Casualties of the Popular History of Sexuality

Awesome (possible) lesbians again, because really, why the heck not?                                                                           Image via and

I really should be writing a lecture on medieval lyric at the moment, finishing off a book review and marking essays. But I procrastinate, and the world keeps turning, so I’m going to write this post instead.

The Guardian has a puff piece for a new play by Glenn Chandler, based on the lives of two Victorians who, so Chandler argues, ought to be known as early activists in the struggle for gay rights. The article’s language makes it very easy to picture these two – living in London decades before the landmark trial of Oscar Wilde – as if they’d been transplanted from a rainbow-coloured twenty-first century, because the key word throughout is ‘fun’. Wilde becomes ‘poor old Oscar’, guilty of little more than ‘play[ing] the wrong cards’, while his slightly lesser-known peers were just having ‘[so] much fun’. Now, I understand the impulse. Trying to recognise ourselves in the past is something we all do, and it’s incredibly tempting to smooth away the negatives and imagine that, from the bare outlines of historical fact, we can build a wonderfully familiar, positive, happy image. In the same way, I’ve written before about how brilliantly compelling the images of Victorian women cross-dressing are, and I’ve tried to explain, too, why I get slightly worried about people who assume we can interpret images from the past using our own modern categories of gender and sexuality.

So I started reading the article wondering how – or if – it would negotiate this. I read that the two men in the play, Frederick Park and Thomas Boulton, regularly dressed as women and used female alter egos, and – whether prudently or just because they fancied it anyway – took to the theatre, which has a time-honoured tradition of male cross-dressing. In 1870, police rounded them up, along with another male friend, and arrested them. They were tried for indecency, but got off because the jury found no evidence of anyone committing sodomy and (rather interestingly to me, as a medievalist who knows medieval laws) no evidence that men cross-dressing was any sort of crime in English law. As a result, the court treated the cross-dressing as a bit of a joke, rather than a serious threat to social decency. The article concludes with a quotation from Chandler, claiming that Park and Boulton:

“really thought their case would change things, they thought a change in the law was coming, but then in two decades we have the Oscar Wilde trial and it takes another two centuries for change to come.”

This sounds wonderfully inspiring.

I admit, I’m not mad keen on the implication that the sort of ‘change’ these two hoped for can be neatly linked up to the changes of, er, 2070 (or even 1967), as if they were displaced members of Stonewall deposited in Victorian London via metaphorical Tardis. We don’t really know what these men hoped or expected, how they would have defined their own attitudes to their clothes or their actions. I’m even less keen on the way that this ignores pre-Victorian history. There’s a certain fashion for acting as if sexuality really began with the Victorians, whom I’ve seen credited variously with inventing the vibrator, lesbians, transvestites, manual orgasm and the empowerfulising (fictional) side of prostitution.  Talking about deviant sex in pre-Victorian England is held to be slightly embarrassing amongst all this fun Victorian stuff: it’s the historical equivalent of teenagers on the bus holding forth loudly about how, like, totally sex positive they are, while forty-something women roll their eyes at each other and someone’s mum mutters you didn’t invent it, you know.

For what it’s worth, people had been crossdressing, and getting arrested for it, for many, many, many centuries before Park and Boulton. For example, in the late fourteenth century, a man called John Rykener was arrested for posing as a woman – Eleanor – and prostituting himself to various men. He attended court in his woman’s clothing, and he admitted he had been married to a man, though he also slept with woman (without eliciting payment) while dressed as a man. Rykener’s story is startlingly similar to that of Park and Boulton, despite a gap of nearly five hundred years. It’s a warning that the neat fiction of those Victorian crossdressers as early gay activists should be taken with a big pinch of salt: an awful lot of history is not a connected narrative of progress and liberation.

But it also tells us something else about attitudes towards gender and sexuality further back in history. As Carolyn Dinshaw points out, Rykener’s evidence at his trial shows that he didn’t simply dress as a woman: he interpreted his behaviour as feminine and passive when he was dressed as a woman, and masculine and active when he was dressed as a man. For the former, he charged substantial sums of money – more, apparently, than women prostitutes could hope to command – whereas the latter he seems to have done for free. To modern readers, this may seem confusing: what did it mean to have sex ‘as a woman’? How did Rykener’s display of gender intersect with his expectation of getting paid? I read Rykner’s trial and wonder about the women he slept with – and the women who were paid less than him – and the women who understood from him that to have sex as a woman was to be passive. That’s not because I’m not interested in Rykener himself. It’s because you can’t take a figure out of history and relate to him alone, without considering the context. If you do that, then you dehumanise everyone else in that historical narrative, relegating them to the background.

And this is what I think is happening here. Fiction isn’t history, and a play can have an emotional power without needing to be weighed down with factual detail. But I find emotional power disturbing when it involves, not a selective reading of the past, but an appropriation and distortion of it.

The Guardian piece quotes quite a long comment from Chandler, which may be edited but reads as if it’s all one thought process, and which I found, frankly, pretty appalling. Explaining how writing the scripts for Taggart got him interested in court records, we’re told cheerfully:

“My favourite is a guy in Ohio who held his wife’s head first in a bucket of rattlesnakes and when that didn’t kill her he lifted her out and put her in a bath and threw in an electric cable and still failed. All around the world there were stories that I injected into Glasgow, not so much the gory ones, more the intriguing ones that tell you a lot about human nature.

Ultimately that’s the same interest that drew me to these two in 1870s London. In a tense atmosphere of homophobia they are young men having fun.”

I’m honestly not sure what to make of that. Yes, Chandler covers himself with a non-committal observation that this anecdote ‘tell[s] you a lot about human nature’, and yes, possibly, if you are a violent misogynist with limited capacity to see women as human beings, you might conclude it’s ‘human nature’ that’s being described here. If you are a violent misogynist, or just amazingly crass, you might juxtapose that anecdote with a reference to ‘young men having fun’. But … why? And how could you forget, even for as long as it took to put together this comment, that the lovely positive language of ‘favourites’ and ‘fun’ is describing several attempts to kill someone?

The violence here, the truly horrible event, clearly doesn’t make a mark on Chandler as he concentrates on what I imagine he fancies as the wider philosophical point, the point about ‘human nature’. And it was that selective viewing of someone else’s life – the packaging of that life into the quick prelude to a heart-warming story of ‘young men having fun’ – that really bothered me. The women in this narrative don’t fit the narrative or progress and liberation – and Chandler (or whoever edited his words in this article) doesn’t even seem to realize that there are parallel narratives of oppression here, intersecting ones even, only one of which is being told. What did Parks and Boulton really feel about their trial? Why were they dressing as women – would they have chosen it, in a different world? Would they even have identified as gay? What about other men (and women) who didn’t skip out of court laughing, supported by their families – and who still don’t? How does it help them to pretend to a continuity of gay rights activism, for which we don’t have the evidence?

There is a drama of sexuality and gender to be written here, but it needs to be one that doesn’t ignore the intersecting oppressions of the past (and present). It needs to be one that doesn’t sacrifice the uncertainties of the past to a story that makes a better soundbite.


Ruth Karras and David Boyd, ‘”Ut cum muliere”: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London’, Premodern Sexualities (1996): 101-116.

Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Duke University Press, 1999)

Copyright Statement

Women, the Vote, and Walter William Skeat


I’m currently looking out onto a street full of election posters (mostly Labour, a couple of Lib Dem and a few Greens, if you’re interested – we wanted to put up a poster for the Suffragettes in our window, because we’re more or less opposite what used to be the Cambridge Women’s Liberation Group headquarters. A couple of hours ago, I was teaching in King’s (where they seem to be voting Labour) and discussing, among other things, the form and structure of Piers Plowman, a poem written in the second half of the fourteenth century.

The election posters and the medieval text (not to mention the Women’s Lib) have more in common than you might think. Piers locates itself slap bang in the middle of medieval debates about social order and unrest, about who should have what rights. It’s a political poem (as well as lots of other things), and a poem about disenfranchisement of all types. And the key symbol, in my view, both of these rights and of this problematic social order, is the poem’s image of a document, a pardon, granted by the Pope and delivered by Truth herself to Piers the Plowman.

This scene is a difficult one to interpret, and people disagree about what it means. Piers – who is supposedly a humble ploughman, an uneducated person – reads over the document, finding how each person is granted their rights under (divine) law. Just as he’s finished, a priest leans over his elbow and, patronizingly, declares that he will translate the text into English. Piers – for reasons unclear – is furious at his translation, and (breaking into perfect Latin to show he can read just fine, thank you very much), he tears the pardon to pieces, invalidating it.

The words used to describe what Piers does here – ‘pure tene’ in the Middle English – suggest utter fury, anger that’s absurd because it is coupled with such a petty at of destruction. The same words sprang to my mind when I came across this extract from a letter, written by the grandfather of Piers Plowman studies, Walter William Skeat, a Cambridge academic who edited the text in 1886. Writing to his colleague (and co-founder of Newnham College), he argues angrily against the suggestion that the women of that newly-founded college should be allowed to graduate with the degrees for which they were studying:

“If given the BA, they must next have the MA and that would carry with it voting and perhaps a place on the Electoral Roll … Even the BA would enable them to take five books out of the University Library, countersigned by ‘their tutor’. I am entirely opposed to the admission of women to ‘privileges of this character. And I honestly believe they are better off as they are.”
(Letter, June 1887, from W. W. Skeat to Henry Sidgwick, Newnham College Archives)

I adore the bonkers logic in this, which reveals a mixture of institutional self-importance (no, a MA – even a Cambridge MA – would not have ‘carried with it’ voting) and utter pettiness. Skeat is concerned about women voting, yes … after all, votes affect the running of the country … but what’s really nagging at him is the possibility of disorder, nay even the temporary alienation of actual books, in the hallowed corridors of the University Library. To a late-Victorian scholar, clearly, the one thing more annoying that finding an empty space on a library shelf, would be knowing that the book you wanted was bouncing around Cambridge in a bag on the back of a woman’s bike.

I’m mentioning this partly because I enjoy quoting Victorian misogynists getting their unmentionables in a twist over the liberation of women, and partly because I can entirely picture Skeat, in a fit of ‘pure tene’, scrunching up papers rather than letting the women of Newnham or Girton read them. But I also think that Skeat’s segue from serious political issues to petty objections about institutional library policies is depressingly representative of the kinds of obstructions people still do put in the way of changing things for the better.

If time travel is a possibility, there’s one person I really, really want to introduce to Professor Skeat:


River Song, from Dr Who ‘Silence in the Library’ (NS 4:8). Sorry folks, it’s a geek joke.


A(nother) geek fact I found out while writing this, is that Hermione Granger’s much-mocked SPEW, which readers of popular culture more astute than I have speculated might be some kind of metaphor for feminist activism, shares its name with an actual example of feminist activism. In 1859, Jessie Boucherett founded the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women (SPEW), later the Society for Promoting the Training of Women. It still exists, and is now Futures for Women. I would love it if JKR knew this.

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.

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.

More rhetorical violence, aka diet advice.

In my never-ending quest to become more smug than Owen Jones, I have discovered the epitome of the middle class problem. I’ve found rhetorical violence in the Waitrose magazine.

To be precise, my housemate, who is a more skilled close reader than I am, found it. She was reading their loosely-disguised ‘women, hate your bodies’ piece on dieting, and found this gem. Under the rubric ‘curb your cravings’, the author writes:

“If you’re in the midst of a craving, remove yourself from the situation. Take a short walk, call a friend or try to distract yourself somehow. Remember that the urgency will pass.”

As my housemate points out, this sort of language and advice is a direct echo of warnings to people about to self-harm. This isn’t particularly funny (we both know people who actually need that serious advice). And it is possible to interpret serious diet malfunctions as a form of self harm, which is something Caitlin Moran (among others) has talked about pretty persuasively. But. It is also manifestly a piece of advice targeted, not at a small group of people in need of serious help, but at a general readership who are feeling faintly guilty about not buying a box of out of season raspberries for £2.50. And, lest you doubt, this general readership are mostly women. Funny, that.

It seems to me that this is related, in a deeply trivial but, also, pretty telling way to other conversations I’ve been hearing about rhetorical violence. By treating not actually reaching for another biscuit as if it required a twelve-step plan and a Crisis team, we’re reducing the communicative capacities of language. If the patriarchy were personified, as he is in my mental cartoons, he’d be the sort of bloke who props up the bar explaining away these women problems: “this male violence they complain about, it’s just hysterical nonsense. Look at the way they talk about reaching for a biscuit”.

It’s a problem, but it’s also a problem because this cosy little snippet in the most middle-class magazine on the planet is normalizing the kind of ‘violence’ women supposedly do to themselves by not feeling sufficiently ashamed of what they eat. It should not sound normal to spend time and energy fighting off a craving for a bag of crisps as if it were something you’d started injecting between your toes. It should sound normal to read this ‘advice’ and snigger in disbelief.

We’re going to make the cake on page 72 now.

‘Everyday Feminism’: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Except the lesbians.

Image via and

Image via and

The photo above is one you may have seen before. It, and a collection of other photos from the Victorian and Edwardian eras have been collected together here, in 2012, as a tribute to 150 years of women’s history. It’s a lovely picture. I think most people enjoy the idea of looking at something like this and imagining the story behind it. And, it’s fun to try to glimpse a part of history that’s often hard to recover – the lives of women in same-sex relationships before those relationships were socially condoned, let alone celebrated. But, at the same time, it makes me uneasy. The woman who set up the initial collection of photos explains herself carefully, noting that we can’t always know whether women in photos like this – taken so long ago – would have understood themselves to be ‘lesbians’ in any modern sense.

As a medievalist, that’s an issue I encounter, intensified a hundredfold. You simply can’t say that a medieval woman was a lesbian, because sexuality was understood so differently. And – rather appallingly – you might very well find that same-sex desire was understood not as sexuality, but as a deviant and perverted desire amongst women to act like men.

I was thinking about this as I browsed through my news feed. And as I did, I was brought up short by an article in Everyday Feminism.

You may or may not know this site. Its premise is simple: it explains basic, intersectional feminist issues in clear, easy terms. I started following their feed a while ago, in the hope that I could get a sense of what people wanted to know when they started into feminism. Gradually, I’ve been getting more and more depressed, but today was a new low. This title just popped up in my timeline. “An Actual Answer to ‘Why is She Dating a Masculine Women Instead of Just Dating a Guy?‘”

I don’t mind admitting, this isn’t a question whose actual answer I have ever pondered. And it’s not really one of those questions that deserves a serious and lengthy reply. Women who date women do it because they like women. It’s worth noting, as an aside, that treating this as a legitimate question is yet another way of policing women’s activities: women are (implicitly) not entitled to date people just because they want to do that. They need to have Reasons. This is the logic your stalker uses when he asks you why you don’t want to go out with him.

So, strike one against Everyday Feminism.

I went on to read the beginning of the article itself. “Masculinity doesn’t belong to any one gender,” the author began, encouragingly. “Anyone can identify as masculine, masculine of center, or be masculine-presenting. That’s a fact.”

While I was temporarily amused by the idea of a ‘masculine of center’ identity – the Liberal Democrat of the gender studies world, surely the least sexy image ever to cross anyone’s mind – I did have a bigger problem here. We seemed to have gone from women who’re attracted to women, to something else. There is no particularly strong reason, so far as I can see, why certain characteristics should be read as ‘masculine’ rather than ‘lesbian’. Of course, not all lesbians are butch (this is the word I suspect the article figured might be a little tricky to use here). But then, not all men are butch either. And, you know, we are talking about women who’re attracted to women, I have this tiny clue that maybe ‘lesbian’ would be a more obvious term. Right?

Seemingly not. The article goes on to stress once again that this mysterious property that attracts some women to like other women is – amazingly! – the property not just of men, but also of women:

Think of it this way: Masculinity is a universe, and we’re all stars. Some of us are shining brightly with masculinity, while others of us shine just a little bit in this respect, or not at all (but we sparkle elsewhere!).

Aww. That’s sweet. Why do I feel as if this sentence should be accompanied by a discreet image of someone throwing blackout curtains over those lesbians in the corner? So that they can ‘sparkle elsewhere’ without distracting us from the masculinity, you know?

In a rather confused way, the article tries to square the circle it’s created. It acknowledges all sorts of good, well-intentioned, comforting things. Heterosexuality shouldn’t be seen as compulsory. We shouldn’t conflate gender and sexuality (true, but not really in evidence in that first paragraph!). Attraction is complex. And, most importantly, it acknowledges that ‘toxic masculinity’ is a real danger to women, and a bad thing for most men. And this is all good, and I think the author really did try here.

But I couldn’t help feeling incredibly depressed, all the same. Your basic History of Sexuality 101 will tell you that this idea of lesbianism as a form of masculinity is actually pretty old. Lesbians were defined not by who they were attracted to, but as defective men. And what the article refers to as ‘masculine-presenting’ lesbians were seen as predatory threats to other women, corrupting influences who tried to supplant men in women’s affections. More recently, and equally offensively, we have the idea of lesbianism as ‘curable’: a condition that just indicates the lack of ‘a good man’. Think a little bit about what this article is saying – ‘masculinity is for everyone, even the lesbians’ – and you’ll see that it’s basically the same message. Don’t be discouraged, ladies: you too can be attracted to the correctly-gendered attribute!

It has taken a very long time for society to begin to entertain the idea that women might be attracted to other women (and men to other men) not through some kind of deviancy or defectiveness, but for positive reasons: because they actually liked other women and wanted to be with them. This article takes a step back towards the 1920s, and in doing so, it erases something that is particular to women, labelling it as a form of masculinity (in some lesbians), or a form of attraction to masculinity (in some women who’re attracted to them).

Now, I don’t usually feel terribly qualified to write about sexuality, because it’s much less to do with my research area than feminism. But in this case, I sort of do know what I’m talking about. I’m attracted to masculine men and butch women, and, oddly enough, I don’t actually think they’re more or less the same. I feel sad that, increasingly, people seem to be embarrassed about using the word lesbian, preferring to use ‘queer’ or ‘gay’. That’s ok as a personal choice – but we do need to think about the history of these terms, how hard-won they are, and how difficult it has been for generations of women to talk about same-sex sexuality. Reducing this to an aspect of ‘masculinity’ shows both a disturbing lack of historical awareness, and a restrictive understanding of why women might be attracted to other women.


I’ve just seen this piece has been quoted on this site, and there’s a fair bit of traffic from them (thank you!). It occurred to me reading the comments that I’d obviously been a bit coy, as it’s not clear from the piece that I am writing as a bisexual woman, and a woman who doesn’t feel that all butch women are necessarily best described as ‘masculine’ (some are happy with that, but others aren’t, and I felt the original piece erased those important distinctions).

I hope that update makes things a little clearer, for people who’re coming to this newly.

Rhetorical Violence and Actual Violence (trigger warning)

I’m reading a lot about rape at the moment, which makes me an exceptionally cheerful person to be around. Specifically, I’m reading about rape in medieval romance, but it’s hard to separate that from contemporary debates about violence, and rhetoric, which seem to be everywhere at the moment. So, I’m writing this to try to set out some of my thoughts. I’m going to start by talking about an academic article and a medieval text, but I think what I’m saying isn’t just relevant to academia or medievalists.

The article that’s been nagging away at me is in many ways a great read. It’s amazingly detailed in its close reading; it’s full of insight about the influence of Biblical hermeneutics on medieval romance.* It’s also fifteen years old, so I am sure there are things that might have been written differently now. But, it bothered me.

The author, Monica Brzezinski Potkay, is talking about the medieval romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – a romance in which a married lady exerts some considerable pressure on a man to sleep with her. She surprises him as he’s naked in bed, and – as Potkay points out – she draws on the romance convention of treating rape as a normal form of interaction between men and women to imply, archly, that he could force her to have sex if he wanted.

This is quite disturbing for modern readers. But Potkay’s point is not about the suggested rape – which doesn’t happen – but about the rhetoric of the romance in general. She makes reference to Saint Jerome’s predictably misogynistic comparison of a person interpreting Scriptural text to a man forcibly ripping off a woman’s clothing in order to sleep with her. This, she explains, is also offered as a mode of interpretation in the romance text, with the hero, Gawain, attempting to ‘interpret’ the women he meets through this form of figurative rape. Yet, the text performs a ‘critique’ of this mode of interpretation, empowering its female characters with the capacity to interpret for themselves. Thus:

Sir Gawain can teach that men should acknowledge and beware the violence concealed in their own behavior, for that violence can be turned against them. The rapist can easily become raped.”

There are two things going on here. The first is the structure of the text, and the kind of interpretation it invites: this, as Potkay argues and as many people would agree, shows the women of the romance to be rather more skilled than the hero in controlling the twists and turns of narrative. The second, however, is that metaphor of rape. As a metaphor for textual interpretation, it has plenty of interest, and Potkay is, of course, doing nothing so crude as to think literally about raped women raping men.

Yet, still, that claim bothered me. The rapist can easily become raped. Easily? Raped? Well, no. In the space of that romance, in medieval culture, in modern culture, women do not ‘easily’ rape their rapists. Nor do I find it easy to imagine anyone would want to. There is a gendered structure to sexual violence, which is not easily flipped around, as if both men and women were equal. At this point, then the metaphor fails: if interpretation of a text is something that can be gender-flipped without unsettling the underlying gender hierarchy, then no, it is not like rape.

This is a point which, I suspect, plenty of queer theorists would find deeply crude and unsubtle. You don’t understand. She doesn’t mean it literally. She’s just opening up the transgressive possibilities of the text. The term ‘rape’ isn’t meant that way. It’s only rhetorically violent.

Yes: this is all true. But, it is also true that, in this article, the word rape has ceased to mean what it means. It has ceased to be a useful term for describing that act, and has instead become just one more way to imply that gender hierarchies can be playfully flipped over.

My title for this post might seem a problem to some. Rhetorical violence is, after all, difficult to separate from ‘actual’ violence: should we even make a distinction? After all, most people will know what it’s like to read something and feel a very real physical response to it: pulse leaping, hands shaking, the works. And it’s not just about personal responses: the very fact that a debate exists about whether there are ‘grey areas’ in rape, itself contributes to keeping alive the view that there are grey areas, and perpetuates rape. A conversation about whether or not women lie about rape gives rapists crucial cover to do what they do. And so on. These are not ‘performative acts’ of speech, speeches that enact what they describe, such as saying ‘I do’ at a wedding. But their consequences can be measured quite directly in the real world. And what is at stake, in some rhetoric, is not the fictional power structure in a medieval romance, but the real relationships between living people.

So, why distinguish between rhetorical violence and actual violence? My difficulty with Potkay’s article (and with this debate more widely) is that I know who is allowed to interpret text. If I say, this article is rhetorically violent, that it is using the concept of rape in a way that contributes to rape culture and makes it harder for us to talk about the gendered power structure behind the act, then I will be held to be ‘misinterpreting’. I will be told I do not understand the subtle nuances of Potkay’s use of the term ‘rape’ in this context. And yet, that’s not a criticism everyone is expected to take.

Something I have found difficult, recently, has been the response to the letter in the Observer about debate in universities, which I signed. It’s a tiny, tiny issue if you’re not in certain circles, and a rather bigger one if you are (as Mary Beard found out). I haven’t kept up with all of the responses, partly because there were many signatories (many of whom I don’t know personally, and some I’m proud to say I do know). But I have noticed that a common response has been to characterise this letter, and the debates it discusses, as literally violent. Not rhetorically violent, but violent in the way a performative speech act might be violent, or even violent in a direct physical sense. Discussing the Nordic model (the context here is sex work, if you’re not familiar), for example, is characterised as a form of violence that ‘endangers lives’ (I’m quoting Marika Rose, who spoke to me about this on twitter, but similar phrases were flying about everywhere). In this context, there is no ‘interpretation’ to be done: the gap between rhetorical and actual violence has closed up fast, for there’s no comeback to people repeatedly telling you there mere fact you have spoken, is violence.

Patently, these two attitudes towards ‘rhetorical’ violence should not be able to coexist. The one presumes the speaker’s perfect right to define the terms of debate, and to describe any violence in language as merely rhetorical, and therefore beyond the reach of critique. Thus, I am misinterpreting Potkay: violence is only rhetorical. The other presumes that the mere act of speaking is, in itself, actual violence, and no amount of interpretation can change this. In my experience, an awful lot of people seem to hold both positions simultaneously, and so the position from which we can speak becomes wafer-thin.

The result is the more general application of the specific problem Potkay’s article gives rise to. Just as, there, rape becomes something we can no longer properly name, something divorced from its social context, so too here, violence becomes impossible to pin down, impossible to name. And that means it’s impossible to fight.


* Monica Brzezinski Potkay, ‘The Violence of Courtly Exegesis in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, inRepresenting Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature, eds. Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose (New York: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 97-124.

To be clear: I don’t believe (honestly) that discussion of the Nordic model does do violence to women. Nor do I even believe supporting it does violence to women. I’m not sure I’m right here, and I wouldn’t set myself up as such. But, I think my views here are less important than the shape of this wider issue of how we communicate about rhetorical and actual violence.

Mansplainer Exposes Mansplainy Tactics, Internet is Polite

Screen shot of Jay Michaelson's article, from Daily Beast.

Screen shot of Jay Michaelson’s article, from Daily Beast.

I’m dashing this post off because I should be working. But it’s such a perfect example of something I’ve had a problem with for a while, that I can’t let it go.

Today, I read an article by one Dr Jay Michaelson, over on Daily Beast. Michaelson sets himself up as a righteously angry ally of transpeople, furious with ‘mainstream gay activists’. Pompously, Michaelson begins:

“For years, some mainstream gay activists said … “Just wait—first we’ll get our rights, and then you’ll get yours.”

As offensive and patronizing as that was, what has come to pass is far worse.”

This sonorous rhetoric would have had more effect, however, if Jay hadn’t mixed up two slightly important words in this debate. For, in the bit I’ve elided in the quotation above, he named the community he felt was suffering so. ‘The cisgender community’.

I thought it was a typo, but it’s not: throughout the article we have references to the many and sad instances of oppression of trans people, consistently referred to as ‘cis’.

Was it some kind of satire? Was Jay just very, very, very stupid? I couldn’t work it out, so I went off to twitter to see what everyone else thought.

Having seen what’s happened to Mary Beard, and to some of my Oxford colleagues, this past week, I did have a fair sense of what I’d find on twitter. We’d simply signed a letter speaking out against no-platforming of feminists, and this had blown up into a storm of (unfounded) accusations of transphobia. So how would people react to this bloke, who’d faked sympathy with trans people in order to take a pop at gay activists, and exposed his own bigotry by failing to grasp the simplest basics of trans-friendly language?

He’d be pilloried, right? Called evil, ugly, stupid, and senile? Told he must be inflicting terrible verbal violence and outrage?

Well … no. “I think you mixed the two up,” someone comments politely. “Lots of questions re. your use of ‘cisgender'” they continue, respectfully (oh, ok, it could be sarcasm, but it’s respectful sarcasm). “Article uses cisgender where it means transgender, I think?” questions someone else. Cos, you know, you politely question mansplainy dudes. You don’t correct them outright.

But worse was to come. I looked and looked, trying to see a glimmer of the outrage I’d have expected, to come upon the single outright insult … a reference to “slightly confused @jaymichaelson”.

Need I underline the lesson? Would this have happened if he’d been, say, a woman?

Update: Popped a screenshot in, as funnily enough, I imagine this will be edited (aka, swept under the carpet) soon enough.

Wolf Hall: Women Mired in Catholic Illiteracy, Take Two

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours, London, BL, King's MS 9, f. 62v.

St Margaret, reading. From Anne Boleyn’s Book of Hours, London, BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v.

I promised myself I wouldn’t blog about Wolf Hall. Everyone else is doing it. Yet, here I am, timing myself to twenty minutes for this. Because I loved Wolf Hall. I loved the book and I loved the first episode of the TV series. I think the candlelight works, I think it looks amazing, and, frankly, you could sell me most anything with Damien Lewis and Mark Rylance and I would be happy.


Wolf Hall has a bit of a woman problem, and it’s a familiar woman problem. In order to make Thomas Cromwell sympathetic, you have to oust Thomas More. You have to get rid of that image of kindly, noble, gentle Paul Schofield in A Man for All Seasons, lovingly educating his daughter in Humanist ways and standing up for his conscience.

One of the ways Mantel achieves this, in the books, is to give Cromwell a family life – and, personally, I found the opening paragraphs of Bring up the Bodies, stunningly poignant and brilliant. It opens with “His children are falling from the sky” and then shows that Cromwell’s hawks are named after his dead daughters. In the TV series, this family intimacy plays out in a scene where Cromwell sits with his daughter on his knee, letting her leaf through a gorgeous facsimile prayer book, while she comments that she’d like to learn Greek, as well as Latin. Kate Maltby, who’s been tweeting the series, has written a lovely review that comments on the historic validity of this, linking Cromwell’s daughter to other precocious young women educated in Greek. From the medieval side, I found both Cromwell’s closeness with his daughters, and his reading-aloud of his son’s letter, nicely authentic: I could see echoes of the Paston family there, and Rachel Moss has shown that our image of distant medieval fathers is misguided.

No, my problem is with Cromwell’s wife. You see, this scene is echoing bits of A Man for All Seasons: feminist papa, precocious daughter … someone has to represent the annoying intrusion of Tradition and Caution. And, just as in More’s household it’s his wife Alice, so too here, it’s Cromwell’s wife who looks dubiously instructs her daughter to leave her Latin learning for her breakfast. In the older film, More’s wife Alice is a caricature medieval Catholic woman, uninterested in More’s Humanism, emphatically rejecting to his offer to teach her to read. I’ve noted before that illiteracy this strikes a false note, it typically being medieval women who taught children to read. It belongs to a stereotype of medieval Catholicism as backwards and unbookish, a yoke energetic Humanist men (and their daughters) were throwing off, while their wives clung to it.

It’s slightly disappointing, then, in Wolf Hall, to see Elizabeth Cromwell lean across the breakfast table, disapprovingly, to hand her husband a parcel whose contents are obviously something subversive. “If you want to know,” he begins, and she cuts him off: “I don’t what to know”. It turns out that the parcel contains a book, an unbound New Testament in Tyndale’s translation. Cromwell eagerly proselytises:

“You should read it for yourself. It’s in English, that’s the point, not Latin. How can that be heresy? Read it and you’ll see how you’re misled. No mention of nuns, monks, relics, popes …”

This little speech, sounding a bit too much like a twenty-first century Biblical literalist’s view on the subject, gets shot down by Elizabeth: “My prayerbook is good reading.”

This is as neatly-drawn an opposition between (misleading, outdated Latin) Catholicism and Brave New English Proto-Protestantism as you could wish. For Cromwell, the austere, unbound, plain-looking English New Testament holds the promise of religious and social revolution, freedom from the lies of the medieval Church.

It bothers me that this scene feeds, subtly, into the twenty-first century idea of ‘The Medieval,’ which has become a code word for primitive, superstitious (and, often, Middle Eastern or Islamic) attitudes and actions. I don’t particularly like the gendering of religion in this way, in which women are repeatedly the representatives of a medieval Catholicism characterised by illiteracy and misleading superstition. I don’t like the way that it covers up a pretty well-known history of women as educators and book users. I’ll keep watching, but I’d like to know what you make of these quibbles.

What the Hell kinds of Feminists are you Reading, Alison Wolf?

In today’s Guardian, Alison Wolf wrote a piece entitled ‘Feminists today are too obsessed with their own elite, metropolitan lives’. She points out some important facts:

“Today, we employ huge numbers of nannies and cleaners. We also employ millions and millions of nursery assistants, care assistants, dishwashers and housekeepers – armies of women doing traditional female tasks. Nurseries and care homes are big sectors, and we outsource most of what we once did in kitchens at home: fewer and fewer meals are prepared at home. Workers in these sectors are low-paid. They are part of the 24/7 service economy which underpins professional lives. They are also overwhelmingly female.”

But with this valid point (though I’ll come back to that repeated word ‘we’ in a minute), she launches an attack on feminist writing itself.

“Sisterhood” is dead. Different women have very different lives, and interests. … I wish that feminist voices spent more time speaking about the millions of low-paid female employees on whom elite lives depend, and less about boardrooms and Westminster.”

This is a remarkably ignorant conclusion, one that could only be reached by ignoring feminist writing almost entirely. It’s a cheap, badly researched piece, that deserves a short answer, but it does deserve an answer, if only to celebrate the many, many feminists who spend time and effort writing about everything but elite, metropilitan women’s lives.

Wolf’s basic argument is that capitalist patriarchy screws over poor women. It’s not a remarkable argument, nor is it the fault of feminists, but it’s – apparently – something we’ve all been ignoring. Or have we?

I cut my blogging teeth backed up by the wonderful Louise Pennington, who I think would not mind me pointing out she’s not exactly rolling in banknotes, and who consistently draws attention to the gendering of poverty, and to the stigma poor women face.

In the Huffington Post, she writes on ‘Women Against Feminist, Privilege, and Feminist Activism‘. In ‘Trashing Boxing Day Sales Ignores Structural Poverty‘ she shows how a seemingly simple, knee-jerk response to consumerism covers nastier guilt-tripping of poorer women. In her posts about her own family (which are extremely brave posts), she explains how the stigma against disadvantaged working-class women’s mothering feeds into the patriarchy’s need for cheap labour, and how the denying women the support they need fuels whole generations of difficulties.

Karen Ingala Smith likewise offers a personal perspective, writing honestly (and a darn sight more profoundly than Wolf) about feminism and her own working-class childhood. A single glance at her groundbreaking project, Counting Dead Women, makes Wolf’s attempt to make feminist writing look elitist seem not just misguided, but downright offensive.

Marina Strinkovsky writes about the intersections of feminism and poverty repeatedly, showing how the gendering of poverty links to other oppressions. Glosswitch crunches the numbers behind the gendering of poverty in the West,and discusses how child benefit caps stigmatize a particular image of lower income families, while Sarah Ditum writes in the Guardian about the need for affordable childcare, lack of which is pushing women into unemployment and onto benefits.

I could go on and on, and I may come back to this to add more of the huge number of brilliant pieces I’ve read on this subject (or you could link to them in the comments). But I wanted to finish with what I think is the most worrying problem with Wolf’s writing. She misses the point that, for many women, poverty is not a stable state, but a stage through which and into which women pass for multiple reasons – childbirth, disability, age, discrimination, abuse, and many others. Wolf’s casual assumption that she and her readers form a secure class of the elite – the ‘we’ who do the employing and exploiting of poor women – is incredibly precarious.

Many of the women whose work on feminism I read, and value, and learn from, know about this precariousness. There are women who have university degrees and middle-class childhoods, and women who struggled up from prostitution on the streets or family abuse to relative financial security, women who never expected to be poor or marginalized, and women who never expected to be anything else. And the key thing that is the same in each situation, is that the structure of society is designed to catch these women and trap them. Different women have different lives, yes: but we all live in the same capitalist patriarchy.

This is what feminism helps us to fight against, and it is the broader awareness of this oppression, which these feminist writers I’m quoting here so brilliantly display. And which Alison Wolf seems, somehow, to have missed.