(This article contains mentions of abortion, obstetric abuse, battery and discussion of cis-sexism).
My dissertation looks at one particular ‘girl talk’ and its codes of transmission: women talking about giving birth. I first became interested in birth stories when reading about the 2013 California court case of a woman, Kelly, who sued her obstetrician for battery after he performed an episiotomy on her as she begged him to stop. This is just one story in a history of birthing bodies labouring under abuse of authority: the Mexican woman unable to communicate with her doctor, told by her mother to do as he said; the women pressured into convenience caesareans or else labelled ‘too posh to push’; the trans man terrified to give birth in an NHS hospital; the six out of ten US episiotomies performed without consent.
There is clearly a need for talk about birth- education in the form of transmission of stories. Nevertheless, my reading prompted the realisation that there is only one established genre of women talking about birth: Old Wives’ Tales. The bad reputation of this grisly genre precedes it, leading to the startling realisation that our stories of birth do not come from those who have given birth themselves. Instead, they come from medical professionals, the state, partners and friends. Think about the books you have read with birth scenes, the films, the TV shows. Where were these stories coming from?
And yet, birth is a huge moment in anyone’s life. We need stories about birth. When it comes to talk about birth, a woman talking to other women forms a ‘we’; building solidarity amongst diverse groups and enabling us to transmit feminist critique from this place of solidarity. But we must also recognize that such bonding also engenders division. In a patriarchy, women too are responsible for the transmission, and often the enforcement, of social rules and codes. Where solidarity can be built across women, birth talk can also exclude certain groups.
In celebration of Mother’s Day, it seemed only natural to turn to our most loyal fans and generous patrons: our mums. As we grow older the adage that ‘mum knows best’ only rings truer and truer. So, with a postcard penned by Sabira Khakoo and some life hacks from Pauline Grady, we turn to them for a dose of wisdom and love that only mothers know how to give.
On 14th March, The Webb Library in Jesus College hosted Cambridge Girl Talk’s second event ‘Women in Fashion’ with Jane Shepherdson CBE, former CEO of Whistles and Brand Director of Topshop; Kerry Taylor, fashion historian, auctioneer and owner of Kerry Taylor Auctions: the world’s leading fashion auction house; Pandora Sykes (freelance journalist, stylist, brand consultant and presenter of The High Low podcast) and Ellie Pithers, fashion features editor of British Vogue. The event was chaired by Dr Alice Blackhurst, Junior Research Fellow in Visual Culture at Kings College. Check out pictures and highlights from the evening below.
My dissertation looks at the work of Margaret Harrison, a British artist who made a series of pieces in the 1970s about various issues affecting women at the time (and indeed, still). Her pieces are consciously feminist and activist, and tie into her heavy involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement, participating in consciousness-raising groups, meetings and protests like the one that took place at the Miss World Beauty Pageant in 1971, where Harrison played the character of “Miss Loveable Bra”, wearing orange fur nipples!
Even Harrison’s earliest work was vociferously political: her first exhibition, in 1971, consisting of a series of pop-art-style drawings that subversively played with the gender stereotypes embodied by cartoon superheroes and pin-ups, was shut down by police on its first day due its ostensibly offensive content. Police at the time said that it was her representation of men (such as Hugh Hefner) in stereotypically ‘sexy’, feminine clothing that most offended their sensibilities.
My dissertation examines student behaviour at the University of Cambridge in the eighteenth century. In the period of the Enlightenment, you’d perhaps be surprised to learn that Cambridge was in many senses declining: its student populations falling; its academic standards criticised. My dissertation challenges this rather stoic perception of the University by examining the violence, drunkenness, and sexual promiscuity of its students.
So far, my forays into the archives have revealed duelling between students, tussles over prostitutes, and letting off fireworks whilst rioting at Clare College Gates. Perhaps curiously, I’ve had this project explained to me as ‘eighteenth-century lad culture’.
The problem for a historian of gender here is that the University was a singularly male environment – with the exception of bedders and launderers. The question, then, is what does it mean to study masculinity without reference to a female counterpart?
Following the Twitter backlash Donald Trump is facing over comments that his female staffers should ‘dress like women’, Alina Khakoo and Kitty Grady decided to take to the streets to ask Cambridge students and locals for their thoughts on gender and personality, dressing and comfort.
“I don’t think there is one particular way to ‘dress like a woman’. I make a lot of my own clothes so it’s when I’m wearing those that I feel most comfortable. I made this jumper, scarf and hat. I love it because I make clothes for my body and so they fit better. They’re so much more enjoyable to wear because I’ve made them myself.”
This week the President of the United States and Leader of the Free World came under yet more criticism for reportedly telling his female staffers to ‘dress like women’. Naturally, a deluge of Twitter responses quickly followed with female doctors, sportspeople, soldiers, racing car drivers and even astronauts posting pictures of themselves to show Donald Trump exactly what women wear to work.
This was all an important reminder to check our inherent bias, and I was ashamed to feel even a tinge of shock from seeing a picture of a woman wearing such heavy-duty uniform or holding a gun.
However, what I immediately noticed was how slim the response from women in non-uniformed careers has been thus far. And this, presumably, because they really do have to #dresslikeawoman every single day.
I began this term by taking part in my College’s telephone campaign. In the middle of a Monday evening shift, after a series of voicemails and call-back-laters, I had the surprise privilege of speaking to a feminist activist from the 1970s.
‘I’m not sure how interested you are in feminism’, she said, before recounting how she had put her career as a history professor on hold to join afeminist cooperative in London. Over the course of forty-five minutes, she shared with me her conception of feminism, particularly stressing the importance of female solidarity. Remarkably, this retired academic told me that ‘Angelina Jolie’s feminism is good because she fights for others – other celebrities use feminism for themselves’. Has feminism indeed been appropriated for selfish means, a tool for securing a few more thousand social media followers rather than a collective struggle for equality?
In a world where some sisters do seem to be literally ‘doing it for themselves’, the current Guerrilla Girls’ exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery is an important reminder that girl power is alive, kicking and ready to complete the fight for equality.
Pass the milk tray. More than just a Christmas telly staple, Bridget Jones is a flawed feminist hero we can all learn a thing or two from, argues Kitty Grady.
The BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List has established itself as a modern pantheon of female achievement and activism.
So, the inclusion of Bridget Jones into the list this year, which also included Margaret Thatcher, Beyoncé Knowles and Germaine Greer, created a small controversy, and not just because she’s a fictional character.
There’s certainly a case to say Bridget Jones is an anti-feminist figure. She is obsessed by her weight, getting on the scales multiple times a day. She flirts shamelessly with her lothario boss Daniel Cleaver, dreams of marital bliss with him and wears ‘sluttishly’ short skirts and see-through tops to the office in an attempt to achieve said bliss which she believes will be her happily ever after.
However, if we analyse her inclusionwith the specific Woman’s Hour Power List criteria in mind: women who have positively impacted and reflected female British life in the past seventy years, then Ms. Jones seems rather excellently placed.