Tag Archives: feminism

Beginning Postcolonialism: John McLeod

Beginning PostcolonialismBeginning Postcolonialism by John McLeod was quite good as a starting place for understanding major currents of thought, major debates, and the principal theorists as well as literary figures. For a long time I’ve always felt a bit of disdain for these kinds of introductory books, I’m not sure where that comes from. I think from auto-didactically reading some of the ‘classics’ and finding them so very different from how they were taught me in my early years in school. But as a place to begin, not end, in developing my understanding this was very helpful indeed, and will be worth going back to once I’m a little further along. In terms of learning on one’s own, I actually quite appreciated its format of exposition interspersed with sections highlighting key questions for consideration, and the way it walked the reader through a couple of key theoretical and fictional texts to better illustrate the methodologies used.

Postcolonial Basics

I also really appreciate clarity. Perhaps a little too much, but it’s nice to start with the basics. Like this explanation of the debate over using postcolonial versus post-colonial:

the hyphenated term… seems better suited to denote a historical period or epoch, like those suggested by phrases such as ‘after colonialism’ (5)

Without a hyphen?

referring to forms of representation, reading practices, attitudes and values…. postcolonialism does not refer to something which tangibly is, but rather it denotes something which one does: it can describe a way of thinking, a mode of perception, a line of inquiry, and aesthetic practice, a method of investigation. (6)

Ah. Useful, right? This also explained the trajectory, especially within academia, from ‘Commonwealth’ to ‘Postcolonial’ studies — something I’d never quite known about. Another distinction was in the difference between colonialism and imperialism — McLeod cites Peter Childs and Patrick Williams as they argue that imperialism:

is an ideological project which upholds the legitimacy of the economic and military control of one nation by another. They define imperialism as “the extension and expansion of trade and commerce under the protection of political, legal, and military controls.* Colonialism, however, is only one form of practice, one modality of control which results from the ideology of imperialism, and it specifically concerns the settlement of people in a new location. (9)

Again, that is such a nice encapsulation of something I’ve been thinking about a while. Other things are very new indeed, such as the difference between new ‘postcolonial’ critics from earlier literary studies:

…their insistence that historical, geographical and cultural specifics are vital to both the writing and reading of a text, and cannot be so easily bracketed as secondary colouring or background. (18)

Said, orientalism and literary studies

There is the key role that ‘representations’ and ‘modes of perception’ play — these aren’t terms thrown around a great deal across a large portion of the social sciences. In theorising colonial discourses, McLeod draws out the ways that Fanon and Said, for all their differences:

explore the ways that representations and modes of perception are used as fundamental weapons of colonial power to keep colonised peoples subservient to colonial rule. (19)

What together they brought to postcolonial studies was the idea that:

Overturning colonialism, then, is not just about handing land back to its dispossessed people. relinquishing power to those who were once ruled by Empire. It is also a process of overturning the dominant ways of seeing the world, and representing reality in ways which do not replicate colonialist values.(25)

This is slightly different from what I myself pulled from Said or Fanon, coming from a different tradition, so it’s interesting to read more of  how Said’s Orientalism has been developed further in literary studies, with three main strands of textual analysis prominent:

  1. re-reading canonical English literature in order to examine if past representations perpetuated or questioned the latent assumption of colonial discourses.. (26)

  2. examining ‘the representations of colonized subjects across a variety of colonial texts’ drawing on Derrida, Foucault, Lacan — Spivak and Bhaba (27)

  3. A look at how ‘literatures were primarily concerned with writing back to the centre, actively engage din a process of questioning and travestying colonial discourses in their work.’ (28)

This included the forming of new ‘englishes’, which I quite love, and am very familiar with having grown up along the border. I find them quite subversive, but think the debate around language is so important — to write in the coloniser’s language, to write in your own, to write the creative hybrids that tend to flourish…

I like the focus on change, on struggle (and the self-reflective debate about the efficacy of postcolonial theory in doing either):

‘postcolonialism’ recognises both historical continuity and change. On the one hand, it acknowledges that the material realities and discursive modes of representation established through colonialism are still very much with us today, even if the political map of the world has altered through decolonisation. But on the other hand, it prizes the promise, the possibility and the continuing necessity of change… (39)

Returning to Fanon, it shows the ways that others have built on his insight that, for the person who is colonised:

Ideology assigns him a role and an identity which he is meant to internalise as proper and true, and he is made subject to its iniquitous and disempowering effects, both psychologically and socially.

McLeod argues that Foucault expands this understanding — and I like this explanation of Foucault’s understanding of power (though I don’t think he cites Fanon, I don’t know if he ever read him):

Although the example of Fanon soberly highlights the pain of being represented pejoratively by other people, Foucault argues that power also worked through gratification. Power is not simply punitive; if it was, it could not function so successfully, gain so much day-to-day support nor ultimately maintain its authority. … Indeed, we might consider that colonial discourses have been successful because they are so productive: they enable some colonisers to feel important, superior, noble and benign, as well as gaining the complicity of the colonised by enabling some people to derive a sense of self-worth and material benefit through their participation in the business of Empire. (45)

More useful summaries of the activities outside my own field — what colonial discourse analysis does:

‘first…refuses the humanist assumption that literary texts exist above and beyond their historical contexts. (46)

‘second…is caught up in the sordid history of colonial exploitation and dispossession…’

third, the attention to the machinery of colonial discourses in the past can act as a means of resourcing resistance to the continuation of colonial representations and realities…. (46)

Texts such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre have been as much a part of this analysis as those by writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Chinua Achebe. Another key distinction that is nice to just read clearly stated:

‘Orientalism’ and colonial discourse do not amount to the same thing. They are not interchangeable terms. (47)

Just as I found this a very useful summary of Said’s work in headings:

  • Orientalism constructs binary oppositions

  • Orientalism is a Western fantasy

  • Orientalism is institutional

  • Orientalism is literary and creative

  • Orientalism is legitimating and self-perpetuating

  • There is a distinction between ‘latent’ and ‘manifest’ Orientalism

Of course McLeod also summarises the critiques of Said: that Orientalism is ahistorical, that it ignores resistance by the colonised, that it ignores resistance in the West, that it ignores the significance of gender.

But what a foundation to build from. It does feel very contained however. I liked thinking about how Bhaba looks at why the two aspects of orientalism never quite work as they are pulling in two different directions, in his own words:

colonial discourse produces the colonised as a social reality which is at once “other” and yet entirely knowable and visible.’ (63)

So of course there is room here to maneuver.

Bhaba argues that within colonialist representations the colonised subject is always in motion, sliding ambivalently between the polarities of similarity and difference, rationality and fantasy. He or she will simply not stand still. hence the prevalence for stereotypes in colonialist discourses: stereotypes are an attempt to arrest this motion and fix the colonised once and for all. (64-65)

All fail to achieve to fixity, but it is interesting to think of stereotypes in this way.

I haven’t read enough Bhaba, I will fix that.  The above insights I find useful and hope to work more with, others I find interesting and am still thinking about, such as his descriptions of the threat of ‘mimicry’:

Hearing their language coming through the mouths of the colonised, the colonisers are faced with the worrying threat of resemblance between coloniser and colonised. This threatens to collapse the Orientalist structure of knowledge… (66)

What I do love, though, is his focus on struggle. For example, Bhaba critiques Said in not seeing

how colonial discourses generate the possibilities of their own critique. (67)

Nationalism and nationalist discourses

There is another chapter on nationalism and nationalist representation, ie negritude and how important these came to be for struggles for independence. This is followed by a chapter of the  discussion and critiques that this inspired. Impossible to summarise it, I shall just focus on bits and pieces that jumped out at me, like Gilroy’s lovely definition of race from After Empire:

“race” refers primarily to an impersonal, discursive arrangement, the brutal result of the raciological ordering of the world, not its cause. (132)

The there is Balibar writing about the way that

nationalism always has a reciprocal relation with racism (although the nature of that relation can take many different forms): where one is found, the other is never far away. Therefore, in using nationalist, it is claimed that decolonising peoples are in danger of perpetuating a concept which tends t support divisive processes of racialisation. (133-134)

Again returning to Bhaba’s work, where

nationalist discourses are ultimately illiberal and must always be challenged. (142)

With a quote from Robert Young, McLeod also notes that it is not simply race at play in these discourses:

nationalism is frequently a gendered discourse; it traffics in representations of men and women which serve to reinforce patriarchal inequalities between them. (136)

Gender

I wish intersectionality was woven into this discussion, that people like Patricia Hill Collins or bell hooks were quoted and part fo these theoretical discussions. But there is a chapter on feminism, that opens up with a definition from June Hannam that I hadn’t seen before and that I think I like:

a set of ideas that recognize in an explicit way that women are subordinate to men and seek to address imbalances of power between the sexes. Central to feminism is the view that women’s condition is socially constructed, and therefore open to change. At its heart is the belief that women’s voices should be heard — that they should represent themselves, put forward their own view of the words and achieve autonomy in their lives. (Feminism, 2006, 3-4, quoted p 198)

This is where we really start to come to grips with Spivak. McLeod discusses some of the debates and difficulties around naming, the problems that surround the use of ‘first-world’ and ‘third-world’ and yet a need to have some way to mark identities in recognition of power differentials etc. To get around this to some extent — acknowledging its flaws but hoping to salvage what is useful, McLeod writes…

So, although such phrases will be used in this chapter, they remain provisional categories of convenience rather than factual denotations of fixed and stable groups. (200)

I like that way of managing it. Some of the starting points for Spivak…

As poststructuralism would have it, human consciousness is constructed discursively. Our subjectivity and consciousness are constituted by the shifting discourses of power which endlessly ‘speak through’ us, situating us here and there in particular positions and relations. In these terms we are not the authors of ourselves. We do not simply construct our own identities but have them written for us; the subject cannot be wholly ‘sovereign’ over the construction of selfhood. Instead, the subject is ‘de-centred’ in that its consciousness is always being constructed from positions outside itself. (218)

Spivak argues that this is as true for colonial or working class subjects, but Foucault and Deleuze both wrongly often fall into speaking of them as essentialised and centred subjects. I found McLeod’s interpretation of ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, which I tried to read too long ago and found very difficult, so can’t judge if this is fair but regardless it is quite interesting:

Rather than making the subaltern as female seem to speak, intellectuals must bring to crisis the representation systems which rendered her mute in the first place, challenging the very forms of knowledge that are complicit in her silencing. (221)

I also like Spivak’s idea of ‘strategic essentialism’, which he explains:

involves us in actively choosing to use a concept which we know is flawed, often as a way of challenging the very system which has fashioned that concept in the first place, (222).

I like this mix of theoretical rigor and bowing to practicality, I’ve always meant to try reading Spivak again. I like how much of the postcolonial debate is about how we move forward without erasing the past, about finding the points of hope without turning away from past points of despair.

Moving forward: borders, hybridisation, collective difference

I like how often these involve ideas of borders, though possibly just because I am from one…

In Bhaba’s thinking, the disruption of received totalising narratives of individual and group identity made possible at the ‘border’ can be described as an ‘uncanny’ moment, where all those forgotten in he construction of, say, national groups return to disturb and haunt such holistic ways of thinking. This uncanny disruption brings with it trauma and anxiety. It serves as a reminder that exclusive, exclusionary systems of meaning are forever haunted by those who are written out and erased. (254)

This is trying to tackle at one of the key questions of our times, I think. How to we come together made stronger by our differences to find justice? McLeod writes:

The problem posed in ‘New Ethnicities’ by Stuart Hall has remained: how are new communities forged which do not homogenise people or ignore the differences between them; communities based on crossings, interactions, partial identifications? Can there be ‘solidarity thorough difference’? (264)

Which is part of why I love Stuart Hall. I love Paul Gilroy’s idea of conviviality as well, though still find it slippery:

Gilroy’s answer lies in the ways in which different cultural practices circulate in the black Atlantic between groups in different locations, creating contingent transnational forms of community. ‘Solidarity through difference’ can be built by plotting the ways in which diaspora peoples in any one location draw upon the resources and ideas of other peoples in different times and places in order to contest the continuing agency of colonialist, nationalist or racist discourses at various sites(267).

This is the hope for the future, this, and as the conclusion emphasises, the habit of ongoing dialogue and reflexivity within the discipline.

[McLeod, John (2010) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press]

*An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory, Peter Childs and Patrick Williams, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1997, p 227

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Patricia Hill Collins: Academia, Education and Speaking to Power

Patricia Hill Collins is brilliant not just on intersectionality ‘out there’ a safe distance in the wider world, but with how we ourselves deal with it, particularly within academia. I thought writing this blog today would help me face a little better the prospect of tomorrow when Trump is sworn in, when I am far from the U.S. and all of my friends most at risk and deep in the struggle for survival. This is the long game we are playing.

For myself, so much of what she wrote seemed so obvious, yet it felt so good to see it named, to see the conflicts laid out, to benefit from her view on these issues all of us with some level of outsider status face within the academy from a perspective and positionality I have much to learn from.

Many of the themes in Black Feminist Thought reflect my sustained effort to reconcile my independent view of the world with my devalued place in it. (8)

More that rings so true:

Living one’s life as a person on the bottom involves listening for lies all the time. The challenge lies in thinking critically about race, class, gender, and sexuality without driving yourself and your loved ones crazy. When oppressed groups embrace their own experience to challenge dominant curricular offerings and classroom practices, they create space for their own self-defined view of the world. (132)

This is why being in the position of academic is so difficult:

As individuals, each of us occupies a dual location: included in some groups, yet excluded from others. The issue for most of us lies in being a pure insider or outsider than in terms of our participation within all of the venues to which we belong… Negotiating the contemporary politics of knowledge production from “outsider within” social locations raises some fundamental dilemmas. (xi)

That whether or not we think about these dilemmas, they still affect us. Seeing them transforms us, and that is no easy thing. A wonderful quote from James Baldwin:

One of the problems of education is that “precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society. it is your responsibility to change society, if you think of yourself as an educated person. (132)

In academia any fiery stance in this war is flattened by crushing hierarchy, feels like a series of endless hoops through which we move, and the undeniable derogation of work seen as too ‘popular’, work that’s too ‘political’ and thus not seen as academic, and in a world where institutions claim monopoly on knowledge production. We ourselves have to assert our claims on knowledge production as part of that, and so all that is co-produced or collectively created is seen as inferior.

We are groomed in very distinct ways, but we can choose a different path:

My lengthy educational training was designed to equip me to wield the language of power to serve the interests of the gatekeepers who granted me legitimacy. My teachers did not consider that I might choose to use those same weapons to challenge much of what I learned… (xii)

So how do we challenge? There are a number of ways, working on a number of levels — and I love that the essential knowledge that we must fight remains, while the complexities of how we conduct that fight are explored.  I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to think that maybe this doctorate wasn’t a huge mistake, that actually truth to power can be — needs to be — spoken from this position.

Much of my academic writing strives to speak the truth to power, namely, to develop alternative analyses about social injustices that scholarly audiences will find credible… Speaking the truth to power in ways that undermine and challenge that power can often best be done as an insider. … Challenging power structures from the inside working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly. (xiii)

Broadening the cracks in the system… That is one way. Another:

A second strategy of intellectual activism aims to speak the truth directly to the people. (xiii)

Both of these are necessary, and both must subvert the dominant understandings of intelligence, scholarship and value. It isn’t often I throw around words like epistemology, but this is so key:

How do power relationships shape who is believed, who is disbelieved, and why? These questions lie at the heart of epistemology, a theory of knowledge that examines the standards used to assess what we know or why we believe what we believe. (24)

At this level perhaps we have the chance to shape these larger frames, while holding ourselves to this standard she lays out in the form of three questions to :

help us navigate new paths for engaged scholarship:

  1. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought speak the truth to people about the reality of their lives?

  2. does engaged scholarship like Black feminist thought equip people to resist oppression?

  3. does engaged scholarship move people to struggle in favor of social justice? (26)

I like too, the emphasis on our accountability:

In this sense, there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar…In contrast, scholarship in service to social justice invokes the responsibilities that are associated with the idea of service itself… (43)

This means as committed academics we have to work on multiple levels. That of concrete action:

The overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change. (42)

But that it is okay that not all of our work is at that level. I also appreciate more every day this distinction between ourselves, our struggle, and our job within the institution:

I’ve always recognized that one can do intellectual production in many different locations. When it comes to my scholarship, I have survived by reminding myself that I always have a choice. I never mistake my job as being synonymous with intellectual activism or my own life’s work. I also remind myself that, despite the fact that intellectual work remains devalued within U.S. society, I know that the power of ideas matters. (110)

I also appreciate more every day the necessity to find others, to do this collectively, to support one another:

There are so many different kinds of people from all walks of life who care deeply about building a better future. We need to develop better ways of recognizing and finding one another. Continuing to do social justice work, including intellectual activism within sociology, requires building communities of practice of people who value social justice work, especially if they look quite different than us. (111)

The importance of drawing sustenance from unexpected places — although given my shyness growing up, I always had this kind of relationship with authors I loved. Which is why I am an author now myself. It is hard in life to find like souls:

In the course of investigating the absence, I found a nurturing political community among people I could not meet face to face. Many of them were dead, were unknown to the rest of academia, or were not considered to be intellectuals or theorists. Yet, their ideas spoke so strongly to my experiences. (112)

We can look to other forms of pedagogical practice, like those of Paolo Freire and Myles Horton, educational processes for liberation. Substantively? She lays out a good list of what we still don’t quite know how to do in moving the struggle forward.

These judgments by category must be replaced with fully human relationships that transcend the legitimate differences created by race, class, and gender as categories of analysis. We require new categories of connection, new visions of what our relationships with one another can be.

Our task is immense. We must first recognize race, class, and gender as interlocking categories of analysis that together cultivate profound differences in our personal biographies. But then we must transcend these very difference by conceptualizing race, class, and gender to create new categories of connection. (215)

That means:

…we must shift our discourse away from additive analyses of oppression. (215)

That means we must find new, mutually respectful and supportive ways to come together, build stronger, better, broader coalitions to achieve fundamental changes. We need to be better.

Sharing a common cause assists individuals and groups in maintaining relationships that transcend these differences. Building effective coalitions involves struggling to hear one another and developing empathy for the other points of view. The coalitions that I have been involved in that lasted and last and that worked have been those where commitment to a specific issue mandated collaboration as the best strategy for addressing the issue at hand (225)

and of course, individual accountability…developing empathy and finding respect. She writes

Deconstructive politics may seem radical in the moment of destroying the walls of segregation that separate people from one another. The pile of rubble left behind holds the promise of a new society, yet it cannot be a new society until we build something new with the pieces. (235)

But I believe with her, that still today one of the essential questions in our world structured as it is continues to be:

Over and over again this question, ‘What will it take for Black women to be free?’ (50)

Save

Save

Stars Falling is out today

Stars fallingA new story, ‘Stars Falling,’ is out in the world today! Always feels good to have a new story out. A nice surprise to find an acceptance not a rejection. A surprise that really did me good.

I know they say writing is mostly about rejection, but that doesn’t make it easier really.

So, I am so happy to have a story out. And sad at the same time, because this story makes me damn sad. I am not entirely sure where this story comes from — other than being spewed out by a whole mess of memories and feelings that never usually see the light of day. Mostly from growing up in Tucson, from LA. Mostly of that world where women blame each other for the things men do. That world where they stay with the men who beat them. Maybe this story is a twisted feminist take on domestic violence, but I worry it is not feminist enough. I don’t feel feminism has equipped me very well to deal with the memory of junior high when one girl curled her hands in another girls hair and beat her head into the concrete and there was blood everywhere. The memory of women who thought love was violent passion and jealousy and fighting and making up — and the memory of myself not totally rejecting that idea — despite the amazing model I so luckily had in my parents. It didn’t equip me very well to deal with such contradiction, or the phone call I picked up to hear ‘Bitch, who is this? Bitch, what are you doing at my man’s house? I’m going to come over there and kill you.’

I was pretty sure it was a wrong number. But not entirely. Not after being hit in the face by another ex for stealing her man, even though she was already married again with two kids. I know I gave up on feminism way too early, I didn’t even know about the waves when I gave up. I been writing it, and coming back to it theoretically in various guises, with the help of bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins among others. All of these things being the reason, of course, why feminism is so desperately important.

This story is still back dealing with the part of the world I tried to leave behind, but if life teaches you anything it’s that you can’t really do that. Not that any of this was conscious while I was writing, it’s not how my writing works. Nothing in this is based on anything real except the L.A. bar with its velvet green curtains, pricey martinis and the god-awful band. I had a good night too, with Larry and his friends, and wrote some notes down on a napkin. Like a real writer does. But I look at this thing now I’ve written it and see it as a kind of reworking of these memories, and a channel for the anger that I still carry from years helping women and children get their papers under the Violence Against Women Act, then encountering so many more women going through his — or coming out of this — through tenant work. Most of my anger is for the men, but there is some emerging from the helplessness I felt as women I loved tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back, tried to leave and went back. I know the cycle of violence, know how hard it is, I hate that part of me is still angry at them.

I worked on an asylum case for a man, once, who had been horribly tortured for his work in the community in El Salvador. Good work, important work. Turns out after that he started doing unspeakable things to his wife. Violence to violence, you see. I didn’t know who to be angry at then.

I have said the words ‘you have to leave him or one day he will kill you’, I have said them many times. There’s something else here too, in my mind, which is that I can’t find the right words to describe the strangeness of knowing that of all the women I have known, the woman he did kill was my friend from college who never heard those words from me. White, middle-class, not just crazy smart but also well-able to take care of herself. Esther. She was New York cool, knew arthouse movies and visited galleries and talked nonchalantly about directors and writers and artists — I had never encountered someone my age (well, one year older, all of 18) before. She helped me move into my first apartment. She was so self-possessed, and so impossibly far from the violence of my own world.

I still haven’t been able to come to terms with her death, have started writing things and stopped, started and stopped. I knew domestic violence was as prevalent among rich families as among poor from counselors and therapists I have worked with. I don’t think I could have believed it deep down. It took my partner to remind me that you never really know the demons people are facing. That leave you stabbed and bleeding, dying on the floor.

I have left a prevalence of certain attitudes behind, perhaps, but never violence.

Of all the strong and beautiful women I have known who have lived with fear of death at the hands of their partner, Esther was the best situated to get out. She was the one who did not. Esther still brings tears to my eyes and a riot of feelings I can’t sort out. Except the clarity of missing her and the guilt for not keeping in touch.

Anyway, all of this leaves me a bit ambivalent about ‘Stars Falling’. But I am rather proud it’s the only woman’s voice in this issue, flawed as it may be as a story. I write noir, and love it as a genre, because it grapples with this darkness within us and around us. It grapples in flawed ways, because how else can we try to do it, and don’t we have to try? But noir is also generally so damn male. A little in love with its own violence. A little over fond of violent women stereotypes. These other stories sharing the issue with me are good and tight and I enjoyed them, but they fit in that mold. So it almost feels the wrong company. But I hope in a challenging kind of way, so I am still glad it’s there.

Luckily the other stories I’m currently flogging have nothing like this kind of baggage attached to them.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Danielle McGuire — Black Women, Rape and Resistance

Danielle McGuire - At the Dark End of the StreetI love how Danielle McGuire has put women’s struggle against sexual violence and rape front and center of the freedom struggle. Where it always was, though never enough acknowledged. She says it more eloquently than I could:

The real story–that the civil rights movement is also rooted in African-American women’s long  struggle against sexual violence–has never before been written. The stories of black women who fought for bodily integrity and personal dignity hold profound truths about the sexualized violence that marked racial politics and African American lives during the modern civil rights movement. If we understand the role rape and sexual violence played in African Americans’ daily lives and within the larger freedom struggle, we have to reinterpret, if not rewrite, the history of the civil rights movement. At the End of the Street does both. (xx)

I have been reading and reading and reading…so much reading. And yet Danielle McGuire has brought together so much I didn’t know. Through Septima Clark and Ella Baker I’ve come to know Rosa Parks a little better, but I never knew that as part of her work for the NAACP she was sent to investigate reports of rape. On a trip to Abbeville, her hometown, she helped document and fight with Recy Taylor — kidnapped at gunpoint as she walked home with her family, and raped by all four men before being left in the woods.

My heart, oh my heart broke to read so many stories of white men openly kidnapping black women to rape them, and even on the rare occasions it came to trial, no one was ever sentenced. Still. Rosa Parks helped set up the Committee for Equal Justice, a network of groups started up in support of Recy Taylor’s case. It built on some of the frameworks established to help the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. The National Negro Congress held a mass meeting in Harlem to discuss the case — and my own well-studied and well-loved California Eagle was there among multiple other black-owned papers. I’m sure it was Charlotta Bass herself, I need to look through her autobiography to see if she mentions it.

Of course, despite (actually, probably because) it was white men raping black women with impunity, it was the reverse scenario that invoked terror:

Unsubstantiated rumors of black men attacking innocent white women sparked almost 50 percent of all race riots in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II. In 1943 alone there were 242 violent interracial clashes in forty-seven cities. (26)

Then back we come to the importance of this in understanding the civil rights movement:

Only by understanding the long and relatively hidden history of sexualized violence in Montgomery, Alabama, and African Americans’ efforts to protect black womanhood, can we see that the Montgomery Bus Boycott was more than a movement for civil rights. It was also a women’s movement for dignity, respect and bodily integrity. (51)

Just as the more background to this, there’s the case of Willie McGee in Laurel, Mississippi, his white employer sleeping with him telling him if he didn’t — and if her ever broke it off — she would cry rape. There’s his wife’s resignation to the situation, because what power did they have in such a situation? He was executed by the state after his employer did in fact call rape — sentenced in 1945, all appeals lost by 1951.  There’s Maceo Snipes killed for being the only black man to vote in Georgia, on 17th July 1946. In Montgomery itself, in 1949 there was Gertrude Perkins picked up by two police officers at the bus stop, driven out of town, raped, returned to the bus stop.

But Montgomery was well organised. McGuire describes Rufus A. Lewis — WWII vet and football coach at Alabama State University, member of church and multiple association, owner of largest Black funeral home:

he was financially independent and not easily intimidated by white economic reprisals. Lewis parlayed his social and economic wealth into a spacious brick clubhouse, named the Citizens Club. It functioned as the headquarters for many of the city’s community organizations. Here Lewis taught veterans and others the ins and outs of voter registration and created a safe space where African Americans could “come and socialize” and, in the process, get politicized. (70)

In every book about movement, spaces like this seem to be so important.

Then there was the Women’s Political Council, founded by Mary Fair Burks, working with Rufus Lewis’s veterans group as well as E.D. Nixon’s Progressive Democrats, who registered voters and ran classes. Jo Ann Robinson became its head, began to focus on the buses.

They were connected to the group ‘Sojourners for Truth and Justice’, a short-lived but important organization formed by Louise Thomspon Patterson and Beulah Richardson issuing a call to women  to convene in D.C. in support of Du Bois in 1951. They highlighted Rosa Lee Ingram’s case, a single mother and sharecropper in Georgia. In 1947, a white man attempted to rape her while her two sons were present, and in the struggle the attacker was killed. All three were sentenced to death. They were paroled in 1959.

Because of the work the Women’s Political Council had already done on the buses, they were all ready to go when Rosa Parks made her stand. After hearing about her arrest they immediately called for a bus boycott for the following Monday, over the weekend they bundled, mimeographed and cut 52,500 flyers (holy jesus!) and distributed them. These women were awesome. The day-long boycott was a huge success, taking place the same day as Rosa appeared in court.

I love this phrase, called out during the court hearing and taken up as a chant: ‘they’ve messed with the wrong one now’. Almost immediately, however, the women were pushed out of leadership. Neither Rosa nor Jo Ann Robinson was allowed to be present at the meeting to form the Montgomery Improvement Association nor invited to be part of the leadership. At the 1st mass meeting Rosa Parks was seen but not heard, turned into a quiet respectable lady for the press, and removed from her activist past. McGuire writes:

As long as WPC members handled the day-to-day business of the boycott, Jo Ann Robinson did not challenge the MIA’s male leadership. “We felt it would be better,” Robinson said, “if the ministers held the most visible leadership positions.” (108)

But look at this picture

African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)
African-American women were the backbone of the Montgomery bus boycott. Here black women walk to work in February 1956. (p 109)

A large bulk of the funds were raised by Mrs. Georgia Gilmore, who formed a club called the Club from Nowhere to make food, sell it and donate the proceeds to the boycott, in Gilmore’s words:

When we’d raise as much as three hundred dollars for a Monday night rally, then we knowed we was on our way for five hundred on Thursday night. (118)

Whites directed violence at the walkers, most of the women — pelting them from their cars with water balloons, containers of urine, rotten eggs, potatoes, apples. Jo Ann Robinson had a brick thrown through her window, acid poured all over her car. Police did mass ticketing of anyone black driving over the period — Robinson alone received over 30 tickets. On January 30 whites bombed King’s house, two days later E.D. Nixon’s, everyone was provided with armed guards.

Arrests were used in a political attempt to stop the bus boycott. The Grand Jury indicted eight-nine people as being behind an illegal boycott — all of them came to court to turn themselves in. An amazing series of mug shots resulted — a hall of fame really. Look at these amazing women:

fa6faa517d38a9dfd1e0fbb2f5d41e30

They all knew this boycott had changed things.

Watching the crowd mock the police, Jo Ann Robinson realized the world she had always known had somehow changed. The fear that had held black people down had began to evaporate. “If there was any nervousness or uneasiness,” she argued, “it was on the part of the whites.” (126)

Still, official tellings fell so very short. Danielle McGuire notes how FOR’s retelling of the story in their comic book showed Rosa Parks as just a tired woman. It shows ministers coming to her rescue and themselves calling for the boycott, describes an anguished Martin Luther King muttering ‘something ought to be done’, and then himself mimeographing 500 leaflets (131). It beggars belief really. And then there’s the fact that the court cases actually ending segregation on public transportation were Claudette Colvin, Mary Louise Smith, Mrs. Aurelia Browder, and Mrs Susie McDonald. (132) Why streamline a movement and a heroism that belongs to so many people? This post is a little too listy because all these things happened that I had either not read about or simply not registered — though I am not listing everything either.

There’s a mention of Daisy Bates, who with husband L.C. Bates owned the Arkansas State Press — another African-American press woman and newspaper owner! I thought Charlotta Bass the only one in these years. I hope to read more of her, but part of what drove her forward — her own mother was raped and murdered by three white men when Daisy Bates was seven.

1959 — Betty Jean Owens is kidnapped at gunpoint by four men, driven off and raped in Florida.

Fanny Lou Hamer went to hospital for removal of small cyst, and they removed her whole uterus without her consent. This was a common occurrence. This was before she ever started protesting.

In June 1963 Hamer and other SNCC volunteers were arrested in Winona, Mississippi for sitting at the lunch counter in the bus terminal. Women one by one were stripped, beaten, sexually humiliated. Prisoners regularly ‘herded into exam room with cattle prods’, stripped and searched, women underwent “rough, painful vaginal searches’, in Parchman penitentiary, all of this with gloves dipped in lysol. (196)

Such physical assaults connect, of course, to a huge amount of white anxiety about sex, about miscegenation (that they do not initiate and control), and the use of rumours and lies to stir up fear and hate. Freedom summer itself was portrayed as an attempt to miscegenate, with young students described as sex-crazed ‘beatniks’ and black rapists brought in to attack white women (206). McGuire quotes Karl Flemming of Newsweek:

That is what it was all about, all the time, everywhere. It was the great underpinning of the whole damn thing–just pure sexual fear. (207)

Sally Belfrage, in her book Freedom Summer, writes that they

knew that whites overblown orations about interracial sex masked an all-out effort to defend their position atop the political, economic, and social hierarchy. (208)

She also described the hypocrisy of what they called ‘nighttime integration’ as white men raped black women, but refused ever to acknowledge the consequences in the form of their light-skinned children.

On March 25, 1965, as marchers arrived in Montgomery from Selma, downtown was empty. Governor George Wallace had declared a “danger holiday for female state employees.” (212) An Alabama congressman stated that all the volunteers who had poured into Selma for the march had been hired, given free room and board and promised free sex (219). He hired Albert C. Persons to investigate, and he came up with Sex and Civil Rights: The True Selma Story, full of doctored photographs. Much of this was recycled in Jim Clark’s book I Saw Selma Raped: The Jim Clark Story.

Such vileness.

McGuire quotes Virginia Durr from her autobiography Outside the Magic Circle (1987, p 175)

All of the cesspool of sickness connected with sex guilt comes from the fact that white men of the South had had so many sexual affairs with black women. And they just turned it around. It’s the only thing I can figure out that made them so crazy on the subject. (222)

There’s the murder of Viola Liuzzo, white Detroit housewife, driving people home after the Montgomery march, shot dead by a car full of the KKK and an FBI agent along for the ride. Hoover immediately went into action to smear her character as race traitor, prostitute and bad mother and deflect attention onto anything but  the FBI’s role. (225)

Not until 1967’s Loving v Virginia were laws against interracial marriage finally struck down.

McGuire ends with the 1974 Joan Little case, “Power to the Ice Pick”, who used his own weapon against the white prison guard attempting to rape her before fleeing prison. The campaign to defend her from execution was an historic one, but not in the ways it is traditionally argued. The NAACP continued to make their distinctions between cases worth taking to push equality forward, as it

‘maintained its historic reluctance to embrace “sex cases” and did not get involved; however, local chapters helped raise money. (261)

And here McGuire challenges the other assumptions about this case:

The Free Joan Little campaign is often portrayed as the product of second-wave feminism, which finally enable women to break the code of silence surrounding sexual violence and “speak out” against rape. While this may be true for white, middle-class feminists who became active in the antirape movement in the early 1970s, African-American women had been speaking out and organizing politically against sexual violence and rape for more than a century. (277)

[McGuire, Danielle L. (2010) At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books.]

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Vandana Shiva: Biopiracy

3354758Vandana Shiva is amazing — I only recently read her for the first time and had my giant activist-writer crush, but Biopiracy might have been even better. Another three of her books were sitting on the shelves here, happy days, so I picked this one up.

Colonialism and capitalism vs life with insights into all three. I loved it, and am finding it very useful in thinking about how we arrived where we are now and just what we are up against as well as where hope lies.

I’m going to be a little sneaky and start with the summation and quotes from the conclusion as an overview. Shiva is arguing that there have been three waves of globalization – the 1st through the initial colonization by European powers, the 2nd through the imposition of the ‘Western idea of ‘development’ during the postcolonial era over the past five decades, and the 3rd  unleashed approximately 5 years ago through ‘free trade’ and the commodification of life itself. Biopiracy. She argues that

… each time a global order has tried to wipe out diversity and impose homogeneity, disorder and disintegration have been induced, not removed. (105)

This process of continuing destruction and disorder is, in many ways, all rooted in that first wave of colonisation, that initial period of destruction and violence that continues on through our present. This is one of the key transformations I think, and this environmentalist and feminist lens such an interesting angle to look at the issue from:

‘Resource’ originally implied life…regeneration…With the rise of industrialism and colonialism a shift in meaning took place. ‘Natural resources’ became inputs for industrial commodity production and colonial trade. Nature was transformed into dead and manipulable matter. Its capacity to renew and grow had been denied. The violence against nature, and the disruption of its delicate interconnections, was a necessary part of denying its self-organizing capacity. And this violence against nature, in turn, translated into violence in society.

Anything not fully managed or controlled by European men was seen as a threat. This included nature, non-Western societies, and women. What was self-organized was considered wild, out of control, and uncivilized. When self-organization is perceived as chaos, it creates a context to impose a coercive and violent order for the betterment and improvement of the ‘other’, whose intrinsic order is then disrupted and destroyed.

This is such a key insight on the intrinsic connection between violence and capitalism, the ways that violence against nature is mirrored by and indivisible from violence against society. The nature of this violence has changed, but has the same roots and is manifested through all three waves.

I don’t quite know why I am so fascinated by its beginnings, but so I am. So are many others, luckily, and the intro really gets into it–   ‘Piracy Through patents: The Second Coming of Columbus’:

Columbus set a precedent when he treated the license to conquer non-European peoples as a natural right of European men. The land titles issued by the pope through European kings and queens were the first patents. The colonizer’s freedom was built on the slavery and subjugation of the people with original rights to the land. this violent takeover was rendered ‘natural’ by defining the colonized people as nature, thus denying them their humanity and freedom.

John Locke’s treatise on property effectually legitimized this same process of theft and robbery during the enclosure movement in Europe. Locke clearly articulated capitalism’s freedom to build as the freedom to steel: property is created by removing resources from nature and mixing them with labour. This ‘labour’ is not physical, but labour in its ‘spiritual’ form, as manifested in the control of capital. According to Locke, only those who own capital have the natural right to own natural resources, a right that supersedes the common rights of others with prior claims. Capital is thus defined as a source of freedom that, at the same time, denies freedom to the land, forests, rivers, and biodiversity that capital claims as its own, and to others whose rights are based on their labour. (8-9)

This is well on point too:

It seems that the Western powers are still driven by the colonizing impulse: to discover, conquer, own, and possess everything, every society, every culture. The colonies have now been extended to the interior spaces, the ‘genetic codes’ of life forms from microbes and plants to animals, including humans. (9)

On to biopiracy:

At the heart of Columbus’s discovery was the treatment of piracy as a natural right of the colonizer, necessary for the deliverance of the colonized… Biopiracy is the Columbian ‘discovery’ 500 years after Columbus. Through patents and genetic engineering, new colonies are being carved out. The land, the forests, the rivers, the oceans, and the atmosphere have all been colonized, eroded, and polluted. capital now has to look for new colonies to invade and exploit for its further accumulation. These new colonies are, in my view, interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants and animals. Resistance to biopiracy is a resistance to the ultimate colonization of life itself–of the future of evolution as well as the future of non-Western traditions of relating to and knowing nature. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse species to evolve. It is a struggle to protect the freedom of diverse cultures to evolve. It is a struggle to conserve both cultural and biological diversity. (11)

There is so much in here specific to law and policy — lots about the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT), the Uruguay round in 1994 that set up the requirement of signing on to TRIPS, or Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights that brought patenting into international trade agreements. I have focused more on the broader ideas and philosophies, though I love that this a book to incite and facilitate meaningful struggle to change these terrifying and unjust world systems.

She starts with a very interesting look at the nature of creativity.

1: Knowledge, Creativity and Intellectual Property Rights

What is creativity? This is at the heart of the current debates about patents on life. Patents on life enclose the creativity inherent in living systems that reproduce and multiply in self-organized freedom. They enclose the interior spaces of the bodies of women, plants, and animals. They also enclose the free spaces of intellectual creativity by transforming publicly generated knowledge into private property. Intellectual property rights on life forms are supposed to reward and stimulate creativity. their impact is actually the opposite–to stifle the creativity intrinsic to life forms and the social production of knowledge. (13)

She examines three different kinds of creativity:

1. The creativity inherent in living organisms that allows them to evolve, recreate and regenerate themselves.
2. The creativity of indigenous communities that have developed knowledge systems to conserve and utilize the rich biological diversity of our planet
3. The creativity of modern scientists in university of corporate laboratories who find ways to use living organisms to generate profits. (14)

Only the third kind of creativity is acknowledged under Intellectual Property Rights systems as defined under GATT, the biodiversity convention, or the lovely U.S. Trade Act which includes the Special 301 clause – this is, she argues ‘a prescription for a monoculture of language’ (15)

All of this marks the ongoing shift from common rights to private rights, as well as a world where knowledge is recognized only when it generates profits, rather than when it meets social needs. Central to this is the idea that people will only innovate if they can profit from their innovation through a system of patent protection. This is so ludicrous yet so ubiquitous.

It is clear why such a lethal combination of ideas leads to the destruction cultural commons and skews research away from areas that are key in terms of importance and or social need, to focus on profit-generating studies.

This is an enclosure of the intellectual commons, and I am loving the idea of commons broadened in this way.

2: Can Life Be Made? Can Life be Owned? Redefining Biodiversity

This describes how the patenting of genes and new strains created in laboratories have been redefined as ‘biotechnological invention’ so that they can be made proprietary. The corporate argument for the right to patent such things is that they are new, ‘invented’ by human beings. For tehse same genes present in food that people are attempting to refrain from eating or demanidning that they be identified, corporate arguments are that they are perfectly natural and therefore harmless.

Again to the subject of violence:

Patenting living organisms encourages two forms of violence. First, life forms are treated as if they are mere machines, thus denying their self-organizing capacity. Second, by allowing the patenting of future generations of plants and animals, the self-reproducing capacity of living organisms is denied. (29)

I also found this look at reductionist biology quite interesting, and a critique that is interesting to think through around other issues of diversity in relation to other kinds of  positivism in the social sciences.

Reductionism biology is multifaceted. At the species level, this reductionism puts value on only one species—humans—and generates an instrumental value for all others. It therefore displaces and pushes to extinction all species whose instrumental value to humans is small or non-existent. Monocultures of species and biodiversity erosion are the inevitable consequences of reductionist thought in biology, especially when applied to forestry, agriculture, and fisheries. We call this first-order reductionism.

Reductionist biology is increasingly characterized by a second-order reductionism—genetic reductionism—the reduction of all behaviour of biological organisms, including humans, to genes. Second-order reductionism amplifies the ecological risks of first-order reductionism, while introducing new issues, like the patenting of life forms. (30)

Epistemologically, it leads to a machine view of the world and its rich diversity of life forms. It makes us forget that living organisms organize themselves. It robs us of our capacity for the reverence of life—and without that capacity, protection of the diverse species on the planet is impossible. (35)

Living systems are self-organized, complex, diverse, characterized by self-healing and repair. They are resilient (one of the latest buzzwords) and adaptable, all those things being praised by the new thinking around networks and connectivity being written about by Fritjof Capra, Nabeel Hamdi, permaculturists, transitionists, and slime mould enthusiasts among others.

The freedom for diverse species and ecosystems to self-organize is the basis of ecology. Ecological stability derives from the ability of species and ecosystems to adapt, evolve and respond. (36)

Seems like it makes sense that we do our best to think this way all the time. I like how this is as true of a smallholding such as the one I am working on now, as it is for the East End community I was in before I came here. Instead we have the likes of Monsanto with their weed killers, and scary chemical escalations. There is plenty in this chapter about such things, if you needed more ammunition for your Monsanto-driven fury.

3. The Seed and the Earth

Regeneration lies at the heart of life: it has been the central principle guiding sustainable societies. Without regeneration, there can be no sustainability. Modern industrial society, however, has no time for thinking about regeneration, and therefore no space for living regeneratively. Its devaluation of the processes of regeneration are the causes of both the ecological crisis and the crisis of sustainability. (47)

Only capitalism and the placing of profit above all things, including life itself, would strive to erase the capacity to regenerate, because that is just insane. Yet Monsanto and others have been working at it for years. This is, of course, connected to power, and Shive argues it is rooted long ago when the facilitating ideas of production and value emerged.

The continuity between regeneration in human and nonhuman nature that was the basis of all ancient worldviews was broken by patriarchy. People were separated from nature, and the creativity involved in processes of regeneration was denied. Creativity became the monopoly of men, who were considered to be engaged in production; women were engaged in mere reproduction or recreation…looked upon as non-productive. (47)

Thus we enter the third phase of globalization and biopiracy, as organisms become the new colonies. While the colonisation of land became possible through new technologies of guns etc,

‘Biotechnology as the handmaiden of capital in the post-industrial era, makes it possible to colonize and control that which is autonomous, free, and self-regenerative. ‘

‘While ancient patriarchy used the symbol of the active seed and the passive earth, capitalist patriarchy, through the new biotechnologies, reconstitutes the seed as passive, and locates activity and creativity in the engineering mind. (49)

‘From Terra Mater to Terra Nullius‘ — a subheading that ties all of this back to the land, back to the redefinitions of words to justify conquest and murder over centuries:

All sustainable cultures, in their diversity, have viewed the earth as terra mater. The patriarchal construct of the passivity of earth and the consequent creation of the colonial category of land as terra nullius served two purposes: it denied the existence and prior rights of original inhabitants, and it negated the regenerative capacity and life processes of the earth. (50)

Colonialism redefined indigenous peoples as part of natural flora and fauna, while the Green Revolution served as a second colonisation of earth defined as terra nullius through an erasing of the existence and importance of the ecological diversity of soil. It needed massive and expensive inputs for profit to take place.

The commodified seed is ecologically incomplete and ruptured at two levels: First, it does not reproduce itself, whereas by definition seed is a regenerative resource…Second, it does not produce by itself: it needs the help of other purchased inputs… (54)

A perfect pairing to maximise profit. Thus the patenting of seeds.

Another definition I quite love, and hope to think through more are these conceptions of ideological boundaries defined and contested:

The transformation of value into disvalue, labour into nonlabour, knowledge into non-knowledge, is achieved by two very powerful constructs: the production boundary and the creation boundary.

The production boundary is a political construct that excludes regenerative, renewable production cycles from the domain of production…When economies are confined to the marketplace, self-sufficiency in the economic domain is seen as economic deficiency. The devaluation of women’s work, and of work done in subsistence economies in the Third World, is the natural outcome of a production boundary constructed by capitalist patriarchy.

The creation boundary does to knowledge what the production boundary does to work: it excludes the creative contributions of women as well as Third World peasants and tribespeople, and vies them as being engaged in unthinking, repetitive, biological processes. (65)

Here the importance of rebuilding connections, where salvation lies:

The source of patriarchal power over women and nature lies in separation and fragmentation…Understanding and sensing connections and relationships is the ecological imperative.
The main contribution of the ecology movement has been the awareness that there is no separation between mind and body, human and nature. Nature consists of the relationships and connections that provide the very conditions for our life and health. This politics of connection and regeneration…(66)

4. Biodiversity and People’s Knowledge

The cradle of Biodiversity is the tropics, yet it is even now being destroyed through destruction of habitat and homogenization of crops and culture. Once a commons, all of it is now being enclosed as local knowledge is displaced and devalued in favour of specialized scientific knowledge, and gift economies around seeds replaced with patents. There is lots here about ‘Bioprospecting’, and how it is given ‘legitimacy’ by the WTO or world bank through corporations paying off indigenous peoples for the knowledge they share only to find they are then refused access to it. Really it is all biopiracy.

We need to recover our biodiversity commons.

5. Tripping Over Life

This focuses on the TRIPs agreement in GATT (get the chapter title now?), and how it: allows for the monopolization of life; promotes monocultures so destructive to biodiversity; requires more and more chemical inputs and thus causes more pollution as well as new forms of pollution through GMOs and resistant weeds and pests;  undermines any ethic of conservation trough instrumentalisation of people and other species. It also alienates rights of people to the land they live on as produce sold elsewhere, cuts their connections and sense of stewardship.

You want ammunition to win the argument that all these acronyms are evil? You will find it all here.

6. Making Peace with Life

A final paragraph on violence and monoculture — this fascinated me perhaps more than anything else, as I have worked so much researching segregation and white obsessions with purity and homogeneity that they have defended with such everyday grassroots violence. These are so clearly associated one with the other, and there is so much more here I think to be investigated.

Homogenization and monocultures introduce violence at many levels. Monocultures are always associated with political violence—the use of coercion, control, and centralization. Without centralized control and coercive force, this world filled with the richness of diversity cannot be transformed into homogenous structures, and the monocultures cannot be maintained….

Monocultures are also associated with ecological violence—a declaration of war against nature’s diverse species. This violence not only pushes species toward extinction, but controls and maintains monocultures the,selves. Monocultures are non-sustainable and vulnerable to ecological breakdown. Uniformity implies that a disturbance to one part of a system is translated into a disturbance to other parts Instead of being contained, ecological destabilization tends to be amplified. (103-104)

This book is wonderful, and I am looking forward to reading more. Like Making Peace With the Earth, this was quite short, packed full of information, equally rich in theoretical insights as well as devastating factual information.

Always, she tries to point a pathway to a better future, and this is never tacked on at the end.

[Shiva, Vandana (1998) Biopiracy: the Plunder of Nature and Knowledge. Totnes, Devon: Green Books.]

 

The Beginnings of the Fantastic Four

Fantastic FourI am enjoying working my way through these early comics. Funnily enough, I rather disliked the Fantastic Four as characters unlike the Hulk, who was tortured, an outsider, stuck living a dual life and managing two identities, both of which were feared and disrespected I think, in different ways. Bruce Banner the scientist viewed as tricky and effeminate by the general, the Hulk viewed as overly animal and brutal and terrifyingly strong.

The Fantastic Four fit right in with American society — so obviously I don’t really get them. They’re loved by the public — with some ups and downs of course, or where would be the drama? But mostly ups. The Thing has some of the existential angst of the Hulk (and there’s an interesting angle on race here, and how these two play into stereotypes about ‘the other’, especially Black men, you can read more on Mark’s post about the new Fantastic Four film) but here the Thing seems marginalized in his rather boring stupidity and crankiness and obsession with a few street thugs, while the Invisible Girl is out buying Dior dresses and the Flame is kissing girls in the latest model of Ford. Stretchy dude is just tinkering away with things that can destroy the whole world, and making occasional appearances which send red-blooded American women swooning.

But there’s a hell of a lot of urban and architectural geekery to be found here. I mean, only the second issue in, you get  a secret headquarters! Complete with cut-away diagram! It even has a giant map room (3rd March, 1962, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)! I particularly love the note to save it for future reference…as the complexities of future stories might drive you back to the Gormenghastian reaches of this skyscraper…

Fantastic Four

Or maybe not. That’s the comic I would have written I guess. By the 5th of July (still Lee and Kirby, always Lee and Kirby fabulous tag-team that they are) the Fantastic Four have had to expand — they still have the missiles, but the living quarters are better explained, there’s a gym and a trophy room/weapons collection. Ammo room. Of course. It’s a pretty fascinating glimpse of what any super-rich superhero might want their building, along with some pretty awesome exposition explaining how the entrance is protected by a special elevator. This is probably all in response to questions from eager fans designing their own secret headquarters in their head and wondering how the plumbing works, and I rather love it.

Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four

The fantasticar  (this is from 12th March 1963) gets similar kinds of explanation and exposition. It’s kind of sweet, especially as the early version totally did look like a flying bathtub.

Fantastic Four

 

 

Then there is this one time (6th Sept, 1962 Lee & Kirby) the whole skyscraper is picked up, fabulous adventures are had, and then returned safe and sound. So actually, scratch that about them giving any thought to the plumbing.

This is probably my single favourite frame — already, planning nerds of mine,  we see the unnatural yet taken-for-granted logics of a downtown that empties out late at night, except for a handful of people subject to hallucinations. Not explicitly caused by drink or drugs (though I think that may be taken for granted, they just can’t say it out loud in something targeted at kids), but of ‘the anxieties that plague our nuclear society.’ Damn. I think I’m right there, that anxieties of nuclear war are seen as less harmful to America’s kids than alcholism and LSD, but I could be wrong.

Fantastic Four

But wait. It gets crazier. There’s that episode where the Fantastic Four lose their money, can’t pay their rent, and so out they go. Evicted! This leaves their incredible super base with its missiles and laboratories FOR RENT. To the highest bidder. I couldn’t imagine a better argument for rent control in all of literature. Thank god it was just Sub-Mariner behind it all, back from when he was just kind of evil.

Fantastic FourI would also rather enjoy writing the spin-off series, Fantastic Four on skid row.

Then, too, which I appreciate as a writer, there’s that crazy moment when the creators themselves pierce the veil and emerge as characters. It’s not as exciting as it sounds, but them it never is, is it. Not even when it’s Italo Calvino.

Fantastic Four

There’s a lot of interaction between writer, artist and fans — these are as much celebrity mags as comics it feels like (apologies to all of you who will hate me forever for saying that). But there are separate sections responding to questions about the Fantastic Four’s lives and their lifestyle and how they deal with fame and stress.

Sadly this opened up the opportunity to show just how lame female superheroes were drawn — and how fans called those responsible out on it not by demanding stronger women, but by suggesting they just fade away into the background. In this episode Sue breaks down after receiving a bunch of hate mail about how she sucks (11th Feb, 1963). Who knew trolls were roaming the universe in this way before the internet?

Fantastic Four

 

Yes, you say! Set the record straight! But what is the best they can think of? Abraham Lincoln’s mother. It is by being mothers that women contribute most. But wait, you say, Sue isn’t even married, much less a mother! True, so we’ll relate that time or two where she didn’t have to be rescued, but actually used her powers for something useful.

Fantastic Four

A huge thank you to all the ladies of the 1960s (and those before and those after), who complained and raised their voices and fought this bullshit so we could be awesome outside our roles as mothers and wives, by actually doing all those things we are awesome at, and so kick ass women superheroes like…like…yeah, comics still aren’t so good at that. Tank Girl, Hopey and Luba and the other awesome ladies from Los Bros Hernandez Love and Rockets. Those are a few I know and love.

This damn collection ends like this:

Fantastic Four

God, what would those guys do if Sue didn’t clean, in silence so as not to disturb them? I can’t believe the fans are complaining.

I don’t want to end on quite that note though. So I’ll give you one of the things I really love — Jack Kirby’s imagining of an ancient city on the moon (13th April, 1963). Pretty cool and one of the reasons to love comics, but maybe not this one quite so much.

Fantastic Four

Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

Save

Sylvia Pankhurst: The Suffragette

spSylvia Pankhurst is by far and away my favourite Pankhurst. She has all the fire and belief in her cause of her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and sister Cristobel, but is also so much more sensitive to issues of class and privilege, and much more self-aware along with it.

The site dedicated to her at sylviapankhurst.com,  shows that I am not alone in this…

25490513I’ve had this on my kindle for a long time when the new film coming out inspired me to read it. But sadly I hadn’t realised that this particular version of The Suffragette was written in 1911…I had meant to read the one written later, but there is still lots of good stuff in here. It overlaps heavily, however, with her mother’s account of the movement from 1914, and I hate to say it, but Emmeline Pankhurst’s account is both more infuriating and more interesting as tactics had shifted dramatically in these three intervening years as the Liberals continued steadfast in refusing the vote (she dramatically supports violence against property for example, and there are some brilliant stories of stone throwing and banner dropping). I also wanted more about the founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and the more community centred work Sylvia did in the East End. It’s not here.

Here is what is here. An overview of the purpose Sylvia had in writing the book, a piece of how-we-did-it and who-we-are campaign propaganda:

In writing this history of the Militant Women’s Suffrage Movement, I have endeavoured to give a just and accurate account of its progress and happenings, dealing fully with as many of its incidents as space will permit. I have tried to let my readers look behind the scenes in order that they may understand both the steps by which the movement has grown and the motives and ideas that have animated its promoters.

To many of our contemporaries perhaps the most remarkable feature of the militant movement has been the flinging aside by thousand of women of the conventional standards that hedge us so closely round in these days for a right that large numbers of men who possess it scarcely value.

A passionate love of freedom, a strong desire to do social service and an intense sympathy for the unfortunate, together made the movement possible in its present form.

These are some of the opening words by E. Sylvia Pankhurst, dated May 1911 and written from London. It covers the early history, the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the Pankhurst’s home at 62 Nelson Street Manchester on 10 October, 1903… she writes that almost all present were working women, ‘but it was decided from the first that the Union should be entirely independent of Class and Party.’

On class and Annie Kenney

As I say, I found Emmeline Pankhurst quite infuriating around issues of class, but Sylvia was already much more thoughtful about the meaning of struggle and victory for women in different stations. Much of this must be due to the wonderful Annie Kenney, such a pivotal figure in the Pankhurst’s lives. The relationship between Annie and both Christobel and Emmeline made me worry deeply for her after reading Emmeline’s book on the movement,  but she seems to have greatly inspired Sylvia with an honest respect for working women. She tells of how Annie went to work in the Oldham cotton factories at the age of ten, fitting bobbins into place full of cotton to be spun, and piecing the threads together when they broke. She lost a finger doing this work. She writes:

The premature launching forth into the world of wage earners had left its mark upon Annie Kenney. Her features had been sharpened by it, and her eager face that flushed so easily was far more deeply lined than are the faces of girls whose childhood has been prolonged. Those wide, wide eyes of hers, so wonderfully blue, though at rare moments they could dance and sparkle like a fountain in the sunshine, were more often filled with pain, anxiety and foreboding, or with a longing restless, searching, unsatisfied and far away.

And here, finally, Annie is also able to speak for herself (she wrote her own book, harder to find but it is now on its way to me). Sylvia quotes her speaking in 1908 to a conference of women in Germany:

I noticed the great difference made in the treatment of men and women in the factory, differences in conditions, differences in wages and differences in status. I realised this difference not in the factory alone but in the home. I saw men, women, boys and girls, all working hard during the day in the same hot, stifling factories. Then when work was over I noticed that it was the mothers who hurried home, who fetched the children that had been put out to nurse, prepared the tea for the husband , did the cleaning, baking, washing, sewing and nursing. I noticed that when the husband came home, his day’s work was over…Why was the mother the drudge of the family, and not the father’s companion and equal?

It is also clear from Sylvia’s account (as it was clear that this was important to Sylvia) that many working women had been part of the driving force of the movement from the beginning. She talks about a protest for the opening of Parliament, February 19th, 1906. A crowd of 300 to 400 women marched,  ‘a large proportion of whom were poor workers from the East End.’ They carried banners painted in Canning Town. It was only at the House of Commons that they were joined by women who were strangers to them, there to satisfy their curiosity — ‘amongst the rest were many ladies of wealth and position…’

Later in the year of a similar march as Parliament reassembled, she wrote:

the government had again given orders that only twenty women at a time were to be allowed in the Lobby. All women of the working class were rigorously excluded. My mother and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence were among those who succeeded in gaining an entrance.

Class would continue to be a lever the government would use to drive women apart — as would the lack of respect from the middle and upper classes towards the other. As the government increased its repression, handed out longer prison sentences and imposing larger fines, Sylvia is the one to recognise the way that such a tactics actually made it much harder for working women to play the same roles as middle class women who did not have anyone depending on their labour for survival. She doesn’t quite connect all the dots, about who then gets named, who then gets credit, but the insight is there to grow:

Had the movement for Women’s Enfranchisement been a movement solely of poor women with others dependent upon them, as might have been the case, the new Bill might have proved a serious menace to the movement, but, as it happened, there was fortunately no lack of women who were able and willing to risk imprisonment, therefore this Bill could make no difference to us.

The words and stories of these other women, both working class women and women of colour, are being brought to light but still more work needs to happen here — a good source of other places to begin to look is Sarah Jackson’s Guardian article ‘The suffragettes weren’t just white, middle-class women throwing stones‘. That’s what Sylvia’s book is mostly about, of course. There are, however plenty of interesting things to be drawn from it.

Violence in Politics

First, perhaps, is how this highlighted for me (as did her mother’s book) just how good our cultural and political system is at forgetting the levels of protest and violence that once attended relatively unimportant by elections, much less the whirlwinds of destruction that came before we ever won any serious and lasting political change.

So the contest went on — Liberals and Conservatives smashing up each other’s meetings, howling each other down, pelting each other with vegetables from the market and snowballing each other on Dartmoor.

At the most privileged level, there is this story from Lady Mary Montague’s “Memoirs”:

of the way in which the Peeresses of the eighteenth century had frequently disturbed the serenity of the House of Lords debates, and how they had triumphed over the Lord Chancellor Phillip Yorke, First Earl of Hardwicke, who had attempted to exclude them from the House of Lords. Lady Mary describes the “thumping,” “rapping” and “running kicks” at the door of the House of Lords, indulged in by the Duchess of Queensbury and her friends, the strategy by which they finally obtained an entry…

This fairly brilliant and sarcastic letter of support from Mr T.D. Benson, Treasurer of the independent Labour Party:

Of course, when men wanted the franchise, they did not behave in the unruly manner of our feminine friends. They were perfectly constitutional in their agitation. In Bristol I find they only burnt the Mansion House, the Custom House, the Bishop’s Palace, the Excise office, three prisons, four toll houses, and forty-two private dwellings and warehouses, and all in a perfectly constitutional and respectable manner. Numerous constitutional fires took place in the neighbourhood of Bedford, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Devizes. Four men were respectably hanged at Bristol, and three at Nottingham. The Bishop of Lichfield was nearly killed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was insulted, spat upon, and with great difficulty rescued from amidst the yells and execrations of a violent and angry mob. In this and other ways the males set a splendid example of constitutional methods in agitating for the franchise. I think we are all well qualified to advise the suffragettes to follow our example, to be respectable and peaceful in their methods like we were, and then they will have our sympathy and support.

the suffragettes made it their strategy to raise the intensity of their actions, as Sylvia writes:

Votes for Women in those days was regarded by the majority of sober, level-headed men as a ladies fad which would never come to anything and the idea that it could ever be a question upon which governments would stand or fall, or be associated with persecution, rioting and imprisonment had been alike unthinkable to them.

They changed that.

Strategy and Tactics:

The Daily Mail first called the WSPU the suffragettes to

distinguish between us and the members of the older Suffrage Society who had always been called Suffragists, and who strongly objected to our tactics.

It was these tactics that I loved most in Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography, and there are more here (though given the year, Sylvia’s book is much more focused on the fighting of elections and boring lists of results. I still don’t know what I think of that strategy). My favourite?

The Pantechnicon Van Strategem

Which sounds amazing, though really it was just hiring a van to drive a load of suffragettes past police lines to the doors of the House of Commons. I also love how they set flying a great box kite over the Houses of Parliament, and a flag over Holloway Gaol to cheer the prisoners there. And what is lovelier and more supportive of solidarity than the tradition of free ‘public welcome breakfasts, which have since become an institution’,  held at Anderton’s Hotel to welcome each suffragette upon her release.

I think even today we’d find it hard to organise such a march to Hyde Park as they did — 7 different marches converging, 20 women to speak on 20 different platforms, they organised 30 special trains to run from different towns. London was divided into districts with an organiser assigned to each one — Sylvia was in charge of organising district of Chelsea, Fulham and Wandsworth. I am all admiration.

I admire too their celebration of the women who had come before, fought before as part of this movement. The march remembered history, celebrated Elizabeth Fry, Lydia Becker and Mary Wollstonecraft. Walking in procession came Miss Emily Davies, Dr Garrett Anderson, Mrs Fawcett, President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. I love too that Sylvia highlights the international nature of the movement, notes contingents of suffragists from many different countries, all with their flags. The spectacle organised must have been wondrous, the flags of many countries were followed by graduates from universities in robes and colours, a contingent of writers — Beatrice Harraden, Elizabeth Robbins and Evelyn Sharpe. Artists and actresses, gardeners, pharmacists, physical trainers, typists and shorthand writers, shop assistants, factory workers, home makers.

For a brief and glorious moment the Royal Mail announced the ability to post “human” letters…crikey. So of course the WSPU posted two suffragettes to Asquith at 10 Downing Street.

It is nice to know that the movement was led by women, but men gave their support. One evening Lloyd George and Mr Sidney Buxton were to speak in Limehouse — twenty men entered into the meeting to champion women’s rights. One climbed up the pillars at the back of the hall and forming a swing for himself with rope, hung there displaying the flag of purple, white and green.

But there are more stories of women doing their own climbing, sneaking, banner dropping. They were awesome.

The role of the ladies…

One thing that is fascinating is the way that Sylvia mobilises gender here — first noting the change in women’s roles within a movement in quite stirring ways that I heartily approve of:

The time was gone when she must always play a minor part, applauding, ministering, comforting, performing useful functions if you will, incurring risks too, and making sacrifices, but always being treated and always thinking of herself as a mere incident of the struggle outside the wide main stream of life. Today this battle of theirs seemed to the women to be the greatest in the world…

But there are also long passages that ring quite strangely to my modern ear, but also represent I think a strategic claiming of the essential and the feminine (which bothers me, though sometimes it reads a bit like a lesbian romance novel, which might make it okay). Here is just one example describing Mrs Cobden Sanderson as she spoke before the magistrate:

You must not picture her to yourself as being either big boned, plain looking and aggressive and wearing “mannish” clothes, or as emotional and overstrung. On the contrary, she is just what Reynolds, Hoppner, Sir Henry Raeburn, or Romney with his softest and tenderest touch, would have loved to paint… She is always dressed in low toned greys and lilacs, and her clothes are gracefully and delicately wrought, with all sorts of tiny tuckings and finishings which give a suggestion of daintiest detail without any loss of sympathy or breadth. She has a shower of hair like spun silver…then she quoted in her defense the words of Mr John Burns…”I am a rebel because I am an outlaw. I am law breaker because I desire to become a law maker.”

There is more on soft and downy cheeks flushed like roses, and dainty dresses and such things — perhaps to set in stronger contrast suffragette actions and resolve. Their attempts to address meetings of Liberals, and their stands on street corners (like the corner of Peter St and South Street — I love this book’s concrete geographies), until arrested and dragged away. The detailed descriptions of prison life, the clothing and rations and cold, and the beginnings of the horrifying forcible feedings of those women on hunger strike.

That indeed required an immense and indomitable courage of the kind that I don’t know I possess.

There is another letter quoted from the Daily Mail that follows this pattern, though perhaps not in quite as troubling a manner:

Three happy girls, eyes laughter lit, breezy, buoyant, joyous, arm in arm, talking like three cascades, are making a royal progress down the lane that leads to Rye. Such is the head of the comet…

They were off to disrupt the elections there. A controversial strategy that caused splits in the radical wing of the women’s movement, trying to ensure the Liberals lost every seat until they fully supported women’s right to the vote.

Connected to both gender and class, I think, there is an interesting aside describing Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, and how she entered the movement as a recruit — what were her early inspirations that had led her to the suffragettes? The story of Hetty Sorrell in Adam Bede…I have just read that, found the treatment of Hetty Sorrell quite appalling so this fascinates (and oh, it definitely appalls) me. Other influences? Marguerite in her prison cell in Faust (I’ll give her that one maybe, I haven’t read it), Besant’s Children of Gideon. God, Sir Walter fucking Besant. I have vented some spleen on him and his horrific prejudices against poor people…but it troubles me sorely that these books helped her decide, like so many others, to go to the East End to spend her life in striving to alter these conditions.

I’m slowly reading more about these middle class women who moved to or served in the East End and all that has been written about them. I’m not quite sure what interests me about them, perhaps the clash of class and gendered oppression, or the glimpses they offer into the way some of the women of my family perhaps once lived. Sylvia was in fact one of them, though I find her one of the better ones, but there isn’t much of any of that in this text. And I’m almost done with this text, I promise.

A few key figures of the time as you have never seen them

Meeting with G.K. Chesterton! Sylvia attended a meeting addressed by him at Morriss Hall, Clapham. He was eulogizing the French revolution, and sketching people in the audience during the question and critique session that followed, he did not answer Sylvia’s point on the women’s movement — so he actually came up afterwards and apologised, and even signed her petition. He would later became an active anti-suffragist.

Mr Winston Churchill! After losing his parliamentary election because of the suffragettes, he bursting into tears apparently, and in his mother’s arms no less, and the suffragettes there felt so sorry for him they tried to comfort him.

It didn’t work.

There are also some choice insulting descriptions of Lloyd George, ‘a plain little man, with a pale face…’ His hair was most disappointing apparently.

Coming to an end, finally…

Given this is a text of propaganda, it has a good, if overly optimistic ending:

So the gallant struggle for a great reform draws to its close. Full of stern fighting and bitter hardship as it has been, it has brought much to the women of our time — a courage, a self-reliance, a comradeship, and above all a spiritual growth, a conscious dwelling in company with the ideal, which has tended to strip the littleness from life and to give to it the character of an heroic mission.

May we prize and cherish the great selfless spirit that has been engendered and, applying it to the purposes of our Government — the nation’s housekeeping — the management of our collective affairs, may we, men and women together, not in antagonism, but in comradeship, strive on till we have built up a better civilisation than any the world has known.

But I thought it best to end on this, a song I have yet to hear: the Women’s Marseillaise (by Miss F.E.M. Macaulay):

Arise! Though pain or loss betide
Grudge naught of Freedom’s toll,
For what they loved the martyrs died
Are we of meaner soul?
Are we of meaner soul?

Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

More on similar stories…

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.

Save