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.