University Women – Let’s Take Up Space

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

Male students protest the proposal to admit women. Image from Cambridge Daily News, 21 May 1897, via The History Girls

The image features the effigy of a woman cyclist suspended in mid-air, as men carrying banners reading ‘Varsity for Men’ thronged the road beneath, and as, in the Senate House, the university authorities debated admitting women to take the Cambridge degree. You might hope that such images belong only in the sepia-toned past. Over the past week or so, I’ve been tweeting the hashtag , which is the brainchild of a friend of mine who runs the Fifty Percent Project. Here, she sums things up:

“The Fifty Percent Project aims to draw attention to all the ways in which women are denied access to our rightful share of physical, verbal, social, political and cultural space, and to encourage women to start to demand the space to which we are entitled.”

If you’re interested (and you should be), you can look at her selection of facts on women’s under-representation, and you can get involved by sharing stories.

This project is timely for me. As a junior academic in a subject like English Literature, you might think I’d be surrounded by women, that the battle to get women’s voices heard is long over, and that – if anything – I should be worrying about the feminization of education. I’ve heard these arguments before. To listen to some people speculate, you’d imagine university English departments are full of women handing out flyers for the Feminist Burlesque evening*, writing papers about Lady Macbeth’s lesbian subtexts** and campaigning for free mooncups***.

I admit, there is graffiti in the Cambridge English faculty women’s toilet written in support of mooncups. And there’s a lovely radfem argument about shaving your legs scribbled all over the wall in the Lecture Block loo. And I do enjoy that women do their radicalism in this particular space, though it would be lovely if we could do it elsewhere, too. Which brings me back to the point: despite what you might imagine, English Literature at university still struggles to accommodate women.

The Fifty Percent Project site lists amongst their statistics this fact:

“Women make up 45% of academic staff at Higher Education institutions, but comprise 22% of Professors and 33% of other senior academic staff.”

These statistics are disturbing, but they represent a substantial improvement on recent years: the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that in 2003-4 (the academic year I went to university), only 15% of professors were women. That’s an increase of nearly 50%. People very often talk about these numbers as if they must be reflecting a recent phenomenon. Surely, we have so few women in positions of authority just because … well, haven’t women been historically marginalised?

This is demonstrably not the case.

Professor Pat Thane’s work on women students in the past century provides some statistics. In 1900, women made up 16% of the UK student body. By 1930, it was 27%, but this fell to 23% in 1938, and remained steady until the 1970s.

We might take a moment to be slightly shocked by that. Women have been 23% of all students since 1938. No one can claim, then, that the reason there are so few women professors is simply that the number reflects the numbers of women entering HE – we should have had 23% of professorships for the best part of a century. Instead, it’s only in the last few years we’ve even come close to the numbers that should have been the baseline since the 1930s generation of students came of age.

This isn’t just an issue for senior academics, obviously. Women undergraduates still struggle to take up the space they need – physical, verbal, social, political and cultural, as the Project puts it – in order to get what they deserve from three years at university. For male students, the academic role models are right there. In order for women to take up our proper space, we need the same sense that we belong, that we deserve to be here, that we’re good enough. The Fifty Percent Project is designed to bring women together, to celebrate women’s achievements.

I have had some brilliant female teachers and mentors, I have some amazing, inspiring female colleagues, and I’m constantly awed by the women students whom I’ve been supervising this year. But, I think we don’t often enough hear each other saying, ‘you know what? I’m really good. I deserve to be heard. My ideas are really exciting and I’m going to get them out there. And people are going to listen’.

Women in academia deserve to .


* No, I don’t think there is such a thing as feminist burlesque.
** Yes, this paper would make me cringe.
*** Sounds great.

Pat Thane, ‘The Careers of Female Graduates of Cambridge University, 1920s-1970s’, in Origins of the Modern Career, eds. David Mitch, John Brown and Marco H. D. van Leeuwen (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 207-224.

Delicious Rottenness: Women, Sex, and Apples


I promised Jenni Nuttall I’d write this post some time ago, when I first mentioned I was going to be teaching Chaucer’s apocrypha, including the rather nice poem titled ‘O Mosy Quince‘, which begins like this:

O mosy quince, hangyng by your stalke,
The whyche no man dar pluk away ner take,
Of all the folk that passe forby or walke,
Your flowres fresshe be fallyn away and shake.
I am ryght sory, masteras, for your sake,
Ye seme a thyng that all men have forgotyn;
Ye be so rype ye wex almost rotyn.

Most people read this kind of poem as a parody of the traditional love lyric, in which the charms of a beautiful woman are praised. The editor of this particular poem compares it to Shakespeare’s famous sonnet 130, beginning ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. And I can see that here. The poet is joking around: he’s claiming the woman remains on the tree, unplucked (yes, we got the pun), because she is too forbidding for men to dare to pick. Yet, at the same time, they have almost forgotten her, and while she seems to scare men away, she is also an object of pity. As the poet goes on, he revels in his insults, calling this woman ‘bawsyn-buttockyd’ (badger-arsed) and ‘belyed lyke a tonne’ (bellied like a cask of beer). Yet, by the end of the poem, he grudgingly acknowledges his limited affections, in the space of a single stanza declaring and retracting and re-declaring his love. ‘My lovely lewde masterasse, take consideracion,/ I am so sorowfull there as ye be absent’ he admits, then qualifies ‘To love yow but a lytyll is myne entent’ before ending in seeming exasperation: ‘Of all wemen I love yow best. A thowsand tymes fy!’

I hadn’t been thinking about this recently, until I saw Jem Bloomfield’s post, on a more modern version of the same idea, which I think you’ll agree is rather lacking in the charm of the medieval poem.


The modern meme simply ‘comforts’ single women by comparing them to apples high on the tree, which are more appealing than the ‘easy’ pickings of rotten fruit lower down. As he points out, in the modern meme, it’s assumed that men will happily consume ‘rotten’ fruit despite its seemingly unpalatable condition. This is, actually, quite an odd image. But it wasn’t until someone queried this in the comments that I started to think about it again, and it helped me clarify what I think about the medieval poem, too.

As an image, the apple tree is groaning under the weight of accumulated connotations: aside from Eve’s sinful apple picking and its suggestive associations with (sexual) shame, there’s an tree in Piers Plowman, supported by staves to hold up its branches, whose fruits cry out almost in human voices when Piers tries to pick them, and which the devil tries to steal. It’s this scene that C.S. Lewis would plagiarise (delightfully) for The Magician’s Nephew. There are innumerable malus/malum (Latin for evil; Latin for apple) puns in medieval literature. Where does the rottenness come in?

The pseudo-Chaucerian poem pictures a woman as a quince – a fruit which doesn’t actually need to be rotten before it’s ripe, but which is certainly hard and inedible in its normal raw state. It is often thought to be the actual apple of the garden of Eden. It’s closely related to another fruit, the medlar, which genuinely does get eaten when it’s been ‘bletted’ or rotted. It looks like this:

In medieval England, the fruit has another, ruder name, which Chaucer (real Chaucer this time) does use: it’s known, for its distinctive shape, as an ‘open arse’. In the prologue to the Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer writes:

“This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is mowled also as myne heris —
But if I fare as dooth an open-ers.

We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
Til we be roten, kan we nat be rype…”

These lines constitute the Reeve’s angry retort to the Miller’s raunchy tale of Alisoun and Nicholas, the young lovers who trick both Alisoun’s elderly husband and her would-be lover Absolon. The Reeve, as a carpenter by profession like the cuckolded husband in the story, takes personal offence.As you may recall, in the Miller’s tale, the suitor Absolon is tricked, in the dark, into kissing Alison’s arse instead of her face as she presents it at her chamber window, and, returning in rage with a hot poker, he mistakenly jabs it in Nicholas’s rear end as that young man sticks his bum out of the window to fart. The central image the Reeve uses here belies his attempts to pretend to be aloof from the Miller’s crude sexual interests.

It’s presumably this line that the later pseudo-Chaucerian poet was thinking of, when he compared his mistress to a fruit ‘so rype’ it is ‘almost roten’. But, in her appearance, the woman of the Quince poem seems more similar to another of Chaucer’s pilgrims. As the poem goes on, we find the mistress is ‘belyed lyke a tonne’; Chaucer’s notorious Wife of Bath similarly has ‘hipes large’. Both have complexions that deviate from the typical ivory paleness of the beautiful medieval woman: the Wife of Bath’s face is ‘reed of hue’; the mistress cheeks are ‘lyke a melow costard’. Crucially, though, the Wife is quick to institute her own standards of female beauty. Instead of conforming to the medieval preference for pale-skinned, slender, blonde women, she asserts confidently: ‘I was gat-toothed, and that bicame me wel’ (‘that suited me well’).

I don’t want to suggest that there’s too much of a feminist nature going on here, but despite that, I find this statement – and the lady of the Quince poem – much more appealing as descriptions of women than the modern meme. Yes, all of these poems are male-voiced, describing women as objects, and even the outspoken Wife of Bath is only able to say what her creator, Chaucer, puts into her mouth. Yes, these writers are working in a tradition (both poetic, and social) in which women’s beauty is a commodity, in which female sexuality is a consumer good. But they’re nothing like as misogynistic as the modern meme, because – unlike the modern meme – they give the impression that the speakers do, in fact, like both women, and words.

The modern meme’s main nastiness, in my view, lies in the fact that – as Jem’s blog shows – we can’t imagine why men would want to eat the ‘rotten apples’, the ‘easy’ women. The image of sexy women as rotten fruit doesn’t quite fit in this puritanical, sin-of-Eve ideology. It’s been grafted in from the older tradition, but pruned of all its enjoyably deviant, sensual connotations. Instead, we’re left with the underlying message that men don’t really like the women very much at all.

I nicked my title from D. H. Lawrence, who revisits the pseudo-Chaucerian image, and makes it much more explicitly sexual (though less gendered) in ‘Medlars and Sorb Apples‘. I’ll leave you with some lines from that:

I love you, rotten,
Delicious rottenness.

I love to suck you out from your skins,
So brown and soft and coming suave,
So morbid, as the Italians say.

What is it, in the grape turning raisin,
In the medlar, in the sorb-apple,
Wineskins of brown morbidity,
Autumnal excrementa;
What is it that reminds us of white gods?

Gods nude as blanched nut-kernels,
Strangely, half-sinisterly flesh-fragrant
As if with sweat,
And drenched with mystery.

A kiss, and a vivid spasm of farewell, a moment’s orgasm of rupture,
Then along the damp road alone, till the next turning.
And there, a new partner, a new parting, a new unfusing into twain,
A new gasp of further isolation,
A new intoxication of loneliness, among decaying, frost-cold leaves.

Too Much Passion: Women, the Crucifixion, and Displays of Emotion

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

Abegg Triptych, by Rogier van der Weyden. c. 1445

I thought I’d start with this image – a triptych probably painted by Rogier van der Weyden in the mid-fifteenth century – because I find it both compelling, and, frankly, creepy. The central panel is full of van der Weyden’s signature images of heightened emotion: bodies arching and sagging with loss, faces contorted. But at the right-hand side, a little further from the dying Christ, stand onlookers whose stance appears more matter-of-fact: gesturing to one another, they might be engaged in devout contemplation (as the clasped hands indicate), but they also look as if they’re in the middle of considering the practicalities of getting Christ’s body down with that ladder. Even more disorientingly, in the left-hand panel kneels the patron, gazing impassively at the scene before him, as if looking through a window in a sunlit colonnade. With neatly tucked-in legs and politely clasped fingers in his lap, he displays a disturbing lack of emotional response … which is surprisingly effective in prompting a stronger response from us viewers.

I’ve been thinking about the way emotion is displayed or hidden in medieval literature a lot recently, and so this image made me think of how we’re invited to relate to medieval portrayals of emotion, how they manipulate us to feel and think. The central focus of the triptych is not really Christ – who looks almost peaceful in death – but his mother, whose emotional outburst provokes a swirl of motion around her. In contrast, the male viewer – the figure who acts as a bridge between us, onlookers from outside the painting, and the main scene – reveals nothing of his inner response.

This quality of hidden or restrained emotion runs through a lot of medieval lyrics on the same topic. This morning, I balked at the queue winding out around the quad at King’s College (sorry!), and, so I hear, missed a lovely service. But, instead, I saw Dr Kate Ash sharing one of the Middle English Passion lyrics, and it worked its way into the lecture I’m currently writing. So, I thought I would include it here, too.

“Nou goth sonne under wod;
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre;
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.”

(Now the sun goes beneath the woods;
I pity, Mary, your beautiful face.
Now the sun goes beneath the trees;
I pity, Mary, your son and you.)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (The Queen Mary Psalter)

London, BL MS Royal 2. b. vii, f. 256v (detail). The Queen Mary Psalter.

This lyric always reminds me of John Donne’s ‘Good Friday, 1613, Riding Westward’ in its sense of the motion of the heavens and the emotions of the human heart. I first came across the Donne poem in Sinéad Garrigan-Mattar’s classes ten years ago, and I love it. The medieval lyric, however, is much shorter, and the plangent tension between the beautiful image of the setting sun and the shocking disruption of Christ’s death only gestures towards the internal conflict Donne explores more fully.

The lyric is perfectly balanced, almost tranquil, in its repetitive economy of words. Yet, beneath the surface, its language is pulled in opposite directions by a series of puns. I can’t capture the precise depth of connotations ‘reweth’ carries in Middle English: it denotes not just pity, but also regret and pain, almost an admission of human guilt, which lingers underneath a series of puns set up through the lyric. The ‘tre’ is the tree of the Cross on which Christ sinks into death, as well as the woodland behind which the sun sets. The ‘sonne’ that sinks beneath the horizon is both a natural phenomenon, a beautiful image, and a ‘son’ whose death causes the world to shake and which (so medieval legend had it) temporarily blotted out the sun. Even the word ‘rode’, which refers to Mary’s tearful face, can also mean ‘cross’.

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

Walters Art Museum, MS W. 174, f. 152v (detail).

The tensions of this lyric are focussed, not on Christ – who is all-but-absent from the poem, glancingly evoked in the sun/son play on words – but on his mother, Mary. And it’s her ‘faire rode’ that is the most disturbing image of the poem: are we to imagine her face as ‘beautiful’ in its sorrow? Is the cross itself – an instrument of torture – in any way beautiful? Incorporating these problems, the lyric draws attention to the startling disjunction between its own beautifully crafted form, and the appalling sorrow of its subject-matter.

Like the triptych, the lyric shocks us into feeling the emotion it displays, by making us consider the aestheticization of grief and pain. Yet, at the same time, both forms concentrate the sense of excess – the overwhelming grief of Mary in the triptych, the excessive layering of double meanings in the lyric – in the body and face of a female figure, subtly undermining that gendered performance of emotion.

Beyond April Fools: Everyday ‘Feminism’ Again

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

London, BL MS Royal 3.D.VI, f. 116 (detail).

A very quick post, because I can’t not. Today, as you will have noticed, is April Fools’ Day. It is also, much more pleasantly,  – the day when medievalists, including the fantastic and wonderful Chaucer Doth Tweet, take to twitter to share snippets of medieval languages and texts. It’s really fun. Yesterday, two friends of mine, Sjoerd Levelt and Kate Wiles, were on the radio talking about why it is that so many medievalists take to twitter. Their piece is here, and it’s from 33 minutes in, and you should listen. In it, amongst other things, Sjoerd very elegantly expanded on a point first made by Dorothy Kim, that twitter’s cheery little bird icon has a special connotation for medievalists. In a lot of medieval poetry – and especially Chaucer’s work – the trope of the bird who speaks with the voice of a human is politicized: it lets poets take on a new persona, familiar but also strange, human but also not. Speaking birds interrogate the margins of human speech, the margins of comprehensible language. As Sjoerd explained, twitter may be understood as a margin, a space for the unofficial commentaries and informal conversations, but it’s also a forum that has given a lot of young academics a voice.

It won’t surprise you to know that there’s a gender connection in all of this. Many (though not all) of the birds in medieval poetry are female, and some – like the hawk I posted about before – seem to slip between genders. This reflects medieval views quite aptly. Women’s speech is always, in some sense, birdspeech, always, by virtue of gender, sub-human, Other. It requires interpretation before we know what it means, and it places us on the margins of the main discourse.

So, what does all this medieval tweeting have to do with Everyday Feminism? Well, I’ll tell you. A friend of mine, Sophia Baggins, just pointed out this cartoon on their site. Cheerfully, the editors of the Everyday Feminism write:

“What do you think when someone says “I’m not a feminist?” They might not mean what you think. If you identify as a feminist, check out some of the reasons people don’t.

And if you don’t call yourself a feminist, see if you find some of your reasons here. The stories in this comic can help us all have more respect for the wide range of ways we stand up to oppression.”

The cartoons show a variety of women (and one man), mostly, by implication, constructed as members of marginalized groups within feminism. The first is a Black woman, another wears a headscarf, another proclaims herself as a transwoman, yet another locates herself within indigenous culture. There’s finally, for good measure, the scapegoat: the woman who refuses to recognize her privilege.

All stand underneath the same two captions. Firstly, there’s “what they say”, under which each cartoon character proclaims that feminism is not for her, does not fit her identity, and so on. Secondly, there’s “what they mean”, under which each character gives her reasons for struggling to identify with feminism, or rejecting it entirely.

Now, I can see what the cartoonist was trying to do here. There are many reasons women (and men) don’t feel like identifying as feminists. Some of these reasons tell us about the history of feminism’s problems; many others remind us of ourselves, at times when we didn’t realize feminism can have space for us too. And these are important concerns we all have, and they need consideration.

But what I had a problem with was summed up neatly by Sophia’s comment to me. The cartoonist, she noted, refers throughout to these women as “they”. Not, ‘we’. They. There’s a good reason why lists like this – ‘what Brits say versus what Brits mean’ and so on – tend to be humorous in intention. And that’s because they’re fucking patronizing taken literally. There is a very long history of society telling women “what they mean”. A long history of claiming that women’s statements and emotions cannot be respected at face value. This is women’s speech presented as the speech of the Other, the speech that needs interpreting. It’s womanspeech, birdspeech, the not quite human speech that must be translated by someone else. In six hundred years, it seems we haven’t moved on much.

I’d love to think this cartoon is an April Fool, an subtle joke about how far we’ve come. But, unfortunately, it’s not.

Update: I wish I’d managed to articulate before (though I hope the implication was clear) that this cartoon has quite unpleasantly racist connotations, and that transmen – a group of people who patently do experience misogyny (trauma doesn’t disappear because you are transitioning, and identifying as a man does not magically make everyone treat you as one) – are, apparently, our only male ‘allies’. As you will notice, the one group absolved of either the responsibility to identify as feminists or the need to have their words interpreted is … men.

I wrote this piece on the fly, but I did want to come back and say just how appalling that is.

I have now been told that the cartoonist prefers the pronoun them for themself, so it may have been that this usage was not intended to invoke the history of othering women, and was just an accident. This doesn’t surprise me – I think Everyday Feminism is fundamentally well-meaning – but is sad in a different way.