Lesbian Anxieties, Queer Erasures: The Problem with Terms Like ‘Subversive Femme’

The paper I recently gave at the Gender and Medieval Studies conference in Canterbury was titled – after much thought – ‘Walled Desire and Lesbian Anxiety in Chaucer’s “Legend of Thisbe”‘. It should be out in The Chaucer Review before too long, but for the moment, I want to think about that second term: ‘lesbian anxiety,’ which has proved to be a topical one in much wider context that I could have anticipated when I responded to the Call For Papers.

My work is, obviously, mostly about medieval England, centuries before anyone (still less a mainstream writer such as Chaucer) thought to fling around a term like ‘lesbian’ with the cheerful abandon of a BBC blurb for a Sarah Waters adaptation.

The category of women I’m looking at are difficult to recognize. They are fictional women in mainstream literature, and therefore we don’t see them engaging in actual same-sex sex. They aren’t, on the whole, gender nonconforming in overt ways – like, for example, the cross-dressing heroines of earlier French romances, who frequently end up in flirtations with, or even in bed with, women – and, even if they were, gender nonconformity isn’t a particularly good litmus text of medieval female preferences for same-sex desire anyway. There’s a strong tradition, as Karma Lochrie has shown, of medieval onlookers interpreting ‘masculine’ behaviours and activities in women the result of imbalanced humours, easily found in women such as the cheerfully cougarish Wife of Bath. And after all, what we recognize as ‘female masculinity’ is heavily socially conditioned in the first place. So, how do I identify – and write about – women whose same-sex desire is revealed through suggestions and innuendos that are anything but ‘queer,’ either in the popular sense of uniting same-sex desire with gender nonconformity, or in the academic sense of being boldly subversive and disruptive? It’s hard, and my recent conference paper succeeded (I think!) in demonstrating that there’s a difficulty, without giving me a concrete answer to the problem.

No sooner had I written it, than I came across the Slate’s thought-provoking series of articles, published recently, on the contested subject of the word ‘lesbian,’ and particularly, Christian Cauterucci’s piece. I wish I’d seen this before I gave my paper, because it’s such a good illustration of the sorts of political and social (as opposed to academic) viewpoints I’m navigating as I figure out what terminology to use. I’ve seen some readers pretty furious with this piece. Cauterucci begins with a long anecdote about her recent history of sneering at groups of lesbians and, with a friend, making rude gestures at them, and I do find it slightly disingenuous that she attempts to explain this away by claiming that she perceived herself to be more cosmopolitan, more politically aware, than the women she was bullying. But, I do think she’s probably being quite honest about the way a lot of young women feel.

Of course there’s an argument to be made – and Cauterucci makes it – for not using ‘lesbian’ if the term doesn’t describe your situation. At the conference I’ve just been attending, a fellow delegate made this precise point: as a bisexual woman, ‘lesbian’ isn’t appropriate, and ‘queer’ can be a more useful descriptor. And I do very much like Cauterucci’s [friend’s] well-expressed point, that ‘lesbian’ potentially ‘implies a kind of sameness she doesn’t see in her relationship or those of her peers’. I think I would quibble that this implication is more overt in the term homosexual (in which, pace my dad, the homo is not the Latin for ‘man’ but the Greek for ‘same’). But it is a useful and interesting point, and chimes in with the experience some people report, of their hormone therapy shifting their sexual attraction in terms of the gender to whom they’re attracted, but remaining steady as a preference for perceived ‘sameness’. But where do you locate someone whose same-sex desire is not continuous with gender nonconformity, or even, someone for whom gender identity is experienced as an externally imposed construct?

Cauterucci struggles, too, with some of the same issues I experience in my work. She draws attention to the lack of any terminology covering ‘all of those who are not [privileged group]’ that does not, simultaneously, blur the differing identities of those different people into one homogeneous mass. See, for example, the Green Party’s infamous decision to plump for ‘non-men’ and the unfortunate coinage ‘non-white’.

But something that’s rather awkwardly handled in the piece is history. Cauterucci claims that the term lesbian confers the benefits of ‘a strong identity and legacy,’ whereas she understands her preferred terms – ‘queer,’ qualified later with ‘butch/femme’ – as ‘starting from scratch’. This is quite a short view of history. As a mainstream term, ‘lesbian’ is a newcoming: it’s just about within living memory that women (or a certain, upperclass set of women …) preferred ‘sapphic,’ and Sarah Waters’ novels give a gorgeous sense of the rich variety of appellations for women engaging in various same-sex activities.

All of these terms, too, come with implicit alignments to differing configurations of class, race, and geography: ‘butch/femme,’ for example, has strong ties to working-class women: there’s a sharp irony in the contrast between Cauterucci’s account of her own belittling of ‘lesbian’ women, and the scene in the film If these Walls Could Talk 2, where a group of young, politicized lesbians loudly mock the butch/femme couples they stumble across in a local bar. Young, privileged women presume that older, less privileged women have it all wrong and couldn’t possibly be political: plus ça change.

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Still from If These Walls Could Talk 2. I really wanted the image of the middle-aged butch women looking angry at being mocked, but guess how easy that is to find?

Much of Cauterucci’s identity politics, as she describes it, is grounded in self-presentation: performance, clothing, appearance. In particular, I was caught by her use of the term (much beloved of queer theorists everywhere), ‘subversive’: she locates herself in a culture of ‘dapper butches and subversive femmes’.

At this point, it’s relevant that I came into feminism from a second-wave context, from women whose work began during the second wave and is ongoing, and from women whose work has evolved out of that context (rather than beginning after it, or in conscious and complete opposition to it). And that’s still the context I draw on a lot of the time, although obviously I discard what I don’t find useful and incorporate plenty of other things. One thing I do find unfailingly helpful is the analysis of social pressures on women to perform femininity, and especially, the unpicking of all the subliminal messages that coerce women to spent time, energy, money and (crucially!) anxiety on presenting an acceptably ‘feminine’ face to the world. Of course, this is a difficult message to accept. We all want to think we make free choices – or, better, that our performances of femininity are somehow different from those sheep-like Victorian women strapping themselves into corsets, or those docile Chinese mothers binding their daughters’ feet. And the market colludes with us in this desire, telling us that performances of femininity are ‘self care,’ ‘pampering,’ ‘me-time,’ or selling them as opportunities for feminine bonding. Indeed, because women have always carved out spaces for themselves from the structures forced upon them, there genuinely is overlap between a site in which women perform socially-mandated practices of femininity (such as the nail salon or the waxing salon), and sites where women do bond, share, and support one another.

These considerations do remind us that we are in the middle of an ongoing process, and cannot extricate ourselves from the accommodations we make with the patriarchy. But I think they do not detract from the basic point to be made about performances of femininity, which might best be summed up in Audre Lorde’s words: ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’.

Despite being resolutely un-‘woke’ (and, being white and British, un-keen on appropriating that terminology anyway), I can picture what a ‘femme,’ even a ‘subversive femme’ might look like, and it doesn’t look very different from how I’ve been dressing for the last few days, for an entirely conventional (and rather lovely) academic conference. I know this because of the volume of people who are keen to tell me so. I enjoy my dresses and heels and backseam stockings and so on. I’m very glad the 1950s is currently mainstream fashion and that seamed stockings are no longer remotely ‘alternative’. And I am quite happy with the idea that this fashion repurposes the trappings of a decade mythologised as the quintessential era of patriarchal conditioning of women (the ‘1950s housewife), and gives them a distinctly un-surrended-wife connotation.

But, for me, this isn’t ‘subversive,’ not only because the myth of the 1950s is just that (and rather insulting to femininst trailblazers of the 1950s), but also because I struggle to interpret anything yoked together with a term cognate with ‘femininity’ as ‘subversive’.

If you do, that’s fine. But I don’t. The power dynamics remind me a bit of Tison Pugh’s introduction to his Queering Medieval Genres (which I feel it’s ok to criticize a little as it’s now nearly fifteen years old and superseded by his more recent work). Pugh anchors his analysis of ‘queering’ in comparisons to modern identity politics and experience – implicitly, the politics and experience of men, although he occasionally tacks on an ‘… and women’ when he remembers. He explains how a ‘queer’ dynamic can disrupt existing power structures, using this example:

‘In the wake of recent anti-gay violence (“fag-bashing”) in several urban centres, homosexuals adopted a slogan of resistance: “Fags bash back.” In this reconfiguration of the semantic powerlessness embedded in the phrase “fag-bashing,” homosexuals warn potential attackers that violence is not only the tool of their oppressors.’

Only, they don’t. Pugh argues that ‘fags bash back,’ but the precise point of the slogan is that they do not: police did not repel armies of gay men (for it is men to whom Pugh primarily refers) as they marched on Klan headquarters and Westboro Baptist Church with pickaxes and claw hammers. The power of the slogan ‘fags bash back’ lies in the implicit defiance directed inwards, to other members of the same community, as reassurance ‘we have not been silenced. We will not be cowed’. As such resistance, the slogan is effective. It is community-building. It is affirmative. But it is not a reconfiguration of powerlessness – even semantic – for it depends upon all hearers and readers knowing that no violence is proposed.

These same seems to me to be true of some of Cauterruci’s arguments about a ‘queer’ identity. In theory, being a ‘dapper butch’ or a ‘subversive femme’ might change people’s ideas about gender, about the inevitability of aligning femininity with heterosexuality, about the nature of masculinity … but, in practice, I think often the questions raised are raised only to a particular audience. I’ve seen, far too often, women vibrantly, emphatically, obviously projecting ‘queer’ identities only for the straight man in the room to ask, mystified, ‘but how on earth could you guess she was gay?’ I am not convinced, then, that it’s possible to be terribly ‘subversive’ in the way Cauterruci seems to envisage, and I think by focusing so much on subversion and on the politics of antagonism against other groups of women, she misses an important trick.

What women do share – and share, I’m sure, with plenty of other ‘non-men’ (to use Cauterruci’s wryly-acknowledged-as-inadequate terminology) – is a capacity to recognise hints and cues and covert indications of which the aforementioned straight man in the room is blissfully ignorant. If you like analogies, it’s a little similar to the way in which prey animals are honed to recognise subtle cues invisible to predator animals, simply because their lives depend upon it. This is fantastically effective as a means of constructing a community, and a community that exploits the unintended positive flipside of the privileged group’s lack of attention. We fly under the radar. It’s a bit the same when I meet up with my colleague, and I admire her dapper bowtie and she compliments my Frieda Kahlo-print ’50s dress. We bond, and part of that bond is rooted in the unspoken fact that we are noticing each other’s very different modes of participation in a shared, invisible dialogue. Most people don’t really notice these details and certainly don’t catch any cultural references we might attach – so there’s not much we’re ‘subverting’ – but we certainly are benefiting from sharing a perception of different ways of being different.

This reminds me, once again, of Audre Lorde and of the power of terminology and difference. Yesterday, I saw a tweet celebrating Lorde as a ‘queer’ writer and a righteously fierce backlash against it. Lorde is someone who has written thoughtfully, provocatively, lovingly, extensively, about the word ‘lesbian’ and its meanings. I have come across her using the term ‘queer’ to describe other people’s perceptions of her (notably, the Harlem Writers’ Guild), but not as a term she owned for herself. And self-definition was important to her. As she says, ‘If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive’. In Sister Outsider, she writes poignantly and brilliantly about the ways definitions that recognize selfhood do not exclude, but expand:

When I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining’.

We do not all have to subsume our identities into a single definition: we can use different definitions (and different identities) that allow us to see a wider picture and to participate in a bigger conversation.

 

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Note: when you google ‘subversive femme,’ you will come across a truly delightful sewing blog, by the eponymous subversive femme, and I want to make clear I think it’s awesome and brilliant and not remotely the target of any comments here.

I am aware, too, that ‘subversive femme’ as a term has a much broader set of meanings than either Cauterruci or I claim for it here: this is not accidental, as I suspect that the watering-down of specific political statements into a more nebulous ‘queer’ vocabulary is part of the problem I am dealing with.

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‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’: On Speech and Language Policing

“And I’ll tell you another thing about the way women don’t Talk Proper …”
Filippo Lippi, Man and Woman at a Casement. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.

This feels recent, but actually, language policing isn’t new. Medieval advice literature is full of it – they have a special verb, ‘rabelen’, which means ‘garbling, usually of prayers’. Clerics constantly warn their charges against speaking too fast, dropping syllables out of words, ‘over-skyping’ (not what you think, but skipping over words by accident), saying words without the proper heartfelt emphasis, singing out of tune, and gossiping, slandering, lying and swearing. There’s even a demon, a sort of anti-patron-saint of Language Policing, known as Tutivillus, whose job is to gather up mis-spoken syllables and out-of-tune notes into his sack, keeping them as evidence against the guilty party. My favourite story involves a young medieval monk on the wind up, who, when it was his turn to set the psalm, started three notes higher than the usual. The older monks found their voices unequal to the strain and dropped belligerently out of the litany, and the chronicler of this distinctly unfraternal episode concludes, conveniently, that “it was all the work of the demon”.

You might think that this delightfully batshit advice has nothing to do with gendered forms of speech – after all, the point is that younger monks can still hit the high notes and older monks feel crabby that they can’t. Or you might think that it’s an interesting reflection on medieval masculinity that a high voice could be a point of pride. But the context is key here. This advice is actually found in a text addressed exclusively to women. It’s called The Myroure of Our Ladye and it was written for a group of nuns. Subtly, this text gives its audience a message: there’s something wrong with a voice that’s at the high end of a man’s normal pitch. There’s something wrong with the voices of most women.

That’s a theme I’m coming across a lot – most recently, here. The piece is by Naomi Wolf, and boils down to ‘women, who are younger than I am and considerably less brilliantly feminist, allow me to patronise you with poorly understood generalisations about linguistics’. The subtitle includes the unforgivably trite, finger-wagging warning “you’re disowning your power”. Now, to me, power is something you have, and exercise, in relation to other people. You cannot single-handedly ‘disown your power’ (unless, I suppose, we’re talking BDSM. Let us never talk BDSM). What Wolf means is, women, you’re being treated badly but I’m going to assume the fault lies with you.

Now, I could just have put this out of my mind and linked to the pretty comprehensive take-down of language-policing by Cameron, which I’ve already mentioned. And I did link. But I also got stuck on one sentence, which attempted to give a measurable, concrete example of women letting themselves down with their silly ladyspeak. Wolf writes:

“At Oxford University young women consistently get 5% to 10% fewer first-class degrees in English – and the exams are graded blindly. The reasons? Even the most brilliant tend to avoid strong declarative sentences and to organise their arguments less forcefully.”

There is so much wrong with this that it makes me slightly inarticulate with fury. Oh, who am I kidding? It makes me want to type numerous strong, declarative sentences, most of them liberally sprinkled with my most masculine of profanities. You see, this chain of logic presumes that blind marking of exam scripts means that the problem is with the students’ work. Not that academics might (shudder gasp!) be fallible human beings who bring in unconscious bias to their syllabus, their setting of questions or marking of scripts. Nor that – and I think this is the hard truth – it may in fact not be possible to design a non-misogynistic English degree. But these issues are serious.

Say you’re an academic setting the questions for next summer’s final exam. There are obvious pitfalls (which people mostly try to avoid, but don’t always manage): Do you pick questions on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower and John Lydgate, or Christine de Pizan, Marie de France and Julian of Norwich? Do you use quotations from Paul Strohm and Derek Pearsall or Jill Mann and Carolyn Dinshaw? Then there are slightly less obvious, less avoidable issues. Shall we have a question (or questions …. imagine ….!) on women in a paper on medieval literature? Will that prime female students to remember that, throughout most of English literary history, women have been oppressed and mocked? Will it prime them to realise that people have been making oh-so-sadly-practical arguments, like Wolf’s, about women acting as their own worst enemies by talking too much, too little, too this, too that, for centuries? If we have a question on women’s bodies, or sexuality, or violence (all good, popular topics), will it be particularly fun for the women who’ve real-life experience of what Rachel Moss bitingly terms ‘Chaucer’s funny rape’? I could go on, but you see the problem. When women write those blind-marked exams, they do so surrounded by an academic conversation that has very little space for women, and in which much of that space is full of uncomfortable reminders of women’s unequal status through history.

This is all before we get to the real issue. The quotation presumes that what ought to be rewarded in any good student is ‘strong, declarative sentences’ and ‘forceful’ arguments. This is … well … problematic. ‘Chaucer is the greatest English poet’ is a strong, declarative sentence. It is also utterly lacking in nuance, understanding of English literature, and awareness of the past century of scholarship. In short, it’s shit. And an essay made up of such strong, declarative sentences would also be extremely tedious. Language policing is a very blunt tool. And, increasingly, I notice how much it fails to hit anything even resembling its target.

The other day, a friend of mine sent me an article to read. Written by Karen O’Donnell, it argues that a form of speech that’s often derided as being feminine – expressing emotion – is crucial to the progress of academia. She explains:

“I am currently writing a PhD and in one chapter I touch upon a sensitive issue that is very close to home. One of my supervisors encouraged me to think about whether or not I would be able to defend this part of my work without getting emotional. My other supervisor encouraged me to think about why being emotional might be seen as wrong and whether I wanted to challenge that perception.”

This rang true for me, too. Increasingly, what I write about in my research, and what I teach, is pretty close to home. And it is emotional, and it should be. I want to speak – in ladyspeech or not -because these issues matter to me. A few weeks ago, I went to a conference, which was ostensibly about manuscripts. But – and I really should have blogged about this before – it was also incredibly unusual in terms of the way gender issues were playing out, both in papers and amongst the people there. If I can count correctly, out of 127 people, there were 41 men and the remainder were women. My friend Carissa Harris gave a brilliant paper about sexual violence against women, which is still playing over in my mind. But what I loved about this specific conference was that, having listened to a paper on gendered sexual violence, we didn’t have to switch politely back into impersonal academic mode – there were too many women sharing other stories, calmly acknowledging that this is a personal as well as an academic issue. And the personal, emotional aspect of that debate was made so much more possible because of the weight of numbers: there were enough of to acknowledge each other’s experiences as emotional, personal, and valuable.

Why do I mention this? I mention it because the first metaphor that springs to mind to describe my experience is ‘speaking the same language’. I wanted to imagine we were all speaking an idiolect, a special language, a coded set of terms that helped us to understand each other’s points about misogyny and rape, survival and women’s experience.

But, really, we weren’t. We were simply speaking. What felt new, was that we were being heard.

When O’ Donnell writes about being ’emotional’, part of what she is talking about is breaking a silence. Her research will require her to give voice to an argument, reflecting experience and emotion, which is not part of the established academic conversation. We could – and the language-policing types would – argue that perhaps she should find a way to have this conversation in suitably ‘academic’ language, to remove the overt emotion from it. But then, it wouldn’t be the same conversation, and it might not even convey the same experience and argument. It would be leaving academia a little bit narrower, a little bit less honestly representative of women’s experiences and perspectives.

What’s needed is not a broader academic language, nor a space for women to speak in the ways women speak. We need a space in which women can be heard. Those women at Oxford, who are struggling to be heard, are not struggling (I trust and believe) because of their lack of ‘declarative sentences’. In the article Wolf wrote, the answer was right there: in the experience of Professor Elleke Boehmer, when women try to speak up “male students speak first and second and even third.”

Women are discouraged from speaking up by myriad pressures that tell them their voices are less worth hearing – pressures that reduce their voices to twittering sound (as I’ve said before), or to meaningless feminine noise. We’re pushed to believe this fiction that women’s speech is always excessive – too high, too fast, too loud, too much – simply because women’s speech is a reminder that women exist to speak. For some people, there will never be a ‘right’ way for women to speak – so we need to speak up anyway.

University Women – Let’s Take Up Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is demonstrably not the case.

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

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

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

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

Women in academia deserve to .

Notes

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

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

Applying for a Postdoc. First, imagine you are an idiot …

Ok, just a rant.

I read the Guardian HE section, on and off, and sometimes it’s quite helpful and interesting. Not so much, today. Today we have a guide to getting a postdoc. I started reading, winced at the stats (14% of Arts and Humanities PhDs end up with research posts), and got settled in to the advice section. This is advice culled (and, I suspect, heavily edited down and decontextualised) from a group of senior academics. I’m sure they meant really well, and I’m fairly sure they don’t actually believe their PhD students are idiots, but … really?

It’s easy to be mean. “Be cautious about firing off out-of-the-blue emails” made me snort. There’s a bit of a stereotype of well-intended advice you get from your bewildered family (‘she seemed so smart at school, but she’s 29 and still just reading things’), which includes ‘couldn’t you just send Oxford your CV and ask if they’ve got anything?’ I suppose it’s nice to know that this is, like, officially frowned upon, but I kinda think most of us have worked that one out.

On the positive side, reading this article it would seem that the competition for jobs includes people who’ve completed a PhD and still haven’t cottoned on that applying using the form and guidelines provided, as opposed to, perhaps, interpretative dance, would be a great start. If these really are the hurdles at which most prospective postdocs fall, then really, we should all be celebrating.

What bothers me most about this advice, though, is that I think some of it is actually wrong. Tucked in amongst snippets I think my careers advisor told me when I was 16, there’s this:

Applying when you don’t meet the essential requirements is a waste of time. It also has reputation costs. If you get a number of applications that is not huge, you will tend to remember names from one time to the next. It doesn’t make a good impression to receive the application of someone a second time if you still remember that this person applied for another job for which he or she was not suitable at all. It sends a signal that they are not attentive to detail, which is something highly valued in academic jobs. (Laura Morales, professor in comparative politics, University of Leicester)

I see where she’s coming from with this, and I bet it is really frustrating to keep getting the same puppy-eyed candidate popping up everywhere, but I think this needs unpicking.

When I started applying for jobs, I didn’t get anywhere. Nada. Not even a call to interview. At some point, my supervisor started sending me job adverts, for jobs for which I wasn’t qualified. And I’d write back and point out, look, they’re asking me to have experience supervising MA candidates, and I don’t. Or, look, they only want someone with publications, and I don’t have any. One day, I fired off an application for a teaching job at Cambridge, for which I didn’t meet the job spec.

I can’t actually remember how I didn’t meet the spec now. I was so sure I wasn’t going to need it that I deleted the job particulars from my computer after I’d sent in my application. Don’t try this at home, kids. It’s really annoying when you get called for interview and have only a hazy memory of what you’re applying for. On a related note, when you’re in the interview and they ask if there’s any reason you applied for the one-year post and not the twenty-six month one, you should probably find something better than ‘nah, I was just disorganized’. Also, when they phone you a couple of hours after the interview, that’s a good sign. You want to be listening for your phone to take that call. You do not want to be fannying around Cambridge, such that the very kind head of the Search Committee has to ring you back at 9pm.

At every stage in the process, I did not expect to get that job. Because I’ve read an awful lot of pieces like the one in the Guardian, and they all made me feel as if I was bound to fail – for the most trivial reasons – before I’d even started.

What’s telling about my experience – other than the fact that, clearly, I am an idiot – is that an awful lot of women (and, I’m sure, some men) do the same things. We don’t expect to get jobs. We read the stats and we know that only 14% of us will get research jobs (NB: mine is not a research job). And we look at our own CVs and they never measure up to what the job is asking for.

I know there are far more very good people than there are academic jobs. I can believe it’s really frustrating to come across candidates who make the really basic mistakes described in the Guardian article. But I think there is a bigger problem with articles like this one, which don’t really provide any useful advice that couldn’t be gleaned from a sixth-form careers day. They suggest we’re all failing to get jobs because, really, we’re all a bit lazy, stupid, and unmotivated. We think too highly of ourselves and expect we’ll be considered without having the courtesy to fill in a proper application form, wait for an official job advert, or bother to get to know people in the field.

I’ve no idea how you get a postdoc. Luck, probably. But you definitely don’t get a postdoc if you keep telling yourself you’re no good and might as well not apply.

Academics: They’re not Women, you Know.

I’ve just read (via twitter link from two female academics, Alice Bell and Lisa Jardine), this delightful Guardian article, titled ‘Why do academics dress so badly? Answer: they are too happy’.

Well, that’s lovely, I thought. It is nice to see an article acknowledging that, amid the chaos of REF 2020 and funding cuts and short-term contracts, there is someone sticking up for the fun side of academic life. I’ve just started a new job. It comes with perks like an actual living wage and the chance to move to a city with decent shopping. One of the things I have very much enjoyed doing with said living wage was buying a couple of new dresses and a very swish dressing gown from Nomads on King’s Parade, which is one of my favourite shops in the world. (Don’t worry, I also splashed out on some lovely new books and spent time walking past King’s chapel sighing contentedly and pretending I was in Granchester with James Norton. I have a Life of the Mind, you know).

The article tries for an arch, tongue-in-cheek tone. But as I read it, I was confused.

Paisley body warmers? Cornish pasty shoes? ‘Amusing’ cufflinks? Fortunately, Marx can explain our crimes of fashion,” it began. 

That’s funny, I thought. I can’t remember when I thought of wearing any of those.

Ostensibly, the article engaged with the question of gender in academic dress. That is to say, it dragged out the tired old chestnut that women can wear whatever they like and men have to wear suits. And it’s so hard for them! To be all fashionable! Because they have thinky-thoughts and everything!

Women (who are, btw, on average doing the lion’s share of housework and child-tending), don’t have such difficulties. Their butterfly minds rise above the serious work of hard thinking (or the dollops of baby-sick) and straight in to LK Bennett. Well, my mind does. I have no child-sick to contend with.

If you are wondering why I’m irritated by this article, read it, and look at its use of language. ‘Academic’ is, virtually throughout, synonymous with ‘male academic’. Early on, a woman is referred to as a ‘colleague’ (in implicit contrast to the ‘academic’ to whom she speaks). Now, sure, she might well be non-academic staff, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that an article on how ‘academics’ dress is really all about men.

There was one ray of light – and I thought we were getting to some kind of sensible acknowledgement that women academics existed, for eventually we reached a straight comparison of what men and women academics should wear to look good.

Apparently, for a man to look good as an academic, what he needs are good cufflinks. No brand, you know. Just cufflinks. The last time I bought cufflinks (and they were nice), they cost about £40.

For a woman to look good as an academic?

“a Hermès scarf should be enough to swing the vote.”

Oh, ok then. Mind if I pick the cheapie option? I’m so sorry, I know … but £250 is more than my weekly rent, so …

I could go on about this article, which has really irritated me with its casual assumptions about who the default ‘academic’ is, and I could moan more about its utterly patronizing and misguided attempts to throw a bone to those few women readers who might care. I will point out that the financial side of things matters, in part, because the average age and seniority of female academics is lower than that of men, so we are less (not more) likely to be in a good position to shell out on that designer scarf to impress. And, sadly, we’re also more likely to be judged for it if we claim we’re just too ‘happy’ to care about how we look. But, I’m not going to go on. I’m an academic, and caring about my clothes not only makes me happy – it’s also perfectly compatible with being fulfilled by my academic work.

A few weeks ago, the very stylish Rachel Moss set up this tumblr account, ‘This is How Academics Dress’. You can add pictures, to broaden everyone’s stereotype of what academics look like. This is a hugely positive thing: a simple, effective way of showing people that there’s a wide range of academic images, far more diverse than the ‘(white) man in a suit’ we’re used to seeing.

More recently, I was discussing clothing with my brilliant third-year student, who is starting to write a fascinating dissertation on the subject (why yes, Prof Wolff, people can expend real academic energy and time on clothing! I know, right?!). I won’t spoiler her research, which is her own, but there was one snippet I thought relevant. We noticed how much, when you read and look at medieval texts, men dress in flamboyant clothes, in silks, in embroideries. For us, it’s easy to read those clothes as ‘feminine,’ because that’s our stereotype. But we’d be wrong. The tiny details of masculine dress – the green and gold of, say, the disguised baddie in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which tells a sharp-eyed observer how to spot him later in the text – are designed to separate the clever readers from the dupes. In short: clothing matters.

NYC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cloisters Collection. The Belle Heures of Jean, Duc du Berry. c. 1400. St Jerome in a Woman's Dress

And never more than for poor St Jerome, a martry to a pretty dress. Perhaps this explains the deep-seated male anguish over academic clothing? Image from http://johanoosterman.tumblr.com/.

Update

It’s been suggested I need to clarify that, in this post, I am referring to academics who teach and/or research at universities, not to teachers in schools. I’m not sure what the dress codes are in most schools, but they may be quite different. Apologies to anyone offended.

John Wycliffe, Bible Translator, Dead for 600 Years, Still a Better Feminist Ally than Ally Fogg.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

Marie de St Pol (c. 1303-1377). Foundress of Pembroke, Cambridge. Portrait at Pembroke College Cambridge.

This morning, I read a lovely article in the GuardianHertford College, Oxford – which went mixed forty years ago – is celebrating by replacing its dusty old portraits of former male members with photographs of female alumnae.

I really like this. Especially because it doesn’t come across as a pompous policy decision, but something much more funny and, actually, suprisingly revealing of the history of the college. The article quotes Dr Emma Smith explaining that the college’s one-time reputation for being poor and academically undistinguished (back in the days when it formed the backdrop for Brideshead Revisited) made the decision easier to make:

“We have no glorious history, we’re not hidebound by ancient traditions, we have none. Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne.”

I can well belive this. And I find it pretty funny that Smith and her colleagues discovered, on removing a row of portraits of male clergy, that no-one actually had the faintest idea who these men were. It’s usually women who suffer this fate: immortalized on canvas, but with no-one bothering to remember their names. Presumably, the idea of men being anonymised in plain sight was so unthinkable to generations of Hertford people that no-one quite realized everyone else was wondering who the portraits represented.

Anyway, all of this was, as I say, rather nice. Most Oxbridge colleges have an embarrassment of portraits of dusty, long-dead men glaring down from the walls, and, I’ll admit, it doesn’t tend to make you feel at home. You’re constantly reminded that the place was built from the minds and purses of powerful men, that it excluded women for centuries.

However, I did have a quibble, both with the Guardian (oh, Guardian!), and with this version of history. The Guardian notes that one of the portraits consigned to obscurity is that of William Tyndale, ‘first translator of the Bible into English’. Now, Hertford does have a historic grudge against John Wycliffe – the man whose name is usually associated with the first complete English translations of the Bible (Anglo-Saxonists can argue over that one). Hertford’s pleasantly named ‘Black Hall’ is where Wycliffe was imprisoned while the authorities took their first and only known debate over whether or not this new fangled ‘change’ was a good thing.

Dear readers, I struggled with that Guardian article. Oh, who am I kidding? I rolled my eyes and then gleefully took recourse to academic snarking. Tyndale’s translation gets the credit over that carried out by John Wycliffe and his colleagues over a century earlier, because Tyndale belongs to the post-medieval, post-print sixteenth century. People don’t generally like to believe that English Bibles belonged to the medieval period – let alone that they were the English book that survive in (by far) the greatest numbers – because it doesn’t fit well with our nice image of the medieval Catholic Church as a sinister organization carrying out its operations in impenetrable Latin. It’s true the medieval Church wasn’t wild keen on Wycliffe’s Bible falling into uneducated hands, and after a certain point, you’d (technically) need special clearance to own a copy. But this didn’t stop kings, aristocrats and monasteries from buying copies. And in fact, one of the only copies to include a record that official permission for ownership was sought, belonged to a woman.

I’ve written before about the aftermath of John Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, and about how a heretical movement called Lollardy sprung up, demanding (amongst other things) that women be given the freedom to read the Bible, preach, and teach. And I’ve noted that, generally, we’re not taught about this minor attempt to give women more visibility in a historically male-dominated academic and religious culture.

Why does this matter? What does it mean to omit Wycliffe from the historical version of events – and therefore to omit the tantalizing possibility of women priests, and the factual existence of female Bible readers, from the record also?

Well, it matters because those portraits of dead white men at Hertford, and other Oxbridge colleges, are just occasionally varied with portraits of their female counterparts. At Pembroke College, Cambridge, we have Marie de St Pol. The Bodleian holds the portrait of Dervorguilla of Galloway, who part-funded Balliol. Queen’s College, Oxford, owns a rather dodgy post-medieval picture of its medieval patron, Queen Philippa of Hainault. Clare College, Cambridge, has a picture of its second founder, Elizabeth de Clare. Both Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville are credited with the founding of Queens’ Cambridge (hence the position of its apostrophe).

And so it goes on. For wealthy medieval women, donating money to an Oxbridge college was a perfectly normal act of piety, something for which they fully expected to be remembered. After Wycliffie, such activities would not have been incompatible with paying for a beautifully hand-copied manuscript of the English Bible. Some women even translated portions of the Bible for themselves, or read in Latin or French.

There is a continuity to women’s involvement in academia, even in Oxbridge. And sure, founding a college (or having a foundation named after you) isn’t remotely the same thing as being allowed to study there. So, I love Hertford’s new portraits, and I love the idea behind them. But I hope that, when they face the inevitable backlash of male voices shouting about the sanctity of tradition, they’ll keep in mind that there is also a long-forgotten history of women who deserve to be remembered.

Note

On the subject of the title of this post – well, no, not really. I doubt Wycliffe had a feminist idea in his life. But the idea tickles me.