Whether it’s rape threats for remainers, the constant commentary on Theresa May’s shoes, or the misogyny that seems to follow Dianne Abbott wherever she goes, the public sphere is not a welcoming space for women in 2019. But why are we surprised? When has it ever been? Well, according to a fascinating paper by Cambridge University’s, Harry Mace, given at our workshop last week, there was a brief moment in the 1920s and 30s in which it seemed like French women were going to have an –albeit proportionately limited – place in diplomatic life. It was short-lived. By the 1940s, women were routinely being called back to Paris and demoted. So was the interwar period an anomaly? Why did things change for French women in the public sphere after the Second World War? By exploring these questions, Harry says, we can better understand the challenges that face our public and political establishments today.
Beginning this term’s Gender and Sexuality workshop, we welcomed Marie Curie Global India fellow of Dublin City University, Proma Ray Chaudhury. Her work focuses on gender and women’s political participation in contemporary India (more explicitly, political parties in West Bengal). A social scientist by training, Chaudhury’s paper began with some theoretical explanations on the gendering of Bengali nationalism. Her talk was a welcomed insight into her doctoral work, namely bringing a South Asian study of the state of Bengal into a field dominated by Western case studies. Her paper set out to examine late nineteenth and early twentieth-century nationalism and sought to explain how these were infused with discourses of gender. But the paper was just as much about contemporary Indian politics as it was of the past. Expecting the paper to focus namely on Bangladesh, the paper was instead about an Indian politician of Bengali descent. We heard how Mamata Banerjee, often referred to as the Didi (the older sister), navigated the gendered and racialised terrain of Bengali nationalism in Indian public life. Banerjee founded the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) party based in West Bengal. She is now the Chief Minister of the West Bengal state. Issues of caste, gender, sexuality and indeed nationhood infused her performances of public self. Bengali women had to connect with the masses, Chaudhury explained, in a way that male counterparts did not. Banerjee dressed in plain Bengali clothes, which reflected some of the caste and class sensitivities facing politicians. Qualities expected of such a politician were non-attachment to political power: a self-sacrificing, unabashed expression of emotions, that rendered her without career ambition. Concepts of the nation state had to be ‘motherly’ and ‘natural’.
As we approach the end of Women’s History Month, the time is more than opportune to reflect on the wonderful contribution which Mobeen Hussain made to the Workshop this term. Hussain, a PhD student in World History at Newnham College, Cambridge took her audience through many of the sources she is using to research her thesis, which examines the intersections of racial politics, gender and beauty in late colonial and immediate post-independence India (1880-1960).
In the paper, Hussain dealt with the genre of travel writing, both as a profession and as a quotidian mode of written communication for some in the early-twentieth century. Four distinct forms of travel writing existed in this period which dealt with women in what can be seen as ‘accounts of the natives’, she contends: that which made no comment on the ‘native’ population of the country in question; those in which only female domestic servants are described or discussed; those which wrote about their Indian acquaintances, usually in passing; and finally, detailed accounts which referred to caste, location, etc. The authors of these sources, the travel writers whose sources made up this part of Hussain’s paper, were socially elite white women, writing back ‘home’ (usually to the metropole) with tales of everyday life overseas in the British Empire.
The Gender and Sexuality History Workshop hosted its last speaker of the term a couple of weeks ago. Roseanna Webster gave a nuanced and intimate view of the fight for reproductive rights in the Spanish barrios. Her paper, entitled: Reproductive Rights in Spain’s Barrios During the 1970s navigated geographical and class divides to explore how birth control reached the neighbourhoods of Spain’s cities in the 1970s. Given my own research on women’s reproductive health in the very different context – Ghana – but in a similar time period, I was very interested to hear Roseanna’s paper!
Roseanna demonstrated the conflict between ideologies for birth control. Marxist inspired, young, urban, feminists sought to lead the sexual revolution by entering neighbourhood spaces and telling barrios women about their rights to sexual and reproductive freedoms. On the other hand, barrios women were keen to organise for birth control, but for the most part on a materialist level. They framed their freedom from giving birth to child after child into conditions of poverty, as an economic matter.
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.
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.
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.