Meryl Streep’s T Shirt, Emmeline Pankhurst’s Body, and Plural Narratives of Oppression


Quotation is a tricky business, and so – as I’m about to remind myself as I’m beginning a new term teaching – is interpretation of words written far in the past. Connotations and implications that were once so obvious they didn’t need spelling out, become dated and obscure within a surprisingly short time – and if you whittle a quotation down to a few pithy words, or a single bold statement, you’re basically leaving it standing out there shivering, wondering where all the comforting context went. And this is a particular problem with feminist quotations, which seem to be subject to a kind of massed, retrospective contempsplaining effect, as everyone rushes to tell long-dead feminist women what they really meant. For example, I’ve seen de Beavoir’s famous dictim, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” interpreted as a powerful attack on the idea that women are oppressed due to their reproductive biology. And it makes me wince every time, because women’s words deserve to be read in context, not snipped down to the smallest space possible, like a photoshopped model’s unrecognisable body in Vogue.

I’m thinking, as you may have guessed, of the slogan printed on T Shirts, worn by Meryl Streep to promote her new film, The Suffragette. Streep, and the T Shirts, have been the subject of a feeding frenzy, with commentators piling on to express their shock and to point out that the word ‘slave’ is, erm, kinda liable to evoke racist connotations.

Which it is. If you’re looking for an explanation, I couldn’t put it better than Charline Jao, writing in The Mary Sue: “I personally subscribe to the idea that “slave” and “slavery” should not be used outside of referring to the structural violence of treating the body of another as commodity.”

However, there’s more to the unfortunate slogan than that. If you’re reading this in from outside the US, you may not know that ‘rebel’ in that context has a specific connotation, which is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds: ‘rebel’ Confederate flags, signifying allegiance with the defeated South in the Civil War, are still flown in some US states, and they’ve come to be associated with White Pride and entrenched racism. (Disclaimer: not my circus, not my monkeys, please don’t yell at me if nuances of this strike you as simplistic.)

In that context, the juxtaposition of ‘rebel’ with ‘slave’ suggests racial conflicts, and – don’t get me wrong – I’d wince to see someone wearing this T Shirt without realizing that’s one way it might be read. But that’s the problem with snappy, soundbite quotations: they don’t come with context. A fuller quotation gives a little more of what Pankhurst said, and I’ve seen it reproduced in several debates on this issue:

“I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellion. I would rather be a rebel than a slave.”

This does help: at least you can see here that Pankhurst is talking about women, specifically. But we really need the full context. Friends of mine immediately noticed that there’s a tendency to assume UK struggles for equality followed the same pattern as those of the US, both legally and polemically. Katharine Edgar points out that – broadly – in the UK the main discriminating factor within the category of women (and men) who were allowed to vote was economic. Until 1918 (men) and 1928 (women), people had to have a certain amount of wealth in property, in order to be allowed to vote. Obviously, this functioned as a form of covert racial discrimination, but not an absolute ideological racial barrier. Black men were able to vote before white women, and it’s even been claimed that the first black man to vote in England, Ignatius Sancho, was born in 1729, well over a century before the US Civil War.

Why does any of this matter? After all, the presence of a few individuals who evade widespread discrimination hardly suggests that the UK was some kind of haven of racial equality (and I wouldn’t want to argue that). And it seems clear to me that pretending the Suffragettes were some kind of time-travelling secular saints who floated free of all the bigotry of their era, is absurd.

But it’s also – I think – absurd to treat this as a problem with Pankhurst’s speech, rather than with the way her quotation reads, taken out of context and placed on a T Shirt in 2015.

When Pankhurst made her speech, slavery labelled as such was illegal in the UK, but, within that relative (very relative!) legal freedom, women’s bodies had been commodified within Pankhurst’s lifetime. Indeed, when she married in 1879, the legal act that would make it possible for married women to own property – that is, to be financially enfranchised – was still three years in the future. The famous campaigner Caroline Norton, who died just a couple of years before Pankhurst’s marriage, had managed to stir up public sympathy when her husband refused to divorce her and also claimed her earnings as his property, leaving her unable to earn a living and banning her from seeing her sons (which was also his legal right). Lower-profile women, naturally, lacked both the influential friends and the wealthy context of Norton, and faced stark choices between starvation, prostitution, or resigning themselves to the ownership of their husbands (with legalised marital rape). Slowly, women like Norton and Pankhurst were beginning to challenge the structural violence that treated them as non-persons, as individuals whose earning power and legal rights were controlled entirely by men.

There are two things that bother me about the way I’ve seen this controversy play out in the media and in discussions. One problem – which is common to an awful lot of feminist issues – is that we’re being encouraged to treat feminist foremothers as if they must be discredited, as if we should expect them to act as if they’re perfect citizens of 2015, not ordinary women living in their own times. Feminism, in other words, is everyone’s punchbag. The other problem is that, in judging Pankhurst according to the rhetoric of US racists, we act as if there’s only one possible narrative of equal rights, only one way in which human beings have understood intersecting oppressions. That’s damaging, because it imposes a false sense of inevitability onto history. It prevents us from looking at history and learning from it, because we’re too busy assuming that oppression – and fights against oppression – have only ever followed one sequence and one narrative, the same in the UK as the US and as everywhere else. That’s just a tiny step away from naturalising narratives of oppression, and imagining they could only happen in one way, as if we as a species are predestined to be oppressive bigots. And if we do that, then we’re erasing all the work the suffragettes did – that Pankhurst did – in insisting that oppression is not natural and is something we can fight on multiple fronts.

We need to make space to listen to far more of women’s history, far more of women’s feminist writings, not to shout them down or pin them to the narrow narrative of oppression that’s often all the history women and minorities are allowed to claim.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Roger Fuckbythenavel and the Strange Case of the Queer Deer


Christmas cards, available at the Fitzwilliam Museum Shop. Image from Cambridge, Fitzwilliam MS 254, f. 10r (detail).

Browsing in the Fitzwilliam Museum shop last week, I found this image in the selection of upmarket Christmas cards. It’s charmingly medieval and vaguely reindeer-like, and no one else seemed to think it was out of place in the nice display of highbrow Christmassy gear. But I’d like to believe that the sinister cult responsible for the rainbow over Dublin last May was in on this one, because these, as you see from the matching masculine antlers, are queer deer.

Let me explain. Way back in the summer, I went to the EEBS conference in Oxford, where Kathleen Tonry showed parts of the illuminated manuscript now Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335. It features a pair of be-antlered deer who seemed to be whispering intimate secrets to each other as a hunter hidden in the bushes peeked at them like a fifteenth-century flasher. Since only male deer have antlers, I figured this was a particularly subversive homoerotic and cross-species take on the romantic trope of pursuit, and I got halfway through planning out a very erudite paper on the idea of queering the objectifying gaze that was studded with references to Wyatt and George Boleyn, Dame Juliana Berners and the genderqueer hawks of medieval lyric, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’s steamy hunt-and-homosexuality subplot.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From 'The Master of Game'.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 335, f. 57r (detail). From ‘The Master of Game’.

Then I came to my senses.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of queer deer. On the quiet, I enjoy the way they’re hidden in plain sight, in the middle of a fairly conservative, William Morrisey, white middle-class Christianity type of display. I also like the surprise factor that you get from thinking about a medieval image from a modern perspective. There’s a long-standing popular belief that medieval culture is a mish-mash of chastity belts and sighing ladies, kneeling knights straight out of pre-Raphaelite painting and a vague sense that them Dark Ages folk were illiterate, superstitious and dull. This popular belief doesn’t have room for the idea of queer deer – let alone queer humans, or even any kind of sexual activity not heavily policed by church and state – because it suits us to imagine medieval England as a particular kind of oppressive, sexually repressed regime, a neat historical parallel to Islamic fundamentalism.

A recent bit of news demonstrates how tightly we cling to that image of medieval England.

Someone recently proposed a new candidate for the first English usage of the f-word – it’s a hot topic – in the name of one Roger Fuckbythenavel, who was outlawed in 1311. Dr Paul Booth, suggests, perhaps rather wishfully waving one hand towards the REF impact agenda, that the epithet might have come about as a form of medieval ‘revenge porn’, put about by a fed-up ex-girlfriend wanting to mock poor Roger’s clumsy technique. I quite like this discovery, not so much for the swearing or the tendentiously topical gloss, but because it lends weight to a homoerotic reading of a romance I work on, where men are constantly thrusting things suggestively at each others’ middles. I’ve been suspecting for some time that the word ‘navel’ had a whole lot more euphemistic connotation than it ought to, in that text. Euphemism is hard to prove in the absence of suggestive eyebrow-raising from a live audience, and so I’d like to think this discovery might be a tiny hint about fashions in innuendo, as well as formative fucks.

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don't ask me why. Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century. Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

This is how I picture Roger Fuckbythenavel. Don’t ask me why.                                            Avicenna, Canon medicinae. Paris 13th century.
Besançon, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 457, fol. 254v

Yet, there is a special circle in Hell for people who dash into the comments sections of articles to dribble their confidently-asserted idiocies all over the internet, secure in the belief that the world is waiting with bated breath for those same urban myths every other idiot has just posted, and I knew this discovery would bring them out. Kate Wiles, who’d shared the link on twitter, had also linked to her old post ‘On the Origin of Fuck’, which rattles through the common misconceptions about the term:

“One origin story for fuck is that it comes from when sex was outlawed unless it was permitted explicitly by the king, so people who were legally banging had Fornication Under Consent of the King on their doors, or: F.U.C.K. But obviously that’s wrong. As are all of the other nonsensical acronyms floating about (anything ending in Carnal Knowledge uses words which wouldn’t be used until AFTER the contents of this blog post). So if you do believe any of that, stop it. Stop it right now.”

She includes a discussion of the term ‘windfucker’, a nice Anglo-Saxon-influenced name for a kestrel unaccountably overlooked by Hopkins when he was writing The Windhover, and points out that the term originally meant ‘to strike’ or ‘to beat’. But, despite reeeaaallllly detailed and patient explorations of different uses of the word and different theories, her comments section is full of people falling over their keyboards to rush in and reinstate the myths she’s just busted. When that article went viral, Wiles reposted it on the Huff Post, and, delightfully, some idiot zoomed in to accused Wiles of ‘stealing’ a published piece and reblogging it. Commentators who accept the idea of male-dominated, officially-documented authority that lies behind the F.U.C.K. myth don’t seem to recognise any professional expertise behind a blog by a young female historian like Wiles.

I mention all of this because – predictably – the same thing’s happening on the new article. There’s the classic pompous idiocy (“I guess the author has never read the Canterbury tales (@1387) wherein Chaucer used the word (The Miller’s Tale) …”), which manages to be wrong in at least two ways as well as pretty funny (the Canterbury Tales, that arcane and little-known text). There are a couple of comments by people who obviously haven’t realised reading medieval handwriting is something you get trained to do, and not a matter of squinting hard and making things up (well … ok …). And obviously, there’s a zillion repetitions of the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge bullshit (and its variants), of which my favourite is this:

“Fornrication Under Consumation of the King !!! Only the King could give permission to fornicate. Women wore Chastity belts when the spouse went to war and was gone for long periods of time. Then the King would have the belts removed.”

It’s unfair to pick on random people, I know. But I am picking on it, because the issues with this persistent set of confidently-asserted myths are pretty revealing. Chastity belts are one of the images of the medieval that never seem to die. At best, they’re literary devices or symbolic objects, until the Victorians come along and decide that the image of maidens locked into iron belts perfectly fits their somewhat fetishistic idea of medieval womanhood. There’s a strange, nursery-rhyme innocence to the idea that the king would relate personally to each of his subjects (all 2.5 million of them), and a rather more worrying lack of anatomical plausibility (hundreds of women, locked into metal belts for months and years, might just possibly struggle with basic biological functions, not to mention getting gangrene from metal rubbing against skin). Suffice to say, these are misconceptions that aren’t just implausible – they’re downright absurd.

But it’s what they say about ideas of authority and freedom of expression that I’m interested in. In this re-writing of medieval England, the king is absolute ruler, literally and physically controlling his subjects’ sexuality. His surveillance is so complete, so meticulously recorded in writing, that it has given us our foremost swearword. It’s an image of medieval England that couldn’t possibly have existed, one that draws on immensely more powerful and overt methods of control and legislation than any medieval king ever had. People cling tenaciously to this image of masculine totalitarian control.

Medieval practices of gender and sexuality undoubtedly were policed, just as ours are. But much of that policing was – just as ours is – carried out indirectly, through habits of thought and action far more subtle than a king’s command and far less visible than a written order. My ‘queer deer’ are so unthinkable – so incomprehensible to whoever selects the cards for the Fitzwilliam – that we assume, automatically, that they must be a modern interpretation imposed on medieval imagery. And yet, we accept the ahistorical – multiply ahistorical – idea of the medieval woman, bound into her chastity belt and constrained by the order of her king – because that image of controlled feminine sexuality fits our image of the medieval period, as an image of queer sexuality cannot. Why is that?

My ‘queer deer’ are currently sitting on my desk, and I’ll definitely send some of them out as Christmas cards this December. Sadly, the reason for their paired masculine antlers is most likely quite mundane. As the repetition of the image across several manuscripts shows, it’s not unusual Fitzwilliam MS 254 is a bestiary, written in Latin in the early years of the thirteenth century. It illustrates the word ‘cervus’ (‘deer’), which is related to the word for ‘horn’ – so etymologically-correct deer have to have antlers just like snails have knights and lions have St Jerome. We moderns – thinking of couples of animals as automatic sexual pairings, like Noah counting creatures into the Ark – are probably alone in reading a bit of cervine neck-nuzzling as quasi-sexual. But – as penalties laid down for lesbian nuns, as records on medieval women seeking divorce, as stories of medieval men marrying forbidden women indicate – we’re not alone in suspecting medieval England of being more than a totalitarian regime, and perhaps even a place where queer deer could roam free.


I am now even more delighted by the queer deer cards, because the fantastically learned G. H. Finn (@ over on twitter) has this brilliant update. When I saw the card, I figured the modern card-maker must have thought these looked vaguely like reindeer, hence, Christmassy. But I put that thought mostly to one side, as I know for the medieval artist, they’re not probably not reindeer. 

Finn points out, though, that unlike the common British species of deer the artist might have seen, horns aren’t a marker of sex difference in reindeer – except during the winter, when male deer lose their horns but female deer do not. As he sweetly puts it, this means ‘Rudolph must be female’.

And it also means that my Christmas-card identically horned deer may not have been queer deer for etymologically-minded medieval artists, but they’re certainly lesbian reindeer for us.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

The Self Evident Truth Project, Lily Rose Depp, and the Never-Ending Media Fuckup of Discussing Women’s (Bi)sexuality

You know how they all like rainbows. All of them.

Bisexuals all like rainbows. All of them. Also pink. And the more esoteric varieties of macramé. That’s how you can spot them.

My friend just posted this piece, which ostensibly praises Johnny Depp’s daughter, all of sixteen years old, for the way she “just came out in a pretty inspiring way”. The tone of ‘pretty inspiring’ strikes me as remarkably patronising: ‘OMG, like, a teenage girl could be inspiring! It’s sooooo cute, and I’ve never heard of Malala Yousafzai!’ As my friend observed, this article is basically sleazy gossip dressed up as LGBT activism. Lily Rose Depp has, apparently, been part of an instagram project featuring photos of people who identify as anything other than completely straight. Now, don’t get me wrong: that’s lovely, and awesome, and the message is brilliant. It’s always a good thing to remind people not to assume heterosexuality. And this is a nice, celebratory way of doing that. I like it a lot. What I don’t particularly like is the way the article frames this particular ‘story’ (if you want to call it that). The journalist, Ashley Percival, writes:

“Lily … is yet to speak about her sexual orientation in her own words, or clarify where she considers herself on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning and Asexual spectrum.”

Now, first off, Lily isn’t actually required to speak ‘in her own words’, instagram being a visual medium. She’s not being coy. She’s participating in a project that’s visual. But, just by phrasing it this way, Percival makes it sound as if Depp is keeping something from us, or (hint, hint) perhaps as if she’s not quite sure of herself. In contrast, to say she’s “yet to … clarify where she considers herself” implies that the sixteen-year-old has a fixed idea of her sexual orientation (did you, at 16? Good for you). It implies it’s her human duty to explain to us where on that spectrum she is. Which, to me, rather misses the whole bloody point of talking about a spectrum and making an instagram project welcoming everyone on said spectrum without distinguishing, but what do I know? The point is, this combination of sly insinuations that a teenage girl’s sexuality is entirely our business, combined with the subtle hints that Depp might be unsure of herself, form a familiar pattern. And Percival’s conclusion follows that pattern, in case we miss what’s being implied here:

“In recent months, Cara Delevingne, Kristen Stewart and Miley Cyrus have all spoken about their sexually fluid orientations, after beginning relationships with women.”

Have they really? I had a google. Stewart and Cyrus have both said things along those lines, but what about this?

“My sexuality is not a phase. I am who I am” – Cara Delevingne, Huffington Post, 17/7/15.

Remarkably, this doesn’t look like ‘fluidity’ to me. Nor does it look particularly as if Delevingne decided this ‘after beginning relationships with women’.

Another Huffington Post article – they’re not coming out (snurk) of this well, are they? – lambasts Delevingne for, erm, seeming to like men and women and therefore not being a very good lesbian. Delevingne, who’s expressed her sexuality in the most concrete, ‘don’t tell me who I am’ terms, gets slapped down for it. Partly, this is purely economic, like the trash media’s treatment of Jennifer Aniston’s shockingly long period of being a happily unmarried woman. It’s good for magazines to sell endless cycles of speculation about heartbreak and marriage; it’s boring to suggest that she might just be enjoying life. So too here: if we can run non-stop ‘is she or isn’t she?’ stories, so much the better. But there’s something else going on. In the Guardian a few days ago, Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote a piece titled ‘Not Gay, Not Straight, Just Thinking Outside the Box’, which managed to use the term ‘bisexual’ just once. In the context of the phrase ‘bisexual or bicurious’.


Bisexuality is not inherently more ‘fluid’ that homo- or heterosexuality. I doubt your average bisexual person is attracted to more people than your average lesbian or straight woman; I’ve met plenty of lesbians and straight women who have much less of a narrow ‘type’ than some bisexuals.

Why am I wittering on about this? Well, it’s a nice outlet for my irritation. I do find these articles irritating, and I do think implying a teenage girl has a duty to ‘clarify’ her sexuality to anyone is repellent, and I do want to shake the next person who writes a puff piece subtly implying women who date women do it because they’re waaayyy confused in their tiny ladybrains.

But it’s more than that. Focusing on the individual – as the media does with young women celebs – tends to obscure the wider structural issues. If we make out that Depp’s sexuality is a nine days’ wonder she ought to ‘clarify’ to us, then her project illustrating the normality of that sexuality is undermined. If we insist on lumping together Delevingne, who represents herself as distinctly un-‘fluid’ in her sexuality, together with other women who comfortably uses that term, we’re doing a disservice to all of them. On this blog, I almost always end up talking about how women are silenced, how women’s voices should be heard more often and more clearly. But here, for once, I’m glad I’m talking about a silence. Depp doesn’t have to ‘clarify’ her sexuality – to herself, to anyone else, to the public or in private – because the project she actually chose to spend her time on is making the visual point that this sexuality doesn’t require any explanation. As the organisers of the project point out, it’s a Self Evident Truth.


Jem Bloomfield just commented on twitter (correctly) that in this sort of context, ‘fluid’ tends to mean ‘amenable to male desire/gaze’. This is a commonly acknowledged point about the way popular stereotypes of bisexuality are gendered (bisexual men are not usually seen as ‘fluid’ but as ‘closet gays’). But it also reminded me of the network of images I have in the back of my mind when people talk about ‘fluidity’ in the context of sexuality and gender, and why I have such a kneejerk reaction against the term. In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – which I studied, and loved for A Level English – there’s a beautifully balanced architecture of binary oppositions associated with the eponymous lovers: Rome and Egypt, military and romantic, pragmatic and sensual … and, of course, land and water. Cleopatra’s whole being is fluid sexuality; her downfall is her watery failure to stick to her guns.

I love this play, and I love Cleopatra, who I’d strongly argue (pace Mrs Young, and thank you for putting up with me) is the hero of the play. I also love the reading, which I didn’t know of at the time, of her handmaidens Charmian and Iras as lesbian (or bisexual?) lovers. But Shakespeare, like other men before him, is associating female sexuality with fluidity in a distinctly negative way. Fluidity is both slippery and passive: it lacks firm presence and it washes away. Ultimately, like Egypt, it allows itself to be invaded by Roman masculinity; like water, it is defined by the solidity around it, not by its own presence. In this respect, then, when we stereotype bisexual women as ‘fluid’ in their sexuality, we’re buying into a wider stereotype of all female sexuality as defined by (male) heterosexuality and in need of masculinity to control it and give it boundaries. Thanks, but no thanks.

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse

The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.

In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:

“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”

No. No, this is Not Right.

Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, living in a tiny cell and in a culture where you write things out longhand, rewrote her entire book in order to make it clearer. Judith Butler is the sort of person whose rewritten introduction to Gender Trouble is so obfuscatory it requires its own explanatory notes.

Julian of Norwich is the sort of person who, if Margery Kempe applied to be her grad student, would leave you in no doubt of the power relationship. She’d have Margery meet her for coffee and she’d let Margery fangirl at her, and she’d write her a list of books to read. And Margery would go away thinking they’d had a real meeting of minds, but she would also instinctively know never to send Julian her rough drafts at 11pm with I just sorta wanted to know what you think of this emails. Julian would write quietly professional references for Margery.

Judith Butler is the sort of person who would take on Margery Kempe as a grad student and talk about her to you in your supervisions, so you ended up knowing more about Margery’s sex life than you wanted to know, and wouldn’t be able to look at Margery over coffee because Judith would have told you about that embarrassing time at the departmental party when John and Margery were having a bad time. Then you’d see her pop up on facebook telling Margery she’s questioning the practice of masculinist oppression with her new relationship status. She’d encourage Margery not to bother redrafting her thesis. Just hand it in! Tell them the letters are not shaped or formed like other letters, but self-constructed in a dialogic matrix of anti-universalising commentary on being and becoming! Margery would never get a postdoc and would languish on the fringes of academia wondering where it all went wrong and whether Judith really meant it that time they both got tipsy and Judith admitted yes, sometimes I think it might just be the patriarchy that’s the problem too.

But the main thing (as anyone who works on medieval religious culture knows) is that Julian, and Margery, and Richard Rolle, and pretty much anyone who was writing at all, makes Judith Butler look about 600 years out of date. Butler’s big issue is gender essentialism, by which she means, what does it mean to be a ‘woman’, who gets to be in that category, how is it socially constructed and why does it continue to be an important concept.

You might expect that Julian, writing in late medieval England, would think about gender as a binary thing, an innate and fundamental difference between men and women. You do find bits of her work where she associates femininity with the body and the emotions, with nurturing and caring. Christ, writes Julian, is mother-like in that Christ “ is our mother by mercy in our sensuality, by taking flesh”. Christ took on ‘sensuality’ – not the modern word, but the medieval word meaning senses, feelings, capacity to experience bodily and emotional life – and this act of mercy towards humanity is a maternal act.

But Julian doesn’t just imply that the loving and nurturing elements of life are innately feminine. In medieval interpretations of sexual reproduction, the female role is simply to carry and nourish the foetus – medieval science taught that the actual spark of human life, the soul itself – came from the man. This basic axiom gives rise to a web of misogynistic implications, from the idea that creative genius is innately male, to the idea that women are vessels for life rather than active participants in its creation. You shouldn’t underestimate the impact of it: it’s the idea that lies behind contemporary anti-abortion rhetoric and the pervasive belittling of intellectual women alike. And Julian utterly rejects it.

I … accepted the fact that our substance is in God; that is to say that God is God and our substance is a creature in God. For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father, for he made us and preserves us in himself; the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our mother, in whom we are enclosed; the lofty goodness of the Trinity is our Lord, and in him we are enclosed and he in us.

We are enclosed in the Father, we are enclosed in the Son, and we are enclosed in the Holy Spirit. The Father is enclosed in us.”

Here, Julian is trying to get at what Butler would call epistemology: the study of the truth of things. But her image of enclosure is maternal – she’s explaining the relationship of truth to human understanding in terms of pregnancy, of containment of one body within another enclosing body. And yet, you notice that while God is imagined as a maternal figure who encloses humanity and gives meaning to humanity’s understanding of ‘substance’, of human nature, humanity is also pregnant with God, enclosing God, sensing God as a woman feels the kicks and movements of a foetus in the womb.

This is part of Julian’s highly radical imagery of space, which famously includes her vision of the entirety of creation pictured as if it were a tiny thing, the size of a hazelnut in the palm of her hand. But, while her ideology of space is radical because it invites us to confront our ideas about magnitude, it’s also radical because it forces us to think about how somatic experience measures what we think about truth and gender. Julian’s experience is deeply rooted in her female body, and the language she uses to grapple with epistemology is something like a questioning version of écriture féminine, female writing. She imagines God as female and male, and human struggles to conceptualise God as a process that overspills the cultural boundaries of masculine and feminine activity. But she’s also incredibly simple and direct about the limits of understanding, and that’s where I think she and Judith Butler would never see eye to eye. Julian knows when something is too big a concept to reduce, and she doesn’t try to speak around the issues.

I’m not seriously trying to argue that Julian of Norwich can be separated from the profoundly misogynistic world of late-medieval England, or that she invented gender fluidity, the concept of performativity, or any other buzzwords of the Judith Butler fan club. The point, really, is that the idea of challenging a fixed, static, binary model of gender is, in itself, a piece of ahistorical arrogance on the part of scholars. Medieval interpretations of what we might call ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ or ‘gender identity’ are hugely varied, hugely nuanced, and hugely incomprehensible to us now. We can find ideas that seem to confirm our prejudices – stereotypes of ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ – and we can find ones that seem, excitingly, to suggest twenty-first-century sensibilities trapped in genderfluid, queer, non-binary medieval bodies. But we’re being wise after the fact. Before we start assuming it’s new and exciting to ‘trouble’ stable conceptions of gender, we need to question whether it’s already been done.

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’: On Speech and Language Policing

“And I’ll tell you another thing about the way women don’t Talk Proper …”
Filippo Lippi, Man and Woman at a Casement. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.

This feels recent, but actually, language policing isn’t new. Medieval advice literature is full of it – they have a special verb, ‘rabelen’, which means ‘garbling, usually of prayers’. Clerics constantly warn their charges against speaking too fast, dropping syllables out of words, ‘over-skyping’ (not what you think, but skipping over words by accident), saying words without the proper heartfelt emphasis, singing out of tune, and gossiping, slandering, lying and swearing. There’s even a demon, a sort of anti-patron-saint of Language Policing, known as Tutivillus, whose job is to gather up mis-spoken syllables and out-of-tune notes into his sack, keeping them as evidence against the guilty party. My favourite story involves a young medieval monk on the wind up, who, when it was his turn to set the psalm, started three notes higher than the usual. The older monks found their voices unequal to the strain and dropped belligerently out of the litany, and the chronicler of this distinctly unfraternal episode concludes, conveniently, that “it was all the work of the demon”.

You might think that this delightfully batshit advice has nothing to do with gendered forms of speech – after all, the point is that younger monks can still hit the high notes and older monks feel crabby that they can’t. Or you might think that it’s an interesting reflection on medieval masculinity that a high voice could be a point of pride. But the context is key here. This advice is actually found in a text addressed exclusively to women. It’s called The Myroure of Our Ladye and it was written for a group of nuns. Subtly, this text gives its audience a message: there’s something wrong with a voice that’s at the high end of a man’s normal pitch. There’s something wrong with the voices of most women.

That’s a theme I’m coming across a lot – most recently, here. The piece is by Naomi Wolf, and boils down to ‘women, who are younger than I am and considerably less brilliantly feminist, allow me to patronise you with poorly understood generalisations about linguistics’. The subtitle includes the unforgivably trite, finger-wagging warning “you’re disowning your power”. Now, to me, power is something you have, and exercise, in relation to other people. You cannot single-handedly ‘disown your power’ (unless, I suppose, we’re talking BDSM. Let us never talk BDSM). What Wolf means is, women, you’re being treated badly but I’m going to assume the fault lies with you.

Now, I could just have put this out of my mind and linked to the pretty comprehensive take-down of language-policing by Cameron, which I’ve already mentioned. And I did link. But I also got stuck on one sentence, which attempted to give a measurable, concrete example of women letting themselves down with their silly ladyspeak. Wolf writes:

“At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully.”

There is so much wrong with this that it makes me slightly inarticulate with fury. Oh, who am I kidding? It makes me want to type numerous strong, declarative sentences, most of them liberally sprinkled with my most masculine of profanities. You see, this chain of logic presumes that blind marking of exam scripts means that the problem is with the students’ work. Not that academics might (shudder gasp!) be fallible human beings who bring in unconscious bias to their syllabus, their setting of questions or marking of scripts. Nor that – and I think this is the hard truth – it may in fact not be possible to design a non-misogynistic English degree. But these issues are serious.

Say you’re an academic setting the questions for next summer’s final exam. There are obvious pitfalls (which people mostly try to avoid, but don’t always manage): Do you pick questions on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate, or Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Julian of Norwich? Do you use quotations from Paul Strohm and Derek Pearsall or Jill Mann and Carolyn Dinshaw? Then there are slightly less obvious, less avoidable issues. Shall we have a question (or questions …. imagine ….!) on women in a paper on medieval literature? Will that prime female students to remember that, throughout most of English literary history, women have been oppressed and mocked? Will it prime them to realise that people have been making oh-so-sadly-practical arguments, like Wolf’s, about women acting as their own worst enemies by talking too much, too little, too this, too that, for centuries? If we have a question on women’s bodies, or sexuality, or violence (all good, popular topics), will it be particularly fun for the women who’ve real-life experience of what Rachel Moss bitingly terms ‘Chaucer’s funny rape’? I could go on, but you see the problem. When women write those blind-marked exams, they do so surrounded by an academic conversation that has very little space for women, and in which much of that space is full of uncomfortable reminders of women’s unequal status through history.

This is all before we get to the real issue. The quotation presumes that what ought to be rewarded in any good student is ‘strong, declarative sentences’ and ‘forceful’ arguments. This is … well … problematic. ‘Chaucer is the greatest English poet’ is a strong, declarative sentence. It is also utterly lacking in nuance, understanding of English literature, and awareness of the past century of scholarship. In short, it’s shit. And an essay made up of such strong, declarative sentences would also be extremely tedious. Language policing is a very blunt tool. And, increasingly, I notice how much it fails to hit anything even resembling its target.

The other day, a friend of mine sent me an article to read. Written by Karen O’Donnell, it argues that a form of speech that’s often derided as being feminine – expressing emotion – is crucial to the progress of academia. She explains:

“I am currently writing a PhD and in one chapter I touch upon a sensitive issue that is very close to home. One of my supervisors encouraged me to think about whether or not I would be able to defend this part of my work without getting emotional. My other supervisor encouraged me to think about why being emotional might be seen as wrong and whether I wanted to challenge that perception.”

This rang true for me, too. Increasingly, what I write about in my research, and what I teach, is pretty close to home. And it is emotional, and it should be. I want to speak – in ladyspeech or not -because these issues matter to me. A few weeks ago, I went to a conference, which was ostensibly about manuscripts. But – and I really should have blogged about this before – it was also incredibly unusual in terms of the way gender issues were playing out, both in papers and amongst the people there. If I can count correctly, out of 127 people, there were 41 men and the remainder were women. My friend Carissa Harris gave a brilliant paper about sexual violence against women, which is still playing over in my mind. But what I loved about this specific conference was that, having listened to a paper on gendered sexual violence, we didn’t have to switch politely back into impersonal academic mode – there were too many women sharing other stories, calmly acknowledging that this is a personal as well as an academic issue. And the personal, emotional aspect of that debate was made so much more possible because of the weight of numbers: there were enough of to acknowledge each other’s experiences as emotional, personal, and valuable.

Why do I mention this? I mention it because the first metaphor that springs to mind to describe my experience is ‘speaking the same language’. I wanted to imagine we were all speaking an idiolect, a special language, a coded set of terms that helped us to understand each other’s points about misogyny and rape, survival and women’s experience.

But, really, we weren’t. We were simply speaking. What felt new, was that we were being heard.

When O’ Donnell writes about being ’emotional’, part of what she is talking about is breaking a silence. Her research will require her to give voice to an argument, reflecting experience and emotion, which is not part of the established academic conversation. We could – and the language-policing types would – argue that perhaps she should find a way to have this conversation in suitably ‘academic’ language, to remove the overt emotion from it. But then, it wouldn’t be the same conversation, and it might not even convey the same experience and argument. It would be leaving academia a little bit narrower, a little bit less honestly representative of women’s experiences and perspectives.

What’s needed is not a broader academic language, nor a space for women to speak in the ways women speak. We need a space in which women can be heard. Those women at Oxford, who are struggling to be heard, are not struggling (I trust and believe) because of their lack of ‘declarative sentences’. In the article Wolf wrote, the answer was right there: in the experience of Professor Elleke Boehmer, when women try to speak up “male students speak first and second and even third.”

Women are discouraged from speaking up by myriad pressures that tell them their voices are less worth hearing – pressures that reduce their voices to twittering sound (as I’ve said before), or to meaningless feminine noise. We’re pushed to believe this fiction that women’s speech is always excessive – too high, too fast, too loud, too much – simply because women’s speech is a reminder that women exist to speak. For some people, there will never be a ‘right’ way for women to speak – so we need to speak up anyway.

Posted in Uncategorized | 84 Comments

“Am I masculine enough?” isn’t a question we should be asking

As I was failing to sleep, I clicked the link to this article by Jack Monroe. Ostensibly, it’s a piece about Pride, but more than that, it’s a piece in which Monroe describes coming to terms with her identity, and she talks about her sexuality, her experience of motherhood, and her thoughts on gender. It rings with the sort of righteously angry challenge she’s so good at, moving from a selection of homophobic slurs she’s experienced to a message of acceptance.

Describing her genderfluid identity, Monroe writes:

“Some days I wake up all woman and I swathe myself in lace and silk and lipstick and softness and sweetness. Some days I ram a fistful of Brylcreem through my hair and shoulder my tux jacket and go.”

I got as far as the first full stop and I wanted to shut my laptop, because this was a piece about acceptance that was sticking two fingers up to me. Being ‘all woman’ is not, I would suggest, about ‘softness and sweetness’. That’s a misogynistic stereotype, straight out of the nursery rhyme (‘sugar and spice and all things nice …’) and feeding directly into a host of irritating cultural myths. Women are nicer. Women are gentler. Women are more nurturing. They’re soft and yielding; they’re sweet, like a treat to be eaten.

No, thank you. Lace and silk do not make you ‘all woman’, nor do they make you ‘sweet’. And I mind, because this is more or less how I dress every day (minus the lipstick. Sorry.). Monroe is obviously proud, as she should be, of the fact she’s come to accept how she can celebrate different aspects of herself. But in describing her experience in this reductive way, she’s reinforcing that binary for other people, and that’s unnecessary.

Feminists have spent a very long time trying hard to convince society that, even though we all look like those creatures, who for centuries, were stereotyped as sweet and incomplete, we are full human beings.

There is a cruel double bind operating against women – still very much in force, as Monroe’s experiences testify – that we are constantly stigmatized for acting ‘like women’ (soft and sweet, remember? Tearful and yielding), but policed for acting, and especially for looking, ‘like men’. In anti-feminist propaganda across the decades, masculinity is both the goal (‘be more assertive! argue like a man!’), and grotesque (‘a woman who looks like a man, yuck’). Thinking about this for a moment, you can see there’s a fair amount of stored up self-hatred in patriarchy’s version of masculinity. But now we’re internalising it, too.

The way out of this double bind isn’t, I think, to represent a version of being a woman that incorporates stereotypes of masculinity as somehow more full than a version of being a woman that doesn’t, nor to reduce being ‘all woman’ to a narrow vision of lace and silk, softness and sweetness. Monroe is, as she forcefully makes the point, hitting back against idiots who tried to tell her her sexuality wasn’t authentic because she wasn’t lesbian enough for them, and perhaps her point about stereotypes of what being a woman is should just be taken as a throwaway point on the side. But in the past week (!), I’ve heard several other women make similar comments, where ‘are we masculine enough’ seems to be shorthand for ‘am I good enough’ or ‘am I authentic enough’.

In one of the texts I study, a woman’s rape echoes and echoes through the remaining male characters’ experiences, acted out over and over through disturbing parallel events that translate a woman’s experience into something men can suffer, as if the only way for an experience to be authentic is for it to be masculinized. It’s a text I keep coming back to, and it shocks me every time. But, though this narrative is unusual in its graphic treatment of rape, it isn’t unusual in the way it represents masculinity as the universal marker of ‘real’, authentic, fully human experience. And that is something I would like to see us moving away from, not embracing.

Update: This article, in Slate by Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, seems worth linking to here, because it’s incredibly thought-provoking, different perspective on the same issue.

Posted in Uncategorized | 41 Comments

In Defence of Man-Hating Feminism

Sure, I'll decapitate men foolish enough to approach the unisex loo, but I'll be damn sure to wear a nice dress while doing it.

Sure, I’ll decapitate men foolish enough to approach the unisex loo, but I’ll be damn sure to wear a nice dress while doing it.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

My title is, more or less, a joke. Or that’s what I would have said before I read the responses to this article by Bridget Christie, an extract from her new book, which brilliantly satirises the kinds of bone-headed idiocies people come out with when they think you might be Too Much Feminist. She opens, promisingly and amusingly, with the line:

“I am a feminist. All this means is that I am extremely hairy and hate all men, both as individuals and collectively, with no exceptions.”

She goes on to develop a beautifully surreal self-profile, ticking off (and exaggerating) all the good old myths from bra burning to lesbianism (but no male-baby hating. Come on, Bridget, it’s a classic for a reason). Reading this, I was slightly stunned to discover that some people didn’t realize it was, in fact, satire. Amazingly (or so it seems to me), no sooner had the article come out than I saw comments approving its honesty and accuracy: yes, feminists are man hating, yes, they do have that reputation, isn’t it good to see someone acknowledge this?

Often, I’ve heard women try to counter this point by denying it. I don’t hate men. I have a husband/son/father/brother. I have a beloved male teacher; I have kind male neighbours; I have wonderful male students; I have loving male friends.

I do this myself. I started to write this post and found myself thinking: but what about that colleague, who is always so thoughtful and kind? What about my fellow blogger, who writes brilliantly on being a feminist ally? What about my lovely friend, who’s transitioning into an amazing man? What about all the men in my life, right down to my baby nephew … how could you possibly, if you knew me, imagine I might actually hate men?

This is all good, and one or another point will be true for virtually all feminists. Short of living in a separatist commune, you are going to struggle to eliminate men from your life, and I think it’s fair to say most of us wouldn’t want to. My feminism is hugely informed by feminists who are also mothers of sons, and I think they add a particularly forceful perspective to this debate.

And yet. I have problems with this approach.

For starters, there’s always the pushback question. But some feminists hate men! They must! I’ve seen them! This response is unanswerable: how can you know all the feminists in the world? How can you be sure you know their innermost views? You can’t, and so you must dissociate yourself (splitting us nicely into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminists), or you must stand with them, jointly and severally responsible for the Man Hating.

We have to put this in its structural context. Statistically, women may be walking around hating men and there may be fallout from that, but – by and large – women are not acting on that hatred with physical violence. To put it bluntly, women are not murdering men. Men are murdering women – and indeed other men – because toxic masculinity, the brand of approved masculine conduct our society promotes – is, at its extreme, a violent mode of action. I often link to Karen Ingala Smith’s project, Counting Dead Women, which surveys some of this gendered violence, and I often hear the same response: but aren’t young men more at risk of violence than women? What about the men?

Well, the men are at risk of violence: from other men.

Take me as an example. If I did – truly – hate men, how much impact would it have? It would have an impact on my students, because I’m in a position of power over them. And if I discriminated I would deserve be sacked pretty swiftly. But it’s worth noting that, even in this situation, my bias would be a tiny, tiny drop of water compared to the ocean of comfortably normalised bias in the other direction. It wouldn’t be excusable, but its impact would be, in the general scheme of things, very weak.

This is where the quotation from Atwood, at the top of my post, starts to ring true. Men (NAMALT, etc etc) are insulted that women might dislike them, might object to them, might lump them all together with their violent brothers. Plenty of women are insulted by this too. Women, however, are actually at significant statistical risk from men, and that doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings. Men are, also, at significant statistical risk from violent, hyper-masculine men – that is, from a culture of toxic masculinity – and that, too, doesn’t stack up against hurt feelings.

The other problem with these defensive responses is that, as you will notice, they frame the debate in terms of participation in a particular social set-up. When we say ‘but I have a lovely husband’ or ‘but my dad is wonderful’, what we’re really saying is ‘I’m part of the hetero-patriarchy’. I’m not one of those man-haters, the lesbian ones … or if I am, it’s ok, because here are my credentials: I too, once, existed in a heteronormative family set-up. Whew, thank goodness for that.

‘Man-hating’, you see, is an accusation designed to make us rush into making denials, rush to dissociate ourselves from other women, rush to avoid the implications of aggression and lesbianism and all of those other evils.

I find this particularly sad because it conceals one of the huge positives of feminism, at least as I’ve experienced it. There’s an ideology, coming out of the work of intersectional feminism, that loving yourself is one of the most radical feminist acts, because it involves according yourself worth in a patriarchy that is fundamentally inclined to devalue women. But, in my experience, what makes that ideology liveable is other feminists around you who support each other and affirm each other. I really like women. I enjoy being around them. The idea of ‘man-hating’ feminism is partly designed to splinter that community, to make us all hurry to align ourselves with men, lest anyone should think we enjoy spending time with women. It’s framed as ‘hatred’ not because (I believe) any thoughtful person really imagines that vast numbers of feminists hate men, but because the idea that women might like, and respect, and work together with other women is a radical threat.

Posted in Uncategorized | 33 Comments