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.