Votes for women… and seats, parliaments, and politics for women

100 years ago, women first gained the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender at Birkbeck, celebrates the centenary and looks at what still needs to change.

The celebrations and commemorations are well underway: there are numerous seminars, conferences and workshops; #Votes100 is trending on Twitter; and many of us are donning the colours of the suffragettes (purple, white and green) or the suffragists (green, white and red), and proudly displaying button pins and necklaces.

The centenary of the Representation of the People Act is 6 February 2018. The Act granted the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification and gave the vote to all men over the age of 21. Whilst we must wait until 2028 to celebrate women getting the vote on the same terms as men, it is definitely time to party – and drink our ‘Equaliteas’.

Perhaps a lesser known fact is that November will mark the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which gave women over 21 the right to stand for election as an MP. Again, we should celebrate (and who would object to another party?), but here we will need to be more circumspect. If democracy demands women’s enfranchisement there remains more to be done in respect of ‘Seats for Women’. The same is true in terms of realizing ‘Parliaments for Women’ and ‘Politics for Women’.

Seats for Women
The 2017 general election saw 208 women MPs elected to the UK House of Commons, the highest number ever. At 32% of all MPs, Westminster remains far from parity – and the 2% increase last year was paltry: 45% of all Labour MPs are women (119 of 262); the Conservatives saw fall-back, from 70 to 67, flat-lining at 21%. The Liberal Democrats have four women (33%) and the SNP 12 (34%). With political parties acting as the gatekeepers to Westminster, all must do more – political recruitment is best understood as a verb – and some should do more than others. Until then the ‘champagne should be left on ice’.

The most effective strategy to increase the numbers of women MPs is quotas. They may not be to everyone’s taste but follow the evidence: quotas deliver women into political office. The success of Labour’s All Women Shortlists and the Republic of Ireland’s quotas demonstrate this. In the Irish case, as Fiona Buckley has shown, the number of women candidates increased by 90% and the number of TDs elected – 35 (22%) – represents a 40% increase on the previous election.

As one of the two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives have repeatedly resisted the logic of quotas and chosen not to make use of the legislation that permits their use until 2030. In Government, they have also rejected the quota recommendations of the Good Parliament Report and the 2016 Women and Equalities Committee Report on Women in Parliament. This isn’t good enough: the Conservatives saw a decline in their number of women MPs in 2017 and stood still in percentage terms. Political change – the upward trajectory of more women in Parliament – does not just happen. Quotas have to be put back on the table in 2018; and at the very least, the Government should commence Section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 so that public can hold the parties to account vis-a-vis the selection of parliamentary candidates. Let’s see which MPs sign Bernard Jenkin’s Early Day Motion, and which MPs choose to ignore the most minimal of requirements, namely, candidate diversity data transparency.

Professor Sarah Childs

Parliament for Women
No-one, following the expose of sexual harassment at Westminster, can be under any illusion that Parliament is a gender-equal institution. The Good Parliament Report documented its diversity insensitivities and made 43 recommendations. The Commons Reference Group on Representation Inclusion, established and chaired by Mr Speaker, has been working since autumn 2016 on taking this agenda forward. Only last week the House agreed to the ‘Mother of the House’, Harriet Harman’s motion on baby leave. The Procedure Committee will now undertake an inquiry into how to best implement this. Securing leave for new parent MPs would be a belated, but nonetheless symbolic and substantive rule change that really would be something new to celebrate in 2018. ‘Anti’ mutterings have already been heard, and so attention must be given to the possibility of backlash.

Politics for Women
Our politics should address the concerns and views of women as well as men. Questions of who can act for women, and what acting for women means, is, however, contested in academic circles and amongst MPs. For some, good substantive representation (acting for women) means feminist substantive representation. For some, it means representation by women. But beware not to confuse women’s bodies with feminist minds; women do not come in one political hue; and men make representative claims ‘for women’. Political debate over the ‘good substantive representation’ is to be welcomed. It helps identify what is in the interests of women, has the potential to re-gender parties’ political programmes, and to deliver a better politics for all.

Politics should be something that ordinary women think about and do, ordinarily, as part of their everyday lives. Votes for women in 1918, and more so in 1928, redressed a basic political inequality. Redressing the gendered democratic deficits in respect of seats, political institutions and politics should be the ‘deeds’ of 2018; nice ‘words’ by political parties and by the Government will not suffice. Both should act, and it is not as if there isn’t a ‘shopping bag’ of reforms out there, ready to be picked up…and acted upon.

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Foundling Museum launches crowdfunding campaign from Birkbeck professor’s exhibition

The Foundling Museum, along with The Art Fund, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the profile of the influential women in their history whose pioneering actions have gone unrecognised for nearly 300 years.

Image: A page from Thomas Coram’s notebook with the signatures of the 21 ladies. Courtesy of The Foundling Museum.

Inspired by the success of fundraising for the Fallen Woman exhibition in 2015, curated by Birkbeck’s Professor Lynda Nead, the Foundling Museum wants to raise money to reveal the unsung women, so far hidden from history, who helped make it possible for the Foundling Hospital to look after the thousands of children left in their care.

The Foundling Museum explores the history of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first children’s charity and first public art gallery. The museum aims to inspire everyone to make a positive contribution to society, by celebrating the power of individuals and the arts to change lives.

The Fallen Woman exhibition raised £25,000 through the Art Fund’s crowdfunding campaign, Art Happens. The exhibition revealed a world where women were forced to make harsh choices to keep their babies alive and reverse their ill-fortune. It juxtaposed paintings of ‘fallen’ women by major artists of the day, with moving petitions from mothers applying to the Foundling Hospital to take in their babies.

Celebrating the centenary of female suffrage this year, curators at The Foundling Museum have located portraits currently scattered across the UK, of 21 women who were instrumental in establishing the Foundling Hospital.

If fundraising is successful and The Foundling Museum hit their target of £20,000, they will be able to replace all of the portraits of male governors in the Picture Gallery with the 21 ‘ladies of quality and distinction’ who put their name to Thomas Coram’s very first petition to the King to set up the Hospital.

The exhibition will take place in the Autumn if they are able to raise enough money by Monday 5 March.

Contribute to the Foundling Museum crowdfunding campaign.

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Marina Warner: My six nominations for ‘100 influential women of the last 100 years’

Professor Marina Warner from the School of Arts explains how she decided on her list of influential women writers for BBC Radio 4 Today programme, ahead of the upcoming celebrations of the centenary of the women’s vote.

A text message arrived recently from the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, saying they were celebrating the 100 years since the vote was given women in 2018 and they wanted 100 names of influential women; would I come on and nominate writers?

Later, in a phone call, the brief was clarified: would I pick six British women writers, and plump for one favourite?

I struggled, I struggled, I made lists, long lists. Literature is such a vast field and women have excelled in it. Professions which require official qualifications often excluded women, but writing takes place in private. Indeed, the step into publication led the Brontes and George Eliot and Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (‘Michael Field’), to adopt male pseudonyms, while today, the use of initials still works to neutralise female names: P.D James, A.S Byatt, J.K Rowling.

For the rest of the week, the categories featured in the programme were the arts and architecture, politics, science, sport, and engineering. For historical reasons, the possibilities in those spheres of activity are far smaller than in literature and lots of living heroines were chosen, some very moot in my view.

Samira Shackle, who is the deputy editor of the New Humanist, was on the programme with me to choose journalists and the centenary also led me to think of women whose writing engaged with the world, who campaigned and argued and spoke out, often risking unpopularity and even obloquy.

I tossed and turn the night before I was due to go live on the programme, desperately trying to arrive at a shortlist. I came up with seven names – the bold names in this list are ones I mentioned in the programme, and the italics are the ones I would have liked to include.

In the end, I placed Virginia Woolf (pictured, left) first – it felt impossible not to. She combines both activism and lyricism; her forthright attacks on inequality and on militarism made her the obvious first choice. But I tied Woolf (against the rules) with Angela Carter, because Angela Carter wove her social dreaming and ferocious critique into her fiction; she was also the most acute, acerbic observer and polemicist in her many essays. You may not agree with her about the Marquis de Sade but she makes you think, and nearly 40 years later, her arguments grapple with the issues so very alive now – desire, collusion, subjugation.

Samira and I didn’t get time to go through our full lists (before our slot, John Humphrys was interviewing Nigel Farage and ate into our time, as Mishal Hussein, our interviewer, noticed with growing anxiety).

Samira nominated Clare Hollingworth, the war correspondent as her number one, and Claudia Jones, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival and of the first black British newspaper as one of her six.

I brought in Rebecca West, who took her nom de plume – her nom de guerre – from an Ibsen heroine who defies all social expectations, wrote uncompromising, diamond-sharp accounts of the Nuremberg trials and other criminal cases and was always outspoken and combative – incurring a lot of hostility at every stage of her long life.

Sarah Kane seemed to me a crucial figure in the history of women writers who are now writing so powerfully for the theatre, while Sylvia Plath spoke to my generation (Ariel came out when I was a student) in fiery tongues. Plath was, of course, American by birth and her case raised an issue we had no time to address: she lived and wrote in England, she profoundly shaped the voice of poetry in this country (possibly more than in her own).

Likewise, I wanted to include Elizabeth Bowen (Anglo-Irish). Then there are the writers who were born in the time of the British empire – is Jean Rhys Dominican, or can she be included in British writers? She is certainly a key figure in English Literature. What about Doris Lessing? Katherine Mansfield? Even Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) seems to be another key figure in English Literature; though she was Danish by birth and lived in Kenya, she wrote her greatest stories in English.

We had no time to attack this deeply difficult question. Literature has no borders and the peculiar status of English makes writing in English a wide horizon, leaping over the walls and fences of national Britishness.

The rest of my six are Muriel Spark, whose centenary it is this year: her imagination is streaked with off-kilter fantasy and weirdness, and I wanted very much to pay tribute to this magnificent tradition in our literature, to writers who dream up alternative worlds, working in genres that fall under Fantasy, Children’s Literature and Science Fiction.

I couldn’t bring in Ursula Le Guin as she is definitely American. Diana Wynne-Jones was on my early lists, but I decided to pay tribute to Lynne Reid-Banks, who is still alive, aged 88, because she combines both social realism and utopianism. The L-Shaped Room (1960) is a pioneering novel about a young, single woman thrown out by her family because she is having a baby. Restrained in tone, it is nevertheless a devastating picture of the conventions, prejudice, squalor, and callousness that pervaded this country not that long ago (and gives a clear warning); but Lynne Reid-Banks also wrote the series of fables, beginning with The Indian in the Cupboard.

Criticised by some for their depiction of Native Americans, the stories are terrific utopian adventures, exploring the power of imagination to nurture humanity and courage and they belong in the stream of lively inventive writing to which J.K Rowling and Philip Pullman belong.

There were so many colossuses I wanted to mention – Iris Murdoch, Stevie Smith. Not to speak of the living – who, out of a kind of tact, I did not want to introduce.

But there was one other genre I would have liked to recognise: graphic novels. In this area, Posy Simmonds reigns supreme: innovatory, trenchant, a brilliant storyteller and observer of the human comedy, gifted with an unrivaled ear for contemporary speech. She would make a splendid nominee, but I’ve run way over the limit of six.

On Tuesday 6 February in Westminster Hall in London, the nominations will be debated in front of a live audience and the overall winner chosen.

Please keep an eye on the website and see if you can take part –  and support artists and writers as the key figures in women’s lives and opportunities over the last 100 years.

Let’s hear you!

You can listen to Professor Marina Warner feature on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme (from 2:20:40 onwards).

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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

Further information

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Gender equality in academia

Dr Almuth McDowall discusses how Birkbeck is drilling into the data of the Athena SWAN Charter, an initiative which seeks to address gender inequality in STEMM.

Are women in STEM subjects not progressing as far and fast as their male colleagues? What should universities put in place to nurture and retain female talent? These are questions close to my own heart, not least as some of my own research on work-life balance and also on executive rewards as a science-practitioner in organizational psychology touches on gender issues.

It’s been much debated that women are more likely than men to leave academia in science subjects, and are underrepresented in senior roles. The Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN Charter, established 12 years ago, seeks to address gender equality through charters. These provide a framework for institutions to apply for an award which recognises their work on equality and diversity. Birkbeck is a member of this Charter, and a number of departments and schools hold awards including Biological and Psychological Sciences.

As a member of the College’s Athena SWAN panel, I am aware that much is being done in the institution to support direct initiatives, such as a dedicated mentoring programme through TRIGGER/ ATHENA SWAN, but also to support culture change by ensuring that any processes and activities are based on evidence and local need, and serve to further, rather than hinder, the equality agenda.

One of the challenges for everyone in academia is that our work is largely driven by the student lifecycle and a tight year-round calendar of events. Friends who tell me ‘oh you academics have all summer off, don’t you’, usually get a rather terse and detailed reply, as I list the number of tasks that have to continue all year around: student supervision, working on academic projects, updating and maintaining our records and so on.  As a result, we often don’t have the time to really drill into the data we have already gathered on issues such as equality and diversity.

Luckily, our ATHENA SWAN panel seeks to address just this. Earlier in the year, I set about a more detailed analysis of (anonymised) data from our staff survey, from all female and male academics in STEM subjects, concentrating on the free comments which people had provided. My question was: do women and men raise different things? And the short answer is: yes, they do.

On the whole, women report to be most concerned about effective communication in the institution, a sense of being valued but also the local facilities and environment. Men, on the other hand, appear more concerned with training, development and progression as well as pay and benefits. These are interesting differences, suggesting that women might focus more on how we work as an institution, whereas men focus more on how they get rewarded for what they do.

The next step is to follow up these issues in dedicated focus groups, to gain more rigorous data and insights on the issue.  Are women more likely to focus on Birkbeck as an institutional environment, but might this come at the expense of focus on individual needs and career progression? Are men more likely to ask, and get what they want? We hope to report back on these issues in due course.

 

 

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Let’s put the champagne on ice: the Commons’ missing women

‘Record-breaking’, ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’ – these were the headlines after Thursday’s UK General Election. Some of the articles attached to these celebratory headlines centred on the fact that there were more women MPs elected than ever before. Others highlighted that the ‘200 seat’ mark had been breached. Or championed the diversity of House overall, with rising numbers of BME, LGBT, and disabled MPs.But we’ve put the champagne on ice.

Yes, Westminster’s new intake has some notable ‘firsts’. Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP, winning Birmingham Edgbaston for Labour. Marsha De Cordova, a disability rights campaigner and Labour councillor registered as blind, overturned a large Tory majority in Battersea. Layla Moran’s win in Oxford West and Abingdon makes her the first UK MP of Palestinian descent, and the first female Lib Dem MP from a minority background.

But be under no illusion, the House of Commons is still unrepresentative. Relative to their presence in the population, the numbers of BME MPs needed to have doubled in 2017. It rose from 41 to 52 (8% of the House). Five disabled MPs have been elected (an increase of three from 2015), but this amounts to less than 1% of the House’s membership – compared to 1 in 5 of the population that self-identify as disabled.

In terms of women’s representation, we saw a small increase of 12 more female MPs. When the final seat was counted – for Emma Dent Coad in Kensington – the total number of women in the House of Commons was 208 (up from 196 immediately before the election). But these women constitute 32 per cent of all MPs – a mere 2% increase. Still less than one third female, the UK would now rank 39th in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s global league table, lagging behind many of our European comparators.

To portray – as many UK newspapers and websites did – the ‘unprecedented’ number of women MPs as some sort of ’smashing’ of the glass ceiling is simply incorrect – a few more scratches at best. Forget the ‘200 women’ mark, the real threshold to cross is 325.  And that seems as long a way off as ever.

No doubt we’ll be accused of being ‘feminist killjoys’ but there are very real risks in not contesting the plethora of upbeat media accounts. It, wrongly, suggests that: (1) the job is done: the ‘problem’ of women’s representation has been solved; or (2) gender equality is on its way (#justbepatientladies).

If only we could be that optimistic.

The outcome of the 2017 GE raises classic issues for women’s representation:

  • Stagnation and Fallback. A 2% increase is, of course, an increase, but gains on women’s representation have been too slight and are taking too long. Neither has progress been straightforward. In Scotland the proportion of female MPs decreased in this election from 34% to 29%. This is largely due to Conservative gains – only 1 of the 13 Scottish Tory MPs elected is a woman. The SNP’s Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh was also defeated in Ochil and South Perthshire, leaving Scotland without any BME MPs. Talk of parity in the House of Commons being achieved in 45 years incorrectly assumes that the direction of travel will always be upwards – which is why gender and politics academics rarely engage in forecasting the ‘number of years’ it will take to achieve equality projections.
  • Party Asymmetry. The overall percentage of women MPs also masks significant differences amongst the parties. There was some speculation in the run-up to the election that the Conservatives would see a ‘breakthrough moment’ on women’s representation in 2017, potentially catching up to Labour for the first time. This didn’t materialise – in fact, the gap widened slightly. Women now constitute 45% of all Labour MPs (119 of 262), up from 44% before the election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives saw a decrease in the number of female MPs, dropping from 70 to 67, with the percentage of women’s representation in the party unchanged at 21% (in the context of an overall loss of seats). The Liberal Democrats, which were a men-only party in 2015, now have four women MPs (33%, albeit still on low numbers overall), including the return of Jo Swinson in East Dunbartonshire. Meanwhile, women are 12 of the reduced SNP group at Westminster (34%), a loss of six women from the previous Parliament. Only 1 of the 10 DUP MPs – now potential ‘queen-makers’ – is a woman.
  • Quotas worked, yet again. As in all elections from 2005, Labour successfully employed gender quotas in the form of all-women shortlists (AWS). This quota is the reason why it has been the ‘best’ party for women’s descriptive representation at Westminster. It is a shame that Labour’s quotas haven’t been more contagious – without commitments from all of the parties, progress will continue to be glacial.

Classifying the 2017 GE as ‘record-breaking’ for women is lazy journalism that belies the reality, and breeds complacency. It gives some parties a congratulatory pat-on-the-back for minimal progress, if not decline. Moreover, it side-steps the question of interventions: will the government now commence section 106 of the Equality Act 2010 – so that parties publish their candidate diversity data? Will the Government respond to recommendations advocating legal quotas, which, all the global evidence shows, are the most effective way to ensure significant increases in women’s representation? (Check out The Speaker’s Conference report 2010, The Good Parliament Report 2016, and the WEC report 2017).

The next election might be a few months away or it might be in five years time – but it is clear that the issue of equal representation is too important to leave up to the discretion of political parties. Warm words are not enough – with over 100 women MPs still missing from Parliament, it is time for legislative quotas to embed equality in our political institutions. Without them, the search party will not be called off anytime soon.

This article was originally published on the UK PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group blog

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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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Invisible Women

Professor Lynne SegalThis post was contributed by Professor Lynne Segal, Anniversary Professor of Psychology & Gender Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies. It was originally published on the LRB blog.

I heard that the octogenarian Joan Didion was to be the ‘new face’ of the Parisian luxury brand Céline when I was in the middle of commenting on a new monograph by Margaret Gullette called How Not to Shoot Old People. It documents countless grim instances of neglect and contempt for the elderly across a vast ageist spectrum. We oldies live in schizoid times.

Old fashionistas are suddenly all the rage (if hardly plentiful) at Vogueand Dolce & Gabbana. Living longer, old people can be encouraged to consume more, especially by cosmetic and fashion industries promising to keep us looking streamlined and elegant. We may, undesirably, be no longer young, but we can at least dutifully defer to the dictates of fashion. Didion even has the skinny look of a fashion model: hardly an inch of flesh, mere bones on which to hang clothes and accessories.

Meanwhile, social media trolls pour forth hate speech against the elderly. Only occasionally is it directed at those with the resources to resist, such as Mary Beard. Older women in need of care regularly report being treated with impatience or disdain, but only the most scandalous cases of neglect attract public notice. There were mild complaints five years ago when Martin Amis, in the Sunday Times, called for euthanasia booths to deal with the threatening ‘silver tsunami’ of old people who would soon be ‘stinking out’ the streets of London. He said he could ‘imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time’. His words resonate with the constant hum of alarm – almost panic – about the increasing numbers of elderly people, with our distinctive needs.

The most terrifying images of old age – the witch, hag, harridan – have always had a female face, whether in myth, folktale or horror movie. This can have stark material consequences. Women are twice as likely as men to end up living alone in old age, with no companion to care for them. Their pensions are generally smaller, too, as they are confined to fewer areas of the labour market, paid less, and more likely to have taken time out from their jobs to look after other people. In September 2013, the Labour Party’s Commission on Older Women provided stark evidence of the continuing invisibility of older women in public life. Eighty-two per cent of BBC presenters over the age of 50 are men. More generally, unemployment among women aged between 50 and 64 had increased by 41 per cent cent in the previous two and a half years, compared with 1 per cent overall.

In this dismal landscape, it is pleasing that ‘Fabulous Fashionistas’, older women with a flair for bright, distinctive dressing, were sought out and celebrated on TV last year. They were presented as role models for invisible women everywhere. The programme’s producer, Sue Bourne,confessed it had taken her two years to find the half dozen confidently colourful and stylish older women in the UK, but she’s hoping they are setting a trend. Perhaps Didion will boost that trend: her chic self-presentation mirrors her precise, elegant prose. Didion will never frighten the children, unlike the ‘old woman of skin and bones’ in the playground song, who goes ‘to the closet to get her broom’, and may fatten them up for supper. Didion represents instead the cheery resilience that the government and media look for in those older women who are allowed a certain visibility to tell us all how to grow old gracefully. We must all keep looking healthy and feisty; making few demands on others, and least of all on the public purse.

Didion offers the ironic detachment of a woman able to see through the duplicities and deceptions that any celebration of ageing cloaks, knowing that our culture continues to worship youth, and youth alone. Let’s rejoice that she can ride these contradictions, at least for now. As one young fashion model said, ‘It’s so cool, it hurts.’ Quite.

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