Women’s Strategies of Memory: Representations in Literature and Art (CFP)

I’ll be blogging and talking more about this over the coming months, but I’m really excited to be able to share a project I’ve been working on with the brilliant Dr Emma Bérat. We’re both interested in gender and memory, and so we (and by we, I mean, mostly her, while I was an enthusiastic and eager sidekick/cheerleader for our project) have drafted a proposal for a couple of sessions of papers for Leeds IMC in 2018. If you’re interested, have a look below – and please share the CFP far and wide, as we’re really hoping to bring together a diverse group of scholars, and especially to interest people working beyond our own specific disciplines.

Here you go!

Call for Papers for panel(s) proposal at Leeds IMC 2018, 2-5 July

Memory, in the middle ages as now, was widely accessible to women as means of personal and political influence. Scholarship on the strategic and technical employment of memory in the middle ages has principally explored men’s practices. This panel focuses on representations of medieval women’s deliberate and strategic uses of memory in literature, art, and historical narrative.

We invite papers from any discipline, region and medieval period, which consider any aspect of the representation of women’s memory. We are particularly interested in women who perform remembering, forgetting, or recounting past events as a means of public or political power; and who manipulate histories or identities to construct or reconstruct the past, or to influence the memories of other characters. We also hope to explore women’s less conscious strategies of memory, such as forgetting as a way of compartmentalising traumatic emotions. Reexaminations of women who are accused (by other characters or the narrator) of errors of memory, such as forgetting, deliberate ignorance or manipulation of record, are also welcome.

Please contact Lucy Allen (lucyallen505@gmail.com) and Emma Bérat (eoloughl@uni-bonn.de) with an abstract of approximately 100 words and a brief biography by 30 July 2017.

My daughter’s birth


This post is a bit different from my usual blogging, and it’s long, but I’m writing it because I think it’s important for the experiences I’m writing about to be discussed. Last Sunday morning – Mothering Sunday – my partner Emma gave birth to our baby daughter Elisabeth. Elisabeth is, of course, delightful and gorgeous, wise and mature beyond her years, judicious in her calculated emissions and possessed of a frown promising Socratean wisdom. I’m very proud of her, and of her mama, who was and is absolutely amazing.

However, they both had a rough ride to get here. Emma had a complicated pregnancy. Two sweeps failed to get her labour started, although they got her dilated to a centimetre, and on Thursday 23rd (her due date), she went in to hospital for medicated induction of labour. 48 hours of painful contractions later, she was still only just over a centimetre dilated. Her waters were broken and she was put on a drip to induce contractions. Several hours later she was still only just three centimetres. By Saturday night, she was in a lot of pain, and eventually had an epidural, which worked. She became fully dilated in a very short time, and by the early hours of Sunday morning she was in a lot of pain again, and ready to push. Emma pushed for an hour, but the baby was barely moving down the birth canal as she was lying back to back with Emma, with her head tilted at an angle. Meanwhile, Emma’s heart rate was regularly spiking into the dangerous range, and at one stage spiking higher than the baby’s heart rate. After an hour, it was found that Emma had a temperature, and because of the danger to the baby, we were told she had to deliver as soon as possible. After a failed forceps delivery, Emma had an emergency c section, and Elisabeth was delivered (wiggling and crying!) at 7.58 am, almost three days and 70 hours after induction of labour.

Initially, Elisabeth seemed fine, and Emma was in worse shape. Both were put on antibiotics for the presumed infection causing Emma’s temperature to rise, through cannulas in their hands. Soon, however, Elisabeth started struggling: she was failing to feed, and when she latched on to the breast she wasn’t strong enough to carry on sucking. She had swallowed a lot of amniotic fluid during the section and was constantly coughing and vomiting it up. Her crying was weak and she never really slept, although she closed her eyes a lot. Both she and Emma were monitored, with checks for different things every few hours or minutes. By Monday, Elisabeth was very sleepy, and refused to feed from breast, bottle, cup or even syringe, while Emma was finding it very hard to get a position to breast feed as she was in a lot of pain from her c section and forceps, and Elisabeth’s cannula in her hand was obviously also painful when she brushed up against Emma’s body. She kept trying to pull it out (succeeding twice), and had to have it re-inserted, which was difficult to see. At this point, Emma was on a cocktail of drugs including codeine and morphine, which was making her very anxious and managing her pain very unevenly. In the middle of the night, tests came backs showing Elisabeth’s viral count was abnormally high. She was taken for a lumbar puncture, where spinal fluid is taken with a needle, and we were warned she might have viral menigitis or a related infection. Over the next day, Elisabeth became worse, and had to be given a nasal tube to feed, although she was vomiting up a lot of her feeds. She became very sleepy and floppy. Her viral count had increased again, and she was put on more, stronger antibiotics.

We seem to have been lucky. Yesterday, Elisabeth became to improve. Some tests are back – some are not – but she seems to be getting much better. Today, she was able to cry (loudly!), and was much more alert and engaged, and she drank a good amount. Emma, who had been painfully expressing colostrum, got her milk in, and, amazingly, Elisabeth managed to go entirely onto breast feeding today. Around midday she pulled her own nasal tube out (!), but so far it hasn’t needed to be replaced as she hasn’t needed top-up feeds. She might be able to come home quite soon.

Most of what I’m describing here, though it’s horrible, is not ‘my’ experience alone. The labour isn’t my experience at all, and a huge number of people have got in touch to share stories of their experiences of difficult births and newborn baby illnesses, and to reassure us that we will soon forget quite how horrible and frightening all of this has been.

What I wanted to post about, though, is a slightly separate strand of experience. It’s, obviously, not the most traumatic part. But it is an experience which, unlike the complicated labour or Elisabeth’s illness, is one I’ve never read about. No one got in touch to share stories. But lots of women will have had this experience, and so I want to explain what happened, partly so women in my situation can be prepared, and partly because I think the medical professionals were saw were really completely unaware of what was going on.

Emma’s pregnancy gave both of us a tiny warning call about how most people interpret our relationship. Everyone was loudly surprised Emma was having a baby, not me. A pretty typical illustration of that attitude was our (lovely, and otherwise highly competent) fertility clinic, who made us fill in forms twice as they were sure we’d filled in the ‘wrong’ section for birth mother and partner, and then still managed to get confused about which of us planned to get pregnant and to run blood tests for the mother-to-be on my blood, not Emma’s. Responses from people we knew ranged from casual surprise to outright questioning, and even our midwife (again: otherwise lovely) thought it was perfectly ok to break off in the middle of our booking-in visit to ask why I hadn’t got pregnant. I will say, at this point, that while I know infertility and pregnancy loss attract insensitive comments across the board, I think people are particularly bad at assuming that, if you’re in a lesbian relationship and not pregnant, it must have been purely a fun choice you made.

These sorts of comments had made both of us very aware that 9 people out of 10 will assume I ought to be the pregnant and maternal partner, while Emma strikes them as less likely to want to be pregnant. So we had become a little used to misunderstandings. We thought we were prepared. We weren’t.

A basic issue was access. In the hospital where Emma gave birth, partners must leave the ward to go to the loo or to eat (food can be brought for labouring women, but if you want to bring your partner something at a different time of day, or to bring her drinks, you need to go to buy them). This means that when you come back to the ward, you press a buzzer and wait for someone to hear the buzzer, see you on the camera they have at reception, and ask you who you’re coming to see. Each time, I faced a barrage of questions and misunderstandings. No, you can’t come in, no visitors. Who are you? No, who are you? No, who are you coming to see? No, you can’t come to see your partner, he is not allowed in. No. Eventually, I would be let in. But, also, it was fairly clear that sometimes, whoever was watching the camera would see me (a woman) waiting at the door and simply not answer – I could tell this because several times, when I had been waiting, a man would turn up behind me, and the door would be buzzed open for him. Twice, a midwife came hurrying to intercept me at this point, insisting I wasn’t allowed in. The longest wait was nearly half an hour.

This was stressful, because I was genuinely worried about Emma while I was gone. She was very upset, in a lot of pain, and not remotely compos mentis because of the codeine and gas and air she had been given – and when Emma is in pain, she is often silent or incomprenhsible, so I needed to be there. I was also, of course, worried about missing the birth. As a result, I more or less stopped eating and drinking so that I could stay on the ward.

Throughout all of this time, new people – several midwives, doctors and nurses – came and went. Most of them wanted to know who I was, understandably. But many of them were not satisfied with a simple ‘who are you,’ and repeated questions. Some shut doors in my face; others refused to speak to me and spoke entirely and only to Emma, even when there were questions I could answer, and even when Emma actually asked them to ask me. This was important, because as the pain and contractions became stronger, Emma was finding it hard to talk and push.

Throughout Emma’s induction, we had been told that a c-section was a likely outcome. We’d known for a long time a section might be needed, as Emma’s sister had preeclampsia and had had to have one, and Emma was being monitored for the same condition. Each time, we discussed it and Emma told me she wanted to try for a vaginal birth, but knew it might not be possible. By the time Emma was in active labour, we were well aware it might come to a section. But when Emma had been pushing for an hour, a surgeon came to talk to her. He questioned me aggressively about who I was, and then spoke entirely to Emma (who was contracting every minute or so). She was finding it very hard to reply, and feels that he could have communicated much more clearly, as he constantly trailed off with statements such as ‘of course, vaginal birth is ideal …,’ without completing his sentence. At the same time, the midwife was telling Emma when to push, and Emma was asking him to stop talking so she could push instead of talking. He explained that he wanted to attempt a forceps delivery, but thought there were likely to be problems with that. He wanted her to sign consent to a forceps and episiotomy procedure and also to a c-section, so that if the forceps failed, the c-section could be done immediately. Emma asked if she could avoid the episiotomy and forceps, and have a c-section. This seemed reasonable, as we’d been given to understand the c-section had been an option for around 18 hours at this point, and Emma had been reassured by previous doctors that she could simply say yes, and they would do it. But this surgeon continued to insist that a c-section was, of course, not ideal, and vaginal delivery was ideal, and Emma needed to consent to both at the same time. Emma kept asking the midwife if she could push now. I could understand what she was saying, and attempted to explain it to him: that she wanted a section and not the forceps and episiotomy. He ignored me. Emma was coerced to sign the consent as we knew the baby was at risk if she did not deliver.

Emma was taken to theatre, and I was taken to the male partners’ room to be given some scrubs to wear. In theatre, the surgeon attempted to turn the baby with his hand. A colleague asked whether it was likely he could deliver using forceps. He replied ‘no, but the mother is very keen for a vaginal delivery’.

I was utterly shocked. I didn’t manage to say anything (this all happened very fast, and at this point I was very worried about Emma, who was seriously out of it, very scared and rambling, and very white with a racing heartbeat). The surgeon began the c-section. His phone alarm was going off; he asked his colleagues to ignore the music. Chattily, he asked Emma whether she’d had other surgery, as she had some scar tissue (Emma hasn’t had any surgery, and he had asked this already). Emma panicked, noticeably, but wasn’t really able to answer. He continued, casually, to advise her that she should really think about future pregnancies, and leave at least a year before conceiving again. (This advice isn’t stupid or wrong – and we did know already – but it was an utterly bizarre thing to say mid-procedure to a woman clearly terrified and not compos mentis. Especially since, as Emma points out, it is unlikely she would get tipsy one night and fall into a fertility clinic by accident …).

When the baby was out, I immediately went to see her being checked (as we’d agreed). I had been told I could take my phone into theatre and I took a quick picture and took it to Emma, as many people had told us that mothers who have emergency sections can often feel both very frightened about how the baby is when they can’t see it immediately after birth, and very disconnected later on when they don’t remember the early moments well.

At this point, the staff in the room were swapping over, and new staff discouraged me from holding the baby or doing skin-to-skin contact (again, something Emma and I had discussed, in the event she had a section). When we were taken to the recovery room, several medics spoke to us in succession, but addressed only Emma, both with congratulations and with questions, many of which she still wasn’t able to answer well, and some of which frightened her as she was panicking about some of the surgeon’s comments, which she hadn’t understood. One group, hearing Emma refer to ‘Lucy,’ assumed it was the baby and confused Emma further; another laughed merrily when they realised the mistake and told me that – in my scrubs – they had assumed I was another midwife.

After this – while it was becoming obvious that something was wrong with Elisabeth – we were taken to the post-delivery ward, and then moved within the ward. Here, it was very noisy and chaotic, and many checks and questions were repeated multiple times by different medics, so it was hard to understand who was who. However, we still faced the same problems: many medics ignored me, refused to listen to my answers, drew the curtain to shut me out of Emma’s cubicle, or became confused when Emma referred to me. Here, as in the delivery ward, partners had to go outside to use the toilet or to eat, and whenever I went to the dining room to collect food for my partner, I faced a barrage of angry refusals. When I tried to get back onto the ward, we had the same old confusions. Several times, I was asked to leave as it was ‘after visiting hours’. At this point, Emma and I had had very little sleep for three days, and neither of us had eaten or drunk properly. Emma was in a lot of pain. We both spent a lot of time crying and I think it would be fair to say neither of us was really processing anything very well – we were shocked and not yet quite aware how badly shocked we were.

On this ward, I broke down a few times and tried to say why I was upset, as I was very much aware of a constant sense that there was no place for me there. Many medics simply assumed I was breaking the rules and should not be on the ward, and it was often too chaotic and noisy even to correct them before they moved on. At one point, when Emma had explained to a midwife that I was her partner, I ended up in tears saying that I felt I constantly had to justify that I was the baby’s mother. The midwife – who must have meant well – immediately exclaimed that I was just stressed: of course I shouldn’t feel that way! She probably thought this was kindly and helpful. As it happens, though, I have never felt I wasn’t my baby’s mother. It just didn’t occur to me. It feels peculiar when people ask me whether I feel less her mother because I didn’t carry her. And, of course, this response, despite being well meant, was effectively a denial of the experience I’d been having for the past four days, which was that I had to justify that I was the baby’s mother. I had to justify that, not to myself for reasons of my own emotional inadequacies or struggles, but to all of her colleagues who had failed to accept it.

Later on, the morning after we had found out that Elisabeth was being tested for viral meningitis and when Emma was having a particularly bad time with pain and had been crying constantly, I went to fetch Emma some breakfast. The women serving refused. Your partner is not allowed food. Your partner is a he? Your partner is a he? He is not allowed food! Look: there is a sign! Really, this is not allowed, you must not try to ask. I explained, increasingly upset. My partner is a woman. She had a baby on Sunday. I repeated it several times. Eventually I burst into tears, and the server finally understood, crowing Oh! You’re so sensitive! Of course, she can have some toast!

The last time I actively became angry was when one of the senior midwives lectured me about what ‘the mother’ should do, and what the baby needed from ‘the mother’. When I snapped that I was the baby’s mother, she was very apologetic. And things did change then. Not completely; not to the point that I could get onto the ward without justifying myself (I still found that, often, the answer to my intercom buzzer was a calm ‘no, dear, no one is allowed in now,’ which often meant I had to buzz again simply in order to explain that I was, in fact, a partner and not the visitor they assumed was trying to come in outside visiting times). But things did change a bit.

Yesterday, we were moved onto a ward that provides care for Elisabeth, hopefully until she is well enough to come home. It is a much less busy ward, and they have been wonderful.

I wanted to write this post because, although it sounds quite negative, I wish I had been more prepared for what happened in terms of the way we were treated as a same-sex couple. I had been prepared to advocate for Emma in labour. We had discussed a lot of things. We knew, especially, that Emma copes best with pain when she can be allowed to speak as little as possible. We knew she would probably become slightly incoherent. We discussed possibilities, such as c-section and skin-to-skin contact post-birth. In order to be a good birth partner, I should have been hydrated and well fed. I should have been calm. I should have been able to explain Emma’s decisions. Of course, at times, medics would have had to talk to Emma alone, and to ignore me. Of course, at times, I might get things wrong. And of course, how I was feeling was immensely less important than how Emma was feeling (although, even in labour, Emma was reasonably aware I hadn’t really eaten properly for three days, and because  she is a big softie, she was worried). But, despite these caveats, I came away feeling that the experiences I’m describing was cumulatively quite a big issue for me (and some issue for Emma and Elisabeth), which was totally avoidable.

Almost every single person who did or said something I’ve mentioned here, clearly did it without meaning to do anything wrong. They meant well. Some of them even thought they were being comforting and inclusive to us as a lesbian couple or to me as a non-birth mother. None of them could shake the belief that they were seeing a solitary moment of overreaction, or an understandable and isolated bit of stress. Cumulatively, though, there was a real impact. It’s hard to realise that, if we had been a straight couple, Emma might have avoided a forceps delivery she didn’t want (as the surgeon might have listened to me explaining what she was saying). She might have been better looked after in labour, which I feel horribly guilty about. She and Elisabeth might have done better after birth.

I wish I’d anticipated some of these problems. I’m writing this partly so that people can share this post and, hopefully, spread a bit of awareness about the impact of seemingly trivial decisions and assumptions by people in the medical profession. I’m also writing because there are practical points I wish I’d known, for people in my situation.

  • Get used to correcting people and not laughing off the ‘oh, I had no idea you were the partner!’ comments. I was so used to not making a fuss, and not drawing attention to my sexuality, that I wasn’t primed to do it when it mattered.
  • Be aware that you may forget to over-explain when you’re stressed. When Emma was in labour, I know I sometimes answered the question ‘who are you?’ with my name, or ‘I’m Emma’s partner’ or ‘I’m here to see my partner,’ none of which were specific enough. It’s quite possible that, had I reeled off a fluent explanation ‘I’m a lesbian coming to see my lesbian partner who is a lesbian mother who had a baby,’ people might have understood more quickly.
  • Don’t trust your birth plan to do the communicating. We had, naively, put down what seemed (at the time) like an exhibitionistic amount of detail about the fact I was Emma’s partner and I was female. No one glanced at the plan, and even people who did actually know I was Emma’s partner, tended to forget in the heat of the moment (including a midwife who asked me to ‘get the dad’).

This post has been quite depressing, I am aware, and I want to end on a positive note. I had no idea, before last week, that I would be so utterly delighted with my baby. Of course, I knew she would be wonderful. But people do tell you that you’ll struggle to bond, or you’ll be less important, or you’ll really have to work to get a relationship with the baby. I don’t think this is true. Babies, even ill ones, see and smell and take in a huge amount. They will, very soon, recognise their mothers (or, I’m sure, fathers). It was much less than 12 hours before Elisabeth would settle down for me before she would reliably do so for a stranger. She will follow me and Emma around the room with her eyes, and she will go quiet when we sing or talk (she has been listening to us talking for months on the inside!). And she is lovely, and increasingly able to respond and focus (blurrily) on us, and to do all the things that babies do, which evolution dictates must make us become huge bundles of hormonal response and gushy emotion. It’s great fun.

If you can, please do share this post. I think it matters, and I hope you’ll agree that it does show why seemingly small, trivial, well-meant heteronormative decisions are actually not just funny, coincidental or harmless: they mount up.



The Invisible Labour of International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day.

I’ve been reading twitter and there’s an outpouring of (mostly) celebration and mutual recognition, and lots of posts about brilliant friends and colleagues and inspirations. Lots of celebrations of supportive women, women who have held out helping hands to others, who’ve been there, who’ve listened, who’ve encouraged, who’ve given.  And lots of poignant posts, too. @thewomensquilt is the account recording the making of a quilt to commemorate the hundreds of women killed by their partners in the UK. It’s beautiful, but very sad.

I can understand why the celebratory posts need to be there, to counterbalance the sadness and to give some sense of hope. I can see why they’re part of the same issue. Women who do support other women are the ones who raise awareness of femicide, who open and run refuges, who lend an ear to friends struggling in abusive relationships, who educate young women in what a healthy relationship looks like, who provide opportunities. It’s necessary work.

But the juxtaposition also makes me uneasy. Women are constantly taught to give, to listen, to support, to encourage – and to do so voluntarily, silently and selflessly. This rhetoric is very much part of the culture of victim-blaming of women in abusive relationships, and it is very much part of the culture of reporting on femicide (and, indeed, reporting on other forms of misogyny). Women are encouraged to do invisible labour, and we all, men and women, are encouraged to interpret it in the traditional terms that reinforce misogynistic ideal of femininity. We’re encouraged to call it kind, generous, and nurturing. Occasionally, we’ll come across men who say, thinking they’re being flattering, that this is a wonderful female thing that men just don’t get.

And that’s a problem. All of this de-professionalises women’s support networks, and implicates them in a well-established set of social expectations relating to guilt.

I’ll concentrate on the workplace, for a minute, to explain what I mean. Women have been trying to build networks of support in male-dominated industries for decades (centuries, actually), and it’s easy to look to initiatives like Athena Swan in academia and to feel there’s a real solution to the problem. But then this, like other networks, requires someone to be there. And if you only have one woman at the top, or perhaps two senior women in a faculty of a hundred, then that someone is always going to be Dr X. I have several friends who are Dr X. Dr X is on the Athena Swan committee, because it was important to have a woman lead. She’s also on the big grant proposal with Professor A, because Professor A needs a woman there. And she’s running the women’s forum for the postgraduates, because Drs B, C and D agreed it should be a woman. Chances are, she’s also writing references and reading papers and mentoring ECR Drs E, F and G while listening to colleague Dr H figure out how to get to senior lecturer level. Meanwhile, the male members of the department are enthusiastic and fair-minded and understood completely the need to have women taking the lead in gender equality work. And they have rather more time for research than Dr X, somehow.

There’s a burden of guilt here – guilt piled on by well-meaning people and guilt arising from the fact that women are taught it’s particularly their job to support other women.

The other end of the scale is my own experience. I’m a woman early career academic, and I am acutely aware of the demands on my senior colleagues’ time. I know that when I email that fantastic professor who’s asked me to show her my book proposal, I am taking her away from other things. I know that when I ask my colleague, again, if she could read this chapter draft, I am giving her one more email to deal with in a heap of requests. Of course, these requests are part of normal academic life, and everyone – men and women – expects to make them and expects to receive them. So, why do I feel guilty? It’s because women asking for help, even professional support that is entirely appropriate, are interpreted as ‘needy’. That has been the conditioning I have received all my life – like other women – and so, like other women, it presses in on me when I’m trying to do my job.There’s a burden of guilt I have, because I know I’m asking colleagues who typically do not have as much free time as their male peers, who’ve had a harder time getting where they are than their male peers. And I try very hard to do without that support and that help, because I have internalised the idea that this is what I should do.

The more women’s networks of support are written off as ‘generosity,’ the more they are represented as optional extras, nice things to make women’s lives easier, rather than necessities.

So when I see these outpourings of celebration on International Women’s Day, I’m torn. Yes, we need to celebrate and thank other women who support us, and we need to shine spotlights on each other’s work and give each other recognition. But we also need to stop characterising this work as an informal outflowing of generosity. We need to stop celebrating friends for ‘going above and beyond’ or ‘doing so much more than I could have deserved’. We need to start saying, ‘I know women who work hard for me. I recognise these women who put time and effort into building a better world for women. I see that the work is time-consuming and effortful and often invisible.

Supporting other women is great, but it’s also taking its toll on us. Professionally – in my line of work, and I’m sure in others – it is quite literally taking us out of the business. It is taking away the time and the energy and the effort that we should be entitled to put into our lives and our work, and using these as sticking-plasters on wounds we didn’t cause. We should be angry about that.

I want to put time and effort into building a better world for women. I’m not doing it out of generosity or a nurturing instinct: I’m doing it because I am still furious that Karen Ingala Smith needs to run the Counting Dead Women project. I’m furious that I need to find a female colleague who’ll understand the pressures on women, instead of knowing all my colleagues face the same opportunities. I’m furious that there needs to be an International Women’s Day. Yes, I’ll celebrate, but I won’t forget.


Pillars of Salt: Divorce and the Systematic Erasure of Women’s Voices

At the moment, I’m doing a lot of thinking about how medieval women’s emotions, thoughts and desires are often misunderstood, dismissed, or simply not recognised – because women expressed these thoughts and desires in ways that do not resemble those of men. Because they stand outside the masculine paradigm, they are effectively invisible. The situation is further complicated, because when we scholars search for examples of vivid, emotionally expressive, thoughtful, complex medieval women’s voices, we tend to fall back of characters like the voluble Wife of Bath or the anxious Criseyde – that is, characters whose voices are not in fact their own, but written by male authors.

All of this was on my mind as I read Tim Lott’s latest column in the Guardian, here. It’s a sobering piece, and in many ways, one that should make us feel sympathy. In it, Lott announces two deeply personal struggles: the first concerning his impending divorce, and the second his recent diagnosis of ADHD. I could only nod when Lott begun by saying that this was a difficult column to write. Neither divorce nor ADHD is an easy thing to contend with, and according to Lott, the ADHD itself played a significant role in the maital problems he chronicled so publicly in his column over the years – indeed, even the process of ‘oversharing’ in this column is, he acknowledges, likely a symptom of ADHD itself. Publishing the column, Lott writes, caused his wife ‘frustration I well understand, but can do little to alleviate – other than quit writing this.’

At this point, although I acknowledge the profound difficulties living with ADHD can bring to those with the condition, I couldn’t help seeing the parallels to wider debates. I couldn’t help seeing how this column replicated wider inequalities.

ADHD is one of those conditions that is under-diagnosed in girls and women. The standard reason given for this is precisely that which I encounter when looking at medieval women. Women present differently, voice things differently. They are socially coerced to keep silent. They are not given a platform. When Lott writes about his practice of discussing the tensions within his marriage using the privilege of his public platform in the Guardian, he claims that it is the ‘compulsion’ to overshare that has ‘left my wife feeling that she is without a voice’. One could applaud his honesty in acknowledging his wife’s feelings (difficult, that). But … it’s not really the ‘compulsion’ that operates to amplify one voice while silencing another. It’s the fact that Lott is writing a column for a national newspaper, and a column that gives validation to his views. We need, so the Guardian implicitly informs us, by publishing this material, to hear the views of a middle-aged man sniping at his wife. It’s important that we listen. In my mind, I run over the columns about daily life written by women for the Guardian – Michelle Hansen, Lucy Mangan – and I can’t think of any compare to this. Women are not regularly given space to air their marital grievances, and if they do, it must be a process carried out in comic, self-mocking mode, or an outburst primly labelled as shrewish, nagging, or shrill.

Women’s voices are still systematically ignored, marginalised, silenced – and yet, writes Lott, what could he do to alleviate his wife’s frustration ‘other than quit writing this’? The question is posed almost rhetorically: how can a man be expected to give up his voice, his public platform to speak?

In a week in which we read of a judge informing a woman that she was not permitted to be unhappy within her marriage, Lott’s column speaks more loudly (and with more privilege) than he knows. In the legal case in question, Judge Robin Tolson decided that the unhappiness, discontent and emotional bullying Tini Owens described was not grounds for divorce. After all, Owens’ husband felt he knew his wife’s emotions better than she did herself.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a double standard here. How will we ever learn to recognise the ways in which women express their thoughts, emotions and desires, if we constantly hear from men telling women what their emotions must be, how ‘well’ they ‘understand’ those unvoiced frustrations women must feel, how confidently they can dismiss women’s petitions?

Why do academic blogging?

Roberta Magnani just raised the question of how people use academic blogs over on twitter, and I am mainly writing this because it’s not a 140-character answer, but also because it’s a question I’ve been asked fairly regularly, so it might be useful.

I started blogging in the dead time between submitting my PhD thesis, and getting to my viva. I knew I wanted to change direction in my research, and I knew I wanted my new research to fit together more naturally with all the feminist reading and writing I’d been doing more and more of in my day-to-day life. I already knew, at this point, that I write best when I’ve been talking to people (or, realistically, writing to people) and translating my thoughts out of academic prose (or what I thought was academic prose back then) and into something everyone can read and understand. I knew a couple of people who blogged – not academic bloggers, though – and I followed their tips to start with. Some worked, and some didn’t, but here’s what I learned along the way. All of my tips are specific to the the kind of academic blogger I am (a medievalist feminist), but you could adapt to other disciplines easily.

  1. Justify your time blogging. It has to be useful or its wasted time. So, the first pieces you write (and the pieces you write when you’re stuck) should be pieces of thinking you need to do for your other work. Maybe you need to read a particular text and you’ve been putting it off? Write a review. Maybe you need to figure out why you keep coming back to a certain passage? Do a close reading. I am still incorporating bits of early blogging into work I’m submitting to publishers, because it was useful.
  2. Get your voice out. Get on twitter, get onto facebook. On twitter, follow lots of interesting people. Talk to them (nicely). Share their interesting posts. Respond to them. Share your posts. I share 3-4 times a day for the first 24hrs after posting (when I can remember). Twitter will even tell you which tweets get the biggest response, so you can figure out what times work best. For me, it’s around 8am (morning commute) and 10pm (US readers/UK night owls). Getting lots of clicks is nice, of course, but the point is that you get responses. I never get a lot of replies to blog posts – I’ve had well over 100,000 views on the blog, and a tiny handful of that number reply – but far more people will comment on a FB link or reply or twitter, or even just email me.
  3. Make connections that work both ways. People will respond to you, so respond to them. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog which a professor I’d never met read. She asked me to work it up into a conference paper proposal (that was NCS 2016). I wrote a couple of blogs for her. One of my students saw one of these blogs, and asked me about writing an essay on the topic. I read that essay, and it helped me push my work-in-progress book in a new direction. And so it goes on. I know a big circle of academics because I blog and they blog. It’s a conversation.
  4. Write regularly. I know people write blogs they pick up and drop at a whim, but I don’t think it works very well. If you’re going to be busy, take a blog break and say so! But then, come back and say if you’ve finished for good. It looks more professional, but it also organises your mind so you don’t keep thinking guiltily ‘hmm, I used to write stuff here’. Set yourself a target (mine used to be once every two weeks and is now once a month). Achieve it. Which takes me to the next point:
  5. Use the blog to break writers’ block. It isn’t an academic paper. You can just witter. And if it’s bad, it doesn’t matter. Just do it, share it, and get some responses to cheer you up. When you’re in the depths of block-jail, even a couple of nice kind people sharing a post on twitter will make you feel less inert. If you get into this habit, it will become second-nature. Get used to blogging right now, not as something you put in the calendar to do tomorrow.
  6. Vary the types of post you do. Try a long-read style one, where you really pay attention to the way you write. Try a rant. Try playing with images or quotations. See what feels most natural and what you want to do more of. A mix of short and long pieces will get different readers interested, but it’ll also help you sort out your own academic style (mine has changed a lot since I started blogging, and I am now delighted to say that I was able to work a cunnilingus pun into an academic paper with nary a blush. It’s these things that truly move the scholarship forward, don’t you feel?).
  7. Match the blog with teaching and lecturing. Test out a new idea for a lecture on the blog. Write up that lecture that didn’t quite work as a blog post. Answer those questions that were fascinating but too big to answer in five minutes at the end. Ask other people what they do – you can do a lot of reflecting on pedagogy in a blog, but:
  8. Be kind and be professional. You cannot whinge about students on your blog. Or really anywhere else they might read it. It’s unprofessional and rude and unnecessary. And it makes you look like a really, really bad teacher. Instead:
  9. Use your blog to defend your students. Students get a lot of bad press. That doesn’t mean you have to be uncritical, but you can be dispassionate and considered about it. Use your blog to defend colleagues (especially ones you don’t know whom you’ve seen get an unjustified kicking). Use it to defend other writers outside academia. Even if those people never read what you write (they probably won’t), it’ll help you articulate to yourself where you stand. It will make you a more politicised teacher and writer.
  10. Change your mind in print. Blogging’s great for that. Get used to changing your mind, linking to the old piece where you said one thing, and tearing it down. Because it’s going to happen in other, more scholarly forms of print media, so it might as well happen here first.

I really value my blog. It provided me with the raw drafts of about 40-60 lectures I didn’t have time to write (thank god for using that dead time pre-viva!), and almost every chapter of my new book has ancestors in blog posts. Every conference paper I’ve given since submitting my PhD has had its origins on here. And yes, I put my blog on my academic CV, too.


Number 11 on the list is: know when to stop. If you can’t write a blog post in 20 minutes, 30 tops, stop. You might very well come back to it, especially if it’s a long read type of post, but don’t spend ages blogging. This is something I have got much, much better at – my early posts took hours – and I am still bad at it when I’m writing for someone else.

A quickie on academic work/life balance and the pressure to apply, apply, apply …

The other day, I read Rachel Moss’s post on the subject of academic work/life balance. She titles it ‘Choosing Not To Give,’ and it was timely for me, as she speaks about balancing the demands of having a baby with the demands of having an academic career, something I’m going to have to learn about in short order.

I’ve read a lot of Rachel’s posts on this broad theme of career expectations, and I remember finding her post about applying for jobs (which I came across when I really needed to read something reassuring!) really helpful. There, she pointed out that the common advice to early career academics, to stop being snobby about jobs and to look beyond Oxbridge, is based in a misconception about where the jobs are – and she noted, too, that when she got her own Oxbridge job, it wasn’t the most attractive option she was offered, it was the only option. It’s an awesome job, so her point is well made.

The two posts together got me thinking about the choices we make as early career academics. At the moment, career choices are on my mind, as I’ve just finished a 26 month postdoc as a Teaching Associate at Cambridge, and I’m currently freelance teaching on the same courses for a couple of Cambridge colleges. The transition from ’employed’ to the dreaded status of ‘Independent Scholar’ has been pretty gentle for me as a result of this freelancing. It’s let me stay in the same place, use the same libraries, teach the same courses (ish), and enjoy networking with the same lovely colleagues. I didn’t even have to ceremonially return all of my library books, though I have said goodbye to my office key. My situation is paradoxically both more and less scary because we’re also expecting our first baby in March. More scary, because – argh, a baby, what if I never write again and she screams all day and my brain dribbles out of my ears and I never get a job and we end up living in the gutter and busking with a repertoire of the more tuneful bits of Lydgate?

Less scary, because realistically, it gives me something to concentrate upon and a very good motivation for working hard. It’s made me prioritise. Yes, I could apply for exciting temporary jobs in the US, or starry visiting fellowships in European libraries. But it’s not really a good idea for me, in terms of that work/life balance. And, in the time I could have spent putting together applications for highly competitive, short-term posts, I have written two solid chapters of my book, which is now in much better shape than it was last October (aka, the end of the first trimester). I’m fairly confident that not applying for things was actually the right decision for me – so why do I feel a constant need to justify what I’m doing?

In academia at the moment, I think there is a pressure to be seen to be applying for every job, every grant, every opportunity – however time-consuming it might be, however unlikely it might be that you get it, and however much you might anticipate (deep down) a sinking cold feeling of dread at the prospect of actually having to do (relocate for, retrain for) said job if you got it. You can’t get the jobs you don’t apply for! people remind us. There’s an almost superstitious element to it: if you miss applying for one job, if you forget to salute one magpie, you might bring down the wrath of the Hiring Gods for next time.

At the moment, I’m trying to spend my time more carefully, applying for a smaller number of things. I worry that this can be seen, not just as the lazy option, but as the arrogant option. Some academics (ECR and senior) give the impression that you’re not doing every single thing you can (including, frankly, unrealistic things that waste other people’s time as well as your own), then you must be complacently assuming a permanent job will fall into your lap. So, we write defensively (as I do) about changing priorities, about the demands of our families, about the importance of self-care and health. All of these things matter, of course. But I think it also matters to acknowledge that sometimes, we apply for things because of this pressure to be seen to be applying, and that’s bad in itself, no matter what external work/life considerations we might be keeping in mind.

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.


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.



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.