The Lesbian Rural Gaze (Before the Men Got Here)

Recently, a friend of mine started a discussion about art and lesbian depictions of women’s bodies. She’d seen work by a lesbian artist, which aimed to ‘reset the concept of the male gaze on the female form,’ but the result seemed uncomfortably close to objectification. Is there such a thing as a ‘lesbian gaze’?

I was all set to write something searching and profound. I was leafing through Halberstam’s Female Masculinity and linking it up to the recent debates about Anne Lister via Gentleman Jack, and it was all going to be very thoughtful. But as I was mulling over the question, I came across this article, which allowed me to convey almost all of the points I’d intended to make through the form of snark.

The title, promisingly, offers a list: Top 10 Queer Rural Books. The premise is that The Queers naturally gravitate towards the freedom of escaping the rural and getting to the sexy sexy big city. Thus, the rural narrative gets left out.

Cynic that I am, I think you know without reading further in this article, ‘queer’ is performing its usual function, as a rainbow-stripe figleaf for carrying on concentrating on The Menz. There’s a nice range of books about men doing men, a couple of honourable mentions for trans fiction (do transmen even exist?), and a distinct feeling of anticlimax. In a short article, author Mike Parker twice concludes a whole passage describing a gay male experience or text ending with a bored afterthought ‘… and his female equivalents too’ or ‘the lesbian equivalent …’. Six out of ten of Parker’s novels are about gay men (although he gets points for including any bisexuality at all also for the men, in the seventh, and points for female writers). Two more are trans narratives. The only lesbian-orientated novel to get a full billing is Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, with Isabel Miller’s Patience and Sarah shoehorned awkwardly into the bottom two lines of the entry dedicated to something else.

That choice in itself is a bit weird. Waters doesn’t immediately strike me particularly as a ‘rural’ writer (or a writer on ‘rural’ themes). It’s yet more of a stretch to call Fingersmith a ‘rural book’. Yes, some of it takes place in the country house of Briar, but rather more of it doesn’t, and it’s pretty difficult not to notice that Sue and her scheming guardian Mrs Sucksby are products of a quintessentially urban and gritty Victorian London. However, Waters crops up with regularity on LGBT reading lists, so no doubt she must fit here, too.

The same laziness permeates Parker’s treatment of stereotype. Discussing Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter, he concludes ‘We all need our cowboy/girl stories’. I am well aware that, as the man sang, ‘cowboys are frequently, secretly, fond of each other,’ but I’m obviously far too innocent to have noticed a big cowgirl stereotype in lesbian subcultures. In fact, Desert Hearts aside (which isn’t, not really), I’d venture to suggest it’s not a thing. With Parker’s list dominated by texts by and about men, and lesbians persistently situated as an afterthought, it’s hard to avoid the implication that lesbians are the Ginger Rodgers of LGBT literature: following where the gay men lead, doing what they do only ‘backwards and in high heels,’ and receiving rather less than half the credit or attention.

It’s easy to pick holes in the list, to cite old favourites of the lesbian literary canon such as The Color Purple or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, which are far more deeply embedded in a rural setting and rural way of life than Fingersmith. It’s easy to query the underlying assumption that ‘gays’ escape the rural for the city by citing real-life women. Nearly two hundred years before the publication of E. M. Forster’s Maurice  – Parker’s ‘gay grand-daddy’ of ‘queer’ rural lit – Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby rejected marriage and eloped together to the Welsh countryside, where they lived together for the following fifty years in a deliberately ‘rural’ idyll. Their marriage-like partnership inspired Anne Lister, who built a cottage retreat in the gardens of her country house for the purpose of romancing her conquests. Lesbians – from Vita Sackville-West to Alys Fowler – build gardens and wax lyrical (yep, Sappho too) about the romance of outdoor spaces. There’s even a charming late medieval English poem called the Assembly of Ladies, where a group of women gather in a beautiful garden to express their disgust at men, and casually reframe heteronormative assumptions at the same time.*

Why such an affiliation between women desiring women, and rural, outdoor spaces? We could trace it back to the medieval imagery of the goddess Nature herself, who (as the medievalist Susan Schibanoff demonstrates) is frequently imagined as a lesbian-like figure; we could trace it forward again to Alice Walker (again), who constructs her broad-reaching imagery of a feminism incorporating women who love women in the image of a garden in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. It’s far too big a subject to cover in a blog post – but that’s sort of the point. The problem with Parker’s article isn’t that he should have represented the entire LGBTQIA, queer spectrum in neatly statistical proportion rather than writing about gay men with a few ‘others’ crammed in. The problem is that he presumes gay male experience as the blueprint for everyone else. If gay men idealise city life as the emblem of freedom, so must lesbians. If gay men’s literary love affair with the rural begins with Maurice, it’s impossible women could have been writing rural same-sex erotics centuries (or millennia) before that.

And here we come back to the question about the ‘lesbian gaze’. One of the reasons we’re not geared up (as a society) to recognise what lesbian desire might look like is that it’s so often presented as the quieter, take-it-as-read, inverse image of male same-sex desire. We all need our cowboy/girl stories.

Note

*Thanks to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Diane Watt for writing on this text!

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Do the Gays Indoctrinate Our Children?

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Banned in Alabama: a fictional gay wedding attended by a fictional eight-year old.

I read yesterday that a certain Labour MP from Birmingham has waded into the ongoing debate about the nefarious education plans visited upon our innocent youth. MP Roger Godsiff was commenting on the controversial decision to teach reception-aged children (that’s four and five year olds) about LGBT relationships. In his corner, a group of parents at Anderton Park Primary school, who feel that such teaching amounts to indoctrination contrary to strongly-held religious beliefs. In the opposite corner, a catholic selection of The Gays, taking time out from poncing down Canal Street to stick their noses into the entirely unrelated business of child-rearing. Yet even here, there were notes of dissent. I went to find out more, as reported below:

Paul, a burly fifty-something wearing a feather boa, told me: “Naturally, teaching children about LGBT relationships is going to mean some awkward questions about men holding hands with men, and teachers will just have to deal with that. But I do wonder how a non-specialist teacher could be qualified to talk about the finer details of our shagging without making it sound like we’re defined by where we put our cocks.” 

It’s fine if it’s just about bumsex,” agreed Dave from Brighton, “But I don’t hold with them being taught about butt plugs yet. That’s more of a seven, seven-and-a-half-year-old conversation.”

[The UK’s lesbian population was contacted for comment on this post, but neither of them replied.]

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Ok, I admit. Authentic as it sounds, this is in fact entirely made up, though I suspect it’s a fair representation of what Godsiff imagines when he thinks about the issue.

My daughter is two. She doesn’t have that many words, and her understanding of gender is shaky at best. Most of her world is female: she attends a nursery staffed (as it happens) solely by women; she has twice as many aunties as uncles; she has godmothers but no godfathers. One of the men she sees most frequently is usually to be seen wearing a skirt (and a dog collar). She could be forgiven for making all sorts of assumptions about normative relationships. However, she has begun to show an interest in alternative lifestyles. She understands, dimly, that some children do not have two mummies. Some have just one mummy; some have something called a ‘daddy’. Daddies also appear in books.

I am in no hurry to teach her about the heterosexual lifestyle. I can see she’s sometimes curious. I can generally tell her that daddies are a special kind of mummy, or that that man and that woman over there are just a bit tired, and that’s why they look as if they’re hugging each other. But at some point, she will become more curious about the relationships she sees around her. At some point, I will have to tell her that the majority of women are married to men. That this is what those ‘other’ people mostly do. That the alternative lifestyle she has been curiously watching is, in fact, the norm. And where this gets serious is that, at some point – some point I hope is much, much later than the age of 5 – I will also have to tell her that this alternative lifestyle results in around half of the recorded murders of women by men, year by year. I will have to warn her that this alternative lifestyle has its roots in the legal fact of women’s fundamental disenfranchisement, and that rape of a woman by her male partner was only criminalised (in England and Wales) in 1991.

In face of these facts, I cannot help thinking that teaching four- and five-year-olds that some people have two mummies is not quite the horrifying scenario we are invited to imagine. Small children who have never before come across the idea of LGBT relationships are, I would submit, vanishingly unlikely to be corrupted into a later lifestyle of rampant sexual deviancy by the mere acknowledgement of the fact that some of their peers have two dads. However, for children who do have LGBT parents, or for children who will later be LGBT parents, these lessons may be crucial. My schooling took place during the tenure of Section 28, that clause notoriously supported by our dear prime minister Mrs May, which proscribed the teaching in state schools of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. During this period – the clause was repealed in 2003, the year I started university – it was illegal for teachers in State schools to imply that children of same-sex parents were in any way loved, supported, or nurtured. Many independent schools, taking their lead from this, kept to a similar programme. At the time, I did not realise how radical it was that my school – in other ways an entirely quiet, quite conservative girls’ school – entirely ignored Section 28. When we studied safe sex, we studied lesbian safe sex. When we talked about Nazi Germany during GCSE History, we talked about pink triangles and the murders of homosexuals. I was dimly aware that some of our (female) teachers happened to live together. It was entirely normalised.

This is the best possible thing that can be done in the teaching of children about LGBT relationships. I hope many schools will take inspiration from Anderton Park Primary School.

Notre Dame de Paris

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As I write, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris is collapsing into smoke.

Reports say that the towers are burning, that windows have melted. Notre Dame de Paris is on fire. This cathedral has stood for over eight hundred years.

Trauma is not logical or rational; it clings to more than bricks and mortar. If your house burns down, what you mourn is not the structure.

Imagine the people who build Notre Dame. Far more people than you would think. Yes, there were the masons who put stone upon stone. Someone, far back in the twelfth century, sat there without a zero to make the calculations easier and worked out how to make arches soar. A priest must have traced alphabets, in Greek and Roman letters, crosswise on the cathedral floor in chalk. A smoke of incense rose to the rafters, hanging, safe and comforting, in the air. Racks of candles glowed, flickered, and glowed again. Imagine – a priest in Notre Dame in the year 1200, gazing up at new stonework and the resin scent of wood still newly sawed for statues. Imagine a man in 1400, praying against the war that carried on and on, while the rain dripped from the gargoyles and pitted the stone on the north face of the church. Imagine a woman going into Notre Dame in 1780, kneeling to pray for a baby born too soon. Imagine a mother in 1917; a parent in 1943. Imagine now.

This cathedral is a building – just a building, only a building. But for generations on generations and centuries on centuries of people, it would have been emotion soaked into stone and breathed into stained glass. It would have been hopes and prayers rising like smoke into the deepest spaces of the spire and the highest arching spaces of the roofs. It would have been whispers and murmurs and mutters and cries and curses. It would have been stones clutched for support and touched for benediction, knelt upon in relief and beaten in frustration, weathered and worn and crumbled and rebuilt. That is what a church is.

As I write this, the spire of Notre Dame de Paris has collapsed into smoke.

 

 

Six ways to undermine a resilient mother

You might have noticed I’ve been fairly quiet on here. There are reasons for that, and one of them was rather strongly in my mind as I read a Guardian article, titled Six Ways to Raise a Resilient Childby one Dr Rangan Chatterjee. It currently comes up at number 5 on the Lifestyle section’s ‘most read’ list, two days after publication, so I think we can say other people are interested in the topic too. It’s one of those pieces that are superficially laudable in their aims and their message, but actually get right up my nose.

Chatterjee begins with a self-recriminating anecdote. ‘I have a full-on job, two school-age children, and an elderly mother to care for, so I understand that we’re all busy,’ he begins. ‘But I’ll never forget what my daughter, then four, said one day. We were working on a jigsaw, but I kept nipping to the kitchen to check my phone. When I rejoined her for the third or fourth time, she rightly observed, “Daddy, you’re not really here, are you?”’

Oh, Daddy. From the mouths of babes. Add cliché here.

I mock, because this struck me as a particularly funny kind of obliviousness. Chatterjee’s daughter is, as he specifies, four. My daughter is 21 months, and my mind is fairly boggled at the idea anyone could possibly have their child get to age four before they realised that child could tell when they weren’t paying attention, and didn’t like it. Now, perhaps he is possessed of a saintly patience and attentiveness I, and other mothers I know, lack. Or perhaps, the vast majority of the time, someone else is doing most of the parenting for Chatterjee. I couldn’t possibly speculate.

In this nastily suspicious frame of mind, I continued reading, and halted again on Chatterjee’s discussion of teaching ‘delayed gratification’. It is suggested one might play a board game, or urge a child to listen to a whole album, rather than skipping to a favourite song. It’s clear that ‘delayed gratification’ is, effectively, something to be combined with a leisure activity. Daddy’s switched his phone off, and he’s playing a nice boardgame with the children with some Bowie in the background. Isn’t Daddy good with the kids? Meanwhile, someone else – and I’m guessing it’s Mummy, isn’t it? – is in the kitchen making dinner or upstairs folding the washing, doing the sort of culpable work that takes one’s full attention away from a child and causes them to come out with poignant four-year-old recriminations.

The person who began his article by saying you needn’t sacrifice your busy schedule to make time for a child when you can use spare moments of ‘bathtime, car journeys, meals [and] queues]’ to chat to them, doesn’t seem to imagine the same economy of effort could apply to domestic tasks and parenting. I don’t say it’s impossible to be the parent doing childcare and also to think there’s value in playing a boardgame. But I’d bet quite a lot of money that you can also teach ‘delayed gratification’ by getting a child to help you cook a meal or bake a cake, and those things also have an end result that ticks off one of the tasks that needs doing for the day.

The pattern continues into the penultimate section of the article. Eat the alphabet, it is titled. ‘I like to challenge the whole family to “eat the alphabet” over 30 days. I think it’s a realistic goal to consume 26 different plant foods in a month: A for asparagus, B for banana, C for chickpeas, and so on.’

There’s an interesting defensiveness in that self-boosting phrase ‘I think it’s a realistic goal’. And it’s merited, because there’s quite a bit to provoke dissent here. It takes a particular sort of person to begin that list of alphabetised food with … asparagus. Asparagus is never a cheap vegetable; in January, it’s being flown in from the other side of the world, and this particular January, there’s the added fun of knowing that our beloved government has no feasible plans whatsoever for importing produce post-Brexit, nor for finding someone willing to pick British crops (such as asparagus in season) when Them Pesky Foreigners who generally do it, can’t get here any more. All of this being so, someone who can offer this sort of suggestion is either so obliviously wealthy they don’t think about it – or they haven’t shopped or prepared a meal for an actual child since the last time British asparagus was in season, back in summer 2018.

I notice the tiny details in what Chatterjee is saying – the things that aren’t his main point, the nitpicky bits about asparagus rather than apples and board games rather than cooking – because such an enormous part of my time and mental energy goes on those very ‘details’. There’s no explicit acknowledgement, in this article, that Chatterjee is not talking to, or about, parents like me. Indeed, primed by his all-inclusive references to ‘our’ children and ‘us,’ I initially read this article obediently considering whether I, too, should stop concentrating on my work and pay more attention to my child. After all, I know perfectly well I spend many hours every day giving her a fraction of my attention. She’s with me every morning and all day on Thursdays, and I’m trying to work something vaguely approaching full-time on a book. Often, she doesn’t understand why I won’t pay her more attention, because the outcome of what I’m doing – which is writing – isn’t visible to her.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of feeling guilty. The more so because the pressure from the other side – the work side – pushes the other way. It is very hard to explain why, if you are capable of doing a couple of hours (total) of work one morning, while looking after a toddler, you are not capable of responding to an email for four hours the next day. Or why you can sit and watch an entire film with a small child angelically snuggled up next to you, but you can’t reach for the book that’s open on the table beside you and quickly find that one reference on page 26 whose wording you need to check. The reason, of course, is that while you can sometimes do a great deal of work while not giving full attention to a child, you can never rely on it, and you can never plan your day around it.

What I’m seeing in Chatterjee’s article is the logic of a person whose priorities are shaped around not actually needing to think about a lot of the work that goes into raising a child. There’s nothing wrong with being a parent who doesn’t do this work. As I type, my baby’s at nursery and I’m paying (or, more accurately, my working partner is paying) for someone else to do that work for me. But if you are a parent who doesn’t have to think about this work, for whatever reason, your other advice on parenting may be rather limited.

A repeated theme of the article is the intrusive role of digital technology, which parents are urged to resist. In the anecdote about ignoring his four-year-old daughter, it’s a phone in the kitchen that distracts Chatterjee, drawing him away from her jigsaw puzzle every few minutes. In a section on the importance of good sleep, ‘tech’ and ‘screens’ are the main culprits, this time in the hands of children and parents. In the passage devoted to ‘delayed gratification,’ Amazon Prime, Spotify and Netflix are amongst the modern influences supposedly destroying our healthy capacity to wait. I can’t help noticing that this underlying message of guilt is frequently expressed in articles about parenting. Dr Chatterjee is, in fact, pretty ubiquitous across social media, on twitter, on instagram, in podcasts on youtube. He is, in short, creating the content he urges parents to cut out of their lives. But nowhere in this article is there any suggestion that digital technology might play a positive role in the lives of parents and children.

Instagram – the forum where Chatterjee seems to have the largest number of followers – is a gendered forum; the majority of its users are women. There is a genre entirely dedicated to the domestic routines of mothers of small children, with predictable, endlessly repetitive content. Child walking in woods. Home-baked cake. Snapshot of mum’s nails. New cushions for the sofa. Child holding flower. Child at seaside. Yet this is, to some, a symbol of all that’s wrong with modern, digital-era mothers, so endlessly and shamelessly romanticising the details of what must be a very easy, entitled, and indolent lifestyle, all the while glued to their iphones instead of their children.

It’s possible, of course, that despite his own extensive professional use of instagram, twitter, and so on, Chatterjee is unaware of this culture of blame that surrounds the making visible of mothering on social media. There is nothing in this article to suggest that the digital technology that draws parents away from paying attention to their children is anything but purely work-related (work, in the sense of paid employment outside the home). But I couldn’t help linking the two things in my own mind, seeing how ready this article (and many others like it) is to ignore and overlook the details of parenting that are done by someone else, how ready it is to blame digital technology for bad parenting, for a lack of resilience.

The activities that lie behind instagram mummy-cliché are, on the whole, ephemeral. No one writes professional appraisals of parenting, recording diligently how many times you took your child out to jump in puddles, or how often you let her slide down the slide. The cake is going to be eaten. The flowers are going to wilt. That tidy room with the new cushions is most certainly not going to stay tidy and tranquil. Like resilience itself, the work that goes into making these parts of parenting happen is not always visible; others only miss it when it doesn’t happen. And so a vast network of women are, essentially, making visible the processes – the details – that struck me as being so profoundly and strangely absent from Chatterjee’s own view of parenting, the details that (if they do not make for resilient children), certainly bolster the resilience of their mothers.

 

 

Why so much cross-dressing in Nazi Germany? Holocaust apologetics and the appropriation of LGBT histories

Content warning: this post contains images of Nazi soldiers, and video content relating to Nazi Germany.

This video has been doing the rounds on digital media. It is a selection of images from a recently published book. A figure in bra and pants, midriff exposed, leans back against a swastika flag. A couple – one in a white dress, the other in military uniform, lean closely in to each other. Three party goers stand posed, backs to the camera, in gowns that showcase their toned backs and sweep to the floor. A tense individual sits rigid, face in half-profile, cheeks dark with rouge.  And then, the voiceover begins. Translated from the German, it begins:

“The photos show soldiers, who we know as Nazi fighters, all of a sudden from a side we never would have expected. There is suddenly a certain softness, a sentimentality.”

A few moments later, the author of the book explains, ‘The crazy thing is … [how] many of these photos can be found’.

I was brought up short by this – but not for the reason the maker of the video seems to anticipate. My response was first one of disbelief, and then of anger. The idea that soldiers dressing in women’s clothing, or soldiers engaging in displays of intimacy, constitutes ‘softness’ and ‘sentimentality’ made my blood boil. The terminology is very familiar. In the medieval medical texts I’m reading, writers often explain that women are innately ‘softer’ than men. It’s rooted in etymology: the seventh-century philosopher Isidore of Seville stated categorically that the audible similarity between the words ‘mulier’ (Latin for ‘woman’) and ‘mollior’ (Latin for ‘softer’) could be taken as incontrovertible proof of women’s natural propensity to be softer and weaker than men. Likewise, the idea of ‘sentimentality’ was highly gendered. Women – so it was believed – were more emotionally volatile than men; more given to emotional expression. Indeed, this capacity was actually biologically linked to their ‘softness,’ for medieval thinkers believed that since women’s bodies were more liquid than those of men, their organs were literally softer, and their emotions more apt to gush and overflow. This fluid softness confirmed that each woman needed the firm hand of a man, of course, but it also – our friendly medieval authorities conceded, magnanimously – explained why women were so marvellously good at producing new life: all those soft, comfy, liquid bodies made for wonderfully cushy places for foetuses to gestate.

Lest this sound a little like Donald Trump does medieval, I must point out that these texts were hugely influential. They permeated Western European culture for centuries, and their influence is still felt today.

Nazi Germany upheld a strict and horrific gender binary, and it is a secondary source of shame that the resulting atrocities have been slow to be reported, let alone publicised and taught. ‘Homosexual’ men and women were sent to the death camps – including those who were so categorised for their propensity for dressing in the clothes of the ‘opposite’ sex. Women were required to centre their lives on church, home life, and children, and brothels for Nazi soldiers recruited young women and teenagers straight from Hitler Youth. When I was at school, in the 1990s, Section 28 was in force, and the teaching of anything relating to homosexuality – especially homosexuality as an intimate or emotional bond, a ‘family relationship’ – was banned. In most State schools, the question of homosexual (let alone trans) victims of the Holocaust simply could not arise. In my school, I was fortunate: we used a textbook that did briefly mention these things, and the pink triangle – but only to conclude, comfortably, that gay people had only to restrain themselves should they wish to escape persecution.

I mention this history in part to demonstrate my deep reservations about the argument put forward in this video. Homosexuality is not merely a propensity for dressing in the clothing of the opposite sex, a fetish one could and should subdue at times of need. It is not ‘crazy’ for men to dress in women’s clothing. Let’s get that out there, first and foremost. It might be that some of these men were what we would now call trans; it might be that they were homosexual and expressing their sexual identities through what official publications considered to be a key means of expressing same-sex identity. But the idea that this should make us think these individuals were ‘softer’ or more ‘sentimental’ is deeply flawed, and frankly disgusting. To be feminine, or female, is not to be ‘soft’ or ‘sentimental’. To be a gay man is not to be ‘soft’ or ‘sentimental’.

But it gets worse. Why might cross dressing be ‘so popular’ in Nazi Germany, asks the voiceover? (And if it was that popular, I asked myself, when are we going to see the women dressing as men? Or was there some striking and obvious reason for the absence of cross-dressing women soldiers – like, say, the fact this cross dressing was fuck all to do with gender expression and everything to do with the tactics of misogynistic patriarchy?). Thankfully, we’re not left wondering for long:

“One likely reason: Germany’s Carnival tradition.”

Yes, you read that right. Carnival. The literal translation of the word is ‘farewell to meat,’ and that’s because it’s the festival that happens right before Lent, as Catholic societies prepared to forego flesh in the lead-up to Easter. In many medieval societies, ‘carnival’ was an opportunity for all sorts of anarchic celebrations and disruptive, rowdy activities, including (yes) men dressing as women. But you know what else ‘carnival’ was about? Oh yes, the persecution of the Jews. This explicitly Christian festival included events such as that instigated by Pope Paul II in 1466, wherein Jewish people were forced to race through the streets of Rome for the entertainment of Christian viewers. In fifteenth-century German images, as Ruth Mandel observes, Jewish people and pigs were both associated with the disorder of carnival, in an association seemingly intended to offend against Jewish dietary laws. Reading this, I could not believe anyone could get so far as to compile hundreds of images of Nazi soldiers, and not even begin to think about the histories of Jewish persecutions in Germany.

There might be many reasons why Nazi soldiers cross-dressed, but the reasons why seem to me less important than what those images of Nazi soldiers dressed in women’s clothing might motivate us to think, and do, and remember. A friend of mine observes what I think must be the horrible truth here. These soldiers, who dressed up in women’s clothes and had their photographs taken, cheerfully posing, were not afraid of the possibility they, too, would be persecuted for putative sexual ‘deviancy’. They were not afraid their cross-dressing would bring down suspicion upon them. And the clothes they wore? Well, as my friend puts it:

I have a horrible feeling the reason we have so many pictures of Nazis doing this was NOT because WW2 was extra tough so they needed some down time but because the Nazis engaged in mass confiscation of property as part of their fucking genocide so they had an endless supply of women’s clothes to play with. I feel sick that he hasn’t thought about where the clothes came from. 

Let’s take a minute or five to think about that, shall we? And let’s remember the Jewish woman whose photographs can’t be played over and over on video montages, because they never got to make them.

 

Student expectations and the Salary Problem in Academia.

I’m breaking out of self-enforced blogging jail, to have a minor rant.

I settled down with the Guardian this morning (incidentally, on a break from applying for a teaching fellowship), and saw the following article. ‘Less than half’ of tuition fees spent on teaching English universitiesreads the headline. I mainly clicked on it out of puzzlement. This is news? Then I read that, apparently, it really is news to some people. Worse, it’s all our fault. ‘Universities need to be more honest with students about how their fees are spent,’ hectors ‘an influential thinktank’ (how do thinktanks sort out their finances, and can we all have a quick tour of the budgeting department, please?).

Apparently – and you’d imagine, from the way this is presented, that it’s a shocking denouement – universities spend as much as 55 to 60% of their budget on libraries and services including information technology and student support.

The bastards.

Imagine, choosing to find a library. Cos who needs books, or subscriptions to journals, right?

Granted, the article does eventually wind its way around to the question of academics’ pay, and makes the important point that the system is rigged, with black men and women earning far less than their white counterparts. Which is pretty disgusting. But it makes its way to that conclusion by way of some fairly insinuating chains of logic. Apparently, students would prefer if their money weren’t spent on advertising. Ok, fair point … but if it’s true that the majority of money is spent on library costs and teaching, um, possibly not as big an issue as you’d imagine? And what counts as ‘advertising’? One of the problems universities routinely raise is that student demographics don’t change without changes to applicant demographics – you can’t admit someone who doesn’t apply. So, perhaps you need to advertise, and campaign?

I am probably responding more to the tone of this article than to its content. There’s nothing particularly wrong with students (or academics) being more aware of how money is spent. I do routinely despair when students assume their supervisors are coining it. I’ve never topped the moment when, during my PhD days when I was doing hourly teaching, one of my less numerate students managed to suggest those teaching him were earning ‘9k a year from each of us’ since those were his fees. Oh, I wish.

The problem is, I have a certain amount of cynicism about how this information would be interpreted, were it available. I believe that university teaching ought to be better paid. I would believe that – I’ve never met an early career academic who doesn’t feel slightly brutalised by temporary teaching contracts that don’t include time to mark essays and plan lessons, or adverts for jobs that require ‘research-led teaching’ but decline to pay you over the summer (when you’d do the research). But if pay is one problem, prestige is just as much of an issue.

Universities run on early career academics as teachers, from PhD students onwards. But the popular perception of a university teacher is of a middle-aged (and probably male, and white …) academic, who has his own office, his established courses, and his books reassuringly lined up on the shelf. I know from complaints I’ve heard from students (and more from parents of students) that getting an early career academic, let alone a PhD student, as a teacher or supervisor is seen as being short-changed. Why isn’t the professor teaching the course? Why is the university cheating students by giving them some wet-behind-the-ears newbie who’s yet to publish her first book? There’s a feeling that what’s taught ought to be well established. A friend of friend, getting in touch to ask about her son’s applications a couple of years ago, is representative (and won’t now mind me writing this). She was concerned, she said, because she’d been to an Open Day and the sample lecture had included references to an article that wasn’t yet published. It was someone trying to get away with unfinished work, in her view. I didn’t (and still don’t) know which university this was, or who the lecturer giving the sample lecture was, but I know she was a she, and she was ‘quite young’. I explained then that you actually want people lecturing their unfinished work – it’s in the nature of a sneak preview. As a student, part of what you’re doing is testing out ideas, and when the person teaching you is testing out ideas too, you’re both engaged in the same process of moving backwards and forwards on something, taking some wrong turns, trying to fit things together differently. You should come out of a lecture feeling you know – or you have a hunch – where the lecturer isn’t quite sure about his or her ideas yet, where there’s a bit further to push at things.

This sort of uncertainty doesn’t fit well with what prospective students are taught to imagine university academics are like. And the problem is, I don’t think more transparency about pay will help. It implies that, if I’m paid 28k per year as a newly-graduated teaching associate, my teaching is worth less than someone who’s paid 35k as a lecturer, or 47k as an associate professor. And thing is, it really isn’t. That’s not me being arrogant – because if my teaching truly were worth so much less, it would be incredibly obvious which students had been shortchanged, because their results would skew much lower than those of their more fortunate peers, assigned to permanent members of staff.

Yes, students (and the rest of us) ought to know more about where the money is going. But they shouldn’t be fobbed off with headlines that make out funding a library is a shocking expense for a university to have. We need to give students and their parents a more accurate picture of what to expect from university, right from the start, before applications even happen. That involves changing the idea that university teaching is all about certainty and established truths, best delivered by middle-aged white men reading sonorously from dusty tomes they published in the last millennium. Change that, and maybe we’d have a hope of getting better pay for those of us who aren’t middle aged white men, too.

The Sisterhood of Philomela and Christine Ford: Women’s Interpretative Communities and the Power of #MeToo

Last summer, I wrote a conference paper, later extended into a journal article, on the subject of a late fourteenth-century story of rape and its aftermath. My article, which you can read here, was published a few days ago in a special issue of Postmedieval Journal, edited by Diane Watt and Roberta Magnani. Despite the lengthy gap between writing process and publication, I realised with shock that I wrote the bulk of this article before the #MeToo campaign came into being. Just as the article came out, I listened to Dr Christine Blasey Ford give evidence of her rape by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in a hearing that resulted in waves of sympathy and horror and anger expressed on Ford’s behalf by millions upon millions of listeners.

It’s fair to say that Dr Ford’s testimony sent shockwaves through much wider and angrier audiences than her Republican aggressors expected. Women lined up to bear witness to the validity of her emotion, to signal boost her points, to give context to the way she told her story. In particular, I saw many women acknowledging – both in mainstream media and in general conversation – that Ford’s constant, anxious, polite concern to be helpful was agonisingly familiar to rape survivors, survivors of other abuse, and those who have worked with them. I’m not keen to put one single interpretation on all of these responses, as they were very diverse and came from many difference places and perspectives. But I couldn’t help feeling, repeatedly, that these women commenting on Ford’s testimony were providing a sort of interpretative community around her, a sort of sisterhood of witnesses. Yes, that IS how women talk about rape. Yes, that is how my friend (or my sister, or my student, or I) found myself responding to questions. Yes, those fears she has sound like the fears we had. Yes, this is credible. 

So often, when rape cases come to court (not that this was a trial, despite the antagonism directed at Ford), the public response is dominated by another, much louder and rougher, kind of interpretative community, cutting into women’s testimonies to cast doubt, to sidetrack into aggressively-phrased ‘what if?’ questions asking us to speculate about the mitigating circumstances, the good character, the appalling stigma, that really ought to make us think twice before judging a good man guilty of rape. In academic circles, the equivalent is the male scholar – no specialist on historic rape cases, but certain that they require no special expertise, too – sitting in the front row of a conference paper and muttering ‘it’s not rape’ while a woman expert explains her findings. This community is the patriarchy pulling together, presenting an united front. It is rare – very rare – to see its feminist opposite number, the interpretative community of women standing together to echo a woman survivor’s emotions and nod, quietly but cumulatively, ‘me too’.

In my text, this interpretative community of women spreads across one particular manuscript of a story by Gower, concerning the rape of the Athenian princess Philomela by her brother-in-law Tereus. In most versions, Gower’s narrative roots itself in respect for the authority of men – the more solidly part of the establishment, the better. Repeatedly, we are urged to listen to what has been done before, to direct ourselves backwards to the wisdom of venerable men, to perpetuate the establishment. Even when Philomela has been raped, she is not given a voice to describe her own experiences. Transformed into a bird and mutilated, she can only twitter a song. Instantly, with the brash speed of mansplainers everywhere, a community of ‘old wise’ men interrupt to lay down the law about ‘what she meant’ by her song.

But one manuscript – a small and inexpensive book, but one that contains an almost unprecedented number of women’s names written into its margins – adds a few deceptively subtle, startling twists to the old tale. Instead of a community of ‘old wise’ men around the singing rape survivor, we find here ‘old wives’: a sisterhood of women, whose interpretative community forms a protective circle around Philomela.

As I wrote my article, I was not only thinking about Gower and his narrative, nor only about the women whose names appear in my one manuscript with its fierce feminist twist. I was thinking about the ways women respond to rape and its aftermath today. We often talk about ‘solidarity’. The word has connotations of massed presence, of standing firm – and these are powerful. But what I see happening in response to Dr Ford is not merely solidarity, but something more mobile, more interactive, more dynamic. Women are providing an interpretative community, simultaneously standing firm in support of each other, and also mobilizing, strengthening and diversifying her voice and her emotion with testimonies that chime in with what she says. One of the most exhausting things, in the wake of a much-reported rape case, is the experience of repeating over and over, the same arguments, to men convinced of their absolute right to sound off about the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘have you considered …,’ the ‘but maybes’ and the ‘I’m not being politically correct buts …’. And therefore one of the biggest reliefs is to feel, like a safety net, a community of women all already speaking in symphony to drown all of that out.

Yes, that IS how women talk about rape. Yes, that is how my friend (or my sister, or my student, or I) found myself responding to questions. Yes, those fears she has sound like the fears we had. Yes, this is credible.

Yes, we believe her.