Bad Habits? France’s ‘Burkini ban’ in Historical Perspective

This article was written by Dr Carmen Mangion from Birkbeck’s Department of  History, Classics and Archaeology. The article was originally published on the History Workshop Online‘s blog.

The ‘burkini ban’ issued by 30 French beach towns at the end of July 2016 sparked a media frenzy. Town mayors saw the burkini, the full-body swimsuit favoured by some Muslim women as a means of maintaining modesty while enjoying the sea, as a symbol of Islamic extremism and a threat to ‘good morals and secularism’. France’s 1905 constitution separates Church and State, and embraces a laïcité (a secularism in public affairs which prohibits religious expression) meant to limit religion’s influence on its citizens though still allowing freedom of religion. It originated as a means of eliminating the influence of the Catholic Church.Following ministerial criticism, France’s top administrative court investigated the ‘burkini ban’, ruling in late August that it violated basic freedoms.

Nuns at the beach

Nuns at the beach (Facebook/Izzeddin Elzir)

Amidst this furore, Italian Imam Izzedin Elzir’s image of nuns on the beach in their religious habits triggered an international media response. The image, appearing across social media and in outlets as prominent as the New York Times, implied the hypocrisy of a ban targeting Muslims and ignoring Christians. The photos were ironic on two counts:

First, some French mayors were emphatic that nuns in habits were also forbidden on beaches.

Second, and more apposite to this blog post, both the media and ‘ordinary’ citizens seem to be unaware that the ‘nun’ on the streets of Paris (and elsewhere) once sparked a similar outrage.

The historical context was of course different (it always is), but the indignation and the drive to control women’s appearance was just as virulent. Such outrage was not limited to France, but as the ‘burkini ban’ was initiated by the French, it seems appropriate to begin with this bit of French history.

The French revolution of the 1790s, with its cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité was not such a good thing for Catholic nuns. The nun, in her religious habit, became a symbol of the Catholic Church’s role in upholding the inequities and injustices of the ruling classes within France. Catholic nuns, then fully habited, were visible on the streets of Paris as educators, nurses and providers of social welfare, and became targets of anti-clerical outrage. The republican political regime set French nuns ‘free’ from their lifelong vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and their religious habit. It closed convents and confiscated their property. Some members of religious communities weren’t so willing to be set free, however, and were imprisoned. They were told to remove their religious habits (made illegal in 1792) and instead wear secular garb. Nuns including the Carmelites of Compiègne and the Daughters of Charity of Arras were executed for refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the Constitution.

French citizens also made their umbrage against nuns known. One 1791 print representing revolutionary anticlericalism, La Discipline patriotique or le fanatisme corrige (‘The patriotic discipline or fanaticism corrected’), showed the market women of Paris’s les Halles disrobing and thrashing the religious fanaticism out of a group of nuns. Such disciplining of women’s bodies was both salicious and violent.

la_discipline_patriotique_ou_le_-_btv1b69446090

The patriotic discipline or Fanaticism corrected (La Discipline patriotique ou le fanatisme corrigée) (Image: BnF/Gallica)

This urge to control the religious ‘fanaticism’ of women and monitor their clothing choices was not only a French issue; it had earlier incarnations. The dissolution of the monasteries in England in the mid-sixteenth century also ‘freed’ nuns and monks from their vows — and their property. English women’s response to this was to form English convents in exile, many in France and Belgium. In the 1790s English nuns fled, often surreptitiously, back to England. But penal laws restricting Catholic practices were still in effect and English bishops initially discouraged nuns from wearing their religious habit. English citizens too showed their indignation for female religious life by throwing epithets and stones at nuns; the Salford house of the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul was set alight in 1847. Similar events happened in the United States. Most notoriously the Ursuline convent in Charleston, South Carolina was burned down in the 1830s by anti-nun rioters. In the Netherlands, in Spain, in Belgium, in Germany and more recently in Eastern and Central Europe, nuns were also targeted. Women in religious clothing were (and are) easy targets of vitriol and violence.

So burkinied Muslim women and habited Catholic nuns have far more in common than one might think. The nun’s religious habit, like the burkini, has links to religious identity as counter to cultural norms. Critics say that women in burkinis challenge the French secular way of life. History shows that the habited nun also challenged both a republican version of Frenchness and also an English version of Englishness.

Within this context, the burkini furore illustrates two points.

First, it is yet another disappointing reminder that women’s bodies and appearances remain far too often more relevant (and newsworthy) than women’s intellects and voices. Clothing regulations are an excuse to control women and to divert attention from more substantive issues. They are a means of enforcing a societal version of femininity that doesn’t allow for difference. Women choosing to wear religious dress (or dress associated with religious affiliation) should not be stigmatised.

Second, by focusing on the burkini, we forget the more salient issue of figuring out how diverse people can live together peacefully. It is the social, economic and political factors that need attention: cultural inclusion, high unemployment and participation in civic life. Criminalising what women wear on the beach doesn’t even come close to addressing these issues.

Further Reading:

  • Carmen Mangion, ‘Avoiding “rash and Imprudent measures”: English Nuns in Revolutionary Paris, 1789-1801’ in Communities, Culture and Identity: The English Convents in Exile, 1600-1800 edited by Caroline Bowden and James E. Kelly (Ashgate, 2013), pp. 247-63.
  • Gemma Betros, ‘Liberty, Citizenship and the Suppression of Female Religious Communities in France, 1789-90’, Women’s History Review, 18 (2009), 311–36
  • For a robust comparison of nineteenth-century American nativism to the politics of Islam see José Casanova, ‘The Politics of Nativism Islam in Europe, Catholicism in the United States’, Philosophy & Social Criticism, 38 (2012), 485–95. A short and accessible version of this essay can be found here.
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Hard right, soft power: fascist regimes and the battle for hearts and minds

This article was written by Dr David Brydan, a post doctoral researcher in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and on Birkbeck’s Reluctant Internationalists project. It was originally published on  The Conversation.

A new global “soft power” ranking recently reported that the democratic states of North America and Western Europe were the most successful at achieving their diplomatic objectives “through attraction and persuasion”.

Countries such as the US, the UK, Germany and Canada, the report claimed, are able to promote their influence through language, education, culture and the media, rather than having to rely on traditional forms of military or diplomatic “hard power”.

The notion of soft power has also returned to prominence in Britain since the Brexit vote, with competing claims that leaving Europe will either damage Britain’s reputation abroad or increase the importance of soft power to British diplomacy.

Although the term “soft power” was popularised by the political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1980s, the practice of states attempting to exert influence through their values and culture goes back much further. Despite what the current soft power list would suggest, it has never been solely the preserve of liberal or democratic states. The Soviet Union, for example, went to great efforts to promote its image to intellectuals and elites abroad through organisations such as VOKS (All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries).

Perhaps more surprisingly, right-wing authoritarian and fascist states also used soft power strategies to spread their power and influence abroad during the first half of the 20th century. Alongside their aggressive and expansionist foreign policies, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and other authoritarian states used the arts, science, and culture to further their diplomatic goals.

‘New Europe’

Prior to World War II, these efforts were primarily focused on strengthening ties between the fascist powers. The 1930s, for example, witnessed intensive cultural exchanges between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Although these efforts were shaped by the ideology of their respective regimes, they also built on pre-fascist traditions of cultural diplomacy. In the aftermath of World War I, Weimar Germany had become adept at promoting its influence through cultural exchanges in order to counter its diplomatic isolation. After 1933, the Nazi regime was able to shape Weimar-era cultural organisations and relationships to its own purpose.

Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film-maker. Bundesarchiv Bild, CC BY

This authoritarian cultural diplomacy reached its peak during World War II, when Nazi Germany attempted to apply a veneer of legitimacy to its military conquests by promoting the idea of a “New Europe” or “New European Order”. Although Hitler was personally sceptical about such efforts, Joseph Goebbels and others within the Nazi regime saw the “New Europe” as a way to gain support. Nazi propaganda promoted the idea of “European civilization” united against the threat of “Asiatic bolshevism” posed by the Soviet Union and its allies.

As seen in Poland: a BNazi anti-Bolshvik poster

Given the lack of genuine political cooperation within Nazi-occupied Europe, these efforts relied heavily on cultural exchange. The period from the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 until the latter stages of 1943 witnessed an explosion of “European” and “international” events organised under Nazi auspices. They brought together right-wing elites from across the continent – from women’s groups, social policy experts and scientists to singers, dancers and fashion designers.

All of these initiatives, however, faced a common set of problems. Chief among them was the challenge of formulating a model of international cultural collaboration which was distinct from the kind of pre-war liberal internationalism which the fascist states had so violently rejected. The Nazi-dominated European Writers’ Union, for example, attempted to promote a vision of “völkisch” European literature rooted in national, agrarian cultures which it contrasted to the modernist cosmopolitanism of its Parisian-led liberal predecessors. But as a result, complained one Italian participant, the union’s events became “a little world of the literary village, of country poets and provincial writers, a fair for the benefit of obscure men, or a festival of the ‘unknown writer’”.

Deutschland über alles

Despite the language of European cooperation and solidarity which surrounded these organisations, they were ultimately based on Nazi military supremacy. The Nazis’ hierarchical view of European races and cultures prompted resentment even among their closest foreign allies.

Jesse Owens after disproving Nazi race theory at the Berlin Olympics, 1936. Bundesarchiv, Bild, CC BY-SA

These tensions, combined with the practical constraints on wartime travel and the rapid deterioration of Axis military fortunes from 1943 onwards, meant that most of these new organisations were both ineffective and short-lived. But for a brief period they succeeded in bringing together a surprisingly wide range of individuals committed to the idea of a new, authoritarian era of European unity.

Echoes of the cultural “New Europe” lived on after 1945. The Franco regime, for example, relied on cultural diplomacy to overcome the international isolation it faced. The Women’s section of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange, organised “choir and dance” groups which toured the world during the 1940s and 1950s, travelling from Wales to West Africa to promote an unthreatening image of Franco’s Spain through regional folk dances and songs.

But the far-right’s golden age of authoritarian soft power ended with the defeat of the Axis powers. The appeal of fascist culture was fundamentally undermined by post-war revelations about Nazi genocide, death camps and war crimes. At the other end of the political spectrum, continued Soviet efforts to attract support from abroad were hampered by the invasion of Hungary in 1956 and the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

This does not mean that authoritarian soft power has been consigned to history. Both Russia and China made the top 30 of the most recent global ranking, with Russia in particular leading the way in promoting its agenda abroad through both mainstream and social media.

The new wave of populist movements sweeping Europe and the United States often also put the promotion of national cultures at the core of their programmes. France’s Front National, for example, advocates the increased promotion of the French language abroad on the grounds that “language and power go hand-in-hand”. We may well see the emergence of authoritarian soft power re-imagined in the 21st century.

The Conversation

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The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial blowback

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer at Birkbeck’s School of Law. Here, Dr El-Enany shares her personal thoughts on the historical context of the EU referendum, and the British vote to leave. This post first appeared on Truthout on Wednesday 6 July 2016.

The Union Jack, the flag of the UK

Brexit is a disaster we can only understand in the context of Britain’s imperial exploits. A Bullingdon boy (Oxford frat boy) gamble has thrown Britain into the deepest political and economic crisis since the second world war and has made minority groups across the UK vulnerable to racist and xenophobic hatred and violence.

People of colour, in particular those in the global South, know all too well what it is to be at the receiving end of the British establishment’s divisive top-down interventions. Scapegoating migrants is a divisive tool favoured by successive governments, but the British establishment’s divide and rule tactic was honed much further afield in the course of its colonial exploits. Britain has a long history of invading, exploiting, enslaving and murdering vast numbers of people, crimes for which it has never been held accountable.

Brexit

While the British Empire may be a thing of the past, British imperialism is not. This month the Chilcot inquiry reported on the role of Tony Blair’s government in the 2003 invasion of Iraq which resulted in the death of nearly half a million Iraqis and the destabilization of the region, for which its inhabitants continue to pay the price. It is no coincidence that the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, amidst the Brexit chaos, launched a coup against their current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was set to call for Blair to be put on trial for warcrimes.

The referendum that resulted in a 52 percent vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU was initiated by the Conservative government. Shortly after the result was announced, it became clear that the leaders of the Brexit campaign had not wanted this result. Boris Johnson MP appeared ashen-faced at a press conference. He had neither expected nor wanted to win the referendum. He only wanted to be next in line for Number 10 Downing Street. David Cameron, who had led the Remain campaign, resigned as Prime Minister immediately. He had called the referendum in a bid to keep the Conservative Party together, without sparing a thought for the lives that would be destroyed if the bet did not pay off. His gamble backfired, as did Boris Johnson’s. Michael Gove MP, who had been Johnson’s right-hand man in the Leave campaign, betrayed him within days of the result, announcing he would be running for Prime Minister, thereby ending Johnson’s bid to lead the country.

This series of events has thrown the Conservative Party into disarray, the very outcome Cameron had wanted to avoid. Nigel Farage, who stoked up unprecendented levels of racist hate and deserves much of the credit for the Brexit win, resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on Monday, saying he “wants his life back.”

As political leaders jump ship in the wake of the Brexit vote, reports have emerged of a Britain divided, of a traumatized population, grieving and suffering the onset of depression. There is talk of the need for reconciliation in a country where communities and families have been divided. Alongside this, there are expressions of anger and demands for the British establishment to be held accountable for the outcome of the referendum.

There is no doubt that the feelings of anger and loss in the wake of Brexit are real, but where is our collective sense of outrage in the face of the establishment’s divisive and destructive actions elsewhere? After all, the deregulatory reforms entailed in austerity policies imposed in EU countries with disastrous consequences, including cuts to vital welfare services, following the 2007 financial crisis, as Diamond Ashiagbor has argued, is “medicine first trialled on the global South since the 70s”. Ashiagbor notes “European states are experiencing this as a category error, in part because they have not been on the receiving end of such policies”, which are all too familiar in the global South.

Brexit is the fruit of empire

In the week following the announcement of the referendum results, two news items probably escaped most people’s attention. The UK Supreme Court delivered a ruling that further impedes the prospect of the Chagos Islanders returning to the home from which they were forcibly removed in 1971 by the colonial British government as part of a deal to allow the US to establish a military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Also in the news last week were reports of 94-year-old Kenyan, Nelson Njao Munyaka, who testified in the High Court about killings he witnessed by British soldiers under 1950s British colonial rule. Munyaka is one of 40,000 Kenyans suing the British government over injuries and loss suffered in the course of its repression of the Mau Mau independence movement. Munyaka spoke of witnessing the shooting of his workmates, being made to carry their corpses and the flashbacks he suffers of the physical and verbal assaults he endured at the hands of British soldiers.

Brexit is not only nostalgia for empire — it is also the fruit of empire. Britain is reaping what it sowed. The legacies of British imperialism have never been addressed, including that of racism. British colonial rule saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities.

The prevalence of structural and institutional racism in Britain today made it fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanizing rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point.” This rhetoric is entirely divorced from an understanding of British colonial history, including the country’s recent imperial exploits, which have destabilized and exploited regions and set in motion the migration of today.

Islamophobia powered the Blair-Bush war machine, allowing the lie to be peddled that only the Arab world produces brutal despots, and that the lives of nearly half a million Iraqis are an acceptable price to pay for Britain to be the closest ally of the world’s superpower. Just as the political leaders who called the EU referendum along with those who led the Leave campaign did so with no plan in place for the aftermath, so did the Bush-Blair coalition embark on the 2003 invasion of Iraq with catastrophic consequences. Thirteen years on, Iraqis continue to feel viscerally the trauma of war and the pain of their divided society. Only this week, another suicide bombing in a busy market place took the lives of more than 200 people.

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany's original blog post at Truthout

Read Dr Nadine El-Enany’s original blog post at Truthout

The British establishment does not care to learn lessons from the past. Recall its thoughtless and entirely self-interested military intervention in Libya in 2011, which has left the country in a war-torn state of violence and chaos, a hot-bed for ISIS. But we can learn lessons — lessons that might help the left build solidarity and resist repression in more productive ways. We can begin by understanding Brexit instability and our feelings of loss and fear in the context of longstanding and far-reaching oppression elsewhere. As for privileged Remainers with power and influence, they are disingenuous not to accept a large slice of responsibility for the outcome of the EU referendum. From New Labour’s redefining of the Left as “extreme centre,” to Labour’s “austerity lite,” to their support for imperial wars and the mainstream media’s marginalization of left voices and people of color, and their denial of racism, they oiled the wheels of the Brexit battle bus. It is no use for the powerful liberal mainstream to cry crocodile tears now. They would do better to recognize their role in creating the conditions for the sort of racism that propelled the Brexit campaign to victory.

Note: This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck, University of London

(Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission)

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Greece and Austria: A similar story?

This post was contributed by Barbara Warnock, third year PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, who is currently researching the work of the League of Nations in Austria in the 1920s. The title of  thesis is ‘The Significance of Austrian Financial Reconstruction 1922-1926’.

Greece-and-Austria-webAs negotiations between the ‘troika’ and the Greek government continue, the Austrian Chancellor, Werner Feymann, has adopted a more sympathetic line than many European leaders in relation to Greece’s current predicament stating in early June: ‘I stand on the side of the Greek people’. His sentiments call to mind events more the ninety years ago when it was the plight of the Austrian people that was a cause of international concern.

The world’s attention this week is on Greece, but in the early 1920s, it was the newly founded republic of Austria that received the attention of the international community, in what was the first ever comprehensive international bailout and structural adjustment programme, orchestrated by the League of Nations in 1922.

Greece’s present problems around debt, collection of taxation and an excessively strong currency mirror aspects of Austria’s crisis after the First World War. Back then, Austria too had difficulties around debt and taxation. The issue with their currency, the Krone, however, was rather different, in that its value was collapsing.

Austria had been one of the states most badly affected by the First World War. The defeated country was shorn of empire, monarchy and to a large extent, identity. Austria was beset by a multitude of difficulties including desperate shortages of food, trading problems and the uncertainly caused by the imposition of reparations (although these were never actually collected). Confidence in the very viability of the country was scare, and the Krone became ever weaker in value. Inflation turned into hyperinflation and the government struggled to finance its expenditure. Obtaining foreign loans to help the country meet its obligations became impossible.

In this context, in 1922, the Financial Committee of the League of Nations – a precursor to the IMF – designed a rescue package for Austria. This entailed League assistance in obtaining foreign loans, which were underwritten by the governments of Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia in return for a commitment that the country would not seek to unify with Germany, and measures to fix the value of the Austrian currency. The programme also included the ‘reconstruction’ of Austrian state finances, which entailed large reductions in the numbers of civil servants, cuts to government expenditure and restrictions on the salaries of state employees, all to ensure a permanently balanced government budget.

Much of this may sound very familiar to those living in Greece (or even Britain) today, and the similarities go further. Austria also had to submit to the control of a version of the modern ‘troika’, (the IMF, European Central Bank and the EU), operated via the League of Nations. A League Committee of Control (representing interested League members); the League’s Financial Committee (composed of bankers, financiers, and treasury representatives); and a League-appointed ‘Commissioner-General’, Alfred Zimmermann, all provided monitoring and oversight.

Zimmermann was dispatched to live in Vienna to enforce the terms of the deal and control the expenditure of the foreign loans. This kind of control was, like that of the troika, a source of humiliation and enormous resentment in Austria. Zimmermann, like the troika, frequently condemned the lack of progress on ‘reform’ made by the Austria government.

Another striking similarity between the work of the League and that of the current troika in Greece is the lack of real consideration on the part of those bodies overseeing such programmes for the effects that their schemes have on living standards and on the political climate. Rigid adherence to economic dogmas, as practiced by the troika, as Greece has found, can have disastrous consequences.

In Austria, the League’s programme did deliver foreign loans for the country, and produced a stabilised currency. However, it also resulted in high levels of unemployment and the reduction of government social support. Furthermore, the programme undermined the already shaky stability of Austrian banks and increased political tensions within the country.

The League essentially withdrew their control from Austria in mid-1926, only to become involved again during Austria’s economic difficulties in the 1930s. By 1933, parliament had ceased to operate in the Austrian Republic. In 1934, the Social Democratic movement was smashed, and in 1938, the country was incorporated into the German Reich.

The problems of interwar Austria were manifold, but the contribution that this inaugural attempt at an international bailout made towards creating a viable future for the country is debateable. As others, including Paul Krugman, have remarked, the apparent lack of awareness of the troika of the problems that interwar deflationary policies caused is one alarming aspect of the Greek crisis.

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Paisley’s life testament to a deeply painful social history in Northern Ireland

Dr Sean BradyThis article was contributed by Dr Sean Brady, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. It was originally published on The Conversation.

The death of the Reverend Ian Paisley is occasion for reflection upon the United Kingdom’s most famous religious firebrand, and certainly one of the most memorable and divisive political figures of modern times.

He will rightly be remembered for his hardline and extreme unionist stance throughout his political and religious career, for his extreme brand of Loyalism and premillenial Protestantism, which informed all of his political career – and also for the mystery of why, in 2006, he agreed to power sharing in Northern Ireland, given his rejection of the Belfast Peace Agreement in 1998.

But Paisley’s life was testament to a deeply painful social history. Northern Ireland’s society and politics have been synonymous with deep and bitter religiously orientated sectarianism, violence, conflict, militarism, and seemingly intractable community schisms since the late 1960s. And for much of that time, Paisley was one of the most vocal and most recognisable forces behind its continued division.

And yet the seemly intractable oppositions within Northern Ireland appeared to come together in remarkable unanimity on one particular issue, which Paisley almost made his own: the question of male homosexuality, and of sexual minorities in general.

No, no, no!

The Northern Irish parliament stoutly resisted any attempt to impose the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, which had partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Even after the imposition of direct rule and the ending of devolved government in 1972, opposition to any attempt by the Northern Ireland Office to introduce this legislation was voluble and intense.

A high-profile case brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Dudgeon v United Kingdom, eventually forced the United Kingdom government to impose the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in Northern Ireland in 1982. Indeed, it was a landmark case at the ECHR itself. It was the court’s first case to be decided in favour of LGBT rights, and it now forms the basis in European law for all member states, in particular new states joining the EU.

Opposition to decriminalising male homosexuality appealed to many across the sectarian divide, but the real impetus to keep gay sex criminal came from the evangelically inspired and highly popular “Save Ulster from Sodomy!” campaign, headed by Paisley, Peter Robinson and the Democratic Unionist Party in the 1970s and the 1980s and targeted at lesbians and gay men.

Out of Ireland

In Paisley’s worldview, Ulster, the hallowed province, had to be made fit for the second coming of Christ, and therefore needed “saving” from sodomy. In a society riven by male-dominated violence and religious conflict, LGBT people would at the very least be wary about exploring their sexuality, and certainly emotions of guilt shaped and directed their lives. And for most Irish LGBT people, the only way to lead normal lives has long been to leave Northern Ireland.

It’s remarkable to recall the extent to which the Roman Catholic hierarchy gave its tacit support to this campaign, and the ways in which paramilitary organisations on both sides of the conflict came to view LGBT people as “natural betrayers” in their midst. More than anything else, religion and sectarianism shaped the lives of LGBT people in Northern Ireland until the peace process of the late 1990s.

And yet still, Paisley’s legacy of continuing homophobia in Northern Ireland is palpable to this day. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the DUP-dominated Stormont parliament has vetoed the gay marriage bill multiple times; evangelically motivated politicians of all stripes feel free to make outright homophobic comments on a regular basis.

Northern Ireland’s society is also unique in Western Europe in the intensity and the extent of its homophobic attitudes. In a huge research project into bigotry in Western countries conducted in 2007, Northern Ireland was the most homophobic of 23 territories surveyed, topping the list along with Greece.

Paisley’s legacy for the Northern Irish sectarian conflict is hugely complicated in itself – but his broader impact on Northern Ireland’s society also endures.

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Why Remember Shoulder to Shoulder?

This post was written by Dr Janet McCabe, a lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies, and Vicky Ball, De Montfort University

Helena Bonham-Carter and Carey Mulligan recently marched through the corridors of Parliament agitating for female suffrage. It made the news. Not the protest. But because it was the first time that a commercial film had been shot inside the Palace of Westminster. In recreating what women did in that constitutional space to get the vote 100 years ago Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, brings that historic campaign back into public consciousness. While the struggle for emancipation shaped the political landscape in Britain in the early 1900s and changed irrevocably the position of women in society, it is a story that hardly ever makes it on to our screens; and it has been 40 years since we saw the suffragette movement last dramatized for television.

2014 marks the fortieth anniversary of the BBC miniseries, Shoulder to Shoulder, which focused on the activities of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (1898-1918). It consisted of six specially written plays and it came about through the collaboration of three women, the actress Georgia Brown, filmmaker and feminist Midge Mackenzie and TV producer Verity Lambert. A sense of the public service remit pervades the series as Shoulder to Shoulder dramatizes particular events of the early suffrage movement, albeit from a decidedly socialist perspective. Its importance as a landmark BBC drama documenting the history of feminism and the emergent public voice of women is unquestioned. That said, the series seldom gets repeated and has never been released on DVD. This neglect prompts us to ask: why is such a politically important drama about women’s history still buried deep in the BBC archive?

Shoulder to Shoulder first aired on Wednesday 3 April 1974 at 9pm on BBC 2. It seemed an inauspicious start. Competing as it did with the extensively praised documentary series, The World at War, on ITV, and the popular ‘fly-on-the-wall’ series, The Family, on BBC 1. A quirk of scheduling has perhaps contributed to the amnesia, with the suffragette drama squeezed out of our collective TV memories as we recollect instead the ambition of the multi-award winning World War II series (still on television screens somewhere) and one of the first ‘reality’ shows in the history of television, which documented the everyday life of the Wilkins, a working-class family from Reading. What defined these shows at this moment in British television culture when BBC and ITV dominated was a focus on stories rarely told: ordinary people caught up in history; or those who had scarcely been given representation or a public voice on television before.

It is well known that Emmeline Pankhurst was alive to the importance of capturing the media to help shape her political message; and some of the W.S.P.U.’s preoccupations—with the media, penal reform and direct action—chimed in with Britain in the early 1970s. The IRA bombing campaign (with the Price Sisters on hunger strike in Holloway prison—and forcibly fed), industrial strife and economic crisis meant that the series carried more than a whiff of controversy.

Shoulder to shoulderBut maybe it was its feminism that lay at the heart of why Shoulder to Shoulder has been forgotten then and why we should remember it now. At the cast and crew reunion held at Birkbeck last Thursday both Siân Phillips and Angela Down, who play Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst respectively, admitted to knowing little about these women before making the series. While Phillips was politically active and involved in the trade union movement, she had no formal education about the Suffragettes.

She wasn’t alone.

Midge Mackenzie spoke often of how the project grew out of her experience of filming the Golden Jubilee of Women’s Suffrage in 1968, when she discovered the story of how women won the right to vote had been ‘almost successfully erased from the history books. The women who fought for the vote had vanished from our history,’ she wrote. ‘Their writings were long since out of print and their newspapers buried in archives’ (Shoulder to Shoulder 1988; ix). In good documentary fashion Mackenzie filled her book, which one feels was a response to the betrayal she somehow felt at having men write the TV series, with women’s voices—original experiences as expressed in the words of those taking part, from diaries, letters, memoirs, speeches, as well as newspaper reports and the Suffragettes own publications, Votes for Women and The Suffragette.

The series, like the book, focused on the militant campaign; but these Suffragettes were by no means the only campaigners demanding enfranchisement. Shoulder to Shoulder (like all history) is a product of its time and, for example, it doesn’t address the contribution of other dedicated Suffragettes like Countess Markievicz, the first woman elected to Parliament, or Charlotte Despard, an Irish-based campaigner and Sinn Féin activist, for as Irish revolutionaries it probably was not the right time for reassessment as the troubles in northern Ireland still raged. And the non-violent, but constitutionally minded, Suffragists, led by Millicent Fawcett, barely got a look in either. But then committee work and letter writing is far less televisual than the drama of arson campaigns and bruising clashes with the police. What is rescued and recovered is not random, but the fragility of remembering the complexity of our history adds to ignorance and concealment.

But this is no excuse to forget Shoulder to Shoulder. Margaretta Jolly, Reader in Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, offered a useful intervention at the symposium that followed the screening, when she spoke of using the Suffragettes to ‘measure new feminisms’ and of the importance of passing these stories onto the next generation, however difficult and contested. What the act of recovery from this entanglement of ‘official’ history and personal stories, public speeches and oral testimonies, teach us is that the fight for equality didn’t end with enfranchisement—despite what postfeminism would have us to believe.

Remembering Shoulder to Shoulder isn’t only about reclaiming our stories, but about who has the power to tell them. Even within the production of the series there was a feminist struggle (of sorts) between an ideal and a challenging of power from the margins—Mackenzie, and shattering the glass ceiling and able to change the script but from the inside—Lambert.

Remembering the earlier fight for emancipation happened in the early 1970s at a time when a new feminism was struggling over questions of inequality, images of woman as Other and the culturally awkward position of women within the public sphere and their right to speak. Forty years and we remain preoccupied with similar questions. Reconnecting voices and the experience of women and women’s history across time and space is crucial.

Shoulder to Shoulder thus reminds us why the struggle still matters.

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Teaching American History in Michael Gove’s Britain

This post was contributed by Dr Adam Shapiro, Lecturer in Intellectual and Cultural History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. Dr Shapiro also has his own blog: Trying Biology.

The controversy started by Education Secretary Michael Gove about how to teach history is likely to be a reference point among British historians (or historians based in Britain) for quite some time.

As a lecturer of American history in the UK, I asked my class for their reaction to Gove’s column, which focused mainly on the historical causes of the First World War and the large number of events commemorating its centenary this year. Several points came up:

Moralized Histories

With my current cohort we haven’t yet reached the First World War from an American perspective, but it is clear that the US perspective on the War would look very different to the British one. While William Jennings Bryan, the US Secretary of State from 1913-15, would have had no problem agreeing that at the outbreak of World War One Germany had “the ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order,” (as Gove describes them) he nonetheless disagreed sharply that these elements “all made resistance more than justified.” Indeed, Bryan placed the blame for war not solely on the German governing elite, but in governments that were too supportive of promoting the industries that found war to be profitable. Decades before we saw Eisenhower’s warning of a military-industrial complex, its precursors can be seen in the conjunction of Bryan’s pacifism and economic populism. But perhaps for Gove, Bryan is another leftist who simply refused to acknowledge the existence of evil.

In class, this led to a discussion of what I might call a Manichean approach to diplomatic and military history.  People don’t tend to call their enemies by names such as “the Evil Empire” with the caveat that their own force is only slightly less evil. That kind of rhetoric is designed to make a clear moral distinction. In our discussion of the US civil war, we discussed whether the victory of the North could be expressed in moral terms: that the North won because its cause (against slavery) was morally superior to that of the South. We considered whether this explanation served better than a claim that the North had military or economic superiority, or whether the South was beset by subversion within its ranks.

We turned to the account of the war written by Confederate General Jubal Early. Early ridiculed the claims that the cause of the war was slavery, pointing out that the North had profited by it almost as much as the South. Slavery was “used as a catch-word to arouse the passions of a fanatical mob,” Early wrote in his memoir.

Early’s narrative shows the Southern fight for independence as just and moral, and that the Northern leaders invoked slavery to distract from their own desire for economic exploitation of the South through conquest. The North won not through moral right, nor through military skill, but through sheer force of numbers. The story Early gives is one in which the South suffers a defeat, a punishment, almost in religious terms as a test of faith.

As an experiment, I asked several friends and colleagues about a passage from Early, while withholding its context

“the people of the United States will find that, under the pretense of ‘saving the life of the nation, and upholding the old flag,’ they have surrendered their own liberties into the hands of that worst of all tyrants, a body of senseless fanatics.”

Out of context, people thought that it was a liberal critique of the Patriot Act or the NSA. This led to the question as to whether or not ‘fanatic’ was simply a term that anyone could invoke at any time, to demonize their opponents. At which point, referring to opponents as fanatics says more about the person using that rhetoric than it does about the opponents themselves.

Morality and Individual Agency

So did it matter whether Jubal Early, or a soldier killed in Pickett’s Charge thought that their actions were morally just and in opposition to unjust tyrants? Did it matter for the British Soldier going over the top in the Somme? It matters in a personal sense—it matters to them, and to the people who knew them. We can recognize the moral behaviours of individuals, where the evidence permits, but does doing so explain anything about the outcomes of the war? The importance of the moral character of soldiers in the outcome of war is a question as old as Thucydides, but it does tend to suggest that history is a composition of individuals acting as personal moral agents and that there are no social facts that constrain, influence, or reward individual behaviours. It might be that the soldier in the Somme was conscious of the moral virtue of his action, or he may have felt trapped in a situation he could not control. A lack of emphasis by historians of the heroism of these individuals does not diminish their sacrifice or their heroism; it recognizes that there were other causes at work than simply individual moral actions. That despite the moral virtue of some individuals, they lost battles, or despite the moral depravity of their opponents, they won. At such a point, we need something else to explain historical cause and effect.

And this is where the issue becomes practically important, because if it’s the case that individual moral virtue is insufficient to be universally rewarded, then that has an impact on political ideologies that emphasize purely individualistic approaches to the solving of problems in society. If crime must be addressed solely by punishing criminals and never looking at the social systems that perpetuate criminality. If poverty and unemployment are seen solely as referenda on the moral heroism of the poor and unemployed (or the wealthy and employed) then they cannot be treated by social interventions.

History and Ideology

If history explains how causes and effects work in human behaviour, then it offers us guidelines by which we can assess personal and political action. Students generally agreed that it was an error to see the point of history as validating ideology – the point of history is not to compel all facts to fit into a grand narrative of class struggle, or a battle between forces of good and evil waged by heroes and villains, it ought to be a discussion of the balance of causes pulling at different levels. While Gove may have a point that some historians are committed to an ideology, replacing it with a different ideology seemed a poor fix.

Ideology and School History

What struck me as odd was the fact that so many people regarded the politicization of the history curriculum as something new. And yet my students were aware that it had been a longstanding issue in American education. Perhaps this was because there’s no single unitary curriculum under national control in the United States, but my class had looked at examples of US and Canadian politicians citing interpretations of history to support differing interpretations of the same event. For some, it was easy to recognize differences in political ideology lurking behind Columbus Day proclamations issued by Presidents Bush and Obama.

We also raised a question for later: how can we remain historically detached when discussing the history of the history wars?

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E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and the Future of History from Below

This post was contributed by Dr Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. A previous version was published in The Future of History from Below Online Symposium.

Half a century ago, E.P. Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class. Words like ‘pioneering’ and ‘pivotal’ are overused today, but this was truly a book with no equal in its field. In it, we see the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and struggle for political rights that defined the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Of course these stories had already been told many times before, but Thompson cut a new path by reconstructing these events from the perspective of the working people who experienced them first-hand.

He set out his agenda very clearly in the preface:

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.

This phrase, and the 900-page ‘biography of the English working class’ that followed it, inspired an exuberant outpouring of historical research and writing that has made us all richer. Hundreds of historians, both professional and amateur, have followed Thompson in seeking to tell the stories of the innumerable men and women who had long been ignored by traditional histories of kings and battles.

However, the anniversary of this publication also calls for reflection. Thompson’s book may have launched ‘history from below’, but is it still relevant today? And does it have future?

A group of almost fifty historians – both young scholars and eminent professions – gathered at a recent pair of workshops that Mark Hailwood and I organised to answer these questions. We published some of the contributions as an online public symposium and I think it is fair to say that level of interests that it sparked suggests that ‘history from below’ does indeed have a potentially bright future.

I will be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming event at the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities on January 24th, alongside two very esteemed scholars: Prof. Jane Humphries (Oxford) and Prof. Sander Gilman (Emory). However, here I’d like to briefly highlight the issues that I think are most important to those who aren’t professional historians.

If we want the practice of history from below to have a meaningful future, we need to continue to push for more a democratic history. For example, access to higher education in Britain and North America expanded dramatically through much of the twentieth century, but the recent spike in tuition fees in England and the long-term rise in the US has made university much less affordable for students from working-class families. Worse still, this has hit part-time students especially hard, leading to a 40% fall in part-time applications since 2010 in the UK. We must face this challenge head-on.

We need more people writing history, more people studying history, and more people reading history. We need, in other words, more people doing history. Fortunately, more democratic ways of doing history are not difficult to find. There are already vast numbers of people building histories ‘from below’, but most academics tend not to pay much attention to them.

One promising route forward is local history.  The field of local history is huge and healthy. Practically every town and village in the country has some sort of local history society, ranging from the unapologically antiquarian to the Bristol Radical History Group, which claims the support of ‘a much wider network of footballers, artists, techies, drunks, rioters, publicans, ranters, ravers, academics, Cancan dancers, anarchists, stoners and other ne’r do wells’. It is often these groups that fight to protect and promote important local historical sites which, because they aren’t pretty country houses, might otherwise be forgotten or destroyed. Local history, then, is an opportunity for academics, students and amateurs to work together to do history from below in a way that will be relevant far beyond the university.

Family history is another rapidly growing field. Lecturers may chuckle, but proponents of ‘history from below’ should embrace it. After all, most genealogists are unlikely to find many famous politicians or generals in their family trees. Instead, they will probably find themselves investigating the lives of factory workers, sailors, criminals, paupers, housewives and maybe even ‘poor stockingers’. So, family history, with its millions of practitioners, wealth of resources, and thoroughly democratic focus on the ‘common people’ of the past, will be another fruitful field to cultivate the future of history from below.

Finally, we need accessible education. The pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching students who would have otherwise missed out on a traditional university education: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College. Happily, these institutions are still carrying on this work. I feel privileged to work at a place like Birkbeck, founded in 1823 as the London Mechanics’ Institute, and still offering evening classes to students with other work or family commitments. Despite the dangerous impact of the fee increases mentioned above, I believe that these long-established institutions – alongside others such as the Open University – will be a key part of the future of this approach to history. Moreover, open-access publishing and the explosion in history blogging is dramatically expanding the reach of research, allowing practically anyone to benefit from the scholarly work that previously would have been available to only a tiny minority.

This suggests that the future of history from below is all around us. It is going on today in meetings of village historical societies, in family history workshops, and in the comments sections of amateur history blogs. What they have in common is their role in empowering people who wouldn’t normally have a voice in history to learn and think and speak about the past. In short, they are all part of a more democratic way of doing history, the very essence of history from below.

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