• Hallelujah

    This is a guest post by dr ngo

    I just finished singing Handel's “Messiah” three more times (my 28th through 30th time with my current choir, far short of the record 118th through 120th set by a fellow bass), and it is indeed a magnificent work. Although there are, in my judgment, more musically inspiring and more emotionally moving movements, the Hallelujah Chorus is by far the best-known and most-loved: here are five versions.

    We generally sing and listen to the Hallelujah Chorus out of context, which is perhaps just as well. (And I am a man who usually loves context.) Because if you are actually following the text of Messiah, what you'll hear is this:

    The kings of the earth rise up, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed:

    “Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their yokes from us!”

    He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn; the Lord shall have them in derision.

    Thou [God] shall break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel.


    I'm certainly not suggesting that most singers – much less listeners – have this violent setting in mind when they sing/hear the Hallelujah Chorus. To the contrary, we don't even notice it. (I'm not sure how many times I had sung this before it sank in.) But what does it say about us when our extreme happiness is not just rooted in comfort and joy – about which Messiah has much to say – but requires for its perfection, even subconsciously, the smiting of our enemies: laughing them to scorn, dashing them to pieces?

    There is, of course, an alternative – a “cold and broken” Hallelujah, as composed and sung by Leonard Cohen. (Some prefer this sung by other performers, such as Jeff Buckley or K.D. Lang. They're entitled to their opinions, but they're wrong.)

    I leave it to the devout Christians among you to debate whether Handel/Jennens or Cohen better reflects the spirit of Christian rejoicing. I'll stand on the sidelines and watch.

  • A bottom-up view of gender

    The heated and sometimes vicious debate between some trans activists and a subset of radical feminists who deny that trans women are women (TERFs) has widened to include other feminists who I wouldn't have previously thought of as radicals (such as Caroline Criado-Perez. One of the issues is that trans thinkers are using the term "gender" in a different way from that normally used in mainstream women's studies (and the way in which I'd previously used it in my own research). But I've just come across a couple of useful pieces by the historical researcher Cristan Williams that suggest to me how this new way of conceptualising gender might fit with previous models, but also expand them usefully.

    The two pieces are Contextualizing the Body and Critical of "Gender Critical". "Contextualizing the Body" is arguing that gender is the "labelling of and inevitable contextualization of sex attributes". Williams defines "contextualization" as "the process of organizing data as being situationally and functionally interconnected to other concepts". She uses the analogy of the difference between a sound (a physical phenomenon) and our understanding of that sound.

    In other words, someone being identified as "male" or "female" is a mental creation. I've always been unhappy with this idea of biological sex as created since I came across it in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. But Williams' take is interesting, because in "Critical of "Gender Critical"", she is arguing that while gender is constructed, it is also inevitable that this construction happens:

    In its simplest form, gender arises from the mind’s inherent and unending instinct to note that A is like B and C while being different than X, which is itself like Y and Z. For gender to truly abolished, this hard-wired mental process must not exist


    In Butler, gender is imposed on people as a form of power and those, like her, who argue for biological sex as a created concept tend to see it as some kind of wicked medical conspiracy against innocent babies. But actually, it's one of several obvious distinctions that can be used to divide humans up into groups (if not 100% accurately) and it's therefore a very common way to categorise humans in all societies.

    Williams goes on:

    Since this process [categorisation] exists as a relational state within the mind, each person’s subjective experience will be, in some ways, at least somewhat unique. These unique perspectives will inevitably invite discourse, giving rise to collective norms and taboos which become cultural systems influencing human behavior to one degree or another.

    Williams therefore has a three level model: sex attributes, individual-mind gender (what I've also seen trans theory describe as "gender identity") and society-wide gender norms/rules. And she sees gender as operating bottom-up (apologies for the double entendre), with individual ideas of gender feeding into collective ones. In contrast, traditional theories of gender see it as socially-constructed, but in a top-down way. Society (especially patriarchal society) imposes gender on (pre-existing) males and females, often coercively. This gender imposition then has subjective effects on individuals, who may internalize such gender norms.

    When you think of it in those terms, these two different views of how gender are produced have immediate parallels to the unending sociological debates on the relationship of individuals to society: do individuals create society or does society create individuals? Different authors have different perspectives, on this question, but there are also productive theories about structuration, the dual role of agents and social structures in the creation and maintenance of systems. Such theories can include power relations and hierarchies within society, but without removing all agency from individuals.

    What’s more, historians of gender as socially constructed have often accepted that there is a subjective side to this construction, that there is a complex individual response to how society’s ideas about masculinity and femininity affect them. Michael Roper, for example has written about this and so have other historians of masculinity. There are all sorts of practical difficulties for historians in recovering past subjectivities, but that’s our problem, not a problem with the model.

    In other words, there’s room in existing gender theories for a third level which is intermediate between bodies and society, which goes beyond simple internalization of social norms and which might correspond to trans theory’s "gender identity". The current problem, however, is that because this third level is so subjective, it’s quite hard to understand how another person might imagine it in a very different way from you. I suspect trans people underestimate how difficult a process "gender identity" is for cis people: "gender conforming", which is commonly used to describe non-trans people, isn’t a helpful phrase (although Williams doesn’t use it in her series of articles). One useful idea that Judith Butler did come up with is about gender as being a performance and I think for a lot of cis women (and for some cis men) it isn’t an easy performance. It took a long time for me, for example, to learn to cope with being an unfeminine woman.

    But cis people rarely experience the extreme gender dysphoria that’s common for trans people: the sense that the gender to which society has assigned them is completely unliveable for them, is wrong in some fundamental way. To go back to the metaphor of gender as performance, it’s not just that you’ve been miscast in the part you’re expected to play, as a lot of cis girls and women feel. It’s presumably more that you don’t want to be in this kind of play to start with. I didn’t want to share in the kind of femininity that my mother tried to inculcate me in, but I’ve found forms of womanhood that are acceptable to me. The ability to do that, to fit within my "own" gender to that extent, is an advantage that I have, even if it now seems so natural to me that I don’t recognise it as an advantage.

    So part of the challenge is to find terms and descriptions for this interaction of bodies and society within one’s own mind that reflect the complexities of what’s going on within both cis and trans people. I’m not sure "gender identity" works as a term and possibly we need several terms. But thinking of gender as both bottom-up and top-down potentially allows us both to understand people's experiences more clearly and also to work towards changing harmful gender norms.

    Firstly, trans people’s experience suggest that individual-mind gender is not determined by a combination of sex attributes and social gender norms. A child with a penis surrounded by people telling it that it is a boy can nevertheless have an individual-mind conviction that she is female. Equally, he can have an individual-mind conviction that he is male (or even a different non-binary individual-mind view). Radical feminist thought tends to focus on social structures of oppression to the exclusion of individuals. But thinking about gender as created bottom-up suggests that if you can change the individual-mind gender and the gender performance of enough individuals, you can start to change the gender norms of the society they create.

    But a bottom-up theory of gender also suggests that the scheme of "abolishing gender", which some activists call for, isn’t likely to happen. Individuals are going to have an understanding of what "men" are like and what "women" are like, because that’s the way our minds function, to spot patterns. Enough of those understandings are likely to be common for some social ideas of gender to develop, even if not necessarily the ones we currently have.

    For an analogy, it’s useful to look at social constructions of age and the elderly. Ageing is a biological fact, although there’s no clear dividing line between who counts as "old" and who doesn’t, and it varies greatly between societies depending on nutrition and healthcare availability. And in social situations, other people’s age is normally "read" from their appearance and behaviour: you rarely get to check someone’s birth certificate. There are societies in which the old are valued as wise and others in which they’re denigrated: the power relations aren’t simply one way round. But I’m not aware of any societies where age has been "abolished", or where there aren’t age-related expectations and norms.

    In the same way, gender is always going to exist: as Cristan Williams points out, we’re hard-wired to make such distinctions. But I’d argue that acknowledging gender as bottom-up as well as top-down gives us another possible set of tools for changing oppressive gender stereotypes and ones which it’s worth all feminists trying to use.

  • Berkshire Conference 3: Feminist Connections

    One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Berkshire Conference on women's history was to hear about women's history outside the Middle Ages and some of the sessions included very interesting periods and combinations of cultures. My Friday at the Berks started with one of these, panel 35 on "Spousal Homicide and Adultery in Comparative Perspective", which included papers spanning almost two millennia of European history. We started off with Mary Deminion and a paper entitled "Guilty and Infamous: Public Adultery Trials and the Roman Woman". While women weren't legally banned from the Roman courts, it was socially transgressive for them to appear personally in cases, rather than have male advocates. This was mainly an issue of "modesty": Roman trials were public, in the sense of being tried in the forum and as being in some ways a public spectacle, although a respectable in which high-status men could participate.

    Augustus made adultery a criminal offence in 18 BC, although double standards meant the offence reflected only the marital status of women: a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman was not committing adultery. Previously adultery had been a matter for the paterfamilias of the woman concerned. Now, notorious cases became a public matter, such as the exile by Augustus of his daughter Julia, allegedly guilty of adultery with many men. Mary argued that Julia may have been paying the price for her popularity; her conditions of exile were improved after she received public support. Similarly, when Nero accused his wife Octavia of adultery, there were violent public protests, since Octavia was seen as innocent.

    Finally, Mary discussed the case of Lepida from 20 AD, who was subject to fraudulent claims by Tiberius and her ex-husband Publius Quirinius. Tacitus reports how Lepida appealed to the crowds at the games, "invoking her ancestors" and accompanied by other ladies of rank. Although she was still convicted, Lepida showed a possible way for women to use the public sphere for their own benefit, publicising the injustice done to a respectable woman.

    We then moved on to Sara McDougall on "Adulterous Murderesses and Royal Pardon in Late-Medieval France". Sara was looking at killing's one spouse, especially wives who conspired with their lovers to kill their husbands. As she pointed out, such viricide was very rare: only about 1% of all murders were of spouses and more than 80% of conjugal crimes were committed by husbands against their wives.

    Sara referred to work by Guy Geltner about women's marginality in criminal statistics. There are various possibilities: that women are more law-abiding or better at concealment of crimes, that they had fewer motives to commit crimes or fewer opportunities to do so, but also that detection and prosecution may have been skewed by a belief that women were intrinsically weak and irresponsible and thus should be treated less harshly than male offenders.

    Nevertheless, it's been presumed that some crimes by women, such as the murder of her husband, which could be seen as a form of treason, were punished particularly severely with no mitigation. In fact, however, Sara didn't find such clear-cut double standards. More men were punished for adultery than women. Nor could husbands necessarily kill adulterous wives with immunity: such an act required careful justification. Husbands who committed such a crime might be pardoned, but some were executed.

    Sara had also found 30 cases where wives and their lovers were charged with murder of the woman's husband. She finds no clear patterns there: although the wife and lover were usually tried together, lovers were more likely to be executed. Some women were pardoned or given life imprisonment. Premeditated murder was treated more harshly and wealth and power helped defendants, but sometimes even they were condemned. Sara concluded that both men and women could sometimes get away with adultery and murder: there was a mix of harsh punishments, but also sometimes surprising acts of clemency.

    We then moved on to seventeenth-century Geneva and Sarah Beam on "Killing for Adultery: Sexuality, Medicine and Gender in Early Modern Geneva". This was the depressing case of Nicolard Bouffe (?), the last woman executed for adultery in early modern Geneva (in 1645). She was accused of adultery with multiple men both before her husband's death and after, and also of having syphilis. Because there were no eye-witnesses, she was tortured in order to make her confess, since only such a confession would allow her to be executed.

    Sara placed Nicolard's case at the intersection of two different trends. From the 1550s, there was enthusiasm for prosecuting adultery in Geneva. The prosecutions themselves were relatively blind to status and gender, but women were more likely to be executed. From the 1590s, however, there was more leniency, with (temporary) banishment the more usual punishment.

    The second move was towards the use of medical evidence rather than oral testimony – there was a move away from torture towards circumstantial evidence. This was combined with a belief that syphilis was spread by women. Whether the shift away from torture benefited women is not clear: medical examinations after rape often took place well after the crime and implicitly exonerated men. The conviction rate for rape was less with medical evidence than with torture.

    Nicolard was unusual in having to suffer multiple torture sessions: torture normally stopped after three sessions, and a woman who could maintain her innocence through these could have her sentence reduced even if she was convicted. Nicolard, however, despite attempting at first to claim her innocence and then to mitigate her crimes eventually confessed to multiple adultery and was regarded as a syphilitic prostitute. She was hanged in order to "purify" the neighbourhood.

    Finally came Lauren Kaminsky, with the title: "'What's Love Got to Do with It?' Spousal Abuse, Adultery, and Collective Responsibility in the Soviet Union". Lauren was looking at several cases between 1920s and the 1950s of wives committing suicide because of their husband's bad behaviour towards them. Suicide was not a crime under Soviet law, but assisting or compelling suicide was. These cases were not, however, dealt with legally, but by the Party Control Commission, an internal disciplinary organisation of the Communist Party. They were keen to ensure "proper behaviour in private life" and saw a duty for the collective to intervene when abuses were occcuring. Since the party was seen as one big family, there was a preference for it, rather than courts, to handle such failures of marital harmony. Wives could appeal to the patriarchal authority of the party, as dependents of it, and the party would then punish offenders as means of their redemption.

    What made this session so interesting were repeated parallels and connections between the papers and with sexual encounters from other periods. Defining and proving adultery could be a difficult process: someone mentioned Bill Clinton on the topic. The issue of responsibility for dealing with adultery was another interesting intersection: whether it was a "public", "private" or "communal" matter. There were odd resonances between anonymous denunciations in Geneva and the Soviet Union and the same puritanical determination to have men as well as women be disciplined. Someone pointed out that adultery being regarded as a "public" crime might possibly benefit adulterous women, if it limited private vengeance. Another theme that came out was how women might try and use their own "inferiority" to their advantage in courts: positioning themselves as innocent victims in need of protection or led astray by others. All this suggests that similar underlying patriarchal structures and assumptions might encourage similar behaviour by women even in widely varied societies.

    The next session was the one I was speaking in: Session 46, "On the Edge of the Law: Medieval Men Judging Women". I gave a paper on the ninth-century rebel nun, Duda, whom I've talked about before. Rachel Furst then talked on "Limited Liability: Women in the Jewish Courts of Medieval Germany". She was looking at the legal theories of rabbis on whether married Jewish women could take oaths in court. In medieval Jewish law, there was no equivalent of coverture, in which a married couple formed a single legal unit. Rabbi Eliezer, for example, argued that if a man was trying to recover a pledge from a married woman, which she couldn't return and her husband couldn't come to court for her, she should be allowed to take an oath to clear herself. In his view, women couldn't be involved in commerce if they weren't allowed to take oaths in order for people to trade with them. Some later rabbis disagreed, implicitly questioning the legal personhood of women. Unfortunately, Rachel didn't have any court records that would allow her to see the practical effect of these statements, but it again highlighted how many different cultures have had problems with women's legal status.

    I had one case to discuss and Rachel had none. Janelle Werner, our third speaker, whose title was "'And of His Own Will, He Promised to Turn Her From Their Home': Lay
    and Clerical Concubines in Late Medieval England" had nearly 600 cases to play with, and thus could include actual statistics. Janelle was looking at church court records from the fifteenth-century diocese of Hereford, which straddled the English-Welsh border. In particular, she was interested in issues of status and ethnicity. Janelle argued that it was possible to get ideas concerning social status from the amount of name information given for someone: almost all men were fully named (both names recorded), while for 45% of the women only one name, or none was given (they were just described as "a certain woman"). Judging status by these naming patterns, three-quarters of fornication cases involved men and women of equal status, while nearly 60% of concubinage charges involved a higher-status man and a lower-status woman.

    Janelle had also looked at the ethnicity of the names, with almost 40% of cases involving "mixed" relationships (mostly Welsh men with English women). Women tended to be punished more harshly than in English-only relationships (though overall they were less harshly punished than men). But it was also possible that some of these mixed relationships were in fact Welsh marriages, rather than concubinage: Welsh law regarded marriage as a contract, not a sacrament. Medieval concubinage always confounded the normal categories of single/married/widowed, but it sounded from Janelle's paper as if there were even more complicated factors once you got into the borderlands.

    After this legal-heavy morning, I went off some art history after lunch, to session 92: Things on the Edge: Materiality and Early Modern Trade Routes. Chi-Ming Yang, in a paper entitled "Ornamental Bodies: Chinoiserie Across Four Continents" was tying together how in 1600-1800 the technologies of Asian ornament were affecting European science and also attitudes towards black people in the Americas. In particular, she argued that the technological marvels of porcelain and lacquer encouraged an emphasis on the surfaces of bodies. While eighteenth-century English ladies used toxic white lead to bleach their skin and achieve a "porcelain" complexion, the black glossiness of lacquer was paralleled by a fetishization of black skin in paintings such as Dirk Valkenburg's Slave Play from 1706-08. Technologies for surfaces helped develop visual vocabularies of racial diversity that could be transferred across media.

    The second paper was by Martha Chaiklin on "Indigenizing the Foreign: How Imports Changed the Material Landscape of Early Modern Japan". Martha started by pointing out that the supposedly closed-off nature of early modern Japanese society and its economy was a myth. Continual economic growth led to a demand for luxuries and for new and different things in particular. As examples, she discussed tortoiseshell, in demand for women's hair ornaments. Because women could only legally possess personal property, there was a desire for expensive personal ornaments. The use of such ornaments by the rich in turn had a trickle-down effect on poorer people, with fakes made from quail egg. Similarly, ivory was imported for a range of uses, such as hair ornaments, netsuke, the lids of tea holders and personal seals.

    Martha ended by pointing out how in the late nineteenth century, the Japanese government encouraged the exporting of "traditional Japanese handicrafts", including items in ivory. But we should treat such claims of "tradition" with care and be aware of how imported materials could be "turned Japanese".

    Finally, Dawn Odell talked about food in Dutch colonial Indonesia. She started with a Meissen plate from 1772-1774 owned by Stadtholder William V of Orange, one of a series which used drawings by Johannes Rach, including images from Indonesia. Another Chinese plate was decorated with the Crucifixion and Dawn was interested in what it meant to eat from a plate with such an image or with an image of a house from Batavia (now Jakarta) and whether the meaning was different, depending on whether you were in Batavia or in the Netherlands.

    She also talked about social structures in Batavia, where most of the European men co-habited with Asian women, because of a lack of European women. Pictures of Batavia tend not to show domestic life, which would need to include such "dingy beauties"; this contrasted with seventeen-century Dutch genre paintings which show a "penetrable" private life. The heat of Indonesia was seen as both a physical and a moral threat and dining, in particular, was marked by an extreme formality and hierarchy, unlike that in Holland. Women were excluded from conversation or even the tables at which the men sat.

    Dawn then explored whether the plates she studied had a physical presence which insisted on particular practices. In particular, she was contrasting plates with armorial displays, as essentially 2D images that resist the object's real-life third dimension, with other pictures on china that invited one to "enter" a space and with objects (such as a large punchbowl) that have a real physical presence and force a particular material experience onto their viewer.

    While I enjoyed the session overall, it had less to say specifically about gender, but that may reflect both its focus on material objects and on colonialism. There were ideas of women as consumers (and as commodities), but a lot of consumption isn't strongly gendered: men and women acquire similar luxuries. And in modern colonial encounters, male/female distinctions always come after racial ones: the hierarchy is white man, white woman, non-white man, non-white woman. The colonial experience is different for men and women, but I think in most cases it's a second-order difference.

    I had intended to go to another session after this one, but the session I was planning to go to was once again so packed that I couldn't get into the room. As I was fairly tired, I opted out of trying to find an alternative session that wasn't full, had a rest and then went to the Friday evening entertainments. This included some excellent food and a workshop on medieval chant (which was a little too challenging for me in my weary state). In terms of the creative arts, this was the widest-ranging conference I went to this summer: it's just a shame that the attention paid to getting an interesting programme wasn't matched by the efficiency of organising the sessions on those themes.

  • Berkshire Conference 2: rethinking masculinity

    Although the Berkshire Conference is about women’s history, it also has a wider remit including gender history and one of the most popular sessions at the 2014 conference was panel 18: "Are we all on the edge now? The historical usefulness of hegemonic masculinity", which included the attendance via Skype of Raewyn Connell who developed the concept of hegemonic masculinity in Gender and Power. It was the first time I’ve seen a panellist involved via Skype and it worked surprisingly well, though it was obviously disappointing for people who’d hoped to meet Raewyn in person.

    The first panellist was Karen Hagemann who talked about starting off looking at the Napoleonic Wars using Joan Wallach Scott’s ideas of gender, but then also came to use ideas of masculinity from Connell, as well as from John Tosh and Michael Roper. Karen works predominantly on Germany history, and was pointing out how concepts themselves change meaning when they are translated: Connell’s book Masculinities
    became The Made Man in German. She was also talking about her own "happy eclecticism" in taking concepts from theories such as Connell’s. She thought most historians have tended to ignore the prominence of patriarchy in Connell, because it’s seen as ahistorical, ignoring the interaction of gender with class and sexuality, although Catherine Hall and Leonora Davidoff did use Connell’s ideas in Family Fortunes.

    Karen was instead interested in looking at the specific relations of power in which masculinity functions, particularly in the interactions of masculinity with politics and war. But although masculinity needed to be studied in context, she thought it was important to consider why some concepts of masculinity were more powerful in some historical periods.

    Ruth Mazo Karras, who spoke next, was arguing that contrary to what’s often been suggested, it was the "noble model" of masculinity (concerning marriage in particular) that was hegemonic in the Middle Ages, not a "clerical model". This noble model emphasised the successful deployment of violence as well as the sexual and other appetites of knights (while clerical models instead stressed the need to transcend the weaknesses of the flesh).

    Ruth was drawing on Connell’s ideas of complicity (in which non-elite men also share in the "patriarchal dividend" of masculinity) and seeing clerics and nobles as complicit with one another, partly because of the close social and familial interconnections between clerics and laymen. Even though knights themselves were more or less militarily obsolete by the twelfth century (and in fifteenth-century England their main function was to attend Parliament), knighthood remained culturally hegemonic into the early modern period. Churchmen aspired symbolically to knighthood and its values, and some late medieval Jewish and Yiddish texts also tried to adapt the noble model.

    Continuing the wide spread of cultures discussed, we then heard from Stephan Miescher who works on nineteenth and twentieth-century Ghana. He was picking up on two concepts of Connell’s that he found useful for studying colonial West Africa: the idea of multiple masculinities and that of life-history studies. On the other hand, the idea of hegemonic masculinity (a hierarchy of masculinities of which at any one time, one is "culturally exalted"), didn’t work so well for colonial Ghana. Connell saw a global gender order with a colonial spread, but Miescher was arguing that local masculinities were more resilient. He studied the life experience of eight different men in twentieth-century Ghana and found no dominant form of masculinity, but instead men creating their own synthesis of local and foreign forms. Stephan also mentioned the work of Didier Gondola looking at masculinity and performative violence in 1950s Kinshasa, where young men were imagining themselves as "tropical cowboys", influenced by images of the Wild West and Buffalo Bill. (This had interesting parallels to the black British appropriation of soul style in my previous post on the conference; we shouldn’t overlook the creativity that can be seen in response to influential US cultural models).

    Stephan was followed by Yvon Wang talking about Chinese masculinity and suggesting that here the hegemonic masculinity model does seem to fit with Confuscian/Daoist theory and practice, in which the two poles of society are the emperor and the peasant and the supreme form of masculinity is the emperor. She was also talking about the middle-tier masculinities studied by Kam Louie contrasting the wen manliness ideal of civilitas/examination success/poetry writing with that of wu manliness, focusing on martial ability. Yvon made the interesting point that these forms of masculinity weren’t as linked to heterosexuality as might be expected: the wen could be bisexual, penetrating other men as well as women, while the military man tended to be desexualised in his portrayal. Despite the complementary nature of this wen-wu divide, Yvon said that the civilian wu was clearly seen as superior. But there was also a further twist to this hierarchy of masculinities: the subversive possibility of the rebel peasant who might become emperor. The ‘bare sticks’, the rootless men whom land subdivision had made unable to get an education or start a family, formed an underclass from the eighteenth century. Rebellion by them could be a way of subverting the wen-wu dichotomy and imperial hegemony. Yvon also mentioned the proliferation of multiple masculinities at the end of the Chinese empire: foreign masculine ideals might be adapted or rejected. It was another reminder that even a hierarchy of masculinities needn’t be a stable one.

    Finally, Raewyn herself gave a brief talk, explaining how she had originally developed the idea of hegemonic masculinity both as a historical concept (because she was interested in the dynamics of change or stability) and within feminist theory (partly in reaction to Robert Bly and the mythopoetic idea of men). She developed while looking at colonial and post-colonial Australia and seeing parallels between how Gramsci’s ideas applied to class relations and gender relations.

    Raewyn saw it as quite usual that people would pick and choose from theories, including that of hegemonic masculinity. She wanted to stress the powerfully relational character of gender: that it’s defined against something else. She was also interested in Ranajit Guha’s idea of dominance without hegemony in colonial situations and thought we should think about boundary conditions: where it had not been possible to achieve hegemonic masculinity. And, leading us onto the future, she talked about the transnational state and how the new institutions that were created were gendered: the multinational media and corporations were overwhelmingly run by men.

    In the discussion, there were some useful comments about different ways of analysing historical situations. Someone wanted to make a 4-level distinction: between discourses (which discussions of hegemonic masculinity focus on), individual lives, norms and practices. There was a question about whether the term patriarchy was useful or ahistorical. Ruth Karras thought it was a useful shorthand for a lot of things, if you explained what you meant by it, while Karen Hagemann argued that while it was useful as a political term, it wasn’t particularly as an analytical one: because of the intersection of gender and class, it needed to be defined carefully. Raewyn said she tended to use the notion of a gender order instead. She also talked about defining masculinity and femininity as social practices, not as identities. Although gender ideology is powerful propaganda, to her it’s a back formation from practices, not something pre-existent.

    Overall, what I think the session demonstrated is that even though Connell’s model of hegemonic masculinity doesn’t fit all societies, the framework it provides can make us ask useful questions. Thinking about different forms of masculinity or masculine practices in a particular society and their cultural dominance or subordination gives us a richer picture of the gender order. But coming to the concept again against the backdrop of my new interest in patriarchal structures, I can see the limits of hegemonic masculinity’s usefulness for that. Even the men who can only have access to the most subordinate forms of masculinity can still, usually dominate some women, at least. Chinese peasant men may be at the lowest end of the traditional spectrum in China, for example, but many of them still got a wife and family to dominate.

    I’ve said before that modern masculinity, with its focus on sustaining male superiority over women, doesn’t necessarily have that much in common with premodern masculinities that are often as much about sustaining the dominance of some male groups over others (with women regarded as automatically inferior). Studying the ideology of masculinity takes us to some very interesting places, but I’m increasingly unsure how much specifically it’s going to tell us about how men historically sustained control over women.

  • Berkshire Conference 1: Who is Gail Lewis? Black British feminism in practice and theory

    This spring I went for the first time ever I to the Berkshire Conference on Women’s History, which was being held at the University of Toronto. I ended up going to an interesting mix of premodern and modern papers, although this was partly because of timetabling issues. (One of the many problems with the conference organisation was their failure to put sessions into adequately sized rooms – I missed several panels because I physically could not get into the room). But I did manage to get to a couple of sessions on black British history, a topic I felt I didn’t know at all well and wanted to explore further.

    The question in my title is slightly misleading. I do now know who Gail Lewis, and she was the moderator of the first of the sessions I attended (Panel 15 on “The Making of Black Britain). Despite its title, its actual focus was narrower, on post-war London. (There is some research that has been done on black people in early modern Britain and a new project on England’s Immigrants 1330-1550 might provide useful information on non-whites in medieval England).

    The panel also crossed cultures in another interesting way: the four speakers were all African-Americans and thus talking about black British culture as outsiders to it themselves (although I think they had all studied/lived in the UK). The first speaker was Nicole Jackson, who was looking at (female) child immigrants to Britain, such as Doreen Lawrence. Nicole was trying to get beyond the narrative of immigrants as young black men, and asking whether child migrants had different experiences from British-born black people, especially in terms both of their lack of agency (they didn’t get to choose to migrate) and in their lack of knowledge of what to expect from Britain. By looking at these different expectations, we can get a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be black British.

    The next two speakers were focussing on the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nydia Swaby was talking about “political blackness”, exploring the genealogies of two black British organisations: Brixton Black Women’s Group (BBWG) and Organisation for Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD). These groups included women from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds, linked both negatively by discrimination, but also positively by a shared history of colonisation and anti-colonial struggles. Nydia pointed out that the solidarity from colonial backgrounds was more important than any US influence on the groups, and meant that the politically black could include Chinese and Asian and even Irish women. As well as concerns with reproductive rights and childcare, which male-dominated organisations weren’t taking seriously, they also campaigned on issues particularly affecting ethnic minority women and their families, such as “stop and search” laws targeting black men and the notorious virginity testing of female immigrants from South Asia.

    Rashida Harrison followed up with a discussion of Outright newspaper, produced in 1982-1988 by a London-based collective. She was exploring how it tried to connect together the experiences of both UK-based and Third World women. For example on reproductive rights, as well as covering abortion, it also discussed female genital mutilation and controversies over the third-world testing of Depo-Provera contraceptive. There were differing viewpoints on such matters reported in the newspaper and Rashida was arguing that such difference was a necessary function of solidarity politics within multicultural feminist groups.

    Finally, Tanisha Ford talked about de-centring Olive Morris, the black nationalist and feminist activist (even though the more ignorant among us, like myself, hadn’t centred her in the first place). Tanisha was putting Olive into a wider context of soul style and black power, looking at the distinctiveness of British soul and reconstructing its geography in Brixton. Olive’s story shows that black men weren’t the only victims of police brutality. Tanisha was also making the interesting points that we need to think of female as well as male contributions to soul style and of US culture as in conversation with other non-American ones.

    This fed into wider discussions about both parallels between experiences in the UK and US (such as the effects of gentrification on urban life) and differences. In particular, it reminded me that the experience of immigrants to the UK is something that doesn’t necessarily fit within traditional categories of “race”. Gail Lewis started the session by talking about the EU elections taking place that day in Europe, and how UKIP was trying to play off the “settled community” (including British-born ethnic minorities) against the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, even as the descendants of immigrants are in turn demonised at other points. As Tanisha pointed out, the UK isn’t a post-racial society (although I’d argue that racial politics are a lot more complex in the UK than they used to be).

    If this session showed some ways in which black British history could be done, a later one was worrying about how it was or was not being done. This was a roundtable (session 136) on the “feminist killjoy”, a title inspired by an article by Sara Ahmed on the role of internal critique within the feminist movement. There were five panellists started off the session: first up was Sirma Bilge asking whether black feminism could survive the academy, in the world of the neoliberal university. (Neoliberalism seems to be the current buzzword for contemporary Western forms of capitalism). She was arguing that universities absorb and neutralise progressive social knowledge projects and divest them of their transformational potential.

    After Sirma, from a Canadian perspective, we had two British-based speakers, Gwyneth Lonergan and Terese Jonsson. They were criticizing white liberal British feminism for its appropriation or ignoring of black feminist thought. Specifically, Gwyneth argued that British liberal feminists tended to fetish a narrow range of early African American feminists (Audre Lorde, bell hooks and Angela Davis), while having only a superficial knowledge of them. In contrast, black British feminism and contemporary US black feminist thought is simply ignored. Terese was similarly pointing out how black feminist organisations (such as OWAAD) get erased or marginalised from histories of British feminism.

    The next presentation was by Emily Rosser on the limitations of international projects dealing with sexual violence. She’d been studying truth-telling projects from the 1990s concerning sexual violence against women in Guatemala, especially indigenous women. Emily was struggling with the problems of such an approach (since the voices of indigenous women tend to get lost in the levels of analysis and they may find the repeated retelling of such stories of violence frustrated). These kinds of commissions are an imperfect tool, but women may nevertheless choose to use them as better than nothing.

    Finally, Humaira Saeed talked about the complex subject of transnational feminism, focusing on how topless protests by the Tunisian atheist feminist Amina Sboui, were taken up by the Ukranian/French organisation FEMEN. Femen protested in response to Sboui’s arrest, but they also used it as an opportunity to legitimate their anti-Muslim stance. Meanwhile, critics of Femen align their nudity with neo-colonialism (a wish to save “brown women” from wicked “brown men”), but where does that leave Sboui herself? Categories of action don’t necessarily line up neatly and we have to be careful when critiquing actions not just to end up supporting their actions.

    I ended up finding this session rather frustrating, because, as is often the case, there was more critique presented than alternatives. Sirma mentioned “listening to local knowledge” and “analysing citational and translational practices” as part of the answer, but I wasn’t sure that the end result was much more than creating what someone called the “critically reflexive killjoy”.

    Part of the problem is that there’s a disconnect between academic life and practical experience: Emily said that solidarity felt awkward when the women she was studying suffered so much and could be killed for speaking out. So what can academics contribute as academics (rather than as activists)? Someone said we needed to deromanticise the work we do, but that hardly seems the most pressing problem.

    Two approaches were suggested, but also seen as problematic. Sirma thought we needed intersectionality as a critical praxis but not as an analysis, since then it becomes aspiration to power. (I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the distinction she was trying to make). But another point she made was important: she wanted sometimes not to be intersectional. She wanted to talk about “white privilege” and not have questions raised about how class and sexuality intersected with that. Intersectionality, she reckoned, could sometimes become a way of shutting people up about race.

    There was also interest in the possibility of studies of whiteness (although there is already criticism of “Critical White Studies” by theorists such as Sara Ahmed. The obvious parallels here are with feminist studies of masculinity and the potential to show how supposedly eternal and natural categories such as “masculine behaviour” or “white people” are constructed.

    There was also another aspect that occurred to me, especially after the “Making of Black Britain” session. Sirma mentioned how black British feminism focused far more on creating grassroots movements than African American feminism did. (This is one of the reasons that people tend to read Audre Lorde rather than black British feminists of the same generation – they were less likely to write academic articles). I suggested that one possible role for academics was therefore writing about black British feminist history, not at a purely academic level, but bridging the gap between the universities and popular history. Black feminist bloggers rightly point out that they’re not there to educate their ignorant white readers, but academics are. Coming from the standpoint of medieval history, where you expect your audience to be ill-informed, but potentially interested, that seemed to me to be an obvious role that academics working on the period could take on.

    The response I got was that there had been an oral history project on the topic by the British Library. Afterwards I found this: Sisterhood and After, but although it includes a lot of interesting material, it’s quite hard to make sense of unless you already know something about the topic. I still think that there’s a role beyond the killjoy, in getting people interested in black British history, and the web now allows that to be done in ways that don’t require official support. Or to go back to my title: I now know of the existence of Gail Lewis, but why is no-one creating a Wikipedia entry about her?


The content of this website belongs to a private person, blog.co.uk is not responsible for the content of this website.