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

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.


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).


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.


  • 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.


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.


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.


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.


Recognition and power: gender variance in international law

Recognition and power: gender variance in international law



by Sandra Duffy

Walking home with a friend a few nights ago, we fell into a conversation about monsters. My friend, Dr Nicola Moffat[1], had written her PhD thesis on representations of monsters in English literature. Pointing out that the word ‘monster’ derives from the same roots as ‘demonstrate’, she told me that the character that is called a monster is not so much in itself a negative force, but a signifier of something which cannot be understood and named. It is not for nothing that women, pregnancy, and babies are often involved in monster myths – forces misunderstood and even feared by the authors of literature and history becoming vilified and associated with the breakdown of order.

Now, I am not working on literature, on symbolism, or on anything quite so diverting. I’m an international human rights law researcher and I work on issues around gender and sexuality. My conversation with Nicola has remained fresh in my mind because over the course of my studies, I have come to think of law as existing somewhere between a language and a worldview. In many ways, identities legible to the law are conferred recognition and therefore power[2], while identities, lives, and bodies which the law does not comprehend tend to be marginalised and rendered alienated from society. The delegitimisation and demonising of states that cannot be easily understood seems to be as much a part of modern legal systems as it was to writers and artists making up the literary canon. The problem is not the groups being alienated. The problem is the forces which enable this alienation.

Gender recognition, law, and the sociopolitical question

My PhD research focuses on attitudes toward, and frameworks for, the legal recognition of gender variance in international human rights law. I study the manner in which the international human rights institutions, such as the United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures and the regional Courts of Human Rights, approach issues around gender identity and legal gender recognition. My work also includes case studies on the situation of gender-variant persons in Ireland and India, in order to demonstrate the effects of globalised human rights discourse on domestic legal systems.

What seems to be a straightforward question of law – can a person legally change the gender on their identity documents in this jurisdiction? – is in fact a sociopolitical question of much complexity, involving religion, history, social dynamics, and the relationship between postcolonial societies and the international community. This relationship is a reciprocal exchange of attitudes of permissiveness or repression, complicating the functioning of legal systems on both the national and the international levels.

Legal gender recognition is the facility offered to persons, whose inner and deeply-felt gender identity[3] does not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth, to change the gender marker on their identity documents such as birth certificate, passport, or driver’s licence. The inability to perform such a change infringes on the individual’s right to autonomy and to free expression, forcing them into a position where they must either present documentation which does not correspond to their gender expression, or to refrain from presenting in the manner which most reflects their gender identity every time they must interact with social institutions.

In many jurisdictions, it is possible to have one’s documents changed via legal or administrative processes, albeit with conditions attached. In all but a handful of jurisdictions[4], the choices of gender marker available are solely the binary options of male or female. The legal gender recognition process also almost universally operates under a set of medical or legal gatekeeping procedures, which I will discuss in more detail below.

In referring to the population of persons with a gender identity incongruous with that which they were assigned at birth, I use the terms ‘gender-variant’ for an individual and ‘gender-diverse’ for a population. The term ‘gender non-conforming’ is also in use. Although in this jurisdiction the term ‘transgender’ is the one most commonly applied to the group, from a global view ‘transgender’ is a Western construct which may not correspond to the subtle categories of identities which can vary from culture to culture. Gender-variant, gender-nonconforming, and trans*/trans are terms which allow for the recognition of binary identified male or female persons; non-binary, third-gender, or genderqueer persons; and hijras, berdaches, fa’afafine, and other culturally specific forms of gender diversity.

Gender recognition in Ireland

In Ireland, gender recognition procedures are governed by the Gender Recognition Act 2015. This Act allows for adults to apply for the issuance of a Gender Recognition Certificate from the Office of the Registrar General granting them legal status in the correct gender. A minor aged sixteen or seventeen may make such an application with the consent of their parent or guardian. The application is made on a basis of self-declaration, meaning that there is no medical or psychological evaluation required to determine the person’s gender-variant status before qualification for a Certificate. This principle ranks Ireland among the most progressive European nations in the field of gender recognition[5], as most other Council of Europe members requires medical or psychological certification or intervention before a person’s gender marker can be changed.

The Act also requires that a review of the law be undertaken in 2017. Among the issues which will be raised this year are the lack of recognition for persons of non-binary gender identities, and the lack of facilities for persons under sixteen to apply for legal gender recognition.

The relative ease with which the GRA 2015 functions belies the two decade-long struggle to enact such a legislation in Ireland, which before the signing of the GRA 2015 had no facility for legal gender recognition in any form. A lengthy campaign of pressure and public-interest litigation from Dr Lydia Foy, along with a fortuitously timed decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Goodwin and I v United Kingdom[6], allowed for a the 2007 High Court decision in Foy v An t-Ard Chláraitheoir 2[7], wherein Mr Justice McKechnie held that the Irish government’s failure to allow Dr Foy to change her gender markers on documentation was incompatible with Ireland’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. This ruling was the catalyst for the ensuing lobbying by the Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI) to ensure a strong and human rights-compliant legal gender recognition protocol for Ireland.

Gender recognition in international human rights law

Since the early 2000s, gender recognition has steadily been gaining status in mainstream international human rights law. The 2002 Goodwin and I decision was the first to find in favour of a transgender applicant in the European context, and sparked a series of legal reforms across the continent (including the UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004). The emergence of gender identity as a concern of the United Nations human rights mechanisms began in 2006 with the Joint Statement on Human Rights Violations based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity before the Human Rights Council. In 2007, the signing of the non-binding but influential Yogyakarta Principles[8] marked the first declaration of the human rights of persons of diverse gender identities. Since then, the United Nations human rights bodies, such as the Human Rights Committee[9] and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women[10], have also begun to include the situation of gender-variant persons in their member states during their review procedures.

It is clear that legal gender recognition can confer many benefits on the potential applicant. Without identification documents in the gender corresponding to that in which a person is presenting, access to education, employment, and travel becomes increasingly limited. In order to cross a national border, apply for social benefits, or access healthcare services, they must ‘out’ themselves and risk facing a potentially hostile response. Although sometimes critiqued as conferring mostly formal equality on gender-variant persons[11], availability or lack thereof in relation to legal gender recognition has a marked effect on the substantive equality of the gender-variant individual in society.

Legal recognition also renders gender-variant persons more legible to the institutions of state and, in turn, to society at large. Owning a body which deviates from the normative gender standards imposed by society places the gender-variant person in a vulnerable position, making it more difficult to secure their status, health, and well-being. Western – by which I mean Euro-/Ameri-centric – societies and legal systems are built on binary understandings of gender. This choice of male or female maps gender directly onto sex, and includes a biological determinist viewpoint wherein the shape of one’s body must dictate how one’s mind conforms to societal gender norms. Theorists such as Butler have described how gender is not predicated on physical traits in this manner; it is a continual performance of acts and manners of expression, less something one is than something one does. Furthermore, the social construct of gender is complex enough that no person conforms perfectly to all expected gender norms at a given time. Logically followed through, this incomplete performance means that, as Butler states, “those permutations of gender which do not fit the binary are as much a part of gender as its most normative instance”[12].

Legal recognition and societal legitimacy

What impact does this have on legal systems? A system built on a binary lacks space for the grey areas of gender, the non-conforming permutations.  Recognition confers power; legal recognition confers status. The law is a system of power dynamics. It creates categories which become, themselves, constituent of identities. In many jurisdictions, for example, it is necessary for a person seeking legal gender recognition to produce medical certification of their gender variance. The requirements for certification can include confirmation that the person has undergone surgical intervention; references from a psychiatrist or psychologist that the person is suffering from “gender dysphoria”, or the medicalised formulation of gender non-conformity; or records of how long the person has been “living in their gender”. For many gender-variant persons, these can be difficult to obtain or mean that they must adjust their presentation or gender expression in order to comply.

Even though the object of these laws is to liberate gender-variant persons from repression, they often internally demand compliance with other norms. For example, in many instances where the law recognises the existence and legitimacy of binary-identified gender-variant persons, those identifying outside the binary, or presenting in a way which is not recognisable to the legal and medical gatekeepers regulating access to recognition find themselves in a difficult position. Lacking recognition by the law means lacking the protection of the law. Marginalised gender-variant persons are more likely to be the subject of discrimination, exclusion, and violence. There is a reciprocal relationship between legal recognition and societal legitimacy: the doors to societal acceptance often depend on one’s legal status, while legal status depends to a large extent on the views of society and lawmakers.

With this in mind, I find it necessary to problematise the human rights law system as it currently stands. To use a phrase gifted to me by the work of another friend, it is important to look at the “decisions of silence”[13] in the language used by law. The question which needs to be applied to emerging frameworks of legal gender recognition is not solely “which groups are being recognised by this law?”, but equally “which groups are not?”. In Ireland, despite our progressive legislation and the greater societal acceptance of the lives of gender-variant persons which have come with it, for the non-binary person seeking recognition it is as if the law has moved no further than it had before the signing of the 2015 Act.

The ‘T’ in ‘LGBT’ should not be silent

In another facet of this area of law which merits examination, there is a tendency for human rights law to refer to the issues concerning gender-variant persons and non-heterosexual persons as a monolithic category under the heading ‘LGBT issues’. This not only erases the spectrums of identity in those communities, but it risks assuming that the same reforms are needed by both. For example, it is often more pressing for gender-variant persons that healthcare be available on an equal basis than for non-heterosexual persons; equally, the right to marriage equality and to start a family is often very welcome to gender-variant persons, but there is still a fundamental lacuna in their recognition if they cannot obtain a correct set of identity documents. My research has shown that this is a persistent problem from the level of grassroots organisations right up to the international human rights bodies such as the United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures[14]. As many trans* activists state: the “T” in “LGBT” should not be silent.

I believe in law, written in a human rights-compliant manner, as a mechanism for social change. However, even with advances in the law, gender variance continues to be misunderstood by society. The scaremongering recently seen over the right of transgender persons to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender is evidence of this. Lawmakers in the United States have even introduced legislation banning transgender persons from using a bathroom other than the one which corresponds to the gender on their birth certificate[15], citing a fear for the safety of the cisgender persons also using that restroom.

This brings us back to my thoughts on my friend’s thesis about literary monsters and other various folk devils. Gender-variant persons suffer delegitimisation on many fronts: facing hostility from medical professionals, discrimination in the workplace, the threat of violence, a much higher incidence of socioeconomic disadvantage. Much of this comes down to the vision of the gender-nonconforming body and mind as Other, and the mistrust of that Other. Legal recognition is only one part of the process of demystifying gender variance.

Gender norms are a deeply inbuilt factor in society. They can be used as a form of control; as Foucault stated, ““the norm is something that can be applied both to a body one wishes to discipline and a population one wishes to regularise”. The gender-variant person sometimes seems to appear to lawmakers as an entity to be normalised, regulated, and by naming and recognised, understood. It is the task of human rights lawyers to challenge that viewpoint and to represent gender-variant persons as fully formed rights-bearing subjects; to listen to the voices of the community, and to litigate and legislate according to their wishes.

It would be wonderful to have a conversation about literature and not see in it the manner in which legislators and the public continue to pretend that Otherness is invisible or wrong. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. In the language of fiction, it is possible to represent unknowns by demonising and marginalising them. In the language of law, however, it is vital that we understand that the unknown quantities we discuss are people’s lives, livelihoods, and human rights. We have to challenge the viewpoint that any group of people should be alienated from their rights, and to stand for justice beyond the vagaries of popular opinion – particularly in these frightened and frightening times in which we find ourselves living.


[1] If you want to learn more, Dr Moffat blogs at and is @NicolaMoffat on Twitter.

[2] See Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990); Bodies That Matter (1994); Undoing Gender (2004).

[3] Transgender Equality Network Ireland have a full explanation of vocabulary and concepts used in discussion of gender diversity on their website at <;

[4] As of 2016, this number includes India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, and Malta. View this on a map by Transgender Europe here: <;

[5] For a global survey on the requirements for gender recognition across jurisdictions, please see ILGA’s Trans Legal Mapping Report: Recognition Before the Law (2016; Chiam, Z., Duffy, S., and Gil, M.G.).

[6] Case 28957/95.

[7] [2007] IEHC 470.

[8] See <;

[9] First mention of gender recognition law came in the 2008 review of Ireland, at CCPR/C/IRL/CO/3; the Committee has made other observations such as in its 2011 review of Kuwait, on offences of “wearing the clothing of the other gender”, CCPR/C/KWT/CO/2, paragraph 30.

[10] For example, General Recommendation 33, on women’s access to justice; Concluding Observations from reviews such as that of the Netherlands, at CEDAW/C/NLD/CO/5.

[11] The work of transgender legal theorist Dean Spade problematises the system of gender classification in its entirety.

[12] Butler, Undoing Gender (2004).

[13] Another English literature scholar, Dr Maeve O’Brien, author of <;.

[14] See commentary on the UN at <;.

[15] The North Carolina Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act 2016, which applies to all government buildings, including educational institutions.

Mediating Violent Conflict: Where are the Women?

by Dr Catherine Turner

Durham Law School, Durham University.


Former Irish President Mary Robinson (left) and Ethiopia’s Hiroute Guebre Sellasie, the UN’s only female lead mediators

In his December 2016 inauguration speech, the newly elected Secretary General of the United Nations (UN), former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guetterres, indicated that one of the priorities of his term in office would be conflict prevention. He emphasised the need to take more creative approaches to prevent the escalation of conflict, including notably a much stronger emphasis on the use of mediation and creative diplomacy. Prevention, it is said, is better than cure, particularly when conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Israel/Palestine are proving so difficult to ‘cure’. The emphasis on mediation marks the culmination of a longer process of review within the UN of the ways it responds to violent conflict. A series of reports evaluating the UN’s peacebuilding architecture led to the 2016 adoption of the ‘Sustaining Peace Agenda’, marking a commitment to increased coherence across the organisation in co-ordinating peacebuilding activities.[1] Resolution 2282 (2016) emphasises ‘the importance of a comprehensive approach to sustaining peace, particularly through the prevention of conflict and addressing its root causes, […] and promoting […] inclusive dialogue and mediation…’

 This priority is also accompanied by a commitment by the new Secretary General to address a persistent problem within the UN – the need to ensure gender parity.

Resolution 2282 reaffirms the importance of women’s participation in peace and security, as well as stressing the importance of increasing women’s leadership and decision-making in relation to conflict prevention. The bringing together of these two priorities, namely an increased role for mediation in international peace and security and a commitment to increasing the participation of women in leadership roles within the UN, presents a good opportunity to consider the role of women in conflict mediation.

Of course, a commitment to increasing women’s participation in conflict prevention and peacebuilding is not new. Since the Security Council passed its landmark Resolution 1325 in 2000, the role of women in conflict resolution and peacebuilding has been on the Security Council agenda. The ‘Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ has consistently highlighted the underrepresentation of women in peacebuilding and a number of strategies have been implemented to try and redress this imbalance. There is a very significant body of work on the reasons that women should be included in peacebuilding. This work has highlighted the benefits of including women and has highlighted the different roles that women play within peacebuilding,[2] however it has largely overlooked the specific category of women in the role of mediator. This is despite clear policy commitments throughout the WPS resolutions that call for greater representation of women within high-level UN mediation teams.[3] And yet, despite over 10 years work on the WPS agenda, the number of women actively included in peace talks as mediators remains persistently low. Research shows that, of 31 UN-led mediation processes between 1991 and 2011, only 3 were led by women as the chief mediator. This translates into only 2.7 % of all chief mediators.[4] As a result in 2013 the Security Council passed resolution 2122 further requesting the Secretary General to support the appointments of women at senior levels as UN mediators and within the composition of UN mediation teams. By 2014 the UN had appointed two female lead mediators – the former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Hiroute Guebre Sellasie of Ethiopia – and women held a further 14% of senior UN mediation positions.[5] However this figure remains low in light of the Secretary General’s 2010 commitment to increasing the number of women appointed to lead UN peace processes.[6]

The very low statistics of women in the role of chief UN mediator creates an impression that women are simply not engaged in the mediation of violent conflict. Yet, in practice, we know this is not true.

In conflicted states across the globe women are actively involved in the mediation of violent conflict. The roles they play are increasingly being recognised through the creation of networks of women mediators such as those created by Nordic States, by African States, and in support of the peace process in Colombia. So why, when women are so active in mediation at the local level, do we not see more women in high level UN led processes? My research suggests a number of reasons for this apparent contradiction.

Responsibility for increasing the participation of women in mediation is divided across different departments within the UN. The appointment of high-level envoys or Special Representatives of the Secretary General – those we all recognise as the public face of UN-led mediation – lies with the Department of Political Affairs. The appointment of a mediator in this context refers specifically to the appointment of an individual by the Secretary General to pursue conflict diplomacy on his behalf. These are high-level political appointments and are almost exclusively at the discretion of the Secretary General himself. The Envoy will be the person responsible for convening the Track I – or state-level- talks. Women are very under-represented in these positions.

This focus on high-level talks and on the leadership role of international mediators can be contrasted with the approach taken by UN Women, the body tasked with working with member states to further the empowerment of women and support peacebuilding capacity within the State. At this level, mediation happens at a local level, within and between communities. It is at this level that women mediators are most strongly represented.[7] Women are regarded as bringing significant skills to mediation not only while official Track I processes are happening, but before and after those processes, in some cases enabling the process to take place. Through their roles as intermediaries women can create the conditions whereby talks are possible, for example by negotiating the cessation of hostilities to allow humanitarian access or opening channels for dialogue.[8]

The division of responsibility between the DPA and UN Women, both of which have very different operational mandates, creates a potential gap between mediation in local or national contexts and mediation that occurs at the international level. While women may demonstrate strong mediation skills and have considerable experience of mediating disputes, this experience does not result in inclusion in international mediation teams. There is a point at which women mediators tend to drop out of peace talks, and this is the point at which international actors become involved. At this stage, women are not considered to be ‘political’ enough to want to play a role in high-level mediation.

In these circumstances, women’s local experience is often overlooked in favour of bringing in international experts (who may also be women) to consult on the design and delivery of mediation processes. This means that not only do local women become marginalised in the process, but their insight into the conflict dynamics is also lost.

When women return to the process they return in the role of participants in the process—as a vulnerable group to be consulted rather than as the agents of change they have been. Further, the extent of women’s participation is also largely dependent on how willing the mediator is to include them,[9] leaving women inherently vulnerable to exclusion.

Of course not all women who engage in mediation at the community level will seek international opportunities. Similarly, there may be local gender dynamics that make it difficult for local women to step into political positions. But it is patronising to suggest that all women mediators are satisfied with working at the local level. Many have the skill, the experience and the ambition to play greater roles internationally. What is missing is a route to integrate them into formal processes.[10] While the role of Envoy will always be available only to a very small category of people, there is no reason that women should not play more prominent roles within high-level mediation teams.

There may be a very practical reason for the failure of women mediators to make the transition from local or national experience to international experience. It may simply be, for example, that they are not coming to the attention of the DPA at the time at which mediation teams are being selected. Member States therefore have a role to play in the career development and the nomination of women for inclusion within UN teams. If the DPA relies on nominations from Member States for identifying suitable candidates, then States can potentially support the work of both UN Women and the DPA by bridging the gap between the local and the global. This would include identifying women working as mediators within the community sector, the private sector as well as the Women’s sector, thereby casting the net much wider than traditional approaches. It would involve recognising the contribution that women mediators are already making to conflict resolution.

Taking a proactive approach to identifying women mediators, and ensuring that they benefit from the necessary career development opportunities at the national level, would be a big step towards a more coherent approach to ensuring that women’s contribution to mediation is made visible internationally.

Taking such an approach is consistent with the Sustaining Peace Agenda and speaks directly to the need for greater synergy between the relevant agencies responsible for sustaining peace and promoting gender parity.

[1] Resolution 2282 (2016)

[2] Anderlini, SN and J Tinman (2010) ‘What the Women Say: Participation and UNSCR 1325’ International Civil Society Action Network and Centre for International Studies; Paffenholz T et al. (2016) ‘Making Women Count- Not Just Counting Women: Assessing Women’s Inclusion and Influence on Peace Negotiations’ (Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative & UN Women)

[3] Resolution 1325 (2000); Resolution 1889 (2009); UN Strategic Framework on Women Peace and Security 2011-2020; Resolution 2122 (2013)

[4] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

[5] Statistics from the International Peace Institute, 2013

[6] UN, 2010 UN Doc A/65/35- S/2010/466

[7] Conciliation Resources (2013) ‘Women Building Peace’ Accord Insight 16

[8] United Nations Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2015) 54

[9] Global Study

[10] UN Women (2012) Women’s Participation in Peace Processes: Connections Between Presence and Influence. New York. United Nations

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

Gender and terror – woman first, fighter second?

by Ashleigh McFeeters

As acts of political violence flood local and international news media outlets, it is imperative that academic study scrutinises, and if necessary, challenges, these news media representations. For the majority of people watching, listening to, or reading the news, these representations are the only information that they will receive. Hence, the content of these portrayals and how they are produced, have a significant impact on news consumers’ ideologies and understandings of political violence.

What is more, violence (and most threats to security) are deemed a primarily male domain. Women’s involvement in political violence jars with this ‘masculine endeavour. Women who commit acts of political violence are not depicted simply as combatants, freedom fighters or terrorists, but their representations in the news media are gendered. The terms female combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist are pregnant with gendering, as not only does the adjective ‘female’ come before combatant/freedom fighter/terrorist, which highlights her gender before her actions, but the fact that her gender must be qualified speaks volumes about the palatability of women engaging in political violence.

As the news media have a significant role in mirroring, creating and perpetuating social norms, the consequences of this is that the categories of representation can be adopted by news consumers and repeated and reiterated through dialogue and socialisation. The news media may be guilty of underpinning, rather than confronting, the dominant patriarchal culture and subsequently participating in women’s marginalisation in public life.

In society, women are generally defined by traditional gender roles, and these narratives are picked up by the news media and bolstered by repeated depiction. In the news media, women are still depicted using a formula of gendered accounts, especially with a focus on appearance. For example, hits in Google for Amal Clooney are blogs dedicated to her fashion sense. Unfortunately, her impeccable style looms large over her career as a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. Moreover, Michelle Obama is as well-known for her clothes (Weaver, 2017) as she is for her campaign for female education. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with referring to someone’s clothes, when this becomes the be all and end all of a person’s characterisation this is where it is detrimental to women’s equality. If women’s news media portrayal is distilled down to an outfit, this constrains women’s roles to one-dimensional symbols of beauty rather than as figures of change.

This is particularly notable with regards to female combatants, as their acts of political violence are also framed by gender constructions. For example, the online New York Post’s headline ‘She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist’ (Rosenbaum, 2015) gives the impression of puzzlement. Why would a beautiful woman choose to be a terrorist as surely her beauty could have been better spent elsewhere?! The currency (and commodity) of beauty is a valuable and looked-for bargaining chip in society, “[t]hey call her the ‘beautiful terrorist with a Mona Lisa smile’ and she’s as wanted as any work by Leonardo da Vinci”(Rosenbaum, 2015). The choice of the word “wanted” alludes to her being sought by authorities for terrorist offences, but also wanted as in desired sexually. The portrayal of her appearance and associated sexuality have overshadowed her political activism, and the fact that the allusion to her looks precedes her occupation underscores the notion that her appearance is more important than her political agency.


Furthermore, the interview of Viner (2001) and Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is saturated with gendered connotations: “international pin-up”; “the gun held in fragile hands, the shiny hair wrapped in a keffiah, the delicate Audrey Hepburn face refusing to meet your eye”; “Her cheekbones are still like knives; her eyes are gentle but flicker when moved”. This effusively gendered account of Khaled champions her appearance over her acts of political violence in 1960s and 70s. The oxymoron of the ‘beautiful terrorist’ suggests an uneasiness as beauty and terror are conflated. The paradoxes of sharp cheekbones as signifiers of attractiveness and knives as deadly weapons, and of delicate hands holding lethal arms, are difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, the female combatant is aesthetically pleasing by adhering to the accepted norms of beauty, however, on the other hand, her beauty is balanced with the ugly acts of terrorists. It is challenging to negotiate and navigate between the two notions in the news media. Therefore, in order to acquaint the female terrorist with the news consumer, familiar frameworks of understanding are utilised.

One such framework is the theme of hypersexuality. The calls Idoia Lopez Riano “the seductress ‘Tigresa’ lost her lust for killing” (Govan, 2011a) that alludes to her sexuality and female libidinousness which portrays her as a lascivious profligate. Frequently, female sexuality is referenced to undermine a woman’s credibility and ability. Moreover, an ‘oversexed’ woman is portrayed as having aberrant sexuality which has led her to murder, rather than a conscious and deliberate choice based on political acumen. The “green-eyed femme fatale”(Govan, 2011b) is a seductress rather than a political activist.

Another theme used to characterise female combatants is that of motherhood imagery. Kendall (2015) reports that Mairead Farrell, a member of the Provisional IRA, endeavoured to distance the female volunteers from the Mother Ireland image “because it didn’t reflect what we believed in…we’d moved on from that”. The iconic maternal figure wholly undercuts any form of agency within female combatants by reducing them to flat characters with meaning imbued upon them, rather than revolutionaries with their own agency.

The themes used in the news media categorise the female combatants/terrorists/freedom fighters in such a way as to undermine any form of agency or choice. The female combatant is difficult to articulate to a mass audience, thus short-hand stereotypes paint her with broad brush strokes and whitewash her political activism to present a less threatening woman, rather than a violent agent of change. A significant outcome of preserving the image of traditional feminine passivity in the news media, is that the imagery is internalised by news consumers and this affects how female combatants are seen. By manipulating gendered cultural norms to advance their cause, women have a vital role in paramilitary organisations where certain activities cannot be performed by men without attracting unwanted attention and detection. However, this further exemplifies and solidifies women’s secondary role in society by fostering gender inequality. Women’s emancipation is truncated because social values, expectations and assumptions about women are preserved.

Women are underestimated because of their presumed non-threatening nature; they are not important enough to warrant investigation. Due to this, women can infiltrate areas without detection or suspicion. In addition, the sensitivities to searching women’s bodies allow women to feign pregnancy in order to hide bombs (Bloom et al., 2011).

Therefore, when the news media keeps these gendered narratives alive it is misinforming the population about female combatants’ capabilities. Perhaps this is over-reading and over-stating the news media’s role – however, as news media accounts of female combatants (and women in general) still present them as sex objects, these representations must be analysed and confronted. It is important to examine gender as a category of experience and a social process, but it must not be overemphasised as a reason for actions. When political violence is reduced to gendered reasons, such as the Chechen Black Widows (Stack, 2011), this only allows the female actors to be understood through the prism of gender, which is a social construction. This is internalised in social cognition and can have devastating effects upon women’s equality, as it fosters the male as the norm and female as the other.

Not only do gender stereotypes in the news media harm gender equality, they also impede counter- and anti-terrorism security measures. Nacos’s advice is that in order to combat terrorism, the opportunities for the manipulation of gender prejudices by terrorists must be shut down. A suggested method is to allow and encourage gender reality to inform counter-terrorism policies by removing the gender stereotypes of female combatants in the news media, as these stereotypes “reflect and reinforce deep-seated societal attitudes”(2005: 448).

To finish, this analysis of the news media endeavours to be critical rather than pessimistic as the news media also have the power to defy pre-existing norms by refusing to use familiar gender stereotypes to represent female combatants and women in general.


Bloom M, Gill P and Horgan J. (2011) Tiocfaidh ar Mna: Women in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 4: 60-76.

Govan F. (2011a) How the Seductress ‘Tigresa’ Lost her Lust for Killing. Available at:

Govan F. (2011b) La Tigresa Kicked Out of ETA After Renouncing Violence. Available at:

Kendall B. (2015) What Drives Women to Extreme Acts? Available at:

Nacos BL. (2005) The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in the Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism. Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 28: 435-451.

Rosenbaum S. (2015) She’s Beautiful and She’s an Alleged ISIS Terrorist. Available at:

Stack A. (2011) Zombies Versus Black Widows Women as Propaganda in the Chechen Conflict. In: Sjoberg L and Gentry CE (eds) Women, Gender, and Terrorism. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 83-95.

Viner K. (2001) ‘I made the ring from a bullet and the pin of a hand grenade’. Available at:

Weaver H. (2017) The Significance of Michelle Obama’s Bold Red Dress During Her Final Speech as FLOTUS. Available at:





A woman’s place is in the kitchen?

The Rise of the Chef: The Skill of Cooking Becomes More Complicated

by Mary Farrell.

Women have always been involved with food: gathering food; growing food; processing food; cooking food; presenting food; feeding their families. This is something that is true across the world and throughout history. Yet in many societies, indeed most, women have tended to be poorly represented at higher-status activities associated with food. Think of the Michelin chefs, famous chefs, head chefs – do we automatically think of men? It is fascinating that, even in societies in which women are considered “liberated” from the restraints of traditional gender mores, and protected at work from the most egregious cases of gender discrimination, women are significantly under-represented as top chefs, and women’s writing about food has been typically relegated to the areas of domestic and family life. Even now, it seems that men’s involvement with food, whether in preparing it or writing about it in the public realm is seen as having more gravitas; as being, almost by definition, higher status. The question is why this is the case? How did it all get so confused? After all, women remain the predominant cooks in the domestic setting. In order to understand the particularity of this phenomenon we must look back through history in order to understand the curious state of affairs we now find ourselves in.


Illustration by Rita Blair

The Creation of the ‘Le Chef’

It is during the 17th century we witness the emergence of the concept ‘The Chef’. Early chefs were members of the military and were exclusively men when, in the 17th century, the landed nobility began to rely on chefs to prepare food. The employment of a man in this capacity was seen as a sign of one’s status at that time[1]. As chefs began to take on more power in shaping the cultural and culinary world around them, they searched for ways to separate cuisine with a high social value, or haute cuisine, from the everyday, and little valued, cookery of women[2].

It is also at this time, the era of the Industrial Revolution, that we see the emergence of two distinct spheres, the domestic/private/feminine on the one hand, and the professional /public/masculine on the other. Prior to this, most women and men’s lives overlapped. Most work was carried out around the home where women were the primary food providers and caretakers while also taking part in home-based manufacturing. The Industrial Revolution relegated women to the private realm of household management, child rearing and religious education, as factories split the family unit. Working-class men worked in the mines, mills, and workshops and women remained in the home with the farm and family, creating the concept of “homemaker”. This division reinforced an already gendered world by identifying separate spheres, unequally weighted in favour of the masculine and the public. This dichotomy prevails to this day and continues to underpin our understanding of the public/private realms and the concepts of masculine and feminine.

This gendered division of the skill of cooking, aided by the rise of separate spheres for men and women, prevented women from participating in the growing restaurant industry in Europe (Ferguson 2004). Men controlled the means of professional legitimation such as authoring cookbooks, teaching at culinary schools, and exhibiting at culinary expositions thereby juxtaposing men in the role of ‘‘educator’’, and their women audience members as ‘‘students’’, helping to institutionalise the exclusion of women from professional cooking (Ferguson 2004).

The terms ‘chef’ and ‘cook’ are directly related to the separation of the public and the private sphere. The chef means “chef de cuisine” or “head of the kitchen” and related directly to the métier of food preparation in the professional public sphere. The term cook is understood more as much more working class, understood as being a nose-to-the-grindstone worker, a cog in a wheel. The chef is a professional who goes through proper training and rises in the ranks of a military system, a term historically associated with men, whereas the cook is self-taught, home-schooled, working by instinct and has historically been associated with women and the private sphere. A chef is granted higher public status and the freedom to be creative and imaginative with their food; a cook may only be responsible for following the chef’s recipes and produce food. In Ratatouille, Revel believes that the raw edible materials in the hands of “mothers” can lead to some fine “craftsmanship” but not great art, whereas the chefs have to transcend everyday methods to realise a grand cuisine which should be restricted only to professionals, who are undoubtedly men. When Colette asks Linguini “How many women do you see in this kitchen?” her response is illuminating,

“Because Haute Cuisine is an antiquated hierarchy built upon rules written by stupid old men. Rules designed to make it impossible for women to enter this world…” People think haute cuisine is snooty, so the chef needs to be snooty”[3].

Colette reveals that cuisine is associated with high culture and the world of the professional man whereas cooking is associated with working class people and women’s work. This hierarchical stance creates binaries – art/craft, cultivated or educated professional cuisines /local cooking, and male chefs/female cooks. This dichotomous relationship is played out in the world of the professional chef, where women and men are judged according to their gendered understanding of the skill of cooking within our culture, to women’s disadvantage[4]. The most recent academic work researching women chefs found that females are overly represented at the cook level and underrepresented at the head chef level, questioning whether the gendered understanding of chef and cooks reveal a bias against women based on their gender and historic hierarchical structures[5].


Illustration by Rita Blair

With the emergence of modern feminism, the predominant representations of the domestic are of oppression, entrapment, tyranny, enslavement; “captive wives and housebound mothers”. Women are portrayed as victims, subjects of male action and female biology, removing women’s agency and dismissing the domestic and the myriad of important actions that take place within this space. Betty Freidman argued in The Feminine Mystique that the domestic was contrary to the aims of feminism.  As a result, the relationship between the female, food and the domestic has long been identified as oppressive; a representation of powerlessness.  This has excluded the female in the domestic space from telling her story, who, while working within this private sphere was able to carve out her own area of power and independence. The greater intimacy, the very domesticity that is often seen to relegate women’s involvement with food to a “lower” level, also means that their cooking, writing and talk of food are rich with social context in the way that more formal involvement often is not, giving us abundant insight not just into their own and their family’s lives, but to social mores and historical context.

In recent years, food studies and third wave feminists have helped to open up the domestic space to further investigation, allowing us to recognise the significant lives of women in the domestic spheres. By conceptualising the kitchen as a space as opposed to a place, we can represent a site of multiple changing levels and degrees of freedom, self-awareness, subjectivity and agency.  Here, food studies uncover a relationship with food and the domestic that reveals “opportunities” to demonstrate creativity and skill, and accruing value within families and communities and increasing opportunities to express resistance and power; it permits a revision of the text to allow for more a “more nuanced, culturally inclusive consideration”, suggesting that the domestic sphere functioned as a space of freedom and power for women even as it constrained them in other ways[6].

My PhD key factors for the gender disparity in head chef positions in the  restaurant industry in Ireland. It has always fascinated me as to why, when women carry out cooking in the domestic setting, it is men who consistently feature as the top chefs in my industry. The rise of the chef has resulted in a complicated and misunderstood relationship for women and their relationship with the skill of cooking.  The rise of the chef, married with the separation of the two spheres – the public and private – seems to me a good place to begin the story for women chefs and the many challenges they may face through their careers.  Many challenges remain for women in this industry but by looking back at how it all began it helps me frame my research and develop it through the lens of feminist discourse.



[1] Trubek, A. (2000), Haute Cuisine: How the French Created the Culinary Profession, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

[2] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[3] Chakraborty Poushali, (2013), Cooking and Performance Negotiating Art and Authenticity in Ratatouille, Ruphkatha Journal, On Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, Volume V, No 2 pp.355-364.

[4] Swinbank, V. A. (2002). The Sexual Politics of Cooking: A Feminist Analysis of Culinary Hierarchy in Western Culture, The Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol 15, pp.464–494.

[5] Harris Deborah A. & Patti Giuffre, Patti A, (2015), Taking the Heat , Women Chefs and Gender Inequality in the Professional Kitchen , Rutgers University Press

[6] Abarca, Meredith E. (2008), Voices in the Kitchen: Views of Food and the World from Working Class Mexican and Mexican American Women. U.S.A: Library of Congress.

Women, Shakespeare, and Ireland: what ish my nation?

by Emer McHugh

Let’s begin with Henry V. It’s the scene where Captains Gower and Fluellen meet with their Irish and Scottish counterparts, Macmorris and Jamy, to discuss the siege of Harfleur. Macmorris and Fluellen have a particularly agitated conversation:

Fluellen. Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation.

Macmorris. Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (3.3.61-65)

Even though he is a relatively minor character, Macmorris’ response there – ‘what ish my nation?’ – has been taken up as the starting-point for approaching issues of national identity in Irish literature and drama, and also as the linchpin for Shakespeare and Ireland studies as well. Of course, Macmorris’ predominance in such criticism does not come without its problems: Stephen O’Neill has drawn attention to how

‘[s]uch privileging [of Macmorris] has as much to do with Shakespeare’s centrality to the canon – stage Irish characters in other plays from the period have not been analysed to the same extent – as it does with the centrality of MacMorris’s questions to a play about conquest, cultural difference and national identity.’[1]

O’Neill is right to advise caution here, but I think that ‘what ish my nation?’ still carries meaning in Shakespeare and Ireland studies, and in 21st century Ireland too. I don’t have far to look: I look at my country’s treatment of its women.


Druid Theatre Company’s ‘DruidShakespeare’

Women and Ireland 

This year alone, I think of the unveiling and removal of the Maser Art mural at the Project Arts Centre. The establishment of the Repeal Project clothing company. #TwoWomenTravel, unflinching in its depiction of what Irish pregnant people are put through should they want to make choices for their own bodies. Brianna Parkins talking about wanting to see the Eighth Amendment repealed on the Rose of Tralee, an unlikely (but nevertheless, welcome) topic to be discussed on everyone’s favourite Lovely Girl competition. ‘We Face This Land’, a two-minute visualisation of Sarah Maria Griffin’s poem that dared to assert ‘The laws of the church have no place on your flesh […] Witches or women – these are our bodies which shall not be given up’.[2] However, Enda Kenny’s words still ring in my ears: ‘The T-shirts may be black and white writing on them but this is about people and people have different views.’ ‘This is about people’: but am I not a person? Are the twelve people who travel to the UK every single day not people as well? If my country does not recognise me as a person, then what ish my nation? (It’s also worth pointing out that his year also marks twenty years since the closure of the last Magdalene laundry in Ireland. I could go on about this country’s treatment of its women over decades.)

This is also a nation where its own national theatre omits – bar one playwright – women from its 1916 commemorative programme: leading to the birth of the #WakingTheFeminists movement, which, over the last year, has tirelessly worked to create change, equality, and equity in Irish theatre. Its work is far from over, but it is incredible to see how it has invigorated the theatrical landscape both in terms of scholarship and practice. (It’s certainly been a huge influence on my own research, as well as leading to the creation of Feminist Theatre Squadron, a podcast which I co-host with my colleagues.) When the movement was in its beginning stages, out of interest I decided to read up on the Abbey Theatre’s stats in performing Shakespeare. How many women have directed Shakespeare for the national theatre? I wanted to find out. And it turned out that, in the theatre’s 110+ years’ history, there had been only one woman who had done so. And she happens to be the incumbent artistic director of the Gate Theatre. (It was Selina Cartmell, by the way: King Lear in 2013.) I understand that Shakespeare may not be an immediate choice for Irish theatre practitioners: yet, as Mark Thornton Burnett cautions, ‘[a]lthough Shakespeare’s work can be seen as an imperial export, it also belongs to a broader dialogue – a system of negotiations, manipulations and imaginative reinscriptions.’[3] Shakespeare performance in an Irish context, then, can be a fascinating site for exploring issues of national identity. I also believe that it can be a fascinating site for exploring gender – for writing women back into the narrative.

Women & Shakespeare

As an intersectional feminist, I find myself grappling with the fact that I work on the most famous dead white man in all of Western literature. Shakespeare’s plays are not inherently feminist. But, the performance of his plays can be feminist. As Kim Solga writes, ‘feminist resistance to the gaze is both visual and structural; it’s a matter of both what is presented on stage, lifted up to audience view, and how that material is presented, the narrative that shapes its presentation.’[4] I also emphasise Sarah Werner’s idea that ‘all performances of Shakespeare engage in localized production of meaning’[5]: which has implications not only for the creative team’s approach to the play, but also audience members’ reception of the production: what I took away from it may not be the same as someone else in the audience that night. Margaret Jane Kidnie suggests that ‘a play, for all that it carries the rhetorical and ideological force of enduring stability, is not an object at all, but rather a dynamic process that evolves over time in response to the needs and sensibilities of its users.’[6] In line with Kidnie’s argument, I’d contend that any given Shakespeare production is one out of many products of an evolving process, that being the chosen play as it has been shaped by shifting cultural attitudes over time. So, in light of that, what I want to offer in this short piece are some examples of Irish Shakespeare performance that explore gender and feminism in interesting ways.

Druid Theatre Company’s DruidShakespeare premiered in May 2015. This was a seven-hour adaptation of the first Henriad into one continuous narrative, and in the three principle roles of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the Henrys were played by women. Particularly in the case of Aisling O’Sullivan’s performance as Henry V, DruidShakespeare used the performance of gender to subvert conventional ideas and patterns in Shakespeare performance – quite pertinent given the cultural signifiers that Henry V as a character and as an icon of English patriotism produces. O’Sullivan spoke with a guttural County Kerry accent, not only recalling her previous roles for Druid but also throwing into sharp contrast the ghosts of previous Henrys, the majority of these male and having performed at British theatrical institutions that Worthen would describe as ‘institutionalized Shakespeare’: examples such as Hassell at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Kenneth Branagh at the same theatre and on film, Jude Law for the Michael Grandage Company, Adrian Lester for the National Theatre, and Jamie Parker for Shakespeare’s Globe.[7]

Many of the theatres housing these performances are associated with institutionalised ideas of verse-speaking: indeed, some of them ‘have been extremely influential in the establishment of principles of Shakespearean verse speaking on the modern British stage.’[8] Not only that, O’Sullivan’s physical presence cut a distinctive presence. Considering the likes of Hassell, Branagh, Parker, Law, and Lester – all of whom played athletic, muscular, conventionally masculine Henrys – upon her first entrance, O’Sullivan’s Hal was lithe, wiry, and prone to posturing and slouching. Her chief uniform, too, was a large black leather jacket and jeans: contrasting with the royal livery with which we commonly associate Henry: not only a crown and a suit of armour, but the colours of red and blue, the three lions, and the fleur-de-lis (Hassell, Branagh, Law, and Parker all sported variations on this, harking back to Laurence Olivier’s take on the role). O’Sullivan is not the only female Henry in the current theatrical landscape: Lazarus Theatre Company produced an all-female version last year, and Michelle Terry played the role this year for Open Air Theatre.[9] Genderblind Shakespeare may not be innovative, but it is clear that O’Sullivan’s performance in itself is a response to conventions, traditions, and iconographies in Irish and Shakespeare performance practice – conventions that are predominantly quite male.

A feminist approach to Shakespeare

If we return to 2016, the most unexpected place to find an alternative response to this 1916 centenary year – a response which was certainly inspired by #WakingTheFeminists’ efforts – was in a reconstructed Elizabethan theatre on the Bankside in London. Caroline Byrne’s production of The Taming of the Shrew was announced as part of Emma Rice’s first season as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe earlier this year. In a press release announcing its final casting, the production was billed as marking ‘the centenary of the Easter Rising by revisiting 1916 Ireland and remembering the role of women in the fight for independence.’[10]

To be sure (perhaps because of where it was performed), this Shrew deals in commoditised Irishness – on the night I saw the production, the musicians played their jigs and reels on the bodhrán, tin whistle, fiddle, and guitar for the crowd’s pleasure. The production’s Irish Catholic context was brought to the fore: during her wedding, Katherina (Aoife Duffin) sat on top of two staircases that folded together to display a neon-light cross, whereas Petruchio’s (Edward Mac Liam) admission to Gremio (Raymond Keane) that ‘me father dead’ was met with numerous members of the cast blessing themselves with the sign of the cross. The text, too, was edited to add elements of Hiberno-English and Irish, such as ‘Jaysus’, ‘mo chara’, and ‘go raibh mile maith agaibh’.

But more pertinent in relation to the production’s feminist approach was the inclusion of additional songs, with lyrics written by the production’s dramaturg Morna Regan. A most notable example is the song ‘Numbered in the Song’ which, in Byrne’s words, ‘[remembers] all the women unsung by Irish history’, and was ‘in part inspired’ by Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, ‘where only the men are “numbered in the song”.’[11] This song, sung by Aoife Duffin as Katherina in a thick Dublin brogue, acted as an ongoing theme throughout the production: as Byrne simply states in an interview, ‘[i]t is a motif in the production, to be numbered in the song.’[12] The production also dispensed with Christopher Sly and the Induction in favour of Duffin performing the song after the musicians had left at the beginning, and Katherina’s singing closed the first half and also concluded the show. Again, this is part of this Shrew placing women – more specifically Katherina and her story – at its heart, and it is interesting that it did so through an appropriation of a male Irish writer’s words. With lyrics such as ‘The nation promised equality’, the song also threw into sharp relief the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in Ireland over the last hundred years.

From the get-go, the production was sympathetic to Katherina’s plight, and suggested that her taming by Petruchio was unnecessary and cruel. From Katherina’s spoken-word songs, to her newspaper being ripped out of her hand by her own father, to the production refusing to shy away from the psychological and emotional abuse Petruchio subjected her to (she spent the second half in her torn wedding dress, sleeping on a bed with only Petruchio’s cowskin cape as a duvet) – this Shrew emphasised the implications of a patriarchal Irish Catholic society on the lives of women. In doing so, it did not provide easy answers: Katherina delivered her final speech in resignation, anger, and frustration at the world she was forced to inhabit, and her relationship with a troubled-looking Petruchio was left up in the air.

Additionally, it emphasises these women’s voices: instead of Petruchio, Katherina was given the production’s final words through song, telling Petruchio that ‘I will not go to war with thee | Dulce et decorum est’ – the melody following the traditional tune ‘The Parting Glass’.[13] In addition, Amy Conroy’s Widow had an expanded role to play in this production: hovering in the background, quietly horrified at the misogyny unfolding on stage, providing quiet counsel to Katherina throughout. This relationship between the Widow and Katherina was built to the point where the final scene appears to be a battle between the former and Petruchio for the latter’s soul. (A Pyrrhic victory for Petruchio is implied here.) As Byrne comments, ‘[i]t’s not a play about the Easter Rising, but it attempts to chime with the experience of Irish women. The promises made in the [1916] Proclamation were not kept in the decades that followed and Irish women are still seeking equality to this day – much in the same way that Katherina is in Shrew’.[14] However, I am not sure if all of this was in the mind of Globe audiences throughout the production’s run. This is judging by the ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ chant Petruchio encouraged the crowd to partake in very early on in the evening, as well as the cheering and whooping that greeted a later kiss between the two. Both times, Duffin’s Katherina was uncomfortable and unwilling to participate. This is perhaps illustrative of Werner’s idea of ‘a performance of Shakespeare that reflects the individual viewer’s perceptions and desires as much as it does those of Shakespeare or the director’[15]: indeed, performance reception is always a composite of individual and collective responses.

Writing last year for the Irish Times and reflecting on the very first #WakingTheFeminists public meeting, Lian Bell commented that ‘[d]uring the past weeks, through the voices of a multitude of women and men speaking up as feminists, this word came to life for me. I realise how important exposure to a spectrum of stories is – next year more than ever.’[16] Bell’s idea of ‘exposure to a spectrum of stories’ is crucial here: not only in our commemoration of 1916, but also in the year of commemorating Shakespeare’s death and the constant reinforcing of his dominance in world culture. (I’d also argue that it’s crucial in the context of recent world events, as well.) Feminist Shakespeare performance should not be the only intervention to make, but at least it should be one of many: specifically in the case of Irish women as we attempt to rewrite what ish our nation indeed.

[1] Stephen O’Neill, ‘Beyond MacMorris: Shakespeare, Ireland and Critical Contexts’, in Celtic Shakespeare: The Bard and the Borderers, ed. by Willy Maley and Rory Loughnane (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), pp.245-57 (p.247).

[2] ‘We Face This Land’,, [accessed 27 November 2016].

[3] Mark Thornton Burnett, ‘Introduction’, in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp.1-5 (p.4).

[4] Kim Solga, Theatre & Feminism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p.30.

[5] Sarah Werner, Shakespeare and Feminist Performance: Ideology on Stage (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.19.

[6] Margaret Jane Kidnie, Shakespeare and the Problem of Adaptation (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p.1.

[7] Worthen, p.41.

[8] Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Shakespearean Verse-Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009), p.1.

[9] See <> and <> for more information on these two productions.

[10] ‘Globe Theatre Press Release – Shakespeare’s Globe announces full cast for Caroline Byrne’s The Taming of the Shrew’,, [accessed 18 October 2016].

[11] Caroline Byrne and Danielle Pearson, ‘Confronting the Shrew’, programme for The Taming of the Shrew (Shakespeare’s Globe, 2016), p.9.

[12] Byrne and Pearson, p.9.

[13] ‘Adopt An Actor: Katherine Played By Aoife Duffin: Performances 2’,, [accessed 18 October 2016].

[14] Byrne and Pearson, p.8.

[15] Werner, p.102.

[16] Lian Bell, ‘Lian Bell: #WakingTheFeminists still waiting for the Abbey’, Irish Times, 16 December 2015, [accessed 3 October 2016].

What She Means to Me: On Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Candidacy

by Anne Kauth.

The Patriarchy, every day

I refrain from blurting out the P word in my everyday life: for fear of being written off as a nasty feminist. For fear that you may stop reading, may stop listening. But any story about what she means to me must include mention of it. The Patriarchy is to us women as water is to fish: a system of external domination of which most of us spend our lives blithely unaware, even though we are constantly swimming against its undertow, or else trying to ignore it because that chronic awareness is so painfully debilitating once we begin to recognize it in every aspect of our daily lives.


Anne (r) meets Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Secretary of State, in the U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012.

Who am I to talk about the Patriarchy, though? I’m a child of the nineties. I’m American, white, privileged, educated, cis-gendered, gainfully employed, and have a supportive network of mentors and advocates. I grew up with Girl Power and Sally Ride and Jane Goodall and Susan Rice and Madeleine Albright. Not only did I leave my native Minnesota for college on the East Coast, I was an athlete, a campus leader, I traveled nonstop, dated whomever I wanted, had killer internships, and knew I would be employed from the moment I graduated in a job that was engaging, well-compensated, and progressively responsible. I have had fabulous bosses, managers, and colleagues. I have had respectful, empowering, enlightened romantic partners. I have made a life for myself in nine cities on three continents. And here I am in San Francisco in my late 20s, enjoying a period of life that for women the world over is truly unprecedented. I do not yet have a family of my own, I’m not yet married, but I’m no longer living with the family that raised me. I’m living independently as a young professional with the support, love, and pride of my family, friends, and community. This is a chapter that my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers never experienced, and one that I endeavor to take advantage of to the fullest.

And yet the conversation comes up again and again, over brunch with friends who are similarly educated, gainfully employed, freely dating, living full lives in global hubs. That feeling. That question. Am I just imagining this uncomfortable power dynamic with the guy at work? Am I really overreacting to this imbalance in my relationship? Was that uncomfortable interaction with the stranger at the airport harmless? Is there anything to complain about, really, when for decades it was so much worse? When for women in most other parts of the world– and for many in our country who do not have the privileges, security and agency that my peers have– it is still so much worse?

The Patriarchy and the 2016 presidential campaign

Then the 2016 presidential campaign gained momentum, overtook the national consciousness. And as frustrating, embarrassing, terrifying as it is, it also has provided us with a platform to discuss the Patriarchy in a way that won’t, that can’t, be written off. Michelle Obama made the speech of the year in New Hampshire on October 13th, and it hit home in a way that has women of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, talking about experiences with harassment, abuse, and assault, sometimes for the first time.

“We thought all of that was ancient history, didn’t we? And so many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are, in 2016, and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail. We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts makes us as women look weak.

Maybe we’re afraid to be that vulnerable. Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet, because we’ve seen that people often won’t take our word over his. Or maybe we don’t want to believe that there are still people out there who think so little of us as women. Too many are treating this as just another day’s headline, as if our outrage is overblown or unwarranted, as if this is normal, just politics as usual.”

It is not normal. It is not politics as usual.

This is the election of our time, mostly for reasons that mar the face of the American political landscape, save for one. 

What she means to me

Her. Our candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. A female nominee for president representing one of the major political parties for the first time in history. A candidate who is, as the sitting President remarked, the most qualified candidate ever for the highest office in the land. She’s ours. She is us. It was her voice that was finally heard when she confirmed that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights. And she has contended with what every woman in America breaking through personal and professional barriers has had to confront.

She is vilified for being inauthentic, but women who know her and know American politics also know that she has been misunderstood because she has spent so much time and energy responding to every negative experience any one of us has had thrown our way in the workplace, in our relationships, in our daily lives. She, however, has done all that in parallel with, and within the confines of, the rise of the 24 hour news cycle. Having her appearance, her accent, her cookie baking skills, her motherhood, her energy, her warmth or lack thereof, her stamina, her unacceptable pattern of continually asking for a promotion by running for office continually mocked, questioned, and denigrated by a male-dominated opposition punditry.


Anne (r) and Secretary Clinton, U.S. Mission to the EU, Brussels, December 2012

How we could ever know the “real her” is unfathomable under these conditions. What we do know is that she has spent all four challenging, painful, and still triumphant decades of her professional life as a tireless public servant. I won’t rattle off her resume again here, but do love restating that she is the most-traveled Secretary of State in history: she visited 112 countries during her four-year tenure, traversing 956,733 miles — enough to span the globe more than 38 times. And it is she whom I have looked up to for many years as the ultimate example of leadership.

I take nothing for granted one week from election day in America. I can’t tell you what will happen for sure, sadly, not even Nate Silver can. What I can tell you is that while I have never been more concerned about the state of American politics, I also have never been more hopeful about the possibilities for American women who collectively are owning their experiences with the Patriarchy and naming them for what they are– the most essential step to bring about change.

So, thank you Hillary. I am with you. Here’s to November 9th.

With thanks to Joanna Pinto-Coelho, Jules Shell, Gunnar Kauth, and Antonia Kerle

A note on the WomenAreBoring Blog:

Women Are Boring is dedicated to disseminating interesting research and writing by interesting women.  As with all things worth doing, we are aware that research and opinion is debatable and worthy of contestation. This is something we encourage. As such, the opinions and views shared are those of each individual article’s author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Women Are Boring team.

Women in Irish Ghost Stories

Where our witches at? Women Are Boring is donning its Hallowe’en hat for the weekend and getting SPOOKY. This piece, by Dr. Clodagh Tait, looks at women in Irish ghost stories, and is the second in our two-part Hallowe’en series (read the first one, on the origins of Hallowe’en, here).

In 1937, Mrs Maggie Gallinagh told Mary Anne Gallinagh a ghost story.

One evening round about Halloween, one of the Harvey sisters of Inver, Co. Donegal, was putting in her ducks at twilight, when she saw a woman dressed in grey ‘looking through the kitchen’. When Miss Harvey spoke to the woman she vanished, but then appeared to the other sister the next evening. The sisters sought the help of Fr George Kelly, parish priest of Inver, who advised them to carry holy water, and when the apparition returned on the third evening the sister who saw her addressed her with the question Fr Kelly recommended: ‘In God’s name what is troubling you?’ The woman replied ‘I am your mother and I am twenty years dead, I am on my way to heaven, and I want three Masses said one from each of you. You three [the girls and their brother] are the only ones living belonging to me, and I want you to pray for me and I will keep you out of danger…when you are on your death bed I will come down and bring you up into the glorious kingdom of heaven, where we will live happy for ever.’ The woman then disappeared, and was never seen again.

It may come as a surprise that ghost stories like this one can be taken seriously by historians. The fact that they are usually written at a distance from their supposed occurrence, passing meanwhile by word of mouth, means that the researcher will look in vain in them for objective ‘facts’ (even if that researcher believes that such events could have happened in the first place). But to dismiss such tales as hearsay, fiction or delusion is to miss the point. People in the past have always reported sighting of ghosts and other supernatural beings. Therefore it is the historian or folklorist’s role to attempt to understand what work such stories did in communities, and to listen for what they express about ideas held about the relationship between the dead and the living and about ‘world-views’ more generally.

The beliefs of Irish people in the past

From my point of view, the tale of the ghostly Mrs Harvey reveals several things, about the beliefs of Irish people in the past and other aspects of their thinking. We learn something, for example, about expectations of the behaviour of the returning dead and interactions with them. It seems to some degree that actions performed by ghosts, the circumstances in which they were encountered, and reactions to them, were gendered. Female ghosts often appear in or near domestic spaces, and female percipients of ghosts likewise tend to encounter them in familiar places close to home. Due to greater restrictions on their movements, especially at sunset and after dark, women were less likely than men to report meeting the returning dead further afield. When they saw the ghost of their mother, the Harvey girls were engaged in the routine activity of putting the ducks into their house for the night; the ghost appears at a widow of door ‘looking through the kitchen’.

The episode of ‘haunting’ (if we could even call it that) in the Donegal story is limited. While nowadays we seem to expect ghosts to be trapped endlessly – and usually mutely – in a specific place to be encountered again and again, Mrs Harvey’s ghost reflects the kinds of revenant who tended to be more commonly reported prior to the twentieth century. Those ghosts usually returned in a purposeful way to deliver a single message, and their haunting was limited in duration. The appearance of Mrs Harvey’s ghost is also notable. She arrived dressed in grey, and until she disappeared the first percipient seems to have believed her to be real. This solidity of appearance is quite common in Irish ghost stories: ghosts can be touched, and touch (even hit) others; they need to open gates to pass through; they even eat and drink.

We might also remark on the way the Harvey girls react to the ghost. While clearly initially somewhat afraid, they stand their ground and challenge her. This would have been a usual course of action in medieval and early modern accounts of haunting, when it was believed that ghosts brought messages, but could not speak until they were spoken to. In cases of ghost-seeing in the Irish past, we find percipients did not usually need professional intermediaries like exorcists or mediums to communicate with ghosts on their behalf: while the Harvey’s consulted a priest, they did not require his aid, though it does seem that in the cases of some particularly troublesome spirits the special skills of a priest might be called on.

Ghosts and Irish christianity

The story of Mrs Harvey very definitively places ghost belief in a Christian framework: Fr Kelly arms the girls with holy water and holy words. The ghost is on her way to heaven but needs the intervention of the church to get there – three masses for her soul, in return for which she offers her own prayers and the promise of heaven to her children. Such a story thus performs a dual purpose: to grapple with the possibility of returning spirits, but to house them securely within Christian teaching. For this reason, the Catholic church in particular was happy enough to accept stories of haunting. Sightings of ghosts fitted in with the doctrine of souls working off the penalties due for their sins in Purgatory, and the possibility that their time there might be shortened by the prayers and other assistance of the living.


Another underlying theme of Mrs Harvey’s story is motherhood and women’s domestic roles. Supposedly twenty years after her death, the deceased Mrs Harvey continues to exhibit care and concern for her children. Very many Irish stories of the supernatural describe female revenants visiting their own homes, caring for children and carrying out domestic chores. In one Co. Roscommon story , an aunt charged with taking care of an infant whose mother had died experienced a shape passing her at the door and found that the baby would not drink any of the milk she prepared for her. The next day in the bedroom ‘whom did she see sitting on the bed but the dead mother and she combing her hair. She faded away out of sight.’ The mother in this tale is definitively dead, but often similar revenants are patently not actually ghosts, but women who had been stolen by the fairies. One the informants cited in Lady Augusta Gregory’s folklore collection Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland stated ‘I believe all that die are brought among them [the fairies], except maybe an odd old person’. However, others seem to have believed that only a certain category of the supposedly dead were with the fairies. Numerous stories told of how young women stolen by the fairies could be rescued by their husbands and loved ones, or recalled those who had been released after a period of time and returned to their families.

 Lady Gregory’s informants told several stories of mothers either returning from fairy captivity or appearing as ghosts, including this unsettling one supplied by Mrs. Farley:

‘One time myself I was at Killinan, at a house of the Clancys’ where the father and mother had died, but it was well known they often come to look after the children. I was walking with another girl through the fields there one evening and I looked up and saw a tall woman dressed all in black, with a mantle of some sort, a wide one, over her head, and the waves of the wind were blowing it off her, so that I could hear the noise of it. All her clothes were black, and had the appearance of being new.’

Her companion could not see the spirit which so frightened Mrs Farley that she did not attempt to question it and fled ‘and the woman seemed to be coming after me, till I crossed a running stream and she had no power to cross that.’

This revenant, implicitly identified as the Clancy children’s mother, was so ‘present’ to Mrs Farley that she could assess the quality of her clothes – they have the appearance of mourning rather than grave clothes – and even hear the sound of her headdress flapping in the wind. Perhaps Mrs Farley’s terror responded in part to the rawness of the dead mother’s mourning for the children to whom she had been lost. After all, one of the things we learn from ghosts, even if we believe that they are only figments of imagination, is about emotion: about grief, anger, disappointment, remorse, and compassion. Most of all we recognise the longing for the loved dead – and the mingled hope and dread that they might in some way long for us – that persists as strongly now as it ever did at the Halloween firesides of the past.

Select bibliography:

Irish Folklore Archive, Schools Folklore Collection:

  1. Davies, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts (Basingstoke, 2007).

A.Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (Gerrards Cross, 1992 [1920])

  1. Narváez (ed.), The Good People: New Fairylore Essays (Lexington, 1997).