close

Women's History

More Change than Previously Thought: An Interview with Dr Linda Kirk About the Sheffield History Department

Barber House exterior

Continuing History Matter’s recent series on the history of the Sheffield History Department, Dr Linda Kirk has very kindly given up some of her time to talk through the changes that occurred within the Department throughout her time there. Linda first joined on a temporary basis in 1969-70 to fill in for Colin Lucas, having previously spent three and a half years volunteering in Africa and teaching at the University College of Rhodesia. After this initial year Colin Lucas did not return and Linda was told she need not apply to the vacant position. But after Colin’s replacement fell through, the department again turned to Linda but this time on a more permanent basis – Linda was to remain a member of the Department until her retirement in 2009.

The Department’s default position was male, with there being only ‘two and a half’ women out of a staff of thirteen and a half – Frances Armytage, who worked as a part time assistant lecturer constituted the half. The 1970’s saw an expanding department with the appointment of several ‘chirpy and self-confident Oxbridge educated people’ who had the appetites to introduce a little bit of Oxbridge into the style and manner of teaching at Sheffield.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s a history degree was structured with nine papers examined over the course of a student’s second and third years. Much like today first year would not count towards the final classification of the degree. Katie Crowley’s blog does a wonderful job of explaining the different BA courses that were offered at Sheffield at this time.

The basic structure of courses did not change much throughout this period, with the syllabus getting stuck with three blocks of continuous British History: medieval, early modern and modern. It was not the case, however, of lecturers coming in and reproducing the same notes as the previous year over and over. The course names would remain constant but what was being taught within them was changing. As literature swirled and patterns rearranged themselves so did the content of lectures and reading lists along the lines of these shifts in historiography.

Alongside these three blocks of British History, students would take a special subject that would account for two papers as well as a history exam tackling general themes in history, with questions such as ‘does history matter?’ or ‘do tyrants always fall?’. This took their total up to six. There would then be two more papers on the history of political thought and another on a period of European history, with the last being an optional choice from a selection that were being taught that year.  This took students up to the total of nine papers which would complete their degree.

It was not until modularisation in the 1990s that a structure more familiar to current students began to take shape. We start to see modules such as ‘Paths from Antiquity to Modernity’, which every single honour student taking History at Sheffield in the past 20 or so years will recognise, appearing on the syllabus.  

‘Paths’ was also the beginning of interactive and online learning in the Department. A chat room function accompanied the module where students were supposed to discuss their findings in the readings. However, this was quickly abused and degenerated into a male-led discussion on the attractiveness of their female peers. So, an end was put to that idea. An idea that stuck around a little longer was the introduction of visual material in the form of transparency projections, and then PowerPoints accompanying lectures.

Change would also occur in the ways that a history degree was assessed. Students were already completing two essays per term per course; however, the marks from these had no relation to the outcome of the degree – exam results were the only grades that mattered. The change was as a result of pressure from students, who believed if they had a bad day during the exam, it would have a disastrous impact on their degree. So, gradually, a classification that was based 100% on the exam would become 67% exam and 33% coursework, and modules that were entirely assessed on coursework such as course assignment and a dissertation would become commonplace. 

The increased weighting of essays did present an issue for the Department. Plagiarism would become an increasingly problematic issue for lecturers. With an exam, a marker could be certain that the work of the person themselves, but with essays these distinctions became blurred. What Linda found to be more disturbing was that some staff would find numerous cases in a batch of essays and some would claim to have never seen any.

In the early 1970s, students met individually with a staff member twice a term in an essay return meeting. Linda campaigned to swap these meetings for a weekly group meeting of five or so students – a rudimentary seminar. This marked a reluctant acceptance that Sheffield could not match the weekly individual essay-return supervision or tutorial offered at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the years, the group size of these seminars would grow and grow from five to six to ten. As university student numbers swelled in the 1990s and continued to grow through the 2000s, occasionally up to twenty people could be in these seminars.

This naturally presented issues. Notably, the relationship between students and staff was forced to change. In the 1970s there was an annual weekend trip to Losehill Hall in Derbyshire for second-year students and a reading party at Cumberland Lodge. This was only possible since the entire cohort of 30 to 35 single honours students could fit in a single bus. When these numbers increased to over 100 this became impossible. These trips were intended to create a ‘mateyness’ that was ‘social and interactive’, which is hard to reproduce currently apart from perhaps in the special subject seminars.     

As someone who has been heavily interested gender history, I was intrigued to hear about the ways in which the field had been covered and taught within the Department. In particular, I wanted to know the role that Joan Scott’s 1986 article ‘Gender: A useful Category of Historical Analysis’ had in shaping how women’s history was taught.[1] Women’s history has always been closely linked to feminist politics. It was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s that saw there was a lack of female representation in standard historiographical texts and sought to re-discover women’s role in the past.[2]

In her blog a year ago, Katie assumed ‘that there was no aspiration to teach women’s history’ in the Department. This is incorrect. Women’s history might not have been visible on the surface of things, but it certainly was taught at the university. Though often hidden behind course titles and overarching themes, women’s issues were being addressed. In Linda’s second year course called Ideas and Institutions of the Age of Reason, some limited focus was on women. But within the History of Political Ideas course, she offered a five week optional sub-section (usually taken by 20 to 40 students) ‘Towards a Doctrine of Women’s Rights’. This worked through Rousseau’s Emile, Diderot’s ‘Essay on Women’, to Mary Wollstonecraft, to Condorcet’s, ‘On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship’.

Linda described herself as a ‘very, very cross, active feminist’ who was trying to ‘introduce women’s history into everything she did’. Take her special subject on the French Revolution for example: one week dedicated to grain riots would focus on the particular role of women in enforcing a ‘just price’ while they were less open to legal penalties for unruly behaviour; another re-emphasised women’s role in the march to Versailles. There clearly was a strong desire to teach women’s history and what was being taught was very important to those within the Department.

As for Joan Scott’s article, Linda recognised its historiographical importance but was insistent that it was not the beginning of women’s or gender history. There had been plenty of work done on the topic and the ideas were hardly new. What the article allowed for was an establishment of a vocabulary around the pre-existing works – that of ‘gender’ and not ‘women’ or ‘sex’. This change that surprised Linda and still remains an ideological issue within gender history today. The Department followed suit, putting on a course called Gender, Culture and Society in Early Modern Britain which typically put Joan Scott’s article front and centre of the reading list.

Taking a cursory glance at the History Department during the 1970s and 1980s you could make the assumption that little changed. But looking deeper it is clear that within the broader themes covered there was a significant change in what was being taught as well as the manner it was being delivered. Today the university offers a multitude of gender and women’s related course for second and third years, but it is clear that the Department has a long history of teaching women’s issues that began long before 1986.

Peter Holmes is an MA Global History student at the University of Sheffield currently working on social and economic networks in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Liverpool during the nineteenth century for his MA dissertation. This blog is based on an interview conducted with Dr Linda Kirk who was a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of Sheffield from 1969 to 2009, who witnessed an expanding department as well as changes to the curriculum and teaching methods in her time with the Department. 


Cover image: A renovated Barber House, formerly home to the Sheffield History Department.

[1] J. Scott, ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, The American Historical Review, 91.5 (1986), pp. 1053-1075.

[2] J. Hannan, ‘Women’s History, Feminist history’, Making History (2008), https://archives.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/womens_history.html, [accessed 7th April 2021].

read more

Mekatilili wa Menza and the Giriama War

Kilifi County plaque

Global histories of anti-colonial rebellion are laden with male leaders. Across Africa, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Jomo Kenyatta steered resistance against their colonial overlords in Ghana, Congo and Kenya. Thankfully, recently the contribution of women within such movements has also emerged from the shadows of history. Mekatilili wa Menza is one such activist who deserves recognition for her anti-colonial defiance in Kenya. 

Believed to have been born in the 1840s in Kilifi County, Mekatilili wa Menza became politically active between 1912 and 1915, leading the Giriama people against British colonial forces.[1] Most of Mekatilili’s activism therefore began when she was in her seventies. Around that time, the British authorities began to increase economic pressures on the Giriama people by implementing ‘hut taxes’ and by attempting to control the palm wine and ivory trade. They also attempted to recruit as workforce young Giriama men, taking them away from the land near the Sabaki river.[2]

In the early years of empire, there was little contact between the Giriama and the British. It is against this backdrop of laissez-faire colonialism that Giriama resistance to heightened British control emerged in 1913. In May of that year, British administrator Arthur Champion established headmen and councils to preside over 28 newly established locations which encapsulated Giriama communities. C.W Hobley, the district commissioner of Seyidie Province was determined to convert the Giriama into a well-organised community dedicated to the colonial machine.[3]

However, traditionally, the Giriama had no central political authority. Elders Councils controlled the political affairs of Giriama societies, however, they did not act as chiefs. The emergence of British-appointed chiefs catapulted Giriama society into a New World autocracy.

This new situation partially led to the increasing Giriama’s defiance to the demands of the British, while Mekatilili’s presence within the movement also grew. She spoke at meetings in July and August 1913 in the kaya fungo, the ritual center of the Giriama. These meetings often concluded with the swearing of anti-British oaths promising to resist colonial rule. 

Visiting villages across the Giriama area, Mekatilili gave rousing speeches and, most famously, used the sacred KifuduGiriama funeral dance to encourage rebellion.[4] The dance is still performed today and seeks to bring communities together to transport the spirits of loved ones to the realms of the ancestors. The second part of the dance calls for the involvement of everyone present cultivating a sense of community spirit in a time of sadness.

One of Mekatilili’s most famous acts of rebellion saw her attend a meeting held on 13 August 1913 by British administrator Arthur Champion, who was attempting to recruit the Giriama youth for service in the First World War. Mekatilili entered the meeting with a hen and chicks in her hand, challenging Champion to take one of the chicks from her. When he reached out, the mother hen then pecked at the administrator’s hand, humiliating him in public. As the hen pecked Champion, Mekatilili told him: ‘This is what you will get if you try to take one of our sons.’[5]  

In his tour of inspection through Giriama areas in 1913, Champion discovered that Mekatilili and her son-in-law Wanje wa Mwadorikola had arrived before him and had been administering anti-British oaths. The two were arrested on 17 October 1913 and sentenced to five years imprisonment.[6] Champion documented the impact of Mekatilili’s campaign in his October report where he conceded that ‘every Giriama is much more afraid of the kiraho (oath) than of the government’.[7] Mekatilili’s activism had single-handedly undermined British authority amongst the Giriama people.  

While in prison, Mekatilili addressed Arthur Champion over her concerns about the cultural changes in Giriama society. She complained about the introduction of currency in cents, and rupees, the short skirts now being worn by Giriama women, as well as the resulting ‘immorality’ and inconsistent prices charged by Giriama women (possibly for sex). 

Mekatilili also called for the return to the traditional Giriama governance system by rejecting the British colonial government’s preferred tactic of indirect rule through government-appointed ‘headmen’ or chiefs. Soon after she made this statement, Mekatilili and Wanje were deported to a prison in Kisii. According to oral histories, on 14 January 1914, the two were released and trekked more than 700 kilometers back to Kilifi.[8] However, Mekatilili was recaptured just two days after her arrival back home.

The Giriama War broke out twelve days before Mekatilili’s second Arrest, when the British authorities partly destroyed the kaya fugo with dynamite.[9] Open hostilities began in Northern Giriama settlements on 16 August 1913 when the Giriama attacked a group of British policemen. Twenty police officers then broke up a crowd of Giriama and raised a nearby village to seize suspected rioters and an assortment of weapons.[10] On 19 August Arthur Champion’s temporary camp was set alight, and in retaliation he called upon the local police to destroy nearby villages and decimate Giriama crop. All these incidents increased pressure on the British at a time when they faced substantial threat from German forces in Tanganyika. 

However, as hostilities increased between Britain and Germany, the British had little choice but to negotiate for peace, as the King’s African Rifles (KAR) had to be withdrawn for service in German East Africa.[11] On 4 October terms for peace were arranged and the Giriama were ordered to pay a fine of 100,000 Rupees or goats at 3 rupees each, raise 1,000 labourers, surrender all arms, move from the Northern bank of the Sabaki river and surrender all heads of the tribe and leaders of the rebellion. All of this was to be done within ten days.[12]

Shortly after the peace agreement was reached, the Giriama resumed the offensive and refused to pay the funds to the British. However, the Governor of Kenya had instructed the KAR to remain on Giriama land to end all hostilities towards the British and to ensure reparations were paid. As a result, most of the fighting had ended by the end of 1914 and the Giriama paid the fine, supplied labourers and evacuated the Northern Bank of the Sabaki.[13]

This latter situation did not last, and a number of the Giriama soon returned. In 1917, C.W Hobley, the Provincial Commissioner, ruled that the Giriama could re-occupy the North Bank asserting that ‘if injustice has been done it is our duty to repair it.’[14] In 1919, the Giriama were also able to reclaim the kaya fungo.

The uprising forced the British colonial authorities to relax their control of Giriama land. As support crystallised around Mekatilili and her call to action, the British were forced to yield to their demands for the return of the kaya fungo.[15] In 1919, Mekatilili and Wanje were released from prison and were allowed to move back into the kaya, holding positions as leaders of the women’s and men’s councils respectively.[16]

The monument at Uhuru Gardens. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government 

Mekatilili wa Menza died of natural causes in 1924. She is buried in the Dakatcha Woodland and is memorialised every year by the Mekatilili wa Menza festival. Larger commemorative efforts have been made in recent years to mark her pivotal role in fighting British colonial oppression. During the first annual Mashujaa or Heroes Day on 9 September 2012, a statue of Mekatilili was unveiled at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi, renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden in her honour. 

The crowd at the 2014 Mekatilili festival. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government

Mekatilili’s acts of defiance have established her as a key figure in the early Kenyan anti-colonial struggle. It is justified that she is recognised and celebrated alongside the male activists who followed in her defiant footsteps. 

Lauren Brown has a masters degree (MA and MLitt) in History from the University of Dundee. She has published various articles on Kenyan history, and in particular on the Mau Mau rebellion. She is currently the assistant editor for Scottish Financial News and Scottish Housing News. She tweets: @LaurenBroon

Cover Image: A plaque beside the monument of Mekatalili. Photographer: Alex Fondo. Courtesy of Kilifi County Government


[1] David K Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, African Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No.1, 1970, p.89

[2] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine p.605.

[3] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.90.

[4] Ibid, p.605. 

[5] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[6] Carrier, Nyamweru, Reinventing Africa’s National Heroes: The Case of Mekatalili, A Kenyan Popular Heroine, p.606.

[7] Cynthia Brantle, The Giriama and Colonial Resistance in Kenya, 1800-1920 (University of California Press: Berkeley,1981) p.89.

[8] Museum of Kenya, Google Arts & Culture, Mekatalili Wa Menza: The Story of The Giriama Wonder Woman, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/mekatilili-wa-menza-the-story-of-the-giriama-wonder-woman/uQJiyBBzmBOAKg

[9] Paterson, the Giriama Risings of 1913-1914, p.94.

[10] A.J Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, Journal of Eastern African Research & Development, Vol. 1, No.2 (Gideon Were Publications: Nairobi, 1971), p.169.

[11] Ibid, p.171.

[12] Temu, The Giriama War 1914-1915, p.171.

[13] Ibid, p.171

[14] Ibid, p.183.

[15] Ibid, p.93.

[16] Ibid, p.95.

read more

Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

Girl’s_Own_Paper_masthead

In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

read more

‘Fear or Fetish? The Fetishisation of Lesbians in Cold War America

Cover_of_Lesbian_Love_by_Marlene_Longman_-_Illustrator_McCauley_-_Nightstand_NB_1523_1960

In the 1950s, American society saw a huge rise in anxieties regarding gender norms and sexuality. Homosexuals were demonized through the Lavender Scare – a moral panic focused on gay and lesbian US government employees – and ideas of the nuclear family were promoted in the fight against Communism. Yet, throughout this period, there was also an influx of highly erotic lesbian fiction and magazines aimed at heterosexual men with overtly sexualised lesbian themes. This sexualisation remains prevalent today and continues to have detrimental impacts upon the lives of lesbian woman,[1] and yet its origins have received little attention in historical debate.

When constructions of homosexuality have been looked at during this period, historians have tended to focus on the political sphere. David Johnson, for example, focuses much of his attention on how anxieties regarding sexuality permeated political culture and the lives of elites.[2] Therefore, little attention is given to popular culture and perceptions of the ‘ordinary’ American citizen. Focusing primarily on political culture also means that Johnson’s narrative mainly looks at how the Lavender Scare impacted wider cultural perceptions of homosexual men.

Consequently, the sexualisation of lesbians by heterosexual men and how this came to the fore with such force during this period has not received necessary attention.

At the end of the war and throughout the 1950s, American society took a conservative turn, with ideas of gender and ‘family’ becoming all the more important as a way to distinguish America from the Communist East. Women were particularly impacted by this growing interest in conformity. As Elaine Tyler May points out, the full-time housewife became synonymous with ideas of American freedom.[3] Anything that deviated from this ideal was therefore seen as a threat.

At the same time, ideas of homosexuality were changing and ‘the lesbian’ was fashioned as an immediate danger. Lesbianism began to be framed as a sickness, but crucially it was a sickness that could be cured – if only a man could show them a “good time”.

Simultaneously, we see the crisis of masculinity. At numerous occasions during this period, historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger wrote on the issue, arguing that World War II had ushered in an uneasy sense of vulnerability and a loss of a clear sense of self for many men that continued throughout the 1950s. This sense of a decline in manhood’s mastery over others, combined with ideas that lesbians could be ‘regained’ by patriarchal concepts of heterosexuality, meant that ‘the lesbian’ was constructed as an opportunity for men to prove themselves. The post-war into the Cold War period therefore set up the perfect conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could flourish.

This resulted in an influx of pulp fiction and men’s magazines, through which these themes were reflected. Stories of lesbian orgies, threesomes and lesbian nymphomaniacs were extremely popular amongst heterosexual men during this period. Within these novels, lesbians are presented as deviants, yet deviants who are often regained by heterosexual, familial norms after experiencing life changing heterosexual sex.

Cover of The Third Sex by Artemis Smith (1963 Edition).

The message is therefore clear. If men show lesbians a good time by reasserting their masculinity, these women will once against fit within the Cold War ideals of conformity – everyone’s a winner.

Men’s magazines took a similar approach. Stories and images of two women looking for a man were extremely popular. What we can learn from 1950s and 1960s America is that sex sells, but lesbian sex sells better.

This had very real life consequences for lesbians, as men encroached on their space in the search of sexual encounters. Analysis of interviews and testimonies show that this repressive context led to a thriving underground lesbian movement and a vast number of lesbian bars being established. Heterosexual men often took advantage of these lesbian spaces, going there in search of lesbian women to have sex with –further demonstrating how they were constructed as an opportunity in the eyes of men.

Ultimately, the period between 1947 up until the stonewall riots of 1969 provided the ideal conditions within which the sexualisation of lesbians could and indeed did flourish. Sexualisation of lesbians is still widespread within our society today and lesbians continue to face challenges of not only being seen as a sexual fantasy but also having their sexuality presented as merely performative and something that can be “regained” by heterosexual masculinity

In numerous recent insight reports, PornHub revealed that ‘Lesbian’ was the most searched for and most viewed category across numerous American states, with 75 percent of the American audience being male. These statistics demonstrate that lesbianism continues to be framed within the male gaze. Sexualisation is not the same as acceptance and therefore it is important that we continue to address its roots in order to hold both society and ourselves accountable today.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People  project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Cover of Lesbian Love by Marlene Longman (1960).

[1] See Ofcom’s ‘Representation and Portrayal on BBC TV 2018’ report regarding the representation of lesbian women on television. https://www.ofcom.org.uk/tv-radio-and-on-demand/information-for-industry/bbc-operating-framework/representation-portrayal-bbc-tv/research-hub/lesbian-women

[2] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in Federal Government (Chicago, 2004).

[3] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988).

read more

‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ Website Launch

TandT

‘Journalism is the first draft of history’ is a maxim amongst journalists. But as networking, campaigning, and training organisation Women in Journalism points out on its website, that draft of history too often excludes female points of view.

Evidence shows that while some women are working at senior levels in broadcast journalism, newspapers are lagging behind, with just 25% of news stories on front pages of national newspapers in Britain written by women, and only eight national newspapers employing female editors.

Run from Nottingham Trent University by Dr Catherine Clay and Dr Eleanor Reed, ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ is a year-long project, publicising the ‘draft of history’ laid down by the influential and long-running feminist magazine Time and Tide. Founded in 1920 by Welsh businesswoman and feminist Lady Rhondda, this weekly review of politics and the arts was the only woman-controlled publication of its kind, competitive with the New Statesman. Time and Tide hosted contributions from many of the period’s leading political and literary figures, among them Vera Brittain, E. M. Delafield, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, Rose Macaulay, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, Ellen Wilkinson, and Virginia Woolf. During the interwar decades it was a beacon for feminism, a platform for women’s writing (both ‘high’ and ‘middlebrow’) and – as a leading ‘journal of opinion’ – offered perspectives on international as well as national politics from many of the most significant feminist thinkers and public intellectuals of the day.

Central to ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ is a dedicated website, timeandtidemagazine.org. Alongside information about the magazine’s history, this website’s star attraction is a free, downloadable Souvenir Edition of Time and Tide, edited by Dr Clay and produced by Nottingham-based publishers Five Leaves Publications. Showcasing selected articles from interwar issues of Time and Tide and replicating as closely as possible the layout and fonts used by the original magazine, the Souvenir Edition gives contemporary readers a taste of its interwar content. This includes a discussion of ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism by Winifred Holtby, observations on Nazism by Cicely Hamilton, short stories by E. M. Delafield and Marghanita Laski, poetry by Naomi Mitchison and Eleanor Farjeon, reviews of books, theatre, music and film by some of Time and Tide’s regular staff writers (among them Christopher St. John, Sylvia Lynd, Mary Agnes Hamilton and Theodora Bosanquet)  and ‘Our Men’s Page’ – a glorious send-up of the ‘women’s pages’ that appeared in popular publications at the time.

This content sits alongside advertisements for corsets, dressmaking silk, and magazines targeting professional women and feminists, which together invoke the complex, multifaceted identities represented by what was (during its early years) the magazine’s predominantly female readership. In her brilliant Foreword to the Souvenir Edition, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee draws out the connections between past and present: ‘A hundred years ago might seem an age away, and yet here women’s writings leap fresh from these pages, their causes all too familiar today.’

Giving context to the Souvenir Edition, the website hosts a timeline charting Time and Tide’s interwar history, and biographies of some of the key figures who directed and/or edited the magazine: Lady Rhondda, Helen Archdale, Rebecca West, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, E. M. Delafield, Theodora Bosanquet, and Professor Winifred Cullis. Both timeline and biographies are illustrated with artwork and other visual material from the period, including a wonderful photograph of Lady Rhondda marching alongside Emmeline Pankhurst at the Equal Rights Political Demonstration of 1926, and a Time and Tide Christmas card from the 1930s, showing the magazine’s offices in Bloomsbury. This visual content brings the magazine and its female producers vividly to life, and enriches our sense of the era in which it was produced.

Throughout 2020, the website will be updated regularly. New biographies will introduce more of Time and Tide’s key figures, and we will be inviting blog posts from trainee women journalists in response to the Souvenir Edition. These posts will offer fresh insights into the magazine from diverse perspectives, and explore its relevance today. The website will also host resources for teaching and research: these will include film footage, of speakers and panellists at a Festival of Women Writers and Journalists, to be held in London and/or online in November 2020. Other exciting content will include highlights from an Exhibition of Interwar Women’s Magazines, to be hosted by The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics between January and April 2021. Details of the Festival and Exhibition, and future planned events, will be available on the website.

Today, in a media industry that continues to value women’s appearance more highly than their opinions, Time and Tide’s marketing slogan – ‘Time and Tide tells us what women think and not what they wear’ – still resonates strongly. To discover what this fascinating magazine can teach us about our present as well as our past, visit timeandtidemagazine.org.

You can also follow ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ on Twitter: @timeandtidemag1

Dr Eleanor Reed is Project Officer for Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies. She is an early career researcher, specialising in early-mid twentieth-century domestic magazines. If you would like to find out about her research, you can read her chapter about ‘Lower-middle-class domestic leisure in Woman’s Weekly 1930’ in British Women’s Writing, 1930-1960: Between the Waves (edited by Jane Thomas and Sue Kennedy, Liverpool University Press). You can also find her on Twitter @ViolaChasm.

Cover image: Page from the Souvenir Edition of Time and Tide. Reproduced by kind permission of Five Leaves Publications.

read more

Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?

alex-boyd-HA0Rgl-ISko-unsplash

The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. https://unsplash.com/photos/HA0Rgl-ISko [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

read more
1 2
Page 1 of 2