Leeds IMC sessions: approved!

Just a quick one to say Women at Sea will be making a reappearance (hopefully not the last) at Leeds International Medieval Congress 2017 – we have had our two sessions approved. Here is what you can expect:

Women at Sea, I and II

Tales of women at sea populate the realms of  literature and history, as well as the shadowy space  between fact and fiction. They call our attention to  questions of agency and otherness. The sea can seem  to be dominated by men in economic and martial terms,  and the woman at sea is often set adrift by men who  on land have ultimate power over her. But perhaps at  sea, a woman enters a more generative and  transformative space. The woman at sea is frequently  unmoored, lost, vulnerable, her direction chosen by  wind and fate. Yet the sea may also open up a more  feminine, queer, imaginative space: the woman adrift  in a place of transformation, negotiation and  transition in which she can re-cast her sense of  self. For women the sea is a space of otherness, but  also a space where their identity can be imagined and  performed. While the edge of the ocean is a boundary,  the open sea seems boundless. It defies linearity.  Thus, women in oceanic narratives can inhabit a  different temporality than is available in narratives  defined by land. They enter an exceptional space, a  place where bodies need not be territories.

Session 1505:

Paper -a          Black Andromeda: Manuscripts, Seascapes, and Race in

Medieval France (Language: English)

Speaker:          Anna Klosowska, Department of French & Italian, Miami

University, Ohio

Paper -b          Queer Seas, Stranger Tides: Sea-Changing Bodies in

the Digby _Mary Magdalen_ Play (Language: English)

Speaker:          Daisy Black, Department of English Language, TESOL &

Applied Linguistics, Swansea University

Paper -c          Chaucer’s Watery Bodies and Bodies of Water

(Language: English)

Speaker:          Roberta Magnani

Paper -d          ‘That swerde ys myne’: Queer Identity and Malory’s

Ladies of the Lake (Language: English)

Speaker:          Amy Louise Morgan, School of English & Languages,

University of Surrey

Session Time:     Thu. 06 July – 09.00-10.30

Session 1605:

Paper -a          A Sea-Faring Woman: Gudrid and the Journeys to

Vinland (Language: English)

Speaker:          Elizabeth Cox, Department of English Language, TESOL

& Applied Linguistics, Swansea University

Paper -b          Shipbuilders, Settlers, and Sailors: Viking Women at

Sea (Language: English)

Speaker:          April Harper, Department of History, State University

of New York, Oneonta

Paper -c          Maritime Protectresses in the Mediterranean: From

Artemis and Victoria to Lucia and Mary (Language:

English)

Speaker:          Jessica Tearney-Pearce, Woolf Institute, Cambridge /

St John’s College, University of Cambridge

Paper -d          A Promise of a Safe Journey: Margery Kempe as a

Talisman (Language: English)

Speaker:          Einat Klafter, Foundation for Interreligious &

Intercultural Research & Dialogue, Université de

Genève

Session Time:     Thu. 06 July – 11.15-12.45

Meanwhile, I will be speaking at Session 705, “Homosocialibility and Male Bonding in Medieval and Early Modern Europe”, with the paper “‘Of meyrth the causse’: Male Bonding and Rape Culture in Late Medieval England”, and will be moderating Session 620, “Gender, Sexuality, and Medieval ‘Otherness’ in Medieval and Modern Literature”. It will be a busy few days! Hope to see you there.

 

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He Was Provoked: Internalising Misogyny

TW: Domestic Violence

On 14 August 2016, 29-year-old Alex Nicholson bundled his wife (her name is not given) into the boot of his car and drove out into the countryside, where he abandoned her. Mrs Nicholson had apparently stayed out all of the previous night, and on her return home had admitted to “wrongdoing” that the court did not admit into evidence. Nicholson received a suspended prison sentence and lost his driving licence for a year.

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The Daily Mail article on the story received a number of comments, some of which were supportive of Mrs Nicholson and critical of what the commentators saw as too-lenient sentencing. A number criticised Mrs Nicholson and extended sympathy to her husband. The comment from Gae46 – at the bottom of the image above – particularly struck me, as it reminded me of a court case from many years ago: 620, in fact.

In 1396, Margery Nesfeld was seeking legal separation from her husband Thomas on the grounds of cruelty. A witness, Joan White, reported that:

she saw the said Thomas throw Margery, his wife to the ground with a club and beat her severely with the same and afterwards he drew his baslard and gravely wounded her in the arm and broke the bone of that arm, commonly called ‘le Spelbon’ and he would then have killed her that night if he had not been prevented by this witness, the said Margery, her fellow witness, and John Semer, then servant of the same Thomas.

Her account was corroborated by Margery Speight. John Semer then appeared in court as a witness for the defence, who said:

Margery left her home in the parish of Bishophill and went to a house, the which this witness does not remember, in the city of York without and contrary to the said Thomas, her husband’s mandate and precept, and stayed there from noon of that day until the darkness of night. When she returned to the house shared by the said Thomas and the said Margery his wife, Thomas asked why she had left her home against his will and precept. She replied that she wished to go where she would against the will of the same Thomas her husband, and then Thomas, seeing Margery’s rebellion, struck her with his fist in order to chastise her.

Margery was not granted the separation. Unfortunately we have no account of the judicial decision-making process, knowing only that the court rejected the petition. In 1396, a married man and householder was responsible for the moral as well as the physical health of his household. Women were not meant to go out wandering on their own, especially not after dark. The fifteenth-century poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun blames Dinah for her rape because ‘for sche bode not stylle, / But went owte to see thynges in veyne’.  In effect, to use a more modern term, Dinah was ‘asking for it’. The implication that harm, both physical and spiritual, will come to women who leave their proper sphere is found in Caxton’s The Knight of the Tower, a 1483 translation of the fourteenth-century Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour Landry. In one of the knight’s stories, a woman goes out at night to see her lover, and ‘she felle in to a pyte whiche was twenty fadom depe’. She is miraculously saved after praying and repenting. She seems to be guilty of both the sexual misconduct of having a lover and social misconduct: that is, leaving her home at night. It is easy to blur the line between these so that the act of leaving the appropriate feminine space of the house for the physically dangerous outside world becomes associated with falling into a ‘pyte’ of sexual misbehaviour. If a woman goes ‘as it were a gase / Fro house to house to seke the mase [diversion]’ (How the Goodwife Taught her Daughter), she will reap the consequences.  In the court’s eyes, as well as her local community’s, Thomas was undoubtedly seen as justified in punishing his wife for spending hours away from home. He was not entitled to punish her so severely that she broke her arm: yet despite the fact Margery had two witnesses, the court clearly preferred John Semer’s account of the night, where instead of beating his wife with a club he gave her a single blow with his fist.

In this case, Margery had two women as allies. It would not surprise me if her local community of women were not necessarily so supportive, though, just as I was unsurprised to see that many of the comments on the Mail article that sympathised with Alex Nicholson were written by women (or at least commentators using female names). This week there has been a lot of discussion about why the majority of white women who voted in the US presidential election voted for Donald Trump, when he has repeatedly demonstrated contempt for women’s agency as well as their bodies. As many writers have pointed out, a lot of it is to do with racism. White women historically have tended to side with white men over women of colour, and it is women of colour who are most threatened by a Republican presidency. But enmeshed in that white supremacy is also misogyny – a misogyny that many women have internalised.

White women who voted for Trump are more likely to be conservative, evangelical, over 45, and lacking a college degree. It’s not that the Democratic Party hasn’t served the needs of these women; it’s that patriarchal authority is an evangelical norm and a conservative value, and many women adhere to it, too. Women are vastly outnumbered in leadership roles in evangelical institutions. And women without college degrees, who voted for Trump in large numbers, are also more likely to be stay-at-home moms, dependent on a husband’s income.  The conservative evangelical vision of America, so mainstreamed into the Republican Party, sees white women as delicate, maternal, and dependent, not authoritative and powerful. Trump knows this, and he plays on this racialized gender anxiety…. Claiming black and brown men pose a threat to the safety and sexual purity of innocent white women is a very old trick, one used to justify slavery and segregation. To white men, Trump promises the restoration of diminishing supremacy over both women and people of color. To white women, he promises a return to a simpler time, when their race alone made them exceptional and worthy of special protection.

Jill Filopovic’s insightful article (my emphases, above) makes a very clear case that women who voted for Trump are used to deferring to male authority, and to see that not only as natural but also as desirable. The things that threaten their white male protectors thus are also seen to threaten them, and white patriarchy is very afraid of men of colour. Patriarchy cannot function as an operational system if it expects men to carry out all its work, however; it relies on multiple groups “punching down”. White women’s racism. One racial minority discriminating against another, even more marginalised minority. Sexism within minority groups. Ableism.

Surviving patriarchy is a hard task, and many women unsurprisingly make the (often unconscious) decision that it is better to be a collaborator than a victim. When someone is in direct danger of real harm, I certainly would not blame them for this. Mrs Nicholson has apparently sought reconciliation with her husband. We don’t know the full situation, of course: but I hope for her sake this is a genuine opportunity to rebuild a trusting, equal relationship, not a return to a site of domestic abuse because she sees no better options, as many women have sadly had to choose. I can, however, blame the women who were not threatened by Mr Nicholson, or even know him in real life, but who were instinctively drawn to defend him, assuming the worst about his wife. Throwing off the social conditioning of patriarchy is hard, painful work: but that is no excuse not to do it, even if rather than a fast discard it is a slow slough, inch by inch. As the political climate darkens, we owe it to our communities to be Margery Speights and Joan Whites. They may not have saved Margery Nesfeld from her marriage: but at least they tried, and let her know they saw her, that she was not alone.

 

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Blocked: On Anxiety & Productivity

Yesterday I had to face an uncomfortable truth: I have writer’s block. This isn’t related to one specific piece of writing, but instead reflects a more general malaise in my academic writing. I had opened a blank Word document to start a book review – a fairly straightforward task – and found my stomach churning with anxiety.

I approached this in two ways that are typical for me: one, a careful, thoughtful breakdown of what might be contributing to this problem and how I might resolve it, and the other a tearful exploration of the emotional territory underlying it. Both approaches were fruitful; academic work is passionate work, and tears as well as laughter are a useful part of a process that should be heartfelt, not dryly “rational” (whatever that means).

I think returning to work after maternity leave has had a deeper legacy than I originally anticipated. I understood that ten months away from work would take a toll, and that my priorities would change; but of course before I became a parent I couldn’t really understand what becoming a mother would mean in both pragmatic and emotional terms. I think I planned pretty well for my return to work, and I was glad to return. I didn’t cry when my daughter went to nursery, and she is clearly thriving there. When work is going well, these choices seem self-evident. Grace gets socialisation and stimulation from a broader group of people than just me – and so do I!

When work isn’t going well, however, it’s easy for guilt to creep in. If I’ve had a day where I’ve barely achieved anything, what’s the point in spending so much money to have other people look after my child, and give me only a couple of hours a day with her – one at the start of the day when I’m not exactly sparkling company, and one at the end when she is cranky and tired? Now I have a child, too, my worries about my career have taken on a more urgent quality. What if I don’t get another academic job in two years? What if that’s because I haven’t made the best use of my research fellowship and – let’s be honest about what that boils down to in jobseeking terms here – publishedpublishedpublished? Ugh, just typing that makes my stomach churn again.

These worries put me under a lot of (self-inflicted) pressure. I’ve noted in the past that I work well under certain types of pressure. Fixed deadlines, my PhD supervisors discovered early on, were much more successful than flexible ones. Being busy rather than having acres of unscheduled time tends to make me use my days better. So my current situation, of having a lot of unstructured time to do research, while sounding dreamy has seemed to leave me paralysed and prone to fretting about far in the future events while failing to actually crack on with more immediate concerns.

So, I am taking action. You’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo – I’ve decided to take on the academic version of #acawrimo. Mine is a modified version, as I am committing to only 500 words a day (a target that ensures I have to sit and write something every day, but isn’t a target that sets me up for demoralising defeat), and I will not write at weekends because I take work-life balance seriously. I will have set times to answer my work emails and keep Outlook shut the rest of the time. I’ve already turned off notifications on my phone so that I have to open apps to see them – I find it very difficult to not look at a notification when it pops up, even if I know it’s probably just someone liking a photo on facebook. Most importantly, though, I have bought a large weekly planner with tear-off sheets, and am going to give my days far more structure. I have core working hours based around my daughter’s nursery times. I am establishing daily, weekly, monthly goals. These are all pretty obvious things to do, but after several years of working to a termly schedule where I fitted in my research around fixed teaching commitments, and then a year which was mostly reactive in the sense of reacting to my new baby’s needs and organising our day in relation to the reality of new parenthood, structuring my work time to meet definite but self-defined objectives has become a skill I’ve lost. I think I had it during my PhD; time to find it again.

Today I’ve met my 500 word target, which doesn’t include this blog, and I’ve ticked a couple more items off my to-do list. Often I find November a horribly dreary month. This year I’m going to make it work for me.

 

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Stunning Daughter: Child Migrants, Celebrity Teens, & Some Medieval Connections

Recently, a very small number of the desperate group of people interned in a refugee camp in Calais have crossed a narrow sea to reach this island. It’s been well-reported that conditions at the Calais camp are appalling, which will only worsen as the camp gets more crowded and the season turns to winter. But the unaccompanied minors who have landed in Britain have not exactly received a warm welcome after potentially weeks or months living out in the cold – they have been subject to a media onslaught where paparazzi take intrusive photographs and the tabloids spend hours scrutinizing their faces for clues of their ages. 

Yesterday Guardian columnist Marina Hyde posted a perceptive piece challenging the hypocrisy of newspapers like the Daily Mail, who insist that it is an absolute travesty if anyone over the age of 18 manages to escape the Calais hell hole for life in Britain, and circles the hopeful little moustaches of late-teenage boys in hopes it will prove they are not minors, but also publish gushing articles celebrating the beauty of teenage daughters of celebrities and coyly suggest they look “older” than their years. Old enough to be legally acceptable to fancy, I suspect.

Putting aside the issue that few people seem to have raised, which is that eighteen might be a useful legal threshold to recognise the end of minority but that in social terms very few of us would nowadays assume that a teenager’s eighteenth birthday magically marks a transition into full, responsible adulthood, I found myself thinking about these “beautiful daughters” and the resonances they have with my own work – on families several centuries ago.

I gritted my teeth and loaded up the Daily Mail‘s website – which is horrendously designed, before we get to any content issues – and trawled through several pages of articles. I limited my search to the past week, and I found four stories on teenage girls who are the daughters of celebrities. All of these stories to one extent or another celebrated the girls’ appearance. 

The first story is about fifteen-year-old  Thylane Blondeau. She is working as a model, so perhaps it might seem acceptable to describe her as an “extraordinary beauty”. However, the article also mentions “it was her 2011 beauty editorial for Vogue Paris that drew international attention to the young the star, as many deemed the make-up heavy shoot to be too provocative for the 10-year-old”. Of course the Mail included a screenshot of said editorial (I have not, for obvious reasons). The second article pictured here is about seventeen-year-old Lily Rose Depp; the language is not particularly sexual, though it does talk about her “natural beauty” and radiance. The third story is about Sofia Richie, who is eighteen, and the piece is mainly full of blurry photos of her with Tobey Maguire. However, the photo used to illustrate her with Justin Bieber and which describes her as a “stunning teen” was taken when she was seventeen. Finally, “pretty blonde” Anais Gallagher is pictured in a crop top and jeans – which seems to be the extent of that story’s narrative. 

So, here we have four girls all under the age of eighteen, all famous to one degree or another because of their fathers (and in the case Marina Hyde talks about, her mother). They are girls who are considered beautiful not only because of how they look but because of their birth – much like medieval heroines.

Does this seem like a bit of a stretch? In my book on medieval fatherhood and on this blog, I’ve written quite extensively on fathers and daughters. Many medieval narratives are filled with the shadow of the incestuous father – who either actually goes ahead and makes incestuous advances, or whose behaviour is classified by psychiatrist Judith Herman as the “seductive father“, who skirts the boundaries of incestuous activity. 

In the medieval romance Emarethe emperor Artyus is married to a beautiful queen whom he loves. She dies after their daughter Emare is born, and the baby is brought up away from the court. When she grows up (in medieval narrative terms, this is likely to suggest she’s in her mid-to-late teens in the text), she is reunited with her father:

The mayden that was of sembelant swete,
Byfore her owene fadur sete,
   The fayrest wommon on lyfe;
That all hys hert and all hys thowghth   
Her to love was yn browght:
   He byhelde her ofte sythe.
So he was anamored hys thowghtur tyll,
Wyth her he thowghth to worche hys wyll,
   And wedde her to hys wyfe.

(The maiden that was of sweet appearance, the fairest woman alive, sat before her own father. All his heart and all his thoughts were brought to love of her; he looked at her often. So he was enamoured of his daughter until he thought to work his will with her and marry her.) 

When Emare unsurprisingly rejects her father’s advances, he has her put to sea in a little boat, clearly expecting her to die adrift on the ocean. 

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Capsized refugees, The Economist, 25 April 2015

Instead after days at sea, driven half-mad with hunger and thirst, Emare is washed ashore in a country she does not know.

She was on the see so harde bestadde,
For hungur and thurste almost madde.
   Woo worth wederus yll!   
   
She was dryven into a lond
That hyghth Galys, y unthurstond,
   That was a fayr countré.

She is rescued by the king’s steward, who thinks it’s a great pity to see a young woman so sore beset. He takes her back to the castle, gives her food and drink, and when she’s recovered finds her gainful employment as a seamstress. Eventually she marries the king of that country, and after a time is reunited with her father, who regrets his actions and so is rewarded by having his daughter – and by this time, grandson – restored to him. Emare apparently greets her father joyfully. Perhaps she had internalised the medieval cultural norm that – while decrying incest as a grave sin – blamed beautiful girls and women for the violence that happened to them:

Heo is bitacned bi theo thet unwrith the put – the put is hire feire neb, hire hwite swire… Best is the beastlich mon thet ne thenchet naut on God, ne ne noteth naut his wit as mon ach to donne, ach secheth for to fallen in this put thet ich spec of, yef he hit open fint… [H]a is witi of his death biforen ure Laverd ant schal for his saule ondsweren an Domes-dei…

Robert Hasenfratz, ed., Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), Part 2, ll. 101-12.

(She is symbolised by the one who uncovers the pit – the pit is her fair face, her white neck… The beast is the beastly man that does not think of God, nor uses his wits as man ought to do, but falls into this pit that I spoke of, if he finds it open… [S]he is guilty of his death before our Lord and shall answer for his soul on Doomsday)

Before we get complacent about our own modern reactions to abuse of girls and women by their fathers, we should remember that this ‘hapless collusiveness’, as it might be called, has not disappeared with the Middle Ages; well into the twentieth century, a common view expressed by therapists was that girls have contributed to or even initiated incest:

These children undoubtedly do not deserve completely the cloak of innocence … [There was] at least some cooperation of the child in the activity, and in some cases the child assumed an active role in initiating the relationship… Finally, a most striking feature was that these children were distinguished as unusually charming and attractive … 

Lauretta Bender and Abram Blau, ‘The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations with Adults,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 7 (1937).

This may seem a long way away from refugee boys coming from Calais to England, or celebrity girls getting papped while trying to go about their daily teenage girl business of having coffee with friends or going to a party. But consider this: Emare is beautiful because she was young and fair and because her father was an emperor- birth status really does make people beautiful in medieval narratives, much as any teen daughter of a celebrity is “stunning” today. She is abused and nobody protects her. She becomes a refugee, though she receives a kinder reception from the state than refugees can expect today. She is a success story because she gets a job, marries, has a baby – but of course none of those things would have been possible if she had not been given help with no questions asked beside what her name was. Even then she lies; she tells the people of Galys she is Egare, and that lie is seen only as prudent in the story, because if you’re escaping from horror, you do what you need to do to survive. I have the sad certainty that the Mail and its ilk would very happily write a sentimental story about a beautiful teenage refugee girl, celebrating her exceptional story of courage and survival, while at the same time continuing to vilify the less photo-friendly victims of war, poverty and despair who are her neighbours. Though in neither case are you really human; you’re like Emare, forced to give your own story a happy ending by letting your abuser “clypte and kyssed her sote”. Be grateful, little refugee girl; things could be so much worse. 

 

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Splintered: Women in Academia

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Woman faces the glass ceiling, from “Women’s History” on About.com

Last week I attended Challenging Inequality: A Workshop for Women Historians at UK Universities. Although I was listed as speaking about inequality in Oxford specifically, what I mostly talked about were the particular problems facing women early career researchers. The day was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, since many participants wanted to be able to talk about their specific experiences of institutional sexism and would not like those disseminated further.

This morning one of the participants circulated an article she’d read online about Australian women historians, which has the incredibly optimistic title “How women historians smashed the glass ceiling.” The article itself is a little more circumspect, but overall has a positive impression of the Australian academy’s gender parity:

Compared to both the male-dominated STEM disciplines, and other social sciences like philosophy and political science, Australian history has been remarkably feminised.

This was the conclusion of a recent ANU enquiry into the status of gender in the social sciences. The results, published in 2014, found that history was “the discipline most changed by feminist scholarship.” When it came to “improving the participation of women” and “mainstreaming feminist approaches and gender scholarship,” history departments were judged “impressively successful.”

The image of the glass ceiling is in many ways a problematic one. While it’s a useful way to visualise a systemic barrier to success for women, it suggests that the only real problem is women moving upward, and if they exert enough pressure they will eventually break through it. I noticed when googling the term that stock photos of it are always of white women in business attire either wistfully pressing or aggressively smashing against the barrier, beyond which there are fluffy clouds – suggesting if they break through that, the sky’s the limit. But women historians have been HoDs and vice chancellors now, and it hasn’t “fixed” sexism. Many women historians are likely to feel that the glass ceiling is actually a box, exerting pressure from all sides and potentially isolating them, too.

Which is one reason the Challenging Inequality day was useful – while in some senses it was exhausting hearing so many accounts of systemic sexism – from being passed over for jobs to microaggressions in the common room to outright harassment and abuse – it was also, I think, reassuring for many of us to reiterate that these are serious issues and we do have a right to be angry about them. There was a lot of anger in the auditorium that day – as well as plenty of knowing laughter and sympathy.

Two of our speakers were involved in the production of the Royal Historical Society’s gender equality report, and they spoke about how the report came into being and what the results said. Over the course of the day many people reiterated how important the report had been in convincing colleagues that sexism is still a genuine problem in the discipline of history. As many of us know, it can be easy for our personal experiences to be dismissed; cold hard statistics are a little more difficult to discount. So we were grateful for this data. 21% of the historians employed in the UK responded to the survey, which makes for a very good sample group.

History has a roughly equal gender balance among school and university students, but more than 60% of academic history staff are male and, according to the latest HESA figures, only 20.8% of history professors are female. … The situation is far worse in some sub-fields of the discipline, where careers are made (or not): the Economic History Society, which has been tracking the problem for 25 years now, reports that not only their membership but also attendance at their events routinely divides 75% men to 25% women. Although cultural history usually has a better ratio, intellectual history or international history often has an even worse one.

The report has some very sensible suggestions about how to embed a culture of equality, from recruitment (addressing invisible bias in shortlisting and interviews) to daily departmental work/life balance (work on integration back into the department post-parental leave) to promotion (redefining success not just to reflect publications but also service and outreach). It unfortunately does not really address questions about disability and race, and there is very little about robust responses to sexual harassment cases (which is sorely needed, judging by this Guardian report). But it does provide a sort of baseline for what women should be able to expect within the academy – a “meets minimum standards” sort of mark, I suppose, for what we should hope for within our departments, but which many women have worryingly reported they are not receiving.

There was also a lot of discussion over the course of the day about a need for more radical change. My gut feeling is that there need to be concrete, specific changes made within the academy to help level the playing field further: but that also we need to consistently, insistently protest against the appearance of the playing field. Maybe we’re making it easier to get into, but it still stays much the same old playing field even if the players have changed. History as a profession needs to reshape itself to incorporate its differently abled, mixed gender, racially diverse bodies; it needs to treat all of them as human beings with innate dignity and value, rather than trying to remodel them to fit an old-fashioned norm of what a historian “looks like”. Its public and private faces need to reflect a diverse profession, not replicate hegemonic norms. We are not all alike; we aren’t all “leaning in” to become alike.

While the narrative of the glass ceiling suggests we smash boundaries, what really happens with circumventing the glass ceiling is usually that we “lean into” conventional practices, co-opting them so that we succeed. If we really want to break through the glass ceiling, we need to fundamentally change the values of history departments in the UK from relentless focus on publications to an appreciation of the multiplicity of “soft skills” modern academics can bring to the table, which we’re all supposed to acquire and yet somehow don’t make much of an impression at interview or in promotion panels. We need to celebrate the different gifts historians have – as talented teachers, marvellous managers, co-operative collaborators – rather than saying all those matter but only really looking for 4* publications. We need to actively strive to increase the diversity of our departments, not just hope it happens by seeming friendly and making sure a token woman or person of colour gets added to a shortlist. We need a kinder academy, but one that does not lack courage. And this is not a journey minorities can take by ourselves; when I talk about a kinder, braver academy, I mean all of us, together.

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By @deonnawade

Posted in Academia, Conferences and Symposia, Feminism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Only connect: Academia and isolation

Last week I was feeling a little down-in-the-mouth. It was just before the start of term in Oxford, and so my inbox was filling up with circulars about upcoming seminars, invitations to drinks evenings, notices about upcoming dinners… Most of which I can’t attend.

In pretty much all ways I have a very privileged life – I’m going to say that straight up now. My husband has a permanent job at a good law firm. It’s the kind of law firm where you don’t make megabucks but you do interesting work and you mostly get to leave by 6pm, which in lawyerly circles is pretty humane. I am just starting the second year of a three year fully-funded fellowship that pays a respectable salary. We now own our own home and we have a lovely one-year-old daughter. A few years ago, post-PhD, my husband struggling to find legal work during the recession and when I was just struggling to find academic work full stop, this life would have seemed like a rosy dream. I love it and am very lucky.

However, I live an hour away by train from my place of work. Factoring in getting to and from the station, it’s a two hour journey each way that off-peak costs £36.60 for a day return and over £75(!) during peak hours unless bought significantly in advance. As nursery shuts at 6pm on the dot and it’s a 15-minute walk from our house, I normally do the pick up, and my husband does the morning drop off. One or occasionally two days a week during term time (less during vacations) I come into Oxford, stuffing some teaching, meetings etc into as few hours as I can, relying on the good will of my in-laws or the ability of my husband to sometimes get out of work early to make sure our daughter gets picked up and put to bed. The rest of the time I work from home.

I mostly really enjoy working at home. It gives me a lot of flexibility, although it does require a good deal of discipline (that I sometimes lack!) to stay focused. But I admit that I do sometimes feel a bit isolated and removed from university life. Before I had a baby, I would quite often stay over one night in Oxford, taking advantage of the college’s reduced rate for members to use guest rooms – a real perk, I know. But from late pregnancy – when I was suffering from SPD and increasingly limited in my mobility – onward, this became impractical. Now it’s something I can only really do for special events like conferences.

We live in Birmingham for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s where my husband’s work is based, and given his lengthy hours in an office, it makes much more sense for us to live near his work, since I have a mostly-research job and so need to be on-site far less often. It’s also far, far cheaper – I just did a quick google and the median rent in Oxford is £1599/month. The median rent in Birmingham is £702. We were able to buy a home for well under half the price of the average house in Oxford – the median price of which is an eye-watering £485k! Finally, Kieran’s parents live only thirty minutes away from Birmingham, which is very handy when we have a small child. Moving there was a very simple decision,  and I don’t regret it for a minute.

But I do get lonely sometimes. Academics have a reputation for being introverts. Quite a few are! But liking books and your own company (and perhaps, like internet photo memes, enjoying wearing sweaters and looking wistfully out of a window while stroking a cat) doesn’t necessarily an introvert make. I get a lot of energy out of social encounters. Last week I realised the only people I had spoken to that working week besides my husband and child were the nursery staff and cashiers at supermarkets. Then this week I’ve come into college twice and been invigorated by conversations with many different colleagues, enjoyed meeting new students, and felt inspired by contact with fellow medievalists. But it’s not something I can afford to do – timewise or financially – very often.

I know quite a few academics in my situation. Many people can’t afford to live in the cities in which their universities are based, or need to make compromises on location to best suit the needs of all their family rather than just themselves. Many of us, even though who live near our workplaces, can’t make events that are regularly scheduled to start at 5pm when we need to pick up our kids or perhaps undertake other caring responsibilities. I’m sure a few of you have also looked over the seminar lists and events calendar for the new semester and realised that attending any of them will take planning and negotiation with your partner/spouse/offspring. I think this is something that universities should taken in account – many assume that their employees will live nearby, and many departments still schedule their events as if it’s still 1950 and if you’re going to a seminar you’re either a bachelor or your wife will be taking care of the kids and the dinner while you enjoy academic discourse and port.

This is one of the reasons I love the internet. I will admit upfront that I fritter away too much time on inconsequential things online – but as well as providing me with huge numbers of useful resources for my work (seriously, research for me would be so much harder if I had to go to an actual physical library every time I needed a book, rather than using my Oxford login to access e-texts), it has also given me an academic community. This was really useful to me during my maternity leave, when I felt very far removed from my work and colleagues. But it’s perhaps even more vital to me now, when I’m grappling with research and I don’t have people to just pop into the SCR for a coffee and a brainstorm with. and hey, at least with Twitter you know there’ll be someone around at any hour, timezones be damned!

 

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#ifmenhadperiods:transphobia, antisemitism, and gestational bodies

#ifmenhadperiods popped up on my twitter dash today – primarily through tweeters pointing out that there is in fact a large category of men who may indeed menstruate: trans men. Casual cissexism aside, the most popular tweets on this hashtag seem to be expressing a general frustration with the patriarchal status quo. Kraken Syllabub gets to the heart of this in a series of eloquent tweets that frame the problem not as “what if men had periods”, but “what if bodies that menstruated were – and had always been – socially privileged?”:

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Cis (white, heterosexual) men have historically been very good at othering pretty much anyone who isn’t a man who performs masculinity in a narrowly proscribed set of ways. Which has meant women, trans people, gay people… And people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds to their own. Which got me thinking about late medieval/early modern myths of the menstruating Jewish man.

Jewish people in medieval Europe were regularly stigmatised, ghettoised, penalised and made victims of violence. While Willis Johnson has convincingly problematised the earlier scholarly conviction that medieval people routinely believed that Jewish men menstruated, by the thirteenth century Jewish people – men and women – were believed to suffer from an annual disabling bloody flux in gruesome commemoration of the crucifixion of Christ. This seems to have originated in the traditional understanding of the death of Judas; while the Vulgate states that “his middle burst and all his guts poured out”, medieval commentators came to the conclusion that his bowels came out through his anus. This grisly form of death also became associated with heretics, such as Arius, who according to the early Christian author Arator used a public toilet, down which all his intestines suddenly flowed.

Sudden, uncontrollable, bloody, defecatory death was associated with the worst sort of traitors – heretics and Jews, who had betrayed Christ. By the fourteenth century, the belief that Jewish men regularly bled from their anuses was an accepted enough part of the medical canon that it was discussed seriously at the University of Paris, where it was concluded that Jewish men had cold, wet humours, resulting in a superfluity of gross blood. Of course, medieval humoral theory also posited that women were dominated by cool, wet humours (men were as a broad category hot and dry). Now, this excessive Jewish blood was articulated as being passed through haemorrhoids – but medieval medical writers also considered a cause of haemorrhoids in women to be excessive menstrual blood. We  can see that there are not too many steps between thinking Jewish men regularly bled, to thinking Jewish men had feminised bodies, to thinking that Jewish men menstruated. It was used later in the middle ages and throughout the early modern period as a reason for seeing Jewish men as essentially unmanly, grotesque and fundamentally wicked.

So in answer to the question #whatifmenhadperiods, the answer is – if they were white Christian heterosexual men, yes, tampons would probably be free and you’d get stickers to collect in every pack of your favourite menstruating heroes. But if men who are outside the norm are perceived as having menstruating bodies, that is likely to be used as another stick to beat them with: they are grotesque because they are menstruating men; they are grotesque because menstruation means they are not men. Transphobia and antisemitism, like many other oppressions, enjoy pinning their victims between a rock and a hard place.

 

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