In the medieval romance Sir Degare, a virginal princess stops on a journey through the woods to relieve herself. She becomes separated from her companions, is accosted by a fairy knight, and is raped. Lately I have found myself pondering that comfort break. Medieval writers are not as afraid as many who came after them to discuss bodily functions, but still, a urinating princess is a surprisingly earthy note. It is a good excuse for the princess to lose track of her retinue – but it is also a very clear marker of her humanity. Bodily weakness gets her lost, and in a short time also means she has no power to fight off the fairy who assaults her. The text remains ambiguous about to what extent the princess is responsible for what happens to her body, and why.
Over the past year or so, I have found myself thinking increasingly about bodies and academic experience. Twitter has played a big part in shaping the nature of those thoughts, from a discussion I had with several people over twitter last July, where a discussion about appropriate academic attire became a jumping off point for commentary on sexism, ableism, ageism and racism in higher education, to following scholars like Dorothy Kim, David M. Perry, Jonathan Hsy and PhDisabled, who in different ways consistently challenge the white, abled, heteronormative status quo. It led to me setting up a little tumblr project, This is How Academics Dress, to challenge the idea that academics look a certain way. That blog almost immediately gained nearly 3000 followers, but unfortunately never had very many submissions; but the fact that so many people were interested in the idea of it is certainly some kind of proof that there are issues here people want to unpack and stereotypes they want to challenge, as I explored in a short blog post a while ago.
Recently, my thoughts about my academic body have been complicated by the fact that I am currently nourishing another body. I am now a couple of weeks into the second trimester of my first pregnancy. I wondered for a while if I should make this public on the wider internet (rather than just my facebook feed). Partly that was because there is still an anxious part of me that wonders what I would then do if something went wrong and how I would negotiate talking about that online; partly it was because, as Mary Flannery articulated recently on twitter, there is a concern that it may change the way people view me as an academic. I am very lucky to have supportive colleagues, and I work at a university with excellent maternity provisions, but all the same, there can be that niggling worry that I will be taken less seriously. I don’t expect that anyone with whom I work on a regular basis will treat me that way; I have so far received warm congratulations and offers of support, and no impression at all that I can’t do my job. But certainly I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence from women I know that people assumed their ballooning bodies accompanied shrinking ambition and ability in the workplace. (There are plenty of academic studies on outright discrimination against pregnant people in the workplace – but does anyone know of any about, say, microaggressions toward expectant mothers at work?)
Mostly, though, I have been thinking about my academic body more in the context of what it does and does not allow me to do. I have had a pretty comprehensive list of early pregnancy complaints, and I am extremely grateful that my current job means I can spend a lot of time working from home. Even last year, when my schedule was still quite flexible, I had a much larger teaching load, and I think I would have found keeping up with work incredibly difficult. As it is, it’s difficult to think creatively about research when hugely nauseated or suffering from acid reflux or just perpetually exhausted, but at least most of the time I haven’t had to factor that into classroom time. I am very, very privileged in all kinds of ways. And I do think that universities in the UK in general are much better geared up to supporting employees in pregnancy and in their return to work than many other employers. Still: right now I will not be attending 5pm seminars after a day of teaching, because I am just too tired – joining other colleagues who also miss such seminars because of chronic health conditions, or because the only access to the seminar room is up a flight of stairs, or because children have had to be picked up from school. Pregnancy is a fairly short-term condition; there are a lot of other conditions and situations that mean people cannot fully participate in academic life, which at many universities is still set up to best accommodate people who have no special access requirements, who are not primary caregivers, who are always in the luxurious position of being able to choose to put their work first. (I am not saying anyone should want to always put work first; I certainly don’t! But to be able to have a choice over that at all is its own kind of privilege.)
Lately I read an article about the cost of childcare, the general thrust of which was that the high expense of childcare is a major barrier to equality in the workplace. Not a surprising or new argument, though of course the comments were filled with invective about, essentially, women getting what they deserved. Us women and our volatile, dangerously productive bodies, spitting out babies and soaking up the resources of the state. It is not, when you get down to it, all that different from the venomous rhetoric about benefits for the unemployed and disabled. In various ways, they are all about undeserving bodies – undeserving because they are not productive, or by contrast because they demand the right to be productive in more than one sphere, thus defying categorisation.
Coming back to Sir Degare, I think about the princess, who has been kept all her life shut up away from the company of men, under the protective gaze of a father so controlling that people may suspect their relationship to be incestuous. The princess seems to have very few choices about what she does or with whom. Bodily necessity forces her to stop to ‘don here nedes and hire righte’. She does not immediately rejoin the party, who soon ride out of sight. Instead she ‘wente aboute and gaderede floures’ and listens to birdsong, until she realises too late that she is alone and lost. She makes a very small sort of choice for a brief kind of freedom, and then she is raped. It seems a pretty disproportionate consequence; but somehow I think that the spiteful commentators found in the bowels of articles on equality of opportunity might have responded: well, she brought it on herself.