Notre Dame de Paris


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. 

Anne Lister and a Theology of Naming Lesbians.

There are many things about the current kerfuffle over Anne Lister that make me reach for a facepalm gif, but it’s one particular comment that tipped me over into writing this blog post.

In case you’ve never heard of her (and if so, you are missing out), Anne Lister was a Yorkshirewoman, born in 1791. She inherited the late-medieval house at Shibden Hall, where her manner of dress and her habit of seducing women earned the nickname ‘gentleman Jack’. Lister kept a diary, in code, which tells us a lot about her sexual exploits, but she was also devoutly Christian and in 1834 she organised a wedding ceremony to her partner Ann Walker, in Holy Trinity church in Goodramgate, York. Delightfully, Holy Trinity recently agreed to put up a blue plaque in honour of Lister and her marriage, which is both charming and rather daringly polemical, given the Church of England’s current stance on gay marriage. Here it is:


Now, I have no issue with the term ‘gender-nonconforming’. In fact, I am wholeheartedly behind it, and I use it a lot. Patently, Lister had no truck with the idea she ought to choose how to dress, how to behave, and whom to marry, based on society’s prescriptions for ladies. Patently, too, she had enough money (and I do think it comes down to this) to get away with flagrantly disregarding such prescriptions, too. But, as a recent petition has pointed out, ‘gender-noncomforming’ doesn’t necessarily denote sexuality, and one can’t help wondering if the people who chose the wording thought the term sounded a bit, well, nicer, more acceptable, than a word like ‘lesbian’.

Lest you think these are the ravings of paranoia, take a look at the way the Guardian reports the issue. Referring to the controversy over terminology, it introduces its own preferred term, likewise no doubt more acceptable, and with a whisper of Canal Street, feather boas and Judy Garland whirled up into a rainbow-colour parcel, christens Lister a ‘gay icon’.

No. No, I do not think so.

Now, you can spend hours reading the fors-and-againsts of how you apply contemporary terminology to historical figures (and I have; in fact the debate is starting to seep out of my ears at the moment, because I’m writing a book introduction on the subject)*. In general, I tend towards caution when using labels we know people couldn’t have used for themselves. It’s a risky business: you never know whether that label would have struck the person in question as inappropriate, inadequate, or even offensive. Lister was pretty explicit about her sexual desires for women, but she was writing in a diary in code, which suggests a certain level of covert caution. She lived together with Walker at Shibden Hall, but this wasn’t remotely unusual for an unmarried woman and I doubt it would have raised the slightest surprise in and of itself.

So why should I think it important to use the term ‘lesbian’? One reason is rooted in Lister’s own actions. She could simply have enjoyed her relationship on her own terms, like thousands upon thousands of women in same-sex sexual and intimate relationships before her (cos, sorry to the woman quoted here describing Lister as ‘one of the early lesbians,’ but no). But she wanted that relationship to have some form of recognition before God. She wanted it named. In Christian theology (and I simplify; I acknowledge), names are important. Language calls creation into being. A thing unnamed is inconceivable: the whole order of the world was named by God. The ceremony between Lister and Walker in Holy Trinity church responds to this theology: it recognises the relationship as a named thing, a reality.

Fast forward nearly 200 years, and that naming of a relationship before God is still not something open to all of us. It is still very difficult to bring the word ‘lesbian’ into the Church of England. We have women priests, a revolution that broke down some of the most ingrained ideas about gender conformity in the Church, but we still balk, I would suggest, at the idea of a blue plaque that does not take refuge in nice euphemisms when it comes to sexuality. Anne Lister named her relationship; she referred to it as marriage. Legally, as the blue plaque points out, it was not; theologically, she was streets ahead of herself. In the same way, it may not be strictly ‘accurate’ (whatever that means, in whatever dry legalistic terminology you might choose) to call Lister a ‘lesbian’. But, in the same way that Lister felt it was right to call the relationship she recognised in church a ‘marriage,’ I think it would be right not to shy away from calling Lister a lesbian.

*Note: if you want to read more about this debate, I recommend the introduction to the excellent and groundbreaking The Lesbian Premodern, edited by Noreen Giffney, Michelle Sauer and Diane Watt, which brilliantly makes the case for using ‘lesbian’ in a polemical sense that is both academic and (for me, anyway) personally resonant.

What does one word matter? Doctoral women on twitter.

A few days ago Dr Fern Riddell, a historian (who, like me, works on sex and gender), was involved in a nasty twitter conversation with a man who poured scorn on her expertise and – gasp! – what he considered to be her arrogance in defending her qualifications. In response to her refusal to be patronised, storms of women academics have been changing their twitter handles to include ‘Dr’. The negative responses are predictable. What does one word matter? What do these women think they’re proving to anyone? Who cares how you talk about yourself? And so on.

For a lot of women academics I know, Riddell’s is a familiar story. Outside academia, ‘Dr’ is a man. Despite the fact that increasing numbers of women are going into medicine, ‘Dr’ is also a medic. Academic woman come in for a double dose of slapdown for advertising their qualifications as a result, and the scaremongering hits in at full force. Use ‘Dr’ on your passport? You’ll endanger the lives of millions as you are forced, coerced, into performing an emergency tracheostomy in a Boeing 747, since your doctorate almost certainly required the removal of your common sense and your ability to say ‘no, I’m not a medic’. Other academics – I leave you to guess their typical gender – will tell you condescendingly that they have no need to use ‘Dr’ with their students. I prefer to be Dave. They respect me just the same, and by the way, did you see how my teaching evaluations didn’t contain a single comment on my clothing or my tits? Amazing. A woman who pretends to academic expertise is presumed to be overreaching or posturing, and if she points to her qualifications, she’s insecurely boasting.

I grew up with parents who both had doctorates. My father used his. My mother didn’t – except on her child benefit book, because she’d got so bloody fed up with people patronising her on the assumption that being pregnant makes you really, really stupid. I later found out that it’s pretty common for women with doctorates not to use the title, especially if they’re not working in academia (and, of course, far more women than men are being pushed out of academia). So, when I got mine, I used it: I went to the bank; I put it on my work email signature; I ticked boxes and filled in forms with it. But I didn’t put it on my twitter handle. And, like Cinderella at midnight, I retreated nervously from the idea of using it beyond the magic circle of inner-city Cambridge.

A couple of months ago, I moved from Cambridge to rural Yorkshire, with my partner and our daughter; at the same time – inevitably – I went from being Dr Allen who works at Cambridge University to being Dr Allen, excuse me, is he there, or could you take this parcel in for him? I can see that it could be arrogant – and it’s certainly unwise – to have too much of your sense of self bound up with where you work and what you call yourself. But, for me as for an awful lot of women, it’s a real issue. A lot of us won’t get permanent academic jobs – we’ll find other things; we’ll decide to take it slowly; we’ll go part time, and for most of us it will be fine, but it will also be a much commoner experience for us than for our male peers. A lot of us will write theses, but we won’t write the books that could have come from those theses. A lot of us will write a first book, but not a second book. You might say it doesn’t matter. I certainly won’t pretend I’ve got something tucked away in a drawer that’s going to change the state of the cosmos or cure a rare disease. But, it’s still a loss, and a loss I’m very conscious of at the moment, as I wait in vain for someone to publish that brilliant paper I need to cite for my book, only to discover she gave up on academia after that conference, or check to see if someone else ever got their thesis off the ‘forthcoming, CUP’ lists only to find she’s taken a career change. These are literal ways in which female academic expertise is lost or removed from circulation; effort wasted. For me, using my title – on twitter, on everything else – currently feels a bit like an act of faith, a promise to myself to keep my work from being erased, to keep on going against the nagging worries about academic career safety and its gendered challenges.

As I’m writing this, I’m revising chapter 4 of my forthcoming book. In it, the fantastic heroine Floripas – who shatters gender stereotypes across the board – offers a neat illustration of the power of describing your most forceful and expert self. In a coolly outrageous act of violence, Floripas breaks into a jail to free imprisoned knights, snatching up the metal bar holding the keys to the jail and braining the unfortunate jailor with his own property. Excusing her violence to her father, she calmly transforms this moment of impetuous rage into one of warrior-like decision, declaring: ‘I slew him with a mace’. I love this moment, not only because the narrator lets us glimpse how Floripas pictures herself, as she slams the keys into the jailor’s head, but also because the real weapon here is not the block of keys, nor the mace, but the word, which transforms a woman’s outburst into a warrior’s triumph. I don’t suggest we rise up, en masse, to club our opponents with whatever the twenty-first century digital-culture equivalent of a mace might be, but I do think we might stand to benefit from Floripas’ example, and to channel her as a woman never shy to represent herself as expert in a male-dominated sphere.