Confessors and Clitoridectomists

Georgia Oman

This week, the Gender & Sexuality History workshop was pleased to welcome George Morris, a second-year PhD student from Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Drawing from his dissertation research, Morris treated those present to the unlikely yet fascinating tale of how the rise of an Anglican confessional in the 1860s and 70s was counterposed by contemporary medical scandals involving clitoridectomy, or what is now commonly termed female genital mutilation (FGM). While, at first glance the two issues may appear unrelated, Morris’s merging of the fields of religious and medical history overlapped to tell a shared story of intimacy, the dissemination of knowledge about sin, and the disruption of domesticity.

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Writing History as if Women Mattered Professor Susan Pedersen’s Reflections on a Career

Helen Sunderland

Last Tuesday the workshop was delighted to welcome Professor Susan Pedersen, Gouverneur Morris Professor of History at Columbia University, to speak about her career as a women’s and gender historian.

Pedersen opened by noting that to tell the story of one’s career as a historian inevitably involves talking about oneself. She reflected on how her unconventional background has been a resource for both her historical training and work and described how personal circumstances influenced each of her book projects in different ways. It was this interweaving of the personal, political and professional that made the talk so compelling. I was left with a real sense of the potential that bringing ourselves as historians into more conscious dialogue with our research subjects has to enrich the histories we write.

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Confronting the “Straight State”

George Severs

This week at the Gender and Sexuality History Workshop we were delighted to hear from Stephen Colbrook, an MPhil student in American History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Stephen treated us to a taste of his dissertation, talking us through the interesting case of California’s state response to its HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s.

That California was used as a case study is in some ways unsurprising. San Francisco was something of an epicentre of the epidemic on the West Coast during this period. LGBTQ+ had long been coming to California, and San Francisco in particular, seeking refuge within the diverse queer communities which had flourished there since the postwar period. When the epidemic began in earnest in Britain, LGBTQ+ community leaders involved in coordinating HIV/AIDS groups often travelled to California in order to learn how to most effectively organise in the face of such a terrifying and unknown virus.

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Black Bandit, White Wife

Bethan Johnson

‘A life lived at the messy intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, criminality and motherhood.’ This was the perfect description of the narrative told to workshop attendees by Meg Foster, a PhD student from the University of New South Wales and a visiting student at Cambridge, of her research into the life of Ethel Page, wife of convicted murderer Jimmy Governor. One element of a broader thesis analysing non-traditional Australian bushrangers (generally speaking, outlaws who committed crimes, often robberies, in the Australian wilderness), Foster’s presentation focused on how Ethel’s relationship with her husband, as well as his crimes and short-lived life on the run, transfixed 19th century Australian society. Instead of focusing on Jimmy, as many true crime accounts of this case have done, Foster allowed Ethel to take the central role in this story, thereby allowing her to tease out broader themes regarding gender, race, and journalism.

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Scandal and segregation in the early years of women’s higher education

Helen Sunderland

Last week, Georgia Oman, a PhD student at Newnham College, Cambridge, kicked off this term’s programme with a fantastic paper on the gendering of space at the University of Wales, Bangor. It was a story of suspicion and scandal. Georgia used a notorious incident of a female student’s alleged inappropriate conduct and the libel case against the university’s Lady Principal which followed, to uncover deeply entrenched anxieties about interactions between men and women in co-educational institutions.

The attempt in 1892 to stop mature student Violet Osborn from befriending (and potentially corrupting) an ‘impressionable’ younger undergraduate drew on prejudices about class, nationality and age that were played out spatially. Because Violet rented private rooms in town – a cheaper option than university accommodation – she sat awkwardly in between the town/gown divide. The difference between students living in closely-supervised halls and lodging out was a moral as well as a geographical one.

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Gender and Sexuality History Workshop

Teresa Bernardi

I am a Ph.D student from Italy in my final year. I spent one term in Cambridge as a visiting student at the History faculty. Before arriving, I knew about the Gender and Sexuality History Workshop on the advice of an Italian researcher. To be honest, I had never attended a graduate workshop before. Let’s say that in my country these initiatives are generally quite rare. However, it was clear to me right away how useful this kind of experience could be.

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Reinventing the Archive – a postcolonial analysis of feminist activism in India and Ireland

Helen Sunderland

Last Tuesday, the Gender and Sexuality History workshop heard from Dyuti Chakravarty, a PhD student in Sociology at University College Dublin. Her research compares two contemporary feminist movements for ‘bodily autonomy’: ‘Pinjra Tod’ (Break the Cage), a campaign against gender-discriminatory policies in Delhi universities and student accommodation, and the campaign to Repeal the Eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which secured two-thirds of votes in the referendum in May.

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Physical Culture, an intellectual and practical exploration!

George Severs

Last week, Conor Heffernan from University College, Dublin, put the ‘work’ into workshop. His paper on ‘The Irish Sandow School: Physical Culture in Fin de Siècle Ireland’ investigated the various cultures and networks of masculinity which emerged from ‘physical culture’. And it began by involving attendees of the workshop in some gentle exercises!

Physical culture, Heffernan told us, could be seen as the emerging trends of body building, muscle measurement and generally public forms of exercise. Journals quickly emerged to meet the needs of the (mostly) men who became fixated with tracing their physical progress, and who developed a desire to share the measurements of their ever-increasing muscles with the journals’ growing readership. Read widely across Ireland at the fin de siècle, these journals are a fascinating echo of the modern-day trend of body builders and those who ‘go gym’ to record their corporeally expanding exertions and to share them on social media.

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Family Planning, Men and Masculinity

Holly Ashford

I had been very much looking forward to hearing Katie Jones from the University of Birmingham give her paper on men’s attitudes to contraception in 1970s and 80s Britain. I was not disappointed. Katie’s paper touched on some important themes, asked pertinent questions and prompted lively discussion. The history of family planning in Britain goes back to the 1920s, when Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in London. The term ‘family planning’ illuminates the framework in which contraception was understood for decades – as something used in the context of nuclear, family life. Indeed, we should keep in mind that family planning isn’t just about limiting births but also deals with issues of infertility and childlessness.

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