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.  

The Battle of Britain Bunker, Uxbridge

This post will feature the newly opened, Battle of Britain Bunker and Visitor Centre on the former site of RAF Uxbridge in the London Borough of Hillingdon. It is the only Second World War bunker to be preserved and open available to the public. The former RAF site was sold off for a new housing development in 2010. The Bunker was available for tours, booked in advance. Now however the site has been heavily invested by the financial backing of Hillingdon council and houses a new Visitor Centre adjacent to the Bunker, whereby prior booking is no longer necessary.  The Visitor Centre explains about the line of work that happened in the Bunker and features interactive exhibits and visuals relating to plotting, radar and collecting calls from telephones. It is also a good feature for those visitors who are less mobile as they can still see information and learn about what happened in the Bunker.

Outside the complex visitors are welcomed to the statue of New Zealander Keith Park (1892-1975), the Second World War Royal Airforce commander. He oversaw the running’s of the operation room at RAF Uxbridge for two years from 1940-1942. He was known as the “Defender of London” in Germany and for organising fighter patrols during the Dunkirk evacuation the Battle of Britain campaign. What’s more, the grounds also include a mock Hurricane, Spitfire and memorial close to the entrance of the Bunker immortalising the words uttered by Winston Churchill when he entered the Bunker on a visit in 16th August 1940, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few”.

 

The Bunker

Upon arrival visitors must report to the entrance desk at the Visitor Centre to collect tickets to visit the Bunker. The Bunker operates tours in the mornings and afternoons. Please ensure to take a ticket and keep it on your person until the guide leads you to the entrance of the Bunker, it is here where you hand your ticket to a steward. When entering the bunker, you go down a long flight of stairs so be watchful.

The Bunker was the location for No. 11 Group RAF’s operation which served as part of the Dowding system. The Dowding system served as the world’s first conception network on land to control airspace in the United Kingdom. It used a telephone network to gain intelligence as opposed to radar that could have been intercepted. This Bunker is most famous for controlling airfield operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and additionally the Dieppe raid of 1942 and the D Day Landings of 1944.

Geographically there were several fighter command groups stationed in the United Kingdom they were divided into different geographical locations. No. 11 Group which encompassed the South-East, No. 10 Group covering the South West, No. 12 Group covering the Midlands, No. 9 Group covering the North West, No. 13 covering the North East and lastly No. 14 Group covering Scotland. Focusing on No. 11 Group its headquarters was located at Hillingdon House at RAF Uxbridge. The group’s operating room was within the Bunker underground, to avoid detection. A previous bunker was built over ground in 1939 but the idea of having an operations room over ground was too obvious in case of an enemy air attack.

The commands that occurred in the Operations room within the Bunker was passed onto airfields within the group. These airfields were divided into 8 different sectors. The Operations Controller was seated above a plot map and a display on the wall relating to the other RAF stations within the group covering; RAF Tangmere, Kenley, North Weald, Debden, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and Northolt. These were the stations were fighter squadrons were based. It is important to note that everything displayed in the Operations room was always suited to the view of the Operation Controller. Additional staff included; Army and Navy Officials, Plotters, telephonists and RAF officers, one of which was the late Hollywood actor Rex Harrison.

The map of the United Kingdom and northern France was displayed on a large board whereby the Operations Controller could see very clearly where plotters would update them with necessary information. This was a job carried out by plotters who were mainly women from the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAFs). They were fed information from Chain Home Radar stations monitoring approaching aircraft, it was the Royal Observer corps that detected aircraft that was friendly or hostile. This information was fed to a Filter room whereby the plotters in this room would breakdown the information and relay it to the plotters in the Operation room. The plotters used long thin rods that would move markers on the map indicating numbers of aircraft and how many feet they were in the sky. It also displayed friendly and hostile aircraft. Depending on what information they receive the would move the markers across the map to provide the Operations Controller an up to date understanding of affairs happening in the skies.

Going back to the display on the wall depending on the different stations lights will flicker to state whereabouts aircraft is and to show the Operations Controller a physical embodiment/tracking of their decision making from standby to action. It is also important to note that the visibility and weather balloons was also marked on the display, again providing the best view to the Operations Controller so they can be best informed to make decisions. The plotters job was important as they had to ensure the information was kept up to date, otherwise that could mean drastic consequences for aircraft and cause confound decision making for the Operation Controller. When changing shifts, the plotters had to standby the other plotter they are shifting with to see what information they were being fed to again make sure the information on the map was current. This was also true when a plotter needed to take a break, the covering plotter had to stand with the plotter wanting a break for approximately 10-15 to ensure all information fed to them was being kept up to date.

 

Location-

The location of the Battle of Britain Bunker is easy to get to, it is close to the Town centre of Uxbridge, Greater London and has good connections to the A40 and M40. It is an easily accessible day trip from London as the tube serves Uxbridge on both the Metropolitan and Piccadilly lines. Additionally, the U2 is the nearest bus to serve the Bunker which will then take an extra 10-15 minutes to walk to the venue.

 

Practicalities-

Residents of Hillingdon Borough can visit for free (upon showing Hillingdon resident card) as with servicemen/women and ex-servicemen/women. Please check with the venue for exact proving to those visitors from outside the area.

 

All in all, the Bunker and Visitor centre is a great day out for history buffs, particularly those with an interest in the Battle of Britain.

Hamilton

A History of our time?

The forgotten founding father?

20180315_173431

 

Legacy, what is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see[1]

 

I honestly could not resist writing a piece about Hamilton. Hamilton is the 2015 musical phenomenon written by Lin Manuel Miranda and inspired by R. Chernow’s 2004 biography titled Alexander Hamilton that has since reached London’s West End as of December 2017.

I have been extremely lucky to have watched the performance twice! Now I feel it would be appropriate to examine the historical significance of the musical about the man who is on the $10 bill and how it resonates to a present-day audience on both sides of the Atlantic. I will focus more on social and political matters as opposed to the economic and military. If you wish to see the musical in the future, please note I will make mention to some elements in the plot.

 

The Backstory

 

Alexander Hamilton’s Early Years

My name is Alexander Hamilton and there’s a million things I haven’t done just you wait, just you wait…[2]

Let’s start with the backstory. Alexander Hamilton was an American statesman who fought numerous battles in the Revolutionary War against Britain and became the first United States Secretary of the Treasury. The story narrates the life of Alexander Hamilton, an unlikely founding father who was born on the British island of Nevis (now St Kitts and Nevis) in January 1757/1755 as there is some debate amongst historians regarding this, although it is widely considered to be 1757. Born outside of wedlock, his father abandoning the family and his mother dying when he was still a child, his prospects on the face of it appeared dire.

Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Fawcett was married to Johann Michael Lavien before she met James Hamilton, the father of Alexander Hamilton. Lavien seized Fawcett’s estate in St Croix (now United States Virgin Islands) in probate court upon her death and sold off a sizeable portion of Fawcett’s items.

Hamilton later became a clerk at Beekman and Crugar, an import and export firm. The firm traded with the colonies of New England and New York. At 14/16, Hamilton was placed in charge of the firm when his employer was away at sea for five months. Hamilton’s cousin, Peter Lytton briefly looked after him and his brother, James Jr Hamilton before he committed suicide. From this point henceforth, the brothers were separated though remained on Nevis.

Hamilton (Alexander) was taken in the custody of Thomas Stevens, a local merchant and the older Hamilton (James Jr) became a Carpenter’s Apprentice. By this point Alexander Hamilton was well read and enjoyed writing in his spare time. In 1772 a devasting Hurricane hit St Croix, in response Hamilton (Alexander) wrote a letter to his father pertaining to the Hurricane in enormous detail and his thoughts on the destruction. The letter gained popularity after it was published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette by Journalist, Hugh Knox. This popularity garnished the attention of community leaders. This was a real turning point for Hamilton, as the news of his letter impressed the leaders so much they collected funds to send Hamilton to study in New York. This proved to be an invaluable opportunity for Hamilton, which no doubt paved the way to his military and to a higher extent, his political pursuits.  Much of these accounts from Hamilton’s early life are touched upon during the musical’s opening number, Alexander Hamilton.[3]

 

The musical synopsis

 

The story develops and looks at how he overcame these difficulties in early life looking at how he established himself in New York City; at King’s College (now Columbia University), his personal life, military /political exploits, his relationships with other founding fathers; John Laurens, Marquis de Lafayette, Hercules Mulligan, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and not forgetting his relationship with political rival, Aaron Burr, which ended in Hamilton’s death on 12th July 1804 as a result of the famous Burr-Hamilton duel on the day before.

This is all set at a time of revolution and increased animosity towards the British in the colonies, chiefly regarding taxation. This animosity occurred since 1765 and arguably more so after the Boston Massacre of 1770 when a group of American colonists were shot by soldiers who were stationed in Boston to control heighted colonial unrest, the capital of the Provence of Massachusetts Bay.

What Hamilton (the musical) does so well is create a visually stunning performance, amalgamating the history of a nation with the contemporary, a retelling of history, predominately in the form of hip-hop and casting actors from ethnic minority backgrounds in major roles within the production. This invariably is told as a history of our time, in other words to reflect the society of the US and the UK today.

 

The historical legacy

Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States

Let’s start with the casting. A conscious decision was made regarding the casting. The story is told by a diverse group of actors from different backgrounds. This is true in both the US and UK productions. Notably, the roles of the founding fathers; Hamilton, Burr, Laurens/Philip Hamilton, Mulligan/Madison, Lafayette/Jefferson and Washington were played by actors from an ethnic minority. This is also true of the Schuyler sister roles in the musical; Angelica, Elizabeth “Eliza” and Margarita “Peggy”. For reference, the Schuyler family were influential Dutch landowners that held much prominence in New York, Elizabeth Schuyler was a fourth generation American and the wife of Alexander Hamilton. They married in December 1780 and their courtship was acknowledged during the song Helpless.[4]

 

Immigrants we get the job done[5]

 

Essentially what the musical does is it tells the story about an immigrant trying to establish a place for themselves through hard work, grit and determination. These are traits not so different in people today. What Hamilton was doing back in the 1700s, hundreds if not thousands of immigrants since then have aspired to work hard for their livelihoods and prosper in their endeavours. Looking at the United States today many people can trace their ancestry back to Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. This applies to the original Broadway cast. For instance; the Musical’s creator, Miranda who played Hamilton has Hispanic heritage from the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico. Not to dissimilar from the character he was playing in that respect that they both had a personal connection to the Caribbean as Hamilton was born there. However, he was of Scottish and French Huguenot descent, although there is speculation that Hamilton’s mother was of mixed racial descent there is no substantial evidence to support these claims. Philippa Soo who originated the role of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza is of White European and Chinese descent and lastly another example would be Daveed Diggs who originated the role of Lafayette/ Jefferson whose mother was Jewish and his father, African-American.

These examples really do highlight and bring to prominence what America looks like today, by casting actors from an ethnic minority it really does bring life to the storytelling and above all accessibility. Yes, in real life the founding fathers were of White English, Scottish and Irish descent, yet despite that, the casting of Hamilton brings forth the idea of inclusiveness and allows for a more cathartic experience for audiences that resonate with them. This is a great way to promote history to more people that might otherwise feel alienated from this episode of history.

Looking beyond what race these characters were back then, now in the present day the United States is a melting pot of cultures from across the globe. In a traditional sense it is the primary and secondary source material found in archives, manuscripts and books to name but a few that provide us with the know-how. It is the power of theatre that allows us to look beyond the traditional historiography for a moment and build a bridge taking elements of the past and mixing it with the present to generate interest and come away thinking; it does not matter who you are or where you come from, we all have an opportunity to make a difference.

Consequently, looking at it in this sense, the story of Alexander Hamilton’s journey from orphan, to immigrant, to statesman serves as a timeless inspiration that immigrants past, present and future strive to better themselves and as a result shape society in enterprise, business, education, government, science, healthcare and as the musical reflects, the arts.

Much like analysing the first line in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776, “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal” as being true to a society where it was acceptable in some states; particularly the south to keep Black African slaves. Looking at this declaration by todays standards, there would be a consensus refuting that declaration. It is how a particular place in time within society can interpret events.

 

But how is this argument historically significant for the UK?

Very much so. The UK very much like the US has been a magnet for settlement throughout history, going further back in time before the formation of the UK some of the earliest setters came from the Roman Empire, Germanic speaking tribes; the Angles, Saxons and Jutes known collectively as the Anglo Saxons, the Vikings and the Normans and French Huguenots.

In more recent history since the 19th century immigration from outside of Europe started to take shape chiefly from British colonies. In the 20th century immigration started to become more pronounced after the decline of the British Empire and many people settled from former colonies and countries making up the Commonwealth from the East, Africa and the West Indes. The imagery used once more in the UK casting reflects the society of the UK today and at the same mirrors Hamilton’s own backstory. Strikingly, Jamael Westman who currently plays the title role of Alexander Hamilton has Irish roots from his maternal side of the family and Afro-Caribbean roots from Jamaica on the paternal side.

Other examples include; Rachel John who currently plays Angelica Schuyler, her mother immigrated to the UK from Trinidad, Michael Jibson who currently plays King George III hails from Yorkshire, Leslie Garcia Bowman who currently plays Charles Lee/Ensemble comes from New Zealand and Rachelle Ann Go who currently plays Eliza Hamilton was born in the Philippines to name but a few. In all essence the full cast does reflect modern British society, just as the Broadway cast does in the US. The subject content is largely on American history and that this episode in history is not as well known in the UK, the idea nonetheless remains the same. By bringing forth historical content to the stage it serves as a virtual source to appeal to those that would not necessarily read about the content. What’s more the diversity of the cast has more of an impact resonating with members of society that are not always included in retellings of history, much like the argument that was put forth previously under Ethnicity & Immigration in the United States.

Knowing Brixton is a short distance from Victoria, the London home for Hamilton, just shy of 37 years the Brixton Riot occurred in April 1981. This was at a time when recession hit, those of Afro-Caribbean descent living in the area were particularly affected by lower job prospects and public services. Hamilton justly serves as a history of our time told by society as it is today, all backgrounds coming together to tell the story of a struggling immigrant intent to shape the future and leave a legacy, two things that are not to dissimilar to the actual narrative.

 

The “forgotten” Hamilton

A wife’s tale

I put myself back in the narrative… I’ll live another fifty years, it’s not enough[6]

 

There is much mention about the roles of women in Hamilton. However, for the purposes of this piece I will examine the role of Eliza Hamilton nee Schuyler, Hamilton’s wife of 21 years before his death. A fundamental conclusion to the musical details a wonderous segment, regarding Eliza Hamilton’s role in preserving the legacy of her husband, Alexander Hamilton. After Hamilton’s death Eliza along with the help of her son John Church Hamilton organised and arranged his political writings in view of publication. This was to ensure his legacy in American politics was not forgotten by the people. What the musical does so well is it attributes Chernow’s school of thought, that Eliza Hamilton’s role was significant in preserving Hamilton’s memory and conveys this with such vigour. This is considering she was left widowed, having to settle Hamilton’s debts and knowing that he had an affair with Maria Reynolds (this was publicly declared by Hamilton himself in the self-published, “The Reynolds Pamphlet” in 1797). The musical suggests Eliza Hamilton, upon hearing the news of Hamilton’s affair burns her correspondence with her husband in the song titled Burn.[7] Although it is not certain Eliza Hamilton burnt her letters, the musical nevertheless supports Chernow’s school of thought that she did destroy her letters but there was no evidence to suggest how.

Her passion and devotion to keeping Hamilton’s memory alive really hits home when her contribution to Hamilton’s legacy is explored in Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story[8], knowing that Eliza Hamilton lived in a male dominated society in commerce, politics and education, she was able to rise above her station and truly make a difference by getting Hamilton’s “story” out there for all to see and hear.

Eliza Hamilton did not stop there, not only did she ensure Hamilton’s writings were preserved, she also ensured to help orphans in New York city. Hamilton himself was an orphan, this in part must have played a large role in Eliza Hamilton’s efforts to help orphaned children. Together Alexander and Eliza Hamilton had eight children and one known foster daughter, having been caring for eight children and bringing in a foster daughter into the Hamilton household, it was apparent Eliza Hamilton cared deeply about children.

Eliza Hamilton helped to establish the first private orphanage in New York city in 1806 along with her friend Joanne Bethune. Eliza Hamilton was the Vice-President of the organisation and continued her support well into her nineties. It was called the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York, this organisation still exists to this very day by helping to care for children ensuring access to education, health care and support. Today it is named Graham Windham. This is where the whole idea of legacy intertwines, by preserving Hamilton’s legacy and crafting a legacy of her own.

Hamilton’s death must have been a horrible prospect for Eliza Hamilton to have dealt with but reviewing her contribution after his death, some goodness has come out of it by helping the next generation of orphans in a city where as a child orphan himself, Alexander Hamilton thrived. Though Hamilton could not live to see his legacy, Eliza Hamilton lived for another 50 years after her husband’s death in that time ensured others could see it.

 

My personal thoughts on Eliza Hamilton’s significance

Writing as a 21st century woman it is incredible to think that Eliza Hamilton achieved a great deal in her own right at a time, considering women’s suffrage was not on the agenda at the time of the Orphan Asylum Society of the City of New York’s creation and when she was organising Hamilton’s writings for preservation. As with the section on Ethnicity & Immigration, we see many women in professions doing what Eliza Hamilton did; women historians, women social workers and women carers to name but a few. That is another great legacy to add to mix, we see her character in many of the women of today, very much a living history of our time.

To end on, the musical really does highlight Eliza Hamilton’s prominence regarding Hamilton’s legacy. The staging was beautifully crafted, whereby during the first Act Hamilton was centre stage in the story. Eliza Hamilton, on the other hand was not standing on the main stage, she was staged with the characters; Maria Reynolds and Angelica Schuyler, seemingly fighting to declare their love for Hamilton during the musical’s opening number but for it to be bellowed by them at the same time, “I loved him”.[9] However, at the end of the second Act, Hamilton casts himself aside from the spotlight but close to his wife to reveal much of his legacy is owed to Eliza Hamilton, where she is the one standing in front of the legacy she preserved. Alexander Hamilton is often credited as America’s “forgotten” founding father, the end piece almost appears as if there was a forgotten behind the forgotten in the form of Eliza Hamilton.

 

 

 

[1] L. Manuel Miranda, “The World Was Wide Enough” as performed by L. Manuel Miranda & L. Odom Jr. in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[2] L. Manuel Miranda, “Alexander Hamilton” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[3] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”

[4] L. Manuel Miranda, “Helpless” as performed The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[5] L. Manuel Miranda, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as quoted by D Diggs and L. Manuel Miranda in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[6] L. Manuel Miranda, “Burn” as performed by P Soo in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[7] Ibid; “Burn”

[8] L. Manuel Miranda, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” as performed by The Original Broadway Cast in Hamilton: An American Musical Original Broadway Cast Soundtrack

[9] Ibid; “Alexander Hamilton”

 

Insult in the 16th Century (Revised)

The use of insulting language in the late 16th century is easily seen in court records of the time. After the Reformation there was a sudden rise in defamation allegations being recorded. Defamation laws required there to be an economic consequence or accusation of crime for the case to be brought to court, hurt feelings were not enough. The general type of these cases is easily seen, in situations where it is men v men, the insult is normally against a man’s reputation, or the activities of his wife. The thought being that a man’s reputation was precious, and any insult is important enough to take to court. Most of these cases were tried at the secular courts, with the exception with those concerned with sexuality, generally against women, these went to church courts. Men were more likely to be concerned with insult that could affect their business, while women’s entire reputation was based on the accepted sexual mores of the day.

The most dangerous insults towards men, and those pursued most vigorously, were those against their professional business. Thomas Handley accused Elizabeth Vincent of destroying his business when she publicly proclaimed “God forbid that ever Handley take any work in hand that ever shall prosper” after her child died in his care. He claimed as a result of this he lost customers. Some insults were meant to suggest that men were outsiders to their communities and a threat by questioning their parentage – a direct insult to their reputation – such as those levelled at John Johnson by a neighbouring couple who claimed ‘no man knew from where he came’ while also branding him a ‘Scotty Rouge’ and ‘Vagabond’ further pushing an idea of a threat to the community. While drinking alcohol was seen as an important part of male friendship, extreme or common drunkenness was seen as a man out of control. One John Paterson was described as a ‘foresworn drunken fellow’ and a ‘spewbleck’ describing what drunkenness did to him.

 

The cases of women v women or men v women are quite different. When women were insulted it tended to be of a sexual nature, often with the word ‘whore’ being used. Other words of a negative sexual nature solely towards women such as ‘jade’ and ‘queane’ can be seen in cases such as Anne Webb’s diatribe against Margery Dunne in 1593:‘thow hacking queane thou hacking jade comon ridden Jade codpeece whor codpeece quean…’. Some cases such as this one seem to be more attacks on other women out of anger. Other women sometimes would directly attack women who had sex with their husbands such as a case in 1579 where Alice Amos was heckled by Susanna Symonds: ‘Thow art a whore And I sawe my husband stand between thie legs and thow didst put thow hands into his codpeece very rudely.’ The difference between the gender and the language of insult has been explored by Laura Gowing in her article ‘Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London’ in History Workshop. Gowing states that after 1600 the consistory court of London found its time taken up by cases sued by women concerning insults about their sexual and moral behaviour. This statement is backed by numerous records of what is said in these cases.

 

When cases were between men and women the tone often changed. One such case is between Robert Coke and Joan White. The basis of the argument is that Robert found a knife in the street, which Joan then claimed to be hers. Robert then claimed that Joan ‘…liest (sic) like a whore…’, to which Joan replied ‘Whose whore am I…’. Robert then stated ‘…thou art John Cokes whore…’. This relatively simple exchange of insults was enough for it to be heard in court. The document in which these quotes originate is part of the church court record dated 30th October 1585. Some were possibly revenge, men often defamed women they claimed to have slept with; whether this was always true if women rejected male advances or if it was in revenge for when women tried to end things we cannot always know. In 1574 James Granger threatened Alice Marsh by telling her: ‘Alice Marsh was an arraunte whore and that he had lyen with her, and that he would send letters to her husband to declare the same’.

The study of these documents show how insults were tailored to men and women, depending on their social standing. The fact that women were able to pay the costs of taking a case to a judge suggests that their husbands considered an insult against the woman an insult against them, as it would suggest that if their wife was a whore he could not control her sexual actions and he was a cuckold. The number of cases where men brought the cases to court where female family members were accused of ‘whoredom’ is interesting, as men were considered the guardians of their female family member’s sexual behaviour.

I find this all very interesting as it shows how the higher levels of society dealt with insult and potential controversy in the late 16th century, going to such lengths to protect their reputation as they would their own interests.

 

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.

The Angel of Auschwitz: Gisella Perl

Gisella Perl was one of the several million Jews to be sent to a concentration camp during the Second World War. She was one of the lucky few to survive unlike the majority of her family. Despite the death and horrors of the camps, Perl managed to save many of the lives of her female camp mates. Yet Perl’s name is largely unknown. Why? The likelihood is how she saved many of these women’s lives, by providing them with abortions.

Gisella Perl was born in Romania in 1907, graduating first in her high school as the only woman and the only Jew. Her father was initially reluctant to allow her to enrol in medical school fearing she would lose her faith, but when he relented Perl learnt the skills that saved hers and countless of others’ lives. After graduating she became a gynaecologist in Sighetu Marmației.

However her work was interrupted when the Nazis invaded this part of Romania, illegally, via Hungary. Originally placed in a ghetto, Perl and her family, barring her daughter who was sheltered by a non-Jewish family, were sent to Auschwitz in March 1944. Due to her medical training she was selected to work for the camp hospital under the notorious Joseph Mengele.

While called a hospital, it lacked the proper equipment and resources that a hospital required and could be almost as dangerous as the gas chambers. Even basic resources like anaesthesia and drugs were not available. This along with poor nourishment, and hygiene due to a lack of toilets, all made the job of staff much harder. Perl began to rely on her voice as a treatment, hoping she could at least give her patients some kind of relief:

”I treated patients with my voice, telling them beautiful stories, telling them that one day we would have birthdays again, that one day we would sing again. I didn’t know when it was Rosh ha-Shanah, but I had a sense of it when the weather turned cool. So I made a party with the bread, margarine and dirty pieces of sausage we received for meals. I said tonight will be the New Year, tomorrow a better year will come.”

However Perl, like many in the camps, did not realise the true extent of Mengele’s experiments until too late. Mengele had told Perl to send pregnant women to him, telling her they would be sent away for better nutrition. Many women upon hearing this themselves would approach Mengele telling him they were pregnant. Perl then found out that these women were used as guinea pigs in Mengele’s twisted experiments:

“…two lives would be thrown into the crematorium. I decided that never again would there be a pregnant woman in Auschwitz.”

Perl, due to her beliefs had not performed abortions prior to the war and under her own admission struggled greatly with this decision. However she believed it was better to save the life of the mother by performing an abortion before a woman could be sent away where they would die along with their foetus. Perl hoped these women would one day be able to give birth in safer conditions. Such abortions were made harder as Perl was forced to perform these with her bare hands, in the filthy barracks at night without any pain relief. It has been estimated that around 3000 abortions were performed by Perl, giving the women she performed them on a chance continue working, which in turn saved them at least temporarily from death.

Perl ended the war in Bergen-Belsen, moved with the surviving Auschwitz prisoners as part of the desperate attempts of the Nazis to mask what they had done from the oncoming Allied troops. As the camp was liberated she was delivering a baby, the first to be born not under threat of death. Perl had saved countless lives not just through abortions but her care to her fellow inmates, spending many of her nights treating them for the lacerations they suffered from whips brandished by guards. The testimony from her fellow inmates saved her from being accused of collaboration. However the death of her family in the camps; her husband, son and her parents drove Perl to attempt suicide whereupon she was placed in a convent to recuperate. Perl then moved to the US and eventually managed to open a new practice before moving to Israel. Upon entering the delivery room every time she prayed:

“God, you owe me a life – a living baby.”

Perl would go on to deliver around 3000 babies before her death in 1988. Over a hundred mourners attended her funeral with the Jerusalem Post bequeathing the title of “the angel of Auschwitz” on her.

The choice that Perl made has been subject to some debate, some have been inflexible on the position on the morality of abortion. These people believed no matter the circumstances there was no justification such as David Deutschman who said:

“there is no rational or moral justification for . . . wholesale slaughter of infants . . . whether it was done by the brutal Nazis, or by a sentimental and well-meaning female medical personality.”

However many, even those who may generally not approve of abortion, have defended Perl such as Hans Meyerhoff who said:

“[She] risked death and eternal damnation . . . and came to be hailed on behalf of ‘simple humanity’ at the price of thousands of lives which might have been, but never were and never will be. [She] was right in being what she was by committing this enormous wrong.”

Such supporters of Perl believed that she was faced with a choice of preserving the life of the mothers or losing both, Perl did her best to save as many lives as possible, which under the circumstances was only possible through the termination of the foetus. However more important than any moralist’s opinion on Perl’s actions, was the opinion of Perl’s patients who considered her to have saved their lives. One anonymous patient proclaimed:

“Without Dr. Perl’s medical knowledge and willingness to risk her life by helping us, it is would be impossible to know what would have happened to me and to many other female prisoners”.

In the opinion of this writer, whilst I am pro-choice and in support of abortion under circumstances in cases much less horrific than this, I find it hard to see how those who did not suffer under such circumstances, those who faced a choice between abortion or the death of themselves and their foetus, to judge the actions of a doctor who was just doing her best to save as many lives as possible.

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).