Category Archives: Uncategorized

Musings on democracy

It has been interesting to see the cries of outrage in the newspapers since Thursday’s ruling by the UK High Court, which affirms that the Westminster parliament is obliged to make the decision on the UK’s exit from the EU, in accordance with the constitution. Almost all of the negative reaction to the Article 50 judgment has pitted the ‘people’ against the ‘judges’, casting the judiciary as an establishment that is somehow determined to thwart the will of the people. The Daily Mail ran the most outrageous headline accusing the judges of the High Court of being ‘enemies of the people’. This indicates a fundamental misunderstanding, or mischaracterization, of the role of the judiciary in the British constitution, and it also reveals a real misunderstanding about the place of the ‘people’ in the British political system.daily_mail

Tensions between ‘the people’ and a more remote political elite are not new. These tensions are escalating, though, as economic alienation, changing demographics, and rampaging nationalism increase the gap between the promise and the delivery of the social contract that underpins the ideal of democracy. What is new is the idea that the will of the British ‘people’ is sacrosanct. Unlike Switzerland, and even neighbouring Ireland, referenda are rare here. The will of the people is moderated through an electoral system and a constitutional arrangement which has traditionally emphasised that democracy, UK style, is far from direct. To suggest otherwise in a constitutional monarchy, supported by parliamentary democracy and an unwritten constitution, is ludicrous.

Across the Atlantic, in the cradle of modern democracy, the will of the people is similarly moderated through a complex set of voting regulations. The promise of direct democracy plays out in every electoral cycle through ballot initiatives, caucuses and primaries, and Americans have a system of recall, in which elected officials (including judges) can be recalled or impeached if they transgress their constitutional duties. Yet even from the foundation of the state, direct democracy has been limited, to mitigate the risks that a tyranny of the majority might pose. This was a particular preoccupation of James Madison in The Federalist Papers, and the architecture of the US constitution is designed around periodic consultation of the people (elections) and balances between the will of the people, of special interests, realpolitik and the branches of government. The promise of American democracy has never been one of direct democracy, or even participatory democracy.

This last concept was popularised in the 1960s by the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the key student groups of the New Left ‘movement’. Their manifesto, The Port Huron Statement, outlined a proposal for participatory democracy, which they argued was the opposite of a ‘politics without publics.’ The Statement, written in committee but principally drafted by Tom Hayden, complained that in the ‘American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.’ Tom Hayden died last week at the age of 76, just over two weeks before the US general election which has positioned the ‘people’ against its enemies, the special interests of the state. Donald Trump’s blunt messaging makes a lot of sense to people who feel that the system is confusing and privileges these special interests. But his candidacy also reflects the ways in which irresponsible business interests and the political system are intertwined. If Americans think that by electing Donald Trump, they are somehow going to wrest control back within a system that was never designed for their voices to be heard, then they are going to be disappointed, even if he is elected.

The problem is outlined in detail by Noam Chomsky in his recently released documentary Requiem for the American Dream. Available now on Netflix, the documentary allows Chomsky to communicate quite dry and complex ideas about the American system in a very accessible way. Chomsky’s searing message is that the mythology of the American dream has always been about exclusion: of the ‘people’ from politics, of specific marginalized groups (especially people of colour). It has always been a system that favoured business over people, even to the point that the Supreme Court declared that corporations could be treated as ‘people’ under the law. Chomsky reminds us that in representative political systems, the voice of the people is only heard periodically (as Madison explicitly suggested it should be) and it is curbed by the system itself. In the American context, the vote has been compromised so often in history that it is very debateable whether the US has ever really been a functioning democracy in the true sense of the word. Even now, systems of power ensure that the voices of the ‘undeserving’ (read: criminal) remain unheard. When we worry about the numbers of dead people still on the voter registration lists, we should pause and think of all the citizens in the US who cannot be on the voting lists because they have been stripped of their citizenship through criminalization.

Ava DuVernay’s recent documentary 13th (also available now on Netflix) explores this theme in detail. Prompted by Michelle Alexander’s excellent book, The New Jim Crow (2010) DuVernay’s scholars, experts and activists piece together the ways that the political and corporate systems work, and have worked for generations, to exclude large numbers of people — especially people of colour — from the body politic. Tracing the exclusion of African Americans from voting during the slave period, Reconstruction (through convict-leasing) and the Jim Crow era, the documentary makes three compelling arguments. First, that the systematic criminalization of people, and communities, of colour has left them disconnected from the mainstream of American society, or from what we might call the American dream. Second, that the positioning of these communities as ‘other’ creates the conditions in which black lives do not matter, because they are perceived to be inherently criminal. Thirdly, that there is enormous political and economic profit to be made from this exclusion. Watching the story of how an organization called ALEC brings together political and business interests in order to develop legislation that will guarantee the profiteering of the now privatized incarceration sector in the US makes one think of the SDS concern about ‘politics without publics’. It calls to mind Madison’s fear over the primacy of special interests in the political sphere.

But the extent of the problem is almost too much for the mind to process. It is certainly impossible at this stage to solve it without wholesale change, in which money interests lose out. So, it is unlikely to happen without totally re-writing the rules. It is true that Hillary Clinton represents this inherently unfair system. But it is also true that Trump represents this system: his ‘outsider’ status only holds true if you believe that politics and business are not in cahoots with each other. DuVernay and Chomsky remind us that they are, and that this collusion between business and legislature, upheld by the courts and essentially written into the DNA of the constitution, thrives upon the exclusion of the people, especially people of colour and poorer people.

But who are the people? And who are the ‘enemies of the people’? The phrase conjures up Robespierre who declared, in justification of the Terror in 1793, that nothing but death would be good enough for the enemies of the people. It recalls Nigel Farage’s boasting that the referendum result in June was a victory for the ordinary decent people (whoever they are). The problem is that there is no such thing as ‘the people’. It is a useful construct for representative democracy, which relies on the periodic engagement of voting citizens in a system that seeks to keep them as far away from power as possible. The job of the justices of the High Court was to define the obligations of the parliament in the context of the constitution. They did that, and the government is following constitutional process by appealing. But the real enemy of the people is the system itself. Will getting out of Europe change that? Or will we find that with no other system to blame, we recognize that the problems are much more difficult to solve?

New season of Gender and History in the Americas at the Institute of Historical Research

The Gender & History in the Americas seminar at the Institute of Historical Research will begin its 2016/2017 programme on Monday 3rd October. Full details for this academic year will be available at very soon.

In the meantime, please join the convenors and regular attendees on Monday 3rd October for our first session: a roundtable discussion on Hillary Clinton, gender and the US election. Professor Iwan Morgan (UCL), expert on the US Presidency, and Dr Sylvia Shaw (University of Westminster), socio-linguist with expertise on gender and language in political institutions, will share their perspectives on an election campaign which continues to be uniquely ‘gendered’. 

The event takes place at 5.30pm at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London in room 204, Senate House North Block. All are welcome to attend and to join us for drinks and dinner afterwards.

Please share this on relevant mailing lists, or with colleagues and students who may be interested in attending.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Will You Settle For Some Nostalgia?

Last Sunday I went to see the new exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution: Rebels and Records, 1966-1970’ which has recently opened at the V&A. For students of the 1960s, like me, this has been much anticipated, although with equal measures of hope and anxiety. As Alexis Petridis wrote in the Guardian a few weeks ago, the V&A’s treatment of the end of a ‘radical decade’ is not particularly revisionist. The curators Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes give us a rollicking ride through the more notorious happenings of the 1960s. In the words of Martin Roth, the Director of the V&A, the aim is to frame the counterculture in a way that “shows the incredible importance of that revolutionary period to our lives today”. But by maintaining the focus on the music and the ‘rebels’ of the decade, there is little real room for critical thought about the ways that music and rebellion were often uncomfortable bedfellows. After all, this was also the period when the modern music industry was born, and anti-establishment figures like Bob Dylan profited greatly from a new music capitalism and the cultural appropriation of African American musical genres. This is not to say that the exhibition is badly organized, or badly curated: it is not. Quite the opposite: it is a completely immersive experience of music and 60s nostalgia, and it is thoroughly enjoyable. But if you say you want a revolution, well, it doesn’t really give you that.

The first thing to say is that the exhibition is sponsored by Levi’s and Sennheiser. The product placement is everywhere. If one of the legacies of the 1960s is the monetization of what Tom Wolfe called ‘radical chic’, then the V&A have captured the sentiment perfectly. Several corridors before you get to the entrance of the exhibition space proper, a V&A assistant gives you a pair of Sennheiser headphones, and once they go on, you enter into a totally individual experience, with few points of communal reprieve. My wife Fiona was with me, and as soon as she put on her headphones she blew me a kiss goodbye from the tips of her fingers. Well, it wasn’t quite as final as that, but if we wanted to exchange any commentary as we walked around, we had to yell at each other. As we walked towards the entrance, stories of community and shared experience streamed through these personal headphones, a strange contradiction between the notional shared trip of the decade and the isolation produced by Sennheiser.

On Sunday afternoon, the V&A was already busy. The exhibition space itself was packed. As you enter, the first section is an assault of nostalgia: perhaps unsurprisingly, Beatlemania reigns supreme, and there is an impressive selection of handwritten Beatles lyrics and notes. Of course, all of this coincides nicely with the London opening of Ron Howard’s new documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week: a veritable cocoon of sixties nostalgia. An array of LP covers juxtaposed with paperback novels attempts to set the ideological tone of ‘revolution’. All the usual suspects are there: Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse. Not many women: the exception is Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which shares a display case with Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, symbolizing an ideological mishmash that we often forget was part of the youth experience. John Peel’s musical soundtrack is fabulous, but everybody was on their own individual trip (as Ken Kesey might have said), bopping to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel or clips from Radio Caroline or Radio Tiger, ‘the radio that listens to you.’ I felt controlled by the curation: the music transitions as you move from one part of the space to the next. It is relentless. It is inescapable. To paraphrase Kesey again, you are on the bus and you can only get off by throwing off the Sennheiser.

Around the corner in the next section, a large poster of a Blow Up magazine cover, featuring Vanessa Redgrave, reminds us how the 60s generation continues to occupy a significant place in today’s cultural imagination. While Redgrave kept her radical and left-wing credentials, many others did not. Most of the hippies grew up and got jobs in the new corporations of the 1980s. Jerry Rubin of the Yippies became a banker. Tom Hayden of SDS went into mainstream politics. In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee asked whether the baby boomers brought revolution, or neo-liberalism: the display of the first Barclaycard credit card is perhaps a nod to the answer. Not far away from the V&A, the gentrification of King’s Road is a testament to the failure of revolution.

There is no denying that the exhibition is slick. It is beautiful. It holds over 350 items, including album covers, books, posters, letters, clothes, furniture. It is incredibly impressive in its breadth, and it is visually impressive. There were some things that I hadn’t seen before. In the Psychedelic section, a poster for the AntiUniversity of London reminds us of a time before mass-availability of education raised the technocratic university to an art form.


Against the strains of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I could hear well heeled ladies in their sixties discussing which of the wide array of albums they owned. Ravi Shankar, Syd Barret, Black Widow’s 1970 Prog Rock album Sacrifice. Album covers are placed alongside iconic novels of the era: Hunter S. Thomson, Erich Von Daniken, the Children of Albion’s Poetry of the Underground, Theodore Roszak’s Making of a Counterculture. The maleness of it all is overwhelming. The women, in keeping with almost all narratives of the 1960s, have their own space towards the ‘end’ of the decade, alongside the gay rights section, and near the black power section. This is a classic sixties: the ‘identity politics’ that emerged towards the turn of the decade. It was an international movement: Kate Millett, Germaine Greer, Angela Davis and her raised fist: the movements that transcended and sought to undermine borders. This is further underscored by materials relating to the student movements in France and Germany, accompanied by the wonderful soundtrack of Claude Nougaro’s Paris Mai.

Two of my favourite objects are in this part of the exhibition. The first is Huey P Newton’s throne, immortalized by Sam Durant’s famous photo. I have seen reproductions of the photo hundreds of times, but the empty chair was striking.

Credit: American National Biography Online

The second item that really caught my eye was the papier-mâché figures of Lyndon B. Johnson and a Vietnamese mother and baby, which was produced and used by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. No photo: there is a strict no camera policy.

The rest of the exhibition asks us to think about the ‘defining moment’ of the 1960s. Is Robert Poole right when he says that the space programme was the ‘defining moment of the twentieth century’? Did Al Aronowitz get it right when he wrote in the New York Post that Woodstock was ‘probably the single greatest moment of the sixties’? Festivals, the space race, the Oz trial, Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup: idealism gives way to consumerism. The ‘recreation’ of the Woodstock festival space is the only part of the whole exhibition that is designed to be experienced communally: time to ditch the Sennheisers, sit on bean bags and experience images and sounds of Woodstock via huge cinema-style screens. Country Joe’s anti-war anthem was accompanied by karaoke lyrics, but I think it was just me and a couple of old guys who were singing along. By the time we arrived at this point, all the bean bags were already occupied. Some people were having a better version of the sixties than others.

The experience ends as it begins, with a nod to the Beatles. Or at least, with the remnants of a split Beatles. John Lennon’s Imagine plays unironically at the end, juxtaposed by newsreel catastrophe: Donald Trump, Wikileaks, the Paris attacks, Police brutality and #blacklivesmatter in the US. Did these things start in the sixties? Are they the legacy of the ‘excesses’ of the decade? Or did the revolution simply not happen? Even as the screens remind us of the important legislative changes (civil rights laws, the Equal Pay Act, decriminalization of abortion and homosexuality, among others) we are painfully aware that we are nowhere near the alternative that Lennon imagined. And as we emerge into the shop at the end, we could hear the woman ahead of Fiona say to the assistant, as she handed her Sennheisers back, that the whole experience was exhausting. It was. Relentless, immersive. But really worth a visit. #RecordsandRebels

Autobiography, women and movements for African American rights: a list

This is a bit of an experiment. I’m currently writing about autobiography, protest and gender in the Civil Rights, and Civil Rights-related, movements of the 1950s-1970s. I am particularly interested in female-authored texts, and so far my main targets have been Elaine Brown, Anne Moody, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, JoAnn Robinson and Winson Hudson. My plan is that over the next couple of years I want to work through a project to  examine the ways that women activists saw, and continue to see, the act of writing about their lives as an act of continued protest. There are many texts that I already know, but many others that I do not. I’m open to considering any variation on ‘life narrative’, at least at the outset, so I’m eager to hear of poetry collections, edited collections, and even fictionalised first person accounts by activists. The best thing to do at the start of these kinds of projects is to make a list, and so I’m going to start the list here. I hope others will add to the list in the comments section.

Elaine Brown, A Taste of Power (1992)

Anne Moody, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1968)

Angela Davis, An Autobiography (1974)

Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography (1988)

Afeni Shakur (with Jasmine Guy), Afeni Shakur: Evolution  of a Revolutionary (2004)

Winson Hudson, Mississippi Harmony: Memoir of a Freedom Fighter (2002) [with Constance Curry]

Constance Curry (ed.), Hands on the Freedom Plow (2010) [not strictly an autobiography, but a series of autobiographical sketches]

Judith Rollins, All is Never Said: the Narrative of Odette Harper Hines (1995) [an oral history, recounted to Rollins]


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.