindless, until they get to the senior ranks and suddenly have a broad political awareness and be able to make politically aware decisions? Let's not kid ourselves that policing isn't a political process.

Furthermore, what is the point in pretending politically motivated and knowledgeable police personnel are neither of those things? It doesn't stop them having those opinions. It doesn't stop them letting those opinions influence their jobs. Keeping your politics out of your job is a choice. Being able to separate the opinions stated on your private blog from how you do your job is a choice.

Finally and especially in light of the recent controversy over MP's expenses and our general dissatisfaction with our national leader's honesty, we, the public, should treat all attempts by the government to avoid transparency and public accountability as a challenge to our democratic process. If members of the police force are dissatisfied with the police force, a public body paid for by the public, then those concerns should be voiced to the public- their employers. What have they got to hide?I know the concern is that critisicms of the police undermine public confidence in the police- but the response to this should not be to shy away criticism, but to assure the public that there is no cause for concern. We have a right to be informed and worried when there is a problem, because the police should be accountable to us.

And, ultimately, this is what this late political crisis in government has been about- the relationship between the public and the government. We are finishing a process started during the English Civil War (as we style it, despite it being a UK-wide phenomenon). The Civil War was fought to dispute the right of the monarchy to rule and when Charles II was finally brought back to the throne, it was a rule based on the consent of parliament. Similarly, parliament governed through the consent of the people (a people who expanded over the next centuries with the broadening of the electorate), and when we finally introduced the police in the nineteenth century, they policed by consent. Consent has been at the heart of UK governance (over the UK, let's not mention the colonies) which is why transparency and accountability has always been of significantly more concern in the UK, than in other parts of the world, even in other European countries.

The latest expenses scandal highlighted the extent to which the accountability of parliament to the people had effectively been a myth, and it made us angry. This was not just a question of the misuse of our money, but was a challenge to the accountability of government that lies at the heart of our version of democracy. Parliament has lost our trust- our consent to govern- and they have to earn it back. This will happen through a willingness to be criticised, both internally and externally, to listen and adapt to criticism, to be transparant and to be accountable. Until they earn that trust, they have no right to discipline those that are willing to speak out against their misgovernment.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Thinking About Class…

Polly recently started a discussion about how and why people identify with the class of their childhood, rather than their current social position, and points out that social mobility doesn’t always remove the markers of your working-class roots. Now, I am middle class- I have three degrees, I work in academia and I’m married to a teacher. But, I was raised in the west of Scotland. My family have been on the cusp of upper working class/ lower middle class for several generations. In my history I have bakers, furniture makers/fireman during the war, factory workers, miners, clerks, missionaries, female teachers and nurses, midwives, district nurses and more nurses. I came from a social group that were working very hard to make themselves middle-class, but didn’t approve of certain middle-class behaviours, such as university education [waste of time]. This led to an interesting situation where the women in my family, who all worked, were often more ‘qualified’ than the men, although the only appropriate career paths for women were teaching and nursing. I was not the first person in my family to get a degree, but only because my mother started university the year before I did. Since then, an uncle and an aunt and my sister have degrees (and my mother, uncle and sister also have Masters degrees), while my brother and two of my cousins are at university. At the same time, my other brother is a builder, like my dad; one of my cousins is joiner. Several cousins are at college doing vocational courses. In a very real sense, my family’s attitude to university has been transformed over a period of about a decade and it has impacted on several generations at one time.

Growing up in this background in the west of Scotland in the 1980s meant we were poor. I lived in an unemployment blackzone (ex-mining community), where people of my family’s social status were the highest social group. During my childhood, I experienced my father being seriously under-employed and finally losing his business (but a business owner!); I remember having literally no money in the house. I remember a friend who was not much better off than me being embarrassed to go to the local shop with me as I had to count out pennies to buy bread- and I remembered being confused at her reaction. Despite this, my family didn’t believe in welfare. The marker of our middle-class background was that we didn’t sign on and that we owned our own home [well, it was mortgaged but…]. My mother once bitterly remarked that the difference between us and our working-class neighbours was that they knew how to get a free washing-maching off the social. I never received pocket money and got my first job at 11, and have never stopped working. When I went to university, I lent my student loan to my parents to bail them out. I had two jobs between the ages of 16 and 18, and two again when I was 20. Things got better for my family in my late teens as my father’s second business began to do well and my mother got a degree and a ‘middle-class’ job. The experience of my younger siblings in somewhat different to mine, but I left home at 18 and didn’t feel the impact of this in the same way.

I went to the local primary school in a very poor, rural, working-class area and as a result have a west of Scotland, working-class accent. I went to private school for my high-school education because I got a grant, which Labour has since abolished. My accent was notably rougher than my schoolmates, but because I am obstinate, and because my friends continued to be working-class, I never adapted, and in a strange way it gave me a certain kudos. While my family were resolute in their belief in their middle-class standing, I was a different type of middle-class. My parents weren’t professionals; we didn’t have the available income of many schoolmates, and to my mind, we weren’t as uptight as these people. I noticed this even more when I went to university, where I was shocked that people couldn’t understand the working-class accents of the people behind the till- and thought that this was the worker’s problem, not theirs- and they had an entirely different sense of humour, so I sometimes felt that I was holding my breath, until I got back to ‘my people’. Yet, in another sense, I also wasn’t working-class.

When I first encountered my husband’s family (who were working-class proper), I was shocked at their crude, to my mind, jokes; I was amazed that they all smoked, and they had an entirely different attitude to work- I came from a family where you went to work if you were dying; they took days off for hangovers. Almost everybody in his family had experienced long-term unemployment at some point, and they all knew how to work, and exploit, the welfare system. Every male cousin of my husband’s that is older than him has a criminal record, while in a mark of social change happening to this family, amongst his younger cousins the effect is more mixed. Many have done significant gaol time. He was the first person in his family to get a degree and he left school with no qualifications, doing the HNC, HND, degree route. I definitely wasn’t part of this community, but to be honest in many ways I felt at home there.

My working-class accent came with me into academia and I know it makes a difference. The west of Scotland accent is particularly rough, even for Scotland, and I was told at my private school that it was ugly and we should try to refine it. It is a guttural, aggressive accent, spoken very quickly, and is associated with a violent, unruly social group [check out the West’s history of industrial unrest]. To the untrained ear, middle-class west of Scotland Scots still sound rough; the working-class accent more so- unlike perhaps the more sing-song accent of the borders or the incomprehensible vocabulary of the north-east. People assume that I am working-class, which is exasperated by the fact that I went to a university with a large working-class body (and which I picked for that reason). Some people [actually I think I mean men here, as most of the women I know in academia have similar backgrounds to me] assume that this means I am very clever, having overcome disadvantage to achieve; others are extremely patronising towards me. When I walk into to a classroom of middle-class 18 and 19 year olds and open my mouth, they are scared into submission by my voice.

I have no doubt that I am middle-class; I just need to look at my job title, but the markers of my past follow me, and that label seems inadequate, and in many ways inaccurate.

Thursday, 11 June 2009


So I'm doing the lonely, drunken blogging in a hotel room thing and come across a personality test which tells me after I answer only 20 questions that I am a peacemaker.

And also that:

'Peacemakers are the most likely group to say they dislike reading history books, according to a UK survey.'


Grumpy Feminist Warning!

So, after a hard days work, I am strolling down a major shopping precinct in a major European city, appreciating the fabulous weather and the late night shopping, when I see this slogan 'WHEN YOU LOOK THIS GOOD, NOBODY CARES IF YOU'RE PLASTIC', emblazoned on a shop window, behind which life-size mannequins are rotating on pedestals, with some quite out-there fashion. Huh, I thought, how very post-modern to address the relationship between the fashion we as humans are meant to be wearing and the non-living icons that model the clothes that they want us to wear- to make explicit the unsaid- yada, yada, yada. And then I got a bit closer.

And, it turns out, it is not post-modern at all. No, Barbie is back and this time she is for grown- ups. Paul's Boutique, London [the brand, not the city] has co-opted every little girl's fantasy, plastered it onto a range of extremely expensive, and certainly not for little girl's, handbags and hopes that grown women want to be seen wearing Barbie slogans. Infantalising much?

Really? What woman wants to be associated with a children's toy? Perhaps, the buyer of this, also from Paul's Boutique.

Now, I get the studenty, reclaim our childhood memories type memorabilia is popular at the moment, as people wear their favourite children's tv show on a t-shirt or carry around their Bagpuss bags. But, to spend hundreds of pounds on accessories so that you can look like a childhood toy, and a toy that symbolises the impossible standards of bodily perfection placed on women from a young age, is just disturbing.

And what about that slogan? The relationship between a desire to look like Barbie and plastic surgery is more than a little explicit in our culture, and to tie that into a message about the acceptability of being 'plastic' reinforces that if you don't conform to cultural beauty norms, it is a failure of your purchasing power. In essence, buy this bag [or your face, or this dress, or this pair of boobs, or these shoes] or you are not beautiful.

The link between capitalism and patriarchy at its most explicit. Thanks Paul.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Men- you can be raped too! Congratulations.

The Scottish parliament finally passed the new rape legislation that has been on the cards for a while. Previously, we had a very narrow definition of rape, which meant penis in vagina without the women's consent- but consent was never defined, and it has usually been taken to mean- did she say 'no'. The law has broadened so that rape can include penis into vaginas, anuses and mouths (so men can now be legally raped), while consent is now defined as free agreement where the party is not drunk, unconscious, asleep, threatened or coerced (and various other things). Consent can also be withdrawn at any point during the sex act. People need to show that they took steps to ensure consent to sex and describe what those steps were (in defence, if accused of rape). In effect, the idea should be to shift the burden, so the victim should not longer have to prove s/he said no, but rather that rapist needs to show that s/he said yes. It should no longer be a defence that s/he never said no or stop.

These are some great steps forward, although the initial discussions around the legislation wanted it to go further and it probably still should- for example, the definition of rape is still very narrow- only 'penises' get to penetrate. Rape with implements other than a penis still come under sexual assault. And the 'steps to ensure consent' is incredibly vague. What 'steps' are counted as valid? I kicked her and she grunted, I thought that meant yes? She wore a short skirt and flirted over a glass of wine. I thought that meant yes. She accepted a 'cup of coffee', I thought that meant yes. She was kissing me, I thought that meant yes. I guess the problem is that they have went to the effort to define what is not consent, or rather who cannot give consent, but do not define what consent should look or sound like.

It will be interesting to see the impact on convictions.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A rather wordy history of childbirth.

This post is dedicated to Patricia Crawford (1941-2009), feminist, historian of women, and author of 'Attitudes to Menstruation in Seventeenth-Century England', Past and Present.
Recently at the F-Word, there has been a discussion of childbirth practice, which at times has become rather heated as questions of hospital v. homebirth, vaginal birth v. caesarean, pain relief v. none, have been debated. The issue of pregnancy and childbirth is clearly important to woman, but this alone does not explain why so many women are so defensive of their personal choices. And I think that at times, a lot of us are not sure WHY we are protective of our personal choices in childbirth- we understand that this is a controversial and political issue without understanding what created that context. So, it seems to me that some historical context is necessary.

First of all, childbirth choices are part of wider discussion on the control of woman’s bodies. A woman’s right to own and make decisions over her own body is a long and on-going fight for feminists, perhaps mostly clearly seen in the debate over abortion, but certainly not limited to this. Every day women’s bodies are splashed over the media as magazines argue over whether celebrities are too fat or too thin, whether their breasts are the right size, whether they have cellulite, and whether their dress conforms to whatever arbitrary standard is ‘in’ that week. This discussion is not new. Fashion columns, discussions of women’s clothes and who is wearing them well have been part of newspapers since the 18th Century, while the link between clothing and modesty- a central part of woman’s identity for centuries- dates to earlier than the medieval period.

Until very recently, it was not just society that acted to constrain and control women’s bodies. Women were understood as property. When a woman was ‘seduced’, it was her father or husband who demanded compensation from her lover- both seduction and criminal conversation (where a husband sued his wife’s lover) cases operated on the basis that a woman’s body belonged to a man who must be compensated for its use by another. Seduction legislation was still in force in 20th Century England (and I am not sure it has ever been abolished); while criminal conversation was still available to husbands in Canada in the 1980s. The control of women’s bodies has long been a contested issue. The politics of childbirth therefore was created in a context that was about women’s bodily autonomy and the rights to their own body, and therefore was never understood as just about individual choice.

Childbirth, of course, has always been a part of human history, but in Western Europe from the 17th century, a process, often referred to as the ‘medicalisation of childbirth’ occurred. From the 17th century, and closely linked to other medical developments, pregnancy and the gestation of the child became of medical interest. Scientists began charting the steps of pregnancy, performing autopsies on dead women at various stages of pregnancy to see how foetuses developed, and exploring how pregnancy ‘worked’. Yet, these studies were still very detached from the experience of childbirth, where birthing remained a woman’s problem and where the birthing room was a place for women. Midwives and knowledgeable women both held the skills and the knowledge of how to help women birth, how to relieve pain, and what to do when things went wrong. A skilled midwife could cost a considerable sum of money and women understood the importance of having them at the birth. Indeed, some cruelty suits, where women sued their husbands for separation for cruelty, list a husband’s unwillingness to fetch a midwife as a form of cruelty and even as evidence of his desire to kill her.

Over the 17th and 18th centuries, as male doctors become an increasingly important part of medical care more generally, they also start to play a role in childbirth. Initially, childbirth was still a woman’s job, but doctors would be called in to deal with post-natal illness and infection, or to aid sick babies. Then as the eighteenth century progressed, and as medical care became regulated, with male doctors having to be trained and qualified through universities (rather than the traditional apprenticeship system), the unregulated and ‘untrained’ [aka not university educated] midwives became a medical problem. Doctors demanded that midwives be removed entirely from the birthing room, and childbirth became the forum of male doctors. Yet, initially male doctors, with their general medical educations, were not particularly knowledgeable about childbirth, so their success rates were often worse and certainly no better than the women they replaced. Over time, male doctors specialised in gynaecological care and so made headways in understanding what’s going on in pregnancy and how to aid childbirth, and so the success rates increased. But, it should be noted, it was not until nutrition improved and anti-biotics are invented to deal with post-birth infection (what is thought to be the biggest killer of women after childbirth) that we see meaningful improvement in childbirth mortality for mother and child.

This first step in the ‘medicalisation’ of childbirth did not come without a fight from midwives, who in some places demanded to be recognised and given qualifications to allow them to do their jobs (and are more or less successful depending on the region). And, this whole debate went on with almost no input from mothers. Male doctors demanded that female midwives be pushed out of medical care and male politicians and leaders said yes. There were no women voters or mothers with a political voice to speak for what was best for women. And, in many ways, the problem was that there still was no ‘best’ for the mother, whether you had a male doctor or a female midwife, your survival chances were usually down to a woman’s general standard of health and whether any complications arose during or shortly after delivery.

As should be a surprise to no one, male doctors won in the fight for women’s bodies in the 18th century and their control over women’s bodies was to increase with Enlightenment science. Enlightenment ideology, created in a highly religious world, strongly equated science with truth and incorporated a strong belief that there was ONE answer to every problem. Medical doctors as the holders of this TRUTH, became like gods whose opinion and advice could not be questioned (although there is some great work being done just now which highlights that many people did question standard medical advice in this period and often in idiosyncratic ways). People did what their doctor told them as he held the ANSWER. And women were particularly vulnerable under this system as their opinions, experiences and voices were worthless in a male-dominated world.

One of the effects of the domination of medical science by men was the adoption of the male body as normal and of the female body as aberrant and less perfect. The female body was always contrasted with the perfect male body and the things that women’s bodies did differently were understood as being not ‘normal’ or not ‘right’. As a result, everything that women did differently was understood as illness. The female body became pathologically unwell (and there is some really interesting work on the way that Victorian women use illness as a means opting out of social normativity- like the being too constitutionally ill to ever marry and so justifying their life of singleness). Pregnancy in particular was understood as an illness and if you read Victorian newspapers, court cases or even literature you frequently come across references to women’s illness, like she was in bed unwell, or she was by the fire ill, and what they mean is she was pregnant, or occasionally in the period shortly after childbirth. As an illness, pregnancy became the domain of doctors (much like woman’s bodies more generally) and woman’s experiences or desires became less relevant as they were not the experts on illness. In this sense, women became completely detached from their pregnancy, which was no longer seen as a natural part of life for many women, but an aberration.

In the Victorian period, unless you were very poor, you gave birth at home. This was because hospitals were where people went to die and where infection was rife, making it a place where only the poor and desperate went. However, with greater knowledge of infection and germs, and the importance of cleanliness, as well as general improvements in medical treatments, hospitals became much safer places. As a result and in line with a very medical mindset that doctors should be in control of every aspect of health and recovery, in the 1930s, childbirth moved from home to hospital. Again, a lot of the motivation for this move was still motivated by the belief that childbirth was an illness and the appropriate place for ill people was a hospital. However, it also brought benefits such a broader range of pain relief and for many women (who also understood pregnancy as illness) it made them feel safer and more in control. However, despite the fact by the 1930s nurses were a central part of nursing and midwives were once more a central part of childbirth practice, birthing mothers had very little control or say over what happened to them while they were in hospital.

The mantra of ‘doctor knows best’ informed women’s experience of childbirth and increasingly childbirth became more and more of a medical procedure, with women receiving increasingly identical and regimented ‘treatment’ for pregnancy, and having little control over what happened. By the 1950s, women going into hospital to give birth could find themselves having their personal belongings removed and put into hospital gowns, having their pubic hair shaved off in preparation for birth, keeping fathers and family members out of the maternity room, and having their children removed immediately after birth. Pain medications were heavily used and many women couldn’t remember the birth, and they were encouraged to bottle feed for ‘hygiene’ reasons. Women’s bodies during childbirth were considered to be an open access area. They were not offered options on procedures and consent was not asked when doctors decided things were not going to their liking and chose to intervene. The mother’s opinion was of little relevance, because after all this was a medical procedure, and what did she know about medicine. And there is some work that suggests that women’s inability to connect with the experience of childbirth had repercussions in the form of postnatal depression and an inability to bond with children [although neither of these phenomenon were new or unique to women at this historical moment].

From the late 50s onwards, the role of doctors in society came under increased scrutiny (not least when in the 1960s it was discovered that British doctors were performing experiments on patients without their consent that were more than a little similar to Nazi experiments in WW2, under a rubric of ‘doctor knows best’). The National Childcare Trust as well as many (other) feminist organisations began to challenge the necessity of the increased intervention of doctors in childbirth. They began to promote ‘natural’ childbirth- that is an understanding of childbirth that saw it as a natural part of the female experience and one that did not need to be co-opted by men or treated as an illness. These campaigns were founded on a need to give women control over their own bodies. Over time, hospitals responded to these demands and now (at least in theory) woman should be treated as individuals with individual pregnancies. They should be given information on what options they have (ie home birth or not, pain meds or not) and what is best for their peculiar needs and desires. Yet, as you can imagination, the fight for these rights was not easy or painless. Men had no desire to give up their control over women’s bodies and it was a long, hard-fought campaign.

Today, when we discuss our childbirth options, we discuss it in the context of what was a long-fight for the control over women’s bodies. That is why it is such a heated issue. The choice to have an elective caesarean brings back memories of a time when such medical intervention wasn’t a woman’s choice; while for other women, the right to have a vaginal birth at home is founded on a battle to give women that right. More recently, there is a debate over whether choosing not to have pain medication is a form of 'martyrdom' that is patriarchal in its own way- which at least in part comes from uncertainty over what the relationship between women's bodies and the medical profession should be. It becomes very easy to see one action as ‘feminist’ and another as ‘betrayal’ and yet, this is not what our foremothers fought for. They fought for our right to choose and our right to be in control of our own bodies. It was never meant to be that one way of birthing was more ‘right’ than another, but rather that these are our bodies, ourselves.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

And while I further procrastinate writing the article that was due on Friday...

Did anybody notice this headline: Rescued boys' mother 'shopping', in which lifeguards at Wirral beach blame an absent mother when they find two young children in deep water at the beach. This, perhaps, would not be problematic criticism except that the children were at the beach as a part of a larger family group and the boys had wandered off. Their grandmother and other family members were searching for them further up the beach.

It seems to me that if a mother leaves her children with people she trusts while she goes shopping, she is only very indirectly responsible when they wander off. Why is she been targeted? Where is the father [I'm going to assume there is one]? Is he just not there that day- well, shouldn't he share some of the blame? I mean, he clearly left his children with their mother, a woman who was irresponsible enough to leave them with a family member who let them wander off.

The lifeguard also told off the grandmother for not keeping a close enough eye on them, so it seems that who is to blame is not entirely clear, but it's definitely a woman.

What do we want?

Marks and Spencer's Chairman, the boy Sir Stuart Rose, in a rant about how 'you've [women] got more equality than you ever can deal with,' while simultaenously pointing out that 'there are many girls in here who've got two kids who come to work', asks the question: 'What is it you haven't got?'

Well, we don't seem to have men in top positions not patronising us for starters. 'Girls' anyone?

Is it just me or is becoming more and difficult to buy an ethical bra?

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Who was she anyway?

This article from the BBC, which I have quoted in full, annoyed me. It discussed the murder of Kinga Legg by her boyfriend, but throughout the article, her boyfriend is discussed as a businessman, while she is his girlfriend. We learn about his businesses, his houses, where he lives, and his bankruptcy in 2006. In the last sentence, it is noted that she too is a successful businesswoman, and owns a tomato growing company with sites in the UK and Poland. But while he is the focus of the article, she is reduced to the bloody body in the bed. The effect is to make her ancillary to her murderer throughout, reducing her to his partner and a victim, rather than a human being.
Porsche recovered in murder hunt

Police in Cheshire have found a sports car thought to belong to a businessman whose girlfriend was found beaten to death in a Paris hotel room. Ian Griffin, 39, is at the centre of an international manhunt after Kinga Legg's body was found at the l'Hotel Bristol on Tuesday. Cheshire Police recovered a Porsche 911 they were looking for during searches of properties connected to Mr Griffin. Surrey Police have also been searching a property as part of the inquiry. Ms Legg, 36, from Poland, checked into the £1,000-a-night hotel on Monday. Mr Griffin arrived later.

Company owner

Her body was found by a hotel cleaner the following day. French police said she had died from "internal bleeding caused by multiple blows". Mr Griffin, originally from Warrington, previously lived in Knutsford and had several businesses listed in Cheshire. In 2006 he was declared bankrupt at Warrington County Court. Two plain-clothes officers from Cheshire Police had been standing outside his parents' home in Delph Lane, Winwick, on Friday. Ms Legg owned international company Vegex, which supplied Tesco and other supermarkets with tomatoes. The company has a site in Oxshott, Surrey and Opatówek, Poland.
The alternative, in case you were wondering, could be something like this:
Police in Cheshire have found a sports car in the murder investigation of businesswoman Kinga Legg, found beaten to death in a Paris hotel room. Legg's partner, Ian Griffin, 39, is at the centre of an international manhunt after her body was found at the l'Hotel Bristol on Tuesday. Cheshire Police recovered a Porsche 911 they were looking for during searches of properties connected to Mr Griffin. Surrey Police have also been searching a property as part of the inquiry. Ms Legg, 36, from Poland, checked into the £1,000-a-night hotel on Monday. Mr Griffin arrived later. Ms Legg's body was found by a hotel cleaner the following day. French police said she had died from "internal bleeding caused by multiple blows".

Kinga Legg owned international company Vegex, which supplied Tesco and other supermarkets with tomatoes. The company has a site in Oxshott, Surrey and Opatówek, Poland. Mr Griffin, originally from Warrington, previously lived in Knutsford and had several businesses listed in Cheshire. In 2006 he was declared bankrupt at Warrington County Court. Two plain-clothes officers from Cheshire Police had been standing outside his parents' home in Delph Lane, Winwick, on Friday.
It's not just the reordering of Ms Legg's person via that of her partner, but the use of her name throughout the article, instead of 'she', that makes her a central part of the text; a central part of the story- which after all is about her. To be honest, it would also be nice to get the words domestic violence in there and the 'found beaten to death' does disembody the crime from the murderer. But, equally, at this stage in the investigation it may be problematic to accuse a particular suspect of the crime.