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‘Always protest’? Drag Race, Pathé Newsreels, and Subversion in Mainstream Media

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RuPaul’s Drag Race sells itself, and has been praised, as a subversive television series. RuPaul, eponymous creator of the drag contest gameshow, has stated ‘true drag will never be mainstream. Because true drag has to do with seeing that this world is an illusion’. British judge Graham Norton recently claimed ‘there’s something dangerous about drag still’. Echoing this, a contestant queen from the syndicated British Drag Race enthused that ‘Drag was always a protest, a political statement’. Drag Race, participants and producers alike insist, is inherently subversive because drag necessarily challenges the gender norms of ‘straight’ society.

Drag Race has also become a mass media phenomenon. A niche show in 2009, its 13th series premiered this year to 1.3 million viewers. Interviewed, like any self-respecting A-list celebrity, by the Muppets and toting both a Simpsons cameo and a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, RuPaul is arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. This begs the question, can drag retain a subversive edge in mainstream media?

To consider this, it is instructive to look at one of drag’s first brushes with mass media in Britain. It was during the interwar period that drag first appeared onscreen, chiefly through cinema newsreels. Newsreels – short non-fiction topical films summarising the week’s current events – were included in almost every cinema programme until the 1960s. To leaven the news, they frequently featured variety entertainment; offshoot newsreels such as Pathetone were evencomprised entirely of filmed music hall acts.

A well-established form of music hall repertory from the nineteenth century, drag soon found its way into the newsreel. Bert Errol amazed cinemagoers by changing into high drag before their eyes in 1922. West-End comedian Douglas Byng appeared in rudimentary drag singing innuendo-laden falsetto across the 1930s. A 1937 item covered a police pantomime, with multiple shots of officers putting on makeup and dresses. In 1939, six sailors dressed as fairies sang and pranced before King-Emperor George VI during a naval inspection.

This seems remarkable at a time when populist paper John Bull ran editorials attacking London’s queer men for transvestism, castigating them as the ‘painted boy menace’.[1] From the mid-1920s, men wearing women’s clothes and makeup became tantamount to being queer.[2] In the 1930s, it is estimated 40 percent of Britons went to the cinema once and 25 percent twice or more a week.[3] To make drag palatable for the mainstream, newsreels had to ensure conventional manliness remained unchallenged and any association with queerness was muted.

As such, newsreels usually placed drag in establishment settings. Byng was a fixture of London’s fashionable set, always filmed in high-end venues like the Paradise Club, laughing with elites more so than at them. Likewise, Errol’s wife helped him change into drag, making sure audiences knew he was a red-blooded heterosexual, wig and high heels notwithstanding. The police officers and sailors returned to their uniforms, drag but a brief interlude (the naval fairies lasted but twenty seconds onscreen) from their ‘manly’ public service. Ensconced in marriage, elite society, and ‘masculine’ professions, queens could not truly send up the establishment when they were often performing from the heart of it.

Moreover, newsreels always framed drag as comedy. Ian Green has argued comedy allows latitude for contentious topics. Yet, because comedy resolves in laughter, it curtails earnest critique.[4] David Sutton likewise concludes comedy as a genre is ‘the appropriate site for the inappropriate, the proper place for indecorum’.[5] Comedy is establishment-condoned critique, safely dissipated in laughter. All the above acts, awash with puns and gags, aimed to make cinemagoers laugh, not challenge their gendered assumptions. Far from a challenge to the status quo, then, interwar drag acts could only enter mainstream media as safe entertainment bereft of queer connotations.

This is not to say drag culture could not be subversive. For queer men to wear women’s clothes and attend drag balls was certainly a brave and subversive act in the interwar period, one that provoked the British establishment.[6] The interwar life of Quentin Crisp is representative of the defiant subversion that came from wearing cosmetics.

Yet, as Jacob Bloomfield has shown, drag onstage was not inherently controversial and remained a staple of popular theatre.[7] Similarly, filmed drag acts obviated controversy in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience. In fact, looking at newsreel drag items reveals a legacy of conservatism for drag acts in the mainstream.

The producers of Drag Race would like to make their show the heir to the counterculture of drag balls and gay bars. Yet, in many respects, itis the mainstream heir to newsreel variety acts. Like newsreels, Drag Race is foremost comic entertainment, more inclined to jokes than politics. What little gender discussion there is occurs in the fleeting moments between farcical gameshow skits. The only challenges presented are to the competing queens’ dignities.

Like Pathe’s producers, RuPaul has espoused a profoundly conservative view of ‘true’ drag. Through transphobic comments, he has stressed drag as the exclusive province of gay men. Thus, much as newsreels removed any ‘controversial’ association with queerness, so Drag Race has placed strict limits on what drag represents and who can perform it.  

A look at the history of drag in newsreels reveals that to project drag through mass media is not inherently subversive. Whether in Pathé or on BBC3, being produced as mainstream entertainment severely curtails any potential for real subversion of societal norms such as gender. Former drag performer Paul O’Grady, carping in 2017 about Drag Race, contended that his drag persona Lilly Savage ‘belonged in a pub, especially a gay bar, where you could rant and rave’.  Considering drag’s relationship with popular media, perhaps it is only in niche subcultures that subversion can truly flourish.

Conner Scott is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research seeks to explore the role of British newsreels in everyday life, and how they (re)presented the cinemagoing public to itself on a weekly basis between c.1919-c.1939.


Cover image: Manchester Pride Parade 2019. A group of five drag queens representing BBC’s ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK’ on pink stage, Manchester, 24 August 2019. Used courtesy of Goncalo Telo for non-commercial, educational purposes. https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/manchester-uk-august-24-2019-pride-1489347011

[1] Matt Houlbrook, ‘“The man with the powder puff” in Interwar London’, The Historical Journal 50.1 (2007), pp. 147-49.

[2] I use the term queer as it was the most common self-identity of interwar men who had sexual and emotional relationships with other men and avoids the anachronism of gay. See Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (London, 2005), p. xiii.

[3] Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London, 2002), p. 2.

[4] Ian Green, ‘Ealing: In the Comedy Frame’ in James Curran and Vincent Porter (eds), British Cinema History (London, 1983), p. 296.

[5] David Sutton, A Chorus of Raspberries: British Film Comedy 1929-1939 (Exeter, 2000), p. 60.

[6] See Matt Houlbrook, ‘Lady Austin’s Camp Boys: Constituting the Queer Subject in 1930s London’, Gender and History 14.1 (2002), pp. 31-61; Houlbrook, Queer London.

[7] See Jacob Bloomfield, ‘Splinters: Cross-Dressing Ex-Servicemen on the Interwar Stage’, Twentieth Century British History 30.1 (2019), pp. 1-28.

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Defending democracy? The protests against Werner Krauss in West Berlin, 1950

Proteste gegen Werner Krauss

In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss  an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.

The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.[1]

Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.[2]

The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.[3]

The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.[4]

Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.[5]

Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.[6]

Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.[7]  

Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.[8]

The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.[9]

Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.[10]

A poster for Jud Süß, 1940. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.[11]

The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law.[12] Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.[13]

Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.[14]

The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms. 

Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.

Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.

Cover image: protesters against Werner Krauss, demonstrating with placards and torches in front of the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, 10 December 1950. Photographer: Associated Press. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Preview/353430.jpg


[1] Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.

[2] Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.

[3] Ibid., p. 313.

[4] ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.

[5] Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.

[6] ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7. 

[7] ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.

[8] ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.

[9] ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.

[10] Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.

[11] Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.

[12] LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.

[13] ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.

[14] Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.

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The Politics of Churchill’s Statue

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During Britain’s strange summer of 2020, the statues of long-dead figures became live political issues. Black Lives Matter protestors threw slave-trader Edward Colston’s effigy into Bristol harbour, an act that shocked many, but that was as nothing to the reaction provoked by the treatment meted out to Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square. During another Black Lives Matter protest this was daubed with the claim that the wartime Prime Minister – voted the Greatest Briton in 2002 – was a racist. The Daily Express believed the statue had as a consequence been ‘desecrated’. A week later far-right demonstrators, many of them associated with racist views, gathered near the statue, ostensibly to defend it from further attack, some of them chanting ‘Sir Winston Churchill, he’s one of our own’. By then however the statue had been boarded up and hidden from view.

Some saw the defacement of Churchill’s statue and the response to it as another episode in Britain’s ‘culture wars’, an unwelcome development in the country’s increasingly fractious politics. But the statues of great figures have always been political, their sponsors invariably hoping to impose their view of the notables’ significance onto the future, to keep them in some way permanently alive. Yet, as Churchill’s Parliament Square effigy itself illustrates, such statues even at the moment of their creation can be subject to contestation: its 2020 defacement is not as novel an act as it might at first appear.

After Churchill retired from front line politics in 1955, his supporters unleashed a wave of statues and other memorials intended to make permanent their preferred remembrance of his wartime role as the nation’s saviour, one which led The Times in 1954 to describe him without qualification, as the ‘greatest man of all time’. Most notably soon after Churchill’s 1965 state funeral the House of Commons commissioned a statue to be placed in the Members’ Lobby. When unveiled in 1969 according to the Guardian correspondent, ‘there was an audible intake of breath’ from those present. ‘It was’, he went on, ‘for all the world as though Churchill had himself thrown off his coverings by taking a sudden step forward. There he stood once more … avid for new burdens.’ Indeed, such were the statue’s presumed magical qualities it quickly became the practice of Conservative MPs to stroke its left foot for luck, something responsible for the foot being almost worn away.

Even before that effigy was completed, in 1968 Conservative MP John Tilney in a question to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson started the process which would end with Churchill’s Parliament Square statue. Tilney called for the creation of another likeness ‘of perhaps the greatest leader of this nation and the greatest Parliamentarian for centuries.’ The reaction to Tilney’s suggestion revealed the partisan nature of his request. Wilson was reluctant to endorse the sentiment and so dissembled. But, reflecting the enmity in which Churchill the class warrior – as opposed to national saviour – was held amongst South Wales miners, Labour MP Emrys Hughes sarcastically questioned whether another statue was ‘absolutely unnecessary because nobody can forget him?’

Undeterred, Tilney raised the matter a few months later. Wilson remained unwilling to back the project and refused it state funds but promised to facilitate the statue’s construction should broad support be made evident, which he doubted. When the matter was raised in the second chamber the Labour Leader of the Lords, Lord Shackleton, claimed to be not unsympathetic to the initiative, but then proceeded to list all the memorials then dedicated to Churchill, clearly implying another one was unnecessary. But another Labour peer, Lord Blyton, a former miner, was more direct in his criticism of the scheme, pointedly stating that, ‘I think we should remember that he [Churchill] did not win the last war by himself. He had men like Clem Attlee and Ernie Bevin.’

After Tilney received the support of 150 MPs and various other worthies, Wilson was however obliged to endorse the formation of a committee to oversee the creation of a statue, which was unveiled in November 1973, the ceremony being watched by a crowd of over 1,000 including the Queen.

Since then and especially after the turn of the century Churchill’s statue has regularly been defaced or subject to lèse-majeste as perspectives about his contribution to British history have changed. During London’s May Day protests of 2000 a strip of grass was placed on its head to give the impression Churchill sported a Mohican haircut. Those responsible evaded the police but James Matthews, the 25 years-old former soldier who sprayed its mouth with red paint so it looked as if blood was dripping from it, did not. To him, ‘Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-Semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India’.

Ten years later in what the Daily Mail described as an attack on ‘respect and common decency’ young protestors at a demonstration against an increase in university tuition fees showed what they thought about Churchill by urinating on the statue’s plinth. In 2012, in a more sober and focused way, in order to highlight the need to tackle problems associated with mental illness, campaigners placed a straightjacket on the statue, in recognition of Churchill’s increasingly well-known bouts of depression.

Even before it was unveiled, Churchill’s Parliament Square statue was the subject of dispute. Those well-placed figures who regarded him as the man who single-handedly saved Britain from defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany prevailed; but their view of Churchill’s place in history – and of the character of Britain itself – was always contested. Similarly, culture has been a constant political battleground: the events of the summer of 2020 are not so unique after all.

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and the author with Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye of The Churchill Myths (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Cover image: Big Ben and Churchill Statue, courtesy of johnnyhypno https://www.needpix.com/photo/1805316/big-ben-churchill-statue-westminster-clock-england-london-politics-government [Accessed 08/10/2020].

This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form at: https://blog.oup.com/2020/09/the-defacing-of-churchills-statue/

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“Freewheelin’ to Ban-happy”?: Students and No-Platform in Britain

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Since around the end of 2013 there has been a moral panic around freedom of speech on British university campuses. This emerged after a number of public figures scheduled to speak at various universities and student unions were disinvited due to student pressure and organising – what is known as ‘no-platforming’.

This took place within a broader argument in the British media about ‘censorious students’, consisting not just of debates around ‘no-platform’ but also ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’.

For example, in December 2015 the Editor of the right-libertarian publication Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, used the term ‘Stepford Students’ in an article for the Spectator. He described how, in his view, students had been rebranded as fragile, overgrown children who needed to be shielded from ‘harmful’ ideas and who demanded the right to feel comfortable even at university which should be a space of challenging ideas and intellectual discomfort.

O’Neill characterised this development as a sudden and radical reversal. He argued that it is ‘hard to think of any other section of society that has undergone as epic a transformation as students have’ and claimed that in the ‘space of a generation students have gone from freewheelin’ to ban-happy’, from ‘askers of awkward questions’ to ‘suppressors of offensive speech’.

This idea of mollycoddled ‘snowflake’ students caught on and achieved a relatively dominant position in media coverage of free speech in Britain and British universities.[1]

Most of the discussion, though, has been devastatingly ahistorical. As the historian Evan Smith points out in his recent monograph, ‘no-platform’ has a much longer and more complex history than contemporary media discussions acknowledge.[2]

Smith argues that ‘no-platform’ emerged out of a longer antifascist tradition in Britain of denying a platform to fascists in the inter- and early post-war periods through tactics such as heckling and the physical denial of space. Whilst true, we might put these longer traditions aside for the moment to look at the issue of free speech at universities, which became a matter of media interest in the 1960s.

In May 1968, for example, an article in the Spectator compared what it termed ‘liberal’ and ‘revolutionary’ students, and noted there was tension between the two because the ‘liberals’ were struggling with their studies due to their ‘free speech being howled down’ by the demonstrations of the ‘revolutionary minority’.[3]

The next year the Vice-Chancellor of Essex University, Dr. Albert Sloman, expressed his concern at how militant students were killing free speech and complained that important questions were no longer being debated in universities as frankly or as often because visiting speakers were regularly being ‘drowned out’.[4]

During the 1960s and 1970s, rather than Milo Yinnopolous or Tommy Robinson, it was often Conservative MPs like Enoch Powell or Keith Joseph who were being denied platforms. For instance, when Powell was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Conservative Association at St. Andrews in 1973, he had attracted so much previous opprobrium on other campuses that the Association deliberately printed the wrong date on posters advertising the dinner, only informing students buying tickets what the real date was in order to avoid disruption.[5]

Referring to Powell being prevented from speaking at Dundee University the year before, one commentator, again in the Spectator, complained that students were ‘encouraged to regard themselves as infants whose tantrums will not be held against them’ and that they were ‘pampered…in the most regressive and childlike attitudes and granted exemption from the adult world’.[6]

Here – in 1972 – were almost identical criticisms to those being made today and even the same language being used – of infantilisation, childlike attitudes and the characterisation of students as regressive children who urgently need to grow up.

As Smith documents, 1973 saw protests against Professor Hans Eysenck at LSE (for his research on racial elements in the inheritance of intelligence) and the occupation of a lecture hall at Sussex to prevent the American academic Samuel P. Huntington from speaking. In May 1974, the former Monday Club Chairman Jonathan Guinness was prevente from speaking at Portsmouth Polytechnic with students even barricading a hall and drowning him out until he left.[7] Smith shows how ‘these events were portrayed as an end to free speech on campus and an example of a violent turn within the movement’, with this period an important ‘incubator’ for the idea of ‘no-platform’.[8]

1974 was indeed a particularly important moment as it was the year ‘no-platform’ became an official National Union of Students (NUS) policy rather than a disparate patchwork of policies at various student unions. The NUS conference in Liverpool voted to ‘smash’ the meetings of, amongst other groups, the Monday Club, the National Front (NF) and the National Democratic Party.[9]

There was, however, considerable opposition to the Liverpool motion. Surrey, for instance, disowned the policy of disruption by defending ‘the right of freedom of speech for all’.[10] One NUS-delegate from Manchester argued that right-wing views could be rejected through common sense and believing students did not have the capacity to do so was ‘patronising paternalism’.[11]

At the University of Sheffield, a debate took place on whether to let Brian Faulkner, the Unionist last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, speak. The talk eventually went ahead with the Chairman of the Debates Committee arguing: ‘if he was evil let the man come and show himself to be evil during questioning…students are capable of judging for themselves’, whilst others argued that freedom of speech had to be weighed against ‘other important freedoms’.[12]

In fact, mirroring recent moves, disillusionment with the NUS and policies like ‘no-platform’ even caused some unions to disaffiliate, such as Aston and Manchester in 1976.[13]

The important point here is that there has been, for over half a century now, anxieties and debates about freedom of speech on campuses and so to suggest that, in the space of a generation, students have gone from ‘freewheelin’ to ‘ban-happy’ isn’t really true.  

It is also not quite accurate to say, as Sarah Ditum did in the New Statesman in 2014, that only recently has the tactic burst beyond the remit it was originally intended for. During the 1980s sexists and homophobes were targeted for denial of platforms and Smith argues that in this period the tactic was recalibrated in the face of these other threats following the decline of the NF, ‘indicating that debate around the repurposing of the tactic by students has endured for nearly 40 years’.[14]

There was another pronounced ‘spike’ of media interest from 1985, and by 1986 it was felt that freedom of speech in universities was under such an acute threat that parliamentary legislation was required to make it the duty of institutions to enforce the right of free speech. In the Commons, the Secretary of State for Education and Science spoke of the ‘considerable public unease’ about the way in which certain people had been denied the right of freedom of speech at universities, resulting in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 which forced institutions to take ‘reasonable steps’ to guarantee freedom of speech within the law.[15]

So, a closer look at the history of ‘no-platform’ in Britain reveals that much of the discussion has remained essentially unchanged for decades. There have certainly been more intense moments where these themes gained greater visibility and traction in the media, but students have not gone from free speech warriors to censors in a generation and a ‘radical transformation’ simply does not accurately characterise changing attitudes to campus free speech.

Hallam Roffey is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research looks at the idea of ‘acceptability’ in English culture between 1970 and 1990, examining changing attitudes around sexually explicit imagery, violent media, offensive speech and blasphemy. You can find Hallam on Twitter @HallamRoffey


Cover image: University of Michigan Student Walkout at the Ross School of Business, November 16, 2016. Courtesy of Corey Seeman, https://www.flickr.com/photos/cseeman/30895469312/in/photostream/ [Accessed 5 October 2020].

[1] I myself repeated a number of its tropes in what I now view as a somewhat embarrassing series of articles for Spiked and the Telegraph).

[2] E. Smith, No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech (Oxon, 2020).

[3] Spectator, 23 May 1968, p. 2.

[4] Daily Mail, 14 October 1969, p. 9.

[5] Darts, 23 February 1973, p. 3.

[6] Spectator, 18 November 1972, p. 11.

[7] Daily Mail, 18 May 1974, p. 14.

[8] Smith, No Platform, p, 82.

[9] Daily Mail, 5 April 1974, p. 13.

[10] Guardian, 29 May 1974, p. 5.

[11] Guardian, 5 April 1974, p. 7.

[12] Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 7; Darts, 13 May 1974, p. 1.

[13] Darts, 19 February 1976, p. 1, 12.; Daily Mail, 5 February 1976, p. 9.

[14] Smith, No Platform, p. 113.

[15] B.P.P, HC, 11 February 1986, Freedom of Speech (Universities and Institutions of Higher Education).

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Did the Feminist Challenge Actually Shake Up the Print Press in 1969? Press Representations of Women in the Run-up to Women’s Lib

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The late 1960s were a turbulent time of rapid change; the mini skirt was the height of fashion, affluence was on the up yet women fighting for their liberation were criticised and mothers who worked were regarded with contempt.[1] Similar themes persist today and, despite progress, over half a century later full equality has not been achieved. Women still do not have equal pay in many professions and the press and media continue to treat men and women differently.

The Way, July 1969. Courtesy of the TUC Library Collections ©. http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/display.php?irn=811&QueryPage=advsearch.php (Accessed 15 March 2020).

1969 was a decisive year for second-wave feminism; protests were beginning and women were claiming political and social agency in Britain. These years laid the key groundwork for the historically influential feminism of the 1970s. The print press, although now competing with TV, continued to have high levels of readership, and thus heavily influenced and manipulated public opinion. This made the press vital in shaping responses to early feminism.

On the 18 May 1969, one thousand men and women assembled and marched for equal pay in Trafalgar Square. The newspaper reports on this were hugely varied. The Daily Mirror covered it in detail, describing placards labelled ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value’, but it certainly did not express outward support for the marchers.[2] The elite press typically published short, disengaged reports, ignoring the issues behind the protests.

The Observer neglected to even comment on the 18 May demonstration. Meanwhile the Daily Mail criticised the women for not carrying their own banners, commenting that ‘it takes MEN to carry those banners’. It went on to mock the women who retreated inside ‘to sort matters out in a more traditionally feminine way – over a cup of tea.’[3] Feminist activism like this seldom made the front pages and was rarely taken seriously. There was undoubtedly variety between publications and even within them, but these publications had substantial impact on popular perceptions of feminism.

The British press not only tended to reject this early second-wave feminism but also outlined conflicting notions of femininity. On one hand women were expected to exemplify the perfect sexless housewife and thus were relegated to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile Page Three sexualised and objectified the female body, often disguising itself behind female sexual liberation, not dissimilar to the “sexual liberation” found in the underground press. All the while the newsrooms and the hard news reports remained male dominated.

The maternal, domestic, sexless woman was isolated to the ‘Woman’s Page’ of the elite press and popular press; bombarded by adverts for domestic appliances, makeup and all things intrinsically ‘feminine’. The national press presumed women to have no interest in the hard news stories and excluded them from the “serious” business of the public and political realms. Many of the elite papers virtually disregarded women’s issues and neglected to report on women’s news stories.

Female protests were often demeaned or not reported on at all. For example, when reporting on a strike in January 1969, the Guardian published a very small article titled ‘Another strike by women’.[4] In this vein, female activism was perceived as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a phase that would pass. This sort of reporting trivialised the women’s movement in Britain and diminished the prominence of their activism.

Articles that did question women’s position in society were limited to one-off opinion pieces written by women rather than a sustained effort to support feminist policies. In broadsheets such as The Times, where almost half of the paper was dedicated to ‘Times Business News’ and a singular page was aimed at women, it is hard to see any truly positive responses to women’s liberation. Even in a Times article, endorsing women’s work, it was assumed this work could only be part-time so as to allow women to maintain their ‘domestic commitments’.[5]

The popular press encouraged the domestic woman but also flaunted young women or ‘girls’ for the male gaze. The Daily Mail encouraged sexual rivalry amongst women, describing the ‘jungle warfare of sexual cut and thrust’ they competed in.[6] Their reporting supported the idea that women existed to please men; a notion that was replicated across student papers and the underground press. Once the 1970s and the sexual revolution hit the sexualisation of women continued to rise, now under the guise of sexual freedom. Page Three emerged and the Sun even published a long statement addressing their portrayal of women: ‘The Sun, like most of its readers, likes pretty girls. And if they’re as pretty as today’s Birthday Suit girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Rahn of Munich, who cares whether they’re dressed or not?’.

Degrading, though not explicit language, plastered the pages of the tabloids, and women remained subordinate in the newsrooms too. Women were typically limited to writing soft news articles, women’s pages and advice columns, perhaps the odd opinion piece if they were lucky! The underground press defined themselves as liberal spaces but their newsrooms were certainly not. Marsha Rowe worked for Oz and recalled women being limited in the newsrooms; ‘however alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home.’[7] Almost all news publications, bar the feminist press, were male dominated and thus many sexist attitudes remained. In fact this did not change for many years; the Sun did not get its first female editor until 2003 and even then she did very little to change reporting on women and did not touch Page Three.

Oz Magazine, no. 31, November 1970, p. 2. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oz-31-p2.jpg (Accessed 15 March 2020).

Undoubtedly second-wave feminism and all of its work was successful; it saw huge political progress and encouraged women to observe their own oppression. However we cannot disregard the importance of the national press. It is typical for historians to seek transformations, particularly within gender studies, but perhaps identifying the continuities is just as important. Our battle has certainly not been won and there is still much continuity in press representations of women. The growth of social media has seen a continued obsession with female appearance and women’s sexuality remains a fairly taboo subject. Equal Pay remains a prominent issue, even fifty years after it was brought to the forefront of the political agenda and feminism is regularly considered a dirty word. The powers of the press can never be underestimated and the new social media giants are not all that dissimilar from the 1960s press. It may be a different decade but many of the issues women faced then persist today.

Izzy Larsen is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationship between women and the press. She focused on 1969 as a decisive year for the feminist movement in Britain and explored how the national press responded to this emerging movement. Her research also considers how many of these issues persist for contemporary women in Britain and across the globe.

Cover Image: Women’s March, London, 21 January 2017. Courtesy of Nessie Spencer – Freaks&Gigs Photographie. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Women’s_March_London_(32993174595).jpg (Accessed 18 March 2020).

[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 23 April 1969, p. 25.

[2]Daily Mirror, 19 May 1969, p. 32.

[3] Daily Mail, 19 May 1969, p. 11.

[4] The Guardian, 10 January 1969, p. 18.

[5] The Times, 1 January 1969, p. 5.

[6] Daily Mail, 2 January 1969, p. 6.

[7] M. Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the Underground Press’, The British Library. https://www.bl.uk/spare-rib/articles/spare-rib-and-the-underground-press (Accessed 15 March 2020).

 

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In the Name of ‘the Family’, Past and Present

Jack_Hanick Julia

‘Yes to life, no to abortion’, shouted some of the tens of thousands of marchers in support of the thirteenth international conference of the World Congress of Families (WCF) in Verona on Sunday. To drive home the point, miniature rubber fetuses were carried in the procession. The march came on the heels of a protest the day before, led by 20,000 people from more than seventy rights groups across Italy who came out to condemn the WCF’s conservative views on the family. The uproar in Verona last weekend was unusual. Internationally, the city is known for its opera and association with the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, rather than family politics.

What protestors found so upsetting was the WCF’s insistence on protecting a single image of what it called the ‘natural’ family: a man and a woman and their children. By implication, men should be seen as husbands, fathers and household heads, while women should be wives, mothers and carers. Children should be cherished, their numbers increased, and abortion banned. According to conference delegates, this version of the family had to be protected especially from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as from family breakdown and single parenthood.

The meeting was co-sponsored by US organizations backed by the Christian right, alongside Italian groups and various Italian government bodies, including the Italian Ministry for the Family and Disability. Its current head, the social conservative Lorenzo Fontana, is a member of the far right Lega Nord political party. Across Europe, the far right has taken on the protection of the family as one of its core policy issues, with the WCF as a key forum to voice its views on the topic. In 2017, the event was co-hosted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The worldwide coverage and scale of protest surrounding last weekend’s event was noteworthy. But it is part of a longer history of fierce debates about what holds society together, and the role of the family as the foundation stone on which society is supposed to rest. What is interesting is that the New Right activists who convened in Verona radicalized views that were discussed among European lawyers since the late nineteenth century and that shaped civic laws in many European countries until quite recently. These views seem to sit oddly with widespread assumptions about the family today. However, they point to the often ethnocentric, patriarchal and racial beliefs that used to frame our laws on the family in the past, and that linger in many policies to the present.

In 1873, for example, lawyers from across Europe created the Institute for International Law in order to sort out problems that arose due to different countries having different laws on a variety of issues, from trade and war to the family. Twenty years later, the group began debating whether and how family law could be unified for all countries. Would it be possible to have the same laws on marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance for the whole world? What kind of family should those laws protect?

Between 1902 and 1905, five conventions on these issues were signed at the Hague in the Netherlands. As some of the framers of these conventions argued, the family should follow a generally Christian – or at least a Judeo-Christian – outline, based on one woman and one man, who also held authority over the family, together with their children. Any countries with Islamic law on the family – including associated practices of polygamy and talaq (unilateral divorce by repudiation) – were seen as too different (and, in the language of the time, ‘uncivilized’) to include in this international legal system.[1]

This development came on the heels of centuries of missionary activity around the world, and especially within Europe’s overseas empires. In the process of converting local populations, missionaries encouraged them to follow a presumed Christian family model based on monogamy and procreation by a married man and woman.

Following the First World War, the new League of Nations alongside international feminist groups rang in renewed efforts to protect the family across the globe. In the wake of the Second World War, the family came to the forefront of the international policy agenda again, this time sparked by the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It decreed the right ‘to marry and to found a family’ alongside other rights like the equality of ‘all human beings’ and the ‘right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community’.

Despite the claim to universality in the document’s title, and the involvement of delegates from around the world in debating the UDHR, it continued to echo conservative nineteenth-century European views about gender roles and the purpose of the family.  Meanwhile, new postwar and postcolonial constitutions like the 1949 German Basic Law gave the family special protections that stemmed from similar thinking.

In subsequent years, related international conventions took off and gradually broadened views on the family. For example, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) called for the equal rights of women to contract and dissolve marriages as well as the equal rights of married women to citizenship and work. These post-1945 initiatives were genuinely global in scope, with CEDAW having been signed from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Beyond the sphere of law, social movements have rallied across the globe for different views of the family. For example, for generations, LGBT groups advocated same-sex partnerships to be recognized – and, initially, not to be criminalized. Their efforts resulted in the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships and, eventually, same-sex marriage, starting in the Netherlands in 2001 and gradually extending as far as South Africa (2006), Brazil (2013), Australia (2017) and elsewhere. Meanwhile, socially conservative groups like Family Watch International have argued in favor of a different version of the family, for example, by lobbying the UN at its 2016 event ‘Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World’.

The UN event coincided with its annual ‘International Day of the Families’. It is based on the view that ‘although families all over the world have transformed greatly over the past decades…, the United Nations still recognizes the family as the basic unit of society’.

The question remains, today, as in the past, which version of the family is recognized as that ‘basic unit’. As the events last weekend show, the family remains the site of worldwide contestation, with ongoing disagreement about what the family is, what it does, how it works, and who is part of it.

International connections – whether through international organizations and social movements or through social media and the press – not only highlight the family as something to be ‘saved’. They also drive home how varied families around the world are.

Julia Moses is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.

[1] Talaq is only one aspect of divorce under Islamic Law. Khul’ is another aspect in Islamic law where separation is by way of consent between the parties, and when the power of Talaq is transferred to the Wife it is called Tafweedh-e-Talaq.

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