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In the Eye of the Beholder: Sexism, Empowerment, and Britain’s Railway Queens

railway queens

Beauty contests are frequently dismissed as sexist exploitation which encourage audiences to judge women solely upon their looks. This criticism can be traced back to Women’s Liberation protests at the 1968 Miss America and 1970 Miss World contests in Atlantic City and London, respectively. One former protester recalled that the Miss America contest ‘taught young girls that the important thing in life…was to get a man, to be sexy, to be superficial’.

Such objections continue to be voiced today. Professor June Purvis recently opined that modern beauty pageants cannot be separated ‘from the decades of objectification and sexism that they are originally associated with…It has passed its sell by date’. For critics, Miss World is Miss Exploited, and should be Miss Anachronism.

These claims do hold truth. Contests often idealise highly conservative visions of youthful womanhood. Miss World cannot be divorced or have children. As a fig leaf to equality, neither can Mr England. Contest organisers also exercise extensive control over winners’ images. In 2019, Miss Nevada had her crown taken away for posting right-wing comments online. Likewise, Miss Crimea nearly lost her title for singing a song, perceived to be pro-Ukraine. Beauty queens, then, appear to be constrained by organisers’ desire for the role to be ‘apolitical’.

Yet, contests continue to be wildly popular. In 2019, almost 20,000 women entered the Miss England contest. When asked why they chose to participate, the buzzword refrain of most beauty queens is that they feel ‘empowered’ by competing. It is, however, left unsaid exactly how it empowers them. Taking these contestants seriously, it is worth considering how beauty contests can be perceived as a form of empowerment.

One means of answering this question is to look at one of the first major British beauty contests: the Railway Queen. Established in 1925 and running until 1975, Railway Queens were crowned annually at the Railway Employees’ Carnival at Belle Vue stadium, Manchester. Eligible candidates were daughters, aged between 12 and 16, of unionised railway employees. Wearing full regalia of tiara and velvet robe, Railway Queens served terms of a year performing sundry official engagements: giving speeches, cutting ribbons, and presiding over civic occasions.

The chief duty of Railway Queens was to serve as an ‘Ambassadress of Peace’ for the railway trade unions. After the devastations of the Great War, the Railway Queen advocated that no war could be ‘great’. Their chain of office was symbolic of this. Dubbed the ‘International Chain’, it was comprised of gold links given to each Railway Queen during official overseas visits. It symbolised the uniting of railway employees around the world in an ever-growing ‘chain of peace’.[1]

During their international tours, Railway Queens undertook the role of diplomatic envoy. In 1935, fourteen-year-old Gracie Jones undertook a five-week tour of North America, travelling from New York to Montreal.[2] The countless formal gift exchanges, speeches, and ceremonial duties Gracie performed were key to underpinning cordial transatlantic relations between Anglo-American trade unions. These overseas trips were also major media spectacles. When Railway Queen Audrey Mosson visited Moscow in 1936, she was filmed meeting Josef Stalin. This was then projected in cinemas across Britain and the Soviet Union.

Railway Queens’ own voices were palpably heard during such tours. Jones was interviewed by the Washington Post in the United States, where she stated ‘‘I had heard they [Americans] were rude and abrupt but I find them attractive, attentive, and altogether pleasing’.[3] During Railway Queen Ena Best’s 1928 visit to France, she was the only member of the party who could speak French. Alongside her many official speeches, she also had to order everyone’s meals. Railway Queens, then, were prominent trade union ambassadresses who undertook a demanding and skilled diplomatic role. Thus, becoming a Railway Queen was one of the few means by which young, working-class women could participate directly in international politics.

Serving as a beauty queen, therefore, did not reduce winners to objectified ornaments, nor ‘apolitical’ ciphers. For Railway Queens, it was an overtly political platform that enabled working-class women, typically overshadowed, a prominent, active role in transnational trade unionism.

So too, contemporary beauty queens continue to act as spokeswomen for various causes or ideals, whether supporting suicide prevention charities or campaigning for increased smear testing. Some women have even started to use beauty contests as a platform to diversify, even challenge, societal beauty standards. Women of colour participate to show beauty is not exclusively white; others project body positivity as Ms Curvaceous; still others compete without makeup to rail against convention.

Despite the looks-focused nature of such competitions, for many women it is evident that beauty queens are not merely gratuitous objectification. Indeed, for those whose perspectives and identities are otherwise marginalised, competing is a vital means of securing the limelight. Ultimately, where some women decry Miss Anachronism, others see Miss Empowerment.


Conner Rivers Scott is a WRoCAH-funded PhD candidate in the department of history at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research looks at British inter-war newsreels and their place in everyday life. In particular, this research will examine the ways in which newsreels (re)presented the public to itself between c.1920-c.1939, a time when the public was politically and socially reconstituted. More broadly, his research interests include twentieth-century British gender history, media history, and histories of everyday life.


[1] Daily News (21 Aug 1928), 10; Daily Herald (27 Aug 1928), 7.

[2]The New York Times (20 Jun 1934), p.22; Los Angeles Times (22 Jun 1934), p.5.

[3]The Washington Post (21 Jun 1934), p.12.

Image source: Joseph M. Maurer, ‘Miss Universe 1930 Winners’ (1930), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Miss_Universe_1930_Winners.jpg

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100 years of the BBC: A Crisis of Legitimacy?

BBC_logo_(80s).svg

On this day 100 years ago, the BBC transmitted its first radio programme.[1] ‘Designed to represent the nation to the nation, the world to the nation, and the nation to the world’, the BBC had grandiose aims from its inception.[2]

Funded by a license fee, the BBC was able to avoid ‘the damaging limitations of commercial advertising and direct dependence on state revenue’.[3] It was therefore well positioned to fulfil its mission to ‘inform, educate, and entertain’ the public through impartial broadcasting.[4]

Vital to the success of the BBC was that its listeners and viewers considered its claim to represent the nation to be legitimate. The British public had to feel seen and heard by the company; after all it was their money that was funding the service.

Some believe that the BBC has been successful in such a task over its 100 year history. According to media historian Jean Seaton the BBC ‘has enriched democracy’.[5] ‘In serving audiences, irrespective of class, wealth, age […] as equal citizens’, Seaton argues that the BBC has acted as a representative for those otherwise lacking influence and, on their behalf, ensured the powerful were held to account.[6]

However, despite its seemingly positive implications for democracy, in recent years the BBC has been under increasing scrutiny.

For example, in 2020 the BBC faced claims that staff were irresponsibly posting their own personal views on issues such as Brexit on media platforms such as Twitter, breaking the corporation’s impartiality rules.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/, Today Testing.

This led to the belief that BBC content was being shaped by particular political perspectives, obscuring the opinions of those who disagreed.

The legitimacy of the BBC’s representative claims has therefore been challenged. This begs the question: does the BBC still fulfil its aim to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the public? And has it indeed “enriched democracy”?

In the early years of the BBC, discussion of politics was a rare occurrence. However, this began to change during the 1950s. This decade marked a period of transformation in British political culture, with traditional forms of interaction between representatives and the represented, such as town hall meetings, being displaced by mediatized communication.

Faced with competition from the newly established Independent Television Authority (ITA), during the 1950s and 1960s, the BBC broadcasted innovative programmes that more openly held political representatives to account, and even facilitated mediated interaction between politicians and the electorate.[7] This reflected what Martin Conway has identified as the move away from ‘formal democracy’ to a more pluralistic, participatory notion of democracy.[8]

However, with this more critical political coverage came questions regarding the legitimacy of the BBC as a representative of the British people. A prominent example of this can be seen in the public’s response to the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands War in 1982.

The tabloids published readers’ letters through which we see the public grappling with what they perceived as the BBC’s democratic duty. Many expressed feeling let down by the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands, due to it not being considered as representative of their beliefs.

For example, Mrs Norma Edwards told the Daily Express that she was ‘one of many people who rang the BBC to voice [her] complaints’ regarding their Panorama programme on the crisis. Edwards’ grievance was with the ‘so-called “fair” and “balanced” view’ of the BBC, which she considered to be inappropriate during this ‘worrying time’.[9]

A similar sentiment can also be seen in the Mail, who published an article questioning ‘whatever happened to the BBC voice of Britain?’.[10] Immediately, we see how the role of the BBC was understood as a representative of popular opinion. Thus, when its reporting was considered to be not ‘in the least bit representative’, it follows that the BBC had failed to fulfil its democratic duty.

The hypocrisy of the BBC, according to the Mail, of taking pride ‘in being the “voice of Britain”’, but to proceed to ignore ‘the opinion polls and everyday experience’ of the people was ‘a political decision of the gravest and most far-reaching kind’.[11]

Ultimately, the BBC was presented by the tabloids as undermining democracy as it had failed to place the voice of the people at the centre of its coverage. It therefore could not be considered as a legitimate representative. However, the obvious problem with this perspective is that it implies “the nation” can be conceived as homogenous, therefore not making room for the complex, pluralistic nature of society.

The crux of the issue here, and indeed in criticism of the BBC today, comes down to the question of what it means to be impartial. As Jim Waterson, media editor for The Guardian has noted, ‘who exactly gets to define what impartiality means? Which topics […] no longer require dissenting voices in the eyes of the BBC’?

Due to the idea of ‘due impartiality’, the BBC has been able to confidently ignore climate crisis deniers. Yet questions as to ‘whether staff can supportive active anti-racism campaigns or transgender rights’, remain under contention.

When discussing democracy, I prefer to avoid speaking of either success or crisis. Rather, I believe that it is better to speak of change.  

What is evident is that since 1922, when the BBC first began broadcasting, people’s understanding of democracy has certainly changed to become a more constant part of our lifeworld. Representation is therefore also considered as a more continuous process of claim making.[13] The current debates regarding the legitimacy of the BBC provide a lens through which we can better understand wider societal and political discussions regarding definitions of democracy today.


Jamie Jenkins is a PhD Candidate at Radboud University working on the Voice of the People project. Her interests include media history, political history and popular expectations of democracy. She is also the Assistant Editor of this blog. She tweets at @jenkinsleejamie.

Header image: The BBC logo used in the 1980s, https://commons.wikimedia.org/


[1] Simon J. Potter. The is the BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? (Oxford, 2022).

[2] Jean Seaton, ‘The BBC’, in A. Boin et al. (eds.), Guardians of Public Value (London, 2021), p. 88.

[3] Ibid., pp. 89- 90.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 87.

[6] Ibid.

[7] For further information on this, see: Lawrence, John. (2009). Electing our masters: The Hustings in British politics from Hogarth to Blair. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Stephen Wagg, ‘You’ve never had it so silly: The politic of British satirical comedy from Beyond the Fringe to Spitting Image in Strinati, Dominic., & Wagg, Stephen. (n.d.). Come on down? Popular media culture in postwar Britain. London / New York: Routledge. (1992), pp. 254 – 284.

[8] Martin Conway, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 (Oxford, 2020), p. 8.

[9] ‘Letters’, Daily Express, May 17th 1982, p. 23.

[10] Anthony Lejeune, ‘Whatever happened to the BBC Voice of Britain?’, Daily Mail, May 12th 1982, p. 6.

[11] Anthony Lejeune, ‘Whatever happened to the BBC Voice of Britain?’, Daily Mail, May 12th 1982, p. 6.

[12] Jean Seaton, ‘The BBC’, in A. Boin et al. (eds.), Guardians of Public Value (London, 2021), p. 88.

[13] Saward, M., ‘The Representative Claim’, Contemporary Political Theory 5 (2006), pp. 297-318.

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Ownership and the Price of Empire | Festival of the Mind 2022

IMG_3237
The original object in Sheffield’s storage facility

‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’ is an exhibition running as part of the Futurecade experience at Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery for Festival of the Mind (2022). As we explain in the project’s overview, this exhibition is: ‘an exploration of the debates around the repatriation of “stolen” museum objects implicated by Britain’s imperial past.’ To probe this contentious and layered debate, we tell the story of a historic figure of Buddha, crafted in the 3rd-4th century in the region of Gandhara (now in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan). How did this ancient sacred object find its way into the city of Sheffield’s storage facility, now managed by the Sheffield Museums Trust?

Discussion around the repatriation of museum objects in UK collections has been growing in momentum in recent years, particularly as a response to large-scale public movements, like Black Lives Matter. For me, it was a third-year module at the University of Sheffield entitled ‘Decolonising History: Empire, Power and Colonialism’, convened by Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, that  brought this issue under the microscope. For one of our seminars, we were tasked to design a new gallery in response to the controversy surrounding the The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, opened in 2002 and closed just six years later. Our group of four, including myself, Jessica O’Neil, Maisy Morris and Erin Shaw, chose the theme of ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire.’ We interpreted ‘ownership’ in a material sense, presenting plans for an exhibition that explored the effects of colonial looting and plunder, while proposing ideas for the future of European museums.

Catalogue card from Sheffield Museums Trust

In our presentation, we examined two notable cases in the British Museum connected with demands for repatriation: a stone figure (moai) from Rapa Nui (as local peoples call Easter Island) and the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria. Government officials and local representatives from Rapa Nui and Nigeria alike have made repeated calls for the restitution of these items on the basis of their cultural and spiritual significance. In recent years, appeals of this type to European museums have been considered and often honoured with increasing frequency. Just last month, in August 2022, the Horniman Museum in London agreed to return their collection of Benin Bronzes, – but the British Museum is yet to follow suit.

Inspired by our plan, Professor Lambert-Hurley invited us to work with her to pitch the idea for the gallery to the Festival of the Mind team – from which point I took up the baton on behalf of our group. Further collaboration with local Sheffield creatives at Joi Polloi (Russell Stearman and Zoe Roberts), a curatorial consultant from the Portico Library in Manchester (James Moss) and the Sheffield Museums Trust enabled our initial ideas for a seminar task to evolve into the exhibition now featured at Futurecade. The Sheffield connection allowed us to shift emphasis from the more well-known sacred objects in the British Museum to the Gandharan Buddha ultimately featured from the city’s collection.

Sheffield Museums Trust, it should be noted, had already expressed their commitment to a decolonising agenda. As it states in the report on ‘Racism and Inequality in the Culture Holdings of Sheffield’, dated 29 July 2021:

Like many museums in the UK, Sheffield’s are built on a history of colonialism; the desire to explore, collect and ultimately to control the world is reflected in the Museum as an institution and through its collections. Britain’s colonial history, racism and the legacy of slavery are woven throughout Sheffield’s collections and we recognise and will seek to address these offensive ideologies and uncomfortable truths.

But the question remained of what this decolonising agenda should look like for a local museum.

Repatriation is just one – if perhaps the most high profile – of the many ways in which museums can engage with decolonising agendas. The debates for and against the return of ‘stolen’ objects are multifaceted, with a popular concern being that our museums could be emptied of precious objects if items taken without consent are returned to their countries of origin. As London’s TimeOut magazine put it: ‘if we give back everything we got from other cultures, legally or otherwise, what the hell will we be left with?’ This fear of ‘empty museums’ was an idea we wanted to explore and challenge. How can museums honour repatriation requests whilst avoiding blank museum walls and cases?

Page from the Sotheby’s record, photographed at the British Library

Technology, we show in this exhibition, offers opportunities to transform our experience and understanding of museums. Possibilities are opened to engage intimately with ancient and historic artefacts in a way that also honours decolonising agendas. In ‘Ownership and the Price of Empire’, we present a 3D print of the Gandharan Buddha, inviting visitors to touch and even hold the object in a way that is entirely alien to most current museum contexts. The power that an original piece can hold may be diminished, but this type of technology allows alternative ways in which to engage – perhaps even more deeply – with the stories the artefact holds. 

In the course of the exhibition, visitors are invited to move the object across five separate plinths, each triggering a projection that reconstructs a different aspect of the Gandharan Buddha’s long life. While the first introduces its current existence in a familiar museum context, the second recounts its origins and creation – including through the use of a 3D scan to approximate elements lost from the object in intervening years. The third plinth recounts its colonial ‘recovery’ in the late nineteenth century before the fourth encourages us to ponder the politics of ownership since that time. The final plinth invites visitors to engage in decolonising processes by suggesting future options for Sheffield’s Gandharan collection, currently in storage. To finish, the object is placed back in the archaeological context from which it came through the recreation of that landscape using AI technology.

A 3D scan of the Gandharan Buddha in the city of Sheffield’s collection, used to prepare the 3D print for the exhibition, may be accessed on Sketchfab.

The example of Hoa Hakananaiʻa, the moai from Rapa Nui in the British Museum that we focused on for our seminar project, seemed straightforward to me and my fellow students in terms of the repatriation discourse. This project on the Gandharan Buddha, on the other hand, encouraged me to explore the complexities and complications when it came to the repatriation of other objects in European collections. Every object has its own unique history, convoluted present and possible futures – and those need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Join us at the Millennium Gallery to engage in Sheffield’s decolonisation processes by reflecting on these debates and dialogues around the repatriation of museum objects. The story of a Buddha from Gandhara offers ideas of how we can use technology to transform museums for the 21st century.

Lauren Hare received her History BA from the University of Sheffield in 2022. Following this exhibition at the Festival of the Mind, she wishes to pursue a career in curation and exhibition production. 

With thanks to Siobhan Lambert-Hurley for her edits and additions.

For more information and additional resources, please see our project page on the Festival of the Mind website.

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British Talkies and the “Correct” Female Voice

Affairs_of_Anatol_cast

The cinema of the interwar era (1919-1939) is commonly acknowledged as being an essential factor in influencing girls and women. From their fashion choices and hairstyles to what was considered at the time to be “unfeminine” behaviours like smoking and drinking.[1]  With the introduction of sound to the cinema in 1927, a new attribute that could be influenced was acknowledged, the voice.

In 1927 a Daily Express columnist claimed that ‘we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens’.[2] The increasing popularity of Hollywood films over British films perpetuated the fear of Americanisation of the British culture and its perceived effects on demoralising society, by introducing their lax attitude towards manners, morality and speech. The perception that Hollywood promoted democratising and egalitarian values to a British population who had nearly tripled their electorate with The Representation of the People Act (1918), presented a danger to the concepts and ideals of Britishness.

Films with synchronised sound and dialogue, dubbed “talkies”, soon became the primary experience of the film viewing public, replacing silent pictures as the new norm. Film played an important part in offering a presentation of “proper” British speech, behaviour, and morality that could be consumed and imitated by audiences. With the introduction of the Hollywood talkies, the concern of American influence was exacerbated due to the alleged corruption of the British language with Americanisms and slang.

The preferred voice of the British screen was that of “Received Pronunciation” (RP), the uniform way of speaking to allow not only for the audience to understand the dialogue without confusing regional dialects, but to introduce a “correct” way of speaking by broadcasting the ‘superior speech’.[3] Yet in what Rachael Low calls ‘class-ridden Britain’, the audiences complained more about the ‘oxford accent’ and the ‘BBC voice’ associated with RP than the American slang and idioms of Hollywood films.[4] But how did this affect the relatability of female characters? Did hearing the voice of an actress ruin the illusion created of her on the silent screen, or would young women be more inclined to embody her, including the way she talked?

The female voice was subjected to unsubstantiated concerns over its suitability for broadcast, as women were considered incapable of retaining the attention of listeners because their voices were less commanding and could be at times “monotonous […] and shrill”, creating an unpleasant listening experience. Claims even went as far as suggesting that even if women’s voices were used, they wouldn’t have anything interesting to say anyway.

The introduction of sound to pictures only increased the list of things that a woman could be criticised for and added another aspect of femininity that could be idealised, learnt and conformed to. Larraine Porter suggests that sound cinema ‘created a vogue for particular kinds of voices’ and expected women’s voices to transform towards feminine desirability.[5]

Before the introduction of sound to film, cinema had already created visual forms of women that represented feminine desirability, sexuality, and the different tropes of female characters, to be instantly recognisable to an audience. This meant that women’s voices needed to match the aura of the character; high-pitched and girly for a youthful innocent image, lower-pitched for one of sexual promiscuity, and even manlier images. With the wrong voice, she may ruin her allure, desirability, and feminine image.

Cinema-goers when watching their favourite star had already formed an idea of their voices despite never hearing them which made it near impossible for actresses to meet expectations of their on-screen persona. The impossibility for these already successful silent actresses to meet vocal expectations set them up for inevitable criticism at every turn, they may be too high, too low, too monotonous, too fast, too slow, too weak and thin or too strong and mannish. Each critique set back the female voice, becoming evident that women were being punished for speaking at all, for occupying what radio considered to be a male vocal space.[6]

In The Film Gone Male written by Dorothy Richardson in 1932, she argued that the silent film was a feminine space that had been masculinised by the introduction of sound. The silent film produced images of feminine experiences and realities, and these male voices took away from the female audience’s experience, describing women as ‘humanities silent half’.[7] In silent film, the female audiences could easily envision themselves or insert their own voices and experiences onto the female characters being portrayed. Antonia Lant too, argues that the silent film was considered by female audiences to hold a feminine universalism, transposing onto silent film the value of femininity. After the introduction of the more dominant male voice in cinema, many women critics felt like on-screen women lost their voice, and in turn women in British society did too, suggesting that men became established as the possessor of the voice.

The arrival of sound to British film cemented pre-existing silent film gender tropes and set a precedence for the marginalisation of women’s vocal presence in film. Despite the fact that the majority of cinema audiences were made up of women, early sound cinema had developed an aversion toward the female voice that remains in film to this day.

Rachel Bogush is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on modern femininity in interwar British media. She tweets at @rachelbogush.

Cover Image: Exhibitor’s Herald, April 9th 1921. Still of the cast and production crew from the American comedy drama film The Affairs of Anatol (1921). Source: Wikimedia Commons.


[1] C. Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain, (2014), p.3

S. Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, (2000),

[2] Daily Express, 18 March 1927, p. 6.

[3] A. Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars, (1991) P.215

[4] R. Low, The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Film making in 1930s Britain, (1985), p.89

[5] L. Porter, ‘“Have You a Happy Voice?” Women’s Voices and the Talkie Revolution in Britain 1929–1932’, MSMI, Vol.12:2, (2018), p.141

[6] Ibid., 152

[7] Richardson, D., Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male (1932), in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, (1983)

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Marie Stopes’s Married Love and the National Library for the Blind

stopes

In 1924, the National Library for the Blind’s (NLB) secretary and librarian, Constance Bellhouse, wrote to publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons asking for permission to produce braille copies of Marie Stopes’s Married Love (1918). Users of the NLB had heard about the book in Horizon, a braille magazine produced by a trade union for blind people as an educational resource.[1] Bellhouse told the publisher that because Stopes’s was ‘one of the most valuable [books] in the English language,’ the NLB was ‘anxious’ to give their readers ‘what they want’.[2]

The commercial success of this sex instruction book transformed Stopes into a household name, her book having gone through 39 reprints and sold half a million copies by 1925.[3] Reaction and controversy cemented this publication as central to the development of popular sexual knowledge in 20th-century Britain. Its popularity is so well-known, that it features in today’s cultural understandings of how interwar Britons learnt about sex. Stopes has even been given a few brief mentions in Downton Abbey.

Despite the fame of the book, the correspondence between the NLB and Putnam’s reveals another, lesser-known story about Married Love and other 20th-century sex instruction books, of which there were many. It begs the question of how blind people who relied on braille to read may have participated in this particular moment where private sexual knowledge was being pushed into public consciousness through books.

The NLB’s services were a boon to many, especially in the interwar and postwar years when servicemen and civilians blinded during the World Wars had to learn to navigate their lives in a different way. Supplying books through two main branches and consignments to libraries and institutions across the country, the NLB provided blind readers with access to popular sexual knowledge in braille.

Stopes’s Married Love was one of a number of sex instruction books and pamphlets that became available to blind readers through the NLB between the 1920s and the 1950s. They could borrow anatomical texts, general health literature, and religious literature on birth control including Successful Marriage (1941) by Presbytarian minister Herbert A. Gray.[4] Helena Wright’s The Sex Factor in Marriage (1930) was available in braille by 1952, alongside pamphlets from the Marriage Guidance Council. Much of the sex advice literature the NLB supplied had religious and eugenics framings, and represented only a small amount of the thousands of volumes the organisation translated and lent out. Nevertheless, this anecdote represents the important role the NLB held in providing blind readers access to the developing debates about sex and marriage in Britain during the 20th-century.

Since coming across Bellhouses’s letter, I have been grappling with the question: how can we meaningfully situate the NLB’s supply of sex instruction books within historiographical debates? Historian Douglas Baynton notably claimed that disability is pervasive in history, yet it has often been marginalised or sidelined in mainstream narratives.[5] This has certainly also been the case with histories of sex and sexuality, where disability does often feature in relation to eugenics-based understandings of ‘normal’ bodies and reproduction, but is rarely the main focus of our writing. Efforts are being made to centre disability in sexuality histories, and there is an opportunity to bring this into conversation with histories of sexual knowledge.

In particular, scholars have done little to explore how blind people found out about, accessed, and engaged with sex instruction books, and subsequently sex itself, through the institutions that supported and served them, like the NLB. Acknowledging that this was part of the service the NLB provided is a starting point for thinking about how histories of sex intersect with histories of disability generally and blindness specifically.

Furthermore, this case-study allows us to begin asking questions about what access to sexual knowledge meant in a historical context. Why did the NLB want to supply sex instruction texts to its readers, beyond the suggestion that they were in demand? What was the significance of the fact that the books they chose to supply were mostly based on religious and eugenicist thinking? How does the availability of sex advice books through the NLB compare with—or differ from—other libraries, including those for sighted people? And how did blind readers engage with these books, and what impact, if any, did they have in their lives? As a starting point, this anecdote expands possibilities for a history of blindness in 20th-century Britain with sex and sexual knowledge explicitly at the centre. It draws together the well-known source material of sex instruction books with disability histories to complicate our understanding of what it meant and felt like to learn about sex through books in this period.

Phoebe Gill is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. Her PhD research focuses on sexual knowledge and publishing in Britain and Ireland, 1910s-1960s. She tweets at @phoebeg_7.


[1] Matthias Reiss, Blind Workers Against Charity: The National League of the Blind of Great Britain and Ireland, 1893-1970, pp. 90-92.

[2] Penguin Random House Archive, Marie Stopes Papers, letter from Constance Bellhouse to Constant Huntington, dated 19 August 1924.

[3] Alexander C.T. Geppert, ‘Divine Sex, Happy Marriage, Regenerated Nation: Marie Stopes’s Marital Manual Married Love and the Making of a Best-Seller, 1918-1955’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 8:3 (1998), pp. 395-396.

[4] British Library, W24-9611, NLB Catalogue of Books (1937); 11919.bb.24 NLB Catalogue of Books (1952).

[5] Douglas Baynton, ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ in P.K. Longmore and L. Umansky, (eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives (New York, 2001), p. 52.

Thank you to RNIB Heritage Services for copyright permission to use these letters.

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And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

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