Women, Art and Authority: The Language of Exclusion

Fede Galizia, 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes' (possible self-portrait). 1596.

Fede Galizia, ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ (possible self-portrait). 1596.

I recently watched Amanda Vickery’s series, ‘The Story of Women and Art,’ which you can catch on Iplayer (and catch it soon, before it goes).

I am a pretty obvious target for this series. The name I blog under, Jeanne de Montbaston, is the name of one of the few medieval women artists about whom we know a fair amount. I’m not an Art Historian, but I’m very interested in women artists, because in medieval England (and France, and Italy …), you often find that the people illuminating books –  or making tapestries and other works of art we’ve now lost – were women. I suspect that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were actually a reasonably good time to be a woman artist. Yet, ironically, I suspect that’s true for women like Jeanne de Montbaston simply because being an artist who illuminated medieval manuscripts did not carry the level of (masculine) prestige we now associate with the word ‘Art’. She was simply a woman working to support her family. And even then, few non-medievalists would know about medieval women artists, so her name is obscure.

Vickery’s first programme began with Renaissance Italy, so we didn’t really get to talk about what was going on in medieval England or France (maybe there could be another series?). But this was fine with me since I know much less about Renaissance and post-Renaissance art. The story that stood out for me was that of the nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who painted a huge seven-metre Last Supper. The theme, so the programme argued, was typically taken on by male artists, but Vickery points out that Nelli’s models were probably other women, and consequently, she created a strongly feminized Last Supper. This is not only artistically significant, but also theologically: nuns who used this painting to focus their meditations would have been able to identify closely with a Christ whose human form was visibly similar to their own female bodies. If you think about the implications of that, it’s revolutionary – yet this work was hidden away in a convent.

The pattern was repeated. Vickery demonstrated that, when she looked for women artists, she found their work hidden away in basements, or overshadowed by better-publicised male contemporaries. Women worked in media men chose to allow them to use – including, in one fascinating example, sculpting intricate designs on peach stones – and even if their work did become popular and well-known, after their deaths few women artists retained their reputations. As the series constantly stressed, women struggled to get – let alone to keep – recognition in a male-dominated and often hostile environment. Fede Galizia, the woman who painted the picture at the top of this page – a self-portrait in which she stands in for the ball-breaking Judith, calmly toting the severed head of vanquished general Holofernes – was the daughter of a celebrated painter, and yet her father’s colleague commented patronizingly “this girl dedicates herself to imitate our most extraordinary art”. He probably thought that was praise.

I wasn’t particularly planning to blog about this series. I reckoned I didn’t have anything to say. But then, browsing through twitter, I saw Vickery’s own tweet responding to a Telegraph review:

Am ‘the ever-voluble historian’ in Daily Telegraph. Garrulous girl not Professor. Thanks for making that clear.”

I know there’s plenty else to be angry about today, but that made me angry for her, because I recognised the pattern here. Generally, presenting TV programmes does involve a wee bit of talking, that being sort of the aim of the whole thing. But when women talk from a position of authority, there’s almost always someone around to claim it’s all just a bit uncomfortable.

I didn’t find the review in question. Instead, I found some pretty telling alternative perspectives.

One (male) Telegraph reviewer decided to go for the backhanded compliment. While the content and argument of the series (y’know, the stuff most of us mere mortals are interested in) was great, Vickery’s delivery was, apparently, ‘overbearing’. As if she knew her stuff or something, perhaps? Further googling brought me to another gem from The Arts Desk, where the (female) reviewer  decided Vickery was ‘breathlessly enthusiastic’.

Of course, reviewers aren’t obliged to read, let alone agree with, each other’s opinions. It is possible that breathless enthusiasm, with all of its connotations of girlishness and lack of gravitas, is the same thing as being overbearing, with all that word’s connotations of excessive authority. But it’d be quite tricky to pull off that effect, wouldn’t it? Almost as if what both reviewers are really objecting to is simply the fact that Vickery is a woman and that’s enough to strike a false note.

I read recently (in Everyday Sexism, if you’re interested) that only one in five professors in British universities in a woman. Do a google image search of the word itself, and this is what you find: mostly men, mostly old, mostly white. I scrolled down looking for women and found four blondes in glasses with the banner ‘Beauty Professor’ and, erm, a semi-clothed manga figure. No, I didn’t click to see what that has to do with being a ‘professor’. Delightfully, the first page of google search results for the word ‘professor’ came up with the old Spectator crap from Rod Liddle laying into Mary Beard by claiming it’s ‘not misogyny, Professor, it’s you’. So that’s the impression we have of the term: professors are mostly men, unless we’re busy putting them in their place with a little slap down. How nice.

If this rant has a purpose, it’s to underline the really quite staggering irony of the barbed little criticisms Vickery (and other female professionals) attract. Many people would prefer to believe that women are excluded from prestigious positions, such as a place in the History of Art or a career in academia, because they choose to opt out. If we believe this, we forget about the active opposition women face, that chips away at us with little, barbed, patronizing comments. This series recovers forgotten work by women artists and explains how and why women adapted their work to fit into a male-dominated environment.  As Vickery argues, the point is not that women simply did not make art – the point is that the art they made was sidelined, excluded, put away in the basement and forgotten about. Yet, the reviewers appear incapable of making a link between this pattern of female exclusion, and their own perpetuation of that exclusion.


There is now a hashtag for sharing art, especially folk art, by women: #artbywomen, which grew out of ideas by Bee Jones, Millie Slavidou, and this post. Please do feel free to join in and celebrate the women you know who make beautiful things!


Mind-boggling Arrogance in the Face of Feminism. A quickie.

This isn’t really a ‘post’ as such, it’s just a space to express my disbelief in more characters than twitter allows me.

You may have noticed that the Name Equality campaign has been in the news (you can find them here, and I’ve blogged about their extremely sensible, historically important campign before). The campaign asked for a very simple change to the marriage certificate, to bring it up to date: the insertion of a space for the name and profession of the mothers, as well as of the fathers, of the couple. This information is already on the certificate in Scotland and NI, but England and Wales lag behind. The Deputy Registrar for England and Wales, with spectacular misjudgement, has responded he doesn’t fancy bothering with changing anything.

Now all of this is annoying enough. But the cherry on the cake, for me, is the response I found the the Telegraph article published today:

The certificates have always allowed for the Mothers name and job. This seems to be a campaign for the sake of a campaign”

Yes, really.

There are people out there so stupid, and so knee-jerk anti-feminist, that they simply cannot process the idea that any feminist campaign might have a point. Let’s just take a minute to consider this, shall we? This is a person, with access to a keyboard and the capacity to type, who has accepted without a murmer the idea that a professional woman, a national newspaper, and the deputy registrar of England and Wales, are all three of them in a conspiracy to lie about the content of a publicly available document. For what reason? For no reason.

Isn’t that just stunning?

Imagine the depths of arrogance you would need to write that post, and the level of security you’d have to have in your own rightness. Now imagine that depth of arrogance in everyday conversation. And people wonder why we’re still living in a world where women find it harder to get their voices heard.

Blurred Lines, Medieval Margins, and the Voice of the Ordinary Man

This post grew out of a paper I gave a few weeks ago at a conference in Bristol, and a short conversation sparked off by some fascinating tweets by Dr Sjoerd Levelt (who’s awesome, by the way, and you should follow him if you don’t already). I thought it’d be a snap to write, but for some reason it kept getting longer and messier, until I sat down to watch Kirsty Wark’s documentary Blurred Lines. It’s still up on Iplayer and I thoroughly recommend it, though it’s not easy viewing.

The documentary explores whether the internet has made misogyny more socially acceptable. What came across strongly was that a lot of men were deeply invested in presenting themselves as ‘ordinary’ and insisting that they spoke with the common voice. This was most obvious in Wark’s interview of the ex-editor of Loaded magazine, who felt that his magazine had simply expressed what ‘working-class white males’ already felt. He’s presumably playing heavily on his ‘my dad was a coal miner’ credentials here, rather than his ‘but I went to university and made a shitload’ credentials.

A little later Rod Liddle took up the baton for poor oppressed white men, explaining that threats and verbal abuse on the internet are “distressing to all of us”. But, you know, especially him. He wanted you to know that, and he launched into a detailed catalogue of all the internet abuse he personally had risen above (if I’d ‘risen above’ my GCSE revision the way he’d ‘risen above’ these insults I’d still be collecting the A* grades). Anyway, this led in to a delightfully oblivious encounter between him and Wark. Liddle complained bitterly that someone on the internet had told him he looked “like a drug-addled middle-aged lesbian,” but he, bravely, chose to ignore such slurs. “That’s quite insulting to lesbians,” pointed out Wark, presumably hoping he’d recognise that this insult derives its power from the idea that being a middle-aged heterosexual man is innately better than being a lesbian.

The implication completely passed Liddle by.

Now, I was struggling with this, because it’s hard to watch without ranting at the TV.  Liddle wanted both to claim both the voice of ‘everyman’ and to make it all about himself – to the extent that he couldn’t even recognise that he’d managed to derive offence from a comment designed to stigmatize a whole group of women. The take-away message from him and from several other men (and women) Wark interviewed was simple: if you find it offensive, it’s because you’re taking things too seriously. All of this misogynistic communication on twitter, in Lads’ mags, in stand-up shows, in computer games – it’s all just a joke. Non-traditional media, and especially the internet, are outside the rules that bind serious communication. What you see there can’t be analysed seriously, because it was never intended seriously.

This was the point where I started thinking back to the medieval manuscripts I’d been trying to write about. This image comes from a manuscript copied in about 1430, by a Yorkshireman called Robert Thornton.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

On twitter, Dr Levelt had started off a conversation about marginalia like this image, and he’d linked to the very cute drawings in the manuscript he’d been working on. Even amongst academics, these types of marginal drawings go by no more technical term than ‘doodles’. A fellow medievalist blogger sums up the general view:

“the thing about medieval doodles is they look just like modern doodles.”

It’s hard not to engage, not to feel we’ve been given a glimpse of the ordinary medieval reader, drawing something spontaneous, personal, and endearingly messy. Just as the internet is a more democratic, immediate, equal kind of communication than traditional print media with its inbuilt economic, educational and social privilege restricting authorship to the few, so too are the margins of medieval books. These doodles escape historical context and academic analysis, looking the the same in 1430 as in 2014. 

Or do they?

I admit, I love it when people engage with medieval manuscripts and I’d a darn sight rather you were smiling over Robert Thornton’s doodles of knights than Rod Liddle’s Spectator column. It’s true that you can make a case for Thornton, the ‘ordinary’ man. His Latin is a bit dodgy and his handwriting isn’t very professional. But he’s also monumentally privileged, educationally and socially and financially (a bit like someone who went to university and got into journalism, I guess).

Thornton’s other ‘doodles’ or ‘scribbles’ show us what use he made of the marginal spaces in his book. The drawing of knights serves as a crude front cover to a story about exactly the same subject. Thornton copies a version of the story of King Arthur’s death, the Alliterative Morte Arthur. Carefully, he adds a rubricated title at the top of the page and a rubricated copy of his own family motto at the bottom, as if to point out that the story of King Arthur also belongs to him. At the end of the text, he identifies himself even more strongly with the hero of the story, providing poignant, self-aggrandizing epitaphs for both the fictional king and for himself, suggesting they come as a pair.

This is actually pretty disturbing, once you know that the Morte Arthur is one of the darkest versions of the story, with a weak, incestuous king surrounded by gratuitously violent knights, one of whom (his own son) threatens to rape the queen. Robert Thornton – the same man who doodled that endearing, personal, child-like drawing – identified with this world. And he wasn’t identifying with it from a position of innocence or as an outsider: he was himself a knight and a landowner, a member of that powerful class. Like Liddle, like Daubney, he has no hesitation in presenting himself both as ‘everyman,’ the voice in the margins who says what everyone else is thinking, and as the centre of attention, Robert Thorton, up there with King Arthur.

Yet we forget Thornton’s privilege, even those of us who are trained academics, because we want to believe that a voice that speaks to us from the margins is a voice that speaks as ‘everyman’. We want to believe that, in the open spaces of communication such as this, such as the internet, we can all discount the complicated structures of analysis that we know we need for proper, serious communication.

With Thornton, as – I would suggest – with the ‘working-class white males’ Daubney referrerd to reading Loaded, we’re not looking at the disenfranchised discovering a voice for themselves on the margins of a culture. We’re looking at people who were accustomed to slapping their names on things to mark ownership. And we’ve been fooled into accepting that what we’re seeing is the voice of the ‘ordinary man’.

I don’t have anything clever to say in response to Wark’s documentary, but I do feel disturbed to notice how easily we academics forget about privilege when it looks conveniently close to the sort of open, digital culture we’re so keen to romanticise as a space for equal debate.

So is there something special about the internet that facilitates misogyny? Or is it that we fetishize the idea of the ‘ordinary man’ who speaks directly to us, who is separate from all of these complicated ideas about privilege and oppression, who just happens to get his voice heard above everyone else’s? When Rod Liddle fails to see how anonymous threats on twitter might affect women more than men, when he fails to see that the insult directed at him as an individual is also directed at an entire class of women and uses him to reinforce their oppression, I can’t help feeling we’ve made very little progress in 600 years.

Note (skip this unless you want random musings on textual analysis)

This post is already a monster, but I wanted to note that some of my thoughts came from comparisons to print culture, specifically eighteenthc-century print culture. On twitter, Dr Angela McShane and Professor Joanne Bailey shared images of eighteenth-century printed books that had been ‘doodled’ in by their owners, which you can see at the V&A site and here. It was the V&A site that interested me most. Although to me, honestly, these doodles look much of an artistic quality with the medieval ones, the scholar working on the book treated them as examples of sophisticated participation in textual culture. This made me think of the famous instructions to the reader in Tristram Shandy, since Sterne’s invitation to his readers to doodle a picture of Widow Wadman is generally taken by scholars as a subtle literary joke, and taken seriously. I’m not going to draw any conclusions from this, or rabbit on further, but I did find it striking that we seem, as scholars, to be taking print culture much more seriously than we take more open-access cultures, and I wonder if we’re not missing something here.

Writing Women out of History – Another Stupid Response

This is just a quick post.

A while back, I blogged about the current campaign to include mothers’ names on marriage certificates, which currently require you to fill in your father’s name and profession, but not your mother’s. It’s an exceedingly simple petition (which you can still sign, it’s in the link), and, frankly, pretty gobsmacking that in 2014 it’s even necessary.

Here’s what the author of the campaign had to say:

In England & Wales mothers’ names are not on marriage certificates.

This is not fair.

This is 2014.

Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality.

Women are routinely silenced and written out of history.

Pretty clear, right? Simple, obvious, and not difficult to sort out. I mean, come on. A marriage certificate is a piece of paper that needs to have two more lines on it. We have the technology.

And yet. Here’s the response. It is so monumentally lacking in historical awareness I wish I could say I can’t take it seriously. But, unfortunately, it’s sincere.

Mr Andrew Dent, Deputy Registrar for England and Wales, writes that there are no plans to change the form. But, he suggests brightly, it’s all ok really because mothers can still choose to sign as witnesses. You know, as a sentimental gesture, like what women enjoy. Of course, such a signature doesn’t include stuff like the witnesses’ professions, but that’s ok, because we’ve slipped through the spacetime continuum into a fictional version of the 1950s, where women don’t work anyway.

Why, oh Lord, why?

Why, oh Lord, why?

It might be time for us to do a quick recap of why we fill in this information anyway. Do we need to know our fathers’ names and professions in order to be legally married? Why, no. Does the registrar require the information in order to tax us? Nope. So why is it there? It’s there because it forms part of the historical record.

For historians, this sort of documentation is primary source material. We need it. Not because it’s of sentimental importance, but because it’s vital in building a picture of how people live.

This is what I do. I work mostly on the cultures of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. We’re talking about handwritten books, often very fragile. Most of them have never been edited, and they’re often the only copy in the world. They’re kept in special collections in libraries that require you to have a phenomenal amount of educational (and geographic, and financial) privilege before you’re allowed in. They require a hefty amount of training before you can actually read the words on the page.

As you can imagine, this means that trying to get together information about people’s lives in medieval England is extremely difficult. People want to ask big questions like ‘how common was it for people to be able to read?’ or ‘how much did most women earn?’ But with source material accessed like this, you can only answer fragments of those questions, and you always have to explain you’ve only been able to analyse a tiny proportion of the available data. It is incredibly frustrating and unsatisfactory.

Recently more and more source material has been digitised, and shared online, and we can make statistical analyses of it. In the time it takes me to drink a coffee, I can whip through the records for a couple of hundred years of wills and court cases and housing records for, say, the city of York. This should give me the capacity to answer those big questions, to give you a real sense of connection to the past by telling you exactly what it was like.

Obviously, you will already know I can’t do that. I can tell you a lot about various menfolk. Off the top of my head I know I will find reams of information on prosperous merchants of the Alne, Morton, Blackburn and Bolton families. I will find lists that included everyone who paid rent, or everyone who held civic office. I will find wills, records of court cases and lists of payments. Men’s names are routinely included in the day-to-day paperwork produced in a busy medieval city like York. Women’s names are not. When I come across women in this sort of record, I know that they are there by chance – chance with a substantial economic bias behind it, because if the records I use are biased towards  rich men who left a paper trail, you can believe they are biased towards super-rich women. And this … this is more than frustrating and unsatisfactory.

I understand that, working on medieval England, I am going to keep coming up against evidence of patriarchy in action. Every medieval historian will tell you that these records are biased against women’s experience because, well, society was profoundly misogynistic.

This recent decision not to include women’s names by default erases women from the historical record, but you can be sure that the structural misogyny of our culture won’t suffer the same fate: historians looking back on our own culture will have to trot out the same excuses I trot out when I explain about historical evidence in medieval England: ‘it was a profoundly misogynistic culture with a bias against recording the history of women’.