Banana Envy – Notes on a Global Obsession at Americas Studies

(Cross-posted from Americas Studies)

The banana is one of the most popular and ubiquitous fruits in the world. Walmart sells more of them than any other product. The word “bananas” has entered our language not just to refer to the fruit, but also as a slang word for something crazy or bizarre. In terms of imagery it’s slippery skin has become a comedy staple. Moreover, its phallic shape has given rise to a myriad of sexual connotations. However, the banana is the eunuch of the fruit world being sterile after thousands of years of human interference. Despite being an ongoing hotbed of mirth and eroticism their lack of genetic diversity leaves them highly susceptible to disease, and therefore constantly on the brink of extinction.

Furthermore, the phallic banana is most often placed in the company of women of colour. A dangerous triad of primitivism, imperialism and racism have brought about a long history of associating people of colour and other colonial subjects with primates (think of monkeys often depicted with a banana in hand), and women of colour as highly sexed and deviant. Let us not forget the disturbing recent history of human zoos that haunt the world over in which Africans and Native Americans were held in captivity and placed on public display, often alongside other animals. Consider these racist stereotypes and you unearth a long history of discrimination that has seeped into pop culture.

Of course it must be noted that not all iterations of the banana are racist or even erotic. Some, like Gwen Stefani’s idiomatic use of bananas in “Hollaback Girl” is simply surreal and evades definition. However, the pairing of women of colour and the popular yellow fruit is rarely innocent and usually for the purpose of entertaining and, in some cases, “educating” armchair geographers whose knowledge of other races and cultures is rendered and shaped through biased publications.

In light of this I have compiled a Storify of just a few of the cultural expressions of the banana. These range from the innocent and comedic to the erotic and racist:


Americas Studies: This blog, Américas Studies is the product of an Irish feminist researcher in transatlantic dialogue with the Américas. It is grounded in my current experience as a doctoral candidate with posts about literature, film, feminism, and issues related to academia.

Mansplained Right Out of The Canon: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by @HisFeministMama

(Cross-posted from Our Feminist Playschool)

Originally published Jan 2013

This post is my submission for the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival – The Seventh Edition – Women and Literature.


In respect to western literature, the intersecting issues of women, editing and ‘mansplaining’ are as ancient as the craft of storytelling. With the exception of a few writers such as Aphra Behn and Sappho, the experience of being a woman in literature (whether as an author, a character, or a reader) hasn’t been on her terms. Even when women are authoring a story, it is often through some male filter. From the medieval mystics, such as Margery Kempe (seriously, look this woman up!) to Sylvia Plath, whose celebrated Bell Jar turns a ripe 50 this year, women’s writing too often undergoes a transmission through men of the canon, making it acceptable, tolerated and authentic.

In reading anything biographical about Sylvia Plath one feels a male presence in almost all stretches of her writing life. Her father, present but unattainable in so much of her work; the cliched writing professor-rapist, praying on her ambition; the psychiatrists that translate her words in the Bell Jar; and finally Ted Hughes – her husband and subsequent postmortem editor of her poetry collection published by Faber & Faber.

Although I am easily seduced by F&F’s as always sensual book design and font choice, my toes begin to curl when I dip into her poems or when I thumb through HIS end notes on HER life

As someone who failed to respond appropriately to his partner through, what most point to as extreme postpartum depression, it feels criminal to allow him to act as the editor, the ‘mansplainer’ of her poetry. In sentence after sentence, Hughes explains to the reader how and what Sylvia Plath was feeling while she was writing. Hughes acts as a lens through which we are permitted to see Plath, her life experiences and her emotional vulnerability.

Ted Hughes was not limited to offering his commentary on Plath’s life and death. He was also the selector, the arranger, the place-maker of her Faber collection. As in their writing life together, Plath’s work is hung by him. Draped by him. Managed by him. Sylvia Plath’s poetry isn’t permitted to stand alone. In both poetry and journal entries, Plath referred to her poetry as her unborn babies, making them a visceral part of her being. But, sadly, it is a birth enacted by Hughes that the modern reader is given the chance to become a part of her work.

This speaks not only to the specific tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, but to the misogyny that has and still exists in western English Literature.You could pull out a variety of examples – number of female authors accepted and included as a part of ‘the canon’, the downplaying of ‘chic lit’, the ‘pink marketing’ of serious non-fiction by women, the absence of women of colour in most genres of literature, the ghastly number of white, affluent male editors of the books we ram down the throats of our high school and university students.

Of course there are some exceptionsOf course there are some kick-ass female focused/female-run publishing houses. Of course rates of literacy in most western countries mean that female storytellers don’t need to rely on male scribes any longer. Of course many female characters are being written by feminist authors (male and female). Of course there are some amazing female authors who make their way despite the male state of literature. Of course many readers are dead smart these days and demand a little less misogyny from their literature. But. But. But. It is still happening.


Our Feminist Playschool : I’m a Feminist. I write about feminism through the lens of parenting. I push myself to consider all intersections, connections and disconnects inside the issues I explore. I am one of those Feminists: white, educated, anglo, urban, well-traveled and heterosexual; I do my best to work against the limits of our society that suggest that these things are the ‘right’ things. I want to unravel and reshape the world around me. I am a gentle-parent and take to heart the writing of bell hooks that reminds us: the oppression of children is a component of the patriarchy. I reject the notion that one can’t be a radical feminist AND an attached-parent. I am raising an ally, I am raising a feminist. [@HisFeministMama] You can also find us at Syndications on the Rights of Women

Picturing Frida at I am because you are: Trying to Decolonise My Mind

(Cross-posted from Roseanna Star)

461296Frida : a biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a long book of a rather short life: Frida Kahlo was injured in a traffic incident when she was eighteen and spent the rest of her life in pain and ‘invalidism’. Regardless of this, her persona was so vibrant and vital that her magnetism outshone her vivid, charismatic work, and if she had lived thirty more years the book would doubtless be three hundred pages longer.

But it would have been completely different. Frida would probably not have begun to paint if she had not been immobilised for many months after her accident, and if she had not been made unable to have children, she would have had them. And so she would not have painted her physical pain and her frustrated longing.

I enjoyed Herrera’s descriptive interpretations of Frida’s paintings and only rarely felt she had gone too far in taking them literally or carrying her own idea further than was justified. My highlight was her rejection of the inclusion of Frida in the Surrealist movement. Herrera unlines the cultural and individual specificity of Frida’s work and the personal authenticity of its non-realistic elements. Her work perhaps owes something to Mexical socialist realism and Latin@ Catholic iconography (the ‘naive’ ex-voto tradition is clearly an influence) but not to self-indulgent European navel-gazing. Herrera explains why Surrealism gained little traction in Mexico:

Mexico had its own magic and myths and did not need foreign notions of fantasy. The self-conscious search for subconscious truths that may have provided European Surrealists with some release from the confines of their rational world and ordinary bourgeois life offered little enchantment in a country where reality and dreams are perceived to merge and miracles are thought to be daily occurrences

I also loved her eloquent writing about Frida’s dress and ‘costume’, which was obviously a hugely important part of her process of identity. Although Frida’s maternal grandfather was indigenous, she had a middle class settler Christian upbringing and dressing in tehuana clothing was a deliberate, political, and perhaps disingenuous act of appropriation, motivated, it seems, by Communist anti-imperialism, aesthetic appreciation and the desire to hide her right leg, which was damaged by childhood polio and became increasingly problematic, probably as her injuries put an end to her therapeutic habits of exercise.

It’s always hard not to see the life of an artist primarily through their work, but according to Herrera, in many periods of her life Frida painted little. She writes that Frida’s relationship to Diego was often more important to her sense of herself than her art. Some of Frida’s writing supports this, but I am uncomfortable with Herrera’s adhesion to the idea, especially as Frida often complained about Diego too. She had many correspondants, friends, and semi-secret lovers, and organised Diego’s life and finances as well as her own. While he floundered without her, however inattentive he could be (apparently he lived for his work; unlike Frida he seems to have painted compulsively from childhood), she seems entirely capable of independence.

Diego was always unfaithful, but while he apparently tolerated Frida’s lesbian affairs, he seemed to be typically macho about her heterosexual ones, which she kept secret. Herrera gives far more attention to these associations with men, although affairs and intimacies with women may have been at least as important to Frida. But perhaps she did not write to her women lovers, or the letters have not come into the public realm, as those written to men have. I usually feel that biographers of bisexual women are annoyingly dismissive in this way: lesbian affairs do not count, just as they didn’t for Diego.

Frida and Diego were ardent Communists, and as world communism shifted and strained their allegiances were juggled too. But they retained the original impulse towards the rights of the people, towards leftist revolutionary and anti-imperialist politics. Frida was frustrated that she could not make political art, but Diego reassured her that her work was a worthwhile political contribution. Later in life, she became a teacher and led students in creating murals for a pulqueria and a women’s laundry. It was fun to read her scornful opinion of European bohemians who ‘did no work’ and spent all their time in idle talk. A message to Euro-USian hipsters not to co-opt Frida as ‘one of us’.

I am because you area bookworm trying to decolonise my mind

A Woman’s Work is Never Done by @marstrina

(Cross-posted with permission from It’s Not a Zero Sum Game)

On a recent visit to Stockholm, I was amused to encounter an exhibit in its excellent historical museum titled “The Bäckaskog woman”. This woman’s well preserved remains were excavated in 1943 and were found alongside grave goods such as fish hooks, carving blades and other paraphernalia indicative of a an active life of living off the land through hunting and fishing. The remains were immediately interpreted as those of a man and took pride of place among Sweden’s archaeological exhibits as “The Barum Fisherman”. It was not until 1970 (!) that some enterprising physical anthropologists thought to actually examine the skeleton in detail, whereupon they were staggered to discover that, based on the condition of the skeleton’s pelvis, the Barum ‘man’ had given birth to at least six children in ‘his’ life!

On the face of it, this is a familiar tale of sexist academics and their blinkered view on prehistoric gender roles; in fact I’ve written before about the illogic of most of our assumptions about who made the milestone innovations like the harnessing of fire, plant cultivation, pottery use and so on. But what especially intrigued me about the modern exhibit was that it is now named “The Bäckaskog woman”. Not “The Bäckaskog fisherwoman” or “The Bäckaskog huntress”, just… “Woman”. Even while being restored to her rightful identity, this long dead ancestress of the progressive Swedes is deprofessionalised, her survival activity subsumed and invisibilised within her gender identity. The status of the work this woman had undertaken in order to provide sustenance to herself and her children was lowered from that of a named occupation to the default activity we as a culture have always expected of women, and continue to expect of them today.

Other angles on this phenomenon abound. In The Human Condition Hannah Arendt writes of productive versus reproductive labour: speaking of the attitudes to political and intellectual involvement of citizens in the life of ancient Athens, she describes their division of activity into the private and the public. The private sphere contained the activities that were necessary to the sustenance and reproduction of the body. Food production, textile work and sexual services (as well as the provision of offspring both as heirs and as slaves) were tightly enclosed within that realm. It was only the person who could afford not to worry at all about these necessary activities, who was free to assume that they will be performed for him as his right, who could properly speaking be ‘free’ to engage in the (morally and intellectually superior) public activities of law making, philosophy, political debate and art. I’m sure I don’t need to pain you a picture about just how much choice the people relegated to the necessary drudge work of the private realm had in the matter, nor what gender they (if freeborn) exclusively were.

Before Arendt, the German thinker Thorstein Veblen in his seminal essay Conspicuous Consumption (on a side note, if you haven’t read it, it’s currently in print as part of Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and is some of the most eye-opening 100 little pages I’ve read in a long time) lays out a theory of development of human societies from the earliest (as he sees it) hunter gatherer phase to the modern consumer society. There is much that we would dispute in Veblen’s description of human cultures as existing along a progressive developmental spectrum form the ‘primitive’ to the ‘modern’, but it is of high importance that he describes the gendered division of labour at each stage and provides a useful schema for thinking about how the gradual subjugation of women may have become embedded in human cultures. In particular Veblen distinguishes between what he calls ‘drudgery’ and ‘exploit’: the former, a form of activity or labour that acts on the self, on the bodies of human beings and on the bodies of live organisms with which we coexist in order to support and enable human survival; the latter, a form of activity that acts on the inanimate, inert objects around us in order to extract something – wealth, value, use – which is of no immediate necessity for survival. “[T]he distinction between exploit and drudgery” he writes “is an invidious distinction between employments. Those employments which are to be classed as exploit are worthy, honourable, noble; other employments, which do not contain this element of exploit … are unworthy, debasing, ignoble”.

Debasing, ignoble, secluded and unseen: these are some of the ideas that underpin our collective understanding of what work becomes when women do it. In practice the logic is circular: women do unworthy work because they are unworthy; work primarily down by women is unworthy because it is done by women. Under this condition it seems only fitting that the activities or employments of women remain hidden, unspoken of, unaccounted for.

Literally unaccounted for, in fact. In her January lecture at the LSE, “The Reproduction of People by Means of People”, Professor Nancy Folbre described what she sees as an accounting problem in modern economics: the fact that we have no means of accounting for the labour (which in economic language we would class as ‘transfers’ once it had been converted to a money value) performed within families, predominantly by women, in order to support the economic activities of the other family members. Feminist readers will be immediately put in mind of the bill for ten years of domestic service in marriage that Myra presented to her cheating husband upon their divorce in Marylin French’s classic The Women’s Room; but more prosaically we can think of a woman’s taking maternity leave and forgoing her full wage for (say) a year as a transfer of her lost wages to both the child she is taking care of and the husband who is not losing his wages in order to care for the child during the same period. Form an accounting point of view, and in a manner which is congenial to our economics obsessed intellectual landscape, child bearing and child rearing can be conceptualised as straightforward transfers of cash from women to men – but in fact our current economic models do not count them at all. They are, to us as a society, invisible.

To what is this rambling jaunt through history and economics tending? To the fact that the invisibility of women’s work is a key stumbling block even within feminism itself, let alone outside of it. I was moved and concerned today to read this piece about the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and the fact that it is coming under attack these days. Now, any women’s space that is being threatened with annihilation should be of concern to feminists; we have seen, especially in the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent austerity policies, many women’s services, women’s book shops, libraries, mother’s groups, as well as refuges, rape crisis centres and homeless shelters disappear or seriously curtail their activities due to lack of funding. This is a trend that should be a worry to us all: our continued safety and the flourishing of our movement cannot be relied upon in the absence of physical places in which to congregate and share our knowledge, our skills and our vision.

What struck me especially about Sara St. Martin Lynne’s essay, though, was the detailed, loving way in which she described the decades of hands-on, feet-wet elbow grease that has gone into sustaining the festival:

[MichFest] is a music festival that has repeatedly forgone corporate sponsors and still manages to provide the nutritious meals that are included in the price of a festival ticket for every single woman who attends. This all-inclusive ticket also entitles every woman on the land to community health care, childcare, emotional support, and workshops. ASL interpreters interpret every set of every single stage at Michfest. Every communal space is wheelchair accessible, made so by women who get on their hands and knees in the blazing sun (or pouring rain) and drive nails into the ground through upside down carpets. Great effort is taken to make sure that every woman on that land knows that she is wanted, that she is welcome and that she is precious among us. It continues to be a place that prioritizes the environment and care for the land that the festival is built on. Every single piece of garbage gets picked up by hand. In the months between festivals there is not a trace of festivity left behind. I almost resisted the urge to contrast this to some of the disgusting messes I have seen in the wake of some of our Dyke Marches and Pride Celebrations, but I will not. We take pride in cleaning up after ourselves. Yes, we have a great time in those woods, but oh how this community has worked and continues to do so. (emphasis mine)

Reading this passage put me in mind of the Occupy camp in Bristol in 2011: women in the kitchen, women laying out furniture, women taking notes, women creating a free coffee corner, women printing flyers. Men? From what I saw, lighting fires and posting YouTube videos of their thoughts, mostly. What thoughts would they have had to post if there had not been women there to make sure that the camp, as a physical thing in the world, was able to exist? And for that, women were raped, ridiculed online and to our faces, sexually harassed, ignored, belittled. Occupy was the Manarchists’ movement – and for that reason, it failed. (Parenthetically, one of the flyer-printing women that year was me, trying to get this very message through their thick skulls)

The theory of intersectionality has brought a lot into feminism in terms of how we conceptualise the lives and oppressions of women who are suffering under more than a single axis of domination. Gender interacts with race, sexuality, health and so on in unpredictable ways, creating specific and individual oppressions for the women positioned at their intersections. What has often been lacking from the intersectional conversation, however, is the issue of class. Clearly poor women experience gender oppression differently than well off women – but apart from the occasional nod in the direction of material poverty, I have rarely seen a strong engagement with the topic of economic class in intersectional writing. Partly this is an issue of the Left: class politics is out, identity politics (in the proper, and by no means pejorative, sense of the word) is in, and mentions of class smack of a Marxist universality that fails to take the relational particularities of colonialism, compulsory heterosexuality, physical ability etc. into account. This is in itself not an always unfair criticism; but it does leave a lacuna where a conversation about work ought by right to be being held.

The feminism of the 1970s and thereabouts is often described as overwhelmingly white and ‘Middle Class’ (almost the only time class comes up in intersectional discourse), its concerns the concerns of affluent women disaffected by being kept out of the most lucrative professions and most senior positions in the corporate hierarchy. As Laurie Penny once said, we talk about maternity leave for professional women, but what about the concerns of their cleaners and nannies? This is of course ahistorical: from the match girls to the Dagenham strikers, gender and labour politics have gone hand in hand throughout the 20th century. It is only now, having rhetorically separated them into non-interlocking realms under the atomising influence of neloliberalism, that we can look back at the seeming failure to explicitly link the two together and criticise it as lacking. In fact, the question would not have computed for your typical 60s radical: labour rights and gender rights were obviously interwoven, starting from Marx and Engels themselves, and onwards through the intellectual tradition of the Left.

If labour in general is invisible on the contemporary Left, then the labour of women is many times more so. As Natalia Cecire writes, “neoliberal exploitation succeeds by ramping up and extending the ways that women have typically been exploited under earlier forms of capitalism”; such is the extent of cooptation of women’s work that it might be harder than ever to see it for what it is – even if it is no longer confined to the inner, hidden spaces in of the home or the nunnery. We don’t have a language in which to praise the sore backs of MichFest volunteers or the long and diligent hours of planning, writing, chairing meeting, washing dishes, baking brownies, painting placards, printing flyers that goes in to the reproduction of the physical thing that is feminist activism. And having no language in which to praise them, we disparage them as frivolous, contemptible, disposable.

In fact the labour of women has always been disposable. In part this is inherent to the nature of reproductive labour, which in the end produces nothing more glamorous than the wastes of the body: mothers are the makers of corpses; farmers are the makers of shit. The hours of painstaking craft invested in a patchwork quilt, a meal, a baby, a music festival, do not ennoble any of these things. Women’s effort is not counted towards the value of women’s productions: the work is of no value in itself. Ignoring or at best denigrating women’s ignoble labour is the economic foundation of patriarchy; and in any case it’s not really work, because we do it as a natural, inescapable outcome of our base natures. Women are ‘caring’. We are ‘multitaskers’. We are ‘better at planning’. We are expected to perform the domestic, social, emotional and bodily labour that enables the current society not as an occupation but as an emanation. Like silkworms excrete silk, women excrete labour; therefore all our work is, literally, crap.

In turning a blind eye to the graft that women put in just to keep the world looking (never mind smelling) tomorrow the same as it does today, we are plugging in to a tradition that goes back millennia; so there is nothing progressive about wantonly destroying the labour of decades in closing down MichFest once and for all. Nothing enlightened in dismissing the diligence and tenacity of women working to safeguard other women form poverty or violence. Without a theory and practice of accounting for, appreciating and foregrounding women’s work, no feminism can be either possible or desirable. We need to start building such a theory, even when talking and thinking about the work of women we disagree with.


Not a Zero Sum Game: Angry feminist, naive idealist, dogless atheist, person.@Marstrina

Patriarchy and the Establishment of ‘Objective Facts’: The Narrative is Already Gendered by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from Reading Medieval Texts

‘The Fall of Icarus,’ c. 1560-70.

Every now and again, because I don’t know any better, I end up engaging with my favourite brand of Idiot on the Internet, the intellectual mansplainer. You know the sort of thing: you mention you’re studying late-medieval women’s reading, and they start to explain to you how Derrida helped them understand why it’d be better to read Chaucer. Or Shakespeare. Or, you mention gendered violence and they explain – more in sorrow than in anger – that men have always fought wars while women stayed home raised the babies, and history really teaches us how bad men have always had it. If you’re lucky – and I’m sometimes very lucky, because writing like a dyslexic does have a delightful tendency to make people underestimate you – they’ll eventually offer to dazzle you with the beauty of their logic. Ingrained in this discourse will be terms like ‘playing devil’s advocate’ or ‘the inherent bias of women’s studies’ or ‘the importance of looking at things objectively,’ or ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’.

It’ll all sound terribly, terribly educated and impartial.

Except, you’ll have the sneaking sense it isn’t.

We’re encouraged to believe that education teaches us how to argue impartially, how to set aside personal bias, and find objective truths (or at the very least, falsify obviously biased and incomplete perceptions of truth). But I think we ignore a fundamental inequality before we even begin to debate.

The image at the top of this page is a painting, once attributed to Breugel, and the subject of a poem by Auden. Both painting and poem make the point that, while the Greek myth traditionally centres on Icarus, the rash boy who escaped prison in Crete on wings made of wax and then fell to his death because he flew too close to the sun, the tragedy is only personal. If you take the perspective of the ploughman in the foreground of the picture, or the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in the ocean, the object falling out of the sky and the pair of limbs just visible in the bottom right corner of the painting are unimportant.

This is – I would argue – a really blokey way of looking at myth, or narrative at all. For the painter, for Auden – for William Carlos Williams, who thought Auden’s poem was just so damn awesome he’d have a crack at it too – this perspective is novel and exciting. There is a strong sense of these men giving themselves a pat on the back for imagining the scene in such a new and unusual way, with the supposed ‘main character’ reduced to a speck in the corner.

Both history and fiction de-centre women’s views a lot of the time. Researching medieval women, you spend a lot of time looking at the negative space between men’s communications to get a sense of the position of women. Establishing a valid narrative often requires a lot of caveats, a lot of uncertainty, because the perspective that is so strikingly novel in the Icarus painting is just plain normal here. This de-centred position isn’t a rhetorical or logical posture, a debate-team tactic you can congratulate yourself for knowing – it’s the default place from which you have to begin.

But there’s something even more problematic about the way the narratives we’re used to hearing when we hear about women in the past shape the way we interpret those women. I’m reading a medieval romance at the moment, which is supposedly an exploration of how men and women uphold truth and justice. In theory, it’s a lovely story of how truth wins out over treachery. In reality, I think it’s a story of how female truth is constantly de-centred, never accepted as objective fact.

This romance is full to bursting with untrustworthy male characters. The best of them – the hero of the piece – has no qualms about impersonating a monk in order to extract a confession on false pretenses. This character, the Earl of Tolous, falls precipitously ‘in love’ with his enemy’s wife on the strength of a description of her physical charms. He even accepts a sworn oath of manly loyalty from one of his enemy’s prisoners because this man is willing to promise him a glimpse of the beloved (aka, stalking 101).


from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

The meeting is set up for the woman’s chapel. She turns up, dressed in her most expensive clothes, while he comes disguised as a hermit so that her husband’s men won’t discover him. Keeping perfectly in-character, he begs her for alms, and she gives him a handful of coins and a gold ring. And then she leaves again.

This woman demonstrates over and over that she’s utterly true to her word: in fact, she has a totally objective view of the truth, insisting upon telling her villainous husband when he’s legally and morally wrong, and refusing to break a vow of secrecy even when it could save her life. This aspect of her character is repeatedly set to one side by the other characters – except two chillingly manipulative would-be rapists who set out to blackmail her into committing adultery and, when she refuses, frame her for adultery anyway. This is the point at which Our Noble Hero really shows his mettle … by completely failing to take her innocence on trust. Instead, he leans on the Old Boys’ network, and fixes things with the woman’s confessor so that he can diguise himself as a monk, sneak into the confessional, and interrogate the woman about her guilt or innocence in the guise of her confessor. It’s charming, isn’t it? And needless to say, the entire establishment who refused to believe the woman are perfectly convinced by the word of a man who’s just impersonated a monk.

Despite this cornucopia of male distrustworthiness, the narrative manipulates us to think much harder – and much more suspiciously – about the motives of the woman at the centre of the story. It’s a classic ‘yes, but what did she do to encourage him’ story. As you can imagine, the suspicion focuses on that scene in the chapel when she gives the man who loves her – her husband’s enemy – not only coins, but also a ring. In medieval England, the connotations of this donation are sufficiently ambiguous to make things interesting. In a society where people still do an awful lot of payment-in-kind, it’s not exactly unusual for rich ladies to give pieces of jewellery as alms. And rings do not necessarily symbolise love: they range in purpose, from romantic tokens engraved with mottos, to reliqueries designed to hold bits of dead saint, to the even more passion-killing administrative function of signet rings used to seal boring documents.

For example, check out how many rings this girl’s mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540).


Image from wikipedia commons.

The narrative manipulates us to focus much more energy on the ambiguities of this scene than we do on the straightforward – but, narratively less pivotal – evidence of the male characters’ failure to remain true to their words. After all, it’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine, the first opportunity for us to see whether the heroine will be tempted to betray her husband, or whether she’ll betray the man who loves her to her husband. So, it encourages us to second-guess her motives, to put the evidence of her truthfulness to the side for a moment and dig into the narrative ambiguity. In short, the romance reinforces the idea that women’s truth is to be de-centred and women are to be second-guessed.

This gendered pattern – this narrative structure we find again and again in paintings and fiction and historical narrative – forms the cultural context we all bring with us when we sit down to argue about ‘objective facts’ or to hammer out the ‘truth of the situation’ with the mansplainers. At best, we’re conditioned to expect we’ll have to reconstruct women’s experiences from the margins, from the negative spaces. At worst, we inherit narratives about women that are already prompting us to second-guess those women’s experiences, to categorise them as dubious, uncertain, and problematic.

When I argue with mansplainers about history, or feminism, I’m happy to argue objectively, to play by the rules. But I think we also need to realize that it’s rather easier to make a rhetorical posture of giving up your central position to explore the evidence if that’s something novel and strange to you. It would be too much to say that traditional narratives – in history and in fiction – gaslight us into disbelieving women, but we need to recognise that there is a hierarchy there. When we start to argue about how to establish of ‘objective facts,’ we need to recognise that the ground we’re arguing over is already uneven.


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]

Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide by @LucyAllenFWR



(cross-posted with permission from Reading Medieval Books)



This post isn’t my idea, but came about when I read a comment by the brilliant Bee Jones earlier today.

She wrote:

“I have just watched The Culture Show on catch-up. All about a Tate exhibition of Folk Art. The introduction explained that it was going to focus on the real lived democracy of art which has always existed outside the art establishment. Great, I thought, this will be celebrating the explosion of women’s creativity we see every day, all over social media etc etc…but NOPE. You’ve guessed it, the programme didn’t feature a single woman artist, or even mention that women have long been underappreciated for their talent, despite being EVERYWHERE making beautiful things. So this post is about celebrating the fantastic women who regularly astonish me with their creative skills. Please feel free to share this and add your own.”

I think this is a great idea.

I’ve just watched the programme she’s referring to – it’s up for another week, so feel free to check it out if you particularly wish to be patronized by a couple of blokes. They start out with some working definitions of folk art, before oh-so-hilariously ‘insulting’ each other by applying the term to their own work. From this, we moved on to the Tate’s Folk Exhibition, which is open through the summer. There’s a nice review of the exhibitionhere.

Our two presenters, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, stared at the first display, which was absolutely fascinating: a wall of objects once used as shop signs, and ranging from a beautiful, giant gilded key, to a teapot marked with fading lettering, to a pair of humble shoes. Apparently, all of this was very funny. “Anything that’s bigger or smaller than it should be is automatically funny,” commented Deller, begging a reference to Freud. After this, “we’re off to Blackpool, perhaps the spiritual home of British folk art today,” and I began to sense a pattern. The presenters explained they were looking for anything they liked the look of, “anything that makes us laugh,” basically. Here we got our first glimpse of women: as the voiceover wittered on about folk ritual, the camera lingered on a middle-aged woman wiggling her bum cheekily at us. Oh, these Northerners and their down-to-earth folk humour! Stopping by a stall selling fake tattoos, Deller tried his hand at the popular voice, explaining, “these tattoos, they’re basically like Warhols … I think, for me, that’s like what artists do, they take something from popular culture and do something with it”. It was about as convincing as David Cameron trying to tell us he, like, thinks that Inbetweeners show is more or less Shakespeare.

Everything to do with folk art, we were told, was ‘fun’. Oh, such fun. A T-shirt, wittily printed with a sexist joke about wives and terrorists, obviously merited being included in all of the hilarity. Seriously, if you watch this bit, it comes with a health warning, because I think I have strained my eyebrow muscles from listening to these two pontificate about unselfconscious art while looking at a T-shirt reading ‘I beat anorexia’ they’d claimed as a ‘public art work’. Nothing so folksy as sweat-shop-produced misogyny.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing – you get the gist. It was massively patronizing, with one eye on the audience snickering along with the Proper Artists. Towards the end, I held out hope we’d left the snickering behind as both men, looking at sculptured figureheads, so far forgot themselves as to sound genuinely impressed. But not for long: “it’s a classic figurehead, to have the top half person, bottom half boat … and maybe with one or two breasts exposed … preferably two! Hur hur”. One of Deller’s childhood highlights, we’re told, was a visit to the Cutty Sark, memorable for “a whole row of these topless women … I thought that was pretty cool!”

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the way this programme treated misogyny as ever so funny, that there wasn’t any discussion of women and folk art.

Back in the Tate exhibition, the presenters mentioned a woman’s name for the first time: Charlotte Alice Springall, who, with her husband-to-be Herbery Bellamy, pieced together a beautiful quilt in just one year (known, you’ll be shocked to discover, as ‘The Bellamy Quilt’). This was, apparently, very funny too: “they obviously didn’t work” sniggered the presenters, before moving swiftly on to discuss another group of people who made art (apparently), because they had nothing better to do: modern-day prisoners.

No, really. I’d say I found the juxtaposition telling of their impression of the restrictions of women’s lives, but I’m not sure they’d thought that deeply.

This was the point where I really got annoyed – because quilting is a hugely important form of folk art, which has historically been practised by women, and which has a very rich social as well as artistic history. Quilts often don’t survive, because textiles eventually wear out or rot, but the V&A tells me this quilt of the story of Tristram and Iseult was made c. 1360-1400. That’s a full century earlier than the most famous writtenEnglish version of the story, in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

In the past, women needed to make quilts – not because they ‘didn’t work,’ but because it was a practical way to recycle fabric and a necessary means of keeping warm. But they also turned quilting into an art form, as the York museum of quilting will show you. It’s only fairly recently that quilts have been treated seriously as art works. In the last century, for example, Lucy M. Boston (who also wrote beautiful children’s books)  declined to have her quilts exhibited at Kettle’s Yard Folk Museum in Cambridge, because she felt they were things to be used, not art to be exhibited.

In fact, barely five minutes had gone by, after Bee posted her response to this show, before women were swapping images of work they’d made. I’ve got permission to share this beautiful quilt, made by the author Cassandra Parkin.



And here’s the one she’s working on now:

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

I love Bee’s idea, and if you would like to add images or comments about women’s art – whether you’ve made it, your friend made it, or you just happen to love it, I’d enjoy that. And please consider sharing Bee’s post with people you know: we could discover some brand new women folk artists!

There is now a hashtag, Artbywomen, where you can share images, links or anything else you like about women’s art, especially women’s folk art. Enjoy!


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]

Maya Angelou: Reflections


For Maya: Dance Like I Got Diamonds by Eris Z.V at For Harriet

I was no more than twelve years old when I was asked to read Maya’s “Still I Rise” at a Black History program for my church. I was working hard to memorize the lines and as I was practicing, my mother told me that I wasn’t allowed to say one of the lines:

 “Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise that I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs?”

I knew why saying sexy at church probably wasn’t the right thing to do. But what was the hold up about the diamonds? There was nothing wrong with those right? Diamonds weren’t unholy. I looked at my thighs often after that. My brown legs that grew bigger and thicker and still the thought of bedazzled thighs wasn’t something absurd for a 90s kid. Who didn’t have jeans with rhinestones on them?

More here.

Maya Angelou at Gradient Lair

Maya Angelou

More here.

“A Rainbow In Somebody’s Cloud”: A Tribute for Dr. Maya Angelou at Crunk Feminist Collective

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.  It is an unnecessary insult.”   -Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

If you were ever blessed to be in the same room with her, you knew she was magic.  And when she spoke the room stood still, held breath, knees touching knees, eyes begging for silence to keep from missing even a whisper of her words, beckoning attitude, calm, wisdom and brilliance all at once. Her words were generous gifts she shared abundantly, painting pictures with poems on the tip of her tongue.  She was like a grandmother cipher, a master teacher, a wonder.  She was a warrior and a survivor, an overcomer and a leader.  Her politics would not allow her to be “put in her place.”  Instead she made space where none existed and started telling blackgirl stories when they weren’t yet in style.  Her righteous resistance and loving demeanor, recorded in six autobiographies, made you want to know her.  She felt like a family member, a friend, a twin.  In her I saw all the beauty of black womanhood I was attempting to capture and I knew if I could just make it to the room (where she was), I would be forever changed.  I was.  I felt her presence and I will undoubtedly feel her absence. ….


More here



Upon news of Maya Angelou’s death my first thought was ‘there are not enough words to do justice to her achievements, her legacy and her influence upon both the literary scene and humanity as a whole.’

The mounting accolades clearly indicate that her ability to express through prose and poetry emotions, reality and a personal and collective history touched many people. Much of the content in the work of this ‘Phenomenal woman’ came from her bitter real life experiences. She grew up during segregation, aged 7 she was raped and at 17 years old she became a single mother. …

More here.

Please add any others you have read in the comments!

The Making of the Suppressed Histories Archive

The Making of the Suppressed Histories Archives

Max Dashu in 1979For forty years, Max Dashú has researched global women’s history and cultural studies. Her legendary Archives now hold a collection of over 15,000 slides, with tens of thousands more images in hard copy and digital format, as well as text files, maps and books. Dashú has created 130 slide presentations: thirty are international surveys of topics such as Female Rebels and MavericksThe European Conquests, andPriestesses. The others look at women’s history by country or region, chronologically. She has done these visual presentations for all kinds of audiences, from feminist bookstores and community centers to universities, public1976 brochureschools, libraries, museums, prisons, galleries, festivals, and conferences.

In the fall of 1969, in the midst of the anti-war  movement and with the ascent of women’s liberation, Max Dashú left behind a full scholarship to began research as an independent scholar on global women’s history, mother-right, patriarchy, and the origins of domination. Women’s Studies did not yet exist, women’s hstory was literally treated as a joke, and the academic climate was hostile to raising questions about women’s status and the suppression of female power. Dashú began scouring libraries for evidence of women’s leadership and other social patterns that fell outside the claimed universality of male domination.

She focused on the missing center of women from a global perspective, seeking to understand how domination worked in terms of gender, class and ethnicity. She intuited that the broadest Suppressed Histories brochure, 1980expressions of female leadership were retained in the Indigenous world, among the same cultures that had been disregarded and disparaged by classical scholarship, and this proved out. Women’s leadership often crossed the boundaries of political, religious, economic, and artistic spheres as laid down in the classic “Western Civ” worldview. This pattern was one of many pointers toward a different cultural paradigm. And it is the oral histories of the aboriginal peoples that provide the substance of these suppressed histories and flesh out women’s contributions and spheres of power.

Dashu’s research in archaeology showed that neolithic iconography overwhelmingly emphasized Suppressed Histories Archives brochure, 1984women, in a qualitatively different way than modern media. She found that women in indigenous societies typically had more freedom than women in feudal and colonial systems, and that all present-day matrilineages occur in indigenous societies. Abundant indicators showed that male domination of women correlated with domination by class, ethnicity, and other socio-political hierarchies. Historical patterns emerged of upper classes being more invested in patrilineage, multiple wives, and constraining women’s bodies and behavior than commoners or indigenous peoples. That is why the Romans called the ruling classes patricians; why veiling and female seclusion began with the Indo-European elite, and why footbinding and corsets began with aristocrats, long before these customs spread to other classes and cultures.

Dashú found that public female spheres of power tended to concentrate in areas of spiritual leadership and, conversely, that banning the priestess was a keystone to deepening the cultural colonization of women through religion. A more profound level of domination was possible than could be achieved through violence and coercion, if only women could be induced to believe that their oppression was divinely ordained and to acquiesce to an idolatry of the masculine –and to all-male religious authorities.

Witch persecutions emerged as another pattern of attack against female power, solidarity, pWitch Hunts slideshowrotest and resistance. Persecution of medicine people was a crucial tactic of colonizers to break the spirit of countries they were invading. This repression went hand in hand with forced conversions and outlawing indigenous religion, or the spiritual practices of subordinated classes and peoples. Women shamans, diviners, and medicine women have often been at the forefront of liberation movements. (See “Priestesses and Political Power”  and Rebel Shamans )

In 1973 Dashú became historical consultant for Donna Deitch, who was then at UCLA, working on one of the first feminist documentaries,Woman to Woman. She opened up the opportunity to collect images from university libraries in southern California and to learn copy photography in the process. The result was the initial collection of about 300 slides, seedlings of the Suppressed Histories Archives.

Dashu got a camera and began to photograph more images. She created slideshows and presented them at women’s bookstores, centers, coffeehouses. The first showing, Matriarchives, took place in 1974 at A Woman’s Place bookstore in Oakland, California, backed by live music by Sandy Ajida, Kay Sato, and Cindy Fitzpatrick. The Women of Power presentation premiered at Full Moon Coffeehouse in San Francisco in 1975, and was also shown at Mountain Moving Café in Portland and Mother-Right bookstore in Santa Cruz. In 1976 this growing women’s history collection took the name of The Suppressed Histories Archives. Year by year by year, thousands of new slides were added to the Archives, along with new articles, graphics and maps in the hard copy files.

Over the next three decades, Dashú continued to research and teach and archive historic images ofAfroAsian Goddess women. She investigated mother-right cultures, priestesses, female shamans, witches and the witch hunts, goddess veneration, Indigenous philosophies of spirit, female elders and chieftains; patterns of conquest and colonization, the role of captivity and slavery and class systems in developing patriarchy, and the uses of religion in intensifying male domination. She looked at patterns of racist and sexist bias in the way the archaeological  and historical record had been evaluated, and called attention to disregarded cultural riches in the Sahara, Ecuador, Sumatra, Indiana, Nubia, Siberia, Utah, Ireland, Ethopia, and Portugal.

Dashú began to present guest lectures at universities in 1981, while continuing to teach through grassroots venues: community centers, women’s conferences and festivals, public schools and libraries, and the occasional prison, gallery, and museum. She presented at women’s centers at Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton, UC-Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, and many other universities around the US. She gave keynote addresses at the Pagan Studies Conference at Claremont University (2008), the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women (Rutgers, 2005), California State University at Chico (2000), Association for Women and Mythology (2009), and Women’s Voices for a Change (Swarthmore, 2013). She presented at international conferences in Rila, Bulgaria; Glastonbury, England; Hambacher Schloss, Germany and San Marcos, Texas, and gave slide talks in Spanish at the Museo de San Miguel de Allende, Centro de Justicia Global, and other Mexican venues. She has presented at conferences of the National Women’s Studies Association and the American Academy of Religion.

The Suppressed Histories website went online in 2000, reaching a vastly expanded audience. Today it attracts 2000 brochurereaders from every country and 80,000 hits a month. It features dozens of articles, book excerpts, interviews, and video clips from the dvds Women’s Power in Global Perspective and Woman Shaman: the Ancients. Some articles have been translated into Dutch, French, Italian, and Hungarian on other websites. Others are available in Spanish on the SHA site, with more to come.

Dashú’s critique of Cynthia Eller’s The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory has had an international impact since it was published in 2001–and later reprinted in the British journal Feminist Thealogy (Sheffield Press, 2006). Dashú was the first to stand up and challenge Eller’s attacks on Goddess scholars at the Gender and Archaeology Conference in 2002. She follows some sixty scholarly listservs, corresponding with scholars around the world, and fielding queries from other researchers. She continues to present visual talks around North America, especially to grassroots audiences.

In 1978 Dashú began writing The Secret History of the Witches, a reconstruction of pagan European tradition, especially goddess veneration and female spiritual leadership. Her aim in this sourcebook was to investigate What Happened in Europe: to document how the European witch hunts arose and their cultural impact on women. By 2000 she had written 2000 pages of  manuscript, with illustrations and maps. In the decades since Dashú began writing The Secret History of the Witches, significant cultural turnings have occurred: a resurgence of Goddess reverence and, on a larger scale, Christian fundamentalism, church-state patriarchy and authoritarianism, and even new Crusades and torture-trials. This book will be a resource for the restoration of authentic cultural roots that predate hierarchical religions and to uproot the cultural poisons that continue to sow violence and destruction. Getting the first volume into print is the current priority for the Archives.

Meanwhile, the Archives is moving to digitize the slide collection, and to expand the image galleries, articles, and videos on the SHA website. Suppressed Histories Archives has attracted a large audience (130,000 at this writing) on the Facebook page, with daily posts of images, links, and information.


Suppressed Histories Archive : The Suppressed Histories Archives uncovers the realities of women’s lives, internationally and across time, asking questions about patriarchy and slavery, conquest and aboriginality. About mother-right, female spheres of power, indigenous philosophies of spirit– and the historical chemistry of their repression. Even more important, their role in resisting oppression. A global perspective on women’s history offers fresh and diverse conceptions of women’s power, as well as of men and gender borders. It overturns stereotypes of race and class, and the structures of domination that enforce them. It digs under the usual story of lords and rulers, looking for hidden strands, and reweaves knowledge from the divided fields of history, archaeology, linguistics and folk tradition. So we cast a wide arc, looking for patterns and gaps and contradictions which, where vested power interests are at stake, are trigger points for controversy. Some of the flashpoints are women’s power; neolithic female figurines; gender-egalitarian mother-right cultures; patriarchy; witch-hunts; “heresies” such as goddess veneration or shamans; and the rise and fall of empires, including the doctrines of supremacy and inferiority that prop up all systems of domination.



Remembering Women in History by @CeliaHubbartt

(cross-posted from du erkennst mich nicht)


Throughout time, women have done extraordinary things, yet remain quite unknown to the public. Here are two women who deserve to be known by all.

  •  Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969)

Alexandra David-Néel as a teenager.

This French explorer, spiritualist, Buddhist, anarchist and writer has done more in her life than most people could dream of. She traveled to Lhasa, Tibet when it was forbidden to foreigners. She wrote over 30 books about her travels, philosophy and Eastern religion.

David-Néel, whose desire for freedom and spirituality, began her adventures by traveling around Europe before the age of 18 on her own. During this time, she studied at Madame Blavatsky’sTheosophical Society.

Throughout her travels, she went to India, became an opera singer in Vietnam, traveled to Sikkim, where she met her lifelong traveling companion, a Sikkimese monk, Aphur Yongden (born 1899), she also traveled to Japan, Tibet and later returned to France for a short time in 1928. She began another trip to the east Tibetan highland in 1937.

David-Néel and Yongden.

At at 101, David-Néel passed away. Her ashes were mixed with Yongden and were dispersed in the Ganges by her friend Marie-Madeleine Peyronnet.

  • Qiu Jin (1875–1907)

Qui Jin

Qiu was a writer, poet, feminist and is considered a national hero in China. She was executed after participating in a failed uprising against the Qing Dynasty.

In the beginning of her life, Qui wrote poems about joyful subjects ranging from flowers to visiting historical places and domestic activities. She also would write about female heroes and warriors from history. She found inspiration from their strength, courage and beauty. This was a reflection of her self-confidence and desire to be a great writer.

When she married the son of a wealthy merchant against her own wishes, her self-confidence took a sever hit.  She wrote about her husband saying, “That person’s behavior is worse than an animals.. He treats me as less than nothing.” and “When I think of him my hair bristles with anger, it’s absolutely unbearable.” Her poetry was the exact opposite as before. It was filled with self-doubt and loneliness.

In 1903, Qui and her husband moved to Beijing where she began reading feminist writings and also became interested in women’s education.

In that year, she left her husband to study in Japan. During this time, she became quite vocal about women’s rights and pressed for improved access for women’s education. She also spoke out against foot-binding.

She joined a group of Triads who worked towards overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and other anti-Qing societies after her return to China in 1905.

Qiu wrote her own journal, “Zhongguo nubao” (Chinese women’s journal) in 1906. It consisted of feminist and nationalist writings. She did not hold on to the idea that women’s places were as mothers and educations in traditional family role, instead she found traditional family life as oppressive to women.

In 1907, she was appointed head of the Datong school in Shaozing, Zhejiand Province. The school was actually used for military training of revolutionaries. While there, she frequently cross-dressed and wore western-style men’s clothing. She became well-known for her aid of the poor and weak.

On July 6, 1907, Xu Xilin, Qui’s cousin with whom she worked with, was captured and tortured for information. He was executed the next day.

After learning of her cousin’s death, Qui decided to stay at the school where she known she would be caught. She believed that her cause was worth dying for. On July 13, Qui was arrested, tortured and two days later was beheaded publicly in her home village at age 31.

The public was shocked by the brutal execution of a woman and many people were strengthened by this and their resentment of the Qing Dynasty was multiplied. She was immediately made a hero and became the subject of drama, poetry and fiction. Her own poetry and letters were published after death.


Du erkennst mich nicht: My blog ranges from anything and everything that could do with feminism. I also add in random articles that I find interesting, but the heart of the blog is about feminism.

Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (Saba’)

(Cross-posted from Source Memory)

The Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”) is the most important Ethiopian scripture. It describes the descent of Amharic kings from queen Makeda of Ethiopia and king Solomon of Judaea. (Sheba or Saba’ encompasses  Yemen in southeast Arabia but also Ethiopia, where the Amharic people speak a closely related Semitic language.) (See map) The story, compiled […]

The Kebra Nagast (“Glory of Kings”) is the most important Ethiopian scripture. It describes the descent of Amharic kings from queen Makeda of Ethiopia and king Solomon of Judaea. (Sheba or Saba’ encompasses  Yemen in southeast Arabia but also Ethiopia, where the Amharic people speak a closely related Semitic language.) (See map) The story, compiled from various sources between about 400 to 1200, explains the origin of Ethiopia’s Solomonic line, including a claim that the Ark of the Covenant was spirited from Solomon’s temple to Ethiopia.

Hearing of Solomon’s wisdom from a traveling merchant, Makeda journeys to Jerusalem. After a colloquy with the king, Makeda declares, “From this moment I will not worship the sun, but will worship the Creator of the sun, the God of Israel.” The Sabaeans were famed in both Hebrew and Arabic texts for venerating the sun, moon and stars. The time frame of Solomon’s reign is historically consistent with a powerful state in Saba’. So the Ethiopian queen converts to Judaism.

The next twist, in this text, is that before Makeda departs, Solomon tricks her into sleeping with him. She had asked him to swear that he will not force her into sex. He agrees, on condition that she wouldn’t take anything from his house by force. He feeds her a lot of spicy food, and in the night when she reaches for water in her thirst, he appears and says she has broken her promise, having taken water, the most valuable of all things. (What happened to the famous tradition of hospitality here? and how is this not coercion?) So, says the Kebra Nagast, Makeda assents to sex with Solomon. As she departs, he gives her a ring for their future son. Then Solomon dreams that the sun leaves Israel.

Makeda bears a son, Menelik. When he comes of age, he goes to Jerusalem for his father’s blessing, and is recognized by the ring. Solomon wants Menelik succeed him as king, but he insists on returning to Ethiopia. So Solomon puts together a noble company to go back with him. Angry at being forced to leave their home and families, these young men secretly take the Ark out of the Temple and away to Africa. Menelik is not implicated in this deceit, but he finds out along the way. He is divinely transported back to Ethiopia through the skies, thwarting Solomon’s attempt to recover the Ark. (Here the ancient theme of Solomon’s straying into idol worship under the influence of his many foreign wives takes a new turn; it now becomes his attempt to console himself for the loss of the Ark.) Menelik’s return is celebrated with great pomp at Axum, and Makeda gives up her throne to him. (Natch!) Ethiopia becomes “the second Zion.”

The Kebra Nagast includes a magnificent passage where Makeda speaks of her search for Wisdom:

I have drunk of her, but have not tottered; I have tottered through her, but have not fallen; I have fallen because of her but have not been destroyed. Through her I have dived down into the great sea and have seized in the place of her depths a pearl whereby I am rich. I went down like the great iron anchor whereby men anchor ships for the night on the high seas, and I received a lamp which lighteth me, and I came up by the ropes of the boat of understanding. I went to sleep in the depths of the sea, and not being overwhelmed with the water I dreamed a dream. And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun; I laid hold upon it, and I will never let it go. I went in through the doors of the treasury of wisdom and I drew for myself the waters of understanding. I went into the blaze of the flame of the sun, and it lighted me with the splendour thereof, and I made of it a shield for myself, and I saved myself by confidence therein, and not myself only but all those who travel in the footprints of wisdom, and not myself only but all the men of my country, the kingdom of Ethiopia, and not those only but those who travel in their ways, the nations that are round about. [ ]

And then the Kebra Nagast returns to its central preoccupation, which is not Makeda herself, nor the wisdom of ancient Ethiopia of which she is the sole representative to be attested in written history. Instead, Makeda lays out the Solomonic line claim for the Ethiopian royal dynasty, a patrilineage going back to the Hebrew king. The book does credit her with building her capital Debra Makeda on a mountaintop. Other Ethiopian books give more details about Makeda’s parentage. The Ethiopian Book of Aksum describes her foundation of a new capital city at Azeba. Himyarite histories from Yemen also allude to this queen.

At least one Ethiopian manuscript shows Makeda in connection with a labyrinth. One line in the Kebra Nagast, where Makeda speaks of “a star in my womb,” was undoubtedly intended as a reference to her future son and dynastic founder Menelik. But it can be read another way, as her womb in its own light: “And it seemed to me that there was a star in my womb, and I marvelled thereat, and I laid hold upon it and made it strong in the splendour of the sun…”

The Biblical Account

The oldest account of the Queen of Sheba comes from the Bible, in the book of Kings. It does not give her a name. “When the queen of Sheba heard about the fame of Solomon and his relation to the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan–with camels carrying spices, tons of gold, and precious stones–she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind.” [10:1-2] He answered every question she asked, and the biblical scribe describes her  as being “overwhelmed” by his wisdom, and by the wealth and splendor of his palace and kingdom.

The Queen praised Solomon and heaped him with precious gifts: “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” [10:10] The account says nothing about sex or a son, but goes on to describe tribute paid to Solomon, and the glories of Ophir in Arabia — or Ethiopia. In this account, the Queen is a peer, not a subordinated or inferior figure.

The Quranic Account

In Arabia, the Queen of Sheba is named Bilqis. Among the ruins of Mar’ib is a Sabaean temple platform with eight pillars, sometimes called the Temple of Awwan. Yemenite tradition calls it Mahram Bilqis, her  “sanctuary.” The Qur’an also contains an account about the Queen of Sheba. Again, it does not name her. Even though it treats her being Pagan as despicable, she is described as great in glory. The hoopoe bird tells Suleiman (Solomon) about Saba’:

Indeed, I found a woman ruling them, and she has been given of all things, and she has a great throne. I found her and her people prostrating to the sun instead of Allah, and Satan has made their deeds pleasing to them and averted them from [his] way, so they are not guided, so they do not prostrate to Allah… [Sura 27:24-25]

This passage reflects a memory of ancient Sabean queendoms with a strong dimension of spiritual leadership.

Suleiman sends a threatening message to Bilqis, “Be not haughty with me but come to me in submission.” Bilqis talks to her counselors, who say that they will go by her decision. She declares, “Indeed kings – when they enter a city, they ruin it and render the honor of its people humbled.” [27:35] This critique of warlordism is quite an extraordinary political statement for any ancient writing! and even more striking in being attributed to a woman ruler. The queen decides to send a gift, choosing the avenue of diplomacy, and to await Suleiman’s reply. He tells the emissaries that what Allah has given him is better than what they have, insults them for “rejoic[ing] in your gift,” and sends them back with a threat: “Return to them, for we will surely come to them with soldiers that they will be powerless to encounter, and we will surely expel them therefrom in humiliation, and they will be debased.” This is the declaration of a power-mad bully, not a man suffused in spiritual wisdom.

Before she set out to meet Suleiman, the Queen of Sheba locked and secured her throne. But the king sent a spirit to bring the throne to him, and disguised it, and tested her to see if she would recognize it. She did. Then Suleiman boasted of the primacy of his knowledge over hers. “And we were given knowledge before her, and we have been Muslims [meaning in submission to Allah, since this is all supposed to have happened fifteen centuries before Muhammad’s time]. And that which she was worshipping other than Allah had averted her. Indeed, she was from a disbelieving people.” [27:42-43]

The Quranic account continues with a story symbolizing the ignorance of the pagan Queen: “She was told, ‘Enter the palace.’ But when she saw it, she thought it was a body of water and uncovered her shins [to wade through]. He said, “Indeed, it is a palace [whose floor is] made smooth with glass.” She said, “My Lord, indeed I have wronged myself, and I submit with Solomon to Allah, Lord of the worlds.” [Sura 27, from (Much more detail here and here.) This passage shows the queen as exposing her body, considered as shameful for a woman, out of a misapprehension of the wonders in Suleiman’s kingdom. But like the sibyls of Christian tradition, she also symbolizes a prestigious figure of the old pagan order, now made to yield to new supercessionist religions and their exclusively masculine prophets.

Sura 27 portrays a powerful Pagan woman in a shaming and subordinating light, but nevertheless comes the closest that the Islamic scripture gets to a female prophet in her own right. In the Quranic account, she is shown coming not to seek wisdom but to avert a disastrous invasion of her country. In historical reality, as archaeologists have been discovering, Solomonic Israel was utterly incapable of mounting such an invasion, least of all against far-away Yemen or Ethiopia. Little trace remains of the fabled palaces described by the Hebrew scribes; many archaeologists now think they are likely to have been humbler affairs, as there was never a Hebrew empire like that in the inflated biblical account.

Some medieval Arabic historians have Bilqis arriving at the throne not by inheritance, but by marrying a tyrannical king in order to unseat him. She kills him on her wedding night, addresses the people, and takes the throne by acclamation. Her role is heroic, although the writers seem unable to imagine that such a queen could have ascended to the throne in her own right. However, “the earliest inscriptions of the rulers of Dʿmt in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea mention queens of very high status, possibly equal to their kings.”  [Rodolfo Fattovich, “The ‘Pre-Aksumite’ State in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea Reconsidered” in Paul Lunde and Alexandra Porter ed., Trade and Travel in the Red Sea Region, in D. Kennet & St J. Simpson ed., Society for Arabian Studies Monographs No. 2. BAR International Series 1269. Archaeopress, Oxford: 2004, p. 73]

Because the Queen of Sheba appears in the Qur’an, Muslims spread her story around the world. It became heavily mythologized along the way. Some writers claimed that the Queen was reluctant to uncover her feet because they were deformed, which is why Solomon tricked her into revealing them. But most versions say that Bilqis had the feet of a donkey. This motif belongs to a larger body of faery stories about magical women with the feet of deer (usually), or other hoofed animals, including camels. The glaisteagan of Scotland, huldres of Denmark, and ‘Aisha Qandisha and her company in Morocco, are just a few of them. In the Muslim context, as in the Christian, these stories impute a demonic nature to the spirit-woman (except where an old folk nature spirit motif remains strong).

Such stories were already in circulation in early medieval Islam, with famous theologians like Hasan Al Basri characterizing Bilqis “in a particularly pejorative way as an ‘iljatu meaning ‘she-ass’ or ‘miscreant,’ an expression frequently used to insult non-believers.” (He also insulted her appearance and declared women unfit to rule.) These ideas were common coin, with some going so far as to assert that Bilqis was a jinn, or the “mother of jinni.” [“Bilqis, Queen of Sheba. A democratic queen.” Author unknown. ] Even today, rumors circulate that the Queen of Sheba was really a jinn. (Google Bilqis, you’ll see.)

Christian Representations of Sheba

European authors and artists extend these subordinating narratives that show Solomon as not only the political superior of the Queen of Sheba, but also her spiritual senior and initiator. But now they add a racial distortion, whitening her; whether she came from Ethiopia or Yemen, the Queen of Sheba would have been a dark-skinned woman. This whitening can also be seen in Persian manuscripts.

Female pagan “inferior” before male superior: and de-Africanized at that

I haven’t done an exhaustive study of these representations, but a net search shows that they fall into two primary categories. The first shows the Queen of Sheba approaching Solomon from below, sometimes kneeling before him, or else ascending toward the king who is seated on a dais many steps above her.

Another theme appears in some of the art, however, one of parity and partnership, the true wisdom legacy of the Queen of Sheba. One of these is shown in Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise:

We’re now at a moment where women of African descent are re-envisioning who the Queen of Sheba may have really been, beyond the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptural traditions, within her original cultural context. What was the reality of ancient Ethiopian women? the oldest testimony I know of is the ancient megalithic statues of southern Ethiopia, in Sidamo and Soddo, all in the form of ancestral Mothers.

Atete, Goddess of the Oromo People in southern Ethiopia

(Cross-posted from Suppressed Histories Archive)

You may have read that the Zar religion originated among the Oromo people (also known as “Galla”). Atete is their great goddess. I’m sharing some information I found back in the mid-70s. The source cites are lost, but this is too important to leave out, all the more so because so far I’ve found no […]

You may have read that the Zar religion originated among the Oromo people (also known as “Galla”). Atete is their great goddess. I’m sharing some information I found back in the mid-70s. The source cites are lost, but this is too important to leave out, all the more so because so far I’ve found no other sources offering this level of detail about the Oromo Goddess. I’ve left the account in the present tense even though this veneration has lost tremendous ground in the past century, under pressure from Christianity and Islam.

Oromo woman, possibly wearing a cäle rosary, 1890

Oromo woman, possibly wearing a cäle rosary, 1890

Atete governs the fate of people on earth. She is “power of life, abundance, fortune, wealth,” and Fridays are sacred to her. Women carry strings of specially colored beads (cäle) as a rosary consecrated to this goddess. Groups of women wear necklaces of Atete, hold a feast, and then go to gather herbs. She was originally the Oromo Great Goddess, but even the Christian Amhara have assimilated some aspects of her veneration.

Her feast days are the first of the Ethiopian calendar (a parallel with Isis in Kemet, ancient Egypt, to whom some modern Oromo indigenistas compare her). A great festival and rituals are celebrated every year to honor her, with ritual preparations of steeped barley. On the evening of the festival, women of each household chant invocations over the feast: “Atete Hara, Atete Jinbi, Atete Dula, forget not my children, watch over my husband and my cattle.” Or “My mother, my mistress, please look after me.” Then they burst into the women’s shrilling triumphal cry illi-li-li as they pick up the coffee beans and begin to prepare the drink. On this evening, the woman of the house enter deep trance and speaks as oracles of the zar. The spirits advise the women on the coming year and feast on the food set before them.

The zar (spirit) is passed from mother to daughter; husbands actively try to crush this shamanic tradition. Most zar-doctors are women. [This too has changed, to some extent.] The Gurri was a whirling dance invoking zar, to make them become Weqabi, protective spirits who ride their ‘horses,’ the entranced women.

This fleshes out a bit what several authors have documente about the Oromo origins of the zar religion: that among this people it was connected to indigenous goddess reverence. Not that she was the only spirit, but she is the heart of the religion. Here’s another tidbit from the Amharic side of Ethiopia, whose women massively adopted zar from the Oromo. (Enslaved Oromo women spread the religion into Sudan and Arabia as well, but that’s a much larger subject.)

The earliest known Ethiopian inscriptions are to the goddesses Naurau and Ashtar near Axum. The Ge’ez alphabet is older than Arabic or Greek, and many volumes of a later period fill a large royal library. Ge’ez means “free,” and is a Semitic language. Women of the royal line were called Makeda, like the Queen of Sheba (Sa’ba). One source refers to “The ‘crescent and disc’ of Astarte, a design common to the great fallen monoliths of Aksum, Blemy pottery, and the coins of the kings of Aksum”. [Astarte being the Greek word for Phoenician and Syrian ‘Ashtart, which was ‘Athtar in Arabia.] The Yemenites are the closest linguistic relatives to the Amhara, and since in southern Arabia Athtar was masculinized, I’m not sure that this was a goddess in Ethiopia. It’s possible, however; more to research on that.

More on Oromo, ethnicity, and religion: Ethiopian bloggers weigh in

The Oromo (“Galla”) are a large ethnic group in central and south Ethiopia. They speak a Cushitic language related to Somali, part of the much larger Afro-Asiatic family. They pushed up from southern Ethopia and became the majority population in central and southern Ethiopia. Most of them have converted to Islam or Christianity, although even they retain traces of their old religion, Waaqeffannaa. This means “belief in Waaq,” a supreme god, but they also have an important goddess, Atete, also known by the christianized name Marame. Oromo who adhere to the indigenous religion are now outnumbered by converts.

Oromo people are often referred to as “Galla,” but Ethiopian sources say that this name really designates indigenous religion. An Ethiopian blogger explains the distinctions: “Galla, like the terms Amara [Amhara] and Muslim refers to faith and not to race. Therefore, an Ethiopian is traditionally called Amara if he is a Christian, Muslim if he is of the Islamic faith, and Galla if he practices the traditional Oromo faith or is an animist.” [“Call Me By Name: A small talk with Debteraw, VIII” by Wolde Tewolde, alias Obo Arada Shawl]

In the Comments of the same Debteraw blog, Daniel adds (April 15, 2007): “To many of us who have grown up in the ‘Atete’ culture knew how the ‘Atete’ goddess cuts across ethnic lines. Those of us who still recount the ‘Atete’ ritual might not miss the mantra-like recounting of the ‘Gondare Sifa’.” [Not sure what this is, but I’m guessing that it’s a Christian litany, since Gondar was the imperial capital of the Amhara.]

Daniel sees “the ‘Marame’ goddess and the ‘Eme-Birhan’ i.e. ‘Mariam’” as belonging to a related cluster of Ethiopian folk goddesses (Mariam=Mary, so we see how the Ethiopian Goddess came to be linked with the Christian one). He also compares “the Amhara and Oromo peasant hut design and how they reflect female figurines,” and talks about “the matriarchal-paganism of the ‘Galla’” which was displaced by “the patrilineal androgenic God figure of the northerner.” [This is overstating the case, as you’ll see from my previous Note about an Oromo woman’s article on indigenous patriarchy and women’s resistance to it.] However, the Oromo religion does retain aspects of very old female potency. Numerous sources show Atete morphing into Mariam / Marame through Christian influence.

There’s a larger feminist issue here: patriarchal systems are commonly described as “egalitarian,” when in fact what is being described is a lack of class ranking / hierarchy. For example, look at this: “The Galla of Ethiopia are generally represented as an egalitarian people.” The author goes on to cite the Gada system, in which an all-male assembly elects its own leaders. That is the criterion for “egalitarian.” (See the next post for more perspective on male dominance in the Oromo family.) Further, class ranking has in fact intruded, as  monarchies supplanted the Gada councils over the past 200 years). [Herbert Lewis, “A Reconsideration of the Socio-Political System of the Western Galla.” Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 9, 1964, p 139 (139-143)]

An Ethiopian evangelical scholar gives more detail about the Atete ceremonies, although the article comes from a Lutheran conceptual framework that treats the indigenous religions as demonic. [Amsalu Tadesse Geleta, “Demonization and Exorcism,” thesis at The Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology.] I’m going to quote from this essay in spite of the very negative Christian bias and stereotypical terms (“cult,” etc.), because it does offer some valuable information, even if we have to read through the bias:

“Atete is a fertility cult in honor of the spirit of motherhood in Oromo tradition. The cult is known as conversion zar among the Amharas of Ethiopia. There is a similarity of practices between Atete and Conversion Zar. The preparation is the same. The main difference is that the conversion zar is practiced among the Amharas whereas Atete is practiced among the Oromos. Atete is a non-violent female goddess mainly connected with fertility. Women who seek supernatural help to become pregnant and bear healthy children are the main adherents.

“The clients of this cult are women. A girl will take over or be possessed by her mother’s ayana(spirit). Her ayana normally possesses or visits her once or twice a year. She spends her day preparing things that are needed for the ceremony. She has to prepare herself wearing special clothes (often of the opposite sex), putting on beads and ornaments, perfumes and carrying a whip, steel bar or an empty gun. Green grass (reed from river side) is spread on the floor as a sign of ceremony or anniversary.

“Different types of foods like porridge, butter, lemons, dadhi (honey wine, yellow in color), farso (home made beer), and coffee is prepared before the ceremony starts. There might be some more sacrifice prescribed by ayana on its previous possession. So chicken, sheep or goat of certain color is offered as a sacrifice and perfumes or different spices are presented as an offer. If the spirit is pleased by the offerings and the preparation it occupies her. People know that she is possessed when she starts yawning, stretching the whole body here and there, salivating, and becoming drowsy. Her body wavers, and she also cries, speaks as if she is in dream alone. She often falls down and covers her face with her dress.

“She may jump and run away and climb trees, not coming down until people beg her. Others stand on glowing wood or eat embers. She may cut herself with a knife, or crush pieces of glass and eat them. She speaks in a strange voice, often using a language understood only by the zar themselves. She may sing a song reserved for the occasion, or dance a peculiar dance associated with a particular ceremony. She acts very differently from normal strength, voice, activity, etc. which signify that the spirit has possessed her.

“This possession may last from a few hours to two or three days. The main function of the gathered spectators throughout the ceremony is to appease the ayana, sing songs, clap, dance and beat a drum, and beg the spirit not to hurt her. [This last may again reflect the author’s Christian bias] Geleta goes on to say that “In contrast to Atete which is dominated by women, seer zar is man’s zar.”

So we see repeated several shamanic themes: special ritual dress in accord with the spirits, trance states, falling to the ground, covering the face, imperviousness to fire or blades, supernatural strength, spirit languages, special songs for certain spirits, and not least in this case, involvement of ancestral spirits inherited matrilineally. The climbing up into trees (or onto roofs) also occurs with new shamanic initiates in Zambia and other African countries.

Another interesting aspect of Geleta’s article is that it plainly states the equivalence of indigenous Oromo religion with Zar. We’ve already seen one author make the case for an Ethiopian origin for Zar, which is backed up by other experts, and here that idea receives further support from a hostile witness.

Two short mentions of Atete appear in Literatures in African Languages, ed. B.W. Andrzejewski et al, Cambridge University Press 2010.

J…lq…b… b…rsisa [characters won’t reproduce] an Oromo textbook published in 1894, contains legends, proverbs, and oral poems; “there are even some hymns to Atete, the goddess of fertility.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Written Literature in Oromo,” p 409]

“Atete, also called Maram [that is, after the Christian goddess Maryam or Mary] is the goddess of fertility worshipped in some regions of Ethiopia by the adherents of the traditional Oromo religion.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Oral Prose: the Time-Bound Stream,” p 415]

Other present-day testimony comes from web sites on Waaqeefannaa (indigenous Oromo religion):

“Based on the story of Irreechaa, the Oromo started celebrating Waaqayyoo beside Odaa tree, which was for the first time planted by Atete as a symbol of Ora-Omo (resurrection of Ora, who raised from death to celebrate the reconciliation with his murderer, with his brother Sete). [Here referring to Kemetic Ausar and Set] Since then, the other Cushitic nations also celebrate this event either under a tree (Odaa) or beside a statue of stone (like beside the Axum Obelisk) or beside a temporarily planted Demera as it’s now done almost all over Ethiopia. [This caught my interest because of the megalithic statues and standing stones in southern Ethiopia, and the symbolism of a plant or tree which recurs on many of them, which is repeated on female belly tattoos among some indigenous Ethiopian peoples.] Interesting is to observe this relation between Atete’s original plant as a symbol for the resurrection of Ora with the Oromo’s Odaa tree, lately replaced by the statue of Agew’s (Tegaru’s) Axum Obelisk, which is now further replaced by Demera, to be planted only temporarily during the transition time from a winter (darkness, unsuccessful, death) to a spring (a new start of light, a new start for success, a new start of life) every year. Knowingly or unknowingly, all Cush nations, including those who claim to be Semites (Tegaru, Amhara, Gurage, Harari, Argoba, etc), celebrate Irreechaa, which is the celebration of Ora’s resurrection. That is why Irreechaa is actually the holiday for all Cush nations, including those who deny their origins and try to identify themselves with Semetics (with David, with Solomon, with Arab, etc).

[from “Merry Irreechaa! Both ‘Land to the Tiller’ and ‘Self-Rule of Nations’ are Irreversible Victories” September 18, 2010  By Fayyis Oromia] (Videos of Irreechaa ceremonies can be found on Youtube.)

The same author assimilates Atete to Isis in other articles:,

© 2010 Max Dashu


Source Memory (Veleda)My blog ranges over whatever subjects on global women’s history and culture i happen to be working on, or that come across my screen. The idea is to bring forward cultural traditions that usually get sequestrated from the view of all but the most specialist scholars. Recent posts have looked at prophetic women in the Pacific Islands, pagan culture of the Kalasha in upper Pakistan, medicine women and soul retrieval in Manchuria, Notre Dame de la Vie in Savoie, and the Women’s Dance as depicted in art around the world.

The Inimitable Life of Sophie Germain by Women Rock Science

(Cross-posted from Women Rock Science)


This is Sophie Germain, 18th Century physicist, mathematician and philosopher. She is the first person for 200 years to make progress on Fermat’s last theorem and her pioneering theories on elasticity helped build the Eiffel tower. Her journey into science was an unusual one, as a teenager, she had to fight her parents for the right to read books and as an adult she had to pretend to be a man to take university courses. Despite her amazing work she was not included in the list of 72 French architects and scientists whose names are inscribed in the Eiffel tower.


Sophie was born in 1776 to a wealthy Parisian family. Her parents did not approve of girls receiving an education and banned Sophie from studying. This was a huge point of conflict as Sophie was obsessed with mathematics, particularly the theories of the ancient Greeks. Her parents even went so far as take away her heat, clothing and lights so that she couldn’t sneakily study at night as she had been caught doing many times. Her parents eventually surrendered when they found her in the middle of the night, reading, freezing naked with a burnt out candle stub. From this moment on they let her continue to study and her father even went on to support her financially.


Names Inscribed in the Eiffel Tower

At 18 a new technical University opened in the city. Sophie wished to go but was barred entry as she was a woman. Just like before, Sophie wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She used the identity of a former male student Monsieur Le-Blanc to write into the university and request lecture notes for remote learning. As the course progressed, she even began submitting coursework under her new male name. She was excellent although it was this excellence that would get her busted. Le-Blanc’s work was so intelligent, so brilliant that the course supervisor demanded to meet with him. It was then he discovered that Le-Blanc was actually Sophie Germain.

The professors at the university took the identity swap revelations surprisingly well. Though she was not granted a degree she forged strong mentorships with some of the finest mathematicians in France. She pioneered work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces which made the construction of the Eiffel Tower possible. Several years later, she went on to be the first person to progress in providing the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem – a problem that had been troubling mathematicians for 200 years.


Fermat’s last theorem img Source: Simon Singh

Despite her achievements, upon her death, her death certificate listed her simply as a single woman with no profession – not a mathematician. Further when the Eiffel tower was built, her name was not included in the list of scientists despite her theories being key in its construction. Sophie didn’t receive a formal school education and her work was often haphazard and lacked formal structure. However it is this very nature that allowed her creativity to flourish and gave her a unique perspective on mathematical problems.


Women Rock Science: A site dedicated to celebrating the achievements of women and girls in science


“I woke up this morning with a bad hangover/ And my penis was missing again”: On Power and Pseudo-History by @LucyAllenFWR

(Cross-posted with permission from Reading Medieval Books)


I don’t habitually go to buzzfeed for profound and scholarly historical discussion (I keep wikipedia for that), so when someone sent me a link, I wasn’t expecting much, and I wasn’t disappointed. This link is a load of guff about how powerful prostitutes were back in History, back before the nasty feminists spoiled everything (note, their definition of ‘prostitute’ is probably loose enough to come close to some people’s definition of ‘libel’). It’s easy to take issue with the ‘woman is powerful because she got to sleep with powerful men’ theory, of course. But, despite its manifest limitations, the link got me thinking about the nature of power and how it affects how we write history.

Power is one of those things that is defined relatively, and therefore, any change in an individual’s circumstances sets off a recalibration of the whole system, however minute and imperceptible it may be. If I become relatively more powerful, someone else becomes relatively less so. And that’s how the balance can tip until whole sectors of society are wildly less powerful than others. Problem is, when we come to discuss history, it’s always tempting to take individuals out of context, to make every ambiguity point the same way until we’ve reconstructed actual power from the range of possibilities.

The best way I can think to illustrate this is with the figure of the medieval witch, a figure whose power I’ve seen described with awe and respect over and over, put forward earnestly by people who truly want to believe in a past where women had power.

Detail from the thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima. Detail from the thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima.

A few months ago, when I’d just started tweeting with an avatar showing Jeanne and Richard de Montbaston’s image of a nun picking penises, Victoria Brownworth commented how much this image reminded her of an episode in the famous Malleus Maleficarum. The Malleus (‘Hammer of the Witches’) was written in 1486, and became quite popular, with several reprintings over the next couple of centuries. The story she was thinking of is one of my favourites, so I’m going to quote a bit of it.

“And what, then, is to be thought of those witches who in this way sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report?”

You have to love the casual attribution of this story to ‘common report’. The author of theMalleus, with admirable confidence in his audience’s sangfroid in the face of this narrative, goes on to describe one poor emasculated man’s experience:

“For a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest.”

You might find it hard to believe, given the jokey tone of these passages, but the Malleuswas pretty highly misogynistic and sincere in its conviction that witches were prompted by evil, female sexual desire. For a lot of readers ever since, the witches of the Malleus have become symbolic of resistance to this persecutory misogyny, growing in stature from strangely arboreal penis-farmers to wise, dignified, strong women drawing on mysterious feminine power. I’ve sometimes got into arguments about this with women who say, well, maybe they had power. It’s possible, isn’t it?

It’s possible. But it’s not very likely.

You can see that the Malleus story has obviously similarities to the much older story fourteenth-century author Robert Mannyng relates in his book Handlyng Synne, which I retold in a previous blog post. In that story, it is a bishop and not a priest who is bested by a clever witch. She enchants a disturbingly phallic, bulging sack to steal milk for her, and when the he demands and repeats the words of the spell, he’s caught in (metaphorical … ish …) impotence, unable to emulate her power. The Malleus story has also been linked to the image at the top of this blog post, which is a detail from a thirteenth-century mural depicting women plucking penises from a penis tree.

The thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima

The thirteenth-century Mural at Massa Marittima

It’s pretty easy to be reductive about these stories, especially as a feminist. Setting aside the Freudian, we can argue these women are represented as clever and powerful, getting the better of the representatives of organised religion and controlling fertility. Add in dramatic references to ‘witchhunts’ in Puritan American or Inquisition-era Europe and these stories take on a darker flavour, as preludes to a male-dominated violence focussed on expressions of powerful female activity. It’s easy to refashion the witch protagonists of these stories as sister women, proto-feminists rejecting male authority (in a delightfully heterocentric way). Maybe they just liked the penises because they were empowered, comfortable with their sexuality? Do stop me, I think I’ve heard this one before.

These witches are beginning to sound like modern women as imagined by the most patronizing of ‘pro-sex’ ‘feminist ally’ types. It’s tempting, of course, to believe that medieval witches were powerful, before an early Modern repression of their power. But I’m not convinced this power is more than an illusion. In order to take these stories as reflections of a strong female power centred in witchcraft, we’d have to believe that the women in them represented something out of the ordinary, some challenge to the status quo, to the dignity of the male-dominated Church or to normal heterosexual power relations.

Instead, when I looked for other medieval stories like these, I found the most similar plots were not to be found in the angry rants of threatened priests or bishops, or in official propaganda on finding and killing witches. Instead, these stories were dead ringers for the contents of the medieval smutty verses known as fabliau, which feature ordinary men and women and which are obsessed with heterosex.

My current favourite amongst these is called Li Prestre Ki Perdi Les Colles (it sounds so elegant in French, right?): “The Priest Who Lost His Balls”. As you can kinda imagine from the title, it’s another very similar story. Here, the priest is having a little casual fornication, as you do, with a carpenter’s wife. When the carpenter suddenly arrives home, the priest dashes stark naked into the carpenter’s workshop and tries to hide. Seeing nowhere else, he hastily climbs onto a large wooden crucifix and arranges himself in the posture of Jesus, in the hope that the carpenter is stupid enough to imagine he’s already carved the central figure.

Yes, I imagine it pretty much like this. From the excellent Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Yes, I imagine it pretty much like this. From the excellent Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Naturally enough, the carpenter isn’t fooled. Being a smart man, he sees a clever revenge, and, pretending to be horrified at his own oversight in carving highly visible genitals on the body of Christ, he whips out his chisel, and –

Well, yes.

This story is obviously drawing on pretty similar tropes to the witch stories. And I might as well just say that there are dozens of medieval fabliaux describing priests caught in undignified penis-related contexts. The women of the fabliaux are the direct ancestors of these witches: not emblems of female power, but accessories in endless ‘look, I’m talking about a penis’ stories.

Reading these late-medieval witch stories in this context, what I really noticed was that the women described in the Malleus story, or in Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (or even pictured on the mural) were just very … ordinary. They are not universally terrifying figures, channelling unique power from the Mother Goddess.

When we buy into the idea that witches were universally recognised, in all medieval or early Modern societies, as powerful and awe-inspiring, we buy into a myth. For one thing, few societies are that homogeneous in their views, and for another, to do this is to ignore the fact that the writers, and probably the artists, who created these stories were not feminist documentary-makers, but men with agendas. Buying into MRA myths by attributing spurious power to women in the past is tempting, because we want to imagine how women might have been powerful, and why women were perspecuted. But that’s to miss the point: misogyny doesn’t need reasons. The whole power structure of the societies in which these stories were written were justification enough, without us needing to imagine the threat of specially powerful women.

You may think this doesn’t matter too much – it’s only history. It’s in the past. But the same process of ‘positive’, ‘empowering’ rewriting of circumstances is happening all over the world today. Imagine a historian looking back at misogynistic rants against 21st century feminists. That historian would see claims that women are ‘more powerful than men anyway’ or ‘really derive power from sex work’. They’d see claims that men were threatened by powerful women and that women had a real power, a power strangely invisible to the naked eye but nevertheless much-cited. Would they believe those rants? I hope not. But in the same way, we have a duty to try to be sceptical too. We cannot give someone oppressed more power by pointing out that, in the most positive parallel universe imaginable, a person in that situation might have power. We have to acknowledge the real context of that oppression.


The titular quotation is, of course, from the King Missile song Detachable Penis. One suspects that, in these transhistorical narratives of phallic loss, there might be a feminist anti-Freudian theory waiting to be written, but I leave that to your imagination.


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]


Hope Powell – Taking on the men at their own game‏

Guest Post from Morag Watson

      Screen Shot 2018-02-02 at 13.45.04 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

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]

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.


Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide, by @sianushka

Cross-posted from: Sian and Crooked Rib
Originally published: 13.12.13

Cross posted with permission from SianandCrookedRib

The other morning I re-watched the film Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen in 2011. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s hardly a classic, but it is good fun. In it, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is visiting Paris with his fiancée. He’s a ‘Hollywood hack’ who wants to write a novel, and is obsessed with 1920s Paris. He is walking through the city at midnight, and finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris, where he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, Bunuel, Cole Porter, TS Eliot – the whole crowd. He falls in love with Adriana, played to perfection by Marion Cotillard, who had affairs with Modigliani, Picasso and Braque. In the film, that is.

It’s a fun film and it makes you want to go to Paris. But on my second viewing I noticed something that escaped my attention first time round, and it’s been making me cross.

When Gil meets Hemingway, he asks him to read his novel. Hemingway refuses, saying that you should never give your work to another writer to read. He then says he will take it to Gertrude Stein.
Read more Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide, by @sianushka

Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?, by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Bools
Originally published: 23.10.13


The above image – a sheepish-looking monk handing an unfeasibly large penis to a disconcerted nun – may look familiar to anyone who’s read my first post in this blog.

It’s one of a sequence of illuminations made in the margins of a manuscript by the medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband, Richard, in Rue Neuve in fourteenth-century Paris. She did the illustrations for a fairly large number of manuscripts, including dozens of copies of the popular Romance of the Rose. This poem is an allegorical reflection on love, but it is also justifiably famous as one of the most misogynistic books around, the subject of medieval author Christine de Pizan’s brilliant attack on male writers who treat women only as sex objects.

A short passage can illustrate what Christine meant. In the poem, the allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ (who is male) argues that all men should take advantage of women as sexual objects, and he compares the (male) act of writing with the act of penetration, while picturing women as passive, blank like an unwritten page. In a vicious rant, he declares:
Read more Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?, by @LucyAllenFWR