Along with colleagues on the AHRC-funded project ‘Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe’ (1), I have spent the last year or so working towards a new exhibition at the wonderful Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire. The exhibition, titled ‘Virtue and Vice’, opened in mid-April 2013, and has been well received by visitors — especially those lucky enough to visit on Saturday 13th April to experience a surprise quartet singing in the High Great Chamber!
The exhibition has a number of key aims. We want to remind people of how profoundly the religious and political changes of the 1500s shaped the lives of women and men in England, and to shed new light on the multiple points of contact – both intellectual and material – between England, Europe, and the rest of the world. Finally, in a strand drawing heavily on my own research, and which speaks most directly to members of the Women’s History Network, we want to challenge people’s assumptions about women’s lives in early modern England and beyond.
Hardwick Hall is a wonderful venue at which to contest the orthodoxy that women in the early modern period were ‘chaste, silent, and obedient’, to quote a now well-worn critical formula. Hardwick Hall was built by the redoubtable Elizabeth Shrewsbury, better known as Bess of Hardwick, who proclaimed her ownership and achievement by topping each of its four towers with her initials, those then mounted with a countess’s coronet.
Bess’s history is a fascinating one, and more light is being shed on it by the Bess of Hardwick letters project run by Alison Wiggins at the University of Glasgow. (2)
Bess of Hardwick ©NT/Angelo Hornak
This portrait, painted by an anonymous artist in the 1550s, shows Bess at around the age of 30. The exhibition highlights the French and Spanish influences in Bess’s elaborate clothing. ©NT/Angelo Hornak.
Bess’s very exceptionality, however, presents an unexpected challenge. Visitors to Hardwick are entranced by Bess’s story, but often encouraged to believe that she was unusual – perhaps even unique – in a period in which most women could not own property, assert their own rights, or enter into political and cultural life. By interweaving Bess’s story with crucial details from the lives and activities of other early modern women, our exhibition suggests that Bess was exceptional more in the scale of her success than in her status as a determined and astute operator within shifting social and cultural constraints.
Two gripping stories are those of Mary, Queen of Scots, held prisoner by Elizabeth I (Bess’s friend and patron), kept under the stewardship of Bess’s fourth husband, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and moved frequently between his many properties, and Arbella Stuart, Bess’s granddaughter, in line for the throne, and caught amidst conspiracies and plots to establish her as a Catholic queen. Yet we also wish to highlight moments from the lives of less visible, but equally resourceful, women: Jacqueline Vautrollier, for example, wife of the Huguenot refugee printer, Thomas Vautrollier, who ran the printing business when her husband was away from London, and again after his death. We consider too the domestic and professional clothworkers who made the materials which went into the magnificent hangings and tapestries brought together at Hardwick.
Catechism ©NT/Robert Thrift
This little book, printed by Thomas Vautrollier, was found behind the dining room panelling at Hardwick Hall in 2003. It is a French catechism: a vivid reminder of women’s crucial role in religious education within the home.
The exhibition highlights the way in which early modern women appropriated popular religious orthodoxies and stories in order to reflect upon and articulate their own experiences. By tracing the ways in which women, including Bess, stitched versions of these stories, we also want to argue for the importance of the decorative arts – too often dismissed as constrained, ‘feminine’ practices, within our broader cultural heritage. At the same time, however, I have tried to incorporate some of my current research, which emphasises the extent of women’s influence on household religion (extending out across the estate at grand houses like Hardwick) and the extent to which contemporary commentators recognised and celebrated women’s ability to affect religious (and hence political) change. Finally, the exhibition reflects upon women’s reading in early modern England. We know little about Bess’s reading – famously her 1601 inventories list only six books – but by drawing together the varied evidence of how women read, as well as where and what, we are able to suggest the importance of literate practice to a growing number of women during the English Renaissance.
Helen Smith (c) April 2013
Helen Smith is Reader in Renaissance Literature at the University of York. She is author of ‘Grossly Material Things’: Women and Book Production in Early Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 2012), and co-director of the AHRC-funded project, ‘Conversion Narratives in Early Modern Europe’. She is currently working on a book-length project investigating ‘The matter of early modernity’.
1. www.york.ac.uk/conversion (accessed 14 April 2013).
2. http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/critical/research/fundedresearchprojects/bessofhardwick/ (accessed 14 April 2013).
Find out more about the exhibition http://europeanconversionnarratives.wordpress.com/tag/hardwick-hall/ Download 'Virtue and Vice' app for android phones https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.rustymonkey.virtueandvice (version for iphones soon available)
Women and politics was high on the agenda at UN CSW 57, with attention being paid to politics in its broad and narrower sense. ‘Gender Sensitive Parliaments’ , discussing and debating the way to chage the culture of parliaments to ensure their responsiveness ‘to the needs and interests of both men and women in their structures, operations, methods and work’ was one topic holding enthralled all attending that side event. Another CSW 57 side event, also run by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), covered the way in which parliaments around the world have taken steps to ensure representation, or greater representation, of women as members, as cabinet members, as speaker, as whips, and in other posts of parliamentary authority.
Aotearoa/New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, acceding in 1893 to women’s demands for the introduction of real democracy, where ‘democracy’ had, in the past, referred to government by men alone. South Australia was the first state-entity in the world to grant women not only the vote, but the right to stand for Parliament. In 1894 the South Australian Parliament had before it a Bill to extend the vote to women and one member, seeking to disrupt the process and impede passage of the Bill, introduced an amendment whereby the vote would be complemented by the right to stand. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the democratic cause, the Bill passed – with both rights included.
In 1902 Australia became the first country in the world to extend the vote to women, along with the right to stand for Parliament. In 1903, three women stood in the Australian election. Although none succeeded, Vida Goldstein – the first woman to register to stand for the Senate, gained a goodly swathe of votes. She stood three more times over the years, up to 1920, despite not gaining a seat.
Just as men do not accept that the right to vote is sufficient – Parliamentary representation must be possible for all men, or at least all men are entitled to seek parliamentary places – neither do women accept that the vote is enough. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to vote for women or men as members of Parliament. Democracy means that women and men must have the right to stand for Parliament.
In the 1970s, the Australian Women’s Movement raised the slogan: ‘A Woman’s Place is in the House – and in the Senate’. This encapsulated the demand for democratic representation: women should be able to take their place in the lower house, the House of Representatives, and in the upper house, the Senate. The demand extended, too, to the state and territory legislatures when they came into being in the Northern Territory and the ACT (Australian Capital Territory – Canberra).
Although women were elected to state Parliaments, beginning with Edith Cowan in Western Australia in 1921, the numbers were few. Women were elected to the federal Parliament for the first time in 1942 – Dorothy Tangney going into the Senate, and Enid Lyons into the House of Representatives. In the 1970s for the first time three women sat in the House of Representatives – Joan Child from Victoria, Ros Kelly from the ACT, and Jeanette McHugh from New South Wales, being elected in 1983. Although Joan Child had been elected earlier and other women had sat in the federal Parliament from other states at other times, Jeanette McHugh was the first NSW woman ever to be elected to that Parliament.
Why so few, and why has it taken so long for women to be elected? Australia has for the first time a woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, yet this came about not by chance but through the Australian Labor Party’s adoption on affirmative action in the parliamentary sphere. In the late 1980s, the ACT led the way, adopting a 50% standard in local legisature elections. There, the voting system enabled this to be introduced relatively simply: with two seats, Canberra and Fraser, and a ‘list’ system, the proposal was that lists should be constructed on a ‘woman, man, woman, man’ basis down the list. Women gained first place on the ballot because that is the way the party voted, so that there was no need to promote women artificially over men on the lists. Yet the principle was established.
It was more difficult in the states and NT, and federally, for Tasmania (with the Hare Clark system) alone operates under a system similar to that in the ACT. All other jurisdictions operate on the basis of ‘one seat, one member’. In the 1980s, however, ALP women organised to ensure passage through the ALP National Conference of a resolution committing to a quota of 30% women preselected for all state and federal elections. Joan Kirner, first woman Premier of Victoria, was a leading figure in this struggle. She and others established Emily’s List (Early Money is Like Yeast – it helps women rise) to provide funds for women candidates who adhere to feminist principles, in particular the right to abortion.
The UN CSW 57 side event looking at getting women into parliament covered a number of ways in which parliaments and legislatures have sought to effect this change. The British Labour Party runs ‘women’s lists’ – where women only are entitled to stand for selection – and not only in unwinnable seats. Women’s lists must be run in winnable and safe seats, too. Burkina Faso adopted a policy of granting public fund bonuses to political parties succeeding in having women elected under their banner. Other countries have set aside a certain number of parliamentary seats for women, some have introduced quotas – which must be met by having women stand and win seats representing general constituencies, some have simply called ‘quotas’ ‘targets’ – on the basis that ‘targets’ are more palatable than ‘quotas’ which is taken to imply the use of coercion or at least a firm hand. ‘Targets’ as seen as ‘softer’, something to be aimed for rather than (necessarily) achieved.
It may be significant that it is generally ‘newer’ democracies that have taken the most significant steps to ensure women’s parliamentary membership. Whether they have set down rules in constitutions or statutes, or simply articulated policies, many African countries, in particular, are leading the way to ensure that parliaments are not populated by men alone. In this, they are following rapidly in the steps of Scandinavian countries, with Rwanda having topped the list in having more women than men in the parliament and cabinet. Beginning with a quota requiring no fewer than 30% of women in parliamentary seats, at the first election under that regime, women held 44 of the 80 seats.
In the 1980s, Senator Susan Ryan of the Australian Parliament commissioned research into voters’ views of women and men parliamentarians. The outcome was salutary. A majority said they preferred female to male politicians, as they believed the former to be ‘more trustworthy’ and ‘honest’. Voters were more prepared to put their and their country’s future into the hands of women. Clearly, political parties which do not recognise the importance of promoting women into parliament and thence into positions of authority and power at all parliamentary levels, are missing a sigificant feature of politics today.
Promoting women into safe and winnable seats will bring to the parties so doing, the opportunity of taking power and governing the country. On the basis of Senator Ryan’s research, they will also be ensuring that the country’s governance will be all the more positive, productive and progressive.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) March 2013
Jocelynne Scutt’s book, Taking a Stand – Women in Politics and Society, was published in 1996 as one of the ten volumes, so far, in the ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Lives’ series. In the volume, women speak of their involvement in politics, whether standing for parliament, campaigning for women’s rights, engaged in the struggle to end violence against women, or as members and officials active in the trade union movement.
The Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York at the United Nations every year, has concluded. CSW 57 ended with agreed conclusions, despite fears that – as with CSW 56 – no agreed conclusions would be reached. That there were agreed conclusions is due to the hard work of nation states delegations in combination with women’s organisations (NGOs) which worked tirelessly, particularly regional caucuses, lobbying governments and their delegations to bring about this outcome. Below appears the draft agreed conclusions published by UN Women, for historical and herstorical reference.
UN COMMISSION ON THE STATUS OF WOMEN 57
DRAFT AGREED CONCLUSIONS – UN WOMEN
March 15, 2013 – At the conclusion of the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women welcomes the outcome of the meeting. The Agreed Conclusions are a testimony to the commitment of Member States to do the right thing, to prevent and eliminate violence against women and girls. In the last two weeks during the meeting in New York, and in the lead-up to this session, we witnessed global engagement and mobilization, high-profile advocacy by civil society, and determined leadership by many Member States. Expectations of the world’s women and girls were extremely high for this session of the Commission.
Violence against women is a universal problem that requires, and has now received, a universal response. Violence occurs in multiple forms in all countries and settings; it harms women and their families and communities, impedes development, and costs countries billions of dollars annually in healthcare costs and lost productivity. In 2003, when the Commission took up violence against women and human rights, Member States were unable to reach agreement. Thus I am particularly heartened that agreement was reached this year to end violence against women and girls. This agreement comes in unison with rising voices worldwide saying enough is enough.
The document adopted by the Commission condemns in the strongest terms the pervasive violence against women and girls, and calls for increased attention and accelerated action for prevention and response. UN Women welcomes the important focus on prevention, including through education and awareness-raising, and addressing gender inequalities in the political, economic and social spheres. The best way to end violence against women is to stop it from happening in the first place.
The document highlights the importance of putting in place multi-sectoral services for survivors of violence, including for health, psychological support and counseling, social support in the short and long term. It draws attention to the need for services to protect the right to sexual and reproductive health. Punishment of perpetrators is also highlighted as a critical measure to end impunity, as is the need to improve the evidence base and availability of data to inform an effective response.
By adopting this document, governments have made clear that discrimination and violence against women and girls has no place in the 21st century. They have reaffirmed their commitment and responsibility to undertake concrete action to end violence against women and girls and promote and protect women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The agreement is one step more for realizing the rights and dignity of women and girls. But we cannot stop here. We need to do so much more. Words now need to be matched with deeds, with action. Now is the time for implementation and accountability. We must continue moving forward with courage, conviction and commitment.
UN Women, together with our partners in the UN system, will continue to advance the rights of women and girls through strong and coordinated support. We will work with Member States to turn the Agreed Conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women into concrete results for women and girls.
We will move forward and build on the basis of the international agreements on women’s rights reached over many years, as articulated in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, and other agreements and treaties.
There is no turning back. We will keep moving forward to the day when women and girls can live free of fear, violence and discrimination. The 21st century is the century of inclusion and women?s full and equal rights and participation.
My intention was to write an article on the contribution of West African Nurses on a particular anniversary of the International Council of Nurses.
However, wherever I went seeking primary source material on West African Nurses, I found the same names of members of the same family: Elizabeth, Hannah, Emma, Adelaide and Annette (Nettie) Smith. These five mixed race Victorian Sisters, born in Freetown and living and dying between 1860 and 1960, were the articulate, cultured and genteel daughters of the half English and half Fante civil servant William Smith Jnr. Their mother was heiress Anne Spilsbury Smith who hailed from a wealthy Freetown family.
On their mother’s side the Smith sisters descended from a famous Mandingo/Bambara re-captive woman, the feisty, flamboyant, wealthy, illiterate merchant Betsy Carew, rescued from a westbound slave ship and set free in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Her husband, Thomas Carew, the Smith’s great grandfather, was a Maroon whose ancestors had been exiled to Nova Scotia from Jamaica and then shipped to Sierra Leone. The marriage caused much controversy in an emerging bourgeoisie settler community made up of African-American Nova Scotians (who fought on the British side during the American War of Independence) and Maroon Nova Scotians who did not take kindly to illiterate re-captives (liberated slaves) marrying into their community. However, four generations along the female line from Betsy Carew to Hannah Carew Spilsbury to Anne Spilsbury Smith and the five Smith sisters. There is a shift from traditional African mercantilism and apparel to European schooling, knowledge and prowess and a firm foot in established elite Creole society. While Betsy Carew was not readily accepted into settler society, three generations of women later her great granddaughters were being entertained by European nobility.
Annette (Nettie) Smith
In a book on her life Adelaide Smith describes her childhood in London and on the Isle of Jersey, brought up by nannies and their widower father, educated at home by governesses before being sent to some of the pioneering ladies colleges of the day, at a time when most black women in the Western hemisphere were workingclass or servants.
As a British born historian of West African descent having been tutored on the English Literature classics in West Africa and the UK and absorbed with relish (no political correctness here), I had to pinch myself when I read the accounts of how, when the Smith Sister’s mother died and they lost the trust fund set up for her, they had to cut back financially and wear each other’s hand me downs. I had to confirm I was not reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, albeit none of the Smith Sisters was forced into domestic service like Josephine March. At any given time the Smith family had at least two domestic servants. Furthermore their anxious father, retired civil servant and lay Methodist preacher, was anxious they marry well, knowing there was no great inheritance to sustain them. Yet again I had to make the comparison with Pride and Prejudice. Marry well they did as four of them wed leading professional men from the West Coast of Africa.
Emma Smith, the middle sister, was to become the strict maiden aunt of the family, helping raise her numerous nephews and nieces. My research, however, reveals all the sisters deserve an account of their own lives and the role they played in Adelaide’s life needs to be highlighted.
The Smith sisters, brought up with a high sense of civic and religious duty by their father, at post secondary education had a choice of attending finishing schools, art school and music conservatoires and a tour of Europe where they improved on their languages, especially French and German.
When the Smith sisters returned to their city of birth, Freetown, they caused a sensation with their musical talents and charm, and founded two schools. But that era also witnessed them and others forming a stronger African cultural identity amidst growing racial discrimination in West Africa. The beginning of the century also witnessed some Smith sisters identify themselves with organisations in West Africa and Britain that would preserve the identity and dignity of the black race.
Amongst their friends were Queen Victoria’s African Goddaughter Victoria Davies and her family friend Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Together with the Smith Sisters they were frequent visitors to theatres and concerts in Edwardian London, where the Smith sisters returned. The music for some of those concerts was composed by Samuel Coleridge Taylor himself.
I have been approached by members of my own community who have said they want our own period drama on the Smith sisters and, yes, one of them did live in a stately home as she was taken under the wings of a German aristocrat’s wife.
I have lectured On The Smith Sisters Of Sierra Leone During Black History months of 2004 and 2005. This is the 150th Anniversary of the freeing of Slaves in the United States of America and now is the time for people to know the story of these remarkable sisters.
Adenike Ogunkoya (c) March 2013
Adenike Ogunkoya read Modern European and African History at Birkbeck College and the School of Oriental and African Studies University of London (SOAS). This was followed by a course in British Women’s History at London Metropolitan University. Having to halt her research due to illness and now responding well to treatment, in the future she would like the opportunity to re-submit her dissertation on the same subject. After a break from administration and research in public service she anticipates a role in an archive or library.
ARCHIVES USED INCLUDE
London Metropolitan Archives, Black Cultural Archives, The National Archives, Kew, British Newspaper Library Colindale, British Library St Pancras, Kensington, Lambeth, Lewisham, Local Studies Libraries and liaising with research centres around the UK and in the USA.
A Hundred Years of Freedom:The Smith Sisters of Sierra Leone 1860-1960
By Adenike Ogunkoya
A Hundred Years of Freedom: The Smith Sisters of Sierra Leone: 1860-1960 is a book about the five mixed race, middle class Smith sisters of Sierra Leone. British women’s studies lack an African perspective and this book, detailing the lives of the five Smith sisters 1860-1960, will appeal widely as they had strong associations with the USA, Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Ghana, Sierra Leone (where they were born), Nigeria as well as Britain (where they were educated and settled). The book is unique because for the first time it gives an account of the lives of black middle class ladies in Victorian Britain and also the central role played by women amongst the black literati in Edwardian Britain. Several autobiographies and biographies of people like that of the half-Egyptian and half Sudanese writer, playwright, actor and journalist Duse Mohamed Ali, a friend of Samuel Coleridge Taylor and a member of the black literati in Edwardian London and a great friend of the Smith sisters, have excluded the Smith sisters. The Smith sisters were also friends with the musician Samuel Coleridge Taylor having been introduced to him by Queen Victoria’s African Goddaughter, Victoria Davies; again very little is mentioned in the books on Samuel Coleridge Taylor who was a great friend of the Smith sisters and Godfather to one of their daughters, whilst composing music with another daughter of one of the Smith sisters. The Smith sisters other friends were Dr John Alcindor mentioned in Jeffrey Green’s book on Black Edwardians, and John Eldred Taylor a Co—Founder of the African Times & Oriental Review. Duse Mohamed Ali later edited the African Times & Oriental Review and Gold Coast nationalist JE Casely Hayford financed it – but not before asking for Adelaide’s Smith’s hand in marriage. Despite the Smith sisters’ providing lots of information to the African Times and Oriental Review, they were never mentioned in it. The title of the book is an emphasis on their slave and re-captive (liberated slave) ancestors and their own privileged status as well as how easily they moved from one continent to another at a time when most black women in the western hemisphere were working class. The title also emphasises the year the first Smith sister was born and the year the longest living Smith sister died. This book more than any other will highlight the growing number of women from West Africa and the West Indies who were part of the history of black Edwardians in Britain, which includes some now well known, including Victoria Davies.
On this day in 1939, just a few months after the Nazi invasion of Poland that had marked the start of WWII, a determined Polish Countess and former beauty queen marched in to British secret service headquarters and demanded to be sent on an active mission. ‘She is a flaming Polish patriot, an expert skier and great adventuress…’ the startled British officer reported, ‘I really believe we have a PRIZE’.
Countess Krystyna Skarbek is now better known in Britain by her adopted name of Christine Granville of which, she later wrote, she was ‘rather proud’. When she volunteered for service she was already on her second husband and third name, Krystyna Gizycka, and she was known on paper simply as ‘Madame G’. By the end of the war she had gone through many more identities, from her first alias, Mme Marchand, under which she was sent into Hungary in December 1939, to the ‘admitted libelous’ code-name the British gave her in Cairo, ‘Willing’, which spoke loudly both about Christine’s mode of gaining information, and the male British sense of humour of the time.
Christine was the first woman to work for the British as a special agent during the war. Despite having a life expectancy of just a few months while on operations, she was also Britain’s longest serving female agent, active in three different theatres of the war. For her outstanding courage and huge contribution to the Allied war effort, she was honoured with the OBE, the George Medal and the French Croix de Guerre as well as an array of service ribbons that would have made any General proud. And yet, as a woman, Christine was ineligible for British military honours, and had to accept their civil equivalent – something that enraged her and many of her female colleagues, one of whom wrote in disgust that there was ‘nothing remotely civil’ about what they had done.
Although Christine trained and served alongside men throughout the conflict, her gender always informed her experience of the war. She was in southern Africa when Poland was invaded, and by the time her ship reached Europe her home-country was occupied. Unable to sign up to fight alongside her compatriots, Christine determined to get Britain to support her plan to ski across the hazardous Carpathian mountains taking money and propaganda to the Polish resistance, and information – on microfilm hidden inside her gloves – back out. At this point the secret services were only recruiting through the Old Boys network, but Christine had contacts within this group and quickly used them to good effect. No other women would be taken on for another two years. Christine’s combination of independent-mindedness, determination and charm had given her the contacts she needed in Britain, Hungary and Poland, but it was her gender that ensured she would be less conspicuous travelling around an occupied country than any able-bodied man, and secured her the job. Christine was exceptional.
Christine crossed into occupied Poland four times over the next year, bringing back information that at times had the potential to change the course of the war, and helping to ‘exfiltrate’ thousands of Polish and other Allied officers to continue the fight overseas. When occasion demanded she was quick to exploit her femininity to good effect, once charming a Wehrmacht officer into carrying her package of ‘black-market tea’, in fact incriminatory documents, through a security check. She also happily made love to the cream of the Polish and British secret services in every country she crossed, many of whom later described the ‘mesmeric power’ she held over men.
But Christine also fully employed her contacts, language skills, creative brilliance and sheer blunt courage both to undertake her missions, and to save not only her own life, but also the lives of several fellow officers and agents. Once under interrogation in Hungary she feigned tuberculosis by biting her tongue so hard that it looked as though she was coughing up blood, until she and a compatriot were thrown out. On another occasion, in occupied France, she walked into Gestapo headquarters and demanded the release of three colleague just hours before they were due to be shot. Using a combination of bribery, and bravado about the ‘imminent’ approach of Allied forces, she saved the lives of the men and went on with them to help coordinate the resistance in advance of the Allied liberation of the south of France.
Yet at the end of the war, in May 1945, Christine was dismissed with just £100. A British memo stated simply, ‘she is no longer wanted’. As an aristocrat and former British agent, Christine knew she could not return to post-war Communist Poland. But as a Pole, and a woman, it was soon clear that she was not hugely welcome in Britain either. The qualities that had made her so valuable as an agent during the war were no longer appreciated in women during the peace. Without secretarial skills she was difficult to place, memos moaned, and she was soon being referred to as ‘this girl’, while her applications for continued work were dismissed as ‘a headache’. The country that had employed Christine to risk her life in three different theatres of war, now only begrudgingly gave her citizenship and completely failed to provide work worthy of her service and abilities.
In 1952, after seven years of menial jobs in London and as a stewardess on various passenger ships, Christine was stabbed to death by a rejected lover. It was a pathetic end for such an extraordinary woman. Although very few special agents have been murdered for love, at least outside of novels, Christine should not be remembered as a tragically romantic figure. Today women in the Resistance are all too often seen in such terms. Perhaps the best known female special agent is Sebastian Faulks’ heroine, Charlotte Grey, and she is not only fictional but achieves very little. Even the most famous true stories, of Violette Szabo and Odette Samson, celebrate outstanding courage and sacrifice rather than significant achievement. If my new biography of Christine contributes anything, I hope it will highlight the role, use and abuse of Poland during the war, and rebalance the view on the effectiveness of British female agents.
Clare Mulley (c) October 2012
Clare Mulley is author of The Spy Who Loved, the secrets and loves of Christine Granville, Britain’s first female special agent of WWII, published 2012. Her website is www.claremulley.com
The Woman Reader (2012) by Belinda Jack is a wide ranging account of women’s historical writing. In her review of the work, Bee Wilson focusses on the pertinent question it raises: ‘Why for millenniums did men try to control what women read?’ Other important questions are: what did women write to evade that control? What subversive methods did they use in their fiction to give it the appearance of suitability? What did women do to ensure that they and their feminist works were published? One response was producing overtly ‘suitable’ and covertly feminist fiction. If the men to whom Jack refers had known how women’s literature would progress they would have been even more concerned. In particular, historical fiction has developed in way that threatens traditional ways of looking at women’s role.
Philippa Gregory refers to herself as a feminist writer, and her historical and contemporary work give abundant clues to her feminism. Her recently published selection of three historical essays, non-fiction accounts of the women in her fictional accounts of the ‘wars of the cousins’ reveals her method, which is focussed on writing women back into history. Zoe Fairbairns is a feminist writer who, while not having made a name as an historical writer has written a feminist historical saga. Stand We at Last (1983) is a feminist approach to British women’s history from the 1850s to the 1970s. Benefits (1979), newly published as an ebook, presents a chilling account of women’s position in the political world of the 1970s, which still resonates with the 2000s. Katharine McMahon’s historical novels are rich feminist perspectives on women and medical practice in World War 1 in The Rose of San Sebastopol (2007) and past legal practice in The Crimson Rooms (2009).
Of the three, Gregory and McMahon are the identifiable writers of feminist historical novels. Gregory is also the most well-known, mostly through her historical work but also through contemporary novels such as The Little House (1998). Fairbairns’ work is predominantly contemporary. However, Stand We at Last provides a compelling and accessible introduction to the body of her feminist work. Each writer has used historical fiction in a way that undermines the control of women’s reading. They have produced work that, while ostensibly is safe because it is ‘women’s fiction’, questions women’s place in history. Historical novels have had a mixed reception, not all of it respectful. Again, such a reputation has added to the advantages a feminist writer can enjoy in her writing history. Each writer has written her history inspired by women’s role, actions, feelings and aspirations.
Gregory has rejected the traditional way of writing about historical events which either centres on men deemed to have made history or, if they focus on women, have seen them largely in a romantic role. Gregory writes about women as the makers of a history which exists in parallel with the history of men; links women on equal terms with men’s traditionally superior role; or highlights the disadvantages affecting women who, despite these, operate capably with intelligence and fortitude. The women are also often portrayed as manipulative, cruel, antagonistic to other women and veritable ‘lionesses’ on behalf of the men in their family – son, brother, husband or father. They also neglect, or are actively antagonistic, to daughters, sisters or mothers.
The lack of ‘sisterhood’ amongst the female protagonists raises the question: how feminist are Gregory’s historical novels? Firstly, Gregory places women at the centre of her work. In non-romantic work, this is an important feature of feminist fiction. Secondly, women are acting in as wide a community as the men with whom they are associated. The only activity in which they are not physically present is in battle. Admittedly this is a major portion of the lives of men: it was the work of kings, would-be kings and their supporters. However, while uninvolved directly in the wars to win land and crown women are also depicted in physical and life threatening battle. One of the most dangerous is their fight to bear a son. Gender controlled the means by which women and men fought for the crown or land. Gregory makes it abundantly clear that women’s dangerous role was to provide a male heir for either purpose. Women and men united in seeking advancement for their family. As individuals, women were pitted against each other, often as pawns of the male members of their family.
Gregory is writing historical fiction that is soundly researched and realistically charts the tempo of the times. However, by placing women at the centre of her work she provides a feminist account of that history. Most importantly, Gregory graphically illustrates the discrimination against women that is the foundation to the history she writes.
Fairbairns’ Stand We At Last has been described as ‘a family saga’ and an early paperback edition cover features a bonneted woman in 1800s dress, clearly defining the novel as historical fiction. However, the novel is a strong feminist account of women’s lives. The issues that are familiar in novels about women, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and death are seen through a feminist prism. Like Gregory, the discrimination that features in women’s ‘normal’ is shown in its sometimes brutal reality. Explicit feminist issues are also raised in Stand We At Last. Women’s suffrage; their right to land ownership; implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which becomes a personal as well as public issue for some of the protagonists; middle class women’s move into paid work; women as colonists; sexual freedom and sexism in a university environment; abortion; and the 1970s women’s movement.
Women in this contemporary novel also deal with the consequences of war. A young wife dies as the result of syphilis her husband catches in the army. Another is an oysterseller at the army barracks in the 1860s. She bears a child to a man whose comfortable lifestyle dismisses marrying her. Although the consequences are not as severe, the First World War creates the environment in which a young woman loses her virginity to a man who is joining up. In the Second World War women are depicted working on the land; caring for injured male family members; and dying on the home front.
McMahon focuses on professions such as the law and medicine and depicts the irrationality of the discrimination women suffered, concentrating on the early years of each profession. In her blog she notes that her type of historical fiction is sometimes criticised because it does not ‘take real people… put[s] words into their mouths, and [try] to work out how the past would have been for them’. She says ‘My type of historical fiction takes real events…and tells a fictional story about fictional characters, but with an authentic (whatever that means) historical setting’. Significantly, in the context of writing about the way in which feminist writers use historical environments to project feminist arguments in an acceptable way, she goes on to argue: ‘But do not dismiss. One type of historical fiction is neither more nor less valuable and fun than the other.’
McMahon’s comment makes a salient point about the three types of historical novel covered here. They are ‘fun’ to read. At the same time the feminist authors are writing about topics which are clearly not ‘fun’: discrimination against women in their private and professional lives in the past. That the past resonates with the sexism women encounter in contemporary society makes the historical novel an excellent vehicle for making feminist arguments in a form in which thoroughly undermines the men who wanted to control women’s reading.
Robin Joyce (c) November 2012
Robin Joyce’s PhD thesis is entitled ‘The Troublesome Woman: A Study Barbara Pym’s Novel and Short Stories’. She began her academic life as an historian, covering the period in Australia’s history when women fought for the vote. In particular, Robin identified women’s early activism in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and trade unions, concentrating on women such as Cecilia Shelley and Jean Beadle – ‘the Grand Old Woman of Labor.’
 Bee Wilson, Review of The Woman Reader, “Culture” The Sunday Times, July 1 2012, p.36.
 Philippa Gregory, Interview, BBC Radio 4, September 2012.
 Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones The Women of the Cousins’ War (2011) Simon and Schuster: London.
Women, state, nation – is ‘women’ the odd word out? Or do women adhere to notions of nation-state so as to conform to expectations of nationhood, patriotism and the divisions that can be so much a part of states and statehood? These were questions underlying presentations at the Women’s History Network annual conference, held at Cardiff University from 7-9 September 2012.
Are women equally committed as their male counterparts to nation-state ideology and construct? Do women play an equal part in the construction and configuration of states and nations? Do nations and states themselves construct or significantly inform women’s identity as women – whether women conform to notions of ‘race’ and ‘ethnic identity’ or reject them in the search for solidarity amongst women, as part of a Women’s Movement?
Under the title ‘Women, State and Nation: Creating Gendered Identities’ , academics, graduate students and independent scholars grappled with issues ranging from ‘Indigenous Feminism in Eighteenth-and-Nineteenth-Century China’, presented by Yang Binbin of the University of Hong Kong; Rachael Attwood’s ‘Unwelcome departures? The National Vigilance Association, the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, and the British Fight Against Sex Trafficking c. 1899-1910′ (University College, London); ’The Girl’s Own and the Great War …’ with Alison Enever of the University of South Hampton; Queen Mary, University of London’s Pamela Schievenin on ‘Reconciling home and work: Women politicians and the reform of Italy’s welfare state (1962-1971)’; and from the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin, ‘The unscottishness of female rule …’ by Dr Arnel Dubois-Nayt.
Papers were presented variously under themes, with parallel sessions providing, as always, dilemmas for conference participants – whether to commit to ‘Gender and the Nation – Crises and Responses’, to ‘Feminism, Female Agency and Activism’, or to ’Imagining the Nation: Art, Fiction, Drama and Music’, or to range between them, endeavouring thereby to gain an insight into each. Fortunately, whichever path chosen by individual participants, three keynote addresses provided insights into each of the themes.
Dr Padma Anagol of Cardiff University analysed ‘Women’s role and participation in the birth of the Hindu Right in colonial India’, where women’s rights, responsibilities, activities and everyday lives were directed in accordance with the proposition that women’s every action and engagement should be dictated ‘In the interests of the nation’. Next, under the title ‘National suffrage spectacle and transnational transfer: a comparison of British and Dutch suffrage activism’, Professor Mineke Bosch of the University of Groningen looked at ‘supremacy’ not from the perspective of religion-and-nation, but in terms of ‘birthplace-and-nation’. She spoke of the way in which the early 20th century suffrage movement lionised and elevated the struggles and gains of British women, yet passed over or downplayed those of equally active and committed women elsewhere, providing the instance of one of her own countrywomen. Religion did arise for her, in a question whether Jewishness may have played a part in the overlooking of her principal protagonist, who held no official positions in the suffrage movement organisations to which she belonged.
Finally, Professor Elsa Barkley-Brown of the University of Maryland entertained and informed with a critical look ‘On play and citizenship: African-American women and the undisciplined body’. She returned to the history – and herstory – of slavery, the Statue of Liberty and the modern-day inheritor of women and men’s claims against the owning of persons, in the person of Michelle Obama and her unique contribution to what it means to be ‘First Lady’. Professor Barkley-Brown posited that Michelle Obama’s engagement in ‘play’ – playing with her appearance and identity through dress, and dressing not as might be expected of a US First Lady and particularly the First Lady of African-American heritage. Illustrating her presentation with images, sketches, photographs and cartoons – one depicting the Statue of Liberty as an African-American woman, with the caption ‘frightening’ the masses rather than ‘enlightening’ them – she spoke of the way in which the African-American woman’s body has been depicted in US culture and history, including an excerpt from the 1934 film ‘Imitation of Life’. Here, the juxtaposition of ‘black’ and ‘white’ woman as friends was alleviated (so as to quell propositions of equality between them) by dress, body/physiology, and placement-on-screen. Hence, ‘white’ equalled slim, smartly dressed, fair-haired and ‘being served’, whilst ‘black’ was shown as plump (‘Black Mammy’ personified), apron over cardigan over cotton floral dress, serving … Ironically, said Professor Barkley-Brown, Michelle Obama is able to express herself in unorthodox (for a First Lady and for an African-American woman in a position of reverential-power) dress without being seen as ‘out of control’ – a body undisciplined – because she has taken on a prominent role in the obesity debate. Leading publicly on the importance of ‘body control’ for young women – and here, particularly, a role model for young African-American women – she is able to dress her own body as she pleases. Not inconsequentially, too, her body is seen as athletically ‘acceptable’ – the body upon which the unorthodox dress is displayed is one that does not offend as ungainly or lacking in conformity to the (acceptably athletic) ideal, whether ‘black’ or ‘white’.
The US culture (or cult) of the First Lady and woman-of-power held attention earlier when addressed in a panel entitled ‘The New Political Woman: at work in the White House and Embassy Row’, chaired by Katherine Sibley of Saint Joseph’s University. Nancy Beck Young of the University of Houston led off with ‘The Idea of the First Lady’, followed by Catherine Forslund’s presentation on one (generally overlooked) First Lady – ‘A Victorian Modern in the White House: Edith Kermit Roosevelt’. Beatrice Mckenzie of Beloit College then presented on ‘”You can’t do political work … You have to be a man to do that”: Constance Harvey’s Foreign Service Career, 1948-1955′ – addressing a woman in power in her own right, in a high-level post in the US administration, whilst Carol Jackson Adams provided an analytical summation as discussant. One question that may be asked here is why it is that US First Ladies are held in such reverance and high esteem, with a prominance not extended, generally, to ‘political wives’ in other countries – Britain, Australia, Aotearoa/New Zealand, France, Germany, the USSR (as it was). Not addressed by the presentations, it remains an issue for historical and cultural exploration and analysis.
As is usual with Women’s History Network conferences, independent scholars played a significant part, with a number of presentations during the conference. Notably, too, the Women’s History Network has determined to encourage scholarship further where not supported by institutions, in the launching of a Women’s History Network prize for this field of endeavour.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) September 2012
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s presentation at the WHN conference was entitled ””As a woman I have no country”: World War One, political activism and patriotism’, drawing upon the proposition stated so clearly by Virginia Woolf – ‘As a woman I have no country, as a woman I want no country, as a woman my country is the whole world ..’
On Friday 23 June 1916, five seawomen were captured by the enemy.
Despite wartime dangers women crew were still sailing. These stewardesses were on the Great Eastern Railway ferry Brussels caring for Belgian refugees, after leaving the Hook of Holland for Britain. Their ship was captured after Captain Fryatt was accused of sinking a U-boat.
German crew who boarded the ship wondered at the women’s calmness. ‘Aren’t you afraid of being shot?’ they asked. After all, Edith Cavell had been executed by firing squad just seven months earlier. ‘“We are Englishwomen” was considered sufficient reply,’ claimed the women’s company magazine afterwards.
When the captured ship was taken to Zeebrugge then Bruges their blue uniforms with brass buttons caused a confusion about identity. ‘Germans took them for fighting women: England’s last hope.’
The women’s male Brussels shipmates were sent to Ruhleben, a civilian detention camp near Berlin. As females, the stewardesses were interned at the Holzminden camp, near Hanover.
Hungry and miserable, they must have been worried, too. Internment meant the women lost earnings. Many seawomen were family breadwinners so their dependents were at risk. No shipping company paid crew who were not working. Wages stopped the day after shipwreck. For the Brussels women this meant six months without an income.
They were released in October, 1916. One of them, Edith Smith, went straight back to marry her fiancée by special licence, just before his unit left for Egypt.
During Edith’s incarceration there was a high-profile publicity campaign and diplomatic initiatives to free the women. Indeed, they got more publicity than any other seawomen in that entire war. Media headlines spun the story into another shocking tale of Hunnish brutality.
Surprisingly no newspaper ever suggested the women should not have been working at sea.
Jo Stanley (c) July 2012
Jo Stanley’s book, Risk! Women on the Wartime Seas, will be published next year by Yale University Press
Brusselsstewardess at Holzminden internment camp, summer 1916.
 ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine, November 1916, p273-4.
 ‘The stewardesses released’, The Great Eastern Railway Magazine,November 1916, p273-4.
 Great Eastern Railway Magazine, Vol 6, no 72, p302.
In her book ‘There’s Always Been a Women’s Movement – This Century’, feminist Dr Dale Spender points out that at the end of the 19th century the English-speaking world was awash with women’s magazines, particularly those presenting a feminist perspective. ‘Time & Tide’, published in the United Kingdom, showcased feature writers whose articles addressed social, cultural and political issues and challenged patriachal orthodoxies. A regular column contrasted sentences for property crimes with sentences imposed on crimes against the person. The former outweighed in length and seriousness sentences handed down in respect of the latter. The tenor of this column was that crimes of violence – mainly rape and other sexual offences committed against women victims and survivors - were not taken seriously. At least, the seriousness with which they were taken was far less than the seriousness of property crimes. At this time, male property ownership far outweighed that of women: it was only during the last half of the 19th century that women’s right to own property during marriage was recognised by statute.
In Australia, the redoubtable feminist Louisa Lawson published ’The Dawn’ with an all-woman staff: writers, printers and page-setters. Through promoting women’s industry and right to engage in paid employment at all levels of publishing, Louisa Lawson ran into the demands of male trades unionists for ‘closed shops’: ironically, the trades unionists wanted to limit paidwork to members of unions. As there was no printers union for women at that time, women would – on the alter of trades union rights – be sacrificed to join the ranks of the unemployed. Louisa Lawson fought on, together with her staff. ‘The Dawn’ continued publication until 1912.
Vida Goldstein, in 1903 the first woman in the British Empire to stand for Parliament, ran ‘The Woman’s Sphere’ and ‘The Woman Voter’. Where Louisa Lawson concentrated upon issues such as criminal assault at home and other forms of domestic violence, Vida Goldstein mainly addressed women’s political rights in the sense of parliamentary representation and voting. These issues were the subject of feature articles and columns in both ‘The Dawn’ and ‘The Awakening Dawn’, however, true to their respective spheres of primary concern, Lawson and Goldstein made their publications their own: vehicles for expressions of women’s rights in the public world and the world of domesticity. For them, the personal was political and the political was personal.
In June 2012, women and magazines, and women’s magazines, was the subject of academic and activist debate and discussion in London, organised with support of Kingston University, Women’s History Network, The Women’s Library, London Metropolitan University and SHAW - Society for the History of Women in the Americas.
On 22 and 23 June at Kingston University, the conference ‘Women in Magazines: Research, Representation, Production and Consumption’ saw papers presented on myriad ways of seeing and understanding the magazine industry as impacting upon women. Keynote addresses were combined with streams featuring simultaneous panels ranging from ‘Women as Editors’ through ‘Targetting Specific Racial Groups’, ‘Women as Writers’ and ‘Discourses of Humour in Women’s Magazines’, along with many others.
Noliwe Rooks, Associate Director at Princeton University’s Center for African American Studies (and as from 1 July Associate Professor at Cornell University), gave a keynote address entitled ‘Black Women and “Real Beauty”: The Rise and Fall of the Dove Beauty Campaign’ analysing the way ‘black women’s bodies are used to market products to consumers who are not black, in a cultural moment, desperately seeking to evade race’. This sparked off extensive reflection, both in the session and outside it – in corridors, over coffee, lunch and dinner, and in other sessions - on magazine culture, advertising, beauty products and campaigns, and the place of women’s bodies and colour in promoting cultural sameness and difference.
Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester Penny Tinkler gave the second keynote address under the title ‘”What Every Reader Knows”: Using Girls’ and Women’s Magazines to Explore the Past’. She began by observing that girls’ and women’s magazines ‘exert a strange fascination’, leading to her being ‘drawn to study them’ whenever she undertakes historical research. Her presentation reflected upon the reasons for these magazines being ‘such an attractive and productive historical resource’, as well as considering ‘ways of using them to address questions about the past’. The session took on a practical perspective, with many questioners and discussants raising issues going directly to ways in which researchers might access women’s and girls’ magazines, where archival material might be found, and how these resources and sources may be used to expand upon knowledge and understandings of past and present.
One of the parallel sessions was particularly relevant to this perspective: Jayne Shacklady, post-graduate student at Edge Hill University, looked at the role of editor in girls’ magazines, focussing upon a particular edition of ‘The Girls’ Own Annual’ – the 1923 edition under Flora Klickman’s editorship (which spanned more than twenty years, from 1908 to 1930). In ’Flora Klickmann’s Editorial Interventions in “The Girl’s Own Paper”‘, Jayne Shacklady suggested that Flora Klickmann’s editorial position ‘allowed her to respond publicly to social changes experienced by the female readership and engage openly with topics such as women’s mental health, … interlacing the personal with the public and the domestic with the professional’. Klickmann ’addressed middle-class women’s concerns by utlising her autobiographical work and personal experience suggesting a blurring of notions of public and private’. Jayne Shacklady thus brought into the debate her own practical research into the archives of the magazine, with an eye directed toward the politics of editorship and the need to delve into the personal to determine upon the direction of particular publications. Women’s and girls’ magazines are thus revealed as a repository of information about the place of women-in-the-world as subjects and as operators in determining how women and girls might be represented.
This, then, comes full circle to Noliwe Rooks’ perspective on the way in which product manufacturers and advertisers may influence what appears in women’s magazines and how editorial direction may be enhanced or undercut by the broader demands of economics and women’s power (or otherwise) as editors and audience.
‘Women in Magazines’ began and ended on a high note, with participants glorying in the knowledge that the field is replete with research, perspectives of varying hue, and both academic and popular investigation. All this ensures that women’s and girls’ magazines will continue to provide a resource for historians, political scientists, psychologists and general researchers into women’s writing and editorship, and how publishers regard women and girls as readers and consumers.
JAS (c) July 2012
Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt’s research presently focuses on women’s bodies as sites for consumerism, medical and surgical intervention, and objects for ‘treatment’. The ‘moral panics’ brought to light by the (now somewhat old) ‘new’ criminology are being replicated in body panics directed toward women’s perceptions of body-as-real and body-in-need-of-treatment. Dr Scutt’s books include ‘Taking a Stand – Women in Politics & Society’.
Owen Jones, UK Independent commentator, pinpoints sexism as the key to ‘rampant’ abuse leveled at women who speak up, speak out, and will not be put down whatever the invective. A predictable response dominates against articulate, determined, achievement-orientated women unafraid of power. Jones cites Louise Mensch, MP, viewed in some circles as an abrasive Conservative Party member, most recently featuring on the parliamentary committee reporting on Murdoch, the media and ‘hacking’.
Observing she is ‘a craven apologist for Rupert Murdoch, and deserves to be exposed as such’, Jones notes that this ‘does not distinguish [Mensch] from the Tory leadership, except that she is more honest about it [with] less power to act on her sycophancy’. She at least ‘had the courage’ to ‘ride to the much-maligned mogul’s defence’ on television’s Newsnight, only to receive a backlash constituted by ‘a torrent of violently sexist tweets’:
‘She was a “whore”, a “cold faced cold hearted bitch”, and far worse. “Louise Mensch … You would wouldn’t you?” tweeted Northern Irish “comedian” Martin Mor. “Given half a chance you’d strangle her!” Vice magazine proceeded to ask Occupy protesters if they’d have sex with her: just for the “lulz”, as the kids say.’
And, as Jones concludes: ‘No male cheerleader for the Murdochs – there are many – is subject to these chilling attacks.’ The same goes for journalism, he says, for although Jones is ‘no stranger to Twitter abuse’, his critics most often are ‘wound up’ by ‘what they regard as [his] excessively youthful appearance’ characterised by ‘Does your mum know you’re up this late?’ and ‘Shouldn’t you be doing your paper-round?’. Jones notes: ‘It is nothing compared with the poisonous misogynist vitriol that women in politics and journalism – such as colleague Laurie Penny – receive.’
Like commentators on online journals, Twitter ‘is an interesting insight into attitudes rampant in society, because it allows people to easily project venom most would never dream of screeching at a passerby in the street’. Twitter ‘… provides alarming evidence that sexism – of varying intensities – remains widespread among men’:
‘Whether purporting to be on the left or the right, there are all too many men who simply cannot bear to be lectured by a woman they passionately disagree with. “Who does this bitch think she is?” sums up their attitude; and if Twitter is anything to go by, what they say can be a lot more explicit than that.’
And although men may predominate in this form of discourse, women may also be implicated.
Returning, then, to Eleanor Roosevelt’s nomination of ‘age-old prejudice’. It is this – a phenomenon now termed ‘sexism’ – that dogged Hilary Clinton’s 2008 White House Bid. Misogynist invective came from the right, the left, and even her pre-selection opponent’s camp. Samantha Power, an Obama campaign worker, took the hit for the sexist comment emanating from the candidate’s office – but ended up on his Presidential staff in any event.
This phenomenon dogs the steps ofAustralia’s Prime Minister.
Childless – unwomanly or unnatural. Childfree – unwomanly and selfish. ‘Hard’, ‘uncaring’, ‘unfeeling’ – yet men alone (Bob Hawke, Malcolm Fraser) are allowed to cry or show emotion (Hawke, Kevin Rudd) and get away with it, even be praised for it. If a woman leader cries, she ‘can’t mix it’. If she resists tears, she’s ‘unwomanly’ or worse – even worse than Lady Macbeth, and who but a woman could be worse than this?
If she is assertive or simply able to stand up with conviction to deliver a message to the masses, she’s ‘tough as nails’. If she falters not a step, but an inch, a millimeter – she’s hopeless or ‘woeful’. And these are only a few – a mild few at that – of the misogynistic commentsAustralia’s Prime Minister has weathered.
Former Senator Bob Brown said it: ‘Quite a bit of the criticism [of the Prime Minister] is sexist and unfair and unrelenting …’ And when questioned by one commentator, the Prime Minister contrasted expectations of her predecessors:
‘… looking across Australia’s political history when Bob Hawke was there or Paul Keating … or John Howard …, I don’t recall there being constant demands for them to show more personality. I don’t remember people looking at John Howard and saying gee, I wish he’d be warmer and cuddlier and more humorous and more engaging in his press conferences. They looked at him and said, well he’s the bloke running the country, and I think the same standard should apply to me. I’m a woman running the country, I don’t ask people to come to the view that they want to have me round for dinner on Saturday night, that’s not what I’m here to do.’
Nonetheless, reason lies for hope that the prejudice is shifting. Not only did the Parliamentary Labor Party support the elevation of the first woman to the Prime Ministership. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that in the lead-up to the 2012 challenge, members of the caucus came out strongly in the Prime Minister’s support – Simon Crean, former leader and longtime parliamentarian, one of them. The ALP has long been seen as male-dominated, yet it has produced and supported the women coming forward as leaders, apart from the Liberal Party’s Kate Carnell, and Kerry Chikarovski as NSW Liberal Opposition leader (1998-2002) before her ousting by a male politician.
As Owen Jones concludes, responsibility lies upon men to end ‘the continuing scourge of sexism’, speaking out against it, not perpetuating it. This is not an invitation for men to ‘muscle in on’ the Women’s Movement. Rather, it is to recognise that ‘sexist abuse is a symptom, or a warning sign, of a society in which women overall are still not equal’. This inequality is colluded in and supported by those who attack the Prime Minister with invective rather than addressing policy issues as policy issues.
All who engage in the abuse or support it by failing to acknowledge it for what it is, standing up to speak out against it so as, ultimately, to end it, remain wedged in the territory of the ‘age-old prejudice’ Eleanor Roosevelt identified. This age-old prejudice not only militates against the rights of women holding posts of ‘high importance’ and power. It erodes the dignity and human rights of every woman. It demotes all women to the category of ‘non-persons’, denied the respect and rights to which every human being is entitled.
JAS © May 2012