Hope Powell – Taking on the men at their own game‏

Guest Post from Morag Watson

       In my family, it was always the women who were the avid football fans – my mum, my auntie and my grandma. All for Scotland; all for Newcastle United. They instilled in me a love of sport – especially football – for which I will be eternally grateful. (Mind you, they were a bit put out when, at 6 years old, I decided to support Liverpool! Over 35 years later, I still do. And Scotland, of course.)

     Sport brings people together. Commonwealth Games, Olympics, World Cups. We support our own country, or the underdog, and take great delight in teasing our friends who have different allegiances. As a proud Scot, living south of the border, I frequently rib friends who support England. But I have a guilty secret. I too am an England supporter! Not of the men’s football team, I hasten to add, but of the women’s team. Let me explain how it came about.
     When I was young, women in Britain did not play football. As with so many other sports that had been gender-specified, it was considered a male domain. While I liked hockey and netball, I adored football. But the only footballers were boys and men, so I had no female role models that I could identify with. Yet another aspect of my life in which I felt like a social misfit. In those days, girls who liked football were labelled ‘tomboys’ and regarded with suspicion – the more conservative members of society viewed tomboys as the lesbians of the future. (I’m happy to say, I proved them right! *Look of defiance and pride.*) Accordingly, many girls who thought about taking up football thought twice, then didn’t bother.
     Then, in the 1980s as far as I recall, something changed. Strong women who did enjoy football decided that they wouldn’t be sidelined any longer and started forming women’s football teams locally. Women’s recreational football leagues began to spring up, and some Football League clubs began to have women’s as well as men’s teams. It was at that stage, when teams like Arsenal Ladies, Doncaster Belles and Millwall Lionesses were developing, that Channel 4 and the BBC began televising the Women’s F.A. Cup final. As this became an annual event, I started to recognise the good players who regularly cropped up, most of whom were English: Julie Fleeting, Rachel Yankey, Kelly Smith, Ellen White, Faye White, Sue Smith et al. At last, young girls who were prospective footballers had quality role models. But there was one ex-footballer who, while not on the pitch, was instrumental in the rise and rise of women’s football. That person was Hope Powell.
     Hope’s considerable list of accolades, as both a player and a manager, can easily be found on the F.A. website and Wikipedia, so I shan’t cite every single one here. In a nutshell, she played as a successful midfielder for Millwall Lionesses, Fulham, Croydon and Bromley, over 20 years, from 1978-1998. Moreover, she has 66 England caps, scoring 35 international goals. Yet the reason why I find her so inspirational is not her playing career, impressive though it was, but what she did afterwards. That is why, during Women’s History Month, I want to make others aware of how she helped raise the bar for women in sport.
     Having trained as a coach since she was 19 years old, and after gaining a degree in Sports Science & History, Hope was appointed England manager in 1998, aged 31. This put many noses out of joint, but made her the youngest ever England coach, the first and only black England coach, as well as the first and only female England coach. Furthermore, she became the first woman to earn the UEFA Pro Licence – the top coaching award possible. Indeed, she is a pioneer in many ways. (To put this into perspective, even in the all-male territory of the English professional football leagues, I can only think of 2 of the 90+ clubs currently having a black coach – namely, Chris Powell and Paul Ince.) Then, as the Guardian phrased it (Anna Kessel: 22.8.2013) “Powell took on the pale, male and stale suits at the F.A.” In this respect she was a visionary – determined to enhance the progress of women’s football not only in the short-term, but for many years to come, by setting the groundwork in place for those who came after. By the time her 15-year tenure as coach had ended with the sack, she had managed 162 senior international matches (of which approx 75% were wins or draws ). What’s more, she had set up and overseen U15s/U17s/U19s/U21s/U23s national squads and a coach mentoring scheme. This was in addition to working with the F.A. Centres of Excellence, the ‘Kick it Out’ campaign, and the Women’s Sport Foundation.
     Hope forced the F.A. to take women’s football seriously, to fund it to a semi-professional level, and raised possibilities for / expectations of female athletes. This, in turn, has led to the development of the F.A. Women’s Premier League and elite Women’s Super League in England. The latter has received greater television coverage than has previously been enjoyed by the women’s game in the U.K., albeit in the form of weekly Match of the Day-style reviews, rather than full matches being broadcast regularly. The importance for British women and girls, though, is that football has been ‘normalised’ as a sporting option for them, by women such as Hope Powell. There is no longer the same social stigma attached to female footballers, and young girls now have visible, successful role models available to them.
     Sadly for Hope, despite all her success as a player and coach, she was not considered for the F.A. role that she herself had insisted on being created – that of ‘first director of elite women’s football’. Had she rubbed too many “pale, male and stale suits” up the wrong way? Had the issues surrounding her player management style come back to haunt her? We’ll probably never know. But what of the future? If men like Andre Villas-Boas, who was never a top professional footballer himself, can get to coach an English Premier League club, then why not Hope, with all her experience? If men like Vic Akers and Mark Sampson can coach top women’s teams, why shouldn’t she be considered as a manager for men’s teams? Perhaps that’s the next barrier that needs to be overcome where women in football are concerned.
     Finally, I want to acknowledge @PlanetCath, who pointed me in the direction of a recent article in The Independent entitled, “The wartime women footballers: Remembering the days when 50,000 fans would turn out to watch” (Johnathan Owen: 24.2.2014). Essentially, as a tie-in to the centenary of WWI, it relates how the game of football blossomed among those women left behind in Britain, keeping the country going, while men went off to war. Huge crowds, the size of which are only seen in large Premier League stadia today, watched these women’s games. So in effect, women’s football now can be seen as a resurgence of what went on 100 years ago. Perhaps, without those female footballers of the early 20th Century, girls and women nowadays would have had an even harder battle on their hands. We have them to thank, and hopefully the female footballers of the 22nd Century will have us to thank, in their #Women’sHistoryMonth.

Rape as Genocide: Understanding Sexual Vulnerability, Abuse, and Rape in the Holocaust by @LK_Pennington

This is a conference paper I wrote in 2006. Since I wrote this paper, more research into rape and the sexual exploitation and violence perpetrated against women and children has been undertaken. Women Under Siege is an excellent source of information as is the book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. My own research in feminist theory has changed my understanding of sexual violence and genocide.


In the light of the stories of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape that are a part of the larger narratives of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it is almost becoming a truism to suggest that sexual violence is an intrinsic feature of genocide. In the realms of Holocaust history and studies, however, it is still a subject that has not attracted a great deal of attention. Certainly, scholars who are working on the ambit of female experience, such as Myrna Goldenberg and Joan Ringelheim, have always acknowledged the existence of these stories in Holocaust testimonies, but they have focused on the specific sexual vulnerability of women due to pregnancy, motherhood, and amenorrhea and so mention only small numbers of testimonies of women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted or raped, or even having witnessed these. Furthermore, they have also tended not to look at male testimonies concerning the sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape of female prisoners and even fewer have looked at stories of male sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape.[1]

My own (feminist) readings of the testimonies of witnesses Lucille Eichengreen, Sarah Magyar Isaacson, Thaddeus Stabholz, Weislaw Kieler and Fania Fénelon[2], however, led me to believe that there were more stories of sexual violence than have been acknowledged. Furthermore, if one accepts that sexual violence is not only a common part of genocide but can also be a genocidal act, then it is one that needs to be explored within the context of the Holocaust and the murder of Soviet POWs, the Sinti and the Roma, the mentally ill and differently-abled, and the exploitation of ‘Slavic’ slave-labour during the course of Nazi Germany. This includes not only the sexual violence perpetrated by the German SS, the Wehrmacht, and other Aryan administrators, but also that of the Soviet mass rapes of women at the end of the war and during liberation, as well as the sexual violence by all other militaries, Allied or Axis, and that perpetrated by ‘victims’ of Nazism against other victims of Nazism.

In fact, stories of sexual violence are more common than early feminist Holocaust scholarship has previously acknowledged, which is not to say that it was widespread, although this is likely, but simply that there are more stories than first recognized. There has also been an expansion in the number of stories of sexual violence in testimonies, partly due to new feminist research into rape, pornography, prostitution, and sexual trafficking,[3] which casts some testimonies in a new light, partly also due to the fact that the number of Holocaust testimonies published has increased exponentially since the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These new testimonies include more stories of sexual violence and interpret more events as having a sexual component rather than simply an act of violence of humiliation.

But while the increase in the numbers of stories of sexual violence is partly simply because witnesses now understand and write about specific events in this manner it is also because current feminist reading of testimonies includes a greater knowledge and awareness of sexual violence and reading my/contemporary definitions of sexual assault against the definitions given by witnesses is also essential to my thesis. Furthermore, it is the tension between my reading and what is written/not written that makes this a fascinating area of exploration. It also acknowledges, as Anna Hardman has previously noted, “the difficult interpretative questions as to the relationship between actuality and representation.”[4]

I believe, therefore, that the most significant reason for the expansion in the number of stories are the evolving definitions of the terms rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, humiliation, and choice by scholars, witnesses, and readers of these stories. There are numerous stories now interpreted as sexual violence. These include but are not limited to forced sterilizations of Mischlinge Jews, the Roma and the Sinti and the ‘asocials’, (that is the undesirable elements of society); forced abortions due to race; refused abortions due to race; forced pregnancies; viewing the abuse of others; forced stripping and performance; forced ‘prostitution’; brothels in the concentration camps; and the fear of rape. As a feminist, I feel that these stories needed to be placed in the centre of Holocaust studies along with the stories of abuse, humiliation, torture, starvation, deportation, murder and mass murder, ghettos and gas chambers.

What I consider to be the one of the more common forms of sexual violence during the Holocaust is what Myrna Goldenberg has termed ‘sex for survival.’[5]That is to say, stories of women, men, and children being exploited sexually in exchange for food, clothing, accommodation, work permits in the ghettos, or ‘good’ jobs in the slave-labour and concentration camps. Stories of ‘sex for survival’ exist in diaries written during the war and post-war biographies and oral testimonies.[6]

One such story may be found in one of the most well-known Holocaust testimonies: Fania Fénelon’s published testimony Playing for Time, also published as The Musicians of Auschwitz. Fénelon’s text is one of the most [in]famous memoirs of women written about Auschwitz-Birkenau and, more specifically, about the women’s orchestra in that camp. Fénelon was arrested as a member of the French resistance but was also half-Jewish. She spent nine months in the transit camp of Drancy, where she was tortured, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1944. She remained in Birkenau until November 1944 when the Jewish members of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where they were eventually liberated in April 1945. Upon arrival in Birkenau, a member of the orchestra recognized Fénelon as a cabaret singer and her ability to sing Madame Butterfly placed her in the privileged orchestra protecting Fénelon from the severe abuse and torture of the ‘normal jobs’ in the main camp.

Before discussing in depth the stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s testimony one must acknowledge the controversy surrounding it and the subsequent Arthur Miller play and film adaptations based on the text, particularly in relation to the issue of lesbianism and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her testimony Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen.[7] The debate is worth mentioning because of its discussion of identity, the use of survivor interpretations of the behaviours of others, the labels they attribute to other inmates, and the differences in the types of witness testimony, (literary texts, memoirs, poems). Succinctly, the debate concerns Fénelon’s description of the other members of the female orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, particularly of the characters ‘Marta’ and ‘Clara’. Fénelon devotes a section of the text to the relationships between the other prisoners in the privileged orchestra which includes a reference to a lesbian relationship. One of the women involved in the lesbian relationship was a cello player. Lasker-Wallfisch has been very clear that she was the only cello player in the orchestra and that she was not involved in any lesbian relationship and that Fénelon was well aware of this.[8]

There are a number of stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s text but the ones I want to discuss centre around Fénelon’s relationship with the character ‘Clara’ who she meets on the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am engaged in a ‘literal’ reading of the text here in order to demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in [re]-reading and [re]-writing representations of memory and identity. The problematic status of this particular text is does not lessen its value as a document, rather it is another instance of the problematic use of memory and representation to write a ‘history’ of  the Holocaust. The character of Clara is described as “a girl about twenty with a ravishing head set upon an enormous, deformed body”[9]; a body deformed in the transit camp by starvation, a well-brought up girl who was engaged to a boy she loved. Clara is apparently still a virgin; we do not know about Fénelon. The two young women become friends during the journey and pledge to help one another in the camps.

Fénelon and Clara’s first encounter with the concept of ‘sex for survival’ happened quite quickly after arrival in Auschwitz:

A soldier was walking next to Clara. He had a totally unremarkable face, something between animal and mineral. Suddenly he addressed her in French, in a voice as devoid of expression as he was himself: “I’ll get you coffee if you’ll let me make love to you.[10]

The two girls ignore him and the subject is not brought up again. But the soldier’s statement, so early after arrival, after several days trapped in a cattle car, is a lesson about Birkenau. As Fénelon comments:

Coffee? Either a woman wasn’t worth much around here, or else coffee was priceless. She said nothing and he let it drop.[11]

We do not know if either girl has some prior experience with this in Drancy; both were there for an extended period. It is quite likely that they did but this is assumption rather than factual knowledge. The other, more experienced, girls in the orchestra are quick to point out how cheap a woman’s body, and, by extension, a man’s and a child’s, were in the camps. Jenny, another girl is the orchestra tells them: “All you need to do is find yourself a man; here sausage replaces flowers.”[12]

We can interpret this as a story of prostitution but, while, there is a tremendous amount of feminist research into the coercive aspects of ‘prostitution’ in ‘normal’ society, exchanging sex for food in the midst of a centre for genocide changes and questions the terms we use to define the activity. Not all women who were given the option to engage in sexual activities in exchange for food ‘chose’ to do so, but, some did. Obviously, the term ‘choice’ is also questionable. The terms prostitution, sexual vulnerability, and sexual slavery are debated in feminist scholarship, but once we are within a situation where the intent to commit genocide is evident, trading sex for food, moves outside of common definitions of prostitution. Yet, the term ‘sex for survival’ also seems insufficient to describe the situations that many people found themselves during the Holocaust; indeed, the terms we use to describe these stories seem almost irrelevant in their inability to demonstrate depth of meaning.

Clara, quite quickly, makes the ‘decision’ that food is so important that sex can be traded for it. Furthermore, according to Fénelon, she hoards the food for herself and she is not particular in who the partner is. Several of the other girls have ‘lovers’ whom they sleep with for food, some even sleep with the SS but Fénelon does not describe these other women in the same manner that she describes Clara or her ‘choice’. In fact, Fénelon is extremely dismissive of it, claiming Clara was more interested in food than remaining ‘female.’ Thus it is unclear whether Fénelon is disgusted with Clara because of the sexual act, claiming Clara had lost her ‘womanly dignity’, or that she is disgusted with Clara because Clara is actually transgressing sex or gender boundaries, by refusing to engage in communal survival and share the extra food received. As Fénelon says:

Clara had changed quickly, very quickly. A month after our arrival in the music block, one evening at six o’clock, she’d said to me … I won’t share with anyone anymore.” The next day, at dinnertime, I opened her box by mistake and saw a pot of jam. Clara rushed at me. “Leave that; I told you to keep your hands off it.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. All our boxes look alike. I certainly wouldn’t touch that nobly earned jam of yours!”

There were tears of rage in her eyes, perhaps a last glimmer of a former morality, a remnant of dignity. The donor was probably a kapo from the men’s camp. Only the kapos, the blockowas, all Poles, Slovaks, or Germans, could come to our block.

Had she been a virgin? It was possible, it wouldn’t have been a decisive factor. Besides, the risk of pregnancy for internees was virtually nonexistent.

I felt sorry for Clara when I saw her twitching her large behind, … She had been an innocent young girl who loved her boyfriend and who still nourished childlike dreams. Living in a sheltered milieu she was innocent of life, like the adorable and naïve Big Irene, who remained so, while Clara changed so quickly and so totally. She had become frighteningly selfish; she would do anything to get food. In the middle of all these painfully thin girls, her obesity was a wonder, a most effective lure for men, who paid court to her in butter and sugar.[13]

But what is ‘womanly dignity’ inside a concentration camp? Can we not interpret part of Clara’s behaviour as an attempt for semblance of human contact or even love?  It is easier to interpret it in this fashion when Clara is engaged in relations with other male prisoners in privileged positions, but it is more difficult to do so when the boyfriend is a particularly brutal (German) kapo who, apparently, voluntarily worked as an executioner for the S.S. guards in the camp, apparently for pleasure rather than requirement. Fénelon posits Clara’s relationships against her own relationships with Leon, her ‘lover’ from Drancy who volunteered for the transport to Auschwitz in order to be with Fénelon.[14] Clara’s ‘boyfriends’ gave her food in exchange for sex, Leon gave Fénelon poetry and letters for, apparently, nothing. Love exists but Clara does not know what it is and is confused.

What is particularly interesting is Fénelon’s construction of Clara’s changing identity, and the way in which she contrasts her transformation from a good virginal girl to a prostitute with her understanding of the behaviour of ‘real’ prostitutes in France. While Fénelon defends the behaviour of French prostitutes who engaged in sexual acts with German soldiers to gather information for the French Resistance in terms of heroism, Clara’s attempt to survive through sex is viewed with disgust, a contrast that is highlighted in Fénelon’s description of Clara’s outrage at her participation in cabarets where German officers were the major clientele:

“I couldn’t have heard you sing,” said Clara rather primly. “We’d stopped going out at night. We didn’t mix with the Germans, and no one went to nightclubs except Germans and collaborators.”

I fell silent, slightly ashamed; it had been very good business. How would Clara have judged the proprietress of Melody’s, who looked like a madam – indeed, perhaps she was – but who protected us? How she would have despised those tarts that hung from the necks of German officers and gave us papers, photographs, and information.[15]

But, why is Clara’s transformation into a ‘prostitute’ to save her own life so negative? Partly, it is because Clara does behave increasingly violently towards the others. Certainly, when Clara is given the job as a kapo, (an inmate barracks supervisor), Fénelon claims she behaves with ruthless and vicious violence, beating the block inmates sadistically for various rule infractions. But this did not happen until after the girls were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; Clara’s ‘prostitution’ occurred in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.[16]

This story of ‘sex for survival’ is not uncommon. What is different is the way in which it is contrasted with ‘good’ stories of using sex for resistance. But how is resistance different from survival? Obviously Clara’s brutal behaviour as a kapo in Bergen-Belsen is part of the story and can partly explain Fénelon’s construction of Clara, but we do need to separate Clara’s behaviour in Bergen-Belsen from that in Birkenau to understand how Clara’s ‘choice’ was choiceless and thus to recognise her experience as one of sexual assault. More generally I think this story reveals the complexity of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the Holocaust in that at a certain point Fénelon forgets Clara’s identity as ‘victim’ and recasts her as a ‘perpetrator’ and in so doing, makes the sexual exploitation of Clara a footnote to the dehumanising effects of their situation. In order to rehumanise her (and many other victims of the Holocaust) we must therefore acknowledge and recognise the way in which sexual vulnerability is accentuated by and essential to genocide.



[1] This is not a criticism of their research but an acknowledgment of the research required. See Myrna Goldenberg, “Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust”, in Roger Gottlieb (ed.), Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp.150-166; Joan Ringelheim, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research”, inSigns: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 10, no. 4, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984-1985), pp. 741-761. Other examples of this sort of scholarship include Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998). Renate Bridenthal et al., (eds.)When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984); Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000); Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Sara R. Horowitz, “Memory and Testimony of Women Survivors of Nazi Genocide” in Judith R. Baskin (ed.), Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994), pp.258-282.

[2] Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, translated from the French by Judith Landry, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 1976); Judith Magyar Isaacson,Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois  Press, 1991); Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz, translated from the German by Susanne Flatauer, (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1972]); Thaddeus Stabholz, Seven Hells, translated from the Polish by Jacques Grunblatt & Hilda R. Grunblatt, (New York: Holocaust Library, 1990)

[3] Much of this research has grown in relation to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. See: Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bison Books, 1984); Anne Llewellyn Barstow, War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women (Ohio: The Cleveland Press, 2000).

[4] Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000), p. [check notes]

[5] Myrna Goldenberg, “Rape and the Holocaust”, paper presented at Legacies of the Holocaust: Women and the Holocaust Conference, (Krakow, Poland: May 2005)

[6] Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, (New York: LB Fischer, 1945); Trudi Birger with Jeffrey M. Green, A Daughter’s Gift of Love: A Holocaust Memoir, (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1992); Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Hedi Fried, The Road to Auschwitz: Fragments of a Life, edited and translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, (New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1992, 1948).

[7] Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, (London: Giles de la Mare Pub., 1996)

[8] For an excellent discussion of this debate see Anna Hardman, Women and the Holocaust, (U.K.: Holocaust Educational Trust Research Papers, 1999 – 2000), pp. 20-27.

[9] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.12

[10] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[11] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[12] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.66: Jenny to Clara

[13] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.105-106

[14] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[15] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[16] This post facto reconstruction of Clara may of course speak volumes about the nature of memory and memoir.


My Elegant Gathering of White Snows: a blog about male violence against women, celebrity culture and cultural femicide. [@LeStewpot] [FB: My Elegant Gathering of White Snows]


See also:

What about the Women? The existence of brothels in Nazi Concentration Camps  by @LeStewpot

Sweetening the Pill by @Smashesthep

(Cross-posted with permission from smashesthep: women’s liberationist)


Holly Grigg-Spall’s book Sweetening the Pill does an amazing job uncovering the harmful effects, questionable history, and medicalized misogyny of hormonal birth control (HBC). She points out that both the pharmaceutical industry and modern third wave feminism have downplayed the harms of HBC and have equated use of the pill with liberation. As she says,

Contemporary feminism is enamored with consumer choice and has fully accepted it as a substitute for freedom. (p 61)

In discussion of this book I want to start by talking about my own experiences on the pill. Then I’ll mention the book’s critics, and finally I’ll cover a few of Grigg-Spall’s points.

My own experiences with HBC began in my teens when I began taking it for acne. I remember that once I started taking it, it took me about a month for my over-the-top emotional hormone swings to lessen. I recall going dancing in a club once and not being able to calm the intense pendulum of joy, anger, depression and more that kept swinging over me under the flashing lights. It was a feeling of being totally out of control.

Once my emotions leveled out, I was very good at taking the pill once per day at the same time every day. My friends and I used to sing what we called the tumbleweeds song about our uteruses. We’d imagine our wombs to be as empty as the ok corral prior to a gunfight, and sing ♪ oh e oh e oh, wah wah wah ♫ as our baby-free theme song. We thought it was funny. Our bodies were not at risk of fertility. They were under our control, and would not rebel against us.
here's a tumbleweed, enjoy

I stayed on the pill for a decade at least.

I discovered radical feminism in 2011 and, like so many of us, it changed my life. My thinking was altered on many issues and continues to grow and expand the more I learn. About that same time I decided to go off the pill. The last straw came when doctors thought I had had a pulmonary embolism, which is a condition made more likely by HBC. A CT scan indicated that it was actually pneumonia, but that was a very scary experience for me. I decided to finish my pack and be done with the pill.

Over the next year as my body detoxed from the pill I developed acne all along my jaw/chinline that hadn’t been there before. Large bumps protruded on my face, which was embarrassing as I was well past adolescence. I also experienced weight gain, which I was told wasn’t a *real* side effect of going off the pill. It was frustrating not to believed when I reported my symptoms.

Before Grigg-Spall wrote her book she kept a blog regarding her experiences. Many other women came and shared what had happened to them while using the pill or getting off of it, and it was a place for women to be able to discuss their reactions to the pill in a place free from pharmaceutical brainwashing and the liberal feminist gag-order on women discussing our own biology.

Now that Grigg-Spall’s book was published in November 2013 there has been a concerted effort to discredit her findings by misrepresenting her positions. My belief is that the pharmaceutical industry is threatened by Griggs-Spall’s book and that discrediting her is a way to maintain the status quo. I also contend that rejecting the pill goes against sex-positive/mainstream feminism, which is why there’s push-back as well from its representatives.

Liberal feminists have called her book “dangerous” and use name-calling techniques in attempts to push Griggs-Spall to the margins of feminist discourse. As many of us know, being insulted and told to keep quiet are tools used to keep us away from discovering truths and maintain the status quo. Grigg-Spall is referred to as a “crank” (how feminist!), and potential readers of her book are warned that discussing female biology and women’s experiences is inherently “essentialist”. The cherry-picked, decontextualized quotes this critic uses to make her argument are an obvious attempt to contort perceptions of the book and Grigg-Spall’s positions. There are several critiques of this book that have similar tones and I found the pro-pill apologism quite transparent.

What these reviews leave out is the long-overdue feminist analysis of the pill that Grigg-Spall offers.

I was fascinated by Grigg-Spall’s discussion of the “dark side” of the pill. Apparently data collected from Bayer concentration camp experiments was used in developing the pill (p 31). The pill has negative side effects for women ranging from promoting bone loss (p 63) to blood clots to depression, etc. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the pill as a class one carcinogen alongside tobacco and asbestos (p 59). Apparently, Depo Provera is currently used in sex offender rehab programs to decrease sex drive (p 68).

These are just some of the negative aspects of HBC that third wave feminists and pharmaceutical companies routinely downplay.

Grigg-Spall also critiques the way HBC is set up as a solution to worldwide “population control” when the real issue is global inequality and poverty. The pill is a capitalist solution to this, and not a feminist one. We let women down when instead of seeking just societies we sell them injections or oral contraceptives. She quotes Betsy Hartmann who calls population control a “substitute” for social justice that holds back the emancipation of women.

Real reproductive choice relies on women having control over their own lives and equal power to men and this can only come with economic development. Developed nations are uninterested in providing aid for such countries, because they are active in their exploitation via cooperation with corrupt governmnents and via the corporate power wielded over those countries. The people are purposely kept poor so that developed countries (or at least their corporations) can become richer. (p 81-82)

This helps make sense of the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s strategy for helping women in Africa and South Asia involves giving millions of these women the Depo Provera shot. The Gates Foundation partners with Pfizer, who makes the Depo shot (p 80). This is business as usual, and profits are being made in the name of “population control”.

Grigg-Spall also emphasizes the importance of female biology in discussing these issues. After all, as women “our experience of life is connected to our biology.” As she says,

Taking the pill might be seen as an act of trying to get beyond femaleness. As femaleness in our culture is understood in the negative, escaping its confines is good and progressive. Any dislike we develop of being female and of having a female body is rooted in the history of female bodies being seen as problematic and in need of male control (p 104).

Such claims have no doubt been the source of the liberal feminist claims that her book is “essentialist“. I find this accusation very suspect, as it asks us to stop speaking about our own experiences living within our female bodies. Many women are not comfortable with our bodies as they change in puberty, as they alter with pregnancy, or as they age. It is important that we are able to recognize and discuss these changes amongst ourselves without being considered “essentialist”.

Within feminism, essentialism has always referred to the feminist objection to conservative claims that the male gender stereotypes are natural for men, and that female gender stereotypes are natural for women. For example, the idea that men are better at math and women are natural caregivers. These are obviously anti-feminist claims that link our biology up with sexist behaviors that are expected of us.

These days, however, merely recognizing the relevance of female biology to our own lives is now castigated with the same “essentialist” label. This is an entirely inaccurate characterization, since the bodies we live in are obviously relevant to our experiences as women. Discussing biology was never the problem with essentialism. The problem was linking our bodies up with sexist stereotypes.

Not only is this new definition of essentialism an incorrect interpretation of the original meaning, but it asks women to stop discussing our actual lives. Feminism is about our experiences as women, so telling women they aren’t permitted to discuss these experiences is anti-feminism full stop.

I certainly believe that Grigg-Spall is correct in her observations about HBC. Women are expected to have sex “like a man” and to believe that our biology is in no way relevant to our sexuality. To me, this is as removed from our actual experiences as my cartoon uterus theme song is from the workings of my body.

I’ve covered just a few of the brilliant insights that Grigg-Spall presents in her excellent book. At the very minimum, her book encourages women to see the pill from a different perspective and to become more in tune with what is happening with our own bodies. I encourage all feminists interested in reproductive freedom, misogyny in medicine, or critiques of “choice”/”sex positive” feminism to give it a read.




Million Women Rise: The Photos

I’ve been on Million Women Rise twice. It is an absolutely amazing space for women and children. Being with thousands of women and children in the streets raising our voices to end male violence is an incredibly empowering experience. The music, the discussions, the energy of women is beautiful and needs to be experienced first hand.

My only advice is get as close to the front of the march as possible so you don’t miss a single speech at the rally in Trafalgar Square.


IMG_0347IMG_0340 IMG_0341  IMG_0343 IMG_0344 IMG_0345    IMG_0349 IMG_0350 IMG_0351    IMG_0355 IMG_0356 IMG_0357     IMG_0362 IMG_0363 IMG_0364 IMG_0365 IMG_0366  IMG_0368 IMG_0369  IMG_0371 IMG_0372 IMG_0373  IMG_0375   IMG_0378 IMG_0379 IMG_0380 IMG_0381 IMG_0382 IMG_0383 IMG_0384 IMG_0385 IMG_0386 IMG_0387 IMG_0388 IMG_0389 IMG_0390 IMG_0391 IMG_0392 IMG_0393   IMG_0396    IMG_0400 IMG_0401 IMG_0402 IMG_0403 IMG_0404 IMG_0405 IMG_0406 IMG_0407 IMG_0408 IMG_0409 IMG_0410 IMG_0411 IMG_0412   IMG_0415 IMG_0416  IMG_0418

International Women’s Day 2014

On 1st March I wrote a post for A Room of Our Own acknowledging the work done by women everywhere. The work that is often under funded, under paid and under valued.
It was a recognition and a reminder that we are all of us, in all sorts of ways, making history.

Today is International Women’s Day.

Women all over the world will be celebrating achievements, planning future campaigns, being together; just being women.

When women come together, to collectively say NO, it is immensely powerful.

Only this week, a campaign, run by Jean Hatchet, against Paddy Power succeeded in ensuring that Reeva Steenkamp’s death was not reduced to a sporting bet. The reason Paddy Power thought it was ok to run a bet on the outcome of a murder trial is because women are so often reduced to insignificant, unimportant objects. Dismissed as hysterical, as over reacting, as worthless.
Today in London, those worthless, insignificant women will be taking part in the Million Women Rise March which raises awareness of male violence against women.

Women will be marching through Central London, wearing red, singing, playing instruments, laughing, talking, meeting old friends, meeting new friends, sharing, supporting, cheering.

This demonstration of women’s power is vital. We need to see how many care about other women. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to hear other women telling us we are believed and that we will stand together.

I want to pay tribute to some of the women I know, who are working tirelessly to raise awareness of violence against women and girls. You may not like them all but that’s not the point. Feminism is not about simply supporting those women you like or get on with.
It’s about supporting all women, everywhere, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not.
These are just some of the women who work more hours than they are paid for.
Women who work for nothing. Women who care.

I want to thank you for what you do, for your determination and passion to keep going and for making a difference.





























Naming at After Iris

(Cross-posted with permission from After Iris)

As usual my recording is a little rough around the edges… let’s put it down to spontaneity and not a disturbing lack of standards. You can listen here

Marie gave me a book when I was seventeen
She said it’s time for you to understand
How things have been
The small monotonies
That comprise oppression
Not all aggression
Taunts and jibes
But limited lives
Conventions of wives
Endless striving for always a little less
I read it with opened eyes
And saw the sacrifices
The distress
Their rejection of tradition
Learned the lesson.

This was the consolidation of the feminism
I learned at my mother’s knee
As she worked tirelessly
In refuges,
On behalf of families
Women, exploited and abused
She always shared her views with us
Challenged quietly
Our playground assumptions
On gender, race and sexuality
She raised three kids
On skim milk, margarine and equality
It was the eighties
She was a woman, not a lady.

I am a woman’s woman
I seek out the company
Of loud, lewd, proud, strong without apology
Angry, joyful, passionate, loving, loyal
Challenging, disruptive, bullshit-free
Midwives, artists, mystics, medics, mothers,
Politicians, actors, shop assistants, activists,
Accountants, academics, business leaders, therapists
Triathletes, teachers, writers, carers,
Civil servants, marketeers, engineers
Bread-winners, homemakers, motherfucking world shakers

So much to celebrate
So much to still be done
It’s not won yet
For my daughter, my son, their peers
These are our years
To agitate
To make space
To turn our faces
Toward uncomfortable truths
And not waste the struggles of the past
We cannot wait for others act on our behalf
It is our time
Justice must come at last.


After Iris: My blog began as a record of my grief after my second daughter was stillborn, but has now become a poetic record of parenting, life after loss, working motherhood, the breakdown of my marriage, and trying to be a person that belongs myself when so many others have a claim on me. Occasionally with jokes. Rhyming jokes.

Will women click for Clique? by @Rae_Ritchie_

(Cross-posted with permission from RaeRitchie)

Will women click for Clique?

by raeritchie

Right now at a bar in London, a new women’s magazine is being launched.  Alas, I am not at the party but I do have a copy of Clique’s first issue in front of me. A quick scroll down the @Cliquemaguk Twitter feed provides a clear indication of the magazine’s focus and content: good luck messages and comments about the launch party have been tweeted by brands ranging from Accessorize to Radley, New Look to Lulu Guiness.  The close, indeed inextricable, relationship between advertisers and those producing editorial content is writ large in the new title’s feed as well as its pages.  This is no surprise; the role of advertising in financing women’s magazines is well known.  What Clique is doing, however, takes this intertwining to the next level.  Claiming to be ’The World’s First Totally Clickable / Shoppable / Watchable Fashion & Beauty Magazine’, it is designed to be an interactive experience.  Engagement with the magazine, and also its adverisers, via the Clique app is not just encouraged but expected; that is entire purpose of the new product.

Indeed the word ‘product’ to describe Clique seems just as apt as terms such as magazine, publication, title.  Likewise, the woman with the magazine in her hands is perhaps better described as the consumer rather than the reader.  Despite some standard women’s magazine features, such as a cookery page, there is very little to read; the emphasis is firmly on visual content.  Furthermore, the magazine repeatedly and consistently positions the reader as a consumer.  Using the Clique app, the reader-consumer can ‘unlock hidden content’ on every page, indicated by a range of eight symbols.  This is where the interactive element comes in, allowing the reader-consumer to share details of items with friends, watch videos of fashion shoots or get styling tips.  Crucially, however, the reader-consumer can also ‘buy straight from the page’, ‘get a discount’, ‘pre-order now’ and ‘get a free sample’ – innovations clearly intended to attract advertisers and an audience alike.  It’s a marketing dream: magazines have long enticed women to purchase the goods that they feature but this has the added ‘impulse buy’ advantage.  The reader-consumer doesn’t have time to lose enthusiasm or begin to think rationally about her decision as she would if she had to go out to the shop, or even look an item up online (I should know.  I almost found myself the owner of a £185 pair of gloves).  As the new title’s name suggests, spending is just a click (or three) away.  Of course this also has an important advantage for Optima Communication Ltd, the publishers.  By using the app as an entry point to online retailer, the role of the Clique in publicising the item is acknowledged in a way that allows the editorial team to prove their effectiveness in marketing goods to the magazine’s audience.

Of course, that effectiveness has yet to be proved.  At a time when well-established magazines are struggling to maintain readerships and some titles, such as More, have disappeared from newsagent shelves, it seems more difficult than ever for new ventures to make a go of it.  Having said that, tales of decline and difficulty are reoccuring motifs within the history of women’s magazines and every decade has seen its share of successes and failures.  The technological innovations within Clique may give it an advantage over the digital versions of the industry’s current mainstays.  Moreover, that there’s no cover price may allow it to compete with other recent successes, such as Stylist, although my first impression is that Clique is avoiding direct rivalry by seemingly targeting a slightly less affluent and less metropolitan audience, as well as being delivered monthly via the post rather than given away by street vendors and shops; interestingly, though, French Connection – who have been an erstwhile supporter of Stylist – tweeted Clique to toast ‘a print revolution’.

A ‘print revolution’ is underway.  Last month saw the launch of Feminist Times, an attempt to create a mix of online and print content that is ad-free and PR-free, funded instead by paying members.  As a model, this is the opposite extreme to the approach used by Clique’s producersYet the appearance recently of what are effectively merchandise catalogues presented as ‘proper’ magazines, from discount retailers (SportsDirect.com) to purveyors of high end designer goods (net-a-porter.com), suggests that Optima Communications have tapped into a concurrent emerging trend.  Some may find this distasteful, but it is arguable preferable to the rather more deceptive situation where the advertisers have a huge influence over magazine content but nobody publicly admits it.  Perhaps consumers in the C21st are savvy enough to see through the smoke-and-mirrors.  Maybe this isn’t a revolution at all, but the final chapter in the evolution of the relationship between advertising and women’s magazines that took hold in the post-war period.  Indeed to the cultural commentators who derided ‘the little woman’ and her magazines in the 1950s and 60s, the further blurring of divisions between advertising and editorial content as seen in Cliquewould have seemed like some kind of dystopian nighmare of the future.  And it has come true.  They might have been surprised, though, that this development does not mean the end to the women’s magazine formula as they knew it.  On the contrary, alongside its innovations, Clique continues with many of the tried-and-tested formulaes found in women’s magazines throughout the last century.  For instance, the introduction to the ‘Christmas Shop in Style’ travel piece states ‘we’re more about shops than the slopes’, a classic example of women’s magazine discourse using the inclusive ‘we’ to join the editorial team and the consumer readers together (and also encouraging a focus on consumerism to the exclusion of other activities, in this skiing).  The title itself takes this sense of a shared club even further.  I will watch with interest how many women reader-consumers want to join this Clique.


Rae Ritchie: I blog mainly about history and women’s magazines, with more creeping in on contemporary magazines than I’d expected, & most definitely consider myself (& my writing) to be a feminist.

Marie Claire & Evaluating Our Research Decisions by @Rae_Ritchie_

(Cross-posted with permission from Rae Ritchie)

Marie Claire & Evaluating Our Research Decisions

by raeritchie

On Wednesday evening, I bought a lipstick.  While I was paying, the sales assistant offered me a copy of the October 2013 British edition of Marie Claire.  ‘We’re giving them away with every purchase’, she explained.  ‘It’s their twenty-fifth birthday issue’.  As she found a bigger bag for the hefty 434-page tome, I told her about my latest project, which will analyse British women’s magazines launched between 1955 and 2000.  I am now happily able to reclassify (at least in my own mind) the price of the lipstick as a research expense!

For the new magazines project, which is still in the very early stages, I am planning to look at particular issues of each title under consideration: launch, the initial months, first anniversary and significant milestones after that.  The twenty-fifth anniversary edition would be a good example to compare with earlier issues of the same magazine, examining similarities and differences around levels of advertising, editorial emphasis, cover headlines and so on.  Looking at Marie Claire, for instance, ‘Hot new fashion buys / The cult bag, chic boots & must-have coats’ from this month’s cover could have appeared on the front in October 1988 too.  Other current headlines probably would not have featured, as in ‘Campus kinky / Inside the S&M clubs of America’s Ivy League’, whilst cover girl Lena Dunham – billed as ‘The coolest girl on the planet’ and ‘Women who’ve changed our world’ – was just a toddler back then (Dunham is an actor and film-maker, born in 1986.  Embarrassingly I’ve just had to Google her to find this information out.  Surely I’m not the only academic who tells students not to trust Wikipedia despite using it myself?!).

Even though simply glancing at this one cover has highlighted some of the themes and issues that I am exploring in the provisionally titled New Women, New Magazines, I do not have Marie Claire on my list of publications to sample.  Having a copy in my possession, a copy that I will probably keep because it is useful, has forced me to consider why I haven’t chosen it and what criteria I have used to make my initial selection.  This scrutinizing has not been easy, although I believe it has made for good professional practice.  How often do we stop and consciously examine the research decisions that we have made or the boundaries we have created for our projects?  So much of what we do develops organically, often expanding on earlier work or emerging off the back of casual conversations that spark insight or building on a source that has serendipitously fallen into hands.  I also think that the best work, the projects that we are most passionate about and most engaged with, comes from this organic process.  Yet I’ve realized that taking some time to evaluate my parameters and sampling decisions, subjecting them to the kinds of rigour that an outsider such as a reviewer might, is helpful and ultimately beneficial to the project.  It is also something that might require me to overcome one of my biggest issues, which is asking for help; being able to talk my ideas over with a trusted colleague may be more fruitful than angsting alone at my desk.

This evaluation is far from complete but I have come up with some answers as to why I have not selected Marie Claire, at least to begin with.  There are lots of good reasons why it should make the list.  The mid to late 1980s saw a ‘European invasion’ of the UK women’s magazine market, with the launch of numerous British editions of best-selling continental titles.  Marie Claire was an important part of this trend.  It also pioneered a new blend of content, including a greater degree of reporting on so-called ‘serious’ issues alongside standard women’s magazine fare.  Yet this integral part of Marie Claire’s brand identity is what I think has stopped me from including it.  A magazine junkie all my life, I’ve read it in the dentist’s waiting room but have never bought it because I’ve long found the discussion of topics such as female genital mutilation juxtaposed with glossy high end fashion advertising and articles like ‘Rev up your relationship in a week’ jarring.  I admire the editorship for their efforts to break the model but feel the combination of subject areas does not do any of the individual elements justice.  As a reader (even a casual one), I feel flippant for skipping past the cutting-edge features, especially because they frequently concentrate on issues close to my feminist heart, but often what one wants from a magazine is a bit of light relief and a moment’s escapism.  Striking a balance between informative and entertaining is a tough call.

So that is my reason.  Put simply: I have never really liked Marie Claire.  This does not feel very professional.  Maybe I need to be more objective in choosing and draw a clearer line between myself as magazine researcher and myself as magazine reader.  More to think about, and more to explore in my evaluation!


Rae Ritchie: I blog mainly about history and women’s magazines, with more creeping in on contemporary magazines than I’d expected, & most definitely consider myself (& my writing) to be a feminist.

A turnaround: how I came to rethink my view on Wikipedia by @Rae_Ritchie_

(Cross-posted with permission from Rae Ritchie)

A turnaround: how I came to rethink my view on Wikipedia

by raeritchie

I was recently challenged about a comment I’d made in ‘Marie Claire & Evaluating Our Research Decisions’.  In this post, I referred to how we often tell our students to not use Wikipedia even though it may be our own first port of call when wanting to check something out or find out about a new topic.  ‘Isn’t this just academic snobbery?’, I was asked – a question that resonated with the re-examination of my attitudes to the online encyclopedia that had followed since I wrote the post.

Using Wikipedia whilst at the same time telling others not to is hardly a crime but admitting to doing so in a public forum via my blog post exposed a level of hypocrisy in my own practice that I am not comfortable with.  Around the same time, I was at a meeting for a public history project about Quakers in World War One that I’m involved in and the project director spoke enthusiastically about how she and the other researcher were preparing their Wikipedia entries on relevant topics.  ‘They’re doing what?!’, I screeched internally, ‘Why?!’  Of course the answer is obvious: I use Wikipedia to find out about things and so do many millions of other people the world over (albeit they probably have less angst about doing so).  If you are running a project where you want people to learn about and engage with the subject then it makes complete sense to put information in a popular public forum.  People are likely to find this information in Wikipedia than if it is buried on some relatively obscure project website.  Perhaps, just perhaps, I thought, Wikipedia has its uses for history.

Driving home from that meeting, another revelation struck me.  The two project workers have done thorough research and can write informed summaries; therefore it makes sense for them to produce the Wikipedia entries.  If they don’t, someone else might – and that someone else may not have the same level of knowledge.  This statement sounds rather more elitist than I intend.  I do not mean to suggest that only professional historians should write historical entries (on the contrary, I believe that one of the reasons that academics are disdainful of sites such as Wikipedia is that such initiatives, by virtue of their democracy and openness to all, seem to threaten our relatively privileged position).  What I would argue is that rather than simply criticizing Wikipedia for its perceived, and sometimes very real, shortcomings, maybe we ought to consider whether we have a responsibility to contribute to improving the quality of its content.  Is it our professional duty to share what we know with a wider audience?  In the current climate of impact, outreach and debates about Open Access, perhaps a few well thought out, accessible entries might benefit us as well as Wikipedia and its users?

These thoughts came together at the recent Gender, Race and Representation in Magazines and the New Media conference held at Cornell University.  A theme throughout the event was the intersection between magazines and new media forms, and the discussion during one roundtable session moved on to our attitudes towards the internet.  Doubts, hostility and fear were evident.  At the same time, a sense of the opportunities offered also emerged, as did the realization that the web is here to stay so maybe we ought to just engage with it.  I publicly declared that I was going to write a Wikipedia entry somehow related to my new project on post-war British women’s magazines.  A rather rash commitment considering I didn’t have a clue about how to do so, but a declaration that felt in keeping with my revised attitudes towards the whole subject.

Once away from the charged and excited atmosphere of an excellent discussion, this commitment slipped somewhat from my priorities and was in grave danger of becoming another ‘hopefully I’ll get round to it’ addition to the never-ending task list.  Until last week, when faced with the challenge that I opened with.  The ‘Isn’t this just academic snobbery?’ question bought it back to the forefront of my mind.  So today, I did it.  Okay, so I didn’t quite write an entire entry but I did something: I registered as a user then added a title that was missing from a list of current and defunct women’s magazines.  A small step, just a minor improvement to one entry, but it represents an enormous shift on my part.

In case you’re interested, here’s the page in question: List of Women’s Magazines, with my insertion (Candida*) under the defunct heading towards the bottom.

*Yes, that really was the title of a magazine!  What possessed its creators to chose that is the subject of another post altogether.


Rae Ritchie: I blog mainly about history and women’s magazines, with more creeping in on contemporary magazines than I’d expected, & most definitely consider myself (& my writing) to be a feminist.

Naming the Problem: Women’s Identities and the Historical Record by @LucyAllenFWR

Naming the Problem: Women’s Identities and the Historical Record

wedding photo edit

The inspiration behind this post comes from a petition, started by a brilliant feminist. I urge you to read and sign it, if you’ve not already. The petiton states:

In England & Wales mothers’ names are not on marriage certificates.

This is not fair.

This is 2014.

Marriage should not be seen as a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.

This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality.

Women are routinely silenced and written out of history.

As you can imagine, when I read this I was nodding along, especially when I got to the last line. Women are routinely written out of history. What’s even more disturbing is that, when women’s names are omitted from modern legal records, we come to expect that what we’re seeing is the result of ‘tradition’. We come to believe in this legal record, where the paterfamilias, the male head of the household, is the name and role that matters.

It’s no accident that these ‘traditions’ accumulate around the institution of marriage, because if anything attracts pseudo-traditional trappings, it’s marriage. If you believe the myths, white dresses are slut-shaming badges of virginity (not, y’know, conspicuous consumption), being ‘given away’ is an ancient and symbolic tradition going back to medieval times (it’s not), and it has long been the custom for the man to go with his betrothed even unto Tiffany’s, there to exchange one-third of his yearly stipend for the bling of tastelessness.

For a medievalist, knocking some of this tradition is pretty easy. Aristocratic medieval women didn’t exactly ‘change their names’. Women might display their identities in coats of arms that showed their maternal, as well as paternal heritage. In Books of Hours made to celebrate weddings, the brides might display both maternal and paternal heritage in their coats of arms.

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves

The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, for example, shows Catherine’s arms in the big shield in the bottom margin, with the shields of her maternal and paternal grandparents ranged around the border. You can see how these designs are incorporated into the larger shield, forming part of Catherine’s composite identity.

What might seem more surprising is that women’s identities aren’t just visible in this sort of context, where displaying your good lineage is part of the patriarchial system in which women breed the next generation of aristocrats. Women could, and did, also display their occuptions, their professional identities.

The example I like best is one I came across a few months ago, reading a couple of articles about the first female printers in England – the women who came after William Caxton. Finding women who work in the book trade always fascinates me, because their professional lives were dedicated to producing the written material that constitutes so much of what we know about medieval history – yet often, these women’s own names and even the fact of their existance, is lost.

The reason we know about a few women printers is because printing, like most medieval businesses, was a family affair. As in many businesses, men married the daughters and sisters of their colleagues: it was a good way to cement business relationships, but we’re also beginning to recognize that some of these women also brought professional skills with them. So, it’s no surprise to find medieval women printers who kept their maiden names – as a way of advertising the professional background they brought to their husbands’ workshops.

Printing Workshop

One early woman printer goes even further: this is Elizabeth, wife of the printer Robert Redman, who lived in Fleet Street in London in the sixteenth century. When her husband died, she did not formally inherit the business and there’s no indication in Redman’s will that he expected her to carry on printing. But a series of books were produced by Elizabeth as a widow, and naturally they record who printed them: ’Elysabeth Pykeryng, late wife to Robert Redman’. Pykeryng uses what is presumably her maiden name, and certainly isn’t her husband’s name: it’s her professional identity.

An article on Pykeryng by Martha Driver, who’s an amazing scholar of medieval culture, raises the possibility that it was Pykeryng who’d been managing the press all along: her initials appear on some books printed before her husband’s death, and when she remarried, she continued to be involved in dealings with the printing press, even though formally a married woman should have been acting only through her husband.

This sounds like a success story for the medieval proto-feminists. Or, if you’re less inclined to hyperbole, a Good Example of Hardworking Female Industry (I think I’m channelling the bloke who gave the speech at my sixth form prize day, who jingled change in his pocket while telling those who’d done Home Ec what good wives they’d make).

But there’s something missing from Pykeryng’s story, even though her name and occupation survive in the historical record. She actually married at least four times, and had several daughters. But, while we can look up the relationships between children and their fathers in the official record, mothers’ names are not mentioned. So we don’t know exactly which children this inspirational sixteenth-century woman printer raised. In a reversal of our expectations of ‘woman’s history,’ we have her professional reputation, but not her personal history. We’re dealing with a record which, even at its most revealing, is full of silences when it comes to women.

This is a wider problem that has begun to affect not just the facts we know or don’t know, but also, the facts we remember, the facts we seek out from the historical record and publish, or talk about. When women’s names and occupations rarely appear in documents such as marriage certificates, we stop looking for them in the historical record. We stop expecting to find historical data about working women, and we begin to believe the myths that married women didn’t have jobs, that women in the past traditionally took their husbands’ names, or that mothers did not pass on their professional identities to their children. When women are consistently written out of the historical record, we come to expect not to find them.

When I looked at the Merriam-Webster for a definition of the word materfamilias – a woman equivalent of the patriarch, the head of the family – I found the dictionary gave the first known use as 1756. I happen to know this isn’t true: a medieval will of 1416 – over three hundred years earlier – includes a bequest of money given by a canon of York Minster to one ’Alicie matrifamilias’ (‘Alice, materfamilias‘). But even our records of language come to reflect what we expect of the historical record, not what is actually there. We expect women’s history to be shorter, humbler, and more basic than men’s. The current state of marriage certificates perpetuates both the omission of women’s names and details, and the culture of expectations that goes with this omission. It is a double form of silencing, a double erasure of women from history.

marriage certificate


I base my comments on Elysabeth Pykeryng on two articles, both very well worth reading.

Martha W. Driver, ‘”By Me Elysabeth Pykeryng”: Women and Book Production in the Early Tudor Period’, in Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe 1350-155o. Packaging, Presentation and Consumption, eds. Emma Cayley and Susan Powell (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), 115-119.

Barbara Kreps, ‘Elizabeth Pickering: The First Woman to Print Law Books in England and  Relations within the Community of Tudor London’s Printers and Lawyers,’ Renaissance Quarterly 56 (2003): 1053-1088.


Reading Medieval Books! I rant about women in literature and history, occasionally pausing for breath to be snarky about right-wing misogynists. I promise pretty pictures of manuscripts and a cavalier attitude to sentence structure. [@LucyAllenFWR]

Erasing Mothers from History: Name Equality on Marriage Certificates




Mothers’ names & occupations should be recorded on marriage certificates alongside Fathers’

January 30, 2014 1 Comment

In England & Wales mothers’ names & occupations are not on marriage certificates but fathers’ names & occupations are.

This is not fair.

Women are routinely silenced and written out of history. The UK has been a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women for many years.

By accepting the Convention countries committed themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including:

to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women

It is not acceptable for the Home Office to say that:

“the requirement to include the father’s details in a marriage certificate is historic and would require a change to the present legislation. Currently there are no plans to change the rules.”

The Equality Act 2010 bans unfair treatment and helps achieve equal opportunities in the workplace and in wider society.

This seemingly small inequality is part of a much wider pattern of inequality.  For me this campaign is about more than just this single issue. It is indicative of a society and culture and a country where things are decided by men to suit men.

Marriage was historically a business transaction between the father of the bride and the father of the groom.  It is important that all forms of discrimination are challenged.  Language shapes behaviour and cultural sexism is a huge barrier to true equality.

I am so grateful to the many people have taken the time to sign the petition I set up on change.org [http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/mothers-names-should-be-on-marriage-certificates] and to those who have explained why this issue matter to them.

Comments fall into three broad areas:

Genealogists are very keen for this to change to make researching family trees easier.

“this is an important historical record. Marriage certificates an important resource for historians. Only being able to extract a father’s name and occupation from these records not only limits, but skews the historical record. People have mothers. These mothers have names and occupations. They should be recorded for historical purposes so that future historians can gather more accurate data.”

Many people have said that they have been brought up by their mother and that their father has been entirely absent – these people are upset that the only person who parented them cannot be included on a marriage certificate. Many women are bringing up children with no support or contact from the father – these people would like their role in their childrens lives to be recognised.

My son’s father chose not to be involved in his life. I’m bringing him up alone. Why should someone who’s had no input into my son’s upbringing and takes absolutely no responsibility or him whatsoever get to be on his future marriage certificate, when I cannot? There must be hundreds of thousands of families in this situation. This is a completely outdated example of historical patriarchy. It needs changing.”

Some are feminists and people who want this for basic equality reasons.  “Because I am a feminist”.

Others point out that “It is just common sense and long overlooked correction that has to be made.”

One I find the most poignant is “To be named is to exist, to be recognised.”

If you are in Scotland or Northern Ireland then you may be confused by this because marriage certificates there have included information about mothers for many years.

I have not been able to find definitive information yet about what the position for civil partnerships in England & Wales is, nor what plans there are for the format of marriage certificates planned for same sex partners.

Act now – sign the petition – share it with friends. Get this anachronism changed.


Sarkless Kitty and the Ghosts of Misogyny by @KatharineEdgar

(Originally published at the F-Word UK. Cross-posted here with permission from author Katharine Edgar)

A young woman transgresses against the strict gender roles of her time.Katharine Edgar considers the seed of truth behind ghost stories such as Sarkless Kitty

Between 1787 and 1809, at Lowna in the valley of Farndale in the North Yorkshire Moors, 18 men were killed by the same woman, according to the local guidebooks. Born around 1767, local girl Kitty Garthwaite was an unlikely serial killer. Not least because, according to the same legend, she died earlier in 1787, before the alleged murders even began.

1---MaidenKitty Garthwaite was, of course, a ghost. She haunted the ford, or so we read, under the name of ‘Sarkless Kitty’. ‘Sark’ was a local name for a shift or undershirt. ‘Sarkless’, or entirely naked, Kitty would sit either in the ford or on a branch next to it, depending on the version of the legend you read, and lure innocent and unwary male travellers to their doom. She did so for revenge: having been seduced and abandoned by a local farmer she is said to have drowned herself in the ford while pregnant. Then, it seems, she visited her vengeance first upon her lover and next upon a succession of innocent men, until a service of exorcism put paid to the murders.
Read more Sarkless Kitty and the Ghosts of Misogyny by @KatharineEdgar

Shameful Attempts to Close The US National Archives for Black Women’s History by @Andrews_Cath

(Cross-posted with permission from Toda historia es contemporánea)

Shameful Attempts to Close The US National Archives for Black Women’s History

Until this month, the US National Archives for Black Women’s History was housed in the house of Mary McLeod Bethune, an African-American activist who was an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt and  first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. However, as this articlerecounts, its administrators, the National Park Service, took the decision to close the archive on 18 February in order to rehouse it at the NPS Museum Services, in Landover, Md.

This decision followed years of substandard attention by NPS towards the archive. Going against its own rules, it has not ensured that there were rangers exclusively assigned to the archive and has made Bethune House serve as a visitor centre for another historic site. Money that has been set aside for the archive has also been used elsewhere. This lack of care and appropiate attention for the archive makes the decision to move it even more questionable.

A number of academics have protested against this change, and according to information given to me by the protest organiser, Prof. Bettye Collier Thomas, of Temple University,  this is having a positive effect. NPS Director Jonathon Jarvis has suspended the closure, but has not recinded the order. As a result, she is asking that supporters contact that NPS to insist it does the following:

  • To Rescind the order to shut down the National Archives for Black Women’s History (NABWH) and remove the collections from the Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site
  • To Appoint a replacement for Gopaul Noojibail as the NPS Acting Superintendent of the Bethune National Historic Site who describes himself as “The Closer”
  • To Restore to the Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site’s budget ALL funds previously appropriated by the U.S. Congress for housing and protecting the National Archives for Black Women’s History collections
  • To Resurrect and Reconstitute the Federal Advisory Commission as required by law
  • To Implement the General Management Plan as required by law – which includes the mandate to purchase property suitable for protection and expansion of the National Archives for Black Women’s History
  • To establish separate staffs for administration of the Mary McLeod Bethune and Carter G. Woodson National Historic Sites.  In 2005 the Woodson House became an affiliate unit of the NPS. 

To this end, Prof. Collier Thomas has issued a press release which includes a sample letter to send to Jonathan Jarvis and Secretary Sally Jewel. It can be accessed here:


Please take the time to write this letter. We cannot sit by while such an important archive is side-lined and neglected.


Million Women Rise March to End Male Violence against Women

We support the Million Women Rise march and encourage all women who live in London or who live in one of the available (and subsidised) coach bookings from Manchester, Birmingham, Wales, Nottingham and other areas of the UK (and Germany) to take part.


The Million Women Rise Coalition welcomes the support of ALL women who wish to join the March and sign up to our statement of demands.The Million Women Rise Coalition is gathering support for the Statement of Demands and invites you/your organisation to consider being a signatory.By supporting the Statement of Demands attached you will be asking the Government and societies, both at home and internationally:

  • To acknowledge the continued discrimination faced by all women, the additional discrimination faced by Black women and women from other minority groups, and reflect this in all public policy in the UK and internationally
  • For the adoption of a broad definition of violence against women, which makes the links between domestic abuse, rape and commercial sexual exploitation
  • To pledge support and resources to the women’s not-for-profit sector which is at the forefront of supporting survivors of discrimination, abuse and violence. Women’s services are essential to a woman’s healing and empowerment
  • To support the demands of the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) and End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes International Forum (ECPAT) for the protection of children and to adopt a cross government strategy addressing all forms of violence against women
  • To abolish the ‘no recourse’ requirement for abused women who have insecure immigration status
  • For all trafficked women and children to have a guaranteed minimum reflection period, specialist support and medical assistance, specialist safe houses for child and adult victims of trafficking and the right to a temporary residence permit if deemed at risk
  • To commit to changing public attitudes and behavior towards women and girls through education initiatives and public awareness campaigns as set out by school programs such as Womankind Worldwide initiatives
  • To hold the media accountable for the continued misrepresentation, misappropriation and abuse of the female body throughout all forms of media
  • To recognise that global war and conflict perpetuates violence against women and to stop all wars now. Three out of four fatalities of war are women and children
  • For International Women’s Day to become a National Bank Holiday in the UK and Ireland in recognition of and to celebrate women’s achievements

The prevention of violence against women and children is a cultural, social and political issue and must be a priority for all levels of Government. Action for a national strategy to oppose men’s violence is the responsibility of all political parties and must encompass:

PREVENTION:      Active prevention of violence against women and children.

PROVISION:         Adequate provision of quality women-only support services for women and              children.

PROTECTION:     Appropriate and effective legal protection for women and children.


Celebrating Women’s History Month

(Guest Post from Cath Costello who blogs at Opinionated Planet)

Today is the start of Women’s History month.

We have one month of the year to celebrate and acknowledge the achievement of women, past and present, and to try and maintain a media focus on women’s issues.
Making history does not always have to involve grand, earth shattering changes. It can also be the kind of low level, consistent work undertaken by women in order to make the world around us better for women. We are all making history in our own ways. Sometimes it’s a big difference, but more often it’s a small difference that we don’t always know we’ve done.
Much of feminism is focused on smashing patriarchy; dismantling the structure of society that defines women as ‘lesser,’ and maintains us in a position of unequal power.
Regardless of your own methods of doing this, there are millions of women out there, taking patriarchy down bit by bit.

They do it by demonstrating against injustice, campaigning for equality & parity in education, employment, starting petitions to force governments to listen, actively pushing and shouting for change. They are making history.

There are women who work in sectors where they support women directly. Challenging the patriarchy by encouraging and empowering women to say ‘No.’ To say, ‘I want more.’ Supporting women in the community, through mental health services, through social care, through education programmes. They are making history.

There are women out there who work on helplines, in women’s centres, rape crisis centres, counselling, coaching, listening.
Women who dedicate their lives to other women.
The women who are burnt out and exhausted, but still carry on because if they don’t, who will? They keep going because women need other women. Women need to know there is someone out there to listen and believe them. They are making history.

There are women who write blogs about the issues facing feminism. The domestic abuse, the victim blaming, pro-choice, anti-rape campaigns.
Women raising awareness of objectification, sexualisation, sexuality.
The women who are writing about politics, the disproportionate number of women affected by the welfare reforms, the impact of austerity on women and children, the issues facing working class women, women of colour, intersectionality and the lack of representation in the media. They are making history.
The women who write poetry for women, books for women, music for women.
The women who are mothers, raising the next generation to do better.

All making history.

One day, years – maybe centuries – from now, women will read about us, learn about us, be inspired by us. We are making history right now.  So let’s celebrate us, because we are all those women working to make the future better for the next generation.

Thank you for all you do to make your corner of the world a better place for the women of today and tomorrow.

NB: Thanks to @FabFitzy for the inspiration!


Opinionated Planet: a radical feminist blog by women for women on male violence, women-only spaces and sports

Why Women’s History?

Why women’s history?

This is the introduction to Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of the Patriarchy. This is why women’s history is essential and should be mandatory teaching at secondary school and why all post-secondary student studying history, languages, anthropology, sociology and all the other “ologies” should have a mandatory course on women’s history as part of their graduation requirements.

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The image is taken from Amazon and is easier to read on their site.

Fallen Feminist Heroes by @TheJadedLadies

(Cross-posted with permission from The Jaded Ladies)

At the end of last year Lily Allen wrote a “feminist” song and made a “feminist” video that seems to create at least as many problems as it attempts to solve. the video itself is addressed in more detail here so I won’t delve into that again now.

The furore however reminded me that I’d been here before with Allen, all be it on a smaller scale. I like her demeanour and devil may care loud mouth image, which are so unusual in a woman in popular culture, and find her songs catchy and occasionally witty. I particularly liked “the Fear” with its pointed references to the music industry and media. I laughed along at the ironic cutting of lines like “everything’s cool as long as i’m getting thinner” and “i’ll take my clothes off and it’ll be shameless, cos everyone knows that’s how you get famous” until a few years ago i was reading a copy of GQ in some waiting room and came across a multi page spread of…topless shots of Lily Allen that she’d done to accompany an interview. Oh. I thought. Oh deeeear. Perhaps it wasn’t ironic at all but entirely serious. Or more likely, here was another nascent feminist-y hero failing to live up to the ideology she professed to have.

The mild disappointment I felt then and now over Allen is frequently replicated by the parade of women involved in pro-feminist projects who make pro-feminist statements but deny that they are feminists or that there’s anything wrong with gender relations in the world. Most recently it was Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (who plays the fantastic Katrine in the fabulous Borgen) saying she doesn’t consider herself a feminist in an interview with the Evening Standard. But these are usually low level falls from a partial grace – they tend to elicit a sigh and a slump of the shoulders but not much more. No, the ones that really hurt are the proper feminist icons.

Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors and creator of the mother of all feminist sci-fi novels, The HandMaid’s Tale, not only distanced herself from the label “feminist” in an interview in the Independent in 2009 but spouted some ridiculous crap about why women naturally do more and care more about housework – specifically picking up socks, and, what’s almost worse resorts to “science” to back this up:

“Atwood’s theory is not just airy speculation but based in evolutionary science: “It’s because we were the gathers and they were the hunters. Women spent 80,000 years picking mushrooms, and men spent it running after animals. We see the mushrooms – which is this case are socks – they see the moving object””

She then went on to minimise the fundamental message in the HandMaid’s Tale saying “You could tell The HandMaid’s Tale from a male point of view. People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid.” WHY? WHY?

Similarly, we have Germaine Greer justifying the Sun’s page 3 as a bit of harmless fun for her “builders” in a comment that both misses the feminist point and manages to express a patronising class based snobbery. Even worse are her comments in her book The Whole Woman justifying FGM as part of certain cultures, arguing that criticism of it wrongly interferes with women’s right to choose to have it done.

But what is to be done about these flaws and failings of our hopefuls and heroines? With real life feminists who I know in person (and I include myself under that heading) I’m willing to excuse “lapses” or instances of conforming to the patriarchy – I shave my legs and worry about my weight, but I understand that we are living under an oppressive system that is powerful and pervasive, I’m happy to cut myself and others a bit of slack when we feel the need, or even desire, to conform. The fight is hard and we can’t be expected to fight on all fronts all the time, we can’t be expected to live ideologically pure lives. But with idols and icons it’s somehow different. You want them to be 100% pure, absolutely on the money all the time, permanent entirely correct politically. Is it unfair and unrealistic to demand this of public figures or as  public figures are we allowed to expect more of them, especially when there’s so few feminist voices out there?


The Jaded Ladies: 4 friends blogging about feminism [@TheJadedLadies]

Lessons on how to ‘Lean In’: a quick review of Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring book by @Abbi_Davies

(Cross-posted with permission from Abbi Davies)

Lessons on how to ‘Lean In’: a quick review of Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring book

In Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ you’ll find hard evidence to back up what we already know is true, which is that there are far too few female leaders. Even in the non-profit sector, the sector I love and intend to work in for, well, ever, and the sector we usually associate with a high female population, only 20% of leaders are women.

I might not be Lean In’s most ideal reader – I’m not a leader, not a mother, and nor do I feel that I have encountered any really obvious or damaging sexism at work. But the book has encouraged me to think ahead at the issues I might face if I do become a leader in my field, and to also look a little closer at the things I do, perhaps unconsciously, that might ultimately stop me from fulfilling my potential.

In the interests of keeping this concise, here’s a list of the things I learnt reading Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In:

  • Success and likeability are not positively correlated for women (whereas they are for men) but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t endeavour to achieve high levels of both.
  • At the moment ‘having it all’ means ‘doing it all’. In order for women to ‘lean in’ to their careers, we need partners to ‘lean in’ to their families at home. If we do this, there’s no reason for women to drop out of the workforce if they don’t want to.
  • I don’t always ‘sit at the table’. I sometimes hold myself back when I should be sharing ideas and asking questions. Sandberg writes that women don’t reach for opportunities as much as men do – often because good ideas are often unconsciously (and incorrectly) attributed to men by default.
  • Showing emotion at work is OK. We’d be silly to believe we can go through our lives not bringing life to work at least a little bit. It’s honest, and actually helpful (especially, I think, for those of us working in the non-profit sector).
  • Men attribute their success to their own hard work; women attribute their success to the work and support of others. There’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches as long as they accurately represent the events. As women, we need to own our own successes.

There’s so much more in this book; I implore you to read it if you haven’t already. This book is for men as much as it is for women. If you’re a man and consider yourself a feminist or pro-feminist, this is a must-read.


Abbi Davies: I blog about all sorts of things that interest me, including charity marketing, feminism, veganism, running, international politics and mental health. I’ve also recently started a Tumblr with the aim of curating information, and raising awareness, about the practice of ‘corrective’ rape:fightingcorrectiverape.tumblr.com @not_alone_uk

Relaxers & Colourism: My presentation for the Race & Sex Event by the Runnymede Trust by @CongoMuse

(Cross-posted with permission from Musings of a Congolese Lesbian)

The End Racism this Generation campaign

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I was on a panel discussion about Race & Sex organised by The Runnymede Trust. The event, which was part of their End Racism This Generation campaign , stimulated lively debate and plenty of food for thought. My fellow panellists, writer Joy Goh-Mah andDr Ornette Clennon, provided vital insights on the topics of the Fetishisation of Asian Women and the Hyper-masculinity of Black males, respectively. Click here to find out more about their presentations.

Drawing on experiences from my  childhood, my presentation focused on the notion that Black women’s bodies are intolerable to society and to themselves  You can read the full transcript below.  I will be posting the the full audio recording of the event so keep an eye out!


When I was growing up, from the age of about 7 onwards my mother would relax my hair. To relax hair, for those unfamiliar with the term [creamy crack], is the process of applying harsh chemicals onto Afro-textured hair in order to achieve a straighter more European texture.  She would do this about every 3 to 6 months on a Saturday or Sunday. The process would take about two hours in total. It was always the same routine, she would pour the different chemicals in to the pre-packed jar and I would have to sit down and stir the mixture until it was the right consistency, (failure to mix it in properly could result in heavy burns and scarring) whilst she prepared my hair.

The Just for Me brand is owned my Unilver, the owners of Dove, who started the Natural Beauty Campaign in 2004

Once the mixture was ready, she’d section my hair and apply the concoction onto on to it and leave it on until it burned – literally. After about 30 – 45 mins the relaxer could then be rinsed out. Now, because of the toxic nature of  relaxer you have to be careful when rinsing it out – leaving even a trace of the chemicals on your scalp could lead to serious damage. Part of the kit came with a special shampoo that would react with the relaxer and change colour – if the shampoo changed colour that meant there was still some relaxer in the hair and another rinse was needed. If you left any trace of relaxer you could end up with serious damage.

Isabella Broekhuizen author of “Because I Wasn’t Worth it” suffered permanent hair loss due to a hair relaxer application produced by L’Oreal

I still remember that great feeling I would get a after a relaxer. My scalp no longer burned and I could finally flick my hair like my white girl friends.

Another memory I have of growing up is, playing the Who is lightest? gameI played this game with my cousins and with other black children at school. The game was simple; we’d each hold out the inside of our forearms and compare the shade of our skin. Whoever had the lightest skin tone won the game. It was a very basic game, and like the relaxer sessions, it seemed, for me, like a normal part of life.

Whoever had the lightest skin tone won the game

Skip forward to my final year at uni. I’m reading black feminist and feminist theory, I’m going to talks and marches about getting Coca-cola off campus and I’m supporting  Obama , I’m basically doing the whole hippie student thing. Meanwhile I’m still relaxing my hair and wearing weave [hair extenstions]. One day I came across Peggy McIntosh’s famous article White: Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack –   in which she states the daily effects of white privilege in her life.  Prior to this I’d read Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Bell Hooks, James Baldwin etc but nothing could prepare me for that. After I read the article, I suddenly became very aware of my blackness (I went to a plate glass uni in the outskirts of Brighton) and for the first time, I understood what raceracismwhite supremacy and patriarchy actually meant.

“If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones” – Peggy McIntosh, White: Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

I finally understood that there was a systematic oppression of the black female body. From the hypersexualisation of our bodies in popular culture to having to wear a wig for a normal day at the office, black women’s bodies are constantly accommodating to the needs of society.

For years I’d been relaxing my hair and wearing weave that resembled white European hair thinking it was normal. I took pride in my light skin, my European name, and my non-offensive curves. From a young age I, like other black girls, was taught that my hair was dirty and that it had to be tamed, it had to be “relaxed”. I was taught that lighter skin is better skin.

I have since been trying to undo the internalized racism, misogyny and homophobia that I have been taught.  I have been trying to unlearn the lessons of heteronormativty that have been forced onto me by my schools, the media,  the government and the multi-mullion-dollar corporations that call us ugly and sell us self-hatred in a bottle and call it ‘beauty’.

The media only shows us images of pretty, long-haired, light-skinned, able-bodied women (Sophie Okonedo, Thandie Newton, Lenora Criwshlow) and I’m sure by now we all know the danger of a single story, as author Chimamanda Adichie tells us:

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We need more diverse representations of black women in the media

It is time for us to tell our own stories; stories of dark skinned women, stories of gay women, stories of disabled women, stories of gender-non-conforming women, stories of refugee women, stories of older women,  stories of Black women that aren’t allowed on prime time TV.

We need to open up the dialogue on our diverse experiences with race, especially where they intersect with gender and sexuality. I am thankful for organisations like Media Diversified and Black Feminists Manchester who give us, Black women, a platform to tell our stories in our own words.

Thank you.

Christina Fonthes is an Afro-Feminist from Kinshasa by way of London, and now living in Manchester. She writes about her experiences as an Afro-wearing. Congo-centric woman in love with another woman. She is interested in the pre-colonial and & post-colonial history of Congo – especially the practices of same-sex relations and relationships; the diverse experiences of race and where they intersect with gender, sexuality and class; Congolese music and all things natural hair. (@CongoMuse)

Worthing’s Strongest (wo)Man 2013 recap by @QueenofBiscuits

Worthing’s Strongest (wo)Man 2013 recap

November 26, 2013 

I have had complete mental block when it comes to writing about the competition whatever I have tried to write sounded boring, or trite, or clinical. It didn’t convey how great the day was, how amazing it was to have all these strong women together supporting and shouting for each other despite being competitors.

I woke up as nervous as fuck and needing to pee every 30 seconds but within one rep of the first event I remembered I was doing this for me, not to compete against other people, but to see what my body could do and from that point on it was fun.

Of course the longer I leave it the harder it becomes to write. Instead I thought I would do the day in the photos I have.

My no.1 supporter who was later caught trying to deadlift his 3yr old sister.
First event log press ARMAP 75 secs@40kg 6 reps completed and one dropped on the bloke behind (sorry about that!) 3/6

Log Press AMRAP 45kg in 75secs


Second event trap bar deadlifts AMRAP in 70secs @ 100kg 16 reps completed 3/6





Third event yoke 130kg 20m drop/turn 20m 3/6



Forth event farmers walk 50kg each hand 20m drop/turn 20m 4/6



Fifth event sled pull 20m/prowler push 20m/prowler push 20m  3/6


Sled pull/Prowler push set upSled pull/Prowler push set up


Me with Lloyd Renals who came down to help ref at the comp.

Me and Worlds Strongest Man athlete 2013 Lloyd RenalsMe and Worlds Strongest Man competitior 2013 Lloyd Renals


Me with amazing strong girlies. (Meg on the right is off to the Arnold Strongwoman Championships in USA next year if anyone who reads this knows anyone who can get her help with sponsorship you can get hold of her @Megrstrong)


Worthing's Strongest woman comp 2013

Worthing’s Strongest woman comp 2013


I would like to say thank you to Matt Szczerbinsk and his team at MaxStrength Gym. The day ran smoothly and was a lot of fun thanks to their amazing efforts. Thank you to Phil Horwood at Bridge Road Barbellwho continues to tell me to just pick up the weight. And of course my gorgeous family. #breakdsintooscarworthysobs

My gorgeous family, including my mother who continues to ask why I am doing this but always wishes me luck.My gorgeous family, including my mother who continues to ask why I am doing this but always wishes me luck.


That was my last competition this year (yeah I know I said that last time but I mean it this time, only 6 weeks of 2013 left and Christmas is coming). There are plans in the pipe plan which basically terrify me but I’ll post about those soon.  For now I’ll leave you with this….


3rd place. Not bad for someone who has to wee before they deadlift.


Diary of a Newbie Strong Woman: Diary of my journey to becoming a strong woman, both mentally and physically. Lived in a jacks all right world until I discovered mumsnet, twitter and my daughter. Vocal supporter of HAES.