The mysterious lives of chimaera sharks & the effects of deep sea fishing

MY DEEP SEA MSC RESEARCH AND WHY DEEP SEA FISHERIES OVERSIGHT IS NEEDED

by Melissa C. Marquez.

chimaera families

A rhinochimaera

“You’re not what I expected when you said you were a shark scientist.” Gee, thanks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that I don’t live up to someone’s preconceived mental image of what I should look like as a “shark scientist.” It doesn’t change the fact that I’m a marine biologist though, and that I am very passionate about my field.

I recently wrapped up my Masters in Marine Biology, focusing on “Habitat use throughout a Chondrichthyan’s life.” Chondrichthyans (class Chondrichthyes) are sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras. Today, there are more than 500 species of sharks and about 500 species of rays known, with many more being discovered every year.

Over the last few decades, much effort has been devoted towards evaluating and reducing bycatch (the part of a fishery’s catch that is made up of non-target species) in marine fisheries. There has been a particular focus on quantifying the risk to Chondrichthyans, primarily because of their high vulnerability to overfishing. My study focused on five species of deep sea chimaeras (not the mythical Greek ones, but the just-as-mysterious real animal) found in New Zealand waters:

• Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish),

• Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark),

• Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark),

• Harriotta raleighana (Pacific longnose chimaera),

• Rhinochimaera pacifica (Pacific spookfish).

 

These species were chosen because they cover a large range of depth (7 m – 1306 m), and had been noted as being abundant despite extensive fisheries in their presumed habitats; they were also of special interest to the Deepwater Group (who funded the scholarship for my MSc).

Although there is no set definition for what constitutes as “deep sea,” it is conventionally regarded to be >200 m depth and beyond the continental shelf break (Thistle, 2003); in this zone, a number of species are considered to have low productivity, leading to them having a highly vulnerable target of commercial fishing (FAO, 2009). Deep sea fisheries have become increasingly economically important over the past few years as numerous commercial fisheries become overexploited (Koslow et al., 2000; Clark et al., 2007; Pitcher et al., 2010). Major commercial fisheries exist for deep sea species such as orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), oreos (several species of the family Oreosomatidae), cardinalfish, grenadiers (such as Coryphaenoides rupestris) and alfonsino (Beryx splendens). Many of these deep sea fisheries were not sustainable (Clark, 2009; Pitcher et al., 2010; Norse et al., 2012) with most of the stocks having undergone substantial declines.

chimaera (1)

Deep sea fishing can also cause environmental harm (Koslow et al., 2001; Hall-Spencer et al., 2002; Waller et al., 2007; Althaus et al., 2009; Clark and Rowden, 2009). Deep sea fisheries use various types of gear that can leader to lasting scars: bottom otter trawls, bottom longlines, deep midwater trawls, sink/anchor gillnets, pots and traps, and more. While none of this gear is solely used in deep sea fisheries, all of them catch animals indiscriminately and can also damage important habitats (such as centuries-old deep sea coral). In fact, orange roughy trawling scars on soft-sediment areas were still visible five years after all fishing stopped in certain areas off New Zealand (Clark et al ., 2010a).

Risk assessment is evaluating the distributional overlap of the fish with the fisheries, where fish distribution is influenced by habitat use. For sharks, that risk assessment included a lot of variables: there are a number of shark species (approximately 112 species of sharks have been recorded from New Zealand waters) with many different lifestyles, differences in their market value for different body parts (like meat, oil, fins, cartilage), what body parts they use for sharks (for example, some sharks have both their fins and meat utilised but not their oil; some just have their fins taken, etc.) and how to identify sharks once on the market (Fisheries Agency of Japan, 1999; Vannuccini, 1999; Yeung et al. 2000; Froese and Pauly, 2002; Clarke and Mosqueira, 2002).

In order to carry out a risk assessment, you have to know your study animals pretty well. It should come to no surprise that little is known about the different life history stages of chimaeras, so I did the next best thing and looked at Chondrichthyans in general. My literature review synthesized over 300 published observations of habitat use for these different life history stages; from there, I used New Zealand research vessel catch data (provided by NIWA, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) and separated them by species, sex, size, and maturity (when available). I then dove into the deep end of using a computer language called “R,” which is used for statistical computing and graphics. Using R programming software, I searched for the catch compositions based on the life history stage I was looking for (example: looking for smaller sized, immature fish of both sexes and little to no adults when in search for a nursery ground).

The way we went about this thesis differs in that we first developed hypotheses for characteristics of different habitat use, rather than “data mining” for patterns, and it therefore it has a structured and scientific approach to determining shark habitats. Our results showed that some life history stages and habitats for certain species could be identified, whereas others could not.

Pupping ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark), and Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark); nursery ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish); mating ground criteria were met for Callorhynchus milii (elephant fish), Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark), Hydrolagus bemisi (pale ghost shark), and Harriotta raleighana (Pacific longnose chimaera); lek-like mating criteria were met for Hydrolagus novaezealandiae (dark ghost shark). Note: Lek-like mating is where males perform feats of physical endurance to impress females and she gets to choose a mate.

Ghost Shark_SPP unknown

Ghost shark

These complex—and barely understood— deep sea ecosystems can be overwhelmed by the fishing technologies that rip through them. Like sharks, many deep sea animals live a k-style lifestyle, meaning that they take a long time to reach sexual maturity and once they are sexually active, they give birth to few young after a long gestation period. This lifestyle means these creatures are especially vulnerable since they cannot repopulate quickly if overfished.

In order to manage the environmental impact of deep sea fisheries, scientists, policymakers and stakeholders have to identify the ways to help re-establish delicate biological functions after the impacts made by deep sea fisheries. Recovery—defined as the return to conditions before they were damaged by fishing activities—is not a unique concept to just deep sea communities, and is usually due to site-specific factors that are often poorly understood and difficult to estimate. Little is known about biological histories and structures of the deep sea, and therefore the rates of recovery may be much slower than shallow environments.

Management of the seas, especially the deep sea, lags behind that of land and of the continental shelf, but there is a number of protection measures already being put in place. These actions include, but are not limited to,

• regulating fishing methods and gear types,

• specify the depth that one can fish at,

• limit the volume of bycatch, limit the volume of catch,

• move-on rules, and

• closure of areas of particular importance.

Modifications to trawl gear and how they are used have made these usually heavy tools less destructive (Mounsey and Prado, 1997; Valdemarsen et al. 2007; Rose et al. 2010; Skaar and Vold 2010). Fishery closures are becoming more common, with large parts of EEZs (exclusive economic zone) being closed zones for bottom trawling (e.g. New Zealand, North Atlantic, Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, USA waters, Azores) (Hourigan, 2009; Morato et al. 2010); the effectiveness of these closures is yet to be established.

And while this approach, dubbed the “ecosystem approach,” to fisheries management is widely advocated for, it does not help every deep sea animal or structure. Those that cannot move (sessile) are still in danger of being destroyed. As such, ecosystem-based marine spatial planning and management may be the most effective fisheries management strategy for protecting the vulnerable deep sea critters (Clark and Dunn, 2012; Schlacher et al. 2014). This management strategy can include marine protected areas (MPAs) to restrict fishing in specific locations and other management tools, such as zoning or spatial user rights, which will affect the distribution of fishing effort in a more effective manner. Using spatial management measures effectively requires new models and data, and will always have their limitations given how little data in regards to the deep sea exists, and that this particular environment is hard to get to.

So what does it all mean in regards to my thesis? Well, for one thing, there is a growing acknowledgement these unique ecosystems require special protection. And like any scientist knows, there are still many unanswered questions about just how important this environment is (especially certain structures).

ElephantFish

A juvenile Elephantfish, Callorhinchus milii. Source: Rudie H. Kuiter / Aquatic Photographics

On a more shark-related note, not all life-history stage habitats were found for my chimaeras, and this may be because these are outside of the coverage of the data set (and likely also commercial fisheries), or because they do not actually exist for some Chondrichthyans. That cliffhanger is research for another day, I suppose…

This project could not have been done without the endless amount of support of my family and friends; those who have supported me since day one of my marine biology adventures. They’re the ones who stick up for me whenever I hear, “You’re not what I expected when you said you were a shark scientist.” I am not really sure what the stereotype of a shark scientist is supposed to be, thankfully I grew up where you accept and judge people by who they are and what they do. However I see this as a challenge, as it sets the stage up for me to show the mind of a shark scientist can come in all kinds of packages.

As a final note, I’d like to thank the New Zealand Seafood Scholarship, the Deepwater Group, as well as researchers from National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) who provided funding, insight and expertise that greatly assisted the research. The challenge of venturing into complex theories is that not all agree with all of the interpretations/conclusions of any research, but it is a basis for having a discussion, which can only be good for all.

 

 

References:

  • Thistle, D. (2003). The deep-sea floor: an overview. Ecosystems of The Deep Oceans. Ecosystems of the World 28.
  • FAO. 2009. Management of Deep-Sea Fisheries in the High Seas. FAO, Rome, Italy.
  • Koslow, J. A., Boehlert, G. W., Gordon, J. D. M., Haedrich, R. L., Lorance, P., and Parin, N. 2000. Continental slope and deep-sea fisheries: implications for a fragile ecosystem. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 57: 548–557.
  • Clark, M. R., and Koslow, J. A. 2007. Impacts of fisheries on seamounts. In Seamounts: Ecology, Fisheries and Conservation, pp. 413 –441. Ed. by T. J. Pitcher, T. Morato, P. J. B. Hart, M. R. Clark, N. Haggen, and R. Santos. Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Pitcher, T. J., Clark, M. R., Morato, T., and Watson, R. 2010. Seamount fisheries: do they have a future? Oceanography, 23: 134–144.
  • Clark, M. R. 2009. Deep-sea seamount fisheries: a review of global status and future prospects. Latin American Journal of Aquatic Research, 37: 501 –512.
  • Norse, E. A., Brooke, S., Cheung, W. W. L., Clark, M. R., Ekeland, L., Froese, R., Gjerde, K. M., et al. 2012. Sustainability of deep-sea fisheries. Marine Policy, 36: 307–320.
  • Koslow, J. A., Gowlett-Holmes, K., Lowry, J. K., O’Hara, T., Poore, G. C. B., and Williams, A. 2001. Seamount benthic macrofauna off southern Tasmania: community structure and impacts of trawling. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 213: 111–125.
  • Hall-Spencer, J., Allain, V., and Fossa, J. H. 2002. Trawling damage to Northeast Atlantic ancient coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences, 269: 507–511.
  • Waller, R., Watling, L., Auster, P., and Shank, T. 2007. Anthropogenic impacts on the corner rise seamounts, north-west Atlantic Ocean. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 87: 1075 –1076.
  • Althaus, F., Williams, A., Schlacher, T. A., Kloser, R. K., Green, M. A., Barker, B. A., Bax, N. J., et al. 2009. Impacts of bottom trawling on deep-coral ecosystems of seamounts are long-lasting. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 397: 279–294.
  • Clark, M. R., and Rowden, A. A. 2009. Effect of deep water trawling on the macro-invertebrate assemblages of seamounts on the Chatham Rise, New Zealand. Deep Sea Research I, 56: 1540–1554.
  • Clark, M. R., Bowden, D. A., Baird, S. J., and Stewart, R. 2010a. Effects of fishing on the benthic biodiversity of seamounts of the “Graveyard” complex, northern Chatham Rise. New Zealand Aquatic Environment and Biodiversity Report, 46: 1 –40.
  • Fisheries Agency of Japan. 1999. Characterization of morphology of shark fin products: a guide of the identification of shark fin caught by tuna longline fishery. Global Guardian Trust, Tokyo.
  • Vannuccini, S. 1999. Shark utilization, marketing and trade. Fisheries Technical Paper 389. Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome.
  • Yeung, W. S.; Lam, C.C.; Zhao, P.Y. 2000. The complete book of dried seafood and foodstuffs. Wan Li Book Company Limited, Hong Kong (in Chinese).
  • Froese, R. and Pauly, D. 2002. FishBase database. Fishbase, Kiel, Germany. Eds. Available fromhttp://www.fishbase.org (accessed April 2016).
  • Clarke, S. and Mosqueira, I. 2002. A preliminary assessment of European participation in the shark fin trade. Pages 65–72 in M.Vacchi, G.La Mesa, F.Serena, and B.Séret, editors. Proceedings of the 4th European elasmobranch association meeting. Société Française d’Ichtyologie, Paris.
  • Mounsey, R. P., and Prado, J. 1997. Eco-friendly demersal fish trawling systems. Fishery Technology, 34: 1 – 6.
  • Valdemarsen, J. W., Jorgensen, T., and Engas, A. 2007. Options to mitigate bottom habitat impact of dragged gears. FAO Fisheries Technical Paper, 29.
  • Rose, C. S., Gauvin, J. R., and Hammond, C. F. 2010. Effective herding of flatfish by cables with minimal seafloor contact. Fishery Bulletin, 108: 136–144.
  • Skaar, K. L., and Vold, A. 2010. New trawl gear with reduced bottom contact. Marine Research News, 2: 1–2.
  • Hourigan, T. F. 2009. Managing fishery impacts on deep-water coral ecosystems of the USA: emerging best practices. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 397: 333–340.
  • Morato, T., Pitcher, T. J., Clark, M. R., Menezes, G., Tempera, F., Porteiro, F., Giacomello, E., et al. 2010. Can we protect seamounts for research? A call for conservation. Oceanography, 23: 190–199.
  • Clark, M. R., and Dunn, M. R. 2012. Spatial management of deep-sea seamount fisheries: balancing sustainable exploitation and habitat conservation. Environmental Conservation, 39: 204 –214.
  • Schlacher, T. A., Baco, A. R., Rowden, A. A., O’Hara, T. D., Clark, M. R., Kelley, C., and Dower, J. F. 2014. Seamount benthos in a cobalt-rich crust region of the central Pacific: Conservation challenges for future seabed mining. Diversity and Distributions, 20: 491 –502.
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Taking Selfies Seriously

Those who are familiar with Women Are Boring will know that this is the first new research piece to be published on the site since the tragic death of our co-founder, Grace McDermott, on 1st May 2017. If you’re a new reader, and you’d like to learn more about Grace, please take a look here. If you’d like to donate to a charity in memory of Grace, please follow this link.

Taking Selfies Seriously

by Mary McGill

Selfie piece

Stupid. Narcissistic. Annoying. Typing ‘selfies are …’ into Google leaves no doubt as to how the phenomenon is generally regarded. It’s evident in the wry eyebrow arch when people hear about my research, that sniff of judgement suggesting in no uncertain terms that taking selfie culture seriously is a suspicious and fanciful activity.

In Western societies were atomisation is endemic, selfie culture is often used to symbolise our current malaise, typified by rising levels of anxiety, loneliness and intolerance. Young women’s fascination with the phenomenon can be particularly worrying, as sociologist Ben Agger underscored when he described the selfie as ‘the male gaze gone viral’.[1] Concern in these contexts is understandable. Dismissing selfie culture, however, and disparaging those who partake in it, brings us no closer to understanding its appeal. And if aspects of that appeal are unsettling or at worst harmful, dismissal brings us no closer to solutions.

As a researcher, I am drawn to the ‘why’ of the selfie’s popularity. My work explores young women’s (aged 18-30) subjective views on the phenomenon and the ways in which they position themselves in relation to it. It pays close attention to the following questions: if we say that selfie practices are indicative of a ‘culture’, what does that mean? And if this culture holds an appeal for women (as is indicated by research, not just opinion), why is this the case? Key to this is taking culture – specifically popular culture, the soup we swim in every day – seriously.

We use the term ‘culture’ in a variety of ways but it usually refers to popular entertainment, and issues of identity, community, and difference. Cultural studies, in the British tradition, understands culture as political, a site where meaning is made and power is challenged, negotiated and exercised. Central to this is subjectivity, how us human beings, as subjects, come to understand ourselves and the world through culture. As John Hartley succinctly puts it, ‘culture is the sphere of reproduction not of goods but of life.’[2]

Feminist cultural studies, the tradition I work within, began, as so often is the case, to redress an imbalance, namely the absence of women in cultural analysis, both as participants and as a focus. Its arrival on the academic scene contributed to the cultural studies’ axis tilting from arguments concerned with ‘ideology and hegemony to those concerning identity and subjectivity’.[3] While the melding of feminism and cultural studies is sometimes difficult, they do share some key concerns, most notably how power and oppression function, and how knowledge is created and naturalised.

In studying selfie culture, I am interested in how our impressions of this new phenomenon have been formed, especially in popular commentary. Such commentary often draws on disparaging tropes of female vanity and narcissism to explain why it is young women are drawn to the selfie. The more these conversations are had, the more these conclusions are reiterated and the more this perspective becomes accepted ‘common sense’, a process that is often as unhelpful as it is lacking in significant insight.

Now, there is no doubt that narcissism and vanity are critical factors. But failure to ask more complex questions of selfie culture (or to reflect on the social and historical relationship between narcissism and femininity) risks developing understandings of it that are at best superficial and at worst, woefully insufficient for unpacking its appeal. As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture. It fails to consider why and how aspects of culture become gendered. It also ignores the richness of women’s experiences and the potential for knowledge distilled from these experiences to challenge injustice.

 

 

As landmarks of early feminist cultural scholarship showed, the ways in which women and girls engage with culture (specifically in these cases, popular culture like the romance novel and girls’ magazines) are nuanced, complicated and sometimes contradictory. To write such engagement off as frivolous perpetuates sexist attitudes regarding women as consumers and producers of culture.

 

 

So, what does all this mean for how women engage with selfie culture? To begin, we need to situate the selfie as part of Western visual culture in which images of women created by men dominate advertising, film, photography, classical art and so on. Since the Second Wave, feminist scholars have sought to denaturalise these images, drawing attention to the power dynamics inherent in their construction and the function of such images as commodity objects in capitalist societies. These scholars also explored women’s personal relationships to visual and popular culture. For example, in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan showed how iconographies of wifely domesticity differed from women’s subjective experiences of their lives in Fifties and Sixties suburbia[4]. This dissonance led Friedan to remark, ‘A geiger counter clicked in my own inner ear when I could not fit the quiet desperation of so many women into the picture of the modern American housewife.’[5] Images of women then, characteristically represent idealised notions of femininity which girls and women relate to in complex ways.

Digital technologies have enabled women and other minorities to self-represent online, a welcome disruption to the traditional regime of image production, circulation and reception. While the ability to self-represent in a world were representation for all is still a work in progress is a positive, it is not without issue. As French philosopher Michel Foucault puts it, ‘Visibility is a trap.’[6] Foucault refers to the ways in which the process of being seen, whether real or imagined, can be used to instil discipline. Sensing that they are being watched, human beings monitor their behaviour and the behaviour of others. This dynamic influences the kind of behaviour which is deemed socially acceptable and which must be punished.

In representing ourselves on social media using artefacts like the selfie, we claim space through visibility. In doing so, we simultaneously open ourselves up to new, more intense forms of judgement and surveillance. If you have ever posted a tweet that went wrong or a selfie that got no likes, you will know exactly the kinds of feelings that this digital system of ‘being seen’ can inspire. In this climate, I find myself considering whether selfie culture alleviates the kind of dissonance Friedan describes or presents fresh and potentially even more invasive iterations of the same old dynamics. For instance, images of women have long been used to fuel consumer dreams. Thus, in the age of an internet that is designed and dominated by corporations, we need to remain cognizant of how images of women, even those taken by women themselves, can be utilised as commodities by a system that is as patriarchal as it is neoliberal.

Just as ‘the personal is political’ shapes feminist activism, it also informs feminist scholarship. I am regularly struck by how rarely young women’s perspectives feature in mainstream discussions on their relationship to selfie culture. This is exclusionary and short-sighted. In collecting and analysing data from women themselves, feminist scholars have succeeded in challenging flimsy presumptions while providing nuanced understandings of social phenomena. The young women I interview are no dupes; they are well-aware of how the selfie is regarded because they navigate those assumptions every day. Their relationship to selfie culture is complicated and illuminating, but you would never appreciate that if you wrote it off as narcissistic or frivolous, refusing to take the time to listen.

For better or for worse, be it on Instagram or Snapchat or some new-fangled app, the selfie is here to stay. Taking the phenomenon and its enthusiasts seriously is the first step to unpacking its appeal and learning how best to tackle its challenges. If visibility is a trap as Foucault suggests, it is only through attentive, open-minded research that we will be able to identify selfie culture’s worst effects while also gaining useful insights into that which makes it so compelling.

References 

[1] Agger, B. (2013) Quoted in ‘Putting Selfies Under a Feminist Lens’ by Meghan Murphy, Georgia Straight. 3 April 2013. Online at: https://www.straight.com/life/368086/putting-selfies-under-feminist-lens

[2] Hartley, J. (2004) Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, p.51

[3] Franklin, S., Lury, C. and Stacey, J. (1991) Off-Centre: Feminism and Cultural Studies, p.6

[4] Shiach, M. (1991) ‘Feminism and Popular Culture’, Critical Quarterly, 33(2), pp. 37–46.

[5] Friedan, B. (1963) The Feminine Mystique, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, p. 29.

[6] Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Pantheon, p.197.

One year of Women Are Boring

by Catherine Connolly

WABbirthday

Women Are Boring was due to celebrate its first birthday on  5th May 2017. However, my co-founder Grace McDermott died tragically on 1st May. Grace’s fiancé Colin has written a beautiful homage to her, which you can read here. You can also donate to a charity in her memory by following this link.

While the blog is currently on a short hiatus, I wanted to write something small, for Grace, about what Women Are Boring has achieved in the fourteen months since we launched. We were blown away by the response to the site, and I continue to be humbled by the messages of support that we get every day. We worked really hard, and had so much fun as we did. We regularly told each other that it was one of the best things either of us had ever done. Every single moment of doing this with Grace was exciting and joyous, because we shared it together. We met at the beginning of our PhDs, in 2014. She felt like a friend I had been waiting for my whole life. My heart is broken, and I miss her more than words can say.

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Through the site, we met wonderful people, read and shared fascinating research every day, and created a community of women in academia through the Women Are Boring forum, which now has over 600 members. The site received its first acknowledgement and citation in an academic journal in May 2017, and numerous contributors have been featured and quoted in news stories as a result of their contributions. To date, there have been more than 100,000 views of the site, from almost every country in the world. In the past year we took part in numerous events to talk about the women whose research is featured on the site, why academic research is so important, and why we need women experts featured in media. Grace and I hoped that in some small way we were achieving what we set out to do when we created the site – to increase public engagement with academic research, to enhance the visibility of the women doing that research, and to improve the representation of women as experts.

When we discovered that only 24% of experts quoted in news media in Ireland and the UK are women, we decided to create a space for expert women’s voices ourselves. We couldn’t have done so without our partners, our families, our friends, and most of all, the women who contribute their research to the site – it could not exist without them, and they have supported and championed the project from the very beginning. Thank you all so much.

What follows are the most popular posts from each month of the first year of Women Are Boring, along with some of our own favourites. It is such an honour to promote this research, and the women who conduct it. I’ve also included some of our media interviews, and pieces that Grace wrote for the site. I would really love for everyone to read these and to listen to our podcast interview, so as to hear Grace herself in her own funny, smart, ferocious, and always brilliant words.

Women Are Boring will be back with new pieces of fascinating research by interesting women at some point in the future. Thank you so much for reading.

Catherine

Pieces by Grace

10 Things Americans can do to make St. Patrick’s Day about more than alcohol and appropriation. Grace was from New York – a proud Long Islander – and she wrote this piece in about half an hour on St. Patrick’s Day 2017, after becoming annoyed at some St. Patrick’s Day articles she’d seen online. Grace wrote this piece with her usual ferocity, humour and critical mind (and Irish people should read it too!).

The Media Gender gap… and what to do about it. Why the invisibility of women in media matters and what you can do about it.

Grace and I wrote this piece on Gender, Media and the Unbreakable Ivory Ceiling together for The Institute for Future Media & Journalism (FuJo) in DCU. We look at gender equality in Irish academic institutions, and female academics in the media.

The L’Oréal – UNESCO for Women in Science Awards: Grace wrote this piece about the importance of women in research and how research funding is allocated after we attended the 2016 L’Oréal – UNESCO event in London.

Women Are Boring media interviews and features

Listen to our chat with the wonderful Very Loose Women podcast

Our most recent interview was with the excellent Riposte Magazine

We were SO excited to learn that we had been featured in Marie Claire magazine in South Africa!

We chatted feminism and normalising the intellectual female voice with Siún of As An Nua

Our first print interview was in The Irish Times, in September 2016

We were interviewed in the January 2017 issue of Irish Country Magazine, and featured in the August 2016 issue of Stellar magazine

 

The most popular posts during the first year of Women Are Boring

May 2016: The Political Participation of Women in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina, by Tajma Kapic. The very first piece published on Women Are Boring, by our amazing friend Tajma. Learn about why it’s important for women to be involved in post-conflict peace processes, and what happens when they’re not.

June 2016: What now for UK academia? Twelve academics on Brexit. Twelve academics working in the UK give their reaction to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the affect they think it will have on higher education in the UK.

July 2016: All by myself: what I have learned from doing fieldwork on my own. Olivia Wilkinson writes about travelling abroad on her own to conduct her fieldwork research, and gives advice for others who want to do the same.

August 2016: Waking the Feminists: Ringing the alarm for gender equality in theatre. We spoke to three women, all involved in different aspects of theatre in Ireland, about what the Waking the Feminists movement means to them.

September 2016: Death and Me. Dr. Ruth Penfold-Mounce writes about her research into death and popular culture, from Disney movies to celebrity deaths.

October 2016: Women: Ruling Hallowe’en since forever. Dr. Lucy Ryder tells us about the origins of Hallowe’en, and how women have always been central to its celebration.

November 2016: Space weather: predicting the future. Aoife McCloskey researches weather in space (yes, there’s weather in space), how it affects the Earth, and how we can predict it.

December 2016: Women, Shakespeare and Ireland: What ish my nation? Emer McHugh grapples with women, national identity, and Shakespeare.

January 2017: Using Evidence of Previous Sexual History in Rape Cases: The Ched Evans Case, Part 1 (trigger warning). Molly Joyce’s important three-part series on understanding the Ched Evans case, and the use of sexual history in rape cases in England and Wales.

February 2017: Dr. Kearney, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imposter Syndrome. Eve Kearney’s piece on adapting to life as a PhD student, and accepting the imposter syndrome that many PhD students experience, is a perennial favourite of visitors to the site.

March 2017: Researching through recovery: Embarking on a PhD post-brain surgery. Sinead Matson writes about starting a PhD after undergoing brain surgery, and overcoming the challenges that come with it.

April 2017: Literary representations of maternity. Helen Charman’s wonderful piece on literature and maternity, featuring Beyoncé, Warsan Shire, Georg Eliot, and Adrienne Rich.

And some more:

Learn about the diversity of life on Earth and the role of evolution in this piece by Emma Dunne.

‘There’s something about women who speak – sing, even – that makes people nervous…’

Parents and friends provide an important role for young people with depression

Fighting disillusionment as an American expatriate

Think animals don’t have personalities? Think again! This excellent piece also has lots of monkey photos, and an appearance by the legendary Jane Goodall

Understand why there are difficulties with preventing sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers on peacekeeping missions (trigger warning)

One of our STEM editors, Reham Badawy, writes about her research into developing a mobile phone app that can detect Parkinson’s Disease before symptoms arise.

Carol Ballantine writes about stigma, shame, and gender-based violence.

Folktales may have an evolutionary benefit for humans

There are tons more excellent pieces on the site – please do go and explore them and tell people about them!

(Our wonderful logo was created by Chloe Randall-Hinton, who recently graduated from the Winchester School of Art. See more of her work here)

Homage to the one I love

by Colin O’ Neill, fiancee of our late co-founder, Grace McDermott.

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Colin and Grace, minutes after their engagement on Christmas Eve 2016.

Each morning I wake up to the same ritual of horror. For a fleeting second my hazy mind forgets, then I remember that I have lost you all over again. So perpetual, it feels almost routine at this point and the worst part of all is that I can’t see that feeling ever ending. The contrast to my morning routine prior to May 1st is almost laughable. ‘Now I wake up happy, warm in a lover’s embrace. No-one else can touch us, while we’re in this place.’ Remember we used to send each other songs when we first met? My desperate attempt at trying to tell you how I felt, or even that ‘I liked you’. I remember you telling me how much you loved that lyric. I had it all with you, that’s the hardest part.

I met Grace in Melbourne back in 2012. We immediately hit it off. I convinced myself that Grace would pay someone to put her lunch in the highest cupboard just so she could ask me to get it for her each day.  I would get ripped apart by the lads coming in from work in the evening because I wouldn’t shut up about the cute American girl at the office and would go on to tell them about the countless email chains of flirting. ‘How’d it go this week, Col?’ It was all in good fun but they knew something serious was coming. I couldn’t believe my luck when she agreed to go for dinner with me.

You were beautiful, charming, kind, caring and funny. I thought I was cool (I wasn’t). My USP was that I played in a band (I’m laughing now thinking about how cool I thought I was), but when you began to explain to me the theory behind musical chord structures I was in complete awe… Is there anything this girl doesn’t have? We talked about music and we laughed all night. I remember you telling me all about your family as we had dinner, I was instantly hooked. We told each other that we were going our separate ways after 3 months but I think we both knew that wouldn’t happen, and when I left you at the train station that day, I stared at my phone for an hour before sending you a message ‘Maybe we should give this a go?’ We sure did that. The proceeding years, I will never forget.

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Life with Grace was one of constant amazement. The pride I felt every day as she would tell me of her latest success is one I cannot effectively describe. Invited to speak about her PhD at conferences all over Europe, lecturing, activism and of course, this amazing blog, which led to interviews and cover stories in countless broadsheet newspapers & publications. I watched her lecture in DCU. There she was, 5 foot nothing, controlling the auditorium. Even the students that arrived late after quite clearly enjoying the finer side of college were glued to Grace. I didn’t get to see her after the class as there was a queue – a mile long – of students waiting to get a few minutes of her time. I checked out her twitter upon arriving at my office, streams of students ‘I want to do what you do’ or ‘Thank you, that was the best lecture I ever attended’ and so on.

Equality was one of Grace’s biggest passions. She firmly (and correctly) believed that women should not have to choose between work success and family. She wanted to be the CEO of an organization and have 100 kids. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting one and not the other, however, Grace wanted both. She would stop at nothing to achieve whatever she set her mind on. My Girl, My Hero.

My life with Grace was one of utter happiness. We loved, laughed, sang & travelled. We were best friends in every sense of the word. As I read through all the glowing tributes of Grace’s achievements, I came across one written by a lady that Grace thought the world of. At the risk of misquoting, I recall a line ‘Above all else, Grace was a goof!’. THIS was my Grace. We had a mutual respect for everything we achieved, but we were total goofs. We laughed literally all day every day. We would sing together in the car and of course I would give her a hard time about the high harmonies and insist that I would do them if she couldn’t hit the notes. We would be the first on the dance floor at every wedding and tended to remain there for the duration of the night. It was easy to see where she got it from, though. I recall my first meeting with the McDermott family at a family wedding in New Jersey. Moments after we were seated for the meal, we were on the dance floor… The panic running through my veins as I was yet to have a drink! What a night, zero inhibitions. They were as mad as I was!

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I recently sat and spoke to a friend of mine about how many lives Grace touched. In 30 minutes, we could name 5 people that Grace not only touched, she helped shape them. I can only speak for myself, however. In the first 3 months of our relationship I found out Grace was moving back to Ireland to pursue her PhD, I simply had to be there. I came up with a plan to speak to our boss about moving back to Ireland and setting up my own business in partnership with the company. He knew exactly what I was up to. I was motivated, so it made sense for all of us. The first 2 years of any company can be a struggle, we certainly had plenty of them. Coming home every night and hearing the words ‘I am so proud of you’ was enough for me to get myself out of bed the next day and go again. She was my rock, there is absolutely no doubting that. Grace gave me so much strength every single day. I would tell Grace all the time, ‘Ah I’m not smart, sure I didn’t even go to college’, she would flip! She would then begin to explain to me all the different ways someone can be intelligent and that I too was intelligent. When someone tells you that for four or five years, it starts to rub off. I can honestly say she made me who I am. Grace made me believe I could achieve things, constantly in my ear with reassurance, love and support. My brother mentioned during his eulogy, ‘Grace met people on their level’, that may have been her number 1 asset, she just knew how to connect.

 Over the past few weeks your friends and family have told me how much you loved me. I can’t tell you how nice that was to hear, but I already knew. You were so incredible at showing me. I have never felt love like the love you gave me. You told me all the time and I could even tell when you looked at me. You made me the happiest man in the world when you agreed to marry me, I’m sitting here picturing your face that day. It was the best day of my life and I keep trying to replay it in my head.

Though I know that this might sound arrogant, I believe what we had was truly unique. I try to tell myself that if the world was meant to lose you on that date, how lucky was I that I got to spend the last five years of your life being loved by you. I go through all the usual emotions, daily. In my selfish hours, I feel hard done by, but I am still here. I know how wonderful your life was and I know how much you achieved, but you were taken too soon. You would have been a fierce and amazing mother and I know how much we both wanted that. It’s just unfair.

 I will try to live my life in a way that would make Grace McDermott proud of me. I will keep my chin up and try to achieve anything I feel she would approve of. I know my life will never be the same but that is something I must live with and walk with (I can hear her screaming at me now ‘different doesn’t mean bad’) but I will have to disagree with her on that one. I suppose I just miss my best friend.

I love you Grace. Thank you for being my number 1 fan, for teaching me how to be a better human and for choosing me to be your life partner. I just wish it lasted another 50 years. x

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You can donate to charity in Grace’s memory here, and learn more about her work here.

Charity donations in honour of Grace McDermott (1990-2017), co-founder of Women Are Boring

 

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Grace McDermott, 1990-2017.

As most readers of the blog will have now heard, our incredible co-founder Grace McDermott died tragically on 1st May 2017. She was 26 years old. Everyone who knew and loved her (and there are so many of us) are still slowly trying to come to terms with this devastating and enormous loss.

Many people have been in contact with me in the week since Grace’s tragic death, enquiring as to whether there is a cause they can donate to in her honour. Below this brief message is a list of charities (some are based in Grace’s adopted home of Ireland, some in the United States – Grace was a very proud Long Islander), created by the McDermott family and by Grace’s fiancée Colin O’ Neill and his family, to which they ask that you donate should you wish to do so.

For the many who have asked if it is possible to donate to Women Are Boring, thank you so, so much. Your thoughts are very much appreciated. However, I firmly believe that all of the charities listed below are far more in need of your generosity. Each of these charities provide important and much-needed services, many of which are underfunded, and all of which are valuable.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone so much for their extremely thoughtful and beautiful words about Grace, and your messages of support for Women Are Boring over the past week. I can’t tell you how much they’ve all meant to me. Aside from being a colleague here on the blog, Grace was a best friend to me – I love her so much, I miss her so much, and I am bereft to be without her.

Women Are Boring will continue. Some of the messages I’ve received in the last few days have demonstrated to me (more than either of us had realised before) how much this project means to many people in academia, and to those who have no connection with the academic world. For this reason, and because Women Are Boring is now a small part of Grace’s substantial legacy (and perhaps most importantly because Grace would kick my ass if I stopped now), Women Are Boring will be back soon.

Catherine Connolly, co-founder, Women Are Boring.

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Message from the McDermott & O’ Neill families:

In consideration of Grace’s commitment and work for social causes, should anyone care to make a charitable donation in lieu of flowers, please consider the following charities for your donation in Grace’s name:

Charities based in Ireland

CRADLE

Cradle is an Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) working with child refugees and community development projects in crisis-hit and war torn regions.

http://www.cradle.ie/

To Donate Online: https://www.idonate.ie/2334_cradle.html ______________________________________________________

Irish ALS/ Motor Neurone Disease Association (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity, on behalf of Grace McDermott

Accepting donations for the treatment of ALS (Lou Gherig’s) disease; and the Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity, an organization for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse in Dublin, Ireland.

(While the original fundraising page for both the above charities is now closed to donations, you can still donate to either of these charities in Grace’s name at the following links):

Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association: www.imnda.ie/get-involved/donate/donate-online

Sonas Women’s Refuge Charity: www.womensaid.ie/donate/

______________________________________________________________________________

Charities based in the United States

Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism Adult Program

Nassau Suffolk Services for Autism
The Martin C. Barell School
80 Hauppauge Road
Commack, NY 11725
(ph) 631-462-0386
(fax) 631-462-4201
Email: office@nssa.net
To Donate Online: http://www.nssa.net/donate/
______________________________________________________________________________
Stupid Cancer
An organization focused on empowering and assisting young adults affected by cancer.
To Donate Online: http://give.stupidcancer.org/grace
_________________________________________________________________________

YMCA CAMP SPAULDING

Camp Spaulding provides services for many children in the New Hampshire area, including children in underprivileged and high risk homes.

To Donate Online: https://ymcacampspaulding.org/make-a-difference/ways-to-give/ Gift by phone: tel. 603.598.1533 during business hours. Gift by email: jschupack@nmymca.org ______________________________________________________________________________

METROPOLITAN YOUTH ORCHESTRA OF NEW YORK (MYO)

Grace McDermott Tour Scholarship Fund

Grace sang Alto with the MYO Youth Chorale from 2005-2007, and toured with them as one of the first vocalists ever on a MYO tour, performing throughout New York and on a summer tour in China. Grace spoke about traveling with the MYO China tour at such a young age as being a formative experience and essential to developing her independence, and leading to her decision to live abroad.

To Donate online: http://www.myo.org/support-myo/grace-mcdermott-tour-scholarship-fund/ To Donate by Telephone: call 516-365-6961. ______________________________________________________________________________

Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

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For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.

Not anonymous enough? Research data and issues of anonymity.

by Carol Robinson, doctoral researcher, University of York.

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Recently, I settled down to enjoy an article by one of my favourite academic writers. It was everything I’d hoped it would be: well written, thought provoking and interesting. It took a new approach to its subject and had a campaigning edge that I sympathised with.  And then, towards the end of it, I realised that I knew one of the people who had participated in the study being reported. Not that I knew them in terms of recognising a type, but that I actually knew them. My first response was one of disappointment. I want my academic heroes to be flawless. My next thought was along the lines of ‘will anyone else know them?’ followed quickly by the question ‘does it matter?’

A quick search on-line resulted in a Wikipedia page that confirmed other people would be able to identify the participant if they wished. The academic had not revealed their interviewee’s age or location, but from the context it was clear that they were referring to a member of a small group and once more specific information was given, anyone with a curious mind and an internet connection could produce a name. From my knowledge of the individual, further details in the article then confirmed what I had found.  Anyone else would be able to identify them, even if they lacked my certainty.

So, does it matter? The article probably won’t be widely read, even in academia, and it’s therefore doubtful that anyone else will do the searching to put a name to this participant. It’s possible the participant wouldn’t mind if they were named, although the author gave no indication that they’d consented to this. The encounter that was described didn’t include anything particularly controversial or personally revealing. If they read it, the person might not like some of the ways they were portrayed but there was no obvious information that could be used against them. But shouldn’t the participant have been assured of anonymity regardless?

Anonymity is one of the things I have to think about in my own research, which is around deaths in prison, two subjects with particular sensitivities. It is one of the hallmarks of ethical conduct, together with confidentiality and informed consent, necessary not least because twentieth century history has too many examples of exploitation and damage occurring in the name of ‘research’. Anonymization arguably has a value in its own right.  Attempting anonymization, even if we secretly admit we may fail, is a way of preserving the idea of academic integrity, of seeking to avoid the exploitation of other people’s generosity that would taint our work. It is evidence of academic vigour. This links back to my initial disappointment that an experienced academic had made a mistake. If the anonymization was ineffectual, were there other aspects of this article that were in some way dubious?

Demonstrating that we have followed the conventions of academic research, whether by correctly referencing our sources or by using recognised methodologies, is part of staking our claim to be academics. It shows a respect for the traditions of our particular discipline, and in the case of techniques such as anonymization, establishes our research as ethically valid. And if ethical validity is lost, it is arguable that other forms of credibility are lost too.

Research ethics committees usually insist on anonymity and confidentiality for people participating in any research, especially vulnerable participants, as a way of protecting them. It is assumed that some harm or loss may befall an individual if their identity is known, if the stories and experiences they share and which become the researcher’s data are in some way linked backed to them as a person living in the real world, beyond the study report or academic article. Sometimes, as in my own research, this is associated with taboo subjects or criminal activity, where there may be very real consequences if anonymity is not maintained.

In seeking ethical approval for research involving prisoners, deemed to be vulnerable because of their incarcerated status, I am encouraged to think through how I will record and store my data in a way that protects their identity. The specific threat is rarely stated. Although it may be poor practice, is failing to anonymise a person really putting them at risk of harm? In many cases, there is perhaps no direct link between a possible failure to anonymise effectively and a harmful consequence for the participant; the information revealed has to have the potential to be used in a way that would confer harm. However, there is often a simple presumption that all people participating in research should be protected, which ignores the question of whether harm is likely to follow from identification.

In all aspects of our lives, most of us share personal information continually.  We willingly offer up personal information all the time, giving our names, addresses and even bank account details to near strangers, trusting without evidence that they will be used for the purpose we intend. We share our views in conversations that can be overhead by others and via on-line discussions with unknown interlocutors. We post pictures on social media, link them to others without their consent, and live surrounded by cameras. Why do we persist in thinking we can anonymise research participants?

Researchers may use pseudonyms, but often a participant’s gender, age, nationality, race or class are pertinent to the research and so cannot be hidden. We can limit access to some findings, but that poses its own ethical dilemmas. And when the research needs to focus on participants from a small group, as in the case of the article I was reading, anonymization becomes so much harder to achieve.

I have experienced this in my own research. Last year, I interviewed uniformed prison staff with experience of working with terminally ill prisoners, in a prison where there were few female officers. The interviews gave really useful insights into the work prison officers perform with dying prisoners but I was painfully aware that the female interviewees may be identifiable by other staff in the prison, despite my best efforts at anonymization, simply because they belonged to such a small group. Even with a wider pool of participants, in a tight-knit world such as a prison anonymization is hard to maintain. Surely we should not abandon useful research because it involves a small group or close-knit communities?

Indeed, should we even try to anonymise our research participants? Most of the time I would say yes, but there are times when far from protecting our participants, doing so actually risks inflicting a harm.  As researchers, we promise anonymity to ethics committee on behalf of other people, who may not wish for it. Very often, participants may have offered to help the researcher because they too care about the issue that is driving the research and want to have an impact on the situation. They may want to have their voices heard, and by extension, themselves credited. When we anonymise them, we keep their voices, but hide their faces. For vulnerable participants in particular, this is potentially a misuse of power. It is a way for the researcher to exert their positional power and claim control. Nicely anonymised, our participants may not even be able to spot themselves in our final reports and presentations. They can’t see how they are represented, and so they can’t hold us to account. There are ways round this, involving them in the production of the final report, but in my discipline at least, few researchers seem to opt for these approaches.

Lastly, I found myself thinking ‘what does one do if one spots that an academic has not sufficiently anonymised their data?’. It is not easy to be certain what responsibility we have when we spot something problematic with someone else’s work. In the case of the article I read, the peer reviewers had been content with the text, the editorial board satisfied and the article is now published. The damage, if there were any, is done and in an age of on-line journal access, probably un-doable.

I asked colleagues, and was struck by two responses in particular, widely divergent but both from science faculties. One, coming from a discipline where the professional accountability of practitioners is paramount, felt strongly that I should contact either the author directly to alert them to the problem, or the journal anonymously to suggest they review their procedures. From another department, a colleague suggested I keep quiet, and not draw attention to the problem or myself. For them, raising the matter with the author would only make things worse. Each response of course reflected the culture and values of the particular academic disciple. In some academic disciplines, where the use of human participants is rare, the question of the quality of participant anonymization may rarely come up. But for many disciplines, including my own, where the involvement of human participants is so often essential to a research project, this is an issue that can occur at any time. Do we as academics have a collective responsibility to revisit anonymization?

 

Emotion Rules in Feminist Book Reviews: An Inroad to Improving Feminist Relationships

By: Lisa Kalayji

WAB 2Swimming through the endless tidal wave of demoralising political think pieces and scholarly jibber-jabber in my mostly academic Twitter feed, I came upon an account called ‘ShitMyReviewersSay’, which features the cruelly scathing comments that anonymous peer reviewers write about the hopefully-to-be-published academic journal articles of their colleagues. The account’s handle? @YourPaperSucks.

Its purpose, other than to give us an opportunity to chuckle at what, under different circumstances, makes us want to either cry or set a university building ablaze, is to highlight the absurd magnitude of the viciousness that peer reviewers will direct at their colleagues when given a chance to do so anonymously.

It’s cathartic to have a laugh at this sort of thing, but when it doesn’t come in the form of a satirical Twitter account, our reaction is a lot different. ‘What the hell?!’ we wonder incredulously. ‘Couldn’t you express your criticism in a less ruthless and petty way? What good does it do you to ruin someone’s day and treat their carefully nurtured brainchild of a paper like garbage?’

ShitMyReviewersSay reminded me of the book reviews in Trouble and Strife, the radical feminist magazine I’m doing my PhD research with.

Trouble and Strife published a fair number of book reviews – feminists write a lot of books! – and over the course of my research I’ve found that there’s a vast deal we can learn about a group of people, be they academics, radical feminists, or any other group, from the way they review each other’s writing.

My research is about emotion culture: the system of rules and social norms that prevail in a society or social group which affect how people feel emotionally and how they express those emotions. Book reviews contain a treasure trove of clues about the emotion culture of the social group that the reviews come from, but in order to see those clues, you need to know some of the things sociologists have learned over the last few decades about how emotions work.

Emotions are relational

As the term ‘relational’ suggests, emotions come up in relationships between people. Because psychology dominates the popular lexicon we use to talk about and make sense of emotions, we tend to think of emotions as states which exist inside of us, are linked to our neurochemistry and our personal histories, and are mostly governed by things like innate human needs for social bonding. All of those things are partially true, but what the sociological study of emotions has revealed is that emotions are actually relational.

Why we feel the way we do in any given situation is constituted by our relationships to the people and things around us and what we understand those things to be and mean.

There isn’t anything in our genetic code that makes us get annoyed when a friend we’re supposed to meet for lunch shows up half an hour late (though our biology is necessary for us to be able to experience feelings), and the feeling of annoyance isn’t something inside of us that emanates outward through the things we say or do (though we do express emotions in that way). We’re annoyed at someone (that’s the relation), and the reason for that annoyance is what we think the lateness signifies. We’re busy people! Don’t they think we have better things to do than sit around waiting? We have to be back at work soon – now we’re going to have to rush through lunch! Our awareness that our friend knows that it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting and that it’s an inconvenience to us is what makes us annoyed – their indifference to our needs and to the agreed conventions of how keeping a lunch date with someone works creates our feeling. Likewise, though, if we found out that they’d been delayed because a stranger attacked them on the street and nearly broke their jaw, our annoyance would quickly give way to concern – what their lateness showed about our relationship to them would have changed, and with it, our feelings about it.

Emotions are subject to rules

Much like there are social rules about how we’re supposed to behave in different sorts of situations, there are also rules about how we’re supposed to feel and how we’re supposed to express feelings. If an adult is audibly crying at, say, a fancy restaurant or a business meeting, that would seem inappropriate, and probably make everyone around them quite uncomfortable. If they were at a funeral, however, that would be considered normal and appropriate, and no one would be bothered.

Even if feelings aren’t expressed, there are rules about how we’re supposed to feel.

If, for example, you’re a bit off your game at work because your sister died last week and you’re in grief, and while not actually admonishing you for it, you get the sense that your boss is annoyed with you for not being your sharpest self right now, you might get upset or angry at them. When someone is in grief, we expect others to respond with compassion, even if that grief peripherally causes some inconvenience to others – it’s a violation of the social norms of compassion and empathy to get annoyed at someone for being grieved, even if the annoyance is mostly hidden and not openly expressed. The rules are also different depending on what the characteristics of the people involved are. If that person crying in the restaurant is an infant, while people might still not be pleased about the noise, it wouldn’t make them feel awkward and uncomfortable, because we consider it normal behaviour for babies to cry regardless of time or place.

These are all some general aspects of how emotions in social life work in ordinary social situations. What my research is about, though, is the specifically political dimension of emotions in social life.

Social norms about emotions are deeply political, even in most seemingly innocuous daily interactions like those I described above. Rules about who is allowed to feel or express what feelings towards whom divides along a lot more political lines than the differences between adults and children. Anger is generally considered more appropriate in men than in women (and in women is more likely to be characterised as histrionics or emotional instability), and vulnerability more appropriate in women than in men (with men’s abilities to be ‘proper’ men called into question if they cry, especially in public). Rules about emotions are also racialised – even very slight expressions of anger from black men are interpreted as very threatening because black men are culturally conceived of as inherently threatening, while much stronger expressions of anger from white men (or women) are regarded as less threatening and are more likely to be considered justified. Our prevailing cultural conceptions about what characteristics different kinds of people innately have give rise to specific, and often strictly socially enforced, rules about who can feel what and how their feelings can be expressed.

Emotions in feminist book reviews

Feminists do a lot of writing, and a lot about how emotions work in feminism can be learned from examining the books, magazines, pamphlets, manifestos, and websites they write. I’m researching radical feminism, a specific type of feminism (there are a lot of them) which emerged during the ‘second wave’ of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, and continues today. From 1983-2002, a radical feminist collective the UK published a magazine called Trouble and Strife, and a lot of radical feminist political thought from that period can be found there.

WAB 1Because feminist politics is so substantially borne out through reading and writing, one of the central strategies that feminists use to think through politics is by reading and debating one another’s writing. For that reason, unsurprisingly, Trouble and Strife published quite a few book reviews, wherein contributing authors to the magazine reviewed books authored by other feminists. By comparing these reviews, and the responses to them that readers communicated to the magazine through letters to the editors, we can see radical feminist emotional politics in action.

What I’ve found is that the emotion rules in radical feminism are different for relationships between radical feminists than they are when dealing with someone outside that political community. When dealing with fellow radical feminists, they’re more considerate of one another’s feelings, express their criticisms more hesitantly and gently, and are more appreciative of the aspects of the work that they agree with. On the rare occasion that someone breaks this rule and is harshly critical of someone within the radical feminist community, there’s a strong backlash, with others writing letters to the magazine to express strong objections to those criticisms having been published, and some questioning the political identity of the magazine as a whole in light of their decision to publish exacting reviews.

This will ring true for many feminists who currently engage in online activism, who are familiar with the more receptive audiences within their own political communities, and harsher (and sometimes outright vitriolic) criticism from feminists who have a fundamentally different set of political values.

This has profound implications for the future of feminism: if feminists who disagree on crucial political issues are more willing to upset one another, and less desirous of understanding where others are coming from, then we’re likely to see a continuation of the entrenched infighting that has plagued feminism for decades. I’m not suggesting here that we should return to the ‘happy sisterhood’ of yesteryear (which, as many feminists have pointed out, never actually existed). What I do want to highlight, though, is that if we want to understand why conflicts between feminists get so heated and can be so divisive, understanding the emotion rules which give shape to feminists’ relationships with each other is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Once we become more aware of these rules and how our own feelings are shaped by them, we can act to change them, and while this won’t solve all of feminism’s problems, it can go a long way toward generating more fruitful dialogues between feminists who belong to different political communities.

This strategy can be extended to other social movements as well, and it has rarely been a matter of more urgency than it is right now for social movements to be able to prevent the breakdown of their political projects due to irreconcilable conflicts from within their communities. During the currently ongoing period of rapid and disorientating social and political change, understanding the emotion rules of social movements can help us to ensure that efforts to enact positive social change are successful, and examining the way we speak to, speak of, and write about one another is one tool we can use for making sense of our emotion cultures.

You can find all issues of Trouble and Strife on their website at troubleandstrife.org.

Women are literally boring….

By: Laurie Winkless

Tunnels, that is. All over the world, Tunnel Boring Machines (or TBMs) are chewing their way through the packed subterranean network of your nearest city. But something you might not know is that they’re all given women’s names. Naming a machine after a human isn’t that weird, right? Many of us have named our cars after all, but it goes a bit deeper for TBMs. According to tunnelling tradition, a TBM cannot start work until it is officially named. But exactly where we got the tradition of naming them after women remains a bit of a mystery.

Some sources suggest that it comes from the 16th century, when miners, armourers, and artillerymen prayed to Saint Barbara. Legend has it that Barbara’s father had locked her in a windowless tower when he found out about her conversion to Christianity. Later, a flash of lightning struck him dead, and since then, all trades associated with darkness and the use of explosives have recognised Barbara as their patron saint. Today’s tunnel engineers see themselves as fitting that description, and so give TBMs women’s names in Barbara’s honour. Others suggest that the tradition comes from the link between miners and ship-builders – their physical strength and similar skills often saw men switch between trades as the need arose. Boats have long been given the pronoun ‘she’ (again for reasons unknown), so perhaps using women’s names for tunnelling machines started there?

Regardless of its beginnings, this tradition is carried out throughout the world today, as a sign of good luck for the project ahead. And, perhaps surprisingly in our increasingly secular world, most tunnelling projects still erect a shrine to Saint Barbara at the tunnel entrance.

I am a massive fan of TBMs. Here I am looking very excited in a TBM- tunnel under the streets of London. If I lived my life again, I think I’d be a tunnelling engineer. (Credit: Laurie Winkless)

Anyway, before we meet some of the First Ladies of the Underground, let have a quick look at how they work. First off, TBMs are huge. Bertha, the largest TBM in the world, is currently working her way under Seattle. She has a diameter of 17.5m, is 99 m long, and weighs over 6,000 tonnes. If we measure her in units of ‘double decker buses’ – she’s as tall as four parked on top of one another, as long as eight parked nose-to-tail, and weighs as much as 467 of them. So it’s no surprise that she’s usually referred to as ‘Big Bertha’.

So what do TBM’s like Bertha do with all that…girth? In their simplest form, TBMs are cylinder-shaped machines that can munch their way through almost any rock type. As I mentioned in my book, Science and the City, TBMs are generally referred to as ‘moles’, but I prefer to think of them as earthworms. Worms eat, push forward and expel whatever is left over, and while there are lots of different types of TBM, they pretty much all do those same three things.

Image credit: Crossrail

At the front, TBMs have a circular face covered in incredibly hard teeth made from a material called tungsten carbide. As the cutter-head rotates, it breaks up the rock in front of it. This excavated material is swallowed through an opening in the face (some would call it a mouth) and it is carried inside the body of the TBM using a rotating conveyor belt. There, it is mixed with various additives (rather like saliva or stomach acid in some animals) that turn the rock into something with the consistency, if not the minty-freshness, of toothpaste. After digestion, this goo is expelled out of the back of the TBM, and it travels along a conveyor belt, until it reaches a processing facility above ground. There, the goo is filtered and treated, with much of it reused in other building projects.

Because of their shape, TBMs produce smooth tunnel walls, which can then be lined using curved segments of concrete. TBMs manage this part of the process too – many metres behind the cutter-head, large robotic suction arms called erectors (stop giggling) pick up and place the concrete panels, to form a complete ring. As the TBM moves forward, more and more of these rings are put into place, until the tunnel is fully clad. In this way, cities across the globe can produce fully-lined tunnels at the rather impressive rate of 100 m per week.

Enough background. Time to meet some of the TBMs boldly going where no machine-named-after-a-woman has gone before.

London – Ada, Phyllis, Victoria, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, Jessica and Ellie

Crossrail is Europe’s biggest engineering project. Since 2009, they’ve constructed two brand-new, 21 km-long tunnels across London, running east-west. To do this, they used eight TBMs, and as tradition dictates, each was given a woman’s name, selected by members of the public. The first six machines were named after historical London figures, whilst the final two machines were named after ‘modern day heroes’. Because two TBM’s excavate parallel tunnels at the same time, they’re also named in pairs.

Image credit: Crossrail

– Mary and Sophia: These two excavated Crossrail’s new Thames Tunnel, between Plumstead and North Woolwich. They were named after the wives of Isambard and Marc Brunel, the famous engineers who constructed London’s first Thames Tunnel over 150 years ago. The women were a lot faster than their hubbies though – the original tunnel took 16 years to construct. This one was completed in just eight months.

Victoria and Elizabeth: Can you guess which women from history these TBMs were named after?! Yep, Queenie #1 and #2. In the citation, the reason given was that “Victoria was monarch in the first age of great railway engineering projects and Elizabeth is the monarch at the advent of this great age.” Victoria and Elizabeth excavated the tunnels that run between Canning Town and Farringdon, finishing the job in May 2015. As an aside, the Crossrail route itself will appear on tube maps as ‘The Elizabeth Line’, which is disappointingly predictable. I was rooting for ‘The Brunel Line’ myself, but hey.

Ada and Phyllis: These may be my favourites – named after the world’s first computer scientist, Ada Lovelace, and Phyllis Pearsall, who single-handedly created the London A-Z. Lovelace was a woman before her time – without her work, Charles Babbage and his ‘analytical engine’ would have been nothing more than a rich-man and his hobby. Pearsall, on the other hand, got lost on the way to a party in 1935, and decided the maps were inadequate. She walked a total of 3,000 miles to compile the first comprehensive street map of the city. Their Crossrail reincarnations drove west from Farringdon station, laying the groundwork for the second stage of the project.

Jessica and Ellie: These names were selected by primary school children from East London, and they come from heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill and swimmer Ellie Simmonds, who won gold medals at the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics held in the city. Like their human counterparts, these TBMs were hard-working, each excavating two sections of Crossrail’s route.

London has two brand-new TBMs too, which will be working on the extension to the tube’s Northern Line – the line I spent almost all of my 13 years in London living on. Like Crossrail’s Jessica and Ellie, the names of the newbies – each weighing in at 650 tonnes (or 50 double-decker buses) – were selected by schoolchildren. They drew inspiration from pioneering women in aviation. One is named Amy, after Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from Britain to Australia. And the second is Helen, named after the first British astronaut, Helen Sharman.

Seattle – Big Bertha

What more can I say about Bertha? Well, she was named after one of Seattle’s early mayors. In fact, Bertha K. Landes was the city’s first and only female mayor…. And she’s still widely regarded as one of the best they ever had. She fought against police corruption and dangerous drivers, and advocated for municipal ownership of the Seattle City Light and street railways. In 2013, Bertha-the-TBM started her long journey across the city, excavating a multilevel road tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. But just six months into the project, Bertha ground to a halt. Investigations showed that some of Bertha’s cutting teeth had been severely damaged by a large steel pipe embedded in the ground that hadn’t shown up on surveys. Over the next two years (yes, really), construction engineers dug a recovery pit, so that they could access the machine’s cutter-head, and partially replace it. Bertha resumed tunnel boring in late December, 2015. As I type, she’s also on a pause because of some misalignment, but this stoppage is expected to be temporary. Poor Bertha.

Image credit: Washington State Department of Transportation

Auckland – Alice

Since moving to New Zealand in December, I’ve had a bit of rail-infrastructure-shaped gap in my life. Thankfully, Kiwis are also fans of TBMs, but they tend to use them for road tunnels. The latest one to finish her work is Alice – a 3200 tonne (246 buses) TBM that spent the last two years carving a path between Auckland’s major transport routes. Alice’s tunnel connects State Highway 16 and State Highway 20, and once it opens in April/May 2017, it will complete the city’s ring road. Having recently spent more than an hour in Auckland traffic heading to the airport, I can attest to how much the road is needed! Since finishing her tour of duty, Alice has since gone to a farm when she can roam free amongst all of the other TBMs…. Oh if only this were true. In reality, the largest sections of the machine are being shipped back to her German manufacturer. There, her components will be used to build another TBM. So it’s not been a bad life, I guess.

San Francisco – Mom Chung

Mom Chung is another TBM that has already done her job and is now ‘in retirement’. She is named after Dr. Margaret Chung, the first American-born female Chinese physician, who practiced medicine in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. During World War II, she took lots of American servicemen under her wing, earning her the nickname ‘Mom’. Legend has it that when one of her ‘sons’ became a congressman, he filed the legislation to create a female branch of the Navy, in response to pressure from Mom, who was a firm supporter of women in the military. Mom Chung-the-TBM built the southbound central subway tunnel in San Francisco, and even had a Twitter account for a while.

Of course, actual, real-life women work alongside (and inside) these machines. As more women are attracted into engineering, tunnelling is no longer solely a male pursuit. Women still make up a small percentage (around 11% of the UK construction sector, for example), but those numbers are slowly growing. So no matter which way you look at it, women are literally boring. Tunnelling is awesome.

*** You can follow Laurie on Twitter @laurie_winkless. She also wants to say thank you to Dr Jess Wade for inspiring this article. If you love science and very cool doodles, you can also follow Jess on Twitter – she’s @jesswade

 

Literary representations of maternity

Narrative obstetrics: on literary representations of maternity

by Helen Charman, PhD Candidate at Trinity Hall and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge.

In February— in case you needed reminding— Beyoncé announced that she was pregnant with twins via a heavily symbolic photoshoot that drew on everything from 15th century Flemish portraiture to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Queen Nefertiti. Announced on the first day of Black History Month in America, the pictures figure as a twofold celebration of historically marginalised and objectified physicalities. Amongst the inevitable media furore, the celebrations were countered by predictable complaints from the entire political spectrum of the media, backed up by censorious comments from members of the public. Readers all over the U.K. felt compelled to share that they ‘couldn’t care less’ about the announcement, urging the papers to ‘write about real news’ instead. In fact, many commenters professed to care so little about Beyoncé and her belly that they composed quite lengthy rants about it. Perhaps, as seems to have been the case for one visitor to The Sun online, the photographs were the final straw: ‘Yet another preggie publicly flaunting that ugly bump. Why cant these people wear sensible clothes and cover up, keep the naked pics for their own eyes.’

beyonce P1

A photo from Beyoncé’s photoshoot

The desire to censor the pregnant female body is nothing new, and it goes hand in hand with our inability to discuss things like the menstrual cycle without deferring to the delicate sensibilities of actual or imagined listeners, particularly male ones. Beyoncé’s photographs were accompanied by a poem by Warsan Shire, making the link to Venus— goddess of love— explicit, and reinforcing the sexual aspect of the images: ‘in the dream I am crowning / osun, / Nerfetiti, / and yemoja / pray around my bed’. The photograph that seemed to incense people the most was the one posed sitting on the roof of a car: a hyper-sexualised pose familiar to many from calendars and glamour magazines. Critics were also vocal about the ‘exploitative’ nature of the photographs, suggesting that there was something unseemly about Beyoncé— who, as of March 2017, has a net worth estimated by Forbes to be over $290 million — ‘using’ her pregnancy to contribute to her lucrative personal brand. The announcement illustrated a familiar truth: the intersection of female sexuality and economic power— and its mirror image, commodification— touches on deep-seated societal fears. Although the smattering of tight-lipped comment pieces framing their disapproval of the photograph’s lavish celebration of the pregnant body as concern for childless women were mostly disingenuous— this concern doesn’t usually seem to bother tabloid newspapers who mine ‘fertility’ dramas for exposure— they served to illuminate the paradox of maternity: censorship goes hand in hand with idealisation. Some of the positive responses to the announcement were deceptively conservative in their valourisation of motherhood as a woman’s ‘true’ purpose, something all too easily appropriated by exclusionary and harmful discussions about what ‘real’ womanhood is or should be.

My doctoral research evidences that these conflicting attitudes to motherhood are far from a new phenomenon. I am a PhD student in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, and my doctoral research uses the novels of the prolific Victorian author, translator and essayist George Eliot as a focus through which to explore the changing attitude towards maternity in the nineteenth century. In her seminal study of ‘motherhood as experience and institution’, Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich asks how have women given birth, who has helped them, and how, and why? These are not simply questions of the history of midwifery and obstetrics: they are political questions.’[1] My project contends that by the time Eliot published her last novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1876 the political aspects of these questions had become issues of economic and literary production, too: like the furore around Beyoncé’s baby bump, the response to pregnant bodies in the nineteenth century demonstrated subversive power they held over every aspect of society.

george-eliot-0

George Eliot

In the Victorian period the mother was idealised as, in Coventry Patmore’s phrase, ‘the angel in the house’: the pressures of the new industrial age created a divide between the public, masculine workplace and the feminine, domestic domain of the home, which was seen as place of moral stability in a changing world. Yet the domestic idolisation of the mother was closely linked to the rapid economic and political advancements occurring in ‘masculine’ society. From the eighteenth century onwards, childbirth itself had become radically medicalized: rather than midwives attending to expectant mothers in their homes— in exclusively female spaces— lying-in hospitals, male obstetricians and the use of forceps became the norm. Wet-nursing turned mother’s milk— and the lactating breast— into a commodity. Throughout the nineteenth century, the effectiveness of these medical advancements was fiercely debated in publications like the British Medical Journal and The Lancet: these discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by men who linked the debates around childbirth to broader political and moral debates of the time. Ruth Perry, Valerie Fildes and other historians of motherhood have made a persuasive argument that this medicalization, alongside the charitable drives to save infant lives in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries such as the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital, links the construction and valourisation of bourgeois motherhood to the Victorian concern with Empire. As Perry puts it,

… motherhood was a colonial form—the domestic, familial counterpart to land enclosure at home and imperialism abroad. Motherhood as it was constructed in the early modern period is a production-geared phenomenon analogous to the capitalizing of agriculture, the industrializing of manufacture, and the institutionalizing of the nation state.[2]

In the nineteenth century, the emergence of the maternal ideal was, rather than a positive or empowering development for women, a means of co-opting the female reproductive body into the service of a patriarchal societal and economic system.

So how does this link to the literature? By the end of the nineteenth century, the novel had become the most prominent literary form in Britain. The revival of serialisation increased accessibility and, combined with the dominance of social realism, meant prose fiction was a highly relevant and reactive art form. In the first half of the century, economists had reformulated traditional concepts of value according to the ability to generate financial returns. As the novel became increasingly concerned with an explicitly capitalist system of value, the figure of the mother became symbolic of these ongoing debates about worth: the commodification of care. The reproductive bodies of the female protagonists in George Eliot’s novels, as well as in the work of her contemporaries like Charles Dickens, are embedded in a complex value system in which their idealized virtue is directly related to their economic function as producers.

Maternal virtue, however, was inconveniently linked to sexuality. The female body was most acceptable when it could be rationalised as fulfilling the function of maternity, but the physical reality of pregnancy was a threat to repressive norms that governed Victorian society. As Carolyn Dever notes, novels of this period were struggling of an impossible reconciliation of ‘a maternal ideal with the representation of the embodied—and potentially eroticized—female subject.’[3] Consequently, the idealised mother loomed large in Victorian fiction, but more often than not these texts feature mothers who are absent, or dead: psychologically overwhelming, but physically absent. Although recent developments in historical thought suggest that the maternal mortality rate in the nineteenth century was not as high as was once assumed, it is true that the medicalization of childbirth brought with it an epidemic of puerperal fever, or ‘childbed fever’. Maternal death in nineteenth-century fiction, however, far exceeded the actual rates of childbed death, which consistently remained well below 1%. Dever and others have linked this trope to Freudian psychoanalysis, and the destabilising effect the idea of the sexual maternal body could have upon the identities of children raised in a culture that linked female sexuality with hysteria and disorder. In nineteenth-century narrative, the tragic death of the mother ensured her virtue: free of the troubling aspects of her embodied existence, she could fulfil the symbolic role society required of her.

Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich

In a letter of 1866, George Eliot referred to her fiction as an attempt to ‘make certain ideas thoroughly incarnate, as if they had revealed themselves to me first in the flesh and not in the spirit’. This notion of ‘incarnation’ is undermined, however, by the fact that Eliot largely avoids any engagement with matters of the flesh. Indeed, Eliot seems to want to avoid biological maternity altogether. In her novels mothers either die young— often in childbirth— or are comically incompetent or grotesque and replaced by substitutionary maternal figures who are able to provide moral guidance uncomplicated by the problem of physical maternity. The few female protagonists in her work who do go on to have children have to sacrifice something of themselves in the process: Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872), lives happily with her husband and two children, but we learn in the novel’s final passage that although her husband is an active social reformer, Dorothea’s own ambitions remain unfulfilled. It could be argued that the reason for the dearth of maternal characters in Eliot’s novels is the narrative dead end the circumstances of maternity provided for so many nineteenth-century women. We’ve got a long way to go before we can honestly say that this isn’t still the case for many women today. In Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich— writing in 1986— comments on the metaphorical resonance that death in childbirth retains:

Even in a place and time where maternal mortality is low, a woman’s fantasies of her own death in childbirth have the accuracy of metaphor. Typically, under patriarchy, the mother’s life is exchanged for the child; her autonomy as a separate being seems fated to conflict with the infant she will bear. The self-denying, self-annihilating role of the Good Mother (linked implicitly with suffering and with the repression of anger) will spell the “death” of the woman or girl who once has hopes, expectations, fantasies for herself—especially when those hopes and fantasies have never been acted on.[4]

The valourised, idealised Good Mother is a trope that works against women, not for them. If we want to change it, we need to understand where it came from, and how inherently linked it is to our economic and political systems, and we need more ‘preggies’ like Beyoncé to ‘flaunt’ their maternity in a way that includes, rather than denies, their autonomous, sexual identities.

[1] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (London: Virago, 1976, reissued with a new introduction by the author [1986], reprinted 1992), p.128.

[2] Ruth Perry, ‘Colonising the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England’, (Journal of the History of Sexuality,Vol. 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991), pp. 204-234), p. 205.

[3]Carolyn Dever, Death and the Mother from Dickens to Freud: Victorian Fiction and the Anxiety of Origins (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), p. 19.

[4] Rich, p.166.