(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.
Grad Talk is back with Roisin Beck Taylor‘s tales of deerhounds, woodworm and illustration. Having graduated from Emmanuel in 2016 with a degree in HSPS, she is working as a farmhand before starting a Masters at St Andrews this autumn. Here she shares her experiences of rustic living and recommends taking it slow after leaving the Cambridge bubble.
Interview by Alina Khakoo
So, what do you do now?
Desperately saving money for a Masters. I work on a remote hill farm two days a week, two days as a barista in a farm shop cafe, two days on a flower farm, and on my day off I go on adventures with my long-legged deerhound.
Describe a typical day.
At 6.15am my alarm goes off and I drive up to the farm. I walk and feed dogs in the boarding kennels for two hours before breakfast and then eat my body weight in toast. The morning consists of mucking out horses, feeding five hundred pigs and walking dogs again. After lunch, anything goes, by which I mean my practical skill set has drastically expanded since I came home from Cambridge. In the past six months I have learnt to dry stone wall, drive a tractor, pull down and reconstruct a ceiling, hack old plaster off walls, lay and grout tiles, pressure hose pig shit off shed walls (my least favourite job), lay concrete flooring, refurbish old furniture pieces, treat woodworm in roof beams, the list goes on. Whatever strange and exciting jobs I am tasked with in the afternoon is usually followed by bringing in the horses, a quick coffee and shovelling large numbers of biscuits into my face, then back to round three of walking dogs. The working day finishes about 5pm, at which point I return home physically exhausted, smelling of animals and plaster dust. I make myself a viciously strong coffee and try to get some reading done before a scaldingly hot bath and desperately withstanding falling asleep at the dinner table.
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?
In this week’s instalment of Grad Talk, we turn to recent Jesus graduate Julia Cabanas for some blue-skies thinking on careers and ambition. Taking a pause from her busy schedule of sketching and model-making, here she gives us the blueprint on life at an architecture firm, what she misses about Cambridge and what her hopes are for the future.
Interview by Kitty Grady
So, what do you do now?
I’m an architectural assistant at a young architects’ office in Highbury and Islington.
Describe a typical day.
I get to work at 10am. Usually there are team meetings in the office or via Skype with the Mumbai, Singapore and Amsterdam offices. Normally I work on a particular project for a couple of weeks. This has ranged from a small renovation on a local Victorian house to an entire campus masterplan on the other side of the world. Day-to-day tasks include hand-sketching, Photoshop collages, 3D modelling, model-making, detail drawing and compiling reports on InDesign. After a lunch break spent discussing the latest political blunders with my colleagues, it’s a solid few hours of design work. At 7.30pm, I leave the office – avoiding the London’s rush hour – and have a cosy night in.