All posts by sineadmceneaney

Historian at the Open University. Primarily interested in post-war United States history, with an emphasis on race, gender, social movements and protest. Currently writing about gender, autobiography and civil rights.

10 books by women to read before you start a History degree

Since Fiona de Londras posted her 10 books by women to read before starting Law School, I’ve been thinking about how to narrow down some reading suggestions for students who are due to start university degrees in History over the next month or so. In truth, many of the books on Fiona’s list could easily be recommendations for history students, and the reality is that the overlap is large between the disciplines of history and law. At least five of Fiona’s suggestions fall into the genre of historical fiction. Although not a new genre, historical fiction has become really popular in recent years: Toni Morrison, Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters and many others have demonstrated how historical research and fiction can so successfully bring stories of the past to new audiences. The arbitrary lines between ‘expert’ historian and master of fiction have never quite been clear, but are becoming even more murky as history becomes more accessible and agreement on what ‘history’ is becomes less fixed. Hayden White’s position on historical writing as interpretation of the ‘real’ rather than production of a ‘truth’ is much more mainstream in history writing (especially outside the academy) than it was when he first invoked literary characters in his critique of historical dogma in his 1966 article, The Burden of History. Historical narrative can be fiction, and fiction can be historical narrative.

I must confess that I’m not a huge fan of the kings and queens literature of Gregory and Mantel, and much more interested in the grittier stories brought alive by authors like Waters. As it turns out, my list includes none of these three, and instead suggests some slightly less mainstream fictional, semi-fictional, autobiographical, and scholarly texts that I think will provide students of history with a sense of what is possible in thinking, writing and imagining things about the past. It is not intended to be a definitive list: if you have other suggestions, please use the comments box to add to the list.

1. Caroline Elkins, Imperial Reckoning: the Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya (2005)

Caroline Elkins’ controversial account of the British response to the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for nonfiction. It also earned her  widespread criticism for the way she used ‘unconventional sources’ like oral testimony, and the way she questioned colonial official accounts of the ‘savagery’ of the Kikuyu. The Guardian recently ran an excellent review of the book, including  the fallout. For budding historians, this is an excellent example of a book that created debate and forced re-evaluation of assumptions we make about empire, the value of official sources, and the erasure of certain kinds of voices in the stories we tell each other about the past. Elkins does not write dispassionately: her style conveys her anger about imperial atrocities that were covered up for years. For undergraduate students, who are often overly-preoccupied with what they call ‘bias’, this is a great example of how historians can take a political position while producing an important and thought-provoking discussion about the past.

2. Annette Gordon-Reed: Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (1997)

When this Pulitzer prize-winning book came out in 1997, it shattered the efforts of generations of historians who attempted to ‘protect’ the reputation of Thomas Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the USA and noted slaveholder. Gordon-Reed, a lawyer by training, set out to build a case that the liaison between Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings could have existed, and to question the reluctance of historians to give credence to the story over the previous two centuries. It is a critique of historiography, a criticism of the ways that histories preserve myths, and the architecture of historical research that privileges the voices of ‘great men’ over those deemed less important. Through a series of biographical portraits, Gordon-Reed helps us to see Jefferson and his environment through contemporary eyes, and to examine the assumptions we make about the character of ‘untouchable’ figures in history. Gordon-Reed’s prose is sharp, insightful and engaging: this is a book that sucks you in, and then makes you spit out all of your preconceived notions of what we accept to be possible, or plausible in the lives of historical giants.

(Gordon-Reed spoke at one of the Gender and History in the Americas seminars that I co-run at the IHR: you can dowload the podcast of her talk here)

3. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (1996)

One of Canada’s most important authors, Margaret Atwood writes extensively about the condition of women and how we can assess the strengths and weaknesses in our society through the experiences of marginalized women. In this novel set in the mid 19th century, Grace Marks is imprisoned for life for the double-murder of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. The key theme of the book is imprisonment: Grace is metaphorically imprisoned by her condition as a woman, her view of the world is restricted even before she is sent to prison, and of course she is physically imprisoned for much of the book. Set in an era when prison reform was becoming an important political issue, Grace’s story is told in her own voice, and through the voice of a fictional doctor who is researching conditions in prisons and asylums. This is based on a true story, but with a heavy dose of fiction, and the constantly changing voices challenge us to question what we actually know: the book is an excellent example of how the historical imagination can go beyond the ‘true’ and represent the ‘real’.

4. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

I read this book as an undergraduate as part of a survey course on the 19th century US. I must confess that I didn’t like it much as a book; it’s not terribly well written, and I found the main character Tom really quite unsympathetic. But this is an extremely important book that draws together lots of the narratives of antebellum US history. Stowe was the daughter of famed preacher Lyman Beecher, and sister of Catharine Beecher who was the ‘inventor’ of what became domestic science. An abolitionist, women’s right advocate, and social reformer, Beecher Stowe became internationally famous as her book became a bestseller. It personalised the condition of slavery, and although radical abolitionists thought it was too conservative, it was a useful propaganda tool to galvanise support for the anti-slavery movement. Stowe was keen to prove the historical veracity of the book, and even published a ‘key’ to the book, mostly to respond to criticism that her description of the horrors of slavery was fictional and had no basis in real experience. Whatever the flaws of the book, it was the most influential book on slavery in the years before the Civil War, and it also demonstrates the ways that American women reformers were able to establish themselves as political actors in a system that continued to deny them political autonomy through suffrage.

5. Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince: Life of a Slave (1831)

Before there was Solomon Northup, Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs, there was Mary Prince. Born into slavery in Bermuda, Prince spent years working on the salt flats in Grand Turk, before eventually having to leave her family in Antigua and come to London with her owner. Even though slavery was not legal in England in the 1820s, her owner refused to release her from slavery. Without independent means, it was extraordinarily difficult for her to leave her enslaved position. Her story follows the style of what we call ‘slave narratives’, a certain kind of autobiography which gives the account of a slave’s family origins, early life, life as a slave, and then eventual escape from slavery. Slave narratives (including Prince’s) were usually published by anti-slavery societies, who would use them as a way to increase support for the abolition of slavery. This book is important for several reasons: first, it is the first account of the life of a female slave, related by herself. In an era when women’s voices were easily silenced, and when Victorian ideals around womanhood and respectability largely excluded non-white, and especially enslaved, women, the fact that this book was a bestseller in England in the 1830s indicates a shift in the way women’s voices were being represented in the public square. Secondly, it is easy for us to think about slavery as a phenomenon specific to the United States; set mostly in the Carribean, Prince’s tale explores the experiences of slaves outside of the archetypal ‘plantation’ system. Finally, her story highlights the informal ways that slavery continued to exist even after abolition: Prince could leave and be ‘free’ in London, but was for a long time constrained by lack of means. And she could not return to Antigua without being re-enslaved; freedom in England simply did not translate well back to the Caribbean. This is a salient lesson: it is easy to assume that a legal position on rights (abolition of slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights) solves inequality; Prince’s story reminds us that custom often outweighs law.

6. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

Hurston was a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, and is often eclipsed by her more celebrated male contemporaries, like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Claude McKay (many of whom criticised the book). This is a mistake. Her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman in Florida who struggles with her identity as woman and free, as the slave system is dismantled, but ‘freedom’ remains elusive. Janie just doesn’t fit anywhere: she is perceived as too white, or too black, and her sexual conduct challenged the ‘racial uplift’ movement which advocated that African Americans would ‘prove’ their social and political worth through positive engagement with the economy and embracing respectability. The book is great: it is challenging, and thought provoking, and forces you to think about the ways that identity is shaped by external conditions.

7. Martha Freeman (ed.) Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman 1952–1964 An Intimate Portrait of a Remarkable Friendship (1995)

I first came across Rachel Carson when I started studying the protest movements of the 1960s, and read a book about the emergence of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson was a scientist whose research into the environmental damage of pesticides like DDT eventually contributed to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. Carson had died by then, of breast cancer probably caused by her constant exposure to chemicals. Her most famous book Silent Spring, published just over a year before she died, changed the conversation about environmental responsibility. I’m not recommending that book as one of my 10, but instead this collection of letters between Carson and Dorothy Freeman, the woman who may have been her lover, and was definitely her love. Over years, Carson and Freeman exchanged thousands of letters, some of which Freeman shared with her husband so that he would understand her relationship with Carson. For historians, letters are wonderful. The intimate details revealed in these letters (published by Dorothy Freeman’s granddaughter in 1995) give unique insight into a story of the past that so often eludes us. Freeman and Carson destroyed hundreds of letters before Carson’s death, but even this partial collection is a wonderful example of how letters can help craft beautiful narratives of the past. Goodness knows how long this will last; how are we to deal with a historical future where intimacy will be deleted with the transience of e-mail, facebook and snapchat?

8. Emma Donoghue, The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002)

I bought this book primarily because I enjoyed Donoghue’s earlier books Hood (1995) and Stir-fry (1994), both coming-of-age and coming-out novels set in the Ireland of the 1980s and 1990s that I grew up in. I expected The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits to give me more of the same. It did not. A historian by training and fiction writer by profession, Donoghue gives us a collection of short stories which revolve around historical ‘oddities’ in Scotland, Ireland, England and even Italy, from the 1400s to the end of the nineteenth century. Using recorded historical episodes (like the story of Mary Toft, who became notorious in 1720s England for giving birth to 18 rabbits) Donoghue mixes realism, fantasy and history to create a tapestry of the past that is alive and malleable. Not to spoil the story, but Mary Toft’s story was a hoax. Originally Donoghue was going to call the collection Histories of Nothing: the book reminds us that for most of history, the most interesting things that happened were the nothings.

9. Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)

Many years ago, one of my students undertook a final year dissertation on Civil War photography, with a focus on the work of Matthew Brady. One of the things he found fascinating was the ways that Brady would re-arrange the battlefield in order to make the photo more aesthetically pleasing, or to imply victory or loss had occurred in a particular way. My student was intrigued that photography was not ‘real’, and that the presentation of an image of the past was no more ‘true’ than a text created about the past.  Sontag’s book on photography grapples with these kinds of questions, exploring the connections between truth, reality, image, and history. Look, it’s not a history book: it’s full of theory, and examples of photography, film and image, and it is a challenging read. The book is a collection of essays, each dealing with variations on the theme. But it is a wonderful book, and challenges the ways that we think about representations of the past. And Sontag’s writing is exciting.

10. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)

I first read this as an undergraduate, and it was probably the first book I ever read about women’s frustrations with social constraints. Friedan was not the first to write about such things: Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxieme Sexe was published in 1949 and is arguably a better discussion about attitudes towards femininity and the political marginalization of women in the post-war era. But Friedan’s book appeared at a time of social and political change; the reaction to the book was not universally positive, but it provided a language to a new generation of college-educated women who were increasingly unhappy at their suburban lives that were sanitized and disconnected from the kind of fulfilment they craved. I could have picked Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch here, or Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (both published 1970) but Friedan’s classic manifesto is a must-read. It claims to be the cri de couer of a whole section of womanhood in the 1960s, but in reality it fails to represent the voices of poor women, women of colour, or non-heterosexual women. But it is accessible in ways that Greer and Millett’s manifestos are not, and it continues to be a useful springboard for today’s young women to think about the genesis of the kind of feminism that many now find quite suspicious.

Radical Magazines conference

Yesterday I gave a paper at an event hosted by the Network of AmericNAPSan Periodical Studies on radical and dissident magazines in the US. The conference, held at The Keep at the University of Sussex, marked the opening of the digital archives of The New Masses, a highly influential magazine of the American Left published between 1926 and 1948. The big attraction for me was the keynote speaker, Abe Peck, whose book Uncovering the Sixties: the Life and Times of the Underground Press was enormously helpful to me in my PhD research many years ago. His keynote lecture reminded me of the ways that the ‘sixties generation’ have been defined by the legacy of their youth: Peck was 22 when he began editing a counterculture paper called the Chicago Seedand 26 when he left to write for other more commercial magazines, including Rolling Stone. Chicago in the late 1960s was a tough city, and was not a hippie centre, but it had become a focal point for New Left political activism. The National office of the Students for a Democratic Society had moved to Chicago in 1965 (to an African American neighbourhood, Peck reminded me), there had been several semi-successful community projects in poor white Chicago neighbourhoods organized by a variety of student groups, and the city became explosive in August 1968 when anti-war activists staged ongoing protests at Grant Park, as near to the site of the Democratic National Convention as they could get within the repressive police presence of Mayor Richard Daley’s administration. Peck’s reminiscences of the delicate balance between reporting on the student movement, while being a part of that movement, illustrated the ways in which the ‘movement’ of the 1960s was multilayered and complex. The underground press (of which the Seed was one paper) served as participant/observers of a movement that was becoming increasingly chaotic by the end of the decade.

My presentation looked at two other underground newspapers, the Berkeley Barb and the San Fransisco Oracle. I am particularly interested in the ways that these counterculture magazines/newspapers (I am going to call them magazines) reinforced mainstream cultural norms around the social position of women. Women’s contributions to these magazines were rare, and although there were female editors and female journalists and contributors, the overarching tone of these magazines remained very male-centric, very macho. The primary representation of women in these magazines was through image. In opposition to obscenity laws, editors filled their pages with images of naked women. These images were often quite stylized, but they invariably cast women in passive poses.

Cover of the Berkelely Barb, 16 June 1967

The consequence – perhaps unintended – was that the female form became a tool in challenging authority, but it was a tool wielded by men and the aesthetics of the female form became controlled by the editors. The sexualization of women in cultural terms was not aimed at empowering women; it was designed to use and maintain the ‘otherness’ of the female body in order to provoke confrontation. In doing so, editors became complicit in the obscenification of the female form. It is not surprising, then, that as counterculture and New Left women became more frustrated with an increasingly male-focused movement, they struck out at the Underground Press, most famously taking over the offices of the New York Rat in 1970.

When I started working on these underground newspapers, I had to travel to the US in order to sit in microfilm rooms in university libraries, and squint at tiny blurred typeface and spend a small fortune on copying costs. Now, digital conservation and extraordinary projects of digitization have made many of these microfilm collections redundant, and have changed the ways that researchers can access material. The Oracle is available to purchase on CD Rom; it published only a short run of 12-13 issues (depending on where your starting point is) and was one of the first to be made available electronically. The Berkeley Barb is now available online (along with a small selection of other underground and countercultural titles), thanks to the efforts of a project called Independent Voices. At yesterday’s conference, we mused a little about whether the internet is the new ‘underground press’ of this generation. Perhaps it is: ease of access, democratization of production. The digitization of these papers, including the New Masses now housed at the University of Sussex, will hopefully bring them a new audience.

Mary McAleese on Irish & British Relations: a Century of Change

On April 11, one day after the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I had the pleasure of sitting with Professor Mary McAleese to talk to her about her term as President of Ireland (1997-2011), her assessment of Anglo-Irish relations over the last 100 years, and her views on the future of those relationships in the context of the Brexit debate. With well over one hundred students, staff and guests in attendance in the beautiful Waldegrave Drawing Room at St Mary’s University, Prof. McAleese shared her experiences and ideas about the Rising centenary, developments of Irish confidence, the position of Irish people in the UK, and ‘that’ rugby match.

Women in Magazines: just published

Women in Magazines

Routledge has published this great collection on the ways that women are represented in magazine culture. Edited by Rae Ritchie, Jay Kleinberg, Sue Hawkins and Nicola Phillips, the chapters address a wide range of issues around the ways that women engage with, are represented in, consume and produce magazines in Britain, Europe and the Americas.

My chapter, ‘Righting Women in the 1960s: Gender, Power and Conservatism in the Pages of The New Guard,’ examines the ways in which the women of the Young Americans for Freedom interacted with the group’s magazine The New Guard during the 1960s. I look at female columnists and editors, as well as the ways in which gender and femininity played out in the pages of the magazine. My argument is that in a male-dominated group such as YAF, the magazine allowed women to challenge for power in an environment that was more fluid, more malleable, than the fairly rigid structures of the national movement.

Many of the contributors gave papers at a conference on Women in Magazines back in June 2012 at Kingston University in west London. That conference revealed the extent to which scholars across multiple disciplines are engaged in research around gender and magazine culture. Other conferences followed: in Cornell in October 2013 (which also extended the brief to new media) and at Oxford Brookes in June 2015 (Consuming/Culture: Women and Girls in Print and Pixels) at which I also presented a paper. For anybody interested in research on gender, women and magazines, you can add yourself to a network of scholars via a mailing list here.

Rachel Ritchie, Sue Hawkins, Nicola Phillips and S. Jay Kleinberg (eds), Women in Magazines: research, Representation, Production and Consumption (New York & Abingdon: Routledge, 2016). ISBN: 9781138824027. 266pp, 13 b/w illus. £90 (cloth).

This volume is part of Routledge’s Research in Gender History series. You can buy it direct from the publisher’s website or via amazon.


Panthers: a taste of commemoration


On Tuesday last, PBS aired Stanley Nelson’s film about the Black Panthers, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the black power group in 1966. I haven’t seen The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution yet, but I’m hoping to do so over the next couple of weeks. I teach about the Panthers as part of a wider course on US Civil Rights, and my students are always captivated by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers; I ask them to think about the ways that the narratives of Black Power change the ways we historicize the breadth and agenda of any coherent ‘civil rights movement’ of the 1960s.

Embracing ‘Black Power’, a slogan popularized by Stokely Carmichael in 1966, the agenda and activities of the Panthers cannot be cleanly separated from the wider movement. And this forces us to reassess the ways that we think about the aims and tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.

The Panthers were founded to protect black neighbourhoods from police violence, but their 10 Point Platform highlights a much broader set of aims, rooted in a Marxist critique of contemporary America, and a desire to examine the social and economic roots of racial inequality. Their popularity grew towards the end of the decade, and they benefitted from what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’ as well as a publicity machine driven by their own newspaper The Black Panther and a curious and often fearful mainstream media coverage.

PBS’ own review of the documentary offers us five ‘takeaways’ from the film. One of these is that “Gender roles and gender equality didn’t always match.’ The New York Times focused on a similar theme in their review last October. The Black Panthers’ iconography was deliberately macho: Emory Douglas captured the image and perpetuated it through his stylized art.

The revolutionary critique that the Panthers advanced was masculinist and sexist, especially in the early days. Jakobi Williams has written about gender relations within the Party, and reminds us that there was no singular Black Panther Party, but a collection of chapters with different local priorities and modes of operation. And although half the membership of the Panthers was female by 1970, the leadership of the Party was dominated by men. That is, with one exception: Elaine Brown.

Born in the projects of North Philadelphia, Elaine Brown first became involved with the Black Panther Party in 1968. In 1974, she became the Chairman of the Party and led the Panthers for three years. Her autobiography, A Taste of Power was published in 1992, making her only the second female Panther to tell her story, after Assata Shakur’s Assata: An Autobiography (1987). Kathleen Cleaver’s long-awaited memoir has yet to appear, but is expected to be published under its current working title of Memories of Love and War.

Several women associated with the Panthers, but not members of the Party, have published their autobiographies: Angela Davis in 1974, Afeni Shakur’s memoir as told to Jasmine Guy, and defense attorney Evelyn Williams’ Inadmissable Evidence (1993).

Taken all together, these texts provide us with the basis of what we know about women’s experiences within the Party. So, it is good that documentaries like Nelson’s engage with the theme, even if Elaine Brown has criticized the manner in which he does so. Discussion of feminism, female critiques, womanhood within the Panthers is still quite rare.

I am currently writing about Brown’s book, and I am particularly interested in the way the genre of autobiography can be seen as a tool of protest. I am comparing Brown’s autobiography with several others written by female civil rights activists. I want to think about the ways that the genre of autobiography affords African American women the possibility to create and recreate their own images, explore their own voices, establish public presence, and extend their resistance to traditions (literary, social and political) which have traditionally excluded them.

Towards the very end of the book, Brown recounts a meeting with Robert Shetterly, the chairman of the Oakland Council for Economic Development. The meeting was to discuss an ongoing political campaign: the Panthers were backing a candidate for Mayor. Shetterly tried to end the meeting when he started to lose control of it. ‘You’ve had a very difficult life,’ he says, as if to defuse Brown’s anger. Brown’s response is an insight into the dynamics of control:

The point is not about my life, Shetterly. It’s about what I want. And I think you should know exactly what that is and how much I want it. By the time I realized that there was no place in America for a black girl, I discovered another trick. Even if I had been able to be white, there were no paths out of the powerlessness. The keys of the kingdom were gripped in the hands of a few white men – and only men. I could work for those men, if I ‘behaved,’ but I could never be them, have what they had, be master of my own ship. What I saw was that my oppression and my freedom were umbilically tied to the oppression and freedom of ally my people. So I became a Black Panther. (427)

I’m looking forward to seeing Nelson’s documentary. I hope he pays attention to misbehaving women. I can’t help thinking about Beyoncé — when black women ‘misbehave’, it is still seen as a problem. I wonder when that will change.

Superbowl 50: a tale of two Panthers

I missed the Superbowl last weekend. I almost always miss the Superbowl, because even though I am a fan of things American, I am not prepared to stay up half the night to watch guys in shoulder pads run into each other over and over again, for hours. But it turns out that this year’s game was one to watch. Not for the football, but for the half time show.

The NFL has a peculiar history with race relations. African American players were part of NFL teams from the beginning of a formal football league in the early 20th century, but from 1933 until after the war, teams did not recruit Black players. After the war, integration was slow, but by 2014 almost 70% of players in NFL teams were African Americans. The league still suffers from what ESPN has called a ‘coaching diversity crisis’, pointing to the results of a recent academic study on racial disparity in leadership positions.

It wasn’t until 2007 that a Superbowl was won by a team coached by an African American. Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears to win Superbowl XLI. But Dungy himself had overcome career slumps of his own, possibly based on systematic racism within the NFL. In 2003 the Rooney Rule was introduced to attempt to even out the playing field (pun intended) for African American coaches, who were much more likely to be fired from their positions than their white counterparts. Since then, things have begun to change, but slowly.

So, when Beyoncé took to the stage last Sunday to sing her new song ‘Formation’ as part of the half-time show, she did so in an environment that was not racially neutral. When she followed Chris Martin and Bruno Mars with a stomping rendition of the song, complete with Black Panther iconography, she was performing black lives in an arena where there are still serious questions over who holds power. She was performing blackness in an America where African Americans still struggle to exercise economic power, and where mass incarceration has stripped a large proportion of the black population of their full citizenship rights. At Fox news, pundits’ heads exploded. Tellingly, Rudi Giuliani complained that the show was inappropriate because ‘middle America’ watched the Superbowl. He seems to think that middle America does not include black men at risk of being shot in the street by police.

Of course, song as protest is not new. Neither is commercializing protest. From Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddamn, to Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up and NWA’s Fuk da Police, artists and the labels that support them create, produce and make money from political protest. So, what was it about this show that was so provocative?

In yesterday’s Guardian, Syreeta McFadden’s article goes much of the way towards unpacking the answer to this. She outlines how the song speaks to young African American women and explains the resonance of the lyrics for a generation. She focuses mostly on the official video. I watched it for the first time this morning: it is incredibly evocative. The young kid with the hoodie challenging the police through dance is particularly effective. One wonders how long they would have stood still and watched him had that been a real life incident.

Reactions have focused on the ways that Beyoncé’s performance channelled the imagery of the Black Panthers (founded in Oakland, across the bridge from San Francisco, in 1966) and connected to the #blacklivesmatter movement. Black leather, afro hair, bodies draped with mocked-up ammunition and shotgun shells. It was interesting that Beyoncé chose to wear her lightened hair in contrast with her dancers: white benchmarks of beauty are still so dominant in a country where well over 70% of magazine covers feature white models.

The black female body has always been considered in a depoliticized way, stripped since slavery of its agency. Theorists like bell hooks have commented on the commodification of the black female body, its exploitation and framing in ways that are deemed acceptable for white men. Certainly the shock was that the female body was fighting back.

What I found particularly interesting is the way that nobody seemed to criticize Bruno Mars or Chris Martin. Martin’s opening and closing routines were rainbow-laden exhortations to ‘believe in love’. In the light of the Obergefell decision last summer, perhaps pundits are over the controversy of same-sex love, and at least Martin sang in English.

But Mars and his dancers were also dressed in black leather (leatherette? PVC?) with gold chains around their necks and afro hair. They pranced around the stage, in much the same way as Beyoncé’s dancers did. Was this acceptable because they weren’t singing about black rights? Fox’s Steve Doocy thought ‘Bruno Mars was fantastic’, but dismissed Beyoncé altogether. The inconsistency of his position makes the message clear: ‘black’ music is fine once it’s not political, and black men dressed in black leather are not as threatening as black women. Formation is a term of war, or battle: Beyoncé’s war cry, the resurrection of the protest song, and her donation with Jay Z of $1.5 million will ensure that the conversation continues.

The Carolina Panthers lost the Superbowl, by the way. I think the Black Panthers beat them.

Review: Women and Social Movements International, 1840 to the present

I found myself using some material today that I had downloaded from the ‘Women and Social Movements: International’ database a while back. For a couple of months in 2013, I had a trial access to the database so that I could write a review. This is the partner database to Women and Social Movements in the USA; both were created by Thomas Dublin and Kathryn Kish Sklar, and published by Alexander Street Press. Both are impressive in their breadth and content. My review for History Workshop Online is here.

Remembering Betty Friedan

This week marks the tenth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s death, on 4 February 2006. The New York Times obituary that appeared the following day credited her with igniting “the contemporary women’s movement in 1963 and as a result permanently transformed the social fabric of the United States.” Certainly, her book The Feminine Mystique was incredibly important in kickstarting a mainstream discussion about the position of women in America of the early 1960s. But she was not alone in thinking critically about the changing landscape of gender politics in the US.

The previous year, Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published, and dominated the best seller lists nationally and internationally. Gurley Brown became the editor of a newly revamped Cosmopolitan in 1964, and became an icon for the single, career-minded girl of the late 1960s. Friedan sometimes wrote for Cosmo, but for the most part she poured her energy into the National Organization for Women (NOW), and sought policy change primarily in the areas of women’s pay and equality within the workplace. NOW was also at the forefront of battles around women’s rights to control their fertility, and famously disagreed about the ways that lesbians could contribute to the organization. Friedan was a founder member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now Naral Pro-Choice).  The Supreme Court decision on Roe v Wade (1973) seemed to suggest that the tide was turning towards protecting women’s rights to bodily autonomy, and the expectation was that this would feed into further steps towards equality.

Friedan’s later book, The Second Stage (1981) reveals both her optimism that feminism was positively impacting women’s lives, as well as her fears about the power of the anti-feminist backlash. (This last theme was picked up by Susan Faludi in her very influential Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women published in 1991). But two weeks after Friedan died, the legislature of South Dakota approved one of the most far-reaching anti-abortion measures introduced since Roe v Wade (1973).  Since then, political campaigns to repeal Roe have escalated, and many states have introduced formal legislative restrictions to dilute women’s rights to access legal terminations, as well as more informal restrictions through the closure of abortion clinics. Restrictions particularly affect poorer women who cannot afford to travel across states or across state lines in order to access legal terminations. On 1 January 2016, Texas House Bill 3994 went into effect, which assumes that all women seeking abortions in the state are minors, until they can prove otherwise. This kind of infantilization of women brings us back to the nineteenth century, when women were treated as non-political actors, minors with no capacity to consent. Betty Friedan would roll in her grave.

Back to the Feminine Mystique. One of the major criticisms of the book is that Friedan writes almost exclusively from the position of middle class white women, whose experiences we assume mirror her own. She did most of the research for the book in the late 1950s, surveying women that she had known during her time at Smith, the liberal arts women’s college in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her focus on middle class women is perhaps surprising, because she began her career working for leftist and workers’ organizations, and writing for their newspapers and magazines. She was certainly not ignorant of the difficulties experiences by working class women for whom the biggest problems were money and food, rather than a ‘problem that has no name.’ Gwen Jordan has written about the environment that Friedan responded to in Peoria here, in the pages of a journal that I co-edited last year. And colleagues and I have written about the reception, legacy and criticisms of the book here.  Most of the criticisms of the book grow out of our expectations of it, and are due to the heavy burden of being the ‘first’, of being the kind of groundbreaker that the NYT claims that she was. No one book could possibly address all women’s circumstances, aspirations, experiences of discrimination. Perhaps it was inevitable that the book would not speak to all women. But it certainly spoke to many: the first paperback copy sold 1.4 million copies.

The statement of purpose issued by the National Organization for Women was co-written by Friedan and Pauli Murray. We often think of NOW as representing those white, middle class, aspirational women that figure in The Feminine Mystique. But in reality, the steering committee of NOW was a much broader church. Pauli Murray had been an activist on women’s issues much longer than Friedan had. A graduate of Howard University’s School of Law, she argued for the application of the 14th amendment to issues of gender discrimination. A black, lesbian (she might now call herself genderqueer) activist who battled race and gender discrimination, her contributions have been largely erased from the popular history of second wave feminism. But she was just as important in those early years of NOW as Friedan was; in fact, she may have been even more important. The obituary published by the NYT after her death in July 1985 is much more cursory than that marking Friedan’s death.

Of course, we have allowed second wave feminism to be cast as a white movement. We have allowed the voices of non-white, non-heterosexual women to be erased from the popular memory. It was convenient to do so: an agenda that was organized around legal change on pay and employment equality was easier to digest in political terms. It was much more difficult to handle questions of economic and social inequality based on class, race, sexuality. I gave a paper at a conference last year at Oxford Brookes, and in one of the keynote lectures Prof. Angela McRobbie talked about the ways that feminism — even the latest wave of feminism (fourth?) — is still connected to a set of neo-liberal values. In order to make feminism useful or successful, we need to reverse the backlash, and think anew about the ways that feminism questions the very categories that produce inequality, particularly in terms of class and the wider gap between rich and poor. Can we break that liberal basis of feminism in the 21st century? Is that the new ‘problem that has no name’?

The NYT was correct: Friedan was a groundbreaker. But she did not transform the social fabric of the United States. She helped, but she was one of many, and if we remember Friedan in this way we must also remember Murray and the many others who confronted the triple constraints of class, gender and race. And in the current climate, where the winner of the GOP caucus in Iowa stands for banning abortion and defunding Planned Parenthood, and another high profile candidate openly admits that he would try to repeal marriage equality, then we should be even more vigilant to protect hard won rights, in Europe and the US, against attack from those who wish to return us to a bygone era.


Society for Historians of Women in the Americas — new seminar series

On Monday 5 October, the new program of papers in our seminar series begins, hosted at the Institute of Historical Research. The full program can be viewed here. The seminar series runs once per month, on the first Monday of every month. All are welcome to attend. The seminar is one of the activities of the Society for Historians of Women in the Americas, which aims to connect scholars in the UK, the US and elsewhere in order to foster discussions around gender and women in North, Central and South America. If you’d like more information about the society, or would like to join, contact me as the Membership Secretary. Or come along to a Monday seminar.

The legacy of second wave feminism

On Friday, the third issue of History of Women in the Americas came out, showcasing several of the excellent papers presented at our conference in November 2013 about the legacy of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The issue is available through Open Access here: The introduction, co-written by the editors (including me) sets out to frame the papers within the context of a continuing discussion around feminism, and seeks to explore the ways that Friedan’s work remains useful for today’s women, whatever the flaws of the book.

On Wednesday morning, I ran the first seminar of the new academic year with a bunch of students who are taking my ‘Sentiment, Suffrage and Sex: Women in the USA’ class. I have been teaching this in various guises for about 7 years, and every year I ask students taking the class whether they consider themselves feminists. Every year I die a little inside: ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ has been the most common refrain, at least at the start. This year was different. Eager hands went up to declare their allegiance to feminism. For some, it was Emma Watson’s speech about feminism that made the concept more acceptable than it was before. For others, the decreased access to abortion in the US had focused attention on the ways that the state interfere with women’s bodily autonomy. Whatever the reason, this group of students seems much more open to the idea of feminism than any group I have had for the past seven years. I’m looking forward to helping them unpack their ideas, and helping them articulate their positions within a new critical framework over the next 12 weeks. I’m looking forward to their take on Betty Friedan. I don’t know whether they will see parallels with Emma Watson, but they should.