ELIZABETH PACKARD’S FIGHT AGAINST LEGAL TYRANNY OF HUSBANDS

Cross-posted from: Suppressed Histories Archives

The Private War of Mrs. Packard by Barbara Sapinsley is a classic case of the legal subjugation of women in Euro/American society, a legacy of Pauline scripture and medieval law all the way through Blackstone and the Napoleonic code. An Illinois housewife in Kankakee, married to a  Calvinist minister, dared to disagree with the dogma of humankind’s “total depravity” (by original sin) and to refuse the absolute obedience that her husband demanded.

After browbeating her for years, in 1860 Theophilus Packard had his wife  forcibly removed from home and locked up in a mental hospital for years. Illinois law, as of 1851, allowed husbands absolute authority to do this,  without any restraint whatsoever: “Married women and infants who, in the judgment of the medical superintendent of the state asylum at Jacksonville, are evidently insane or distracted [i.e., distressed or upset] may be entered or detained in the hospital at the request of the husband of the woman or the guardian of the infant, without the evidence of insanity required in other cases.” [p. 66]

There was ample precedent for this in the chattel status and legal minority of women in most European law. The medieval term for it was couverture; the male literally covered the woman, eclipsing her personhood, her name, and her rights with his own privilege as head of household. Countless laws allowed him to beat, to “chastise” and “correct” his wife (and children), with the smug approval of church and state. He had absolute control over her body, her property, and her children.
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Get her to an asylum! On Downton Abbey and unmarried mothers. by @sianushka

Cross-posted from: Sian & Crooked Rib
Originally published: 05.10.15

One of the many things that have happened since I moved back into my childhood home is that I’ve been watching TV programmes I had never really engaged with before. Some of it is great (Great British Bake Off! Where had you been my whole life?); some of it less so (why does Nicholas Lyndhurst talk posh in New Tricks?) and some of it is Downton Abbey.

Now, I did watch the first series of Downton Abbey on Netflix, mainly because I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. And because of Lady Sybil. I got bored halfway through the second series, however, and increasingly frustrated at the total lack of engagement with class politics by the writers. Downton, I decided, was not for me.

However, I ended up half-watching an episode the other night which featured Lady Edith losing her child at the country fair and then finding her again.

What is this? I asked my mum. Where did this kid come from?

It turns out that Lady Edith had an illegitimate child and then the family gave the baby girl to a local family to look after. However, Lady Edith missed her daughter so much that the family agreed to give her back and now the Downton Abbey family are raising it.

I sat in silence for a moment. I looked at Lady Edith’s frantic expression; the paternalistic glow in Hugh Bonneville’s face as he reunites daughter and granddaughter.

‘They would have put her in an asylum,’ I responded.

 

 


Read more Get her to an asylum! On Downton Abbey and unmarried mothers. by @sianushka

WOMAN SHAMAN by Max Dashu

Cross-posted from: Suppressed Histories Archive
Originally published: 01.01.06

This is a brief summary of a visual presentation, first shown in 1986, which was given in September 2005 at the Shamanic Studies Conference in San Rafael, California.

A Chukchee proverb declares, “Woman is by nature a shaman.” (1) Yet the female dimension of this realm of spiritual experience has often been slighted. Mircea Eliade believed that women shamans represented a degeneration of an originally masculine profession, yet was hard put to explain why so many male shamans customarily dressed in women’s clothing and assumed other female-gendered behaviors. Nor does the masculine-default theory account for widespread traditions, from Buryat Mongolia to the Bwiti religion in Gabon, that the first shaman was a woman.

In fact, women have been at the forefront of this field worldwide, and in some cultures, they predominate. This was true in ancient China and Japan, as it still is in modern Korea and Okinawa, as well as among many South African peoples and northern Californians such as the Karok and Yurok. There are countless other examples, including the machi of the Mapuche in southern Chile and the babaylan and catalonan of the Philippines.
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If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 05.08.15

The Toast just published a piece titled ‘If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor‘, and it’s awesome.

In general, The Toast is awesome, and particularly their medievalism, and particularly their medieval feminism, so, really, you should go read it and you should not be surprised it’s awesome. But, for once, it’s also wrong like a wrong thing. Laura Moncion speculates:

“If Julian of Norwich were your professor, she would be good friends with Judith Butler. Sometimes you would hear their uproarious laughter coming from Julian’s office. You’d peek in and find both of them in front of the computer, watching cat videos together.”

No. No, this is Not Right.

Judith Butler, you see, writes pretentiously dense musings on gender which (I strongly suspect, if only I could ever concentrate for more than three seconds on her tortured use of the English language), boil down to ‘let’s write “epistemology” more often and make sure we don’t exclude any men from the feminism’.
Read more If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor, She’d Kick Judith Butler’s Arse by @LucyAllenFWR

Long Bay by Eleanor Limprecht

Cross-posted from: Adventures in Biography
Originally published: 31.07.15

From some scant archival details – and a haunting mug shot – Eleanor Limprecht has created a compelling and powerful work of historical fiction.

In 1909, Sydney woman Rebecca Sinclair was convicted of manslaughter.  A mother of three had sought an abortion from Sinclair, and died as a result.  Sinclair, in her twenties, was sentenced to three years hard labour at the Long Bay Women’s Reformatory.  Six months later she gave birth to a daughter.

The story begins with that birth.

Rebecca hears nurses’ heels, rustling skirts, the cut glass voice of the doctor.  In this long room washed with daylight there are nine other women with her, each of them preparing to give birth.  This is the Lady Renwick Ward, though there are few ladies here.  The patients are all poor, for the hospital is run by the Benevolent Society.  There are women on the ward who are married and many who are not.  Some who are having their first and some who insist this will be their last.  Still, she is the one they all speak of when they think she cannot hear.  She is the only one chained to the bed.


Read more Long Bay by Eleanor Limprecht

Relationships by @carregonnen

Cross-posted from: Carregonnen
Originally published: 20.05.15

Relationships are important – friendships, family, lovers, acquaintances. They are complex things these relationships. Good and fulfilling if they work heartbreaking and damaging when they don’t. We can learn from them, grow within them, say hello to new ones and goodbye to old ones and try and repair the damage from ones that leave us for whatever reason. We are attached to our relationships sometimes with strong ropes sometimes with fragile threads that need care and attention often. When they work they can be joyful and life-giving. When they end the pain and sadness can be almost unbearable. But we somehow go on, making new ones nourishing the ones we have and living without the ones that have ended.
Read more Relationships by @carregonnen

The Cailleach in Irish Megalithic Traditions

Cross-posted from: Veleda
Originally published: 08.01.15

Irish oral tradition associates the Cailleach with many ancient hilltop monuments that date to the neolithic era. Some passage graves are called by her name, often named as her “house.” Others she is said to have built, or created by tossing boulders from hilltop to hilltop, or by carrying stones in her skirt or apron, which she drops, or the apron-strings break, scattering the stones across the landscape.


Read more The Cailleach in Irish Megalithic Traditions

He Do the Police in Different Voices’: On Speech and Language Policing by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 26.07.15

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to speak, as T. S. Eliot puts it, ‘in different voices’. We use language as an index of belonging. At the moment, there’s an idiolect, which I’d like to imagine would immediately tell me whether or not I’m in the presence of the sisterhood. ‘Silencing’ is the new favourite Participle Of Oppression for all parties. Fourth wavers talk about language as a form of literal violence. Radfems say unsisterly things about fourth wavers and bite our tongues. We all thank the goddess for Rebecca Solnit coining the term ‘mansplaining’, and Deborah Cameron writes brilliant critiques of all the idiotic pseudo-scientific arguments that all misogyny would disappear if only women would learn to Talk Proper and adopt the diction equivalent of a fine natural baritone.


Read more He Do the Police in Different Voices’: On Speech and Language Policing by @LucyAllenFWR

Just no one in this car by @NurseBlurg

Cross-posted from: I'm sorry I'm like this
Originally published: 25.05.15

Family is tricky.

Thinking about my family tends to reminds me of a line from As Good As it Gets.

“Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad. Just no one in this car.”

My sister walked down our driveway and out of my life for the first time when I was 6. Ten years my senior she was my idol and I was bereft at her departure. She had her reasons, none of them to do with me and as I say, family is tricky.

She had her first daughter four years later and returned to our lives having made a fragile short lived peace with my mother, disappearing again within a year or so.

I was at boarding school by then, making the new departure less noticeable and by the time she was pregnant with her second daughter she had returned, working in the family business, her presence sheer delight to me when I was home from school.

My sister was opinionated, argumentative and hilarious. Even now I expect if we were to speak she would have me doubled over in minutes. She smoked a lot and she drank a lot of Diet Coke and loved all the stuff my mother hated. Country music, Melrose place, Eddie Murphy. N.B. It was the nineties.
Read more Just no one in this car by @NurseBlurg

New Mountains, New Maps by @_ssml

Cross-posted from: Fish Without A Bicycle
Originally published: 20.03.15

…when women speak truly they speak subversively–they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–to hear you erupting. You young Mount St. Helenses who don’t know the power in you–I want to hear you.Ursula K. Le Guin

I have not been able to write. There is a weight on my chest that has been there for months. It heats up and swirls around and settles heavy when I endeavor to speak to the confusion, outrage and injustice as I take in another narrative of child sex trafficking, the dismantling of reproductive rights and a woman who was recently convicted of Feticide after having a miscarriage. My pulse quickens as I read the latest update of a rape case in which a boy chummily gave a thumbs up in a photo while he penetrated a 15-year-old girl from behind as she vomited out of a window. That split second in her life was memorialized, fed to and devoured by the millions of people in a culture that is fueled by images of female degradation. Rehteah Parsons hung herself in her home on April 4, 2013; her mother pushed open her bathroom door and held the body of her lifeless teenage daughter. In January, the boys involved with her rape and the photo of it were handed a 4-week course on sexual harassment because after all, consent is “complicated.” Mount Holyoke (a Women’s College) cancelled their production of the Vagina Monologues because some members of the student body have adopted the ideology that to stage a production that acknowledges and focuses on the experiences of women who have vaginas is “inherently narrow, reductionist and is exclusionary” to women who do not have vaginas. I can’t help but wonder what could happen if the same internet outrage that that was turned toward Eve Enlser for her work that “reduces gender to biological distinctions” was turned toward the hordes of men who perpetrate psychic gang rapes on Twitter by talking about how they are going to dismember, defile and denigrate the vaginas of women who speak out of turn. Feminist writers are putting down their pens and stepping out of public conversation because the hate speech, death threats, and the vitriol are all so much. Yes, we live in an era of “call out culture” but I have never seen a woman say she was going to sexually violate someone’s face and then murder them because she disagreed with something they said, nor have I seen men doing this to other men.
Read more New Mountains, New Maps by @_ssml

The Pontifical Council for Culture has an agenda on women: the same tired old cage

Cross-posted from: Veleda: Source Net
Originally published: 14.02.15

The Pontifical Council for Culture meets in Rome on 4-7 February 2015 to consider “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” They’ve issued a preliminary document that tips their hand, in case you entertained any doubts that their ideas about women have changed a whit. It’s titled “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” and it endeavors — yet again — to convince women of what the male hierarchy insists is their rightful place:

“At the dawn of human history, societies divided roles and functions between men and women rigorously. To the men belonged responsibility, authority, and presence in the public sphere: the law, politics, war, power. To women belonged reproduction, education, and care of the family in the domestic sphere.”

Hold it right there. What happened to female responsibility and authority — women chieftainsand medicine women and clan heads? For a long time, it was possible to get away with claiming that public female leaders never existed, but too much documentation has been piled up for this to fly anymore.

Manchu woman shaman, a major public authority in her culture

“In ancient Europe, in the communities of Africa, in the most ancient civilizations of Asia, women exercised their talents in the family environment and personal relationships, while avoiding the public sphere or being positively excluded. The queens and empresses recalled in history books were notable exceptions to the norm.”

Invocatory female figure from Netafim, circa 5000 bce

These prelates are advancing a claim of universal male domination — a doctrine to which the church hierarchy is deeply attached. They don’t feel any need to substantiate this claim with evidence. Their fiat has been enough for such a long time, they can’t recognize that the world has moved on. Taking state-based societies as the norm, they pass over long epochs of human history, including neolithic societies with their many depictions of female leadership, and a vast array of Indigenous societies that don’t fit into the cramped sexual politics being touted here.

Women's ceremonal leadership is a central theme of predynastic Egyptian art

Women in ancient societies did not “avoid the public sphere”: not the African warriors, nor the Cretan and Iberian priestesses, nor even the Sumerian and Babylonian and Phoenician priestesses. Here we are talking recorded history, that leaves no room for ambiguity. Even in much later periods, we know of Turkic epic singers, the judges and scribes of Cambodia, the powerful market women’s associations of West Africa. But why discuss only these continents, leaving out the Americas, Australia, and the Pacific islands? They also count as ancient societies, and they have their own histories of prominent women, of female law-makers and diplomats and chieftains, of ceremonial leaders and warriors.

The Lady of Cao, a priestess-chieftain in 4th century Perú

The Iroquois and Cherokee remember that “mocassin-makers” had the right to act as “war-breakers,” refusing to supply men who wanted to go to war without consent of the women’s council. In Yunnan, the Lisu people say that men had to stop fighting if a woman of either side waved her skirt to call for an armistice. Similarly, on the Pacific island Vanatinai, a woman could give the signal for war or peace by taking off her outer skirt. This is female authority. It is not a fantasy. It is historical reality.

The Huastecs sculptured a large number of female monuments in stone, in eastern Mexico

The Pontifical Council’s statement passes over the great majority of Indigenous societies, including those in which female responsibility, authority, and public presence were and remain integral. Among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, the Gantowisas have structural authority to select chiefs and to “knock off their horns” if they fail in their responsibilities. These chiefs act as delegates of the people, not lords over them, a fact that continued to astound European observers who made very different assumptions about leadership, as well as about female power.

But there’s more: the women’s council of Gantowisas (“matrons” in European accounts) discussed issues and, as Seneca historian Barbara Mann writes, the men’s council could not debate any issue until the women’s council forwarded it over to them. They had a structural balance between male and female sovereignty. Mann also calls the women elders the “federal reserve board” of the Six Nations, referring to their control of economic resources.

Hopi women carry out the Lakon ceremony; men have no authority over women in their matrilineal / matrilocal culture.

And where, in the priesthood’s blinkered view, where are the female founders, like Ti-n-Hinan, the ancestral mother of the Imushagh / Tuareg people of the Hoggar, whose 4th century tomb is the most prominent  monument of the region? What about the female chieftains of the Edomites whose names are listed in Genesis, or for that matter, Miriam the prophetess, Deborah and Huldah? Where are the Montanist prophetesses who were denounced as heretics in 3rd century Asia Minor? The women who led rebellions against conquest and colonization, labor movements, whose actions struck the sparks for the French and Russian revolutions?

Ti-n-Hinan, ancestral founder of the Imushagh/Tuareg people of the Hoggar

The denial of female spiritual leadership is especially fraught for a institution fighting with all its might to hold back the tide of female ordination. To admit the massive  evidence for female priesthood — the wu in ancient China, the mikogami in Japan, the mudang in Korea, to name some of the East Asian societies where female shamans once predominated (and still do in Korea) — would be to pull out the last struts supporting the crumbling edifice of an all-male power structure. This hierarchy has been severely shaken by scandals over pandemic child-rapes, and over the cover-ups by bishops, as well as over financial corruption in the Curia. Many people readily declare that women would do a far better job at running the church.

Wu (female shamans) acted as healers, prophets and rainmakers in ancient China. Bronze hu circa 4th century bce

Having pretended that male leadership was a historical universal, an innate and essential quality, the Pontifical Councillors move on to the subect of women’s movements that have challenged and overturned old customary constraints:

“From the latter part of the 19th century onwards, especially in the West, the division of male and female ‘spaces’ was put into question. Women demanded rights, such as that of voting, access to higher education, and to the professions. And so the road was opened for the parity of the sexes.”

That sounds really good, right? That women gained our rights, and things opened up. Oh… wait. Uh-oh: “This step was not, and is not, without problems.”

What were these problems? They tell us: that women were taking on roles “that appeared to be exclusively meant for the male world” [meant, by whom?] and their reflections on their situation were “sometimes becoming entwined with political and strongly ideological movements.” These realizations, we are meant to understand, are far more problematic than the “strongly ideological” doctrines of female subordination that the institutional church has enforced through “political” means, from crusades to inquisitorial trials and witch hunts, to the modern laws and policies the church espouses, that still make women second class citizens whoselives and very bodies are expendable.

The Pontifical Council doesn’t deem patriarchal structures to be problematic; it continues to maintain that they are in line with god-given essential qualities. It is the female pushback against them that it dislikes and deplores. Women! stay in your place.

“Which kerygmatic proclamation [“preaching,” in plain English] should there be for women, one that is not closed in on a moralistic vision? Which indications do we need for a new pastoral praxis, for a vocational path toward marriage and family, toward religious consecration, in view of the new self-awareness that women have?”

What is “new” about pushing women “toward marriage and family”? This much is clear: by “religious consecration” they do not mean female ordination to the priesthood. More likely, they are dreaming up some new religious trappings for the role of wife and mother as a sop to women’s longing for greater inclusion in the church.

The worst thing that could happen, in the minds of the writers, is that women reject the feminine role as they define it“It is a matter of protecting the dignity of women, respecting what is genuinely feminine (and this is the real equality), and avoiding that the woman, in trying to insert herself responsibly into society that is markedly masculine, lose her feminility [sic].”

This is nothing less than a restatement of the old patriarchal principle: women belong in the private sphere, under the authority of men. Not only that, but “society” means “men.” If women are included in how you think about “society,” there is no need for us to “insert” ourselves into it. We are already part of it. But the statement shows no awareness of that simple fact. These high-ranking prelates don’t believe that women belong in the public sphere at all — and least of all the priesthood.

In fact, they don’t really want women’s input in this initiative on “Women’s Culture.” As Soline Humbert informs me, “The Pontifical Council for Culture has 32 permanent members, all male,appointed for 5 years. Almost all are cardinals, bishops and priests, and a couple of lay men (“men of culture”…No “women of culture”…) There are also Consultors who are appointed by the pope… There are 27 male consultors, and 7 women, ( if I remember correctly), appointed last Summer by Pope Francis.”

In other words: that’s zero females among the 32 permanent members of the Pontifical Council, while in the outer circle of Consultors the ratio of men to women is 4:1, for a total of 59 men and 7 women. This is who is going to issue a definitive statement on “Women’s Culture” — and they expect that to pass for change, in their  initiative to engage Catholic women.

This is a familiar pattern of high priestcraft: barring women entirely from the core of power, and admitting a few carefully screened females to an outer circle, where they are greatly outnumbered (and outranked) by men. Soline adds that “there has been a mention of a group of women working on the outline discussion document now released, but I have not seen the names of the members of that group (anonymous women?) nor how they were selected. In addition, while they mentioned there would be an ‘Open Day’ it seems it’s again by invitation only for a select few….”

Venus in bondage: the hierarchy's vision of Women's Culture

The image selected for this initiative is highly symbolic: a naked, headless, armless, legless woman in bondage. It is Man Ray’s 1936 photo “Venus Restored.” This is their idea of Women’s Culture?!? It has already outraged countless women. Soline Humbert sums up the background of this piece on the We Are Church Ireland blog:

“Man Ray had a strong interest in Sade and sadism and there is a recurrent sadistic streak in his artwork, as well as in his relationships with women, characterised by domination and aggression. Man Ray photographed women wearing implements of bondage and enacting scenes of torture. He also helped others, like William B Seabrook realise in real life his fantasies of women bondage.

“What is behind this choice of female bondage image by the (all male)Pontifical Council for culture? Is it the choice of the group of women (Who are they?) behind this document? What message does it seek to convey?”

We may well ask.

The same goes for Pope Francis’ recent scoldings of Pilipina women for their high birth rates, after decades of churchmen steadily advocating the rhythm method! As if abstinence is a real option for most married women in this world. He does not have the least clue about the reality that these women live.  When it comes to women, nothing has changed.

Neither has the cold attitude toward Indigenous people, whose enslavement, starvation, floggings, and other abuse in the mission system is being affronted by the planned canonization of Junípero Serra. (See 8:50 >> on linked video, where descendants talk about kidnappings, about their ancestors being starved on 700 calories a day, while being forced to labor, and made to kneel on tiles during the entire Mass, kept in line by guards with whips and bayonets.) In these two important social justice issues, women and Indigenous people, the tone-deaf pontiff does not even pretend to want change.

image005

The backlash against women has even reached liberal San Francisco. It took 16 centuries to get the ban on females at the altar overturned, for a couple of decades, in some places, and now some priests are trying to turn it back. “The Rev. Joseph Illo, pastor at Star of the Sea Church since August, said he believes there is an “intrinsic connection” between the priesthood and serving at the altar — and because women can’t be priests, it makes sense to have only altar boys. “Maybe the most important thing is that it prepares boys to consider the priesthood.”

“The Richmond District parish is now the only one in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that will exclude girls from serving at the altar. Such a decision is “a pastor’s call,” said archdiocese spokesman Chris Lyford. “An altar boy program would be a male bonding experience, one that helps them socialize and develop their leadership potential, Illo said. Girls would still be allowed to perform readings during Mass.” Isn’t that special;  girls will be allowed to read out loud.

Mexicana curandera smudging the pope: gifts and blessings from sources as yet unrecognized

This is not going to fly, because too many Catholics have awakened to the realization that they are the church. The women, especially, know that things must change, because they are the ones who are out there doing the real work, holding things together and picking up the pieces, as the number of ordained men drops and the hierarchy scrambles to find men to be in charge. All this has to change. The option for the poor doesn’t mean much without a recognition that women are the poorest of the poor, the ones who carry a tremendous load, on whose shouders the whole edifice rests. You can’t have a progressive agenda without recognizing that their responsibilities give them a spiritual authority of their own. It’s well past time for the prelates to recognize women’s knowing, women’s authority, women’s rights.

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.

Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech by @LucyAllenFWR

Cross-posted from: Reading Medieval Books
Originally published: 31.05.15

A few weeks ago, I read a beautiful piece by Sarah Ditum. She explores the ways in which women’s work – partly because it is inherently open-ended, needed to be done over and over – is dismissed, ignored, excluded from historical memorial. Drawing on a parallel history of women’s art, lacemaking and broderie anglaise, which create objects literally ‘spun around nothing’, she sets up a shockingly poignant contrast between the image of frivolous vanity and the reality of relentless, thankless labour. Ditum’s post was written in response to the news that the 2005 memorial to the women of World War II had been defaced, and so she explains how she found herself having to explain to her son why women weren’t originally included on the main memorial itself: 
Read more Philomel must lose her tongue to-day: Memory, Memorial, and the Emptiness of Women’s Speech by @LucyAllenFWR

Women Surfers in Old Hawai’i by Veleda

Cross-posted from: Veleda: SourceNet


Read more Women Surfers in Old Hawai’i by Veleda

The Acaaju of Abkhazia at Suppressed Histories Archive

In the western Caucasus, the Abkhazians call women who act as oracles, medicine women and ritual leaders acaaju, “questioner.” Their origin story says that they were preceded by male seers who became mediators between humans and gods. The first of these was the brave warrior Achi Zoschan. He chose a young relative Azartl to succeed him, but that candidate made a deal to give up the post if his sick female relative was cured. She then became the new mediator, and quickly proved her mettle during a severe cattle plague.

My reconstruction of what an acaaju might have looked like, in cross-gendered regalia.

 

“The herds were saved, and since this time, the prophetesses, acaaju, have been active. They were given to living in mutual enmity, since some of them were subject to Afy, others on the contrary to Zoschan.” [One a thunder god, the other a deified hero.]

The acaaju determined which deity had caused an illness and what remedies should be used. “Sometimes she obtained ecstatic inspiration and cried out the name and the demands of the angered divinity. At other times she went lightly across the room or even sat on a high seat and acted as though she was carrying on a conversation with the divinity, to whom she directed questions and from whom she received answers. After a while, she made known the result.” The forge god might be angry over a false oath made in the smithy, a cult place. Blacksmiths worked closely with the acaaju.

In cases of false oath, she divined: “she spread out beans in front of her, and on the basis of the arrangment of these found out the name of the transgressor.” She also used astrology. Once she’d made her determination, the acaaju told people what kind of animals were to be offered. “She often carried out the sacrifice herself. Beyond that, she also performed various actions of a magical sort. Thus, for example, she led some domestic animal three times around the sick person, after which it was driven away toward the forest, supposedly carrying the sickness away with it.” People paid her in skins and meat of sacrificed animals, or in sizeable amounts of money.

The acaaju did not always lead the ceremony, but “selected other women for them, who acted on the instruction of this—as one may say with reason—authoritative medicine woman and carried out her secret lore.”

A major Abhazian deity was Dzidlan, the Water Mother or Mistress of Waters. She was especially important for women in childbirth, who offered her prayers and sacrifices after a successful birth. Some illnesses such as long fevers were ‘caused by the water’ and could be cured with the help of this goddess. Her ceremonies  were carried out at a sanctuary “usually at a pure sweet water lake or a stream.” It was common for a “blameless old woman” and a prayer woman to lead the afflicted to the waterside. The first secretly took something belonging to the sick person and went to the water. “There on the bank she drew herself up and spoke: ‘Water Mother, Mistress, if the invalid is bound by you, release him.’ Thereupon she touched the water three times with the article taken along and, using alder leaves, took a few drops of the water which she had carried home and put over the hearth. Then she ran out of the house with the words, ‘Just so, may your sickness also run away!’”

If this gave relief, then the prayer woman was invited to continue the ceremonies, with a hen, cock, filled loaf of unleavened bread and three candles. One candle went to Water Mother, one to her husband, and one to her Maidservant or Benefactress, who acts as an intercessor. The patient went to the water with the prayer woman and knelt while she successively lit the candles  and placed them on the shore, praying to the three divinities. “At the conclusion, the prayer woman rubbed her hand over the back of the patient and with this gesture she liberated him from the illness.”

Another ceremony aimed to cure a serious illness caused by the Rainbow. It too was carried out with offerings at the stream, but this time the women “threw a twisted yarn bridge from one bank to the other.” They covered the person with a piece of cotton; then “the prayer woman walked around him with a previously prepared doll in her hands and turned, with prayers, to the Water Mother and the Water Father. Little pieces of each sort of food were consecrated and thrown into the water. The doll was set into a gourd decorated with a lit candle which the prayer woman put into the river saying, ‘Instead of the patient, be satisfied with this.’ Finally, the old woman passed her hand over the back of the sick person, lifted him up, and told him to go home, however with a sharp warning not to look back.”

Johanssens notes that “the acaaju was called by a masculine name during the prophecy, and that one generally spoke to her as though she were a man.” Explained as her representing the legendary Zoschan. He adds that this was “a ritual change of sex” typical of shamanism; “her change of sex was fictive and temporary, that is to say, limited to the execution of the prophecy…”

“The social position of the acaaju was very strong, and her opinion was counted on in all public affaris, for example, even in the hearing of witnesses in criminal procedures. There were some among them who had succeeded to fame among all the Abkhazians and to whom people from distant regions came in order to get advice.” People wanted to be related to the acaaju, and sometimes sought be be adopted into her family.

The acaaju “exhibits elements, such as ecstasy, communication with supernatural beings, an exceedingly powerful social position, and last but not least, the change of sex…” which he sees as linked to shamanism.

He notes the influence of ”ancient Anatolia with its ecstatic religious practices,” as well later conquests by the Mongols who dominated the Caucasus during the 13th and 14th centuries. Doubtless there were other influences in between.

© 2012 Max Dashu

SOURCE:: Andrejs Johansons, “The Shamaness of the Abkhazians,” History of Religions. Vol. 11. No. 3 (Feb. 1972) pp 251-56
Image © copyleft Max Dashu (may be used with attribution only without alteration)

 

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.

Norah Lofts and why you should read her by @KatharineEdgar

(Cross-posted from Katharine Edgar)

I had a massive Norah Lofts binge over Christmas. Lofts is a deeply unfashionable writer who people in the know keep saying should be rediscovered. Alison Weir has been plugging away at it, and, brilliantly, was instrumental in getting some Lofts books back into print, while the availability of ebooks and the possibility of finding out-of-print books on ABE or Amazon means that there’s never been a better time to discover her.

Lofts was born in Norfolk, in 1904. She came from a farming family, something which had a lasting influence on her writing, as you will see, but worked as a history teacher before she turned to writing full time. Over a long and busy career she wrote more than 60 books, mostly historical, but with a good handful of excellent psychological thrillers too (the Hammer horror film The Witches was based on one). The Oxford Book of Historical Stories calls her ‘one of the undisputed queens of historical romance.’

I first came across Norah Lofts at thirteen, when I was making my first forays into historical re-enactment and was advised by the organiser to read Lofts for her incomparable grasp of historical detail, and because many of her books are set in Suffolk, where the Tudor house we were re-creating, was. Her ability to handle historical detail, work it effortlessly into a story and endow it with great emotional charge, is certainly second to none. I came to Lofts for the research. But I stayed for the storytelling. How’s this for an opening?

‘At the age of seven I was a skillful pickpocket. I could also sew neatly, write a tolerable hand, make a curtsey and a correct introduction, dance a little and play simple tunes on the harpsichord.’

It’s the start of ‘Felicity Hatton’s Tale,’ the first story in the third book of her fabulous Old Vine trilogy. Lofts had a particular liking for taking a house and tracing its residents through history. Other people have done this with towns (notably Edward Rutherfurd, in SarumLondon and others) but no-one has done it as convincingly as Lofts.

The house at Old Vine is built by Martin Reed, a runaway serf at the turn of the fifteenth century, who takes his own destiny into his hands after his lord refuses him permission to marry the girl he loves. The rest of the first book, The Town House, takes place over Martin’s lifetime. But the fabulous thing Lofts does is to shift viewpoint with each chapter, to the old woman who comes to look after him, then his daughter-in-law, Anne, daughter of an impoverished knightly family who marries beneath her, then his grand-daughter Maud, then his secretary. They’re all such different people, in motivation, life-experience and style of thinking, and the fresh perspectives allow us to see the characters we have come to know intimately, as other people see them. Thus we see them change and grow old – young, hopeful, Martin keeping stoically on, Anne who we first knew as a teenager becoming bitter, alcoholic and cruel.

The second book in the trilogy takes us through the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the third book from Georgian times to the modern day, when the house is no longer lived in by Martin’s descendants. Throughout the series there are incredible stories, and, I should add, incredible TEENAGE stories. Ethelreda Benedict, forced out of the island home she shared with her father when it was flooded by the draining of the Fens. Felicity Hatton, who has to survive in Georgian London after her father’s gambling addiction has beggared her family. And (perhaps my favourite), the dreadful Anne, who calculates that marrying the woolmaster’s son and living in a town house with glass windows might be a come-down for her family but it will lead to a far more comfortable life for herself than staying in her parents’ isolated hall forever unable to afford the dowry for a respectable match.

Like Alison Weir, I rate the House trilogy the most highly, but the prolific Lofts produced many more books worth reading. Broadly speaking, her historical fiction falls into two categories – historical biography, and Suffolk books. The historical biography is not confined to England – there is a splendid book, Crown of Aloes, about Isabella of Spain – and includes one of the most sensitive fictions written about Anne Boleyn, The Concubine.

The Suffolk books, which include the House trilogy, all take place in or around a fictional town called Baildon, which is similar to (though not identical with) Bury St Edmunds. One of the joys of being a hardcore Norah Lofts fan is the way places and families recur across the books, so the fictional world becomes deeper and richer than anything that could be achieved in one book alone. We know which family has a streak of gambling addiction, which breeds the best horses, which local in is best and who built the Assembly rooms. One particular strength of Lofts as a writer, in a genre which can often focus on the rarefied and privileged lives of the wealthy, is that she is as interested in the lives of the ordinary people as those of kings or queens. Even her Anne Boleyn book is told from the viewpoint of a serving maid. Lofts’ farming background comes into this in a big way, writing as she is about a rural country through centuries when most people were closely tied to the land. Martin Reed first meets Anne Blanchfleur when he is visiting his sheep, and her mother lets him heat his tar pot on their fire. Lofts understand the economics of farming: what it means to have a farm of a certain size, or to carry out the work yourself (as another knight’s child, Henry Tallboys, does in the Knight’s Acre trilogy).

There is another sense, too, in which Norah Lofts’ books are realistic, and it is one of the things I like most about her work. Despite her designation as ‘historical romance’, which would conjure up images of happy endings, for Lofts the world is a brutal, unfair place. Good deeds go unrewarded, and, often to a very disturbing extent, bad ones unpunished. Murders are regularly concealed, and criminals live on benefiting from their crimes. This lack of idealising makes her world feel very real. When I used to borrow Norah Lofts books from my local library, their spines would be stickered, seemingly at random, with either a black castle to designate ‘historical fiction’ or a pink heart with a crown on top for historical romance. I wonder how many readers picked them up expecting to be transported to a delicious tale of swooning damsels, only to find they had been sucked into a gritty story of murder and medieval farming practices. Sometimes there is supernatural, and there is often evil – the Gad’s Hall books involve Victorian girls and devil worship – but the down-to-earth nature of her style adds to the plausibility and creepiness, as, for example, in the one I have just finished, The Devil’s Own (also called The Witches, Catch As Catch Can and The Little Wax Doll), published under the name of Peter Curtis, in which the prim heroine is horrified by the sight of the unattractive bodies of her middle-aged neighbours as they dance naked at the Halloween meeting of their coven.

So, where to start with Norah Lofts? To begin with, she did write two books specifically for teenagers, both based on characters from the Old Vine trilogy, Rupert Hatton’s Tale and Maude Reed’s Tale. I would recommend these to younger readers, but really these date to a time before Young Adult fiction had reached the no holds barred place it is in today. Older teens will be perfectly comfortable reading her adult books (and their parents/teachers should be happy with most of them too – if delicate you might want to give the Peter Curtis ones a miss, and The Claw should probably have an advisory sticker but mostly there’s nothing more shocking than you will find in Jacqueline Wilson). The Old Vine books are a good place to start, as is Bless This House, which uses the same ‘house through history’ technique but in a single volume. The first Knight’s Acre book is eventful, and interest in the characters will probably carry you through the second two, even if they are a bit heavy on the farming. Of the biographical books, I have already mentioned The Concubine, and The King’s Pleasure is a sympathetic portrait of Katherine of Aragon, and Crown of Aloes a fascinating book about Isabella of Spain. For those who like their history earlier, The Lute Player is about Richard the Lionheart, or, earlier still, Esther fictionalises an Old Testament book. Lofts is equally comfortable in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and The Lost Queen is a moving book about George III’s younger sister. Goodreads has plentiful reviews, and there is a thriving group there for the hardest of hardcore fans – a group which, I suspect, is destined to grow and grow as a new generation of readers discover the Queen Of Historical Romance. Or rather, Of Gritty, Dark, Agricultural Histfic With Lots And Lots Of Murders….

 

Katharine Edgar: is a Yorkshire-based feminist who writes young adult fiction, including the forthcoming Five Wounds. She blogs about her historical fiction writing: Tudor history, women’s history, crafts and writing.

If you think feminism is winning, read this. (content note) by @LucyAllenFWR

(Cross-posted from Reading Medieval Books)

I’ve just been absolutely blown away by the question one of my brilliant students asked. So much so, in fact, that it’s only just sunk in.

Now, I’m enjoying lecturing and it’s the beginning of term, so it’s maybe not surprising that the five minutes of questions at the end of the lecture has been my favourite bit. Yesterday, I was lecturing on one of the theories about how to define Middle English romance as a genre. There’s an idea that it grew out of national epic, as a way to offer the class of men who needed to marry and to fight (that is, knights) a paradigm of virtuous life that wasn’t the peaceable, celibate life of the medieval saint. So far, you may think, so dry. But this lecture meant I talked a lot about racism and a fair bit about sexual violence, because both of those things are used by medieval authors to imply that men – and English men at that – are not thugs but heroes, while painting women and non-whites as inferior.

One popular episode in the Arthurian tradition is a really glaring example. Arthur – our wonderful English hero – travels to France, where he is told that a murderous giant has abducted an aristocratic woman, Arthur’s own subject. Arthur goes charging to the rescue, but he is too late. An old woman tells him she has just buried the mutilated body of the woman he seeks to protect: she was raped so violently she died.

This horrific episode is, in narrative terms, designed to serve an important and specific purpose. Arthur, the hero, is no saintly warrior. In his youth, he committed incest with his sister and produced a son, Mordred, whom he then tried to kill by sentencing all the babies born within that time to death by drowning. Arthur’s sin of sexual deviance followed by murder of an innocent can only be blotted out by the dramatic description of a worse sin of the same kind, which throws our sympathy behind the ‘least worst’ option.

In my lecture, I discussed this example, the rhetorically sophisticated language of the author, the parallels to post-medieval tropes of English masculinity, and a host of other things. In my mind, this episode was typical of Middle English romance, because of the way it uses the graphic violence of rape to further the reputation of a defender of women, rather than to change or explore the situation of the raped woman.

My student asked whether we ever read romances in which men rape their wives.

I began to explain that, in medieval England, the law did not recognise marital rape as a crime, and as I explained that, it dawned on me that the majority of my students – people who are young adults in 2014 – have never lived in a time in which, in England, marital rape was not a crime. They saw it as a medieval barbarity.

My title responds to Laura Bates’ article in the Guardian, which claims that the backlash against feminism proves that we are winning. I like her argument. I think she’s right. The sea change that means that my students can image marital rape might have been a medieval crime shows she is right. When I was born, marital rape was legal in England. It should be shameful that this brings me closer to a medieval legal system than to modern one. But, at the same time, I’m shocked by the slowness of real change – it took six hundred years to move on with the definition of rape! And that makes me second-guess the ‘progress’ we’re trying to celebrate.

 

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]

A Dark Reputation by @abigailrieley

 

Cross-posted from Abigail Rieley

Angel

It’s that time of year again. The anniversary of a murder that happened long before I was born but that somehow managed to change the course of my life. William Kirwan haunts me, as do the women whose lives he destroyed – three off whom are looking at me as I write. I’ve written about the Ireland’s Eye murder many times – it’s the case behind the book that I’m working on, that I’m still working on. It’s rather taken over my life.

This year I want to share some of the secondary stories that surround the case. In 1852 the Kirwan case was a cause celebre. Even though the case itself was a fairly simple, tragic case of spousal murder – very like many I’ve covered in the past – the rumours and embellishments that have twisted around it over the years are impressive. William Bourke Kirwan was accused of multiple murders and all kinds of wrong doing. I’ve dug, and dug and dug, believe me. While I’ve absolutely no doubt that Kirwan was a nasty piece of work I really don’t think he was a serial killer. A wife beater and philanderer, of course, but was he guilty of the other crimes he was accused of? Almost certainly not.

I’ve written about the case before, quite a few times actually, but I’ll recap the basics. On September 6th William Bourke Kirwan and his wife Maria went out to Ireland’s Eye, a small island off the coast of Howth in north county Dublin. He was an artist and was planning on sketching some new scenes. She was a keen swimmer and was looking forward to the challenging swimming around the island. At some point that evening, before the boat came to take them back to Howth harbour, William Kirwan killed his wife. Some have said that it was a miscarriage of justice and she simply drowned, but I’ve seen evidence that shows he was a very abusive husband, an all too familiar scenario with a too inevitable outcome. This evidence wasn’t produced at Kirwan’s subsequent trial though, so to many it seemed a motiveless act of unfathomable evil. The fact that he was widely known to have had a second family, with a mistress and no fewer than seven children, cemented his reputation. The rumour mill ground into action until Kirwan was blamed for any inconvenient death.

Among the papers of Thomas Larcom, former under secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland is a note that suggests even the great and good were not immune. Larcom had been in charge of the Ordinance Survey of Ireland and when one of his surveyors was killed in suspicious circumstances a few years before Kirwan was convicted he took a personal interest in the case. A newspaper report of the inquest notes that the dead man’s brother, who had run up considerable gambling debts, had argued with his brother when he refused to lend him money. When questioned at the inquest the brother broke down and the reporter noted how his sobs could be heard throughout the room for the rest of the inquest. Despite the fact that it would seem pretty clear that this had all the hallmarks of a very private tragedy, Larcom’s note is definite that the death was at the hand of “the murderer Kirwan”, in an early, undiscovered atrocity. Larcom might actually have known Kirwan who had a lucrative sideline in colouring the Ordnance maps. Business was so good in that area that he had hired several young apprentices to meet the commissions.

Kirwan certainly seems to have made rather a habit of antagonising people. He might well have got away with killing his wife if it hadn’t been for those with hefty axes to grind. In the month after Maria’s death that rumour mill was being cranked by a very determined woman. Maria Byrne had lived a few doors away from the Kirwans when they lived on Lower Merrion Street before moving to the grander houses on the Upper street. She was a seamstress and had known Kirwan since before his marriage. She obviously felt she knew him well enough to get his measure. She didn’t rest until the Dublin Metropolitan Police had agreed to examine the case. Now Maria Byrne obviously was obviously carrying a grudge. She told police that Kirwan had stolen work from her husband, who shared Kirwan’s other business  of anatomical draughtsman. In this heyday of anatomical demonstration the draughtsmen were much in demand to drew sketches of autopsies and medical specimens. Kirwan had done very well in this line as well. Some of his work is still in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons here in Dublin and several sketches of syphilitic pustules are among the curious collection of sketches in the National Library of Ireland. Mrs Byrne was under no doubt that Kirwan’s success had driven her husband to an early grave. She also told police that he had tried to poison his wife on two separate occasions and as well as her husband, he had also killed his brother-in-law. Maria’s younger brother James had gone to America, and according to Mrs Byrne, was never heard of again.

But the darkest accusation had the most tragic outcome. There was one person who had more of a grudge against Kirwan than anyone else, whose resentment and anger went back long before his marriage and who would not be able to live with her accusations failing to strike their target.

Anne Downes Bowyer was the wife of Kirwan’s painting teacher. She came forward in January 1853 once it became clear that Kirwan was not going to hang. She wanted to make sure he got away with nothing. Her story went back to 1837, three years before Kirwan married Maria. She had carried a burning grudge since then and ultimately it would kill her. Hers is one of the most haunting interconnected stories in this case. She was a very lonely, very tragic character.

Anne Gaffney married the artist Richard Downes Bowyer on Halloween 1819. She was considerably younger than him but I’ve always thought it must have been a love match, a thing of passion. They got special permission to skip their last marriage bann. It may have been because she was pregnant, although the couple never had any children. Whatever happened, Anne turned into a very troubled woman. In or around 1824 she was admitted to Dr Gregory’s private Bellevue asylum in Finglas. She was subsequently released but the marriage did not survive. By around October 1836 she and Richard separated. Richard went to stay with Kirwan and his father. He wouldn’t tell Anne where he was going.

Some time later Kirwan went with Downes Bowyer to collect his things from the house on Mountjoy Street. Anne would later say that she was tied to a chair as her husband, Kirwan and several other young men ransacked her house. She took her husband and Kirwan to court in 1837 accusing them of theft. Her husband countersued and threatened to have her committed again. The judge ruled in Anne’s favour. He told her husband that she was entitled to a living of £40 a year for the rest of her life.

Anne obviously wouldn’t let things go. Her husband moved away from Dublin to Killeshandra in County Cavan, Kirwan’s sister went with him to keep house for the old man. Before he went Richard signed over family lands in Rhine, or Rinn in County Longford on the understanding that Kirwan would continue to pay Anne’s stipend of £40 a year. After Richard died in 1841, Anne became convinced that the Kirwan family had contrived to kill her husband. She couldn’t let the idea go and in January 1853 she went to the police with her accusation.

The Dublin Metropolitan police took Anne Downes Bowyer seriously. They even excavated the garden of the house on Parnell Place where Kirwan and his father had lived. Since Downes Bowyer had died in Killeshandra they found nothing to support Anne’s claims but they did uncover a small coffin much to the excitement of the press. The police duly examined the little coffin and found it to contain the bones of a young child. It was long dead and they couldn’t find out it’s story. It didn’t help Anne.

A few months after this Anne was dead. At her inquest, in July 1853, her sister told the coroner that Anne had been living quietly outside Dublin. The family were worried about her and visited her regularly but on July 7th her sister arrived down from Dublin to find the little cottage empty. A search eventually led to a local quarry, where there was a deep pool. Anne’s shoes and shawl were neatly placed beside the black water. The inquest ruled that Anne had died at her own hand but this is one death that I do think should be laid at Kirwan’s door, all be it indirectly.  It might of course be a complete coincidence but that week’s issue of the Nation newspaper carried a caustic article on Kirwan arguing that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor. Kirwan was still in Ireland at this point. His sentence to hang had been commuted on New Year’s Eve but he had still not been transported that summer. As the Nation noted, poorer men with less celebrity would undoubtedly have been hauled off in chains months since. I can only imagine Anne’s reaction if she had read it or had it read to her. Surely enough to take away the last of her hope.

I have always thought that Anne Downes Bowyer was as much a victim of Kirwan as Maria was. He might not have been guilty of the imaginative carnage those who didn’t know him well accused him of but he was a toxic man who saw two women dead. There were other casualties of this case but they are still my subjects so I’m keeping them close to my chest for the moment. William Bourke Kirwan undoubtedly earned his dark reputation.

 

Abigail RieleyI’m a writer, journalist and feminist and this is my personal blog. I’ve written a great deal about the Irish criminal justice system based on my observations from working at a court reporter, particularly about the sentencing laws concerning crimes against women be it murder or manslaughter, rape or sexual assault or domestic violence. I also write about books and writing, women in 19th century Ireland (a subject I’ve been researching for the past couple of years), science fiction and general women’s issues (including, of course, the Irish abortion situation) and social issues. I’m also a bit of a geek and write about British science fiction and horror.

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:

https://storify.com/americasstudies/banana-envy-notes-on-a-global-obsession

 

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.

Women’s health: the patriarchal paradox at Femme Vision

(Cross-posted from Femme Vision)

‘Health – bounding saucy health – is the fountain from which all true beauty springs.’1

This quote, from The Girl’s Own Book of Health and Beauty, sums up the perception of girls’ and women’s health in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A woman’s health was never just about her physical condition, but was related to her mental health and, most importantly, her appearance.

The commonly held view, propagated by ‘experts’ such as Dr. Henry Maudsley, was that girls had a finite store of energy, which needed to be reserved for the processes of pregnancy and childbirth. Any woman who was too active before marriage would exhaust this supply of energy, making for a weak, frigid and mentally deficient adult.

Some medical professionals and social commentators used this popular belief as an argument to petition against women’s education, for example, Maudsley, who wrote of the ‘excessive mental drain as well as the natural physical drain’ caused by school or college study.2 For women to reach the ideal of motherhood, therefore, and produce many strong and healthy children, the safest and most healthy pre-marriage lifestyle involved remaining in the home, inactive except when engaging in sedentary, non-intellectual pastimes.

The ‘New Girl’

In the post-First World War era, however, the ideal image of female health and beauty underwent a radical revision and the ‘New Girl’ emerged. Sport and outdoor activity were encouraged and beauty was linked with physical strength and the shapeliness that comes from regular exercise. Bodily beauty was linked with sexual attractiveness, and the role of the wife as a sexual partner, rather than as a mother, was emphasised, placing value on youth and women’s responsibility for their own lives and winning a husband.

The link between health and sexual attraction persists in our current popular culture. Newspapers and magazines promote diet and exercise, primarily in order to achieve a desirable body.  Even in supposedly health-focussed publications, physical shape and appearance, not intrinsic health, is the real subject of the advice, as a recent blog piece on the magazine, Women’s Health, points out.

Despite the more than 100 years that have passed since Gordon Stables published The Girl’s Own Book of Health and Beauty, we are still transfixed by the idea that health is linked with appearance. In the media, women promote health products to other women through their appearance; we should be attractive, active, always striving for self-improvement and always, always thin (yet still constantly engaged in an on-going effort to lose weight). Furthermore, we are also responsible for each member of our family’s health. Possibly the only indulgent product women are ever seen to promote is chocolate, which is represented as a guilty, sexualised pleasure to indulge in secretly (see every Galaxy ad ever made).

However, while women are placed as instigators and protectors of their own and their family’s healthy eating habits, advertising aimed at men encourages indulgence in laziness and greed through the consumption of unhealthy drinks, snacks and junk food.  But despite the preoccupation with women’s health in the media, it is the bad eating habits in men promoted by such gender-specific marketing that have been blamed for a far greater cancer risk in men than women. Yet the stereotyped images persist.

Doctor knows best

The late 19th century saw the development of obstetrics and gynaecology as discrete specialisms, opening a new market in the medical landscape. The effect of this was that doctors now had even greater control of women’s bodies, administering questionable and barbaric treatments for disorders such as epilepsy and ‘hysteria’. For example,  genital massage and the development of the vibrator for the treatment of hysteria, or Dr. Isaac Brown Baker, who claimed success in treating epilepsy and other nervous disorders in female patients by excising the clitoris. In the case of the development of the vibrator, as Rachel P. Maines highlights, ‘Doctors were a male elite with control of their working lives and instrumentation, and efficiency gains in the medical production of orgasm for payment could increase income.’

At this time, the female anatomy was shrouded in mystery. As Maines points out, Thomas Laqueur says that physicians writing of anatomy ‘saw no need to develop a precise vocabulary of genital anatomy because if the female body was a less hot, less perfect, and hence less patent version of the canonical body, the distinct organic, much less genital, landmarks mattered far less than the metaphysical hierarchies they illustrated.’ Therefore, treatment for women was much more fluid, experimental and ambiguous; for the female patient it all came down to trust in the physician’s knowledge and methods.

The image of the doctor as profit-focussed businessman, who capitalises on the lack of knowledge of his patients is reflected in the recent case in Bluegrass Women’s Healthcare Centre, where the owner pleaded guilty to misbranding non-FDA approved forms of birth control. In addition to the immorality and illegality of this action, the fact that these were intrauterine devices adds an extra level of violation. Women, against their will had had a potentially dangerous object placed inside them by someone they should be able to trust.

The paradox

Women’s health, therefore, has always been a strong preoccupation for patriarchal society. The womb is seen as public property and the health of its owner crucial to the that of the society as a whole. Though we are now somewhat more scientifically informed, many of the beliefs around women’s health of the late 19th and early 20th centuries persist today. We still equate women’s health with sexuality, and place the responsibility for the wellbeing of the family, and therefore society as a whole, on women’s shoulders.

Yet, ironically, it is often women that suffer the most when it comes to cuts in health services. Take this open letter from a resident of Ravalli county in the US, in which commissioners voted to eliminate funding to women’s healthcare. To these commissioners, the woman writes, ‘somewhere down the road you may meet a woman who has no hair and less hope due to an advanced breast cancer that, if you had voted differently, could have been caught earlier’. And elsewhere in the US, politicians have been accused of backing policies that are anti-women’s health.

In the UK, a discussion on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour on NHS funding for IVF revealed that 50% of those polled believed that, as a non-emergency treatment, the NHS should not fund IVF at all. Of course, access to IVF is not something that solely affects women but this is another area in which women can be attacked and made to feel guilty about their health. By taking away the universal right to fertility treatment (even just by raising the question in discussion), the message is sent that if you cannot conceive naturally your health must be at fault and you must live with the consequences. The technology that has been developed that could help you can only be accessed by the elite.

This shows that, when it comes to women’s health, there has really been very little progress made since Victorian times. Evidence shows that, when and where there are resources and a market in which to make a profit, women are made to feel their health is imperative, and that there is something inherently unstable in being a woman that makes her mind and body vulnerable to disease, which must be remedied with medicine without question. However, when resources are scarce, it is women’s healthcare that is the most dispensable.

References

  1. Gordon Stables, The Girl’s Own Book of Health and Beauty, London: Jarrold and Sons, 1891.
  2. Henry Maudsley, ‘Sex in Mind and in Education’, Fortnightly Review, 15, 1874, 466–83.

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