University responses to sexual violence on campus: comparing English & American approaches

by Erin Shannon, University of York

Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

What can we learn from a comparative framing of responses to sexual violence in universities?

Sexual violence in English and American universities is not a new phenomenon, yet its corresponding field of study is relatively new. Such scholarship dates back to the 1980s but has gained traction in the last decade, possibly due to several high-profile cases, national awareness-raising efforts including campaigns like ‘It’s On Us‘ and ‘I Heart Consent‘, and the rise of survivor-activist groups such as ‘End Rape on Campus‘ and ‘Know Your IX‘ in the United States and ‘Revolt Sexual Assault‘ in the United Kingdom. Despite this growth in mainstream media coverage and activist work, research on sexual violence in universities remains limited: England only began investigating it in 2010 at the urging of the National Union of Students (NUS, 2010) and while the United States has a longer record of studying the subject, the existing literature often overlooks structural issues in favour of more individualised studies of perpetrator behaviour or the impact on victims/survivors (Phipps and Smith, 2012, p. 358). Comparative studies on sexual violence in universities are even rarer, as a single study exists that analyses campus crime rates across England and the United States (Fisher and Wilkes, 2003) and this only briefly touches on sexual violence.

Looking beyond scholarship, current institutional responses to sexual violence in American and English universities fall into one of two polarised approaches: a heavily structured framework (e.g. United States) versus a culture change model (e.g. England). While these models are not mutually exclusive, universities currently treat them as such. A comparative examination of American and English universities’ responses to sexual violence highlights that both approaches are necessary, yet neither on its own is sufficient to properly respond to sexual violence in universities. On a practical implementation level, the necessity of a comparative study becomes clear: Though England does not currently have a national response framework for sexual violence in universities, Universities UK (UUK) noted in its (2016) Changing the Culture report that it is working towards creating one, and, in doing so, is studying established structures—such as the United States’ Title IX—for potential adaptation (p. 4). We must therefore understand the existing responses in both countries if we are to seriously consider policy borrowing.

Before we can discuss what this best practice sharing could look like, we need to understand how we arrived at this discussion. Policy borrowing implies a level of sameness between two contexts, and American and English universities are indeed similar. The student make-up in both countries is comparable: In the 2015-2016 academic year, 40.5% of 18-24-year-olds in the United States and 49% of 17-30-year-olds in England attended university (National Center for Education Statistics; Adams, 2017). The majority of these students are white and female (National Center for Education Statistics; “Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17,” 2018). Victimisation rates in both countries are also comparable: Though more data exists about the prevalence of sexual violence in American universities than in English universities, the available research does illustrate similarities. The (2015) Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that 21.2% of final year undergraduate students experience some kind of attempted or completed sexual assault prior to graduation (Cantor et. al., p. xiv). The most vulnerable of these were female students and “TGQN” students— “transgender male, transgender female, genderqueer or non-conforming gender, questioning, not listed, and ‘decline to state’” (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. vii)—who experience sexual violence at rates of 33.1% and 39.1% respectively (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. xiv). In England, the (2010) Hidden Marks report found that, of its respondents, one in seven female students experienced a serious sexual or physical assault (NUS, p. 3, 11) and 25% experienced a form of sexual violence while in higher education (NUS, p. 16). Another constant across both countries is the perpetrator profile: The most frequent perpetrators of sexual violence in universities are not “‘masked strangers’” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 291), but rather (ex-)boyfriends, friends, classmates, or acquaintances (Fisher et. al., 2000, p. 17; Krebs et. al., 2007, p. xviii). The Hidden Marks report further revealed that the level of intimacy the perpetrator had with the victim/survivor varied across types of violence: The more severe the assault, the closer the relationship between them (NUS, 2010, p. 19).

Despite these similarities, American and English universities respond differently to student disclosures of sexual violence, and these responses represent either side of the structured framework versus culture change binary mentioned earlier. The United States has a relatively standardised federal approach, while England is witnessing many different responses by individual universities. In addition to the structural difference between the countries, there appears to be a value difference as well. Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

The American Framework

The framework that the United States has in place consists of two key federal directives, Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX prohibits any discrimination based on sex in education and the (2011) Dear Colleague Letter (DCL)—updated implementation guidance from the Obama administration—explicitly situates sexual violence as an issue covered by this: “Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX” (Ali, p. 1). The DCL mandates the following: Universities must publish a non-discrimination notice that has the contact information of the Title IX Coordinator in an easily accessible place, must assign the responsibility for Title IX compliance to at least one employee, and must create and disseminate their procedures for sex discrimination complaints (Ali, 2011, p. 6). It discusses how student conduct investigations should be carried out by detailing what standard of proof is acceptable (preponderance of the evidence or “more likely than not” as opposed to a higher standard such as “beyond a reasonable doubt”); that the complainant (alleged victim/survivor) and accused (alleged perpetrator) should have equal opportunity to present evidence, though they should not directly question each other; that investigations should not take longer than 60 days; and that universities should have an appeals process in place for both parties (Ali, 2011, p. 10-12). Should a university fail to respond appropriately and quickly to a report of sexual violence, the Office for Civil Rights can revoke the university’s federal funding (Ali, 2011, p. 16). In addition to Title IX, universities must adhere to the Clery Act, which requires them to log information such as the “‘nature, date, time, and general location of each crime;’” release statistics of crimes that happen adjacent to or on campus; send out ‘timely warnings’ about immediate and/or ongoing threats to campus safety; and create an emergency response strategy (Griffin et. al., 2017, p. 403-404).

Critics of the American response framework, particularly Title IX, often point to the lack of compliance universities exhibit and its punitive, legalistic qualities. When measuring the efficacy of Title IX in responding to sexual violence, what is often actually being measured is how successfully schools comply with guidance rather than how successfully they address sexual violence. Compliance, however, can still speak to how universities (de)value student victims/survivors; it’s therefore worth noting that, despite these improved procedures, there were still universities in 2015 that lacked a basic Title IX policy (Richards, 2016, p. 20). This compliance culture—or lack thereof—illustrates a previously mentioned issue with the American response to sexual violence in universities: Tani (2017), citing Leon’s study of the 2014 Office for Civil Rights investigation of University of Delaware, points out that American universities may have the structure in place to facilitate effective responses to sexual violence, yet limited or no institutional commitment to cultural change (p. 1890). Furthermore, beyond failure to comply with the system lie issues with the system itself. These critiques point to how such a punitive model results in a ‘zero-sum game’ between the rights of the accused versus the rights of the complainant and how the policy’s rape mythology imported from criminal law hurts victims/survivors (Hartmann, 2015, p. 314, 294; USVreact, 2018, p. 9).

The English approach

Conversely, the recommendations set out in UUK’s (2016) Changing the Culture report focus on facilitating cultural change through the creation of streamlined reporting, recording, and support processes. The Changing the Culture report highlighted that some universities are responding, but these responses are not centralised and there is not yet an outlet for sharing best practice across the UK (2016, p. 5). Based on responses from 60 of their member universities, UUK found that the majority did not have dedicated policies in place to respond to sexual violence, as this was often included under an umbrella policy for harassment and bullying (2016, p. 27). Under-reporting of sexual violence and the lack of reporting and recording infrastructure were common issues among respondents (UUK, 2016, p. 28). Despite the absence of internal reporting resources, however, many universities had developed working partnerships in their local communities with police and crisis centres (UUK, 2016, p. 29). UUK formed recommendations based on recurrent themes in university responses which include: achieve senior leadership buy-in, implement an institution-wide approach, work to prevent violence through forming a zero-tolerance culture and using bystander intervention training, create a system to centrally record all reports and make sure that there is a clear path to disclosure and support, create or strengthen partnerships in the local community (NHS, rape crisis centres, etc.), and ensure best practice sharing (2016, p. 58-59).

While Phipps and Smith (2012) caution us against “mobilising simplistic dichotomies” (p. 366) in comparing English and American responses to sexual violence in universities, the themes of infrastructure and commitment offer an opportunity to understand why two countries with relatively similar student make-up and rates of violence have taken such different approaches. The United States may have a developed infrastructure for response, yet the presence of this framework and the federal sanctions it can impose then make universities more concerned with compliance than with addressing and redressing sexual violence. On the other hand, without national legislation, England has the opportunity to discuss what supporting victims/survivors and preventing sexual violence looks like without universities facing national sanctions if their response does not fit a certain mould. The English guidance generated does not fixate on infrastructure aside from what will help students—easily accessible reporting and support pathways. In reviewing the American and English systems, we come to understand that merely having formal structures in place to respond to sexual violence in universities does not lead to broader cultural change, and that lacking standardised policies does not mean universities are not working to end sexual violence. The absence of standardised procedures in England may contribute to issues of accountability when universities act negligently, yet the United States shows us that the mere presence of a uniform response strategy does not guarantee that all universities will implement this even under the threat of losing federal funding. We then must grapple with the idea that change may not be best achieved through the creation of punitive umbrella policies that aim to foster compliance out of fear, rather than compassion for student victims/survivors. As someone who was heavily involved in Title IX activism throughout her undergraduate education in New Jersey, this idea has not been easy for me to confront.

What can we learn from this?
What then can we learn from a comparative framing of sexual violence response in universities? I am still very much in the process of finding out. The preliminary findings from my literature review suggest at the very least that a comparative framing would help us envision radically different options for response, that we do not have to remain committed to one way of responding because that is how it has been done. In a precarious moment for Title IX—thanks to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos buying into the mythology of rampant false accusations (McNamara, 2018; “False Reporting Overview,” 2012) and subsequently making it more difficult for victims/survivors to find justice (United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2017)—it is now more important than ever for Americans to remember that there are possibilities for achieving justice beyond a system that can be weaponised against the very people it was designed to protect. It is also important for England, in working towards a national response framework, to take into account the critiques of the United States’ system when considering it for possible adaptation. Ultimately, it is my hope that my doctoral thesis will help to identify how universities in the United States and England may engage in policy borrowing to better support university student victims/survivors of sexual violence.

 

References

Adams, R. (2017, September 28). Almost half of all young people in England go on to higher education. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/sep/28/almost-half-of-all-young-people-in-england-go-on-to-higher-education

Ali, R. (2011, April 4). Dear Colleague Letter.
Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Townsend, R., Lee, H., Bruce, C., & Thomas, G. (2015). Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. The Association of American Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/sites/default/files/%40%20Files/Climate%20Survey/AAU_Campus_Climate_Survey_12_14_15.pdf
False Reporting Overview. (2012). Retrieved July 11, 2018, from https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False-Reporting.pdf
Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice. https://doi.org/10.1007/springerreference_223719
Fisher, B. S., & Wilkes, A. R. P. (2003). A Tale of Two Ivory Towers: A Comparative Analysis of Victimization Rates and Risks between University Students in the United States and England. The British Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 525–545.
Griffin, V. W., Pelletier, D., Hayden Griffin, O., & Sloan, J. J. (2017). Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act: SaVing Lives or SaVing Face? American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 42(2), 401–425.
Hartmann, A. (2015). Reworking Sexual Assault Response on University Campuses: Creating A Rights-Based Empowerment Model to Minimize Institutional Liability. Journal of Law & Policy, 48, 287–320.
Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17. (2018, January 11). Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/whos-in-he
Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., & Warner, T. D. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study (No. 0209487). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
McNamara, B. (2018, March 12). Betsy DeVos Said She Doesn’t Know Whether False Rape Allegations Outnumber Real Ones. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/betsy-devos-false-rape-allegations-outnumber-real-ones
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast Facts. Retrieved June 12, 2018, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
NUS. (2010). Hidden Marks: A study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault.
Phipps, A., & Smith, G. (2012). Violence against women students in the UK: time to take action. Gender and Education, 24(4), 357–373.
Richards, T. N. (2016). An Updated Review of Institutions of Higher Education’s Responses to Sexual Assault: Results From a Nationally Representative Sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 886260516658757.
Tani, K. M. (2017). An Administrative Right to Be Free from Sexual Violence: Title IX Enforcement in Historical and Institutional Perspective. Duke Law Journal, 66(8), 1847–1903.
United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, September). Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-title-ix-201709.pdf
Universities UK. (2016). Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
USVreact. (2018). Training to Respond to Sexual Violence at European Universities: Final Report of the USVreact Project. Retrieved from http://usvreact.eu/wp-content/resources/USVreact_Report_2018_ENG.pdf

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Eating Disorders in the Workplace

by Jaclyn Siegel, University of Western Ontario.

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Eating disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in women (Hudson, Hirpi, Pope, & Kessler, 2012; Mangweth-Matzek & Hoek, 2017) and have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition (Arcelus, Mitchell, Wales, & Nielsen, 2011). There are three primary eating disorders outlined in the current version of the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5). First, anorexia nervosa is characterised by preoccupation with food, weight, and body shape, as well as caloric restriction. Due to chronic low energy intake, those with anorexia can sometimes have noticeably thin bodies, but this is not always the case. Second, bulimia nervosa, on the other hand, is also associated with the same cognitive obsessions but is hallmarked by binge eating and purging. Purging includes any behaviours performed as compensatory mechanisms for perceived over-consumption, such as vomiting, laxative abuse, or exercise. Bingeing refers to feeling out of control while eating large quantities of food, usually in a short amount of time. Third, binge eating disorder is a condition comprised of binge eating, but not compensatory behaviors. Those with binge eating disorder, however, often experience extremely high levels of shame and guilt and can sometimes, but not always, have a higher weight status as the result of increased caloric intake (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

Women with eating disorders endure cognitive, physical, and psychosocial impairment as a result of the conditions (Bohn, 2008; Mehler, Birmingham, Crow, & Jahraus, 2010; Polivy, 1996). For many, these symptoms begin during adolescence, and some receive treatment during the teen and early adult years (Favaro, Caregaro, Tenconi, Bosello, & Santonastaso, 2009). However, eating disorders are notoriously difficult to treat. Even the most effective and efficacious interventions have high relapse rates, and the number of women who achieve a state of permanent recovery is very low. As such, some researchers consider eating disorders to be chronic conditions whereby afflicted individuals vacillate between periods of symptom relapse and remission throughout their lives (Fairburn, Cooper & Cooper, 1986; Herzog et al., 1999; Russell, Szumkler, Dare, & Eisler, 1991). Additionally, the financial burden of both initial psychological intervention, as well as prolonged maintenance and monitoring, can serve as a barrier to full recovery for women with these conditions (Samnaliev, Noh, Sonneville, & Austin, 2014). However, while women with eating disorders are severely impacted by their conditions, they often are still able to engage in social relationships, schooling, and, notably, work.

In the United States, individuals with diagnosed eating disorders are protected from workplace discrimination and are entitled to reasonable accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act (Americans with Disabilities Act, 1990). Research suggests that employment can have myriad benefits for individuals with disabilities, (Fleming, Fairweather, & Leahy, 2013; Rubin, Chan, & Thomas, 2003), but the nature of workplace life may complicate the relation between work and well-being for women with eating disorders. Specifically, stress and stigma are frequently experienced and difficult to avoid at work, and both the experience of stress and perceiving stigma have been shown to exacerbate eating disorder symptomology and even predict relapse (Griffiths, Mond, Murray & Touyz, 2015; Grilo et al., 2012). Given that a large portion of adult life is spent at work (Waldo, 1999) and the relatively high prevalence of eating disorders in adult women, the intersection of working life and symptom management is of great importance. However, there is extremely little work done that examines the repercussions of managing an eating disorder (or any other clinical mental health condition, for that matter) in the workplace.

‘…there is extremely little work done that examines the repercussions of managing an eating disorder (or any other clinical mental health condition, for that matter) in the workplace.’

In order to examine this critical gap, it was necessary to let women tell their own stories of the ways in which their eating disorders had interacted and interfered with workplace life. I interviewed seventy women who had been diagnosed with either anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder and had managed their conditions at work. Participants were encouraged to share as much as they felt comfortable and were free to discuss stories from different jobs and various periods in their recovery journeys. My co-author, Katina Sawyer, and I developed a theoretical model of the way in which individual characteristics of our participants uniquely predicted different stigma, stress, and identity management strategies for the complex navigations and negotiations of workplace life. We additionally identified the specific organisational and interpersonal stressors faced by women at work, which served a moderating role in women’s selection of specific management strategies. We then examined the organisational and personal outcomes of engaging in these various techniques. This work was presented at both the annual conference for the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychologists in Orlando, FL in April of 2017 as well as the International Conference on Eating Disorders in April of 2018. This work is still being finalised, but, broadly, these were the findings:

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Certain demographic characteristics of the women in our sample appeared to predict the types of management strategies in which they engaged at work. Specifically, disease type, recovery progress, perceived visibility of the disease, and attitudes toward stigma all had a unique influence on the ways women engaged in the workplace. However, regardless of individual characteristics, workplace stressors were largely the same for all of the women in our sample.

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Some were labeled as organisational stressors, or global aspects of work life that contributed to the stress and stigma experienced by participants. Notably, food-centric work events such as the lunch hour, office parties in which food was present, happy hours and events outside of work, and business meetings over meals presented unique challenges for women with eating disorders.

Additionally, health-focused workplaces that featured wellness competitions that prioritised weight loss or dieting, or had health propaganda in the office such as scales and posters, also proved problematic. Scheduling conflicts were also challenging for these women, and some specific occupations appeared to be more stressful for participants than others. Interpersonal stressors included coworker insensitivity, specifically diet talk and general trivialization of mental health at work, as well as leader intolerance with the condition.

Individual characteristics seemed to be influenced by these workplace stressors, and the combination of these two factors affected how women with eating disorders managed stigma, stress, and their identities in the workplace. Participants in our study often felt torn with regard to whether or not, when, how, and with whom to disclose aspects of their condition at work. As such, they disclosed differentially, often only doing so when their once-invisible identity took on visible characteristics. Additionally, many chose to avoid workplace stressors (organisational and interpersonal) entirely or engage in mindfulness strategies to manage them. Many chose to engage in recovery-centric behaviours, but others chose to prioritise professionalism over recovery. These strategies appeared to be differentially selected depending on individual characteristics.

Techniques varied in effectiveness for these women and resulted in differential organisational and personal outcomes. The affected organisational outcomes included work performance, job attitudes, and organisational commitment. Impacted personal outcomes included eating disorder symptoms, social connectedness, and emotional distress. Specifically, women who were able to effectively balance the stress of work as well as their recoveries felt incentivised to maintain their recovery efforts for the sake of enjoying the benefits of their careers, as well as the authentic social relationships they were able to establish at work.

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Conversely, those who felt overwhelmed by the stressors of work life sometimes returned to disordered eating symptoms as coping mechanisms. These personal outcomes seemed to predict a prolonged course of the condition and sometimes even relapse for these women. For some, the general work environment of diet culture, deadlines, and emotional sterility was too triggering, and a few of the participants in the study revealed that they had left the workforce entirely for the sake of their health. Others, however, found ways to navigate work life that were conducive to both occupational success and recovery.

Overall, our research suggests that women with eating disorders are willing and able to make important contributions to and flourish within the workforce, but only when stress and stigma are well-managed. In order to make employment more enjoyable and healthy for women with eating disorders, workplaces must be conscious of the ways in which the culture of the organisation is may hinder proper eating disorder maintenance and recovery, specifically by reconsidering organisational health incentives and monitoring the way that diet culture, weight stigma, and mental health trivialisation are perpetuated in the workplace. Women recovering from eating disorders are engaged in a prolonged healing process and must feel safe, comfortable, and supported in order to properly manage the symptoms of their conditions. Leaders can help women with eating disorders by being tolerant of lingering symptomology and generously granting accommodations to women with these diagnoses. Offices in general can work with individuals with eating disorders to ensure that food-centric work events are comfortable and enjoyable for them, perhaps by ensuring that there is at least one “safe food” for them at the event. Coworkers can best support women in the office with eating disorders by monitoring and minimising their language surrounding food, bodies, and eating and by making the person with the condition feel welcome by inviting her to social events, even if she rejects these invitations initially.

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Women with eating disorders should consider working with therapists  to specifically learn how to successfully navigate workplace stressors. Though our work identified disclosure, recovery-centric behaviours, and mindfulness as particularly effective stress, stigma, and identity management strategies, we understand that what works for some may not work for others, depending on their level of comfort. Additionally, we encourage women with eating disorders to familiarise themselves with their rights as per the Americans with Disabilities Act. A list of reasonable accommodations can be found at: https://askjan.org/media/downloads/EatingDisACSeries.pdf. We are hopeful that this study will lay the framework for future research on managing mental health conditions in the workplace and help organisations, clinicians, and women with eating disorders find effective ways to flourish in both their recoveries and their careers.

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 328 (1990)

Arcelus, J., Mitchell, A. J., Wales, J., & Nielsen, S. (2011). Mortality rates in patients with anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders. A meta-analysis of 36 studies. Archives of General Psychiatry, 68, 724-731. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.74

Bohn, K., Doll, H. A., Cooper, Z., O’Connor, M., Palmer, R. L., & Fairburn, C. G. (2008). The measurement of impairment due to eating disorder pathology. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46, 1105-1100. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2008.06.012.

Fairburn, C., Cooper, Z., & Cooper, P. (1986). The clinical features and maintenance of bulimia nervosa. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 144, 238-246. doi:10.1002/oby.20301

Fleming, A. R., Fairweather, J. S., & Leahy, M. J. (2013). Quality of life as a potential rehabilitation service outcome. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin, 57, 9-22. doi:10.1177/0034355213485992

Favaro, A., Caregaro, L., Tenconi, E., Bosello, R., & Santonastaso, P. (2009). Time trends in age at onset of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 70, 1715-1721. doi:10.4088/JCP.09m05176blu

Griffiths, S. B., Mond, J. M., Murray, S. B., & Touyz, S. (2015). The prevalence and adverse associations of stigmatization in people with eating disorders. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 48, 767-774. doi:10.1002/eat.22353

Grilo, C., Pagano, M., Robert, S., Markowitz, J., Ansell, E… Skodol, A. (2012). Stressful life events predict eating disorder relapse following remission: Six-year prospective outcomes. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 45, 185-192.

Herzog, D., Dorer, J., Keel, P., Selwyn, S., Ekeblad, E., Flores, A., … Keller, M. (1999). Recovery and relapse in anorexia and bulimia nervosa: A 7.5-year follow-up study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 38, 829-837. doi:10.1080/21662630.2016.1202125

Hudson, J., Hirpi, E., Pope, H., & Kessler, R. (2012). The prevalence and correlates of eating disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Biological Psychiatry, 72, 164. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.03.040

Mangweth-Matzek, B. & Hoek, H. W. (2017). Epidemiology and treatment of eating disorders in men and women of middle and older age. Current Opinions in Psychiatry, 30, 446-451. doi:10.1097/YCO.0000000000000356

Mehler, P. S., Birmingham, L. C., Crow, S. J., & Jahraus, J. P. (2010). Medical complications of eating disorders. In C. M. Grilo & J. E. Mitchell (Eds.), The treatment of eating disorders: A clinical handbook (pp. 66-80). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.

Polivy, J. (1996). Psychological consequences of food restriction. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 96, 589-592. doi:10.1016/S0002-8223(96)00161-7.

Russell, G., Szmukler, G., Dare, C., & Eisler, I. (1991). An evaluation of family therapy in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Archives of General Psychiatry, 44, 1047-1056. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1987.01800240021004

Samnaliev, M., Noh, H. L., Sonneville, K. R., & Austin, S. B. (2015). The economic burden of eating disorders and related mental health comorbidities: An exploratory analysis using the U.S. Medical Expenditures Panel Survey. Preventative Medicine Reports, 2, 32-34.

Waldo, C. R. (1999). Working in a majority context: A structural model of heterosexism as minority stress in the workplace. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 46, 218-232. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.46.2.218

 

Social Egg Freezing, the Law and Women’s Autonomy: Are We Putting All Our Eggs into One Frozen Basket?

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Image from someecards.

by Virginia Novaes Procópio de Araujo, Dublin City University

Lisa is 37 years old and she has just broken up with her long-term boyfriend. She always imagined that this relationship would lead to marriage and children. Lisa is stable and happy in her career. However, she is now worried that if she does not meet someone new, and soon, her biological clock will be merciless with her and she will be left childless. After a visit to a fertility clinic she decides to freeze her eggs, in order to remove the pressure of having to rush into a new relationship. She wants time and is not ready to date again. She wants to raise a child with a committed partner and believes that freezing her eggs will offer her the best chance of ensuring this.

The story of Lisa is fictional, but reflects the current experience of many women who are availing of social egg freezing.

SPERM, EMBRYOS, EGGS AND THE BIRTH OF SOCIAL EGG FREEZING

Sperm has been successfully frozen since the 1950s using a technique called slow-freezing, and embryo freezing has been an established technique since 1992.[1] On the other hand, egg freezing has been considered experimental until very recently. This was mainly due to the fact that eggs contain a higher amount of water than embryos.[2] The slow freezing of eggs results in the formation of ice crystals, which damage the cell and result in lower success rates.[3] Therefore, historically, egg freezing was only accessible to women with cancer or genetic diseases which cause premature infertility, as a small chance to conceive in the future was better than none at all.[4]

The experimental status of egg freezing was lifted in 2012 in Europe[5] and 2013 in the USA[6] due to advances in freezing methods, particularly a process known as vitrification, which involves rapid cooling of the eggs in liquid nitrogen without the formation of ice crystals. This is highly effective for egg freezing. Therefore, egg freezing began to be offered to healthy, fertile women and social egg freezing was born. This is the idea that women freeze their eggs due to lifestyle reasons, which include: to prevent age-related infertility, to postpone motherhood due to their career, to find a suitable partner, to be financially stable, to be psychologically and emotionally ready to become a mother, and to expand their reproductive autonomy.[7]

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Eggs cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen. Image from Kinderwunsch & Hormonzentrum Frankfurt 

 

LAW, AUTONOMY AND FEMINIST BIOETHICS

My research looks at social egg freezing in Europe from a legal and feminist bioethical perspective. I am assessing the impact of the law on social egg freezing in Europe, particularly in the United Kingdom and Ireland to determine if the law enhances or diminishes women’s reproductive options. For instance, my research has identified that Austria, France and Malta have specific law prohibiting egg freezing for non-medical reasons,[8] diminishing women’s options in those countries.

In the context of autonomy, traditional liberal Bioethics tends to have an individualistic and self-sufficient approach, disregarding the influence power relations (“competing social forces”) can have on someone’s autonomy.[9] In a liberal society, freedom is given to the individual to do as they please with their body, as long as they do not cause harm to others.[10] This highlights the rights of an individual and removes the focus on the responsibilities that may arise from that choice, for example, a child and its well-being.[11]

However, the literature demonstrates that women take their relationships and the power structures that surround them into account when making decisions.[12] For instance, a woman that decides to freeze her eggs is not only thinking about herself, but also about her parents (the future grandparents), her future partner or husband, the health of her future baby (as younger eggs are preferable to avoid chromosomal abnormalities), her finances, her maturity, her employment situation and even society (to increase birth rates in an ageing population). Considering the numerous competing social forces, a woman may feel empowered or oppressed by social egg freezing, and that is why my research adopts a relational autonomy approach from Feminist Bioethics, particularly the theory of self-trust developed by Carolyn McLeod.

Trust is a relational aspect of life involving two people: a patient trusts their doctor on the grounds of an established moral relationship (doctor-patient). Self-trust lacks the two entities, as when one trusts oneself, they are optimistic they will act in a competent manner and within their moral commitment.[13] It is relational in the sense that it is moulded by the responses of others and societal norms, as the other gives a truthful and respectful feedback about yourself.[14] Therefore, if a doctor does not inform realistically of potential risks and future outcomes of egg freezing, a woman may make poor choices.

Research shows that women of reproductive age are misinformed regarding cost, process and effectiveness of egg freezing, and that they want to be accurately informed about it.[15] Further, studies[16] demonstrate that residents and health professionals in the area of Obstetrics and Gynaecology lack accurate information about fertility decline due to age, they have conservative opinions, and are reticent to inform healthy patients about social egg freezing.[17] Medical paternalism could explain this behaviour and it needs to be remedied urgently.

 

EGG FREEZING – HOW IT WORKS

Women need to be aware that in order to freeze eggs, they are collected in the same way as is done for IVF. Women self-inject hormones for approximately 10-14 days to stimulate ovulation and when the eggs are mature, they are collected surgically under sedation, with small risks of infection and bleeding.[18] Hormone injections are not completely risk-free, and although rare, some women may develop ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS)[19], characterised by swollen ovaries, a bloated abdomen, pain, nausea, vomiting and, in severe cases, liver dysfunction and respiratory distress syndrome.[20]

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Egg collection and freezing. Image from Clínica Eugin, Barcelona.

Although IVF using thawed eggs is just as successful as using fresh eggs[21], there are no guarantees that if a woman freezes her eggs, she will definitely have a baby – it just increases her chances.[22] That is simply the reality of fertility treatments, and doctors need to be forthcoming with information. Ideally, women will conceive naturally, having frozen their eggs merely as an ‘insurance policy’ and for peace of mind. [23] The age of the woman impacts the quality of the eggs and doctors recommend that egg freezing occurs prior to the late-thirties.[24] There is considerable emphasis on educating young women on how not to get pregnant. Women also need to be educated about their biological ‘clocks’ and the possibilities and limitations of egg freezing.

CAREER AND THE PURSUIT OF ‘MR. RIGHT’ INSTEAD OF ‘MR. RIGHT NOW’

The reasons why women are freezing their eggs also need to be demystified. Baldwin interviewed women who availed of social egg freezing in the UK, the USA and Norway and discovered that they believe that there is a ‘right time’ to become a mother.[25]  This is when, ideally, they are financially secure and in a stable relationship with a man who wishes to raise a child.[26] There has been considerable backlash from the media about social egg freezing, particularly since 2014, when Apple and Facebook offered egg freezing as a benefit for their female employees.[27] It raised concerns that women would be forced into it in order to be considered a ‘team player’ and ascend in their careers, treating motherhood as an inconvenience. However, the main reason why women are freezing their eggs has nothing to do with career advancement, it is actually due to the lack of a suitable partner and to avoid future regret.[28] In fact, one of the women interviewed by Baldwin stated: “I think the media really misrepresent women who have children later. I don’t know a single woman who has put off having babies because of her career, not a single woman I have ever met has that been true for.”[29]

Further, Baldwin and her team coined the term “panic-partnering” to express what future regret meant for the women in the study.[30] This is the fear that they might run out of time and settle for any man, rush into having a child purely to avoid childlessness, and regret this later once the relationship fails.[31] These women also rejected the idea of using a donated egg or having a baby alone with donated sperm, as they wanted the ‘whole package’ – a committed relationship and a father to their genetically-related child.[32] Social egg freezing allows women to ‘buy time’ to find this right partner.

There is ongoing research at the London Women’s Clinic to assess why women are freezing their eggs.[33] Zeynep Gurtin from the University of Cambridge chairs open seminars for single women at the clinic and has identified similar women to those from Baldwin’s research: they are highly educated, in their late thirties and early forties and are “frustrated by their limited partnering options.”[34] These women want to find ‘Mr. Right’, not ‘Mr. Right Now’. Gurtin affirms: “as women become more and more successful in educational and career terms, they have begun to outnumber similarly qualified men, and will need to adjust their partner expectations, embark on single parenting, embrace childlessness, or put some eggs in a very cold basket.”[35]

I recently attended one of these seminars and found the London Women’s Clinic to be a highly positive environment, with counselling and support groups available for their clients. The open seminars are a good opportunity for women to obtain realistic information in clear terms, without it being a sales pitch. Research from the USA[36] affirms that a considerable number of women regret freezing their eggs, particularly if a low number of eggs are obtained. They also complained about a lack of emotional support and counselling.[37] Therefore, it is crucial that clinics offer counselling both during and after egg freezing to ensure that women have realistic expectations as to what the technology can and cannot do.

 

COSTS

Social egg freezing is not covered by health insurance[38] and is therefore a private procedure, costing between £3000 – £3500 in the UK[39] and approximately €3000 in Ireland.[40] This raises questions of social justice and fairness, as only women with greater financial means can access egg freezing for non-medical reasons. Further research focusing on this issue is necessary.

 

FREEDOM FROM EMBRYO FREEZING AND LEGAL DISPUTES

The success of egg freezing expands women’s reproductive autonomy as it frees them from having to freeze embryos with a partner. In 2007, a British case reached the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). In Evans v. United Kingdom, the applicant, Natallie Evans, had ovarian cancer and underwent IVF with her partner to create six embryos to be frozen. When the relationship ended, the ex-partner removed his consent for the embryos to be used. The applicant could no longer extract eggs and the six embryos were her last opportunity to have a genetic child. The ECtHR discussed whether there was a violation of article 2 (right to life) and article 8 (right to respect for privacy and family life). It was decided that since embryos do not have a right to life in the UK that there was no violation of article 2.[41] The Court also found that overruling someone’s withdrawal of consent, even in this exceptional case, would not violate article 8 or exceed the margin of appreciation.[42]

In other words, the ECtHR decided that the ‘right not to procreate’ of the ex-partner overruled the ‘right to procreate’ of the applicant and the embryos had to be discarded. Ms. Evans could have created embryos with a donor sperm, avoiding legal disputes. However, as has been demonstrated, women wish to have a partner to raise a child with. The options for women have expanded and if they freeze their eggs it is their sole decision to use them for IVF with a partner or sperm donor, to donate them to another woman, or for research.

 

GAMETE STORAGE AND A CALL TO ACTION

Current technology allows eggs to be frozen indefinitely. In the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act determines that gametes can be stored for up to 10 years for non-medical reasons and up to 55 years for medical reasons.[43] This reduces the benefits of social egg freezing. For instance, if a woman freezes her eggs at age 27 to ensure she has the best possible eggs, she will have to use them prior to her 37th birthday. There is no time extension, which could cause a considerable amount of pressure for this woman, who believed she was buying herself extra time.

Kylie Baldwin, one of the most prominent researchers of social egg freezing in the UK, has created a petition to convince the UK Government and Parliament that the law needs to change.[44] Signatures from UK citizens and residents are requested at this moment, prior to the 27th of October 2018, in order to be reviewed by the UK Government. This movement is highly important, and I advise all UK citizens and residents to sign it.

In Ireland, the General Scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017 also adopts this 10-year time limit for non-medical gamete freezing.[45] If the bill remains unaltered when passed as a law it will raise the same issues that are currently being debated in the UK. Perhaps, there is still time for an amendment in the Irish bill.

 

CONCLUSION

 Social egg freezing is quite a recent development and further interdisciplinary research is required to examine the legal, sociological, feminist and economic implications of it. This is needed in order to gain a complete picture of the technology and the impact it has on women’s lives, relationships and society as a whole. There is a risk that women are gambling with their fertility by ‘putting all their eggs in one basket’. That is why social egg freezing must be approached with caution and with realistic expectations by women in order to avoid potential disappointment. However, it is an exciting opportunity, and it is quite clear that the rights and freedoms available to women in relation to their reproductive autonomy have expanded significantly in the last century. This is further evidenced by the very recent successful result in Ireland’s referendum to repeal the 8th amendment (a constitutional ban on abortion which was introduced in 1983 and which allowed for abortion only where a woman’s life was at risk).

 

I would like to dedicate this post in memory of Grace McDermott, co-founder of Women Are Boring, who I met at the induction of our PhD programme in 2014 and became friends with. She was a wonderful person and I am happy to have had her in my life. I am sure she would have strong opinions about social egg freezing and we would have had some lively discussions about the current state of it.

[1] Valerie L. Peddie and Siladitya, ´Request for “social egg freezing” in Khaldoun Sharif and Arri Coomarasamy, Assisted Reproduction Techniques: Challenges and management options (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) 160 – 161

[2] Peddie and Bhattacharya supra n1, 161

[3] ibid 161

[4] Eleonora Porcu, Patrizia Maria Ciotti and Stefano Venturoli, Handbook of Human Oocyte Cryopreservation (Cambridge University Press 2013) 26

[5] ESHRE Task Force on Ethics and Law, Wybo Dondorp et al, ‘Oocyte cryopreservation for age-related fertility loss’ (2012) 27 Human Reproduction 1231

[6] The Practice Committees of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted

Reproductive Technology, ´Mature Oocyte Cryopreservation: A Guideline`, (2013) 99 Fertility and Sterility 37

[7] Imogen Goold and Julian Savulescu, ´In favour of freezing eggs for non-medical reasons` (2009) 23 Bioethics 47, 47

[8] The ESHRE Working Group on Oocyte Cryopreservation in Europe, Françoise Shenfield et al, ‘Oocyte and Ovarian Tissue Cryopreservation in European Countries: Statutory Background, Practice, Storage and Use’ (2017) Human Reproduction Open 1, 4

[9] Carolyn McLeod, Self-Trust and Reproductive Autonomy (The MIT Press 2002) 105

[10] Catriona Mackenzie, ‘Conceptions of Autonomy and Conceptions of the Body in Bioethics’ in Jackie Leach Scully, Laurel E. Baldwin-Ragaven and Petya Fitzpatrick (eds), Feminist Bioethics: At the Center, on the Margins (The John Hopkins University Press 2010) 72-73

[11] Mackenzie supra n10, 83

[12] Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press 1993) 71; Susan Sherwin, No Longer Patient: Feminist Ethics and Health Care (Temple University Press 1992) 46

[13] McLeod supra n9 103

[14] ibid 37

[15] J.C. Daniluk and E. Koert, ‘Childless Women’s Beliefs and Knowledge About Oocyte Freezing for Social and Medical Reasons’ (2016) 31 Human Reproduction 2313, 2319

[16] L. Yu et al, ‘Knowledge, Attitudes, and Intentions Toward Fertility Awareness and Oocyte Cryopreservation Among Obstetrics and Gynecology Resident Physicians’ (2016) 31 Human Reproduction 403; Désirée García et al, ‘Poor Knowledge of Age-Related Fertility Decline and Assisted Reproduction Among Healthcare Professionals’ (2017) 34 Reproductive BioMedicine Online 32

[17] Yu et al supra n16, 403; García et al supra n16, 35

[18] ESHRE supra n5, 1233

[19] ibid 1233

[20] Michael M Alper and Bart C Fauser, ‘Ovarian Stimulation Protocols for IVF: is More Better than Less?’ (2017) 34 Reproductive Biomedicine Online 345, 348

[21] Joseph O. Doyle et al, ‘Successful Elective and Medically Indicated Oocyte Vitrification and Warming for Autologous In Vitro Fertilization, with Predicted Birth Probabilities for Fertility Preservation According to Number of Cryopreserved Oocytes and Age at Retrieval’ (2016) 105 Fertility and Sterility 459, 459

[22] Ana Cobo and Juan Antonio García-Velasco, ‘Why All Women Should Freeze their Eggs’ (2016) 28 Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology 206, 206

[23] Zeynep Gurtin, ‘Why are Women Freezing their Eggs? Because of the Lack of Eligible Men’ (7 July 2017) The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/07/egg-freezing-women-30s-40s-lack-of-eligible-men-knights-shining-armour> accessed 26 May 2018

[24] Susie Jacob and Adam Balen, ‘Oocyte Freezing: Reproductive Panacea or False Hope of Family?’ (2018) 79 British Journal of Hospital Medicine 200, 200

[25] Kylie Baldwin, ‘’I Suppose I Think to Myself, That’s the Best Way to Be a Mother’: How Ideologies of Parenthood Shape Women’s Use for Social Egg Freezing Technology’ (2017) 22 Sociological Research Online 1, 5

[26] Baldwin supra n25, 5

[27] Mark Tran, ‘Apple and Facebook offer to freeze eggs for female employees’ The Guardian (15 October 2014) <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/oct/15/apple-facebook-offer-freeze-eggs-female-employees> accessed 24 May 2018

[28] Kylie Baldwin et al, ‘Running Out of Time: Exploring Women’s Motivations for Social Egg Freezing’ (2018) Journal pf Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology 1, 3

[29] Baldwin et al supra n28, 4

[30] ibid 4

[31] Baldwin et al supra n28, 4

[32] ibid 4

[33] Gurtin supra n23

[34] ibid

[35] ibid

[36] Eleni A. Greenwood et al, ‘To Freeze or Not to Freeze: Decision Regret and Satisfaction Following Elective Oocyte Cryopreservation’ (2018) Fertility and Sterility in Press

[37] Ariana Eunjung Cha, ‘Egg-Freezing Regrets: Half of Women who Undergo the Procedure Have Some Remorse’ (18 May 2018) The Washington Post <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/05/18/egg-freezing-regrets-half-of-women-who-undergo-the-procedure-have-some-remorse/?utm_term=.46f0ecc0afcf> accessed 27 May 2018

[38] ESHRE supra n8, 4

[39] See, for example, current prices at the London Women’s Clinic in London: https://www.londonwomensclinic.com/about/prices/

[40] See, for example, current prices at Sims IVF in Dublin: http://www.sims.ie/treatments-and-services/prices.883.html

[41] Evans v United Kingdom (2007) 43 EHRR 21, para. 54

[42] Evans v United Kingdom (2007) 43 EHRR 21, para. 60

[43] Benjamin P. Jones et al, ‘The Dawn of a New Ice Age: Social Egg Freezing’ (2018) 97 Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica 641, 644

[44] Petition to extend the 10-year storage limit on egg freezing <https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/218313> accessed 27 May 2018

[45] General Scheme of the Assisted Human Reproduction Bill 2017, Head 22, 8 (a)(i)

 

The unfinished gender politics of the Good Friday Agreement… and its 20th anniversary celebrations.

by Dr. Maria-Adriana Deiana, Assistant Professor, Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction (IICRR) , School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

With the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), April 2018 was a milestone, filled with numerous events and discussions about the legacy of the peace settlement and its future prospects, both on the island of Ireland and internationally. Given my research on gender and post-conflict transformation, I was invited to the U.S. to speak at an academic event to mark two decades since the signing of agreement. As speakers, we were asked to reflect on the GFA’s legacy in bringing an end to decades of political violence and building peace for Northern Ireland. My aim was to discuss the implications for women’s citizenship that emerged throughout the peace process, drawing upon my research and over a decade spent in Belfast.

GFA

Cover of the Sunday Business Post’s magazine commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The newspaper has been criticised for ‘airbrushing’ women, in particular Dr. Mo Mowlam, from the peace process.

I began my contribution by acknowledging and discussing the role of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) as co-architects of the agreement. At the same time, I pointed out that the peace process has been ambivalent in addressing women’s demands for inclusion, equality and social justice, remaining therefore incomplete. My talk was abruptly interrupted by another participant who rebuked my assessment for “being ungrateful”. He then took his turn and offered what, he felt, was the proper account of the conflict and of the peace negotiations’ complexities. The gist of his intervention suggested that gender is not relevant to understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland. This is because more men than women died during decades of political violence. While acknowledging that women have suffered in the conflict, it was implied that the extent of this suffering was mostly confined to losing or caring for family members caught-up in the conflict.

GFA2

Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition speaking outside Stormont following talks. Photo: Derek Speirs

 

I wish to dwell on this short-lived, yet telling, exchange to develop a reflection on the gender politics underpinning narratives of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as its 20th anniversary celebrations. Starting from the use of the word “ungrateful” to dismiss research that foregrounds women’s experiences and claims (how dare we critique the legacy of the peace process?), the arguments raised in response to my points offer a glaring example of a deep-seated reluctance to acknowledge that women and gender matter greatly in the politics of conflict and peace-making. To begin with, I was struck by the failure to even acknowledge evidence and research documenting the varied impact of conflict in women’s lives, such as the unequal economic and social hardship experienced by women in working-class and rural areas; women’s safety and gender based violence in relation to forms of paramilitary activity and sectarianism; the long-term effects of violence on health and well-being, and increasing caring responsibilities for women as a direct result of the conflict – for example, when family members were injured. Women’s (unequal) care and emotional labour, mentioned by my co-speaker, is  indeed a poignant example of the gendered legacy of the conflict!

What is more, obscured in such gender-blind narratives are the complex ways in which women, in their diversity, participated in the conflict and peace process. It has been documented that some women were actively involved in protests, marches and more overt forms of political activism. Others explicitly engaged in the conflict as combatants in republican/nationalist paramilitary groups, and through supportive/less visible roles in loyalist groups. Some women were involved in community groups and grass-roots organisations that emerged predominantly in working-class areas, as a response to the deficiencies of direct-rule government in dealing with the social and economic needs of communities fractured by conflict and deprivation. In some instances, these kinds of supporting networks would also extend across divided communities. Although conflicting views on the constitutional issues and on the identification with feminism remained, civic activism provided a crucial platform for women’s active engagement during the conflict.  When prospects for the peace settlement emerged in the late 90s, it offered a springboard for a more cohesive, and collective, albeit short-termed, mobilisation which led to the formation of the NIWC.

Not only do the arguments on gender’s irrelevance to understanding the complexities of the conflict suggest a partial view of its history, but this logic also sustains the tendency to dismiss women as full-fledged agents in the politics of the peace process. Beside my own experience at the international conference that prompted this reflection, this attitude has been on display during the GFA’s celebrations on occasions where women’s stake as co-architects in dealing with the legacy of conflict and building peace has been omitted or downplayed.

Screen Shot 2018-04-23 at 15.10.10

Dr. Mo Mowlam, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, talking to the press after a visit to the Maze prison to speak with loyalist and republican prisoners in 1998, in a move described as ‘mad’ and ‘brave’. RTÉ News archives, www.rte.ie/archives/2018/0108/931726-m0-mowlam-visits-maze/

We should remember that when the Agreement was negotiated, women were unusually visible. Dr. Mo Mowlam, the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, played a tremendous role both in her personal and institutional capacity.  Liz O’Donnell, as junior Minister of Foreign Affairs, also contributed to the talks as a member of the Irish government delegation. Martha Pope, Senator George Mitchell’s chief of staff, coordinated the involvement of the US delegation, playing an important formal and informal role during the negotiations.

Crucially, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition (NIWC) participated in the multiparty negotiations through their elected representatives, Monica McWilliams and Pearl Sagar. As a cross-community party, the NIWC put an emphasis on maintaining the inclusive character of the negotiations process and in keeping open the lines of communication with civil society and political groups excluded from the talks. Particularly important was the Coalition’s achievement of a separate clause in the Agreement affirming the right of full and equal political participation for women. While we agree that the NIWC was not perfect and that not all women felt represented in their political stance, their contribution was remarkable on many levels. As Danielle Roberts has written, the coalition introduced the principles of inclusion, human rights and equality through their engagement in the negotiations. In the process they also had to find creative ways to navigate the hostile terrain of the male-dominated peace talks and establish working relationships with a wide array of actors. That women’s presence and contribution to the making of the GFA are dismissed in narratives of the peace agreement’s legacy is simply unacceptable.

What a reflection on the GFA’s 20th anniversary should also not downplay is that the aspirations for inclusion and equality included in the agreement have remained peripheral in the subsequent implementation and negotiation of the settlement. As I have argued elsewhere, the divisive nature of ethno-national politics has taken centre stage, also as a result of the power-sharing consociational formula deployed in the agreement.  Gender concerns have been relegated to the margins of the dominant political agenda and often left unaddressed. Numerous reports highlight the continued economic and social hardship experienced by women living in divided and interface communities, and the lack of social services and education for young people in these areas. Women have continued to express concerns around issues of safety, violence and ‘new’ forms of paramilitary activity. Community activists report a lack of attention to the persistence of entrenched gendered violence and discrimination. The fight for reproductive justice and bodily autonomy, challenged by conservative attitudes of major political parties,  also continues thanks to huge efforts by individual activists and groups such as Alliance for Choice. As both Claire Pierson and Kellie Turtle point out, while there have been some gains in the field of political representation and in the leadership of major NI parties, women have had limited access to key institutions and processes that focus on unresolved legacies of conflict and crucial contested issues, such as the parade commission and more recently the ‘Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition’ Commission.

Generally, women’s and feminist groups have expressed dissatisfaction with a peace process wherein women and women’s claims are too often side-lined in favour of matters that are deemed of more immediate interest, such as ‘community relations’, ethnonational identity and stability/re-establishment of institutions.  This marginalisation has been intensified in the recent political deadlock that led to the suspension of NI devolved institutions, as well as in discussion around the uncertainties over  Brexit. In October 2017, I attended a consultation to discuss the implications for women, peace and security in the current moment of political crisis and uncertainty. Organised by Yvonne Galligan and Fiona Buckley, as chairs of the Gender Politics specialist group of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI), the meeting included NI activists, community development experts and interested academics. Participants expressed concerns over the unfinished gender equality politics of the peace process, as well as over the return of zero-sum positions spurred by controversies in NI local politics and  Brexit negotiations. Our discussion brought to the fore a sense that, yet again, a gender perspective and an attention to wider women’s concerns about the equality and rights agenda have been absent from political discussions over the future of the Agreement.

As fellow researchers and activists have argued, it is time that women’s contribution to building peace and their demands for social justice, equality and inclusion are fully acknowledged and taken seriously.  That 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement these complexities continue to be dismissed in discussions on the legacy and future of the peace process is why we insist that women’s and feminist critiques, in their diversity, are not only heard but amplified at every opportunity.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about gender politics in Northern Ireland, take a look at Michelle Rouse’s piece here. For more pieces on the role of women and gender in conflict around the world, including such issues as sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers, women in conflict mediation, how women terrorists are portrayed by the media, and more,  see here.

Law and suffrage: Four women lawyers who campaigned for the right to vote

The relationship between ‘Votes for Women’ and Early Women Lawyers in England and Wales: A glimpse into my PhD research by Laura Noakes

When my friend asked me what I was planning to study for my PhD, I told him I was investigating the relationship between the campaign for women’s suffrage and early women lawyers. He looked at me blankly. I said, “oh, you know—the suffragettes. Think Mary Poppins and the Pankhurst’s and throwing stones at windows.” He thought for a moment and then said, with a very serious expression on his face: “Suffragettes are a kind of Viking, right?”

It was probably at that admittedly hilarious moment that I realised why I thought my research was important. If you weren’t aware, the Suffragettes aren’t a type of Viking. They were women, members of a group dedicated to getting the parliamentary franchise for women. In fact, the Suffragettes were one of a myriad of groups that formed and campaigned for this goal—there were the organisations as diverse as the Actresses Franchise League, the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, and my personal favourite, the Gymnastic Teachers’ Suffrage Society. All used diverse methods to bring attention to their cause, from petitions and demonstrations, to accosting MPs and committing arson, to throwing handbills out of dirigible air balloon at 3,500 ft! 2018 marks the centenary since *some* (believe me, it’s a very important distinction) women gained the parliamentary vote.

But suffrage is only a part of my research. I’m also interested in the slightly more niche topic of early women lawyers. Women couldn’t become either barristers or solicitors until after the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 was passed and became law. However, they could study law at university from the 1880s, and some women tried to enter the legal profession prior to the 1919 act. Some also practiced ‘unofficially’— at the borders of the legal profession.

I’m looking at this fascinating connection within the context of four women: Eliza Orme, Christabel Pankhurst, Helena Normanton and Chrystal MacMillan. All played pivotal roles in women entering the legal profession, and were also involved in the suffrage campaign. Their legal education helped to inform and influence suffrage tactics, and in turn their participation in the often misogynistic and sometimes violent campaign for Votes for Women prepared them for the trials and tribulation of their later careers.

Eliza_Orme

Eliza Orme

Interestingly, two of these four women never officially practised law. Eliza Orme was born in 1848, and the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act came too late for her to put her legal expertise into practice. However, she was the first woman in England to graduate with a Law degree in 1888. Eliza soon realised that the legal profession was well and truly shut to women, and so, instead of trying to be admitted in the traditional way, she skirted the rules and set up an office as a “devil” in Chancery Lane. A “devil” is sort of like a trainee barrister, and Eliza would have spent her time drafting documents for counsel. Eliza was involved in the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first national group dedicated to getting women the vote. She was also a passionate supporter of the Liberal party, even writing a biography of Sophia Fry, the founder of the Women’s Liberal Federation (WLF). However, cracks between her political ideology and her belief in women’s suffrage began to show when, in 1892, the WLF split over the issue of women’s suffrage. The problem was this: the political leaders of the Liberal party weren’t sold on the idea of women getting the vote. Some in the WLF thought that supporting women’s suffrage should become part of the official policy of the Liberals, whilst others felt that suffrage was too divisive an issue. Eliza fell into the latter group, putting party loyalty above suffrage ideals, and joined the Women’s National Liberal Association in protest. Thus, although Eliza was committed to the principle of women’s suffrage, her activism was somewhat limited, and her legal career was focused on working around the restrictions placed upon her because of her gender. She was involved in legal work till about 1904, and died—having seen the achievement of both suffrage and women lawyers—in 1937.

Christabel_Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst

Christabel Pankhurst also never practised law. She is probably the most well known of the women that I’m looking at, as she was the leading strategist of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and a member of the famous Pankhurst family. However, she also graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Law from what is now the University of Manchester in 1906. She applied to study at Lincolns Inn, one of the four Inns of Court where barristers are called to the Bar, but was refused. She was also honorary secretary of the short lived ‘Committee to Secure the Admission of Women to the Legal Profession’. As such, although Christabel is better known for her suffrage campaign, she was committed to opening the legal profession to women. Christabel’s legal knowledge permeated her work for suffrage. On October the 13th 1908, Christabel was arrested because she handed out leaflets inviting people to “help the suffragettes rush the House of Commons”. She was charged with conduct likely to instigate a breach of the peace. As a law graduate, Christabel defended herself. She cross examined Cabinet ministers who had witnessed the rush, including Herbert Gladstone and Lloyd George, the latter a trained lawyer. Christabel managed to persuade Gladstone, who was clearly uncomfortable, to admit he that he hadn’t felt endangered by the rush, and also that some of his past speeches could have been interpreted as a similar incitement to violence. In her closing speech. Christabel argued that the case suggested that the independence of the judiciary was in doubt, invoking the famous legal document, the Magna Carta. Although she was found guilty, Christabel directly linked her legal knowledge to her campaign for the vote, and used her legal expertise to frustrate and challenge the Court, and Members of Parliament. For Christabel, who never formally qualified, her activism in the suffrage campaign was a priority. However, she used her legal knowledge to further this activism.

MacMillan_Chrystal

Chrystal Macmillan

Unlike Christabel and Eliza, Chrystal Macmillan did practice as a Barrister after the 1919 Act. Chrystal was a suffragist, not a suffragette. The suffragists used peaceful, constitutional means of campaigning for the vote, in contrast to the WSPU’s more militant strategies. She was the first female Science graduate of the University of Edinburgh, and it was this pioneering activity that led to her first Law related excursion. Graduates from the University were entitled to vote for an MP who would represent that University Seat in Parliament. Chrystal, and four other female graduates, therefore argued that this entitled them to the vote. This was an attempt by Chrystal, and by the suffrage campaigners at large, to circumvent Parliament’s unwillingness for women’s suffrage by asking the Court to give women the vote. Suffrage societies raised money so that Chrystal could take her case all the way to the House of Lords, then the highest Court in the Country. She was the first woman to argue her case in front of the House, however they held that the word ‘persons’ did not include women in the relevant statue. Yes, you read that right—women were not considered persons. After the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, Chrystal did enter the legal profession. She joined Middle Temple as a student barrister, was called to the Bar in 1924, and joined the Western Circuit in 1926 — she even founded the Open Door Council, an organisation that aimed to remove the legal restrictions on women. As such, Chrystal Macmillan combined her activism with her career, using both to further her feminist aims.

Photograph_of_Helena_Normanton_c._1930_(22770439042)

Helena Normanton

Helena Normanton’s suffrage campaigning differed from both Chrystal and Christabel’s—she was a member of the Women’s Freedom League. The WFL was a militant suffrage group that was formed in 1907 in a spilt from the WSPU. The main difference between the two groups was that the WSPU was autocratic, and the WFL democratic. Helena applied to join Middle Temple before the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, but was refused, and immediately on the Act receiving Royal Assent, she reapplied. Helena wasn’t the first woman called to the bar—Academic Ivy Williams beat her—but she was the first woman to practise, she was the first woman to obtain a divorce for her a client, the first woman to prosecute a murder case, and was appointed King’s Counsel in 1949. She was a campaigner for women’s right beyond the vote and making the law accessible for women, even writing a book on the subject—Everyday Law for Women. Helena was a prominent suffrage campaigner, and achieved many ‘firsts’ in terms of women in the Law.

So, why does this all matter? Why these women? Well all four of them were actively involved in the campaign for women’s votes. However, this involvement was diverse—Christabel was the autocratic leader of the suffragettes, Chrystal a constitutional suffragist, Helena was involved in the militant, but democratic Women’s Freedom League, and Eliza was first and foremost committed to the Liberal party. Despite this, they all received a legal education, and all of them utilised this education in their career, and in their suffrage activities. Christabel invoked complex legal concepts in defence of herself and suffragette militancy. Chrystal used her legal reasoning to argue for parliamentary votes for women in the House of Lords. Helena’s feminism extended beyond the vote—she campaigned for women’s rights in reforming divorce law and in keeping her maiden name professionally and on her passport. Eliza worked hard at the periphery of the legal industry, establishing an office on Chancery Lane, and in her political alignment furthered the cause of women, and in particular women’s work.

The reason why I’m so interested in the relationship between the suffrage campaign and early women lawyers, is because I think there is a unique and interesting dynamic between the fight for women to gain parliamentary representation, and the fight to be a legal representative in a court of law. Both invoke concepts of citizenship and of legal rights, and the legislation that allowed the entry of women into the legal profession and the right to vote were passed relatively close to each other—and it is these aspects that inspire the crux of my research. The next time I’m asked what is a suffragette is (NOT a Viking, FYI), and how they fit into my PhD research, I’ll direct the questioner to this article, in the hope that they’ll read it and find these four remarkable women as fascinating as I do!

Fame and Feminism: Celebrity Activism and Performative Femininity

 

“When celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.”

by Emily Murphy

In early September of 1968, a live sheep was crowned ‘Miss America’ on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Nearby, a ‘freedom trash can’ collected discarded make-up, bras, high heels, and copies of Cosmopolitan and Playboy. ‘Women are enslaved by beauty standards’ one poster read, ‘If you want meat go to the butcher’, said another. This was ‘No More Miss America!’, a demonstration attended by over 400 women, who likened the beauty pageant to livestock competitions at a county fair. These feminist protestors viewed ‘Miss America’ as the ultimate symbol of the way women are objectified and lessened based on their physical appearance. The main goal of the protest was to highlight, and reject, the suffocating ideals of normative femininity, with one participant remarking: “Every day in a woman’s life is a walking Miss World Contest”.[1]

Fast forward fifty years – ‘feminist’ is now a word you can find splashed across the pages of Cosmopolitan and Playboy, defined in a Beyoncé song, or printed on a $710 Dior t-shirt. This is popular feminism; it’s glossy, digestible, and commercialised. Like any other brand, it requires ambassadors, and this is where celebrities come into play. The increase in celebrity involvement in feminist activism produces an interesting dichotomy, as many celebrities who advocate for women’s rights, often embody, or even actively promote, the very chokeholds of femininity that feminism challenges. As a feminist and a pop culture addict, I am fascinated by the tension that exists between celebrity feminist activism and ideals of femininity. When I decided to explore this in my own research, I concentrated on two women who feature prominently in this debate: Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian.

The Internet is a space where celebrity culture and activism collide. As a consequence, much of the debate around celebrity feminism first emerges online. Emma Watson and Kim Kardashian both have a monumental following across various social media sites. On Twitter alone, Watson has 28.3 million followers, and Kardashian doubles that with 58.5 million followers. These numbers illustrate the massive sphere of influence each woman has on the Internet, and this is only scratching the surface of their online presence. Popular culture is often dismissed as vapid or shallow, but when Watson or Kardashian engage with feminist activism, their millions of followers are not a passive audience. This is a realm where “collective understandings are created”[2], and when celebrities choose to express their feminism or femininity online, the reactions and responses can reflect our cultural understandings of both.

Traditionally, gender has been understood as biologically innate, and wholly predetermined. Theorists and scholars like Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Sandra Lee Bartky rejected this assumption by arguing that femininity is instead informed and cultivated by social norms and expectations. De Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’ is a text that inspired many women to question the confines and origins of femininity, by suggesting ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman’. The book discusses the many versions of femininity that women can portray, and explores how these are received and responded to. Butler built on these ideas when she introduced the idea of performative femininity in ‘Gender Trouble’, suggesting that gender is an effect that is “produced through stylisation of the body”[3]. Similarly, Bartky’s work focuses on how femininity is represented and reproduced physically, but steers her focus towards beauty, fashion, self-image, and self-discipline.

Using these theories to think about how Watson and Kardashian represent femininity in their activism, I chose to analyse viral texts that had sparked widespread media attention. These included a photo from a Vanity Fair feature on Emma Watson in early 2017, and a selfie posted by Kim Kardashian in the lead up to International Women’s Day in 2016. These images proved to be controversial, and ignited much debate on the feminist movement, celebrity activism, female sexuality, and femininity.

 

 

 

 

When I compared her selfie to Bartky’s understandings of feminine ideals, Kim Kardashian ticked all the boxes of ‘ideal woman’. She avoids a strong facial expression, her arms are close to her body, and she takes up little space in the room. Kardashian’s pose accurately depicts the paradoxes of female movement described by Bartky, as she appears gracefully constricted, erotic yet refined, with her stomach pulled in, shoulders back and chest out[4]. The image is contemporary in the way it has been shared online, but traditional in many of the ways femininity is represented. However, in her reply to the criticism she faced for this photograph, Kim disrupted assumptions and expectations of female sexuality, and the relationship between sexuality and motherhood.

Much of the media response to this photo described it as a nude selfie, despite, as Kim herself pointed out, the black bars covering more than most bikinis would. It’s interesting that even the notion of Kardashian being naked under the bars still caused such a reaction, and demonstrates the constant sexualisation and scrutiny women face when it comes to their bodily expression. A large portion of the criticism Kim Kardashian received for her selfie was due to her role as a mother. In response, she published an essay on International Women’s Day writing, “I am a mother. I am a wife, a sister, a daughter, an entrepreneur and I am allowed to be sexy”[5]. While many commentators found her photo ridiculous or inappropriate, their reactions proved that Kardashian was making an important point: Why must motherhood and sexuality be mutually exclusive?

While Kim Kardashian was criticised for not measuring up as a mother, Emma Watson was shamed for not measuring up as a feminist. When Watson was photographed for Vanity Fair, she shunned many feminine ideals in the images. She stared straight down the camera lens and wore boxy clothing that gave her a broader, more ‘masculine’ appearance. Her hair was cropped short, and she wore minimal make-up. This created a striking and unique photo, which was ignored by the media who instead focused on Watson’s outfit. The hint of cleavage displayed by Emma’s sheer blouse was deemed incompatible with her feminist activism, and the photo was sexualised by the media for its “nudity” and its perceived sexual nature. Many post-feminist theorists are concerned with the unflinching sexualisation of women’s bodies in media culture, and when you consider the response to this photo, it is clear to see why. This raises the question of why sexuality and feminism, or femininity and feminism, are believed to be at odds. As Watson herself responded, “Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.”[6]

How we understand people is important to how we then react to them, and the way Watson and Kardashian’s displays of femininity are received can act as an indicator for how femininity is received more broadly. When Butler talks about gender performativity, she compares it to theatrical performances, but notes an important difference: “gender performances in nontheatrical contexts are governed by more clearly punitive and regulatory social conventions”[7]. If gender performativity is a game, it appears to be a difficult one to win. Women are expected to show off their body, and the body is deemed to be an incredibly vital part of what it is to be a woman, but if you show too much of your body, or in the wrong circumstances, or as a mother, you will be criticised. Watson and Kardashian not only present two different styles of activism, they also present two very different types of femininity—and neither is immune from disparagement. At the intersection of stardom and activism, it’s worth asking: Is the entertainment industry guilty of perpetuating normative, narrow understandings of femininity? Or does it act as a mirror to our own social expectations of how a woman should be?

[1] Walters, M. 2005. Feminism: A Very Short Introduction. 1st ed. Oxford University Press.

[2] Storey, J. 2013. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction, 6th edn. New York: Routledge.

[3] Butler, J. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity, New York: Routledge.

[4] Bartky, S. 1988. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power. In: Rose Weitz. The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

[5] Kardashian, K. 2016. Happy International Women’s Day, Available at: https://www.kimkardashianwest.com/behind-the-scenes/776-kim-kardashian-nude-instagram/ (Accessed: 25 July 2017).

[6] The Guardian. 2017. ‘Emma Watson on Vanity Fair cover: ‘Feminism is about giving women choice’, The Guardian, 6 March 2017, accessed: 15 August 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/05/emma-watson-vanity-fair-cover-feminism

[7] Butler, J. 1997. Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In: Carole R. McCann, Seung-kyung Kim. Feminist Theory Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 462-473.

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.

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.

Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK

by Amy Greer Murphy, Durham University

My PhD is part of a five year research project entitled ‘Local Health Inequalities in an Age of Austerity: The Stockton-on-Tees study’. It’s a mixed method case study exploring the localised impacts of austerity on health. My role is examining the experiences of women living in Stockton using qualitative research.

A few key terms

Austerity refers to attempts to reduce government deficits through spending cuts and sometimes tax increases. Across Europe, austerity was implemented in many countries, such as Greece and Ireland, as a precondition of receiving bailouts in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, a major restructuring of the public sector and welfare system has been undertaken since 2010.

Neoliberalism refers to the application of free market principles to public policy. It has been enacted in the UK since Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in the 1980s and has comprised of deregulation (e.g. of the banking and financial system), privatisation (e.g. of bus and rail services) and, more recently, austerity (e.g. extensive welfare reforms).

‘Health inequalities’ refer to disparities in life expectancy and years of health life (‘mortality’ and ‘morbidity’) within and across nations. There is a gradient in all countries – those with more socio-economic resources also have better health (Marmot, 2010). In the UK, health inequalities are widening since austerity began. Schrecker and Bambra (2015) have referred to the process of widening health inequalities and liberalised economic and social policies as a ‘neoliberal epidemic’.

Austerity and inequality in the UK

The UK is a large country, and one of great social contrasts. The contrasts that are relevant to my research are related to inequality of opportunity, resources, health, and the government policies, political decisions and historical legacies that bring these about. The North East has experienced a huge restructuring of its’ social landscape in recent decades. Mining, heavy industry and manufacturing have all but ceased to operate there. The jobs that once provided decent incomes and rooted people to their communities, providing clear routes through the lifecourse and class allegiances, have slipped away. In their place are zero hour contracts in care homes and nurseries, seasonal work in factories and as agency staff providing security in shopping centres.

Through this research process I have tried to understand what neoliberalism and austerity feel like if you’re not on the winning side of them, focussing on gender and class. I’ve then tried to see the wider connection to globalised economies and deregulated financial markets.

Stockton-on-Tees

One of the ways austerity is affecting places and people differently is through health. In Stockton-on-Tees, the gap in life expectancy for men is the largest in all of England, at 17.3 years, and one of the widest for women, at 11.4 (Public Health England, 2015). If you are a man born in one of the wealthier, typically less urbanised parts of Stockton you can expect, on average, to live 17.3 years longer, and more of those years in good health, than a man born just a short walk away, in a more built-up and less well-off part of town. You are also at a higher risk of cardio-vascular disease, obesity, cancer, mental health issues, suicide, alcoholism, to be more socially isolated, have a worse paying, precarious job or no job at all, and to be at the mercy of an increasingly retrenched welfare state for your income and livelihood. The picture for women is similar, but different in crucial ways I will explore later.

This, of course, isn’t the picture for everyone in Stockton; I don’t want to paint a doomsday caricature (Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show, made a noble attempt at that in 2014 with their ‘poverty porn’ foray into life on Kingston Road). Stockton is steeped in a proud industrial legacy, is surrounded by beautiful dales and hills, has a vibrant town centre, and is home to thousands of people of all kinds who are creating thriving and enduring communities. Undeniably, however, government policy is making the lives of an increasing number of its residents tougher.

The research topic

Women face a distinct set of risks under austerity, as their lives, choices and opportunities often play out differently. This led me to develop my research project, to be carried out with mothers from across the borough. I wanted to understand what the experiences are of being a woman living in a place like Stockton – what can they tell us about other similar places that have experienced stark deindustrialisation and withdrawal of resources and traditional routes to employment and social stability? What does it feel like to live through welfare reform, as a mother, with enough money or very little, in an area with lots of different inequalities?

The methods

The research design was informed by the work of Sociologists who have used their skills to bring to the academic and policy world narratives that are otherwise silenced – quite often the voices of women. Berverley Skeggs (1997), wrote about class and gender and respectability in an area of England not so far from Stockton, Ann Oakley (1979; 1993) spent years with mothers asking them what they thought about housework, women’s health and becoming a mother, and Arlie Hochschild (1989) delved into the lives of women trapped in the double- or triple-bind of work, caring for children and elderly relatives. The methods I used are similar to theirs, and ‘qualitative’, meaning they are designed to explore diverse social worlds and understand why certain groups of people or individuals make choices or live in certain ways, or why their lives are presented in a certain light. I had a methodology (system of methods) and sampling strategy (idea of why I wanted to contact, and why). Unlike some quantitative social research or scientific experiment, or the research wasn’t designed with representativeness or generalisability in mind.

I used ethnography, or participant observation; I spent 16 months at a women’s group where I gained friends and mentors and learned about being woman living on a low income in Stockton. I also interviewed 15 women, 14 of whom are mothers, from a wide variety of socio-economic backgrounds and from many different walks of life. I recruited participants through the local Sure Start centres, Twitter, Thrive, the anti-poverty charity I spent a lot of time at, and through snowball sampling (asking people I met if they could recommend someone, or pass on my details). I offered a voucher as a thank-you and recorded my interviews.

Some findings

Continuing austerity and the decline of opportunities: For respondents and their wider networks, there is a huge concern about the likely continuation of austerity and what that might mean for families and communities. We spoke about diminishing opportunity and prospects, the long-term decline of services, the quality and availability of housing and work in the area.

The desire to ‘just be a mam’: Respondents found their roles as mothers and carers increasingly devalued, with the expectation that caring work should be provided by the market and that they should seek formal work as a primary source of income. However, quality work is unavailable, childcare unaffordable, and an important source of identity formation, their role as carers and mothers, diminished under austerity.

Mental health: It became increasingly obvious as I spent more time in the field that the deterioration of participants’ mental health and sense of wellbeing was stark. Discussions of everyday struggles with depression, anxiety and serious bouts of post-natal depression were worryingly frequent. Furthermore, long-term physical health and chronic pain issues were part and parcel of life for many of the women I spent time with, symptoms of a lifetime of stress, poor quality housing and other inequalities (Mattheys et al. 2015).

Conclusion

Underpinning my research is the understanding that women, particularly mothers, face a set of distinct risks under austerity, through labour market changes, reliance on the welfare system and the public sector. They are employed in higher numbers in the public sector, and so more vulnerable to job losses there, and more likely to be underemployed or in low-paid work in ‘feminised’ sectors. They may also face maternity discrimination in their workplace, experience a large gender pay gap and are absent from the labour market for extended periods while they take care of young children. Women also make use of public sector services in high numbers, the very services being cut back during austerity. They rely on the welfare state for many reasons to a much larger extent than men. Welfare reforms like the benefit cap, bedroom tax and sanctions, closures of community centres and privatisation of Sure Starts and lone parent conditionality hit not just women in large numbers, but children and families too. This research is trying to illustrate how austerity is regressive and contributing to growing inequality, and how this group, like many all around the UK, are finding it a challenging time to live through.

References

  • Blyth, M. 2013. Austerity: the history of a dangerous idea. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Hochschild, A. 1989. The Second Shift: working parents and the revolution at home. Viking Penguin, New York.
  • Konzelmann, S., 2014. The political economics of austerity. Cambridge Journal of Economics 38 (4) pp. 701–741.
  • Marmot, M., Allen, J., Goldblatt, P., Boyce, T., McNeish, D., Grady, M., and Geddes, I. 2010. Fair society healthy lives. The Marmot review executive summary. The Marmot Review. UCL Institute of health equity, London.
  • Mattheys, K. Bambra, C. Kasim, A. Akhter, B. 2015. Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-on-Tees cohort study. SSM -Population Health 2 Pp. 350–359.
  • Oakley, A. 1979. Becoming a mother. Martin Roberston and Company Ltd., Oxford.
  • Oakley, A. 1993. Essays on women, medicine and health. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  • Public Health England, 2015. Stockton-on-Tees Health Profile 2015.
  • Robson, S., and Robinson., J., 2012. Findings and recommendations from interim case study: the impact of austerity measures upon women in the North East of England. The Women’s Resource Centre, London.
  • Rubery, J. and Rafferty, A. 2014. Gender, recession and austerity in the UK. In: Karamessini, M. and Rubery, J. 2014. Women and Austerity, the economic crisis and the future of gender equality. Routledge, Oxon. pp. 123-144.
  • Schrecker, T., and Bambra, C., 2015. How politics makes us sick: neoliberal epidemics. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
  • Skeggs, B., 1997. Formations of class and gender, Theory, Culture & Society. Sage Publications, London.

 

From The Taming of the Shrew to 10 Things I Hate About You: taming wild women in European culture

Don’t kiss him, Kate: Shrew-Taming Traditions in European Culture

by Dr Florence Hazrat

Before she is allowed to leave the house for a Friday night date, her father makes her wear a plastic apron with a big belly attached to the front. This is how it would be if she became pregnant. And does she want to become pregnant? Never trust boys! She complies begrudgingly, familiar with her father’s peculiar protectiveness. She needs to humour him, the prom is fast approaching, and the hottest guy of the whole high school has asked her out. If only there wasn’t her elder sister! Their father lets Bianca go to the proms upon condition that Kat goes too. But she’s a wild one, and has never had a date in her life. Only that mad boy, Patrick, could perhaps be bribed into asking her out…

This scene stems from the beginning of the 1999 teen film Ten Things I Hate About You, featuring future Hollywood actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger in the leading roles. The film, however, is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s late sixteenth-century comedy The Taming of the Shrew in which a recalcitrant young woman, Katherine, is getting married off to a robust character, Petruchio, who starves her high spirits into wifely obedience. But Shakespeare’s piece is itself a spin-off of previous versions of the well-known theme of shrew-taming across diverse cultures, languages, and times. Scholars propose at least 400 of such stories in European literature alone, including oral versions, proverbs and story collections. Shakespeare’s play is among others inspired by an anonymous ballad called ‘A merry jest of a shrewd and cursed wife, lapped in Morrelles skin, for her good behaviour’ in which the husband cowers his wife by beating and wrapping her in his horse’ skin.

katherine_hits_the_music_master

A Louis Rhead ink drawing of Katherine breaking a lute over the music master’s head, from a 1918 edition of Tales from Shakespeare

Modern audiences struggle with the physical and emotional violence of the tale, particularly in the case of Shakespeare whose celebration as moral paragon sits awkwardly with the seeming misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism of some of his plays such as The Shrew, Othello, and The Merchant of Venice. Critics either denounce or attempt to salvage the playwright from such charges, arguing he writes within the traditions and genre conventions of his time, indeed  wringing subtlety from them by pushing and pulling their limits. The Shrew, it is said, is a satire on domineering male behaviour, emerging from a social trend towards the romantic companionable rather than arranged marriage. That the inequalities suggested were unpalatable even to early modern sensitivities is, perhaps, shown by a play written as sequel to Shakespeare’s, The Tamer Tamed by John Fletcher: Petrucmisohio has bullied Katherine into the grave, re-marrying a supposedly mild young girl who turns out to be a wilder wife than the first. As in Shakespeare’s play, the couple eventually makes peace after many hilarious tricks played upon each other. As in Shakespeare’s play too, we’re left not entirely sure what to think, but that may just be the point.

shrew-caricature

A caricature by Williams from Caricature magazine (1815), entitled ‘Tameing a shrew; or, Petruchio’s patent family bedstead, gags and thumscrews.’

The Taming of the Shrew complicates the difficult business of “are we to take the misogyny seriously?” by setting it apart as play within the play. The piece doesn’t actually start with the shrew story but with a framing device: a drunkard is duped into believing he is a lord for whose amusement the story about wife-taming is being staged. It is introduced as farce, and we are supposed to laugh at what it so obviously proclaims.

        In production as in interpretation, much depends on Katherine’s final speech in which she berates disobedient wives, advertising the complete submission of women to men in marriage.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey. (Act 5, scene 2)

What sounds at first as almost intolerably cruel – the speech ends with Katherine’s offer to place her hand under her husband’s foot – may be a beautifully effective piece of subversion when staged: the 1967 Zeffirelli film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton has Katherine storm out of the hall after her earnest speech, leaving Petruchio to run after her, severely casting doubt over just how tamed she is.

hughes

A pre-Raphaelite painting by Edward Robert Hughes from 1898 (‘The Shrew Katherina)

A fascinating response to this particular ambiguity of Shakespeare’s play is a seventeenth-century German version called The Art of all Arts: How to Make an Evil Wife Good. Between the 1590s and 1620s, English acting companies travelled across the continent, carrying with them numerous texts by Shakespeare and contemporaries. Some years later, these texts start to appear in, amongst others, Danish, Dutch, and German, sometimes closely attached to the originals, sometimes adapting them according to the theatrical traditions of the different cultures. There is, for example, the clown-figure called Pickleherring with whom seventeenth-century Germans would have been familiar with, dropping into the tragic Romeo and Juliet adaptation.

It is a mystery how these versions came into being: did the English actors learn German? Did they work with translators, or did they marry German women who helped them translate, or with whom they had children who spoke both languages? What is clear, however, is that these plays are an untapped source for insights into the Renaissance landscape of European theatre, attesting to a much more wide-spread exchange than we are aware of. They also bring us tantalizingly close to performance practices of Shakespeare’s own time, considering their date of printing a mere handful of years after the playwright’s death.

        I am part of a team at the University of Geneva that seeks to make early modern German plays available to an anglophone readership, and am re-translating The Art of All Arts into English. Differing attitudes to gender between the German and the English play are particularly striking: although The Art of All Arts does firmly anchor itself in the shrew-taming tradition (Socrates offers the prologue, lamenting his cursing wife Xanthippe), Katherine is accompanied by a robustly practical maid servant with whom she holds conversations that reveal her thoughts about the situation, a privileged access to her situation lacking in Shakespeare. Her final speech also receives radical treatment in shrinking from some 46 lines expatiating on female obedience to a bare two:

This I want to tell us briefly:

You men, love your wives. And you women, obey your husbands (Act 5).

This ‘lesson’, though ambiguous and performance-dependent it is, shifts the poetic weight onto both men and women in the audience through its memorable parallelism. The translator’s decision to cut a speech that crowns the play, particularly considering the sometimes close verbal echoes to the original, is a stunning circumstance which encourages a revision of charges of misogyny with which we encounter early modern ideas of gender.

Today, it seems, we still have not quite outgrown a taste in shrew-taming: films and musicals, notably Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate, evidence a sustained interest in the subject, if only, perhaps, because it puts under pressure what we think we know about gender relationships. Little known Shrew versions like The Art of All Arts will contribute to complicating and nuancing our notions of marriage in the Renaissance, as well as today.