Serious Academic: Why I Engage Online

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Another victim of the “selfie epidemic”

Today The Guardian has done a stellar job of stirring academic twitter out of any summer doldrums it might be experiencing by publishing the clickbaity “I’m a serious academic, not a professional instagrammer”. The premise of the article is that the anonymous author, a PhD student, is frustrated by supposed pressures to engage in social media for self-promotion and impact and wants to focus on their research. I’m not going to bother debating the finer points of their article, because quite frankly if you are reading this blog you probably think social media is more a force for good than evil in academia. But I thought I might talk briefly about why I do it, and why for me it is valuable.

I started this blog a few years ago, without any real idea of what I wanted to do with it, but wanting a place to deposit “loose ends” – undeveloped academic ideas that it would help me articulate by writing down, and that I thought might be interesting enough to other people to make them available to read rather than shoving them in a file somewhere. The blog has, in its modest way, grown a good deal since then. Nearly 2500 of you subscribe via WordPress, and I know I get a lot of readers via twitter, too. Once or twice a blog post of mine has gone semi-viral, increasing my normal number of hits for a post – usually in the few hundreds – by the power of ten. I am not in the blogging big leagues; I’m not even in the academic blogging big leagues. But in comparison to how many people have bought my book, or read my articles, I have a lot more impact here.

And that to me is exciting. I like that I engage with my professional peers here, and that my blogging has lead to other opportunities – a post I wrote on my pregnancy helped inspire the Swansea symposium I co-organised recently. I also really like that my blogging engages people outside the academic sphere. You don’t need a PhD to read my work, but in all honesty very few of you are going to buy my expensive monograph, and your public library probably won’t either. I wish all my work could be open access, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime we can still have conversations. I have been privileged to experience people leaving comments saying my work has moved them, made them think, has even helped them deal with problems in their own lives. I am lucky to have you here, gentle readers!

Twitter is a much faster-paced format than blogging. Even for the internet-phobic academic, blogging is just-about-acceptable as an academic activity: it is long form, it is thoughtful, it can even contain references! Tweeting is seen by some as slapdash and frivolous. Again, I’m not going to justify using twitter, as many of you will come here via a tweeted link and I don’t need to preach to the choir. Twitter is as morally neutral as a road, or a computer. We can use it in intelligent, kind, stupid, pernicious, lazy, irritating, repetitive and even dangerous ways – just as you could use a road or a computer. It’s down to the driver or operator, after all. I use academic twitter as a place to vent, to make friends, to find links to new research, to promote my own work, and to keep tabs on events I’m not physically able to attend.

Some of this can be categorised as “serious”, and some would not be. “Seriousness” is a dangerous sort of quality to chase after in our careers, I think. We are all serious, in that we are all human beings with innate dignity. A preoccupation with appearing “serious” in academia is usually synonymous with appearing “professional”, but as I’ve discussed many times on this blog, what it means to appear “professional” in academia is usually predicated on ableist, sexist, and racist norms. For myself, I enjoy seeing colleagues tweet selfies from a conference, write about their problems finding childcare when school holidays don’t match semester dates, or sharing a humorously-captioned (yet meticulously referenced) image of a manuscript as light relief from a long day in the archive. Because my colleagues are funny, tired, punchy, eccentric, angry, delightful people who love their work and sometimes hate their industry, who have all different kinds of bodily and emotional experiences as academic professionals, and whose online presence reminds me it’s ok to be me. Who queued online for 3.5 hours yesterday in a failed attempt to buy Harry Potter theatre tickets; who has over the first year of parenthood mostly only read romance novels and YA fiction; and who is a serious academic not despite those things, but because of them. Dr Rachel E Moss, at your service.

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Flotsam and Jetsam: Watery Womanhood

water

Photo by Dimitri Caceaune

Women are watery creatures, it seems. In mythology we fuse with fish and seals to slide fin-first through open water. In medieval and early modern medicine, our humours are wet and cool. We leak: milk, blood, amniotic fluid – and yes, even that great modern taboo, piss. In medieval narratives we are cast to sea in boats riddled with holes, and yet we reach shore whole. We lie in lakes, waiting to hold aloft a sword – that a man will take to rule and then ruin a world. (No basis for a system of government!)

It has been a watery few weeks for me. I recently returned from Women at Sea at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, and as the name suggests we were able to glimpse water from our conference room. The symposium was one of the most joyful, thought-provoking and affirming academic events I have attended. The Storify is here, which gives you a good flavour of the day. We began the day with the painful poetry of contemporary refugee women, who having fled fear and violence overseas came to Swansea in search of sanctuary. We ended the day with Daisy Black‘s retelling of the Constance legend, where she skilfully drew out the painful feminist narrative of a woman tossed from shore to shore by the demands of patriarchy, but who survived, and survived, and survived. In between we had papers that showed the queer, transformative potential of the sea – and of the dangerous power of women’s watery bodies.

Torrential rains followed in the week after the conference, before I went to my next gig – Medieval Women Revisited, hosted by the University of York. Supported by the Department of History at the University of Palacky, this was one of the first events to host scholars from central Europe who are working on women’s history. That, too, was a weekend of boundary-crossing: of languages, nations and scholarly expectations. One of the papers that particularly resonated with me was Kim Phillips’ ” The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual reputation and female bodies in medieval culture and society”. She talked about how young medieval women used ointments and binding to attempt to restrict the growth of their breasts, because breast growth was associated with sexual experience. Menstrual blood moved to the breasts, swelling them, ready to be transformed into milk. We looked at images of flat-chested, white-skinned medieval virgins, who presumably in the male artists’ minds never did anything as uncouth as leak from any of their orifices.

Men as well as women in the middle ages must have been aware of the wet reality of women’s bodies, though. In an age before tampons, incontinence towels and breast pads, the homemade solutions used by women must have made their various discharges more visible – and smellable. Meanwhile, nowadays women are so anxious about their leaking parts that they are encouraged to mask them – with scented pantyliners, vaginal douches, and incontinence pads. Yet the same cultural taboos that make women desperate to cover up the signs of their bodies having undergone puberty and birth are still so strong that many women put up with pelvic pain and incontinence for years. We hide the evidence of our watery bodies, but many of us still don’t control them.

I was left with chronic cystitis symptoms after the birth of my daughter. Although I have thankfully never wet myself, even now I sometimes feel like I can’t empty my bladder. I pushed for a referral to a specialist; I also paid for treatment by a physiotherapist, a kind woman who manipulated the muscles of my pelvis and talked about all the women she’s seen who had lived with problems for months or years, who had used the TENA pads marketed at postpartum women and been given the impression that this was their lot now; their bodies couldn’t go back to where they were before.

They can’t, of course, and the Hollywoodisation of postpartum bodies, giving the impression you can have a flat stomach and shiny hair six weeks post-birth, is a dangerous thing, too. Women at sea may cross the ocean several times, but they never exactly return to where they started. But our bodies, watery as they may be, don’t have to be painful balloons, swollen and fragile. Like Constance, in crossing the sea we can become an ocean, mermaid-fierce and free.

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Copyright Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg

Posted in Academia, Conferences and Symposia, Feminism, Medieval History, Medieval Literature | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Academic Kindness: Chris Wickham, Europe, and who we want to be now

I thonke yow herteley of all kyndenes that ye have done to me before this tyme.

“This is goddis”, London, Lambeth Palace Library 853.

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Chris Wickham; image copyright aarome.org

On a warm day in May 2011, I boarded a train from Oxford to London. I was at this time living in Paris, and I clutched in my hand my cheap French mobile phone, just in case it rang. Just in case.

Shortly after five pm, it did. A soft, measured voice offered me a three year position as lecturer in medieval history  at the University of Oxford. Outside, the Oxfordshire countryside rolled by in a haze of gold light. I accepted with thanks, and when I hung up I burst into tears that had to be explained to the passengers sitting opposite me.

Yesterday, to celebrate the retirement of eminent scholar Christopher Wickham, several dozen historians gathered in the auditorium of St John’s College, Oxford, to reflect on his career. Several historians, who had been variously Chris’s students, colleagues and friends, spoke about his influence both on their work and on the wider historical community.

Professor Christopher Wickham, Chichele Professor of Medieval History, expert in social and economic Italian history from the end of the Roman Empire to around 1300, doesn’t seem like an obvious person for me to name as a significant influence on my career. After all, I work largely on the fifteenth century, and I suppose my research could be called “literary history” for the sake of brevity. But as I listened to a host of people talk about Chris’s extraordinary list of accomplishments, I thought about his kindness to me as an early career scholar, and that for me at least this rates as highly as an academic talent as fluency in multiple languages or the writing of pathbreaking books.

It was Chris, of course, who offered me the job at Oxford. Yesterday I thanked him for his words at our first meeting after I got that job. As a refreshing change from a number of well-meaning people who asked whether I’d done my “DPhil here or at Cambridge”, Chris had no assumptions that Oxford was the only place to be, or even the best place. He told me that I didn’t owe anyone anything, and if I could get a permanent job somewhere else, I should just go, without looking back. Sensible words, you’ll agree – though not necessarily what you’d expect from someone who was at the time Head of Faculty in one of the world’s most prestigious history departments. As someone who’d never done more than visit Oxford as a tourist, and who while confident she could do the job at hand was a little intimidated by the, well, Oxfordishness of it all, this was a comforting start to my new role.

In some ways it doesn’t take a great deal to be kind to other scholars, particularly if you are in a position of power. It is easy to scatter crumbs of consolation to more junior colleagues, to offer a few words that lift their spirits. But in other ways, that is being kind in only the most superficial manner. Perhaps it is merely being nice. We can, I think, often define “kindness” as merely something like “demonstrating good will”. But in Middle English, kindenesse means – amongst other things – kind deeds. I have met many senior scholars who demonstrate good will to their juniors: who will be welcoming of their presence, grateful for their contributions, and will write an encouraging word in their leaving cards at the end of yet another fixed-term contract. Senior scholars who will do kindness for their junior colleagues are rarer.

So I remember that first proper conversation I had with Chris as him doing me a kindness. I would have been entirely satisfied back then if he had simply made me welcome, seemed friendly, and offered me a few words of advice on how to do my job and how the faculty worked: in short, if he had been nice. He did all those things; but he also reminded me that I was worth more than a fixed-term contribution to the university. In the years since then, Chris has read my work, supported numerous job applications – including the Leverhulme I currently have – and never failed to make me feel as if I matter as both a scholar and a colleague.

At yesterday’s colloquium the shadow of Brexit loomed large. How could it not, when several speakers came from EU countries, and Chris’s own work is celebrated for its transnational scope? The afternoon was a celebration of Chris’s achievements, but it was also an opportunity to reflect on the ways the boundaries of “medieval history” have changed in the last forty years, mostly for the good – thresholds between sub-disciplines, periods and regions becoming more malleable and easier to cross. At a time when 15% of academic staff and 4.5% of undergraduates in the UK come from EU countries, universities are understandably anxious about the impact closing our borders might have on their intellectual culture and, more pragmatically, on their finances. It doesn’t help that the referendum campaign has been one of the ugliest in recent political memory, as British anxieties about the economy, public services and a nebulous “future” have become twisted into a knot of xenophobic parochialism. We are looking inward, and we are eating our young.

how-did-you-vote-said-pooh-leave-said-piglet-i-2915124If there were ever a time for academics to be kind, it is now. I am not calling for niceness, as that insipid meme of Winnie the Pooh and Piglet reconfirming their friendship after the referendum asks us. There is nothing particularly courageous in being nice, and indeed if it encourages us to sublimate our principles, niceness can be cowardly. Kindness, however, does require bravery; it requires us to love our friends and colleagues with an active affection, one that defends them from cruelty and promotes their interests. In a world where we may be seeing even less academic funding, where more pressure is put on departments, where fewer jobs are available and where it may be harder to meet residency requirements, people will be victims of unkindness. They will be taken advantage of, pushed to do more work than they can bear and told to feel grateful for it; they may also suffer even more than they already do on racist and sexist grounds. It will be easy to be nice to them – to smile at them in the corridor, to have lunch with them, to commiserate over a heavy marking load – and these will be good things to do. But it will be harder to be kind – to step in where we see injustices, to speak up for each other, to make the time to find out how someone is really doing and what we can do to make it better. It will be especially hard if we are victims of unkindness ourselves. And yet it is crucial that we do kindness in our institutions: our activism begins with an outstretched hand.

 

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At the Coalface: The Return to Academic Work

I’m seated at my chunky white desk in my home office. Spotify is rolling through its Southern Gothic playlist. I can hear my husband moving around on the floor below. He has begun his portion of our shared parental leave – Kieran is taking the final eight weeks – and I am officially Back At Work.

Ten months ago I officially set my “out of office” auto-message. This is the longest I have been away from a working environment in my entire adult life. Though in many ways, the past ten months have been the closest to a true coalface I am ever likely to get. My working life is a white collar one; it’s a job of the mind, and the dirtiest my hands are likely to get is the occasional ink smear. By contrast, these ten months of first parenthood have been the most intensely physical of my adult life. Some days have felt like back-breaking, mind-numbing labour. Other days have been fierce pleasures. I have calves like steel now from miles of pram-pushing – two to six every day, rain or sleet or shine – and while my stomach is stretch-marked, the flab of my upper arms has shrunk under the weight of an ever-growing infant. My body is stronger than it has been in a long time, although it is also a good deal more tired. I have barely sat at a desk in the 308 days I was on leave, and hardly used a computer.

Not that I’ve been out of touch with the academic community or wider internet entirely, of course. It’s just that most of my communications have taken place through one-handed use of my iPhone. It’s strange to be back, with the opportunity to focus for many hours at a time on only the work at hand. Right now my mind feels quite blank! After necessarily-structured days, coming back to the open horizons of an ongoing research project feels both exhilarating and a little intimidating.

Recently I was reflecting on why academic women might find maternity leave (by which I mean proper paid maternity leave for several months, not a few scant weeks off I know my American colleagues endure, barely enough time to recover from the physical processes of labour itself, never mind do anything else) a sometimes challenging experience. (Note: in the UK, maternity leave can become shared parental leave; partners have equal rights to share it. However, as this is a new law, and as at present it is still mostly women who take the lion’s share of parental leave and reap the cultural rewards and punishments of taking up to a year out of employment, I am focusing this on women’s experience.) 

No more solitude.

For many academics (particularly in the humanities), a large part of our working day is spent alone. Yes, we may well do many hours of teaching, attending committee meetings etc. But for many of us, a good portion of our week is spent alone in our offices. Even for the most extrovert amongst us, going from having quite a lot of alone time to having virtually none can be quite the challenge! I knew it would be hard at times to have another person be entirely dependent on me for meeting their needs, but I think I hadn’t quite appreciated how much I’d miss quiet time alone to think.

Abandoning vocation. 

I’ve written before about the concept of academia as a vocation  – which I consider to be a pernicious idea that contributes heavily to a culture of stress, poor work-life balance and deprioritising mental and physical health. The idea that we are somehow “called” to be academics not only encourages us to take lower salaries, do unpaid labour and move hundreds (or thousands) of miles for sub-optimal jobs: it also subtly but strongly encourages prioritising work above family. It can make women feel immensely guilty about not doing any academic work while they are on maternity leave.

As part of this, the cultural expectation in academia that we do uncompensated work (e.g. write book reviews, edit journals) can result in an expectation that this sort of work will continue when a woman is on maternity leave. It can be particularly tricky when one is part of a long term project, for instance an edited volume. I am co-editing a book of essays, and so I undertook a small amount of editorial work during my maternity leave, because otherwise we would miss publishers’ deadlines. I was fortunate in that my co-editors were very understanding about my other commitments, and indeed said they would understand if I withdrew from the project. I chose not to, but appreciated that there wasn’t an expectation I would remain part of the project – which began well before I was pregnant! In another industry, though, I would have handed over my projects to an appointed colleague (as my husband has done for his eight weeks off!). So much academic work is done through informal connections and can only really be done by the named person. It can place a heavy burden of guilt on women – what if a project has to be abandoned because you can’t do your part?

Off on a jolly. 

Add to that two notions I’ve faced myself in my time off – either that maternity leave is an opportunity for research leave, or it is a sabbatical – and the idea that one actually does not do any academic work at all on maternity leave can seem like a radical one. I have been asked several times how my research is going by well-meaning people who assume that time away from teaching and admin has left me with lots of lovely time to think and write. For the first six months of her life, my daughter would only nap for more than 20-30 minutes if she was being pushed in a pram. Even now, she usually has a solid morning nap but always requires her afternoon nap to take place while out walking. I also did not produce a baby who was happy to just chill out on a mat with a toy box while I diligently caught up on the latest journal articles. Raising an infant is a whole body experience, and it also takes up a hell of a lot of your brain power, I found. Amazingly enough, in the 30-60 minutes a day I might have entirely to myself, I chose to take a bath or read a YA novel or paint my nails. I know women who used their babies’ more reliable nap times to edit articles or write book reviews. Good for them, if that’s what they wanted to do. But it should not feel like an obligation.

The bloody job market. 

Of course, as well as the cultural expectation that academics never ever switch off is the sadly pragmatic reality that the academic job market sucks and that taking a year out of it can hurt your career prospects, particularly if you’re an early career academic. It can be very difficult to escape from the fear of “publish or die”, for instance. I had to make a very conscious and deliberate choice that I would not be writing this year, and that that was okay. I may never have another child, and I will never get this time back.

The feminism of maternity leave.

My ten month retreat into the domestic may seem to some people like a conservative move. But I view my refusal to undertake academic labour (apart from a couple of small projects I weighed up as being worth my while to complete) as a feminist decision. Women are still penalised in the workplace for taking up their legal right to maternity leave. I work for an employer that provides very generous leave; I took advantage not of a privilege, but a right.

And now I come back to work – not refreshed after a holiday, but certainly different after months of excavations in a very different kind of coalface. I have my pick axe; let’s see if I remember how to use it in unearthing the medieval past.

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Women at Sea Registration Open

Just a quick post to say that registration for Women at Sea is open! As a reminder, this is a fantastic (we hope and expect!) one day event in Swansea on 1 July – right on the waterfront, appropriately enough. Although it is a symposium mostly about medieval women, it transgresses the boundaries of space, time and discipline. Very importantly, we are joined by refugee women who will speak for their own experiences at sea in literal and figurative ways.

The registration has come out a little later than we hoped, but that is because a lot of time has been spent securing as much funding as possible to (a) cover the travel of postgrad and unwaged speakers, and (b) to ensure the registration fee for everyone is as low as it could be. At one point we hoped to be free to students; we were not able to secure enough funding to do that, but we hope an £18 fee for a day of talks, coffee and lunch seems like a good deal. Access matters.

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On the Road: Attending Academic Events as a Parent

This past Monday I did something I’ve not done in about a year – stood up in front of a room full of people, cracked a couple of bad jokes, and then subjected them to several thousand words of my research. I was giving a paper – “Swyving the Miller’s Daughter: Patriarchy, Homosociality and Rape Culture in Late Medieval England” – at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of Southampton. It was a really lovely evening: the sun shone, I got lots of good questions, and then I was taken out to dinner, where I ate lots of food and various important things were discussed – Kate Bush, house rabbits, the EU referendum!

It was also the first night I’ve spent away from my daughter in the nine months and five days she’s been out in the world. It all went very smoothly: on Monday morning my in laws, who live a half an hour drive away, came over to look after her until my husband came home from work, and on Tuesday they came over very early in the morning to help with her morning routine while Kieran got ready to go back to the office, and stayed with her until I got home. I was away for 26 hours, and things went pretty much precisely as they were meant to do. I didn’t particularly pine for her, and indeed enjoyed having a two-and-a-half hour train ride to read and drink coffee, and to have an evening out without needing to get back to relieve babysitters. It did feel quite physically strange, though, particularly since I didn’t breastfeed for over a day. I felt slightly off-kilter in my body in a way that’s hard to describe. Motherhood seems full of curiously ineffable bodily as well as emotional, experience. Overall, though, my first trip away was a success, and I feel more confident about doing it again in July for the Women at Sea symposium in Swansea.

Nonetheless, this was an occasion that required forward-thinking and relied on the availability of nearby family as well as a sympathetic spouse. These are privileges not all parents have. And, as an invited speaker, I was travelling a relatively short distance with my train fare paid by my hosts. Again – privileges. I started thinking – as I have done on and off since I got pregnant – about ways in which institutions, or at least event organisers, could make primary care givers feel more able to attend academic events. Instead of simply coming up with a list of ideas, though, I thought it was much better to ask people who’ve got a bit more parenthood experience than me. So I put questions to the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship – what makes it more feasible for you to attend a conference or other academic event away from home (e.g., research trip)? What issues hold you back? What can be done to make your visit easier? Have you ever been made to feel unwelcome as a parent at an academic event?

I got some great responses. Again and again, the point came up that most people rely on a partner either looking after the children at home, or coming with them and looking after them there. I noticed that often this depended on partners either taking annual leave, or being fellow academics who could take advantage of the summer break. Cathy Hume provided a good example of this: ” I took my small daughter to conferences twice: NCS Portland, and Kalamazoo 2013, while I was living in the US. In both cases I had my husband with me (also a medievalist), and we swapped in and out of conference attendance”. For those of us married to/in a relationship with someone who is not in our line of work, things can be trickier, as Christine Ekholst noted: “I…often need additional support because my partner works irregular and long hours. I also prefer conferences that are not on weekends (my partner sometimes works weekends) because during weeks we have childcare”.

There can be an assumption that a supportive partner should be willing to take time off work while we go to academic events. Certainly this is ideal, but it’s also a privilege; as Kirsty Bolton pointed out, “my partner has to take days off work if I go away, as we have no family nearby and nursery doesn’t cover his hours (he commutes to London). As I’m a PhD student and he’s the wage earner, it’s rare that we can justify me taking the time/money to attend anything”. The other option, if you don’t have family or friends nearby who can help out, is paid care, but as Dot Porter says, this can be yet another financial strain: “we end up spending additional money on care (we have someone to pick up our son from school and stay with him until hubs gets home – my usual responsibility) or my husband takes days off work (which in his line of work – he’s a bank manager – is frowned upon)”.

It’s usually only feasible for a partner to take time off work if they have generous annual leave and a sympathetic boss. My husband has both, so we’re lucky – but wherever possible I prefer him not to take annual leave when I’m away, because, well, I prefer us to spend our annual leave together! Some people try to make their conference trips into a family holiday for just this reason, and Shiri Fozi Jones had the great suggestion that “since conferences tend to compile lists of hotels and restaurants etc for people coming from out of town, it would probably be easy to include a list of specifically family-friendly options”. Some respondents found the idea of bringing their family along too distracting and liked having a break by themselves; others only wanted to take a longer trip if family could come with them. So, conferences hosted in places with affordable accommodation for family, not just single people, are ideal – especially if it’s in a place that has good facilities for children, and even better if the conference itself could provide some family-friendly events (Leeds IMC, for instance, has had a falconry display).

What about at the conference itself? As well as basic but essential features such as baby change facilities (this should seem obvious, but it’s shocking how many universities lack them – which isn’t exactly helpful for undergraduates with children, either!), many people stressed the necessity for a lactation room if you are a breastfeeding parent. This is a simple request – all it requires is a room with an electricity outlet (for a breast pump) and a comfortable seat. And privacy – someone said that the room set aside for pumping was also being used as a coffee room! Which would be fine for some women – I’m pretty happy to get my boobs out to get the job done – but not everyone, and privacy should be built in as a matter of course. Jen Edwards also points out that many “conferences are scheduled so tightly, with everyone moving in concert from place to place that nursing/pumping moms are forced to miss events in order to take care of business”. This of course isn’t just true for mothers. There are many accessibility reasons for allowing sufficient breaks in a conference day, and also time to get between sessions if there are several rooms being used. Cathy Hume says that in “an ideal world, I would like to see a breastfeeding-friendly room, a creche that you can drop children off at for a couple of hours, and a play room where parents/ carers can hang out with their children at major conferences”.

The idea of the playroom particularly struck me – not only would it be a great way to meet fellow academic parents, but it also makes children feel part of the conference rather than simply as a problem to be taken care of. I’m not suggesting that everyone start bringing their kids to all their conference sessions and letting them run riot, of course. But having dedicated spaces where families are welcome definitely helps more people attend events – not only for practical reasons, but because they feel welcome. A couple of people pointed out that traditional conference dinners can’t be attended by people with small children. I wouldn’t want to do away with conference dinners, but maybe there could be some alternative events, such as a lunch – or even an early-evening cocktail (or doughnut) hour that was family-friendly.

Some of these ideas – such as providing a creche, which necessarily require insurance and trained staff – cost a lot of money. Some – such as putting aside a small room where nursing mothers can feel relaxed enough to nurse or pump – are free. But I think there is scope for all event organisers to consider the needs of parents before and during their events.

As a side note – I started this post an hour ago while my daughter slept. Since then she’s got up from a nap, breastfed, and had a dirty nappy changed. She’s now cooing and bouncing extremely vigorously in her jumperoo, but giving me a look that suggests I should really be admiring her instead of typing on this boring old thing. So I’ll stop here, and hope this quick post has provided some food for thought and discussion.

Posted in Academia, Academic Parenthood, Feminism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Like father, like daughter

stupid meme

Scrolling facebook idly, I just came across a meme. The page sharing it is one of those pages designed to share memes and profit from the clicks; none of the images are attributed. “Gone are the days when girls cooked like their others. Now they drink like their fathers” the grainy image proclaims, its lack of profundity matched by its clip art illustrations. Yet this picture has been circulated 44,420 times.

In the fourteenth-century English poem, How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, the eponymous narrator advises her daughter how to “mend hyr lyfe and make her better” with several stanzas of homespun wisdom. Give charitably; pay attention in church; don’t laugh or talk too loudly; and –

Go not as it were a gase [goose; gad-about]
Fro house to house to seke the mase. [diversion]
Ne go thou not to no merket
To sell thi thryft; bewer of itte.
Ne go thou nought to the taverne,
Thy godnes for to selle therinne.
Forsake thou hym that taverne hanteth,
And all the vices that therinne bethe.
Wherever thou come at ale or wyne,
Take not to myche, and leve be tyme,
For mesure therinne, it is no herme,
And drounke to be, it is thi schame.

Although the narrator is supposedly a housewife, the poem was almost certainly written by a man, and quite possibly a cleric. The poem is primarily concerned with female subordination at home and modest conduct abroad. With its repeated injunctions of what young women should not do, we are of course left to wonder if perhaps they were drinking too much ale, going to cockfights, talking loudly with their friends in the street. Such insistence on good conduct is hardly necessary when the intended audience is compliant, after all. Felicity Riddy has argued that the poem may well have been composed in order to communicate good conduct to young women in service who were living away from their own mothers; the poem thus potentially filled an educational and familial gap.

I think that the mother-narrator also serves another purpose. The Housewife is a representation of the ideal bourgeois wife and mother, who is not only an obedient spouse but also a thrifty housekeeper, a pious Christian and a concerned parent. If we accept Riddy’s argument – and I have always found it compelling – the Housewife is a conservative weapon in a fight against change. Several historians of this period have described late medieval England as a “golden age” for women; while this has been subject to much criticism, women of the lower and middling ranks of society certainly had more economic opportunities – and more freedom of movement. Service was a key part of medieval adolescence, for girls as well as boys, and many young women would have moved away from the watchful gaze of their parents to work in other households. Moralists were constantly concerned about what young men might get up to if left to their own devices, and there are hundreds of didactic poems aimed at them to prove it. But poems like How the Wiseman Taught His Son reflect different sorts of anxieties. Those poems want to produce young men who are good citizens and householders, who will govern their homes and workshops fairly, act as good neighbours, and be rewarded as devout Christians. How the Goodwife is instead afraid of how easily a good woman can be shamed, and startlingly concludes that “chyld unborne were better/Than be untaught”. It would be better to be unborn than to grow up ignorant of female good conduct.

Returning to that facebook meme: I was reminded of How the Goodwife because of its poisonous sort of comfortable nostalgia. Young women aren’t like their mothers; they drink (and presumably go out “like a gase” and socialise) like men. They have left the domestic sphere their mothers supposedly occupy, and in doing so have given up their opportunity to be women. They are still girls, and they are unlearned in the way of being good women. This does a disservice to young women – and it also does a disservice to their mothers, who are also no longer women with agency, but simply stock figures in a long history of misogyny. They are Goodwives, all, and no more.

 

Posted in Feminism, Gender History, Medieval History, Medieval Literature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments