The Struggles With Lesbian History

LGBT history as a whole is difficult to study, with both its legal and societal condemnation historically and today. The first attempts to study the history of homosexuality were not started until the 19th century and these were largely hampered by source scarcity and societal opinion. It was not until the mid 20th century that as a study it became more popular, and until the 1970s that all identities under the LGBT umbrella were included. The last several decades have seen a massive increase in scholarship, especially in gay male history; however other identities have struggled much more. Trans historiography has been hampered by how to define trans historical figures, particularly so in the issue of whether people were trans or if they were passing as another gender for other reasons, such as avoiding being drafted into military service. Bisexual history has languished similarly due to the issue of how to consider historical figures who appeared to be bisexual – were they bisexual or were they gay and their opposite sex relationships a requirement of the society they lived in, or were such relationships genuine? This, of course, has implications for same-sex history: are historical figures being labelled as attracted only to the same sex or could they have been bisexual? While the lack of definitively knowing hampers any study of history, LGBT history particularly struggles.  

Lesbian history has always struggled – even the term ‘lesbian’ to describe history has been considered by some to be a difficult descriptor. Some feel that lesbian refers to an identity that historically women would have not considered themselves to be. Sometimes the phrase ‘women who loved women’ has been used. Scholars such as Cook and Rich argued for the use of the term ‘lesbian’ to describe women who had relationships with other women. However other scholars prefer to avoid the term, arguing that lesbian as a concept did not exist, or that the term does not fit the historical reality of the women they are studying. Others have also argued that this term is too Western-centric. However, others have pointed out that terms such as queer are too broad and erase the specific experience of women. This issue on phrasing symbolises the difficulty that lesbian history has faced. 

While there has been little debate about male homosexual history, lesbian history has been much more problematic. The existence of lesbian history has always been harder to find, just because as the history of women in general has been difficult to source because of the domination of men in the historical written word, lesbians have often been written out of history – even more so than heterosexual women who generally have been only featured when, relevant to men. Lesbian behaviour was less likely to be prosecuted than gay male behaviour (not that lesbians were not prosecuted but they were caught less often or in some cases the sheer idea of lesbianism was so alien that legislation did not exist) which also reduces the amount of source material available, although what does exist is important. Prior to the 19th century lesbian history is fragmented, although some lesbian historians, like Emma Donoghue, have criticised historians for failing to notice mentions of lesbians due their own heterocentrisim. Debates over whether female historical figures had romantic and/or sexual relationships with each other or whether they simply had close platonic friendships plague lesbian history. Many lesbian historians have pointed out that they themselves, and those that came before them who clearly were, and often identified, as lesbian have been described as ‘platonic’ yet that there are often signs of such romantic and/or sexual relationships. Anne Lister’s diaries are an example of this; when her diaries were originally deciphered some declared them a hoax because of their explicitness’ and her frank understanding of her sexuality.  

Most sources we do have on lesbian history focus predominantly on upper class women as they were the most able to record their own experiences. This can be frustrating for two reasons: women in the lower classes made up higher proportions of the general population and therefore are more likely to make up a significant proportion of lesbian women; and also that working class women traditionally had more opportunity to socialise with other women and without as much scrutiny. Upper class women were far more likely to have limited social circles and limited opportunity to be able to conduct affairs privately. Not only does this limit the amount of available knowledge it also means we miss out on knowing about working class lesbian subcultures and communities prior to the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Oral history has been an important part of lesbian history and has provided a significant amount of source material, although this is mostly restricted to post 1920s, as lesbian oral history was not recorded until the 1970s and beyond.  Along with sources such as zines and photography, archive groups in the 1970s and 1980s attempted to construct archives focused on the lesbian experience, such as the Lesbian Archive – now housed at the Glasgow Women’s Library, and the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. Other regional archives exist as does archives holding either LGBT history as whole or feminist/women’s history. 

So why is lesbian history so important to discover? Other than the general desire to uncover the past as much as possible, many lesbians find it important to connect to their forebearers and to demonstrate that their identity is legitimate and has existed for millennia. Lesbian erasure, historically and currently, is a major issue not just in society in general but also in the LGBT and feminist communities that claim to include and represent them. Erasure and ignorance of lesbian history helps exacerbate lesbian erasure. Many lesbians have been outspoken about society’s attempts to erase ‘lesbian’ as an identity, from claiming that ‘lesbian’ is exclusive or to that it doesn’t even exist – the tendency for some historians to deny lesbian history prior to the 19th century does just this.  

LGBT history often focuses on gay men while feminist history often focuses on heterosexual women. The fact that lesbians have often been both at the forefront of social movements is often ignored, even within these movements, and despite their presence they have been later ostracised or written out of these histories. Therefore their lesbian identity has been paramount to them. This importance also highlights the need for lesbian history to be inclusive of all lesbians. Recent scholarship has aimed to not only focus on white middle-class women in western societies but to expand our knowledge of lesbian history and how the diversity of these women are how we can broaden our overall knowledge.  

Suffragette: Some Thoughts

It is somewhat staggering that it has taken just over a hundred years since the end of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) campaign for a film based on the British fight for women’s suffrage to be made. This is made even more staggering that on television the only production on women’s suffrage was the BBC drama Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974, which my mother recalls watching as a teenager. Therefore it is unsurprising that Suffragette has been under a lot of pressure to satisfy many, with varying different views, as the only available screen representation (Shoulder to Shoulder has yet to been released on DVD, nor does it seem to ever have been released on VHS) of such a significant movement in Britain.

I was one of the many, having been fascinated with the women’s suffrage movement since I was a child. Would the film address the differences within the movement itself, principally between the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)? Would the film focus on leaders of the movement such as the Pankhursts’ or Millicent Fawcett or Emily Wilding Davison? Would the film mention or examine the class and race issues that were present within the movement?

I recall being surprised when the first details of the film were released that it would focus on a working class suffragette. The movement as a whole, and especially the WSPU, has been considered to be dominated by the middle classes. The hierarchy for certain was dominated by middle class women, with Annie Kenney the only working class woman involved in the WSPU leadership. Working class women had far more to lose than their middle class counterparts; after a prison sentence a middle class woman was generally more likely to have a home to return too, working class women less so.

However the choice to make the film’s protagonist working class was a brilliant decision, not just from a story perspective but also from a historic perspective. Rather than a film focusing on the politics or focusing on events and dates, the film focuses on the circumstances of Maud’s life (played by Carey Mulligan), that cause her to become involved in the WSPU; a victim of sexual abuse, an orphan, forced into a job that not only pays her poorly because she was a woman, but also one that would kill her young. As Maud explains when asked what the vote would mean to her, it could give her control over her life. Her fellow suffragettes similarly show the circumstances that allow inequality in a world without the vote. Maud’s colleague Violet, played by the outstanding Anne Marie Duff, like Maud had worked in poorly paid jobs since her teens and is married to a violent drunk, who despairs of her daughter facing the same future as her. The organiser of their activities Edith, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was denied the opportunity for a university education by her father and never got to realise her dreams. The framing of the reasons these women fought, and in such desperate and violent measures, highlights the struggle that women at this point in history had to deal with. It could have been easy to focus instead on just the battles, the politics and the prison sentences but as a film Suffragette gives us the motivations behind these women’s actions.

Nor does the film shy away from the consequences these women faced. The brutality of prisons sentences is shown several times throughout the film. I was pleased to see that a scene was included where Edith insists that as political prisoners they should be entitled to wear their own clothes while they are manhandled into prison uniforms. While not explained at length in the film, political prisoners were classed as first division prisoners, enjoying privileges such as wearing their own clothes among others. The authorities refused to acknowledge suffragettes as such, which was the reason for Marion Wallace Dunlop to go on hunger strike, which would soon become WSPU policy. While it would have been nice to seen such a scene explained in further detail, it is understandable because to keep the majority of the audience interested, the writer of the film, Abi Morgan, was treading a careful line throughout to avoid it becoming a history lesson.

Morgan also managed to avoid falling into the trap of making the male characters of the film one-dimensional. While certain men will try to claim that the film is anti-men (i.e. it actually illustrates the brutality and misogyny against women, especially when the film is set), a much more realistic portrayal exists in the film. The male characters with the exception of Edith’s husband are against women’s suffrage, just as most men and many women were at the time (which is also acknowledged on several occasions) but they are not portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Maud’s employer is shown realistically as a sex pest and cruel, something definitely not unrealistic for the period nor even now therefore I would argue not entirely one-dimensional. Maud’s husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, despite his actions as the film continues becoming more deplorable, we see what many men from this period were like. While we may not like or find perhaps much sympathy for him, we can understand his feelings and actions which are shaped by the society he lives in. Similarly Brendon Gleeson’s Detective Steed, while we naturally root against him, he represents a man who believes in the law and the natural order of things, but he is not evil or a monster, he too is shaped by a patriarchal society.

This is certainly one of the strengths of the film, we are forced to acknowledge that this is our history, these are our ancestors, not heroes or villains from a fairy tale. Combined with the film’s questioning of the morality of suffragette techniques that could be branded as terrorism, the film poses moral questions and debates that historians have had for many years. There is no clear moral right and wrong, only shades of grey. Without debate women should have had the vote far earlier than they did, without debate the way the authorities dealt with women’s suffrage supporters both suffragettes and suffragists was wrong but were the suffragettes right to act in the way they did? The film does not give an answer for this question, instead it gives us the viewpoints and leaves us to decide. It is that which makes this film so brilliant. Whether as a viewer we agree with it or not, Maud gives us perhaps the most powerful answer a suffragette would give, and one we should certainly think upon:

We break windows… We burn things; cos war is the only language men listen to… cos you’ve beaten us and betrayed us… and there’s nothin’ else left.

Hetaira: Admired Women in Fifth-Century Athens

For my blog post this month, I’ve decided to try something a little different and go back to Fifth-Century Athens, with this time looking at the women known as Hetaira. These women were sexual companions to men, but were not simply prostitutes, as they were educated and influential companions to the men for whom they companioned and were admired in their own right.

Aspasia of Miletus was not a native citizen of Athens and could not therefore marry an Athenian citizen, which could be a large reason to why she became one of the Hetaira. She became the mistress to Pericles, a general who was arguably the most prominent and influential man in Greek politics. Not much is known about why she migrated to Athens, or her life after the death of Pericles. Although unable to marry an Athenian citizen, her life was possibly better for it, in terms of independence and prosperity. Unlike other women in Athenian society, Hetaira’s independent status meant they could be accepted in having educated discussions, could pay taxes and were admired for their artistic skills and intelligence.

This was actually why the Hetaira were so popular and revered. Athenian women were not supposed to be educated, sheltered for the means of assuring their status as good wives. Demosthenes, a Greek statesmen, once said that wives were ‘for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes’ while the Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’. Hetaira were often companions to meetings, parties and gatherings, as they could join in with particular debate and were arguably the only women in Athenian society men welcomed an opinion from. Wives therefore were unsuitable for such roles, as they were supposed to be uneducated in order to be good citizens and wives. Demosthenes’s statement is also interesting as he underlines the difference between the Hetaira and prostitutes of the time. Although, Hetaira were sexual companions as well as providers of intellectual stimulation, in his speech he underlines that prostitutes were for the ‘day to day needs of the body’. Therefore, although Hetaira were ‘for pleasure’, this must have been for more reasons than ‘the needs of the body’ because this was the reason he used to emphasise the difference between prostitutes and Hetaira.

However, not all aspects of the Hetaira were so well accepted and revered. Aspasia of Miletus was claimed to be Pericles’s great love, and the two lived together as though married and had a child together, Pericles the Younger. It was her outspoken nature that drew him to her, but this did make her unpopular in Athenian society. Her and Pericles were often subjected to rumours and attacks, especially accusations that she was – as an immigrant to Athens – influencing Pericles’s administration in ways that were threatening to Athens itself. This did not affect the influence of Aspasia completely, however, who was still admired in a large faction of Athenian society – Socrates, an influential Greek philosopher, held her in high esteem.

The existence of the Hetaira can say a lot about the role and position of other women in Athenian society, who were expected to not have opinions or have an education, in order to be good wives to keep a good household and raise children. Hetaira were arguably the freest women in Ancient Greece, able to take part in public life far more than other women in society and their influence can also say a lot about what Athenian men thought about ‘ordinary’ women in Athens. If anything can give an impression of what women’s place in Ancient Athenian society meant, the famous Greek playwright Menander once commented that “A man who teaches a woman to write should know that he is providing poison to an asp.”

Women’s Suffrage and the First World War

When war was declared in August 1914 the women’s suffrage campaign had been going on for fifty years. Some historians have argued women were close to achieving their aims while others have argued that women were no closer than previous years. However it is undeniable that the women’s suffrage campaign was radically interrupted by the onset of the war. The different suffrage organisations had different approaches. These approaches are important in our understanding of the beliefs and the women involved.

The most famous women’s suffrage organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, took one of the most interesting and radical approaches. WSPU members, labelled suffragettes, had taken militant action in their fight for women’s suffrage in the years since 1910 and were deeply unpopular amongst many in the government. Therefore their role during the First World War would come as a shock. Upon the outbreak of the war Emmeline Pankhurst ordered that all activities relating to women’s suffrage would cease and the WSPU would concentrate on the war effort. The WSPU became engaged in the war effort by becoming directly involved with the recruitment of the armed forces, by surprisingly becoming closely involved with the government. They allowed the funds raised by the WSPU for women’s suffrage to be used for the war effort, to the anger of many in the organisation. With such actions along with an increasingly jingoistic rhetoric, the WSPU began to split. Many left and two new organisations were formed: Suffragettes of the Women’s Social Political Union (SWSPU) and the Independent Women’s Social and Political Union (IWSPU). Neither of these two organisations made much of an impact. What remained of the WSPU dropped their newspaper The Suffragette in 1915 for a new newspaper The Britannia. Finally in 1917, the WSPU disbanded and became the Women’s Party.

The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) was the much larger organisation, although in popular memory the refusal to take part in militant activities and adopt a peaceful approach meant it has often been forgotten in comparison. Led by Millicent Fawcett the organisation was divided by the outbreak of the war. Up until a month before the war began, the NUWSS had been arguing for mediation attempts to prevent the war. However upon the outbreak of the war, Fawcett adopted the position of supporting the war effort. This was partly as an attempt to gain more support for the cause of women’s suffrage as one of the popular arguments against women’s suffrage was that women could not be trusted to vote, as they were pacifists. This led to divisions in the organisation which resulted in a split in the organisation. All of the national officers barring Fawcett and the treasurer resigned in protest against the position that the NUWSS took on the war. Most of these women joined groups focused on promoting peace.

Despite the support for the war the NUWSS gave, the organisation was never as jingoistic or as involved in the political side of the war as the WSPU was. The NUWSS focused on the role of women in the war. It contributed to the setting up of hospitals and employment of nurses. Similarly within the UK it organised registers for unemployed women to find them wartime work such as in munitions and as bus conductors.

Nevertheless the NUWSS did not abandon women’s suffrage entirely. Many branches of the organisation continued to demonstrate and petition in favour of women’s suffrage. The organisation also retained its structure which allowed it to quickly return to its campaign for suffrage.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) was an offshoot of the WSPU originally set up in 1913 by Emmeline Pankhurst’s middle daughter, Sylvia Pankhurst. The ELFS was unique in that its members and focus was on working class women rather than the middle and upper class women that dominated the movement. By 1914 the ELFS had become a separate organisation, leaving the WSPU over ideology. The outbreak of the war further drove Sylvia away from her mother and her sister Christabel, compared to their jingoistic nationalism Sylvia was a pacifist and the ELFS took an anti-war stance. The organisation focused on protesting against conscription and supporting working class women affected by the war. They campaigned against measures that tried to limit financial support to the wives of soldiers and also embarked on a number of charitable endeavours such as a toy factory and cut price restaurants. Many of those involved in the ELFS were drawn to socialism and communism with the organisation supporting the 1916 Irish Risings and the October Revolution in 1917. This led to the various name changes the organisation underwent, as did the organisation moving from focusing on women’s suffrage, to universal suffrage for all whom yet to have the vote. The organisation would continue to change its name and merge with various groups until after the war.

The Women’s Freedom League, created by a group of dissatisfied former WSPU members in 1907, like the ELFS were also anti-war. They were by no means as radical as the ELFS, the Women’s Freedom League warned that one of its leading members Charlotte Despard strong pacifist views were not their own. They were however concerned that their members would abandon the struggle for suffrage because of the war, and tried to encourage their members to continue. Their activities were limited by the war and like other women’s suffrage organisations they focused on a number of voluntary activities such as setting up the Women’s Police Volunteers and Woman’s Suffrage National Aid Corps.

Partial women’s suffrage was achieved in 1918, allowing women over the age of 30 who met certain criteria to vote. The fight for women’s suffrage would not be achieved until 1928, when women received equal voting rights with men. The contribution of women during the war has often been given as a reason for women finally being granted the vote. Many women who did volunteer or worked during the war were those who did not gain the vote as they were under 30 and failed to meet the conditions of being married to, or being a member of the Local Government Register or being the owner of property. Around 22% of women over the age of 30 therefore were exempt. Therefore it can be argued that the work of women and the contribution during the war from the women’s suffrage organisations did not achieve them the vote. These contributions however are important to remember not just in the history of the First World War but in the history of women’s suffrage. Such contributions could be seen as the women’s suffrage campaign’s reply to their detractors. However it also illustrates the differences between the women’s movements. It highlights that the women’s suffrage movement was by no means a monolithic movement, neither was it a neat split between those who believed in militant action and those who did not. It shows that some involved in the movement were solely preoccupied with gaining suffrage for themselves; some believed women’s suffrage was instrumental for ending war and violence and others saw women’s suffrage as part of an ideological belief of bettering society and creating equality. Thus the actions of suffragists and suffragettes during the First World War are an important element in the study of women’s suffrage in the UK.

Biography:

Bartley, P., Votes For Women (London, 2007).

Smith, H. L., The British Women’s Suffrage Campaign 1866-1928 (Harlow, 2010).

 

Power, Gender and the Viking Age

Today, we start our month dedicates to the issues of gender and women history. The passage that follows, is part of a bigger research that I am doing for one of my modules, about how powerful were the women from the Viking Age. I could put up the whole thing, but it is extraordinary long. So out of the whole essay, I thought this would be a good starting point, the struggle between power, influence and how it affects gender, and in this case Norse women.

Continue reading “Power, Gender and the Viking Age”