Call for papers for what sounds like a hugely exciting conference to be held at Durham during International Women’s Day weekend 2015:
I’ve spent my spare time over the past weeks buried in libraries doing thesis-specific research, and I’m afraid deciphering manuscripts and correspondence in frankly the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen has been getting in the way of properly reading the papers – but when the radio starts spouting unabashedly Victorian rhetoric it’s hard not to take notice.
The occasion was a panel discussion on the Tories’ proposed changes to strike legislation, which include, amongst many other things, a 50% turnout threshold for strike action, and have been described by the Guardian as ‘the biggest crackdown on strikes since Margaret Thatcher’s era’.
Plenty of commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy of these plans, particularly considering that a similar threshold does not apply to Westminster elections and that Tory MPs have benefited considerably from this. What concerns me here, because it seems a further indication of an ideological push backwards, is the rhetoric that has been used to defend these measures, and which has been heard regularly on the subject of recent strike action.
In Rebellious Structures: Women writers and the crisis of the novel, 1880-1900 Gerd Bjørhovde explains the ‘New Unionism’ of the late nineteenth century. One of its most important features, she states,
‘… was the growing acceptance of the strike weapon as a fair and justified means of fighting for the claims of the working class. Up to the 1880s there had been a widespread tendency to regard strikes as something taken recourse to by madmen, desperadoes or outcasts only, – how widespread is evidenced by the virtually unanimous hostility to strikes in almost all Victorian literature, from e.g. Harriet Martineau to Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.’ (1987: 64)
This reference to ‘madmen, desperadoes or outcasts’ reflects the same ideology that underpins the representation of the strike action that has taken place this and last year. My own workplace threatened up to the last moment to deduct a full day’s pay for workers who participated in the series of two-hour strikes called by UCU this winter, couching its threats in laments about how ‘regrettable’ was the union’s decision to strike. The defence for the proposed restrictions to picketing is that ‘The Conservatives claim they want to “better protect those who want to come to work”’.
This notion of a strike as the brainchild of a band of trigger-happy ringleaders, dragging a handful of unfortunate workers down with them and bullying those who resist into compliance, is too reminiscent of Disraeli’s Dandy Mick gleefully anticipating ‘a good strike’. This kind of rhetoric embraces or discards at will the fact that nobody simply wants to strike: it suggests that of course ‘good’ workers understand the harm done by disrupting the system, but conveniently ignores the sacrifice made by workers who decide to relinquish their wages for a time in order to achieve a fairer pay deal in the long term. A strike is a weapon no worker will use lightly, as it relies on foregoing the wages on which they rely – but the rhetoric used to discredit strikes and strikers cannot accommodate this in its narrative of bullies and victims.
This victim narrative echoes the treatment of strikes in industrial fiction from the 1830s and 40s. Novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South take upon themselves the task of explaining class relations in factory districts to the middle-class reader. Gaskell’s texts are generally considered among the more progressive novels by middle-class writers of the period (Mary Barton was taken as a personal affront by the mill-owning classes in Manchester, where Gaskell lived), as they express a degree of sympathy towards even the strike leaders – but they can only achieve this by painting the strikers as misguided victims. Nicholas Visser quotes a contemporary review of Mary Barton, in which,
‘Pursuing the question “why working men turn Chartists and Communists”, the reviewer asks: “Do they want to know why? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know why poor men [… ] learn to hate law and order, Queens, Lords and Commons [… ] to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know what can madden brave, honest, industrious North-country hearts, into self-imposed suicidal strikes, into conspiracy, vitriol-throwing, and midnight murder? Then let them read Mary Barton.”’ (The Modern Language Review, 89.3, 1994: 306)
John Barton, the trade unionist protagonist of the novel, is ‘maddened’ with grief and opium by the time he gets fully involved in union politics. His foil is the working-class autodidact Job Legh, into whose mouth Gaskell puts objections to the overturning of the system to illustrate her acknowledgment of the existence of ‘sensible’ workers, who may be approached in order to achieve an amelioration of the existing system by mutual consent of ‘masters and men’. In the more socially conforming version of this narrative, North and South, published five years later, the union leader is a bright but misguided workman seeking change through unionism but repeatedly begged by his dying daughter not to get involved. In order to allow for Nicholas Higgins’s rehabilitation in a revised micro-system based on greater communication and collaboration between the classes, the foil here is the starving workman Boucher who, having a large family and many mouths to feed, has not saved up and cannot survive through the strike, which causes him to join an angry mob which storms the house of the factory owner who has brought strike breakers from Ireland. The middle-class heroine, Margaret Hale, cast as mediator between the classes, is able to look at Boucher and his ilk with a degree of understanding pity, but this translates only into a wish that the workers would not disadvantage themselves in such a foolish and pointless way. A startlingly similar kind of regret, though sans sympathy, was the chosen tone of the bulletin from our HR department re: the two-hour strikes in January.
By the 1880s, as Bjørhovde points out, workers had won significant victories such as the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888 which ran directly counter to the portrayal of strikers as passive victims bullied into measures damaging mostly to themselves. The current rhetoric of the government and the right-wing press, then, hails further back than this. Close parallels can be found in a text from 1833, published at the dawn of the era of the British ‘mill’, predating Chartism. Peter Gaskell, in The Manufacturing Population of England, mixes contemporary notions of political economy with a moralising didacticism which suggests that the joining together of workers to defend their position is selfish and harmful to all of society, but most of all to themselves. He claims,
‘The total want of confidence which at present marks the relations of the master-manufacturer and his hands, and the feelings of deep hatred which are too prevalent amongst them, have been brought about chiefly by unadvised combinations on both sides.’ (296)
The entire chapter on ‘combinations’ of workers is eerily reminiscent of the current government’s suggestions that we all face up bravely to the economic crisis by collectively ‘tightening our belts’ – in which figure of speech is apparently included allowing oneself to be evicted and to become dependent on food banks for survival. Preaching his own doctrine of political economy as undeniable fact, Gaskell states,
‘Labour being the poor man’s sole possession, his property – deserves an equal portion of legislative protection, with property of any other kind; and in return it should be content to be placed under the same restraints and regulations, which are placed for the benefit of all parties upon other kinds of property.’ (292)
The current rhetoric in fact takes this one step further, as under Gaskell’s system, at least in theory (in nineteenth-century working communities such as factory and quarry towns, blacklisting of workers to prevent their working for other employers when they had walked away from a job was a very common practice), the worker is free to withdraw their labour if they consider the remuneration offered to be insufficient. Recently, we have seen pay and conditions altered before contracts have expired, and workers depicted as selfish and morally reprehensible for protesting against these breaches of contract on their employers’ part.
Thatcher advocated a return to ‘Victorian values’. It seems the current government wants to reduce us to a pre-Victorian status-quo.
The title of this post refers to a passage in The Provost by John Galt , quoted by Visser (290).
With thanks to Luke of Marxism and the Problematic of Desire for his thoughts and corrections.
Last Monday, Jessica Valenti published an article in The Guardian entitled ‘Why are women so “unhappy”?’ Bold and to-the-point, it took on, in a few short paragraphs, a million pervasive aspects of contemporary and historical forms of social control of women, and the pseudo-science used to back them up. It was very refreshing to see her single out the issue of social injustice and extricate it from the mire of individualisation in which many columnists tend to lose themselves. She stated: ‘The more important question to ask ourselves isn’t “Why aren’t women happy after feminism?”. It is “Who cares?” – “happiness” isn’t the goal of feminism.’ Her argument addressed very succinctly the fact that individual cases of female ‘happiness’ are not related to the feminist struggle. Feminism is a movement to combat gender-based inequality in society and to benefit women’s quality of life as a result – not vice versa. Assuming the latter feeds into the non-argument that women don’t have it so bad because some individuals managed to triumph over the social prejudice against them – this line of reasoning is the same as that which suggests that people living in poverty are simply too lazy to get rich. She responds to the suggestion that individual women have become more ‘unhappy’ since their social position began to improve thanks in part to feminist campaigns with a simple explanation:
‘It could be true that women report more unhappiness since feminism’s gains of the 60s and 70s. Maybe the trade-off for having our eyes opened to inequality is feeling a little miffed about getting the short end of the stick. Dissatisfaction seems a fairly normal reaction to injustice.’
What she also made very clear was that it is patronising towards women to reduce the struggle against oppression to an issue of individual happiness: it suggests that feminism is merely a hobby for educated women with too much time on their hands – a ‘project’ to keep them occupied. As she points out,
‘There’s nothing “happy” about fighting to end rape, to end discrimination, or for the right to be considered capable enough to decide what happens to our own bodies. Feminists aren’t pleased to point out the injustices of the world, but we know it’s necessary for change.’
This also neatly counters the persistent idea that women fighting against social injustice are merely argumentative harridans who would be so much more fun (read: socially acceptable) if they just tried to be a bit more cheerful about their lot in life – a trope that has been regularly trotted out over the centuries to undermine women addressing social problems.
Another interesting point she made in her introduction, moreover, fed into a further ideological construct which I would like to examine in some further historical detail. She writes, ‘the culture doesn’t actually mind if women are unhappy – so long as we keep it to ourselves’, and goes on to point out:
‘Women’s distress directed inward – from eating disorders to feelings of inadequacy – keeps the status quo moving along, with diet pills selling through the roof and women asking for promotions far less often than their male counterparts. But when our dissatisfaction takes an outward turn, people get uncomfortable.’
This distinction between ‘unhappiness’ ‘directed inward’, which can be stretched to include personal subversion of social strictures without upsetting the status-quo, and public defiance of the existing social hierarchy is still often blurred in analyses of historical instances of both. We frequently see this in feminist studies of Victorian women’s lives. Such studies still too often hold up as progressive individual acts of subversion that slightly relieved the burden of social inequality on the particular woman concerned (who would probably not have been considered worth researching if she hadn’t done anything of this kind). Examples include evidence of women influencing their husbands by controlling the household money or withholding sex. I appreciate that feminist criticism in the 1960s and 1970s, which was still establishing the monumental project of uncovering women’s history and women in history, celebrated discoveries such as these as evidence of female agency throughout history, but I think that, while we recognise the individual bravery and resourcefulness involved in acts such as these, we can no longer ignore the tragedy which caused these women to have to channel their talents into these acts of self-preservation, rather than more constructive projects. Anecdotes like these are subversive but not progressive, and did little to benefit the social position of women as an oppressed group.
It is easy to forget, as well, how often these instances we celebrate were related to class or other privilege. If we read these historical incidents as evidence that individual subversion was a possibility for women, we begin to place the onus for the oppressed position of women in general on those who were too much affected by it to subvert it – which is merely another face of the idea that women should simply be more ‘cheerful’. Whilst I am more than ready to acknowledge the importance of articles such as Amanda Vickery’s ‘Golden Age to Separate Spheres’ (The Historical Journal, 36.2, June 1993), as deconstructing the prevalence of the notion of the ‘angel in the house’, the examples she gives are all drawn from a wealthy upper class where women had more freedom and influence in any case. Critics like Leslie Hume and Karen M. Offen make very clear that it was much more difficult for ‘less-affluent women’ (Victorian Women, ed. by Erna Olafson Hellerstein et al., 1981: 279) publicly to ignore or run counter to social strictures. As I have put forward in earlier posts, the social privilege of some women involved in Victorian campaigns for social equality in fact often helped to polarise women by class, with middle-class women using their influence in campaigns on behalf of working-class women to promote their own social and political emancipation, and working-class women often remaining passive objects and victims in the discourse created by their middle-class ‘benefactors’. This class-based distinction (also incorporating distinctions related to ethnic and cultural background, disability, sexual orientation etc.) has continued to affect the unity of feminist campaigns to the present day. Celebrating small individual triumphs, usually by already privileged women within a socially acceptable sphere of influence, as equally progressive as campaigns against social inequality risks strengthening these divisions and casting further aspersions on those groups already doubly oppressed by social structures.
A second post, to make up for my extended media silence. At least I have been consistent in my absence from here: for a sustained period, work in all its forms has got in the way of my baking, so on my holidays a couple of weeks ago I returned to it with a vengeance, and made:
The Suffragette Battenberg parcel – to make when you have lots of food colouring but no loaf tins to hand
This was my mother’s birthday cake this year, and therefore also features her present – a Radical Tea Towel Company Suffragette tea cosy.
The green cake was coloured with pistachios, aided by green food colouring. The purple involved creative mixing of blue and red food colouring. They are stuck together using home-made elderberry jelly, and the text showcases once again my reluctance to acknowledge that a teaspoon is not a valid instrument of calligraphy.
A chocolate sponge sandwich filled with home-made plum jam and crushed raspberries, topped with lemon buttercream and decorated with fresh fruit, chocolate Easter eggs and an ox-eye daisy from the garden.
I’m late to this party, for which I apologise (busy, busy, work, applications, work, no internet, and other general life interferences – none of which are an excuse for not writing anything on here since February), but fortunately my point is one that can be stretched to meet various instances of a recurring form of awareness-raising activism that, though sometimes funny and effective, rarely manages to be wholly unproblematic.
I will be taking issue primarily with the message of Kira Cochrane’s article in The Guardian last month, entitled ‘Gender-flips are a simple and smart way to turn sexism on its head’. Cochrane lists a number of examples of the ‘gender-flip’, in which instances of objectification of women to which the general public is assumed to have become inured are highlighted by posing a man in the same style. Some of these examples are, indeed, pertinent, as they send up the industry that produces them – for instance, Jim C. Hines’s imitations and analyses of men’s and women’s poses on the covers of certain fantasy novels. Crucial here, though, is that these characters are fictional, the covers often illustrations or stylised photos, and that the attack is clearly on the industry’s readiness to buy into and promote social conditioning, and that the humour Hines uses to get his point across is self-deprecating.
Unfortunately, the two examples that have received most media attention recently carry much more poisonous undertones. The anything-but-subtle racist and classist implications of the viral video ‘Majorité Opprimée’ (‘Oppressed Majority’) have already been addressed elsewhere. What prompted Cochrane’s article, however, was Bondi Hipsters’ ‘inversion’ of Miranda Kerr’s photoshoot for British GQ. Whilst this project technically qualifies as a gender flip, substituting a heavily bearded man in the poses and outfits modelled by Kerr in the shoot, I am unsure why critics seem to want to give it credit for combatting media sexism – to me, it seems rather to propagate it, as the object of ridicule in the parody shoot doesn’t seem to be the magazine or the media industry in general, but Kerr herself.
The photo series and the interview are clearly tailored to give the impression that Kerr wished to model in this way, perhaps at her own suggestion (if she was pressured to do this in any way, that only makes the parody less excusable). She speaks openly about her sex life and her attraction to both women and men. Dom Nader, of Bondi Hipsters, poses for photos embellished with comments such as ‘If I was really smashed I’d give a guy a wristy… I just wouldn’t tell anyone… Especially not a mahgazine’. The parody, therefore, seems not only to ridicule a woman and a member of the LGBT community for exposing herself, but, rather than questioning the objectification of women by the media industry, seems to blame Kerr for working within it and being subject to its demands. I need hardly point out, furthermore, that the comment I have quoted above also makes light of the experience of feeling ashamed of sexual actions either for fear of societal disapproval or after being forced into them.
Narratives of oppression are rarely simple, which explains why they have proved so insidious and persistent. Sexism is rarely completely reducible to men—good—women—bad: women from different social groups experience different aspects of oppression, and social differences between women mean that they are often played out against one another and complicit in oppressing other women in different ways. Social issues cannot be addressed in a social vacuum. I have not read Noughts and Crosses and therefore cannot comment on the novel, but I remember being startled by the ways in which a BBC radio adaptation broadcast a few years ago persisted in propagating dominant class and gender narratives, and still ended up putting forward a white saviour. What the Bondi Hipster parody ended up doing was using the guise of anti-sexist art to allow privileged men to ridicule a bisexual woman for taking her knickers off and talking about sex and masturbation – and to be applauded as acute social commentators for doing so.
This seems to me to be symptomatic of the individualisation of society, which attempts to shunt the blame for societal problems onto single scapegoats. Miranda Kerr is not responsible for the culture that wants to print her nipples on glossy paper to sell a magazine – she works in a society where objectification is endemic and people will want to talk about her nipples whether she shows them or not. Society is structured in such a way that the choice to take our clothes off or not is not a free one – and ridiculing a woman for posing nude and talking about sex is setting us back decades.
Upon hearing that I was going to the Domestic Imaginaries symposium last month, the author of Marxism and the Problematic of Desire forwarded to me an article from Jacobin, hoping that it would provide me with some interesting discussion points. The article very ably and clearly deconstructed the notion of ‘Do What You Love’, stating that,
‘There’s little doubt that “do what you love” (DWYL) is now the unofficial work mantra for our time. The problem is that it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work, including the very work it pretends to elevate — and more importantly, the dehumanization of the vast majority of laborers.’
As an aspiring academic, I am highly aware that the deceptive mantra glosses over considerable difficulties and stressful situations. Much as I love the idea of immersing myself in my research to such an extent that the line between work and pleasure is blurred, I remember all too clearly the way my dissertation made my home into a work space so that every day was a work day. The fact that academia has a tendency to draw workers into a situation of which my experience during one stressful summer was only the merest hint is proven by diverse pieces of evidence, from the fact that my former tutors still don’t hesitate to respond to my emails at 11pm on a Saturday, to the statements of academics on how their quality of life has improved since they began consciously to work to contract, to testimonies by PhD students regarding the completely insufficient amount of hours their universities are willing to pay them for the marking they do. As the article goes on to explain,
‘Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit?’
Work should, where possible, be enjoyable for the worker – but the fact that we may enjoy our work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be justly compensated. It should also not be allowed to usurp our lives to the exclusion of every other source of pleasure – the kind we choose for ourselves. The ‘DWYL’ philosophy, through its individualistic cast, pretends that the need to work is a choice, and that our dedication becomes an obligation as a result:
‘According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.’
As it transpired, this article was directly relevant to the paper I had prepared for the symposium, and to another on the panel: ‘Secret Spheres: Images of work and gender in the homes of the mid-Victorian urban poor’ by the wonderful Emily Cuming. It made me recognise the striking similarities between the nature of the modern-day ‘DWYL’ mantra and mid-Victorian assumptions regarding ‘women’s work’, relating, in different ways, to both middle- and working-class women.
As the middle-class rose to prominence and laid down its largely arbitrary rules to distinguish itself from the decadent aristocracy and the lumpen proletariat, many families who were socially middle class did not have the income to match this social status. This created problems for the woman of the house in particular. The doctrine of separate spheres which was fundamental to the construction of the middle-class family home as ‘the basic unit of society’ (Lenore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes, 1994: 115) was based on the removal of productive and profitable work from the home. This meant that the domestic work done in the house could no longer be recognised as work. Cue the invention of the ‘angel in the house’, a mythologised being whose work was supposed to come naturally to her because the care of her home, husband and family was her highest destiny. Thus, domestic labour could be made ‘culturally invisible’ (Jennie Batchelor, Women’s Work, 2010: 3) as being completely removed from the public sphere of profitable work, and depicted as the domain of a creature destined specifically to carry it out.
Practical reality, however, meant that a large number of middle-class families could not afford this lifestyle. Thus, in many cases the doctrine of ‘separate spheres’ not only ignored the stress a middle-class housewife was likely to experience in the running of her household, but also disallowed the entrance of these women into the world of profitable work to help support their families. This middle-class notion was also often imposed on working-class families, with working-class characters in industrial novels voicing opinions such as Mrs Wilson’s in Mary Barton, that,
‘I could reckon up […] nine men I know, as has been driven to th’ public-house by having wives as worked in factories; good folk, too, as thought there was no harm in putting their little ones out at nurse, and letting their house go all dirty, and their fires all out; and that was a place as was tempting for a husband to stay in, was it?’ (1994: 139)
In other words, a woman who works by definition neglects her womanly duties of providing comfort and a moral framework for her family, and if her own selfish impulse makes her fail in these paramount duties, she will be punished by the scorn and indifference of her family and community. This increased the pressure on working women to disguise their profitable work to seem a part of their ‘natural duties’. As Leslie Hume and Karen M. Offen show,
‘… many women found ingenious ways to supplement their family income through home-based cash-producing activities – sewing and washing for others, or writing advice manuals for sale to commercial publishers. These activities did not alarm the Victorian public since they remained centred in the private sphere and were considered supplemental to women’s primary domestic chores.’ (Victorian Women, 1981: 275)
Emily Cuming’s paper suggested that this same narrative of disguise was also imposed on working-class women working at home. She contrasted engravings of middle-class families clustered around the hearth with a working-class family of tailors similarly grouped around the window as being a source of cheap light to aid them in their labour. It is important to bear in mind here that working-class people in Victorian ideology were defined primarily through their work, unlike middle-class people whose work was necessary to support their ‘real’ home life. Many working-class women worked at home to allow them to look after young children and relatives who were aged or ill – needlework, matchbox-making etc. were commonly done at home under the auspices of a sweater who provided the materials and collected the finished product. Emily put her finger on an interesting distinction in the narrative of ‘home’ for these women, as opposed to middle-class women: often, working-class women made their home a workplace to keep them out of other ‘houses’, meaning the workhouse, a brothel, or the house of someone of a higher social class where they might be put to work as domestic servants.
Thus, the notion of ‘Do What You Love’ unashamedly revives a Victorian narrative used simultaneously to devalue work and increase social and economic pressure on the worker whilst depicting this situation as something worth aspiring to as a mark of progress. If you do love your work, that’s wonderful, but you are not subservient to it – or, more importantly, to the person profiting from your supposed ‘pleasure’.
It looks bad, I know – I announce with much pomp and circumstance my return to the blogosphere, and then take over a month to produce another post. I can only offer a thousand humble apologies, and explain that first, I was starting a new job, and then I came up against the monopolistic evil of internet provision in London and was cut off for the better part of a month, refusing to shell out for WiFi use in order to disseminate my Marxist-feminist dialectic from the hipster bars of Shoreditch.
The reconnection of my internet did, however, happily coincide with the advent of plenty of material for a new and angry post. This was provided in part by the return to the nation’s screens of the costumed soap opera/SVU mash-up Ripper Street, and in part by a conference on the topic organised as part of Birkbeck’s series of lectures and film showings as counterpart to the Victoriana exhibition at the Guildhall Art Gallery. I won’t lie – I am as much of an omnibus and crinoline geek as the next Victorian Studies graduate, and can’t help loving the research and creativity that goes into the steampunk genre. ‘Victoriana: The art of revival’ is a gorgeous exhibition and I got childishly excited about dressing up for the neo-Victorian ball in the gallery crypt. Nevertheless, as the (for that evening) consumptive factory worker who authors the Marxism, Desire, Ontology blog pointed out, steampunk, and the entirety of historical fiction as a genre, is inherently reactionary. Like fantasy and science fiction, which offer, through their world-building possibilities, tremendous scope for subversion and breaking down of dominant discourses but practically always end up reinforcing precisely those discourses and presenting them as inevitable and ‘natural’, it thrives on titillation through the depiction of highly problematic ideas and actions without apology or contextualisation, the excuse being a nostalgia for an invented tradition in which political correctness had not yet been invented.
These were the questions I had hoped to hear addressed at the conference on ‘re-writing the Victorians for TV and radio’. Unfortunately, the conclusion that Ripper Street used its historical setting to present itself as educational whilst incorporating cheap thrills appealing to its viewers’ latent brutality, and the acknowledgment of its frankly appalling gender, race and disability politics, were only stated outright at the very end of the afternoon, when time constraints no longer allowed for a fruitful (or even merely satisfyingly angry) discussion. What did emerge from between the lines of the papers and discussion, however, was a point that I think gives us considerably more cause for concern than merely the threat of rubbish television. This was the model referred to as ‘austerity BBC’. The speaker, Dr Benjamin Poore, used this to explain the decline of the golden era of the BBC adaptation of canonical texts as mini-series: the new model, he made clear, was responsible for the format heralded by Lark Rise to Candleford, which used the source text only as a springboard for a long-running soap opera-style programme. Since it requires only one custom-built set (and we find the BBC’s costume drama outfits regularly recycled) and has no fixed number of episodes, series on this model are cheaper to produce and have the potential to generate greater profits – as, for example, through the success of Downton Abbey.
I would argue, however, that there is a more dangerous implication to the workings of this kind of ‘austerity TV’ which is inextricably linked to the reactionary aspects of historical fiction. The third episode in the new series of Ripper Street, nauseatingly entitled ‘Become Man’, confirmed me in this suspicion. Many of the conference-goers pointed out the conspicuous absence of people of ethnic minorities in the first series, and the appearance, out of nowhere, of a substantial Chinese community in the first episode of the second – which promptly proceeded to demonise this community as poisoning the West with its narcotics. A similar argument may be made about the treatment of characters with disabilities in the second episode, which cast these stereotyped characters as completely disconnected from the wider community. In the third episode, a band of hysterical women kidnap the opponent of London’s first female City Councillor. Of course, sensible Councillor Cobden takes resolute distance from these ‘extremists’ whilst playfully embracing the image of herself as a breathily willing object of love and lust; meanwhile, the madam and the women’s ringleader form a mutually abusive and voyeuristically eroticised bond for no reason other than their shared femininity (and implied hysteria). Besides these grating facts, however, it struck me as extremely relevant that these female terrorists were former employees of the Bryant and May Match Factory who were not satisfied by the outcome of the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike. Following this summer’s Matchwomen’s Festival to commemorate the Strike, and coming in a climate of industrial disputes in a crisis acknowledged to affect women disproportionately, it is impossible not to see this as a deliberate provocation and an undermining of the uniting and unionising of – particularly female – workers.
As I explored in my previous post in the context of modern-day recruitment techniques, the division of the workers along arbitrary lines of gender, race, disability, sexual orientation etc. etc. etc. is a well-worn capitalist tactic to undermine a united fightback. As in the Victorian period with the rise of its propagandist popular press, popular culture is a useful tool to spread these divisions in such a way as to make them seem embedded in ‘human nature’. Because of the reactionary nature of the genre, writers of historical fiction should always make extra efforts to guard against the uncritical adoption of modern-day stereotypes and prejudices in their pseudo-historical setting, but (and how consciously I cannot say with certainty) this brand of ‘austerity TV’ does precisely the opposite by cementing these stereotypes and prejudices – not because it is simply mindless and pretends to be no more, but in a setting that passes itself off as meticulously researched and educational, and thus does worse than excuse these attitudes.
Hello all, and thank you very much for your patience during my hiatus from this blog. I can reassure any and all of you who are interested that the dissertation is in, the MA has been finished, and an all-too-brief holiday had. I’m back, partly because I’d left it much too long already, partly because I have a point to make, and partly because I’m angry – and the latter two, of course, are linked.
I hardly need to make the point that, since the rapid development of the second and third waves of feminism between the 1960s and the 1990s, we are experiencing a backlash. This means not only that women’s rights activists are coming up against resistance in new and current campaigns for equality, but also that the rights we have won are being gradually eroded – for example, cuts to childcare facilities are causing many women to leave full-time employment to look after their children. Fortunately, the response has been a wonderful rise in grassroots feminist activism. Unfortunately, ‘men’s rights activism’ is also rampant on the internet.
I wouldn’t normally grant a platform to this vile piece of provocation, but ‘The Case Against Female Self-Esteem’ plays into a number of very current problems, and a society in financial crisis is a fertile breeding ground for many of the author’s statements. Forney’s main point appears to be that women are not entitled to self-esteem because they, unlike men, haven’t achieved anything to deserve the right to value themselves. According to Forney, ‘Most girls’ so-called achievements, the ones they take pride in, are complete jokes.’ Their degrees, he argues, are generally worthless:
‘If anything, having a college degree is a strike against a girl—unless it’s in something real like a STEM discipline—as it shows that she’s a conformist who thinks that credentials are a substitute for knowledge and experience.
‘The same goes for having a job. The vast majority of girls work useless fluff jobs: government bureaucrats, human resources and various other makework positions that exist to give them the illusion of independence. The jobs that keep the country running—tradesmen, miners, farmers, policemen, the military—are still overwhelmingly dominated by men.
‘If every girl was fired from her job tomorrow, elementary schools would have to shut down for a couple days, but otherwise life would go on as usual. If every man lost his job tomorrow, the country would collapse.’
This typical backlash reasoning, you will not be surprised to hear, has been around at least since the Victorian period, when women began to enter the public sphere, including the workplace, in numbers. Particularly during the financial crises of the 1840s and 1880s, the male reaction, both in the workplace itself and in the budding trade union movement, was hostile. Men whose pay was subject to repeated reductions saw women’s cheaper labour as a means to undercut their wages. In City of Dreadful Delight, Judith Walkowitz explains how the economic crisis of the late-Victorian period prompted working-class men to cling to stereotypical masculinity as high unemployment lost them their traditional masculine role of family breadwinner. She describes how employment insecurity ‘reduce[d] the authority of the male head of household to an absent or decorative role, one highly vulnerable to parody as something of a “comic disaster”’, as the women and children in families were taken on as cheap labour whilst the original ‘breadwinner’ remained unemployed because his labour was deemed too expensive. This, she shows, was reflected in popular music hall songs such as ‘We All Go to Work but Father’.
Thus, Victorian working-class women took on much of the work previously done by men, and proved themselves equally capable of carrying it out. Nevertheless, they were employed primarily because their labour was cheaper than that of men. Furthermore, their employment was far from being more secure than men’s: they were often taken on on the implicit understanding that their job would be returned to a man as soon as there was less need for their employer to undercut men’s wages. Hence, women’s labour was used, successfully, to cause rifts between different groups of people within the working class.
Even amidst the growing call for workers’ unity, however, trade unions did not try to represent women and develop a climate of solidarity in which all exploited workers could unite to fight for fairer wages. Instead, as Walkowitz makes clear, ‘Men clung all the more tenaciously to patriarchal prerogatives, including wife-beating’ (2000: 44); and female workers were often intimidated and sexually harassed by their male colleagues in an effort to induce them to leave the workplace. Thus, as Marx and Engels point out in the Communist Manifesto, the ‘organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves.’
These divisive tactics are still being employed today. I am currently looking for work myself, which means filling out an Equal Opportunities form with every application. And although I personally believe my sexual orientation is certainly no business of my employer’s, I recognise fully the importance of equal opportunities and wholeheartedly support equality and diversity in every place of work. What shocked me is the way in which people, in casual conversation about the unpleasantness of job hunting, bring up equal opportunities as something to resent. They tell me that all the jobs now go to people who tick multiple equal opportunities boxes, and present that as a reason why they (hard-working, able-bodied, white, straight men and women) struggled to get work. As well as being obviously untrue, this entirely defeats the aim of equal opportunities, and internalises an ideology based on playing workers out against one another to prevent the formation of a united front against exploitation. Denying people and groups of people something so basic (whilst still so often lacking) as self-esteem absolves one of the need to respect that person – and this is precisely what gets in the way of mass solidarity in reaction to the economic and political problems we are all facing. In short, the case should not be made against the self-esteem of any particular person or group of people, but for the self-esteem of individual workers and for workers as a social class, to allow us to unite against the divisive and exploitative strategy we are told the financial crisis necessitates employers to use.
To wash that down – not because my female self-esteem is grounded in my ability to bake, or because being unemployed leaves you with all the time in the world for these inconsequential things, but rather because I’ve been away, because I haven’t had time in the months I was completing my dissertation, and because several friends have told me off for the recent lack of cake on this blog: here’s a picture of my latest batch of cranberry chocolate flapjacks, made with heather honey from my dad’s bees:
Much as I love Jane Austen, I admit to having my doubts about the extent to which the decision to have her featured on £10 bank notes from 2017 can be called a feminist victory. I do agree with the basis for the original campaign: the loss of Elizabeth Fry from the £5 notes, to be replaced with Winston Churchill, would initially have meant that no female historical figures or their achievements would be celebrated on this very public medium. However, what bothers me is the implication that any one historically important woman can simply be replaced with any other. Elizabeth Fry was a prison reform campaigner, Jane Austen was a novelist: both as people and in terms of their social and historical significance, they are worlds apart. The acceptance of one being traded in for the other seems to suggest that what we are celebrating here is their womanhood, rather than their achievements – men are lauded for what they do, women stand out because they are women who have done something (anything?). Of course the campaign was right in protesting the removal of the only woman represented, in favour of a man – but whence came the suggestion that accurate representation of famous historical figures requires a ratio of 1:4, with a single woman providing all the required balance against four famous men? Why is the idea of having two women represented in a single issue of currency so impossible to contemplate?
Despite my wish to qualify my support for this particular campaign, however, I cannot but give my full and wholehearted support to its key campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, founder of The Women’s Room UK. As I said, she was right in standing up to the elimination of women from a medium that celebrates figures of great social and historical import to British history. And, as appears, sadly, to be increasingly common, she endured the most horrific abuse for making this simple – and, as the insertion of the prettified Victorian portrait of Jane Austen confirms, unthreatening – point. The amount of rape and murder threats she was faced with on Twitter led to a petition for a ‘report abuse’ button on the site, since the system previously in use was far too slow to respond to the barrage of intimidation the Twittersphere directed at her, as at many other feminist campaigners. A ‘report abuse’ button was introduced on Twitter’s latest iPhone app about two weeks ago, with promises from the site managers to expand the function.
I said it appears increasingly common for campaigners like Criado-Perez to receive similar abuse: many female public figures, from TV presenters such as Mary Beard and Clare Balding to feminist writers such as Suzanne Moore and Zoe Williams, will attest to the fact that platforms created by the internet, although they provide many original new voices with an audience and have democratised knowledge to a significant extent, also introduce a new vulnerability for those people who use them to make themselves heard. Particularly Twitter makes its users very accessible to any troll who bothers to look up their account, and very little can be done to stop their messages from reaching their target.
Unfortunately, as I keep finding in my research, the internet has only facilitated an ignorant impetus which has always existed, and emerges every time a privileged group feels its position threatened by a less-privileged group seeking equality through self-representation on a mainstream platform. An obvious example is the flood of hate mail Emily Wilding Davison received in the four days during she was dying of the injuries she sustained in her attempt to affix a suffragette banner to the King’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. But earlier campaigners for women’s rights also faced threats, on a much more personal level, and delivered in a manner that intruded their personal lives, than the expected attacks in the popular media. Annie Besant, in her campaign to democratise birth control, announced in court as she defended herself in the Knowlton trial of 1877 that she knew full well she was risking her reputation, the most valuable asset for a female public figure during the period. Besant tried to pre-empt the damage she knew her reputation would suffer, but in fact much of the public coverage of her campaign work helped her cause by bringing the birth control debate into the public sphere. Furthermore, she was already an experienced campaigner by this point, and was supported in court by her male colleague, Charles Bradlaugh, who would later go on to become a Liberal MP. She was helped, too, by the jury’s wavering verdict which she summed up as ‘Not guilty, but don’t do it again’. Nevertheless, a year later her estranged husband used her public appearance as a campaigner for birth control to deprive her of the custody of her daughter.
Other contemporary campaigners, however, were faced with a more immediate personal struggle similar to that which feminist activists are still obliged to engage in today. Josephine Butler was the perfect figure of a Victorian matron, the wife of a cleric, with a strong background in hands-on social work in the Victorian tradition of expanding the middle-class woman’s domestic sphere to include the needy and vulnerable in the wider community. However, when she stood up to defend the legal, political and bodily human rights of prostitutes, the broad support for her very vocal campaign was marred by persecution, social ostracism, and personal threats which would be delivered to her home and to the places she stayed at during her lecturing tours. Although her insistence that all women be granted their constitutional rights regardless of their social position or how they earned their living was entirely in keeping with the increasingly popular Liberal political philosophy, its context required her to address the prevalence and institutionalisation of the sexual double standard – and as a result, she faced opponents very similar to those defending the sex and porn industries today. Her campaign necessarily denied the common notion that prostitution was inevitable because men could not control their sexual urges, and the inherent acceptance that some ‘unhappy creatures’ would have to be sacrificed to them, becoming commodified and losing their status as human beings with human rights as a result.
However, Butler, like most other brave feminist activists today, did not allow the abuse she faced to deter her in any real sense. While to anyone who has suffered such a level of abuse and intimidation Butler’s qualification of them, in her memoirs some thirty years later, as ‘light and easy to bear’ in comparison to the impossibility of remaining silent and inactive in the face of injustice, will seem overly tolerant and dismissive, Butler’s refusal to be intimidated by her Victorian trolls is inspiring: she states boldly,
‘The call to action, the field of battle entered, with all its perils and trials clearly set out before us, were a joyful relief, a place of free breathing, compared with the oppression and the heart-woe which went before.’ (Personal Reminiscences of a Great Crusade, 1898: 8)
I contend that her resistance to the privileged groups attempting to stop her and her fellow campaigners from pursuing their own goals and speaking out on public platforms on an equal basis not only brought to light the iniquity of the Contagious Diseases Acts, but also contributed greatly to the social and political emancipation of middle-class women in Britain.
Who knows, she might even find her way onto our bank notes one day. I rather fancy her as the face of the £20 note.
This is far too exciting not to share. In a recent meeting with LC Robertson, she mentioned that she was the lucky owner of a copy of the Northern Herald Books edition of A Manchester Shirtmaker, which included a reproduction of the only known portrait of the author Margaret Harkness (John Law). It had originally appeared in the journal The Queen in 1890, alongside a biographical profile of the author.
Based on this image, LC Robertson and Harkness biographer Terry Elkiss analysed a group photograph of the Matchwomen’s Strike committee, taken in 1888. Harkness was known to have been involved in organising the strike alongside Annie Besant and Herbert Burrows. They reached the conclusion that the woman seated front centre may well be Harkness.
Many of us Harkness aficionados had accepted up until this point that no likeness of the author and social campaigner had survived. In other words, we have waited since 1890 for a portrait…
My own post on Harkness’s novel In Darkest London appeared on the London Fictions website on 25 May.
30/08/2013 Bad news: Unfortunately, further research by Dr Elkiss has shown that the figure in the committee photo above cannot be Margaret Harkness, but is instead likely to be one of the Matchwomen themselves. Then again, having found one likeness, it would not to become greedy. Terry’s research continues.