Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series, UCL IOE

As part of the UCL Institute of Education Feminism, Gender and Sexuality seminar series, I’ll be presenting some of my doctoral work in progress.

Thursday 19th March 5.30 – 7pm: Room 539, 20 Bedford Way

The Great Wings of Silence: Queer Activism in Heritage Sites 

Sean Curran, IOE

Here’s the blurb:

Sean will present from their research about addressing the silence of LGBTQ narratives in heritage sites, using their own curatorial practice at the National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney as a case study. Sean will raise questions about the roles of curators, artists and activists in challenging dominant narratives in public history and will present initial findings from a survey conducted with participants of a crowd-sourced LGBTQ intervention and will reflect on the challenges arising from practice-based research.

Evening session followed by informal drinks in the Student Union Bar (level 3)

About the Feminism, Gender and Sexuality Seminar Series

Organisers: Jenny Parkes, Emily Henderson, Charley Nussey, Claudia Lapping, Annette Braun

This group is designed for research students and staff to explore their work around feminism, gender and sexuality. We meet informally about three times a term, twice during lunchtimes and once during the evening; at each session a speaker is invited to reflect upon their ideas as they develop, and to use the discussion space for the exploration of their own questions. Session topics located within diverse disciplines are encouraged. At least one seminar each term addresses LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) research. The session to be held in the evening will be followed by drinks in the bar.

To join the seminar series list contact j.parkes@ioe.ac.uk

(the image is from an old Penguin edition of Woolf’s Orlando, which is where the ‘great wings’ quote comes from)

Manchester, so much to answer for…

I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Manchester, which to my surprise I’m finally learning to love, I think it has been bitterness at the assumption that Manchester is the only decent city up North that has fueled this dislike, but I’m beginning to see its charm.

I visited, at the recommendation of my supervisor (and a friend), the People’s History Museum, which was an attempt of mine to find a social history museum that inspired me a bit. This one certainly did. Its origins, and the focus on the history of working people, revolution and democracy means that it’s an emphatically left-wing museum. It is described as having no political affiliation, though the permanent exhibition essentially feels like it’s about victories for the left, and barriers put in place by the right. It seems to me that any attempt at documenting the history of democracy, equality and protesting has to be slanting left-wise, because that’s where the change happened. The main exhibition is divided across two floors, with the first part covering the Peterloo massacres in 1819 up until WWI and then from after the war up to present day.

One thing that particularly struck me, aside from the consistent feminist narrative running throughout, was a piece of text on the inside of a door that opened to reveal a pike head, it said: ‘Family legend vs historical opinion- is this a Peterloo pike head?’ it then goes on ‘The accepted history of Peterloo is that the crowd were unarmed. However some historians have suggested that some members of the crowd were armed. The family who donated this pike head had always believed their ancestor John Chadwick collected it from the field of Peterloo. Museums are often given objects with a family history that differs from that of historians. We have to judge which history to tell. Do you think this is a Peterloo pike head? Should we believe that everyone who attended the meeting wanted it to be peaceful.’ It is very unusual to find museums that freely admit that they don’t have all of the answers, and instead of making a decision here as to whether or not to show an artefact that may not be what it claims to be, they have framed it within a question, not only about the role of the museum, but about the difficulties of piecing together histories, and allowed the visitor agency in making their own mind. A very bold (and simple) move, for a very bold museum.

The exhibition in the temporary space was The Art of Protest, which consisted of protest artworks (of varying quality) that were submitted to NOISEfestival.com. I particularly liked the use of the space, which seemed very community-curated and democratic, and the exhibition was complemented by a programme of events. Situated in the Engine Hall, the Art of Protest was an example of a community driven short term exhibition, and aside from being a great feature for any museum, also upheld the ethos that formed the original museum collections.

I also popped to the Manchester Art Gallery to see the Raqib Shaw exhibition, and the various interventions he had performed around the museum. I was also delighted to encounter a small exhibition called ‘Dreams without frontiers’ (which you can read about here), in which I had a near-spiritual experience sitting in a darkened room with ‘Asleep’ by the Smiths playing and no-one but a woman that looked like Lol from This Is England for company. To accompany the exhibition, a small booklet of essays responding to the works had been commissioned, a piece of art in itself, they had accepted submissions from anyone, and while the quality of the writing varies, it’s another example of a democratic use (and extension) of an exhibition.

A delayed response to the Suzanne Moore debacle

I’m a bit delayed in my response to this whole debacle, I was hesitant to write anything about it really, because there are a myriad of blog-posts and writing about it that express disappointment and anger much more eloquently than I can (some examples here, here and here), I’m talking of course, about the “twitter storm” and the fall-out that happened as a result of the Suzanne Moore’s article in the New Statesman. I decided to write something, because Moore’s most recent piece in the Guardian, which is a defense of sorts, made me quite angry, and if nothing else, I’m using this blog post to articulate my thoughts on this matter for my own sanity.

I’m not going to relay the whole thing, but basically a few people on twitter highlighted a throwaway comment in Moore’s original piece where she referred to the ideal body type for a woman as that of a ‘Brazilian transsexual’.  She received a lot of abuse about this, from (as Julie Bindel said ‘the trans cabal’?!) angry twitter users and subsequently in a (perhaps drunken?) attempt to defend herself against death threats and rude tweets, she entered into an immature and offensive rant along the lines of “cut your dick off and claim to be a better feminist than me” before “leaving” twitter, much to the chagrin of the likes of Caitlin Moran (of whom I’m a massive fan). In a misguided attempt to defend her fallen friend, Julie Burchill wrote a piece for the observer that was nothing short of hate speech. It’s not worth critiquing Burchill’s comment piece at any great length, anyone who can read will agree it’s horrendous, and saying that Burchill is tediously provocative, insensitive and unpleasant (aside from being an understatement) is like pointing out that the pope isn’t a fan of gay people, ie: self-evident. Rather I’m interested in the hypocrisy of apparent “lefties” and feminists who have turned a blind eye to transphobia.

The kind of people who supported Suzanne Moore on twitter throughout her abhorrent ranting are also the kind of people who would have been outraged if Richard Littlejohn or Jan Moir had done it. I understand when people want to defend their friend/colleague, but on such a public platform, it’s not disloyal to be critical of the language they use.

I wonder if this whole series of unfortunately worded events will have a lasting impact on the media’s approach to discussing trans and women issues. I sincerely hope it will, but I think it would have more of a lasting impact if Suzanne Moore held her hands up and said ‘actually, I was in the wrong, I used some hateful language and shouldn’t have done so’, rather than the ‘sorry you were offended’ approach of her defensive article. Naturally, I’m not even going to bother saying Burchill needs to apologise, she won’t, but otherwise decent publications and websites, such as the Observer need to learn from this and stop giving platforms to people inciting hate, and yes, she was inciting hate with the threat at the end of her article, and the childish and dangerous language she used.

The most interesting thing about all of this is how much Moore has challenged certain language relating to trans issues. Specifically ‘cis’ as in ‘cis-gender’ (which, contrary to Burchill’s assertion that it has something to do with ‘cyst’, is a latin prefix denoting ‘on the side of’ ie: gender identity and biological sex were aligned at birth). No one on the left likes labels, but surely we appreciate the necessity of them in discourse, be it about gender, sexuality, race, disability. We need terms to differentiate to help further debates. Of course, I’m not suggesting that people who are not trans should define themselves as cisgender, much like I don’t define myself as white or able-bodied, none of these terms (including heterosexual or straight) are derogatory terms, they are simply a way of acknowledging difference. To feel victimised or attacked by being referred to as cisgendered is like thinking there should be a straight pride, or a white history month, it’s an unhelpful response to a conversation, that implies that the privileged oppressor has somehow become the oppressed.

Likewise, for Moore to say that she doesn’t believe in the word ‘transphobia’ is extremely condescending, and seems to structure suffering and oppression into some sort of hierarchy. To deny trans men and women a term to describe the prejudices and hate that they receive is no different to claiming that homophobia, racism or ableism don’t exist, and as a ‘feminist’ surely Moore is more than aware of the importance of being able to claim ownership over terms such as ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’. That is not to say that we can’t challenge and be critical of this sort of terminology, my problem with the terms ‘transphobia’ and ‘homophobia’ is the ‘phobia’ part- neither is a phobia, both is a hatred. I can be wary of those terms, without denying that the phenomenon that they describe exist. If Moore’s version of feminism is one that denies groups the right to use language to describe their experiences, then hers is a feminism I don’t want to be part of.

So, my final thoughts on Moore’s last piece are as follows: she needs to apologise in a way that doesn’t say ‘I might have been wrong, but the people who bullied me off twitter were more in the wrong’ – it’s not a competition. She needs to accept that her original ‘Brazilian transsexual’ comment was ill-advised, personally, I could see no malice in it, but I have three issues with it: the first is the use of transsexual as a noun (if she means a trans woman, than say so), the second is the notion that there isn’t a variety of experience, size and shape within the trans community, and the third, which is most pressing, is the insensitivity of the comment, given the alarming rate of trans men and women (particularly women) that are killed each year in Brazil. Was it a malicious comment? Of course not. In poor taste and thoughtless? Definitely. She needs to acknowledge this (as opposed to saying ‘well no one complained about it the first time it was published’). Next, she needs to apologise (with some hint of sincerity) for the subsequent transphobic comments that she made on twitter, which are indefensible, but people will accept an apology. She should also condemn Burchill’s defence of her (if she still doesn’t believe transphobia exists then she should just take another look at her article). She describes this whole situation as a “storm in a double-D cup”, perhaps it was initially, but her dreadful handling of it turned it into a hurricane that exposed some very worrying views about a much-pilloried minority.

I will just say this about why I believe the Observer were right to pull the Burchill article (and subsequently, why the ToryGraph were wrong to repost it). In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill said “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”. Aside from the sexist language that was accepted at the time he wrote this, I believe this still stands true, Burchill might feel that she and Moore are the silenced ones in this situation, but her hate speech sought to actively silence a whole community. I don’t begrudge her the right to hold such insidious views, but she should not be given a platform to do so. It’s not a matter of freedom of speech, it’s a matter of fairness and of the media not facilitating hate speech.

Let’s hope some lessons have been learnt from all of this (not by Burchill obviously, that would be expecting too much).

Women’s Library update

Just flagging up some articles about recent developments in the ongoing Women’s Library saga.

LSE have been named as the new custodian of the WL.

This article is telling as they refer to the Library as “collections” as opposed to just a Library. This is far from an ideal solution, and it would be interesting to know what the other bidders were proposing.

This is the Guardian piece about the “saviour” of the WL by LSE.

And here is a dissatisfied retort, which captures the voices of many.

It’s good to see that London Met will continue to fight for this, but I fear it may be fruitless.

MA finished!

My MA is finished!

My dissertation is entitled ‘A feminine touch: seeking an understanding of the potential for using women’s archive collections for outreach’. I also submitted a placement report for my time in the IOE Archives working with the NUWT collection. I made a small online exhibition about part of the collection here.

It’s been such a great MA (Museums and Galleries in Education at the IOE) and has opened many doors for me (including the PhD). My PhD starts on the 29th September, but before then I have the GEM conference, and a journal article to write- no rest for the wicked.

the women’s library

As part of the ARLIS (Art Library Society) conference that I mention here, two staff members from the Women’s Library, currently part of London Metropolitan University, spoke about two recent projects relating to sport (the theme of the conference was Olympic-based).

Cycling to Suffrage: The Bicycle and Women’s Rights, 1890-1914
·         Briony Benge Abbot, Curator of Special Collections told us about the current exhibition of called Cycling to Suffrage: The Bicycle and Women’s Rights, 1890-1914 which runs until 8 September 2012.
·         The Women’s Library was founded in 1926 after the suffragette movement. She gave a brief history of the library, which can be found here.
·         The main users are researchers, academics, students and family historians.
·         The library has two exhibition spaces, and aims to show four exhibitions a year. Themes covered in the past have included; prostitution, craft, make-up and work.
·         The current exhibition looks at the gender politics of cycling in Edwardian and Victorian Britain, a mode of transport that was considered masculine, unsafe and uncivilised for a woman.
·         The cycle became a symbol of the New Woman, but was also used as a negative symbol against the women’s movement.
·         The exhibition raises questions about class, “rational dress”, how the bicycle supported the suffrage movement, ie: how it was used in parades, cycling scouts canvassing and handing out leaflets, and its use in pilgrimages and marches.
·         The research carried out for the exhibition unearthed material that was previously unknown about, such as a radical book about women cyclists, which championed healthy lifestyles and showed women how to fix bikes.
·         The bicycle was also seen by some to represent a more militant wave of the suffragette movement, following activist activities it was used to get away at high speed, some women were accused of making bombs with bicycle parts, complaints were made about tyre tracks on golf greens etc.
·         This is the first time this subject has been looked at in any detail, and it has provided new perspectives to parts of the collections and has prompted the rewrite of some catalogue entries.
·         The outcomes have included talks and the exhibition has enhanced knowledge of the collection. It has also attracted new audiences, including lots of cyclist groups, who discuss how cycling is still a gendered issue. Only 29% of cyclists in London are women, and the death rate from accidents is highly disproportionate.
·         More about the exhibition here. I visited it briefly the other day, and it’s really illuminating and worth a visit.
 Sporting Sisters: stories of Muslim women in sport
·         Tracey Weller Learning Coordinator, whom I had already had the pleasure of meeting to interview for my dissertation, told us about some of the outreach they did at the Women’s Library, specifically about the Muslim women in sport project.
·         This was a community-led research project, originally with 12 or 13 young Muslim women looking at Muslim women’s participation from 1948 to the present day. By the end of the project, there were four women taking part, this reduction in numbers is fairly standard in community outreach work.
·         The project was funded primarily by HLF, followed by contributions from ESRC and the People’s Record.
·         The participants were given an introduction to the Women’s Library, and had a workshop about using a research library. They received training around oral histories and interviewing techniques, and film-making skills.
·         The collection of material relating to Muslim women in sport was quite patchy in the late 18th and early 19th century, but there was more relevant stuff from more contemporary times.
·         Issues raised involved class, ethnicity, over-representation of materials related to rowing and hockey, clothing- especially for Muslim sportswomen.
·         They discovered that Muslim women were amongst the most enthusiastic in women’s boxing.
·         The last Olympic sports to exclude men are rhythmic gymnastics and synchronised swimming.
·         They filmed and edited their own short film about their research, which can be found here.
·         The outcomes of the project were: the participants acquired new skills, such as research skills and filming skills. The film preserves their research and became part of the collection, they have helped to highlight a hidden voice and have raised the profile of Muslim women’s participation in sports. The project has also enhanced the knowledge of the Women’s Library staff of their collections.
Recently the Women’s Library have announced that there are seven bidders for alternative ownership, which I’m sure you will have heard about, there is a shortlist of seven, and I’m selfishly hoping it will stay in London, and particularly keeping my fingers crossed for Senate House as it would be a brilliant edition to the already blooming University of London (again, obvious bias on my part).

a warm Wellcome

The reason I include the Wellcome Library on this blog is because of the frieze in the main reading room, which reminded me of the timeline by Sara Fanelli at the Tate Modern that gives an alternative and expanded version of the story of contemporary art. Postmodern and feminist approaches demand a complete disruption/revision of existing canons, which are made by and for men. Feminism rejects hierarchy and canonicity, so the Tate are really bold in having this displayed there (although it’s undermined by the reliance on white males for their big shows). The Wellcome library seemed to share this vision of extending a view of history, this time, medical history.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Interior of the Wellcome Library.
 The Wellcome Library’s art deco reading room, formerly the original museum for Henry Wellcome’s unique collection, has a frieze around it containing names, thought in the 1960s to be the most important figures in medicine. The library serves to fill the gaps between those names, the lesser known doctors, nurses, surgeons, other medical practitioners, patients and theorists. Contrary to many misconceptions, the collection held is very much alive and glowing with a wealth of diverse material (2.5 million items!), spanning themes as broad as; food, ethics, sexuality, medicine in the media, foreign language material, alchemy, botany, witchcraft and the occult and much more. There are twelve books about Napoleon’s various alleged maladies (including scabies), a huge variety of periodicals and primary source medical textbooks from 1850 onwards and vast numbers of paintings, drawings and prints. The library is open to anyone, and there is only one category of membership. The main readership is students (of both medicine and art/art history), people in the field of medicine, and family historians who can look up family members who were patients, or doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners. The library has its own in-house conservation team where most of its conservation takes place, an in-house photography team for digitisation (a current digitisation project looking at the history of genetics is currently underway) and a Rare Materials Room for consulting the more fragile and rare material, the oldest of which is a prescription from Egypt dated 11BC. The Research and Engagement Officer Ross MacFarlane told us about the Wellcome’s online presence, including the blog, Wellcome Images, a widely used free resource, the video tutorials for library users, and Wellcome Film. The Wellcome Library is incredibly lucky as it is privately owned and very wealthy. The majority of the Wellcome Trust’s budget goes towards funding medical research, but there is still a generous amount left to continue to acquire material and to move ahead with ongoing digitisation projects.

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Lady Strachan and Lady Warwick making love in a park, while their husbands look on with disapproval. Coloured etching, ca. 1820.