Entering the Women’s Room

About a month ago, I added my profile to The Women’s Room, an on-line resource connecting women’s expertise with the media.  I also started following them on Twitter where guest tweeters host the account at different times each day.  The result has been a number of interesting questions being asked, ranging from experiences of sexism in the workplace (and how it was handled) to favourite female singer/songwriter, questions which encouraged me (along with many other followers) to engage in conversation.

The result was interesting.  Since I have started following the account I have not only picked up several new Twitter followers but also engaged in long discussions about both my current research and other subjects/passions/areas of expertise.  I have sent an article I wrote to two people who would not have otherwise come across it and have been invited to contribute to a blog.  And I have learned an awful lot – about intersectionality, media representations of women and female singer/songwriters, among other topics.  Basically, my horizons have been broadened in a number of ways: this is social media networking at its best.

What really got me thinking, however, was the fact that all the people I was making direct connections with (although not all the people involved in the more general discussions) were women. And this is also true of another community I belong to, this one within Facebook, which is one of mothers of young children.  Here too I have engaged in a number of horizon-broadening debates and discussions.  It has also provided immense support at moments of parenting crisis and a space in which to discuss the bodily functions of small children that no one but another mother wants to hear about – ever.

Now, not all my networks are so dominantly (or indeed, exclusively) female. Both on line and in real life I interact regularly with men who challenge, engage and advise me.  Yet is the predominantly female networks (again, in real life as well as on line) that have inspired my best ideas, helped me forge the most useful connections and, ultimately, been the greatest assistance in my construction (so far) of both my personal and professional identities.

In one way, this is encouraging.  I am enough of a feminist to believe in the ability of the sisterhood to empower women, so to see practical application in my own life feels like vindication.  At the same time, I worry about the potential for self-segregation.  Yes, as a woman I need and am grateful for the support and the challenge of other women in a male-dominated world.  But I am the mother of a son; I write about historical constructions of masculinity in the context of war.  I need the expertise and engagement of men as well, and hopefully I can offer a unique perspective in return.

So here is my challenge to myself as I develop my networks, on line and in person, personal and professional: to keep on engaging successfully with networks like the Women’s Room and my parenting forum while working to ensure that my engagement with other communities is as fruitful. If I can succeed, I might just get this whole social media thing cracked.

Catching up

Last week my husband and I sat down and updated our diaries and (more importantly) the family wall planner for the rest of the year, or at least until November.  A household that consists of two academics and two young children poses some challenges when it comes to attending conferences, seminars and the like.  Remarkably, we seem to be doing quite well, with only one major conflict where both of us are due to speak at different events at the same time.  Fortunately, mine is the Social History Society Conference which takes place in Leeds this year, so I will have skip the evening events to look after the children while my husband swans off to, well, Sweden. (I would be a lot more resentful if it was the South of France, but that isn’t until later in the year.)

Seeing all my commitments written down (bar the yet-to-be scheduled meetings and the workshop I haven’t confirmed funding for but which hopefully will take place in October) has brought home to me just how much writing I have to do.  With a rising sense of panic, I realise that I am giving three conference papers this year, on three different subjects, only one of which I have spoken on before.  The fact that the first of these is the one based most firmly in my primary research topic and will be the first time I have presented at a society’s general annual conference since speaking at the IHR’s Anglo-American conference in the final year of my PhD, getting on for eight years ago, does not help matters.  Last week I found myself facing a blank page, in a state of complete and utter academic paralysis.

This was not helped by the fact that, along with realising just how much work I had set myself to do, I was also put into contact at that time with Dr Emily Mayhew, who is currently working on a narrative history of stretcher bearers during the war.  Her work sounds fascinating and will, quite rightly, introduce the public to this all-too-often forgotten group of servicemen, which is rather what I hoped my work was going to do.  Having also found out that Amanda Vickery will be presenting a new radio series on gender and disability, a subject central to my research since I began it, I started to panic about being seriously behind the curve.  For the first time in my career I began to wonder if my years’ maternity leave, wonderful as it was, might have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, at this point one I had what I can only describe as a stroke of luck, or rather several small strokes.  In rapid succession I discovered that there are copies of the Gazette of the 3rd London General Hospital in the Bamji Collection here at Leeds as well as in the Wellcome Library and, via an unrelated Twitter conversation, began following Sue Light who blogs about the Happy Hospital, as the 3rd London General was known.  The name comes from the title given by Ward Muir, one of the hospital’s orderlies, to his second collection of columns and vignettes, published in 1918.  (His first, and better-known collection, Observations of an Orderly, was published in 1916 and is now available print on demand.)  Co-incidentally, and in my third small stroke of good fortune, I was reading this volume, and worrying that my forthcoming paper was going to be overly weighted to the 3rd London General, when I came across the following:

‘the case of two of our orderlies, both privates, whose sons are officers: these youths will have to be saluted and Sirred if by any chance they ever turn up here as patients and are waited on by their fathers.’

This one sentence contains so much of what my work is about: rank and authority, maturity and age, medical and combat roles.  All at once I was excited again about not only my forthcoming conference paper, despite the narrower-than-desired focus, but also about my project as a whole.  If this is what the experiences of one (very articulate) orderly in one (slightly unusual) hospital have to offer, the potential for unpacking a great deal more about the masculinity of men serving in these roles is still there.  And while the work of Dr Mayhew and Liana Markovich, who is writing on Australian stretcher bearers, will do much to open up the subject of these remarkable men, there is still so much to say about them in relation to courage under fire, the bearing of arms in warfare and the strength necessary to be a soldier.  In fact, I have started toying with the idea of a definition of masculine courage in wartime as endurance of danger in direct and explicit contrast to armed attack. (This will need a lot more work, but given the disproportionate number of medals awarded to RAMC personnel there does seem some basis for exploring this further.)

So I may not have caught up with my year off, or even with my schedule for the next month (the conference paper has yet to be written), but I have come out of the dip in research energy which, along with my fear, was holding me back.  Now to turn my new-found engagement into a decent paper…

Talking about Mary Beard…

So I have spent quite a lot of time this past weekend thinking about the controversy that has surrounded Mary Beard for the past couple of weeks.  For those who are unaware of it, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge and public intellectual.  A couple of weeks ago she appeared on Question Time, a current affairs programme in which a panel of politicians, journalists and others discuss questions posed by the audience.  Guests are often chosen for their potential conflict, although this being the BBC, said conflict rarely gets beyond eloquent (and not-so-eloquent) disagreement and polite put-downs.  The most controversial guest on the night in question was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a political party that wants Britain to leave the European Union and generally dislikes what it sees as an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe consequent to that membership.

I didn’t actually watch the programme (the frustration of yelling at the television on a regular basis is not worth whatever intellectual gain I might make from hearing opinions spoken that generally appear in other media anyway), but apparently a question was asked relating to the effects of immigration on Boston in Lincolnshire, to which Professor Beard responded quoting a report that viewed such impact as positive.  The debate that this provoked extended from the programme itself to many other media, including a large number of extremely rude tweets and e-mails directed at Professor Beard.  Many of these were, according to Professor Beard’s own account on her blog A Don’s Life, either withdrawn or led to more polite forms of debate, but significant forms of abuse remained, including the posts on a website, Don’t Get Me Started (which has since been closed).  As Professor Beard herself explains, this abuse was vicious and graphically sexual in nature, having little relation to the topic involved and everything to do with Professor Beard’s appearance and identity as a woman.

I followed the controversy via newspaper articles (which picked up the story fairly quickly) and through Twitter, where I follow Professor Beard.  In addition to a number of interesting contributions from other women in the public sphere who have been at the receiving end of such abuse, both from the relevant website and other quarters, there have been a number of retweets of some of the abusive comments addressed to the professor.  One of these was to the effect that she should grow some balls because she was in the public eye and therefore abuse was only to be expected when she voiced unpopular opinions.  The irony of the suggestion that Professor Beard acquire male genitalia in order to protect her from abuse directed at her primarily because, as a woman, she lacks said physical attributes struck me strongly enough that I posted a reply to that effect.  It was not a particularly witty tweet and, beyond a rather incoherent response from the original commenter to the effect that David Starkey and Simon Schama showed more dignity by not talking about being abused for their views, it sunk more or less without a trace.

What set me thinking, however, was the fact that, while it took me only a couple of minutes to compose my tweet, it took me a good 15-20 minutes to decide to actually post it in a public forum.  As I say, it wasn’t particularly clever or insightful, but nor was it abusive or even unkind.  It was simply a rather sarcastic contribution to an ongoing public discussion.  Yet I was worried about posting it and, I have realised, that that worry derives in part from the fact that I am a woman.

As a published author, I have received my share of green-pen correspondence.  Fortunately they have taken the old-fashioned form of letters signed by a named individual who even gave their address.  They were extremely personal about my intellectual capabilities, which was quite upsetting, but never strayed into more personal territory, beyond the suggestion (which I have heard a number of times now) that as a woman I cannot possibly understand what it was like to be a (male) soldier in wartime.  I was fortunate to receive strong support from my editor at the time and, while very upsetting, I never felt threatened.

What Professor Beard, and many other women who speak out in the public sphere of popular media, have suffered is of another order.  The abuse is explicitly sexual and often both implicitly and explicitly violent.  What is for me the most worrying aspect are the number of threats I have read about directed towards the families of these women, including their children.  Like the sexual threats and commentary, there appears to be no equivalent aimed at men who participate in public discussion.

Which means that, as the mother of young children, I am uncomfortably aware that publishing an opinion in public may not only put me at risk of the sort of sexual commentary and threat that no individual, whatever their opinion, should be subject to, but may also lay my children open to threats of violence through absolutely no fault of their own.  This terrifies me, as it should anyone who values democracy, discussion and freedom of speech.  At the same time, as an historian working in a field that is of considerable (and soon to be increasing) public interest, I want my voice to be heard, even if the stories I have to tell may not be the ones everyone wants to hear.  Although nowhere near as eminent as Professor Beard and the many other courageous women who carry on contributing to civilised discourse in face of irrelevant abuse, I need to find the courage to carry on speaking out in public, to refuse to be silenced.

So I am glad I posted that tweet, however silly and sarcastic.  And I will carry on putting forward my views in the hopes that some day the voices of reasonable argument will drown out the abuse and threats of those who would seek to silence us, women and men alike.

A letter to Simon Russell Beale

privateson-parades_2423627bDear Mr Russell Beale,

First of all, please allow me to apologize for making such a complete idiot of myself when I saw you on Friday evening before the performance of Privates of Parade. In the first instance, it was extremely rude of me to stare at you so long and so idiotically while you enjoyed your cigarette at the stage door. Secondly, when you had the civility to say hello, for me to mutter something incomprehensible and slink off in the other direction was beyond impolite. My only excuse is that, at that stage, I did not have anything I could have said to you that would not have been more than the burblings of a long-term fan.

In all honesty, I do wish our encounter had taken place a few hours later, after I had had the privilege of seeing your hugely enjoyable performance as Terri Dennis. As a theatrical experience it was, as the reviews have said, enormously enjoyable, courageous, full of energy and life and wit. But writing as a historian of gender and warfare your performance,along with that of all the rest of the cast and Michael Grandage’s highly accomplished direction, offered a great deal of food for thought as well.

The story the play tells is, of course, one about the achievement of masculine maturity, both sexual and emotional, in a theatre (in all its many meanings) of conflict. As Steven says in the final scene, he has become a man thanks to his experiences in SADUSEA, specifically, rather than in the military more generally. But what I found far more fascinating was Terri’s attainment of a conventional masculine identity at the end, one defined not by his military status, which is so successfully undermined throughout by the campness of his demeanour, but through his marriage and impending (surrogate) fatherhood, a narrative emphasized by the modulation you brought to that closing scene.

For me, that was the most powerful theme of the entire evening, the importance of the domestic and of home to the identity of all the men involved. The scene in which letters home are opened and read is the first in which their characters become fully defined, as sons and husbands, and throughout it is through their domestic ties, former, potential, respectable and subversive, that the characters developed. Dennis’s own story of domestic tragedy was profoundly moving, a lovely counterpoint to his eventual domestic ‘respectability’.

Not that these were the only themes: the role of uniform and costume in defining masculinity, the transient power of wounding and disability in creating heroic identities and the appalling things that conflict does to warp both men and women were all powerfully evoked. In the end, I had so much to say that, had I seen you again I probably would have been no more coherent than I was on our first encounter. So all I can do is say thank you, to you and the rest of the cast, for creating a theatrical performance that had so many profound echoes of my own work and which forced me to think critically about questions of sexuality and emotion. And again to ask your forgiveness for one tongue-tied long-term fan who remains

Yours very sincerely,

Jessica Meyer

On the contemplation of male facial hair

So, it is November, or Movember for certain sections of the population who are currently growing facial hair in aid of research into men’s health, specifically prostate and testicular cancers.

Now, I have never had a particular interest in this charitable movement, bar the occasional friend e-mailing with an amusing picture and a request for donations (my husband has always refused to get involved on the grounds of the need to retain his dignity in front of his students), but the conjunction of this fund-raiser with the inevitable historical reflections that accompany Remembrance Day on 11th November always strikes me as poignant.

One trope that quietly haunted my research into masculinity and the First World War is that of facial hair as a signifier of masculinity.  I wrote in my monograph about men’s insistence on shaving even in the most difficult of circumstances, in order to retain their sense of humanity in the hell of the trenches, but I never really explored further.  Yet I as I think about moustaches, I cannot help thinking about the references made to men growing facial hair in order to appear more mature when they came to enlist, in both memoirs and fiction.  And I wonder how many officers grew moustaches specifically to give themselves a sense of authority, an authority associated with mature masculinity, over the (often older) men that they were leading.

The link between male facial hair and maturity seems to me to have been particularly strong at the turn of the twentieth century.  Of course, the biological link transcends historical periods, but literary references and cultural artefacts relating to facial hair and shaving as a symbol of maturity seem particularly prominent in this period.  And certainly if you look at collections such as the Imperial War Museum’s Faces of the First World War, from which Private Johnston’s photograph (above) comes, the number of young men sporting moustaches is notable. The image is a poignant one, of young men striving to attain a maturity of image that they would never achieve in life.

How does this link with Movember?  I’m not entirely sure.  The fundraisers of the movement are, in with their growth, flaunting the life-affirming nature of the ability to grow old enough to grow facial hair in the face of ill-health.  The link may be especially powerful in relation to testicular cancer, with its cultural implications of impotence; less so in relation to prostate cancer, which is far more common in older men who have already achieved maturity.  For the young moustache growers of 1914-18, the threat of death and mutilation was far more immediate and threatening to their sense of both maturity and masculinity, making their facial hair even more complex in its significance.  I am sure there is a paper in all of this (and perhaps someone has already written it.  I remember listening to a fabulous paper on masculinity and nineteenth-century beards at a conference several years ago.)  In the meantime, I remain unable to look at all these young men with their newly-sprouted declarations of charitable intent without a small pang of pity for their youth and, dare I say it, innocence.

Critical Ramblings

After a week in the archive last week I have been reading a few articles in an attempt to get a bit more into the correct mindset before writing my own.  With one exception, none have been directly related to my research (there isn’t a whole lot out there as far as I can make out) but two were articles that I have been meaning to read for some time as they have been cited in many other things that I have read.  The experience was enlightening, although possibly not in the ways the authors intended.

The first of these was actually a chapter in a collection of essays, Ilana Bet-El’s ‘Men and Soldiers: British Conscripts, Concepts of Masculinity, and the Great War’ in Billie Melman’s Borderlines: Genders and Identities in War and Peace 1870-1930 (Routledge, 1998). Bet-El’s argument is that British popular memory of First World War soldiers as men is dominated by the Myth of Volunteer (her capitals) at the expense of the masculine experiences of conscripts who, in fact, made up the majority of service personnel over the course of the war. While Bet-El certainly has a point, she does fall into the trap of ascribing too much meaning to the way in which a man became a soldier, the very criticism she has of the civilian population at the time, who she sees as being out of touch with the realities of warfare.  Thus the experiences of maleness in wartime as one of endurance and survival which she ascribes exclusively to conscripts surely applies as much to the experiences of volunteers once they were in the front line as to those of conscripts.  She also doesn’t play entirely fair with her sources, using public propaganda posters in relation to volunteers but personal documents when discussing conscripts.  This does bring new sources into the debate, but it is rather a case of comparing apples and oranges.

My notes on Bet-El’s articles are thus full of exclamation points and pointed asides about her claims, many of which I disagree with.  What is encouraging, however, is the date of the article.  Having wondered why she was using such a monolithic definition of masculinity (and one that tended to over-emphasize the importance sexuality, although this was clearly in response to the historiographic context she was arguing against), I went back and checked the dates and realized that almost all the more interesting and subtle analysis of masculinity and the First World War had been published after this article.  So John Tosh’s discussion of domestic masculinity and its relation to adventure and, even more significant, his analysis of ‘manliness’ as opposed to ‘masculinity’, and Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper’s work on male emotions in wartime has all been published in the past decade and a half, which is before you consider the reconsiderations of war enthusiasm, recruitment and citizenship that have also appeared.  That the field has developed so much, and introduced so many complex and interesting questions to the debate is very exciting and encouraging for those of us who are trying to take the work further.

Mentioning Mike Roper brings me two the second article which has been raising my blood pressure, Tracey Loughran’s ‘Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories’ in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences (Vol. 67, no 1, 2010, pp.94-119), which cites The Secret Battle extensively.  Again, this is an article I have been meaning to read for a while and it was definitely worth the wait.  I think Loughran’s argument about the need to locate understandings and diagnosis of shell shock in the wider intellectual context of the early twentieth century is spot-on and I am looking forward to her book on the subject which is tantalizingly in production.  What I was less convinced by was her argument for a middle way approach between those who locate an emotional truth of the war in art and literature and what she refers to as the ‘myth and memory’ school of historians who locate that truth in ‘the widest possible range of documents, representing the widest possible range of people’, citing Dan Todman’s The Great War: Myth and Memory.  I think this is a bit of a misrepresentation of the myth and memory argument which certainly isn’t about the weight of sheer numbers.  It is primarily about the very thing Loughran herself is interested in, context, and providing a counter-balance to what might be described as a hegemonic understanding of the war based on a relatively small number of sources.  Certain stories about the war have great prominence – the war poets, men shot at dawn, most recently men with facial injuries.  Trying to tell the stories of other groups, not necessarily larger but equally relevant and representative, can be difficult, especially if those stories appear to contradict the ’emotional truths’ of the better known groups. Understanding how those particular groups came to dominate the historic narrative isn’t everything, but it can help to make the case for why stories about conscripted men or those suffering abdominal wounds or those whose psyches were resilient or adaptable enough that they didn’t display symptoms that could be defined as shell shock are also worth hearing.  Yes, there must also be an ’empathetic imagining of a subject’ in order to ask ‘questions with a human meaning, which ultimately makes the practice of history worthwhile.’  But that empathy is not necessarily precluded by casting a critical eye over how particular stories come to resonate so strongly, any more than the ability to be historically accurate is precluded by the fictional form.
So, that is rather a long-winded way of me getting some first impressions and criticisms off my chest.  Working on a long-term independent project, it can be difficult to find an outlet for such ideas and critiques.  Articles are not, in themselves, subject to book reviews, and I cannot write full reviews for everything I read in any case.  But in the absence of a reading group or seminar series in which to express my ideas, this blog must serve instead as an outlet and record.  Which is, of course, the point.

Age and Class

I am currently supposed to be writing an article on the politics of voluntary medical services in wartime but keep on being distracted by thoughts about age and class in relation to wartime masculinity.

‘Indeed, to the end of his life the Dean never really understood what work it meant to run a house, a college, or a camp efficiently. All through his life meals appeared, rooms were cleaned, beds were made, clothes were washed and mended, and he took this for granted.’ (P. Pare and D. Harris, Eric Milner-White 1884-1963, A Memoir (London, 1965) quoted in E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Palgrave, 2011).)

Milner-White served as an army chaplain during the war, hence Madigan’s interest in him, but the point he is making about the class background of the majority of Anglican chaplains (public school and university educated, middle to upper class social millieu) and the sense of entitlement that this bred applies equally to a great number of other men who served in combatant roles during the war, as Madigan himself notes. The idea that these men might not have known how to run a camp, because that sort of organizational work was something that others did, is quite a startling one. It is forcing me to ask who had the sort of organizational and logistics skills to make the army function in wartime (I am starting to believe the old soldiers’ theory that the NCOs really did run everything) and to return to Ross McKibbin’s endlessly fascinating discussion of the stratification of social class in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998) for a reminder of the complexities of the British class system in the first half of the twentieth century.  It is easy to talk about the ‘middle classes’ and assume that we know what we mean by that (usually ourselves) but applying that label historically takes some careful thought, something I will admit I haven’t been taking enough care with recently.  I tend to focus on continuities in my work, ways in which social and cultural assumptions have not changed that much over time despite all the great historical event of the last hundred or so years, or at least have developed from a common base that remains recognizable today. It is very healthy to be reminded that some things have changed enormously and that getting to grips with why those changes occurred and what the implications might be is part of my job.

And then this morning I received an e-mail from my colleague asking if I could recommend any studies on the experiences of middle-aged men during the war. And I can’t. Age was a hugely important aspect of the recruitment process in Britain during the war and had profound influence on ideas of appropriate service and, consequently, masculinity during the war years. (It was also hugely influential in ideas about shell shock, something I am exploring for a paper I hope to give at a conference in the spring.) Yet, while underage volunteerism has been discussed fairly extensively in the literature, I can think of no study of those too old to serve. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of over-aged men who volunteered, and many did serve in non-combatant roles (including those being studied by my colleague who contributed to the logistics effort). But there is no systematic academic analysis that I can think of. If anyone can suggest any, I would be profoundly grateful as this is something that I am going to have to look into in more depth, if only because I suspect a number of the orderlies and ambulance drivers I am studying fit into this category.

And, after that digression, I return to the politics of the British Red Cross, the St. John Ambulance Association and the Friends Ambulance Unit.

Amanda Vickery on … Men

I have been listening to this BBC Radio 4 programme on iPlayer for the past few weeks and more or less enjoying it.  The premise is that the historian Amanda Vickery examines six archetypes of masculinity, the knight, the gentleman, the lover, the sailor, the explorer and the suits, through a combination of historical experts and readings from primary sources.  This past week, the explorer, was especially fun for me as it included contributions from Max Jones, my former PhD supervisor, and John Tosh, with whom I have worked.

In general, the programme works well, although the conclusion at the end of episode two, that men defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women was something of a ‘duh’ moment for me, although that is me talking as an historian of masculinty.  There are, however, some bigger problems with I am having with the programme.  The first of these is the association of each archetype with a particular period in history: the knight with the middle ages, the gentleman with the Renaissance, the lover with the eighteenth century, the sailor with the early nineteenth century, the explorer with the late nineteenth/early twentieth century and the suit with the mid-twentieth century.  Archetype does, of course, refer to the prototype, the original pattern on which all subsequent types are based, so examining the period of emergence is what the programme sets out to do.  But surely to understand the significance of any one archetype to our current view of masculinity we need to see how the pattern developed over time?  In other words we should probably think about the reimagining of the knight and courtly love in the nineteenth century to grasp the full significance of the twelfth century model to our ideas about masculinity and its cultural significance.

My second gripe is about the archetypes chosen for discussion.  All of them are archetypes of public masculinity, with the possible exception of the lover, the discussion of which included the most fabulous diary of a Manchester wigmaker who noted down every time (and position) he had sex with his wives (there were four in total).  Given the argument that men have, over time, defined themselves as much in relation to other men as to women, it seems odd not to have looked at what those other types of masculinity might be.  Especially in light of John Tosh’s contribution this past week, where he argues that the explorer was a form of escape from the domestic, why have we not heard about the archetype of the husband and father or patriarch?  For that matter, after the knight and the sailor, where are the scholar, the craftsman or engineer, the administrator?  Above all, if you are going to discuss the lover as a masculine archetype that is defined against woman, why is there nothing on the householder, the ultimate archetype of mature masculinity that separates the man from the boy throughout modern history? As far as I can see, the archetypes have been chosen to illustrate the thesis that men define themselves primarily within all-male hierarchies, a reasonable argument but definitely not the whole story.  So, here is to the return of an interesting series with an expanded cast of men (and their others) in the future.