The time has come, the Walrus said

to talk of many things

‘Tis the season. I have been conferencing, attending a workshop and a conference in the past fortnight which have both forced me to think very, very hard indeed. The two could not have been more different, but both have been hugely productive for a variety of reasons. What follows is my attempt to articulate what I have and am learning from both experiences.

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

Passions of War, Ghent, 20th June

The first gathering was not, officially, a conference, but rather a workshop, one of a series of three being organised by the Passions of War, an AHRC-funded network exploring ‘the influence of war on constructions of gender and sexual practices, and how these constructions and practices have, in turn, conditioned the ways in which wars are waged, mediated, felt and understood’. We were a small group, no more than 20 in total, and formal proceedings were limited to a single day’s presentation and discussion. The event, the theme of which was ‘Identities’ took place in a single room at the Dr. Guislain museum, with all participants engaging with all the papers and joining in with vigorous and wide-ranging discussion.

And when I say wide-ranging, I mean wide-ranging. My own paper, which kicked things off, was an examination of why we need to explore the masculine identities of non-commissioned medical service personnel in the First World War, as well as those of wounded men and doctors. It formed part of a panel in which other papers explored nationhood, motherhood and death in war poetry (Marysa Demoor) and nostalgic conceptions of the Second World War in contemporary social and political discourse (Victoria Basham). A presentation on the now-closed War and Trauma exhibition was followed by an afternoon panel focusing on gender and citizenship in 18th-century conflicts, with papers from Marian Füssell, Stefan Dudink, and Simon Bainbridge. The day closed with a public lecture from James Wharton, including readings from his autobiography, Out in the Army.

On the surface, this range of papers might not seem to have all that much in common, other than the very broad theme of gender and war. They covered huge swathes of time, geography, media and disciplinary approach. Yet together they worked as jumping off points for intense and involving discussion. At the centre of the day’s debates, for me at any rate, was the question of the languages we use to talk about conflict, how that language is gendered and how it can and should be historicized. How does ‘shell shock’ translate into Dutch, and what are we saying if we don’t translate it? What does the changing meaning of ‘nostalgia’, from a nineteenth-century illness to a twentieth-century political tool tell us about the place of war in society? How do we analyse discourses and the literature of the past in ways which are both intellectually and historically rigorous, which speak to both the reality of past experience and the debates of today? The small group set-up of the workshop allowed these discussions to flourish, with ideas and connections developing in interesting and exciting ways across disciplinary, national and periodic divides.

While the formal procedures were enlivening, however, for me the most exciting discussions were those that happened between and around the formal sessions. It was, for instance, an honour and a pleasure to meet Holly Furneaux, whose forthcoming book on the masculinity of Victorian soldiers looks set to shape my own work in important ways. Indeed, on the back of the workshop she has sent me a copy of her chapter on Crimean stretcher bearers which I have been having a lovely time reading and engaging with this past week. Then there was the discussion I had with James Wharton at dinner (and much later into the evening than was probably sensible) about what motivates young men to enlist, how the memory and commemoration of a divisive conflict affects those who served in it, and the practical implications of the government’s current policy on military reserves. These are all issues that have arisen in my historical research; to explore their importance in a contemporary context was illuminating. And, in the end, as I traveled home on a very early Eurostar train from Brussels the following morning, the ideas that had been stimulated over the course of the day coalesced into a moment of inspiration about the argument my book is making and why it is significant. I had gone to Ghent with a paper that attempted to articulate the main argument of my introduction; I came home with the seeds of a conclusion.

Of cabbages and kings

Modern British Studies, Birmingham, 1st-3rd July

The second conference (and this one was a conference) was the Modern British Conference, held in Birmingham this last week. Organisationally, this could not have been more different from Ghent – 280 delegates, three days, 6 keynotes, four parallel panels each session – and my own contribution reflected this difference, being on the project to come rather than on my work at present. The sheer size of the conference meant that my own path through the various ways in which the rethinking of modern British studies is being addressed by contemporary scholarship was particular to me and my interests. It was, quite simply, impossible to attend all the panels that I would have liked to attend, at least not without learning the neglected art of being in two places at once.

The panels I did attend were excellent. Most were flat-out entertaining, many were innovative, all were thought-provoking. Standouts were those on ‘Interrogating British Boundaries’, which pushed me to think again about how I will approach the ‘Overseas’ section of the PIN 26 archive, ‘Money, Belief and Politics in Modern Britain’, where Sarah Roddy’s work in particular was highly suggestive about my methodological practice and the wonderful ‘Humour and Comedy in Modern British Studies’, where not only did Lucy Deplap’s exploration of anti-suffrage humour suggest an angle on hospital journals that I now plan to pursue further, but Peter Bailey gave a demonstration of conference paper presentation as performance that was as powerful as it was funny. I have never experienced a conference panel as joyful – this one, for all its potentially uncomfortable subject matter, was.

I was sad to miss panels on regional histories and creative histories, and it sounds as if panels on the 1970s, subcultures, and ‘The Future History of Race’ were all extraordinary experiences for those who did attend. However, I was able to get a flavour of all through Twitter, this being the most Twitter-active conference I have ever attended. Indeed, this was the first conference I have ever attended where live tweeting made sense, one where the sheer quantity (and quality) of online participation facilitated participation and discussion rather than distracting from it. The extent of online engagement, in addition to the normal face-to-face interaction of a large conference, was, however, more than usually exhausting. As intellectually exciting as it was, I’m not sure that level of critical engagement over three days is entirely healthy or productive. Given the many calls for self-care made throughout the conference, this may be a facet of conferencing that needs revisiting on a regular basis both by individuals and ‘twitterstorians’ collectively.

Of course, not all aspects were equally impressive, and I did come away with a number of reservations. The first of these was about an uncomfortable tendency to try to periodize Modern British Studies as a historic undertaking. James Vernon gave the most overt example of this in his keynote address, where he sought to define the field generationally, starting with the ‘generation of 1945’. I found this sort of grouping of scholarly endeavour, which also found expression in the focus on established scholars as opposed to PhD and early career scholars mildly alienating. As someone who has not had the opportunity to define myself as part of a generation, indeed has only just moved from the precariousness of a temporary contract to the security of a permanent position, I certainly don’t feel ‘established’, although I do feel the responsibility to support the intellectual endeavours of those in less secure positions within the academy. I was not clear where I and people like me fit into to this mapping of the professional field. And if we are going to talk about self-care and support within the profession, we do need to discuss issues that arise at different points in the life-cycle, not least the caring responsibilities that impact on the time and energy of so many mid-career scholars, a subject that, as far as I was aware, was simply never mentioned.

The second issue to disturb me was the rather startling absence of gender as a category of explicit historical analysis, particularly in the keynote speeches. Where gender was specifically discussed, in Geoff Eley’s public lecture, it was, shockingly, in a way in which women were viewed as the only gendered sex, thereby completely ignoring quarter of a century’s work to make men visible as gendered historical subjects. The story of gender and the political aftermath of the First World War, for instance, is far more than one of maternalist discourse v. fear of the flapper, not least because the ‘Lost Generation’ was, for most politicians in Britain, exclusively male.

Is this a piece of special pleading on the part of a gender historian? Well possibly. There is, of course, only so much that can be said in a thirty-five minute paper and the subjects addressed by Seth Koven, Stephen Brooke, Deborah Cohen and Catherine Hall were all wonderfully rich and complex in ways that defied simplification or easy summation. But given the focus on specific families in Koven and Cohen’s papers, and the discussion of domestic violence in Brooke’s, a more explicit acknowledgement that the power structures being uncovered and analysed have a gendered element would have made clear what was only in the end implicit, that gender histories continue to have relevance at least as significant as those of race. If the point that the history of modern Britain is the history of imperialism could be made as clearly and emphatically as it was over the course of three days, then I only wish there had been the space to make the parallel point that it is also the history of gendered relations of power.

Despite these reservations, in the end it was Catherine Hall’s keynote, of all the panels and plenaries over the three days, that spoke most deeply to me. At once a razor-sharp analysis of a rich, deeply problematic source with powerful implications for our understanding of both the past and the present, and a rallying cry to the profession to use our passion to demonstrate the undoubted relevance of the work we do, it left me energised and even inspired. I left Birmingham knowing that the practice of history is hard, should be hard, but however hard it is, it is also fun and undoubtedly worth doing.

And why the sea is boiling hot/ And whether pigs have wings

So, two very different events in two very different venues at which I attempted to grapple with two very different facets of my work as I understand it at the moment. Yet there were also themes that connected them. The invisibility of men as gendered historical actors, for instance, formed the basis of a question raised in Ghent, reinforcing my sense that historians of gender, and masculinity in particular, still have work to do in making our political and theoretical project clear and accepted. More positively, the relevance of the study of the past to questions of social, cultural and political import in the present was made crystal clear at both events. Every panel I attended in Birmingham contained at least one paper that addressed a contemporary debate or concern, illuminating the connection between past and present as clearly as my post-workshop discussion with James. Oh, and both were wonderful social events, where the pleasures of reunion with old friends was only matched by that of forging new friendships.

There is still much that I absorbed both in Belgium and the Midlands that I have yet to fully process. But in sum, if Ghent provided me with inspiration, Birmingham was a source of exhilaration. The remainder of the summer, then, will have to provide the perspiration that will, I hope, result in, if not a work of genius, then at least a good book.

Some thoughts on Tim Hunt and the problems of power

I hadn’t intended to post anything on the Tim Hunt affair.  This was not simply because I am not a scientist.  As Rachel Moss has demonstrated, some of us in the humanities have eloquent points to make about gender and professional academic relations well beyond the lab. It was principally because the response of so many female scientists on Twitter, posting under the #devestatinglysexy hash tag, made, through ironic appropriation and genuine self-deprecation, the elegant and amusing point of how damn silly and outdated the views Professor Hunt expressed were in a non-aggressive fashion.

And then I read this. And started to get interested. Because it implicitly highlighted something that has been missing from the discussion of exactly why this ‘joke’ was not simply unfunny, but deeply problematic for interpersonal relationships in some parts of academia. And we need to discuss it, ‘it’ being the relationships of power and authority which shape our working lives (both within and without academia) and which, all too often, are still shaped by gender and caricatures of gender.

What do I mean? Professor Collins, in her defense of her husband, is quoted as saying “You can see why it [the ‘joke’] could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim. But really it was just part of his upbringing. He went to a single-sex school in the 1960s. Nevertheless he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.” But this completely ignores the fact that, due to his exceptional scientific abilities, Professor Hunt has earned himself a position of renown which means his views are encountered, and taken seriously, by many, many people who do not know him, are not married to him, were never his students.  His ability has, quite rightly, won him a position of power and authority within the world of scientific research. He held influential positions at UCL and with the European Research Council.  But with power and authority comes responsibility. And making ‘jokes’ which demean their subjects in public is to wield authority irresponsibly.  It is an abuse of power.

Yes, I know that Professor Hunt has claimed that his ‘joke’ was self-deprecating.  But this is only one-third true, at best.  Charitably, it might be argued that the claim that one result of working with women is that ‘you [the man] fall in love with them [the girls]’ (and yes, I do think it telling that Professor Hunt has refered to female scientists as ‘girls’ in both his original speech and his later interview for the Today Programme) is self-deprecating. But the other two claims, that ‘they fall in love with you’ and that women cry when criticised are not self-deprecating, they are deprecating only of others, others defined solely by their sex.  Forgive me Professor Collins, but if that isn’t sexist, I’m not quite sure how you are defining the term.

In other words, Professor Hunt used his position of power as a noted and notable scientist to make fun of a particular group who work in a subordinate position to him.  One not very nice word for this is bullying.  And, with my own professional hat on, thinking about the power structures of gender relations (intermasculine relationships in this case) in medical contexts as I am doing at present, it made me start to question how much power relations within scientific laboratories are structured by gender.  I don’t only mean the assumptions which are always cited in relation to why relatively few women go into STEM subjects – the gendering of science as a masculine pursuit from childhood, the lack of support for women in relation to maternity – but also those that relate to the specific community structures of the lab which are not places of equality or even meritocracy from what I can gather.  The lab leader, the principle investigator on the grant, the man or woman who recruits and employs a team to undertake research into a question he or she has defined and refined, is a person of immense power and patronage within this professional arena.  I have seen this at work when I was a PhD student and a contemporary found himself at odds with his supervisor, the scientist in whose lab he was working.  The end result was the PhD student left without taking his degree and went off to become a much happier and more successful doctor.  In this anecdotal case, the student was male and the supervisor female, but I started wondering about how gender shaped relationships within these personal spaces, as it shaped relationships in the even-more intimate space of the hospital ward. [1] I was interested enough to throw the question open to Twitter, and received back enough responses to form an interesting reading list for a moment of rather more leisure.  However, Dominic Berry did note that it is hard to find historical sources on this question from inside the lab itself.  These are still secretive spaces whose power structures remain opaque. Maybe, in light of Professor Hunt’s ‘joke’, it is time we started to explore these social spaces more critically from the perspective of gender.

Which brings me on to the final point I feel I need to make in relation to Professor Hunt, and this is specifically to do with his now former role as a member of the European Research Council’s Scientific Council, the governing body which defines the strategy and methodology of the Council’s funding aims.  Now, as it happens, from September I will begin a five year research project funded by an ERC Starting Grant.  As part of this grant I will be building my own research team, recruiting a postdoctoral researcher and two postgraduate students to work on aspects of an ambitious project whose questions I have defined and refined.  The money is in my name. I will be in a position of no little power and patronage. (Sound familiar?  Structures of power within academia and their potential for abuse are as relevant to the humanities as to the sciences in many ways, although the scope for escaping from toxic relationships with comparatively little damage may be slightly greater in the former.)

The leadership aspect is a key element of the remit of the Starting Grant, which aims to enable excellent science, where ambition and scope are deemed integral to excellence.  Frankly, I am terrified of the responsibility it brings, but I am excited as well.  I believe I can rise to the challenges that developing as an academic leader will pose in the coming years in no small part because I have had several superb teachers and mentors, both men and women, who have demonstrated by example how to build successful and supportive teams.  In fact, at risk of embarrassing her, I would suggest that Professor Alison Fell, leader of the Legacies of War project, provides one of the best examples of how to recruit, nurture and lead a successful team in the humanities that it has been my privilege to encounter. I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of that team.

I have no doubt that the many female scientists who came out in support of Professor Hunt, pointing to the ways he nurtured their individual careers, have much the same feeling about him as I have about those who have taught and mentored me. But their defense has the same flaw as that of his wife; Professor Hunt is a man of authority above and beyond the circle of his intimates and pupils.  He earned that authority and nothing should detract from the skill which earned it, but he has demonstrated an inability to use it wisely.  In doing so, he has potentially undermined the mission of the ERC, to promote excellence in science, and leadership in the field, wherever it may be identified.  In such circumstances, he had to resign, however painful that might be for him personally.

But for myself, this whole sorry situation has at least taught me an important lesson to take with me into my next challenge.  I will take up my new role with an exquisite awareness of the responsibilities it places on me to wield my authority (however limited) wisely and to assume, always, that I will be judged by those who do not know me, either as a historian or a woman.

[1] See also Ana Carden-Coyne, The Politics of Wounds: Military Patients and Medical Power in the First World War.

On being a woman and a war historian

This one has been a long time coming. I began writing it back in March, in response to the BBC’s multi-platform debate over Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War. I had been invited to take part, rather late in the day, but was unable to go as I had to prepare for my son’s fifth birthday party the following day. But, in between icing a castle cake and preparing knightly party bags, I tried to follow the Twitter discussion. I didn’t manage to engage with all, or indeed a great amount of it, but one thread of commentary did catch my attention. Someone commented on the lack of women on the television panel, starting a discussion which led eventually to the comment that, even if women had been invited to participate in the discussion, they would have been asked to speak about ‘women’s issues’.

This discussion got me thinking about the question of the place of female historians of the First World War in the public commemorations of the war. Because, despite efforts to the contrary (and yes, I have been invited to take place in broadcasts because the producers were looking for a female voice), the impression has certainly been given that female expertise is either to be ignored or to confined to seemingly appropriate ‘women’s’ topics. The most egregious example of this was the throw-away comment made by Kate Adie while publicizing her television programme on women’s roles in the war about the lack of female historians of the war other than Barbara Tuchman. But it was also reflected in the panel assembled for a debate chaired by Nicky Campbell where the only two women were Bonnie Greer (not a historian but clearly brought in to give a non-European and ethnic minority perspective) and Professor Maggie Andrews, brought in to speak about women and the home front.

Kate Adie was, of course, wrong, deeply and profoundly wrong. There are a huge number of superb female historians in Britain and across the world, within the academy and without, researching, writing and teaching about the First World War. Indeed, such is the breadth and depth of expertise that I was able to put together an entire day-and-a-half-long workshop on a relatively niche subject last year with only one male speaker. But Professor Andrews’ presence on The Big Question panel, while it helps to demonstrate the inaccuracy of Adie’s comment, is also misleasding. Yes, women work on nurses (such as Alison Fell, Christine Hallett) and the home front (Karen Hunt, Susan Grayzel). But the leading naval historian of the war of my generation is a woman (Laura Rowe) and there are women working on the memory of the war in Australia (Jenny Macleod), the international history of the war (Heather Jones, Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Margaret Macmillan) and operational history (Aimee Fox-Godden), to name just a very small selection. Outside of the academy, women such as Kate Vigurs and Jo Hook are working as battlefield tour guides, introducing a new generation to the landscape and material culture of the war as effectively as any of their male counterparts.

And what of my own field? Gender history is notoriously female-dominated, unsurprisingly perhaps given its intellectual and political origins in women’s history. It might seem the archetypal ‘women’s’ subject. Yet key theorists and practitioners in the history of masculinity, particularly in relation to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have often been men. In terms of the first world war, Michael Roper’s work remains a hugely important reference point for my own. Similarly, in social history, Catriona Pennell and Adrian Gregory have both written excellent and important books on British society during the war. The gender of the scholar is beside the point and limiting our reading of a particular approach to one set of voices can only serve to diminish debate and, ultimately understanding.

So dividing facets of the history of the war into men’s and women’s history is a pointless exercise. Both men and women are writing excellent history on all aspects of the war, both those seen as traditionally male spheres and those more often associated with female scholars. Yet the tendency to thinking in this dichotomous way remains. The assumption is that gender brings a particular perspective to understandings of the history of war in particular. All historians bring their own personal history to their research and practice, reflected in the stories of why they became historians in the first place – because they were fascinated by the grandparents’ stories of the past, because they visited a castle and were fascinated by what they saw. What is interesting is the number of stories of male historians which relate to childhood practices of gender construction, more specifically playing war games, of which this blog is only the most recent example in relation to the First World War. Graham Dawson and Dan Todman, for instance, have both written about how their boyhood experiences of the pleasure culture of war shaped their interest and approach to the subject.

Interestingly, I have yet to come across a female historian who has made the same connection to their own upbringing. Certainly, growing up in the United States in the 1980s, in a culture dominated as much by GI Joe as by Barbie, I don’t recall engaging in war games and if I did it wasn’t a spur to my interest in the history of the war. At risk of buying in to gender essentialism, does this matter? Am I less able to fully engage in the history of war because I did not engage with a particular form of gendered acculturation as a child due to being of the other sex? On the surface, the answer to these questions is obviously ‘no’, but I was once told by a former soldier that I couldn’t write about the history of masculinity in war because I wasn’t male and I had never been in the military. While the first point has the merit of being accurate (I am not male), the second seems besides the point. Most male scholars of the First World War today have not been in the military, yet they may be judged as experts in their subject. On the flip side, there also seems to be a powerful cultural assumption that (some) women will have a particular relationship to the history of war through their role as mothers of sons, as illustrated in Lisa Jardine’s recent ‘A Point of View’ essay on BBC Radio 4, a position which sidelines women who aren’t either mothers or who are mothers of daughters (I can think of several examples of both who are very fine historians of the First World War.)

So what does it mean to be a woman and a war historian? The honest answer is I don’t really know. Perhaps I can bring a dispassion to the subject unavailable to scholars whose approach is shaped, however subliminally, by their memories of playing soldiers as children. Or maybe I bring the emotional heft of imagining how I would feel if it were my small son who might one day have to fight. What I do know is that these perspective complement those of colleagues who can imagine that they, or their younger selves, might have been called on to face the guns due to their sex, or who can analyse with greater dispassion the impact that large numbers of grieving mothers might have on society.

As I say, we all bring our own histories, including our subjective constructions of gender, to our historical practice. Which is why it is important not only that we note and acknowledge that women have written and are writing the history of the First World War, but also that we don’t categorise their writing simply as a category of ‘other’. How I embed this in my own practice as a woman writing the history of the First World War is something I am still working on and probably will be for the rest of my professional life. As I say, this post has been a long time in coming.

Calm down, dear, it’s only a drama!

We are now three weeks into the six-week run of The Crimson Field, BBC 1’s Sunday night drama set in a First World War ‘field hospital’ ‘somewhere in France’.  The quotation marks around ‘field hospital’ may give some indication as to my opinion of the programme.  It is one of a number of small inaccuracies that, like lice in a uniform, have been driving me (and a number of other historians of British medical care in the First World War) a bit nuts.

In fact, ‘field hospital’ was a term used very little after the Boer War.  I have come across a Territorial medical unit which used the term in relation to the hospital where they trained recruits before they were sent overseas as a field hospital, but the hospitals along the lines of communication were, by 1916, when The Crimson Field is ostensibly set, known as either Casualty Clearing Stations (what would formerly have been referred to as field hospitals) or Stationary or Base Hospitals (of which this appears to be one).

Is this sort of criticism too nit-picky?  Certainly, one of the reactions on Twitter to this type of comment (which I have been making a fair amount of over the past three weeks) has been ‘It isn’t a history lesson, it’s a drama!’ with the implication that criticizing the historical accuracy of the depiction is both unfair and detracts from others’ pleasure in watching.  Essentially, this reaction is a version of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it.’

At one level, this is fair enough.  The Crimson Field is a drama rather than a history lesson, and I don’t have any problem with cosy Sunday evening historical dramas.  I actually have a soft spot (as well as remarkably high tolerance for a historian) for such dramas, having recently enjoyed The Musketeers and Call the Midwife, and even, once I had properly suspended disbelief, still relish a good episode of Downton Abbey.  But the BBC itself is creating a block to the sort of suspension of disbelief that I have achieved with Downton by attempting to locate The Crimson Field within its own narrative of historical commemoration.  The programme is part of the ‘World War One’ season and there are regular tweets and links to related factual content on the BBC’s website.  In other words, the BBC is presenting this as both drama and history, even though they are getting quite a lot of that history wrong.

Which brings me to the other reason I have problems with the ‘It’s drama, not history’ criticism.  Because a great deal of my criticism actually is of the programme as a drama.  Having started out quite well, introducing several strong female characters with the potential to develop into interesting individuals opening up new perspectives on the popular understanding of the First World War, the dramatic arc has all too rapidly declined into a series of mythic clichés enacted by stock figures who simply represent modern ideas rather than having any real personality, historic or otherwise.  As Amanda Vickery has pointed out, the plot predominantly involves the imposition of 21st-century ideas and concerns on characters placed rather than fully located in 1916. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the drama feels clichéd and inauthentic as it tries to crowbar issues of class, race and sexuality into story lines that use endless accusations of cowardice as a shorthand for reactions to the horrors of war or attempts to deal with the complicated question of Irish politics in part of one sixty-minute episode.  In other words, The Crimson Field is not only poor history, but also not very good drama, by whatever standards you judge it.

So why do I keep watching?  Why not give it up as a bad job and let those who are enjoying the drama enjoy it in peace?  Two reasons, one superficial, one (I hope) rather less so.  The superficial reason is that, whatever the quality of the drama, the casting is, on the whole, very good.  It is not simply that I would watch Hermione Norris and Suranne Jones in pretty much anything they appeared in, however terrible, but also that they are good enough to bring depth to their parts.  Norris, in particular, has created a believably restrained and awe-inspiring matron, thankfully setting off the bizarre characterization of the hospital CO as a weak and deeply un-awe-inspiring figure.  I will probably keep watching to the end for her alone.

There is, however, a more important reason for why I will keep watching and, for that matter, keep tweeting as I do so.  It might be described as the ‘teachable moment’ excuse, to use a truly abominable American phrase.  Because I am trying to do is not merely criticize for the sake of finding fault, but to explain, insofar as 140 characters lets me, what my research has taught me about the historic reality of medical care in the First World War.  I can not only complain about the representation of a shell shock sufferer in the first episode, but also point out that he would most likely have been treated in isolation for the sake of general morale. Nor is the process only one way.  So far, questions I have had or points I have made have led to interesting discussions of how laundry was done at Base hospitals and the date at which female radiographers began working overseas.  I have thus learned something indirectly from the programme as well as, I hope, giving a little more historic depth to the understanding of a few viewers.

There is also an element of ‘Know thy enemy’ to this.  Yes, I despaired when the one fully-formed orderly character was revealed to be gay in the most historically unlikely of circumstances.  But this particular bit of trite 21st-century plot does provide an opportunity to explain that, while the masculinity of medical orderlies might be (and often was) impugned, it was, as far as I have been able to uncover, never in terms of suspect or criminal sexuality, but rather in terms of age and physical health.  Homosexuality as a pathology affecting war service was an accusation more commonly (although still not very often) leveled at men who failed to enlist or were diagnosed with shell shock, another symptom of an inherent physical and moral insufficiency which signified male degeneracy.  Exploring these distinctions in masculinity is a key element of my research project; finding and exploiting the opportunities to disseminate my research and analysis more widely, in whatever unlikely form, is thus part of my professional remit.  In other words, I watch and critique because it is my job.

This is, of course, fundamentally the same defense for using Blackadder as a teaching tool about the history of the First World War.  The drama or comedy is the starting point, not the destination, and they probably have  more to tell us about the social and cultural context in which they have been created than about the historic realities of the period that they represent.  Using them in this way is not always comfortable.  For historians it means tackling popular historical misconceptions head on and sitting through the itchy discomfort of historically inaccurate dramas to find out what, exactly, has been portrayed and how.  For non-historians who wish to engage, it can mean having assumptions and beliefs punctured and deflated. At the very least, it means being forced out of a comfortable Sunday night of suspended disbelief.  Not everyone wants to spend their Sunday evening leisure engaging critically with what they are watching, and that of course is their prerogative. No one has to either watch and critique or read critical commentary if they choose not to. But I have to admit to enjoy bringing my practice of critical analysis to The Crimson Field of a Sunday, so I will carry on. And maybe in doing so I can also make a not very good drama at least a slightly better history lesson.

Tears, idle tears

Never let it be said that the BBC’s flagship television programme marking the centenary of the First World War, Britain’s Great War, has had no impact on academic research. Following a flippant comment on Twitter, in response to Jeremy Paxman’s description of members of the British cabinet crying at the outbreak of war, I seem to have rather publicly committed myself to writing an article on British soldiers crying during the First World War.

This is actually slightly less ambitious and out of left field than it might first appear. I have a number of examples of men crying, and commenting on crying in relation to their masculine sense of self, while at the front. I am also actively looking for examples of men showing emotion through tears in hospital. These are examples of men crying as a response to fear or to pain. Following from André Loez’s article in Macleod and Purseigle (eds.), Uncovered Fields: Perspectives in War Studies (Brill, 2004), on French soldiers’ tears, I suspect there are also men who cry out of grief and relief/joy.  I would love to find more examples of these, so if anyone comes across any, please do let me know.

I have also been working my way through quite a lot of literature on the history of emotions, as I try to work out my theoretical and methodological approach to the study of masculine subjectivity, something that has definitely changed since I published my book five years ago.  This is a fascinating and complicated subject that I will be posting about at greater length in the near future.  Having a discrete, concrete project to work on that allows me to put a mass of theory into some sort of practice should be quite a useful discipline.  I have always been the sort of researcher who needs to write as she goes, if only to keep my ideas in order.

So I will keep hunting for examples of men whose stiff upper lip trembled far more often than we might believe, and work at locating them in the context of the history of emotions in wartime.  Thank you, BBC and Twitter, yet another job to add to my list!

Seventeen Soldiers

With the new term upon us, the Legacies of War seminar series is about to resume.  Our first talk will take place on 10th October at 5:15 in Banham Theatre, University of Leeds.  Professor Anthony Fletcher will be speaking on ‘Seventeen Soldiers: Life and Death on the Western Front’. (For early modernists among you, yes, this is Professor Anthony Fletcher, formerly of the University of Essex. His new book, upon which his talk will be based, applies his expertise in the history of gender and childhood to the subject of the soldier’s experience in the First World War.)

Anthony Fletcher

Masculinity in crisis (again)?

Another week, another Observer article prompting me to blog, this time one concerning ‘masculine crisis’ and domestic violence, specifically the murder of children by their fathers.  Or rather, this blog post from Joanne Bailey (whose blog I urge you to follow; it is fabulous) questioning the historical construction of family murders as masculine crisis.

First of all, I absolutely agree with Joanne and the many commentators on the original article who point out that a ‘crisis of masculinity’ is no excuse for family murder (or indeed murder of any sort) and that this sort of argument amounts to victim blaming.  The men who commit the murders are responsible for their own actions and, as Joanne so eloquently argues, not representative of ‘masculinity’ in its entirety or even, from the evidence available, of a particular type of masculinity, although speculation on this latter is quite interesting. The children and their mothers who are the ultimate victims of these murders should never be presented as the cause of their own deaths through the threat they pose to the masculine identity of the men who killed them.

There has been a general consensus on this from the comments on the subject that I have seen.  What interested me, however, was the general assumption that ‘masculinity in crisis’ meant masculinity threatened by the increased power of women, as if gender relations were a zero-sum game.  Yet there is a history of ‘crises of masculinity’ dating back to at least the beginning of the 20th century which sheds a rather different light on the subject.

In my own work, the earliest ‘crisis of [British] masculinity’ I have come across (and I would love to hear from anyone working on earlier examples) was the one that resulted during the Boer War as a reaction to the poor physical fitness of many of the volunteers.  This prompted much national soul-searching about the ability of the British man to match a masculine ideal embodied by the soldier, particularly when set against the rugged frontier masculinity of the Boer farmer who was defeating the British soldier in battle.  By the eve of the First World War, these concerns about the physical state of British masculinity had been supplemented by concerns about its moral state, with the 1918 Pemberton Billing libel case giving voice to the moral panic that conflated homosexuality and fears about the success of the war effort. This was not masculinity threatened by the economic and social power of women; rather it was masculinity threatened by urbanisation and poverty on the one hand, and luxury and decadence on the other.

During the war, the ‘crisis of masculinity’ found another popular name, shell shock, a condition which appeared to emasculate men who suffered from it, depriving them of the ability to be either successful soldiers or self-supporting wage earners in civil life.  Historians and literary critics such as Elaine Showalter and Sandra Gilbert have long argued that shell shock can be (and was) read in part as a response to growing female power on the home front.[i]  Yet, as I have argued at length, this crisis was just as often constructed as a crisis of masculine maturity, a response to the growing authority of the state over men’s bodies and actions in wartime that resulted in infantilisation rather than either the effiminisation feared by Pemberton Billing and his ilk, or the brutalisation that structured post-Second World War anxieties.

The association of brutalisation with masculinity in crisis developed, I believe, much more strongly after the Second World War.  Certainly work on American culture suggests that fears over the state of post-war masculinity were played out in fantasies of male violence and hypersexuality such as the ‘true adventure’ pulps of the 1950s and ‘60s which were constructed in direct opposition to ‘dynasty of the dames’ railed against by Philip Wylie in Generation of Vipers (1942).[ii]  Here we have the ‘crisis of masculinity’ as it appears in the comments in The Observer being spelled out: masculine identity is undermined through the domesticity imposed by powerful women who are invading the public domain, and men are attempting to reclaim it through violence against women.

The problem with this reading, as I think the history of the first half of the twentieth century shows, is that it is a limiting way to define masculinity.  Not only are there multiple masculinities at any one time, encompassing the domestic, the heroic, the alternative, to various degrees but these masculinities can be, have been and still are defined against many other identities, not just women.  My own research is suggesting that the image of the child/boy was a far more significant ‘other’ against which to define masculinity in the early twentieth century than women, whatever their growing social and political power.  Race and class have been equally powerful structures for masculine definition, and thus have as much power to precipitate crises in that self-identity.  None of this starts to answer the question raised by Joanne, as to why violence against the other is seen so often as the appropriate way for individual men to attempt to define their masculinity.  But perhaps by exploring the phrase ‘masculinity crisis’ in more depth we can begin to perceive its limits as a way of categorising men who commit these heinous acts.


[i] Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago Press, 1987), 172; Sandra Gilbert, ‘Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War in Higonnet, et. al., Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 197-226.

[ii] See Bill Osgerby, ‘Two-Fisted Tales of Brutality and Belligerence: Masculinity and Meaning in the American “True Adventure” Pulps of the 1950s and 1960s’ in Ellis and Meyer, Masculinity and the Other: Historical Perspectives (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), 163-189.

Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers?

A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post.  While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:

The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces).  My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor.  My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.

Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in.  And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow.  Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course.  Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.

Is this because of their respective sexes?  I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex.  And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).

And yet, and yet…  My son has always built things.  He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work.  My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can.   I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex.  As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.

Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the  war.  No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.

In which I go multimedia

It has taken some time (copyright queries now all answered) but the podcast of my talk to the Legacies of War seminar series is now available:

I admit that I have only listened to a few seconds of it, but the editor assures me that it sounds okay.  If you enjoy it, please check out some of the other talks from the series which can be found here.

 

Blowing my own trumpet

The following bit of advertising feels a bit awkward, as it is for my own paper, but the next meeting of the University of Leeds Legacies of War Seminar will take place on Thursday, 25th April at 5:15 in Room 3.11 Michael Sadler Building.  I will be talking about the conflicts between a desire for masculine adventure and religious principles among the founders of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.  All welcome.

Jessica Meyer