March 2011 Archives

[WHM] Freedom Fighter

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On the last day of Women's History Month, I want to tell a personal story. This is the story of my great-great-grandmother, Gana Naidenova Stoilova.

You'll need to know a bit of Bulgarian history first. From the late 14th/early 15th century onwards, Bulgaria fell under the rule of the Ottoman empire. Bulgarian institutions, national identity, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church were all practically obliterated and assimilated into the structures of the Sultanate. This had a devastating impact on the Bulgarian population. Historians estimate that at the end of the 14th century there were around 1.3 million Bulgarians - a similar number to the populations of countries like Germany, France, or England at the time. 100 years into Ottoman rule, that number had dwindled to just 260,000. This population impact can be seen right through to today: whereas countries with a comparable 14th-century population now have populations upwards of 50 million, there are barely 10 million Bulgarians.

Bulgarian women were particularly harshly affected by the Ottoman occupation. They were already oppressed: subservient to their husbands, their activity pretty much limited to their own homes, with no social role outside the home. Domestic violence was wide-spread. What Ottoman rule added to this was the constant threat of violence from locally stationed Turkish soldiers or administrators, frequent abductions of Bulgarian women - either to be sold into slavery or forcibly converted to Islam, abductions of their children, especially boys who were converted to Islam and trained to fight in some of the most vicious units of the Empire's army. Bulgarian folklore is full of tales and songs about young women suffering terrible torture or even choosing to die rather than convert to Islam. One story, which I read when I was ten years old and which still sticks in my mind, is of 100 girls abducted into slavery who instead chose to braid their hair together and jump off the cliffs into the sea.

After 400 years of Ottoman rule, by the start of the 19th century economic and political conditions had changed sufficiently to allow for the beginning of a Bulgarian "National Revival" movement within the weakening Empire. There were two catalysts in particular: the first was a strong push for independence of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church; the second was increased levels of education and especially the teaching of the Bulgarian language in semi-religious and newly-established public schools. Women in particular had a pivotal role to play in the latter as the vast majority of teachers were women.

As the pace of the national revival picked up, with a small Bulgarian middle class beginning to emerge, so did the demands for political autonomy and self-government. Eventually, these demands culminated in the April Uprising, an armed revolt in the Balkan mountains in April 1876. For a number of reasons, the uprising wasn't as well prepared and didn't have the reach the organisers were hoping for. It was brutally crushed by the Ottoman army, and an estimated 15,000 Bulgarians - including women and children, sometimes whole towns - were killed in the process. This indirectly led to the establishment of an autonomous Bulgaria two years later.

Back to my great-great-grandmother...

Gana was born in Sopot in 1850. The town had had a reputation for resisting the Ottoman occupation since the very beginning in the 15th century, when it was completely destroyed in revenge for such resistance. As a young woman Gana moved to the town of Klisura where she became a teacher and became involved in the organisation of the April Uprising there.

Gana sewed and embroidered the flag for the uprising in Klisura. With money set aside from her teaching wages over five years, she bought fabric and sewed clothes for the fighters. The uprising found her in Klisura, and when the town was overrun by the Turks, she actually found herself fighting. She was captured, tortured (they cut off one of her breasts - I can't imagine her not being raped), escaped to Koprivshtitsa, and survived. She had seven or eight children, lived to see her country liberated, lived into the 20th century. A single photo of Gana survives (that my family is aware of). In it, she wears a medal she was awarded for her bravery and contribution to the uprising. Proud as I am to have her as my great-great-grandmother, Gana was not an exception. Bulgarian women contributed time, money, skills, and their lives to the uprising. They played a vital role in the national revival as teachers. They fought bravely, a lot of them died bravely.

Gana is the basis of the female lead character Rada in one of Bulgaria's greatest works of literature, Ivan Vazov's "Under the Yoke". I have a number of issues with the portrayal of Rada as a simpering love interest, as my great-great-grandmother clearly was neither of these things, but I am happy that some of her story is read by every Bulgarian school child to this day.

Gana's story brings me back to the theme I talked about at the start of Women's History Month: the way we as a society have historically restricted opportunities for women, and the way we value women's contributions to our history. I find Gana's story inspiring because she managed to overcome those obstacles in her own way. Her first contribution to the April Uprising was strictly within the sphere reserved for women: she made clothing and a flag. But when the time came to fight, she did, and did so bravely.

Do I wish she had lived in a time and place where her life was not characterised by violence? Yes. But in her time, in her place, this woman made a significant mark on the world. I don't generally believe that I can or should be proud of things I have not achieved myself. But I am proud of having Gana Naidenova Stoilova, freedom fighter, for a great-great-grandmother, and I am proud to tell her story.

Photo of Gana

[WHM Guest Post] A Tale of Two Elizabeths

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Kathryn Cann has kindly contributed a Women's History Month guest post. I was enlightened by this story of two women pioneers in the medical professions, I hope you are too. Enjoy Kathryn's post below!

Female Physician (Image via Wikipedia.)

This is a tale of two Elizabeths. Not the Queen Elizabeth I or II, worthy though they surely would have been of a Women's History Month post! No, these Elizabeths (Elizabeth Blackwell & Elizabeth Garrett) were pioneering doctors, and they helped break barriers for women in the medical profession, in many respects they also made a large contribution to winning the argument of that time about women's access to higher education.

No matter how well-known these two may be to feminists and women's historians they can never be well known enough to the mainstream, hence the reason for this reminder as Women's History Month draws to a close. We must make Women's History mainstream history, somehow.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821 to a Quaker Family that believed in the idea of equal rights. The family emigrated to the United States in 1832, and at private school Elizabeth became interested in medicine. At this time, women were not permitted to attend higher education establishments. Elizabeth Blackwell took a keen interest in medicine at school and decided that she wanted to be a doctor. After being rejected from 29 medical schools, the Geneva Medical College, New York, finally accepted her application. It is believed that the student body voted to allow her in, thinking that the application was a hoax. In any event on the 11th January 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first female* to graduate as a medical student. Here is an eyewitness account of the Graduation Ceremony (pdf format). It makes for a very interesting read!

*Of those that admitted their gender that is! We do not know how many women had posed as male to complete their medical studies.

After graduation, Elizabeth Blackwell was banned from being a doctor, and as she wanted to go on to be a surgeon, friends advised her to go to Paris. La Maternité would accept her but the downside was that she had to continue her training as a student midwife, not a physician. In November 1849, her hopes of becoming a surgeon came to an abrupt end when Dr. Blackwell picked up a serious eye infection that led to the loss of her right eye, and a replacement glass eye had to be fitted in its place.

This setback did not deter Elizabeth Blackwell and in 1853, along with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska, they founded the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children in Manhattan, New York. After the Infirmary was well established, she seems to have spent some of her time back in England, on lecture circuits and attending Bedford College before becoming the first woman to have her name put on the General Medical Council Medical Register in January 1859. Around this time, she met Elizabeth Garrett, inspiring her and countless other women to seek a career in the medical profession. Dr. Blackwell spent some of her time in Great Britain, organising the National Health Society and founding the London School of Medicine for Women. She later returned to the United States to train women to be nurses during the US Civil War and in 1868 established a Women's Medical College at the Manhattan Infirmary.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to successfully complete the medical qualifying exams in Great Britain. Born in Whitechapel, London in 1836, Garrett was introduced to the feminist scene in London in 1854, and met Dr. Blackwell, who inspired her to study to be a doctor, in 1859. At first she attended the Middlesex hospital as a nursing student, going to doctors' lectures normally only attended by male students. After half receiving a medical education but being the subject of too many complaints she was barred! It just wasn't the done thing to have females studying to do medical exams at the time. So Garrett had to find another way, and that she did. The Society of Apothecaries did not specifically forbid women from taking the examinations and in 1865 she passed, gaining a certificate to become a doctor. This loophole was swiftly closed behind her and no other women were allowed to enter this way. Elizabeth Garrett had become the second woman to have her name placed on the UK Medical Register and the first educated and qualified in Great Britain. She went on to set up her own dispensary and in doing so became the first woman to practice medicine in Britain. The dispensary grew into the New Hospital for Women, where Dr. Garrett worked for more than twenty years.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson also founded the London School of Medicine for Children, and in 1875, Elizabeth Blackwell was appointed professor of gynaecology. Both women throughout their lives and careers were strong advocates of women's suffrage and women's opportunities in higher education, arguing against spurious claims of the times that womens reproductive, general and mental health would suffer if they were allowed to participate in higher education.

Incidentally, Elizabeth Garrett's younger sister is Millicent Garrett Fawcett, after whom the Fawcett Society is named.

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first woman in England elected as mayor, in the town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk which had been their family's home-town for some years. A monument to Elizabeth Blackwell can be found at the site of the former Geneva Medical College, (now Hobart) New York. The New Hospital in London was renamed the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital but in 2005 the building was sold to UNISON, and is no more. A wing at the University Hospital London is named after Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and an art exhibition in her honour was held there in 2009.

Cross Posted at miscellani.org/blog/

[Elsewhere] Giants in the playground

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Earlier this month, Jon Bon Jovi accused Steve Jobs of killing the music industry [1]. (I would link to the original source but it's behind the Times paywall, so I'll save you the hassle). The same day, I came across this article on PaidContent.org, a website covering "the economics of digital content".

It looks at the proposed review of copyright law in the UK, and some of the key vested interests involved. Representatives of the music industry in particular, such as Fergal Sharkey, are attacking the government's fledgling plans for copyright reform - and not because they're afraid of "piracy" but because they are afraid of Google and the technology industry in general.

Read more at ORGZine.

[WHM] A small piece of the long struggle for bodily autonomy

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This is going to be my penultimate Women's History Month post, and I want to take a moment to raise awareness of an issue that is often shrouded in secrecy and shame, and that is integral to women's history. Even in Britain where abortion is (more or less)[1] legal the women who dare speak up about having had an abortion are rare and brave.

In Ireland (both North and South), the picture is different entirely. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, and constitutionally outlawed in the Republic of Ireland. So women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant and do not want to continue the pregnancy (they may be too poor, have too many children already, be in an abusive relationship, find themselves pregnant as a result of rape - there are as many reasons as there are women seeking abortion) have only one option - travel to England for a termination.

As abortions are not available on the NHS for either Irish or Northern Irish women, the significant cost of the procedure at a private clinic is added to the travel costs, the potential costs of childcare while away, and in some cases the costs of staying overnight in England.

In the 1980s a number of Irish women living in London got together to form the Irish Women's Abortion Support Group. The history of the group is documented in Ann Rossiter's "Ireland's Hidden Diaspora". Here are a few highlights.

The group was entirely unfunded/self-funded. Rossiter herself says they did "sponsored swims, sponsored walks, sponsored weight loss, and sponsored anything else we could think of." The vast majority of the work of the group consisted of providing Irish women with information (not readily available, and at times illegal to obtain), overnight accommodation when they came over for the procedure, financial support, and also escorting them to the clinic.

This kind of "welfare feminism" (as Rossiter calls it) is an example of the way "women's issues" are left to be dealt with by women - usually at great cost, with no support from the state, and in secret and shame. Like violence against women, unavailability of abortion is one of those areas where the cost is almost exclusively born by women. We raise the money, we support each other, we provide a sympathetic ear to our friends when they break down crying on the anniversary or their abortion, we keep the secrets, we get on with it - quietly, efficiently, out of the way of "mainstream society".

Towards the end of the 1990s, as the Irish economy boomed and credit and low-cost flights became more readily available, the IWASG was wound down. With the recent economic crisis, however, Irish women are yet again finding it more and more difficult to raise the money to travel to the UK for a termination. Which is why the Abortion Support Network (ASN) started up.

I honestly can't remember how I first came across ASN, though if I had to guess I would say it was through Twitter. I donated money to one of their appeals, and have been getting their monthly updates in my inbox ever since, a constant reminder of the continued struggle of so many Irish women for bodily autonomy. Reading the stories of women helped by ASN, and some of the stories documented by Ann Rossiter, the one thing that strikes me is how little has changed in 30 years. The guilt, the shame and the social stigma are all still there. But with every grant ASN makes, a woman gets her life back. And that is an amazing achievement for a small, chronically underfunded group of women operating on the fringes of society.

[1] Abortion in the UK is only legal to prevent a negative impact on the woman's physical or mental health or if there are severe foetal abnormalities. Two doctors have to sign off a woman's request for an abortion. While the guidelines are interpreted extremely liberally so that de facto abortion is available here on request, the legal situation is somewhat murky. Every few years, there is an attempt to further restrict abortion rights. There is, in fact, one going on right now. All this despite the fact that having an abortion is medically safer than carrying a child to term.

The Census, Part Deux

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After pointing out a couple of weeks ago that the census is a political tool, tonight I decided to use it as such. As we know, the census is being administered by a US arms manufacturer who is hoping to make a significant profit off our tax money. After carefully considering the arguments (please read!), I decided that my initial responses to the census had not been quite helpful and informative enough.

Unfortunately, adding the extra information has required me to cross out my original answers and then scribble the new ones all over the page. My handwriting's not very good I'm afraid, but Lockheed Martin, the British state, and future generations will now know many more exciting facts about me:

  • I found, for instance, that the options provided in Household Question 7 (What type of accommodation is this?) did not quite match the type of house I live in. So I explained what a Tyneside flat was.
  • While my flat has two bedrooms, I felt the need to explain that one of them is known and used as "the laundry and campaign materials room".
  • I was offended by the phrasing of Personal Question 2 (What is your sex?) and explained that while I was female, I found this question limiting and offensive on behalf of the many transgender and intersex people in the UK.
  • I explained that I had come to live in the UK in "the month of September nineteen-ninety-nine, current era".
  • I felt the need to elaborate on the state of my health (Personal Question 13): "Very good. I can kick people in the head from cold."
  • When asked about my ethnic group, I first felt compelled to explain that Gypsy and Irish Traveller were two distinct ethnic groups. I then described myself as "a sort of pinkish colour that people tend to call white".
  • Question 17 has been deliberately answered. It now tells the government that I think they should be asking about sexual orientation too.
  • I struggled with Question 19 the first time round, so I gave a much fuller explanation of my language capabilities. I also explained in Question 20 that my English was very good, as I could tell the difference between "affect" and "effect", which many of my English colleagues couldn't.
  • When talking about my nationality I complained that I was not allowed dual citizenship.
  • When asked about my employment, I pointed out that as well as a full-time job I was also volunteering for four separate organisations, and that I thought they should be asking about this, what with the Big Society and all.
  • Oh, and then they wanted to know my precise job title and description. I was very precise indeed.

To help with processing, I have carefully coloured in all the barcodes, and I plan to staple the form closed to make sure it is tamper-proof (wouldn't want unauthorised persons to view my personal data), and put it in the envelope with the "Visitor Questions" section visible through the window as that is surely the most urgent information they will want to know.

[WHM] Till death do us part

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I was intrigued by this article by David Allen Green on marriage. I happen to agree with Mr. Green on this: marriage is a legal and economic contract and love and romance only get in the way of that. Far too many people say "I do" without really understanding the legal and financial implications. Yet, when I once casually inquired of my solicitor what those implications were, he looked at me like I'd grown a second head.

Historically, marriage has been an extremely important social and economic institution, and one that has had an enormous impact on the social status of women. So I'd like to have a look today at marriage through the ages within the Western/Judeo-Christian context.

Marriage as a legal and economic contract:

I feel like stating the obvious here, but it is surprising how many people don't realise the full legal and financial implications, and the simple fact that marriage is, above all, a legal and economic contract. Even some of our most "romantic" customs today have evolved from economic necessity. Engagement rings, for instance, date back to Germanic tribes, where they were a downpayment on the bride price the groom paid the bride's family. Another good example is how marriage custom changes with economic conditions. Early Jewish law as captured in Deuteronomy makes levirate marriage (where a brother has to marry his deceased brother's widow) compulsory, while later writers (Leviticus) prohibit it.

For the majority of our history, marriage has been a way of regulating property rights, over money, land, but also children. Modern tendencies to grant custody of children to the mother are actually an innovation - historically custody defaulted to the father. This also explains the historical importance placed on a bride's virginity, as it provided a measure of certainty of paternity.

Hendrik Hartog points us to the concept of "coverture" - the idea that in legal terms a husband spoke for his wife who couldn't, for instance, own property in her own right. This arrangement makes marriage through the ages unequal by definition. Only in the last couple of hundred years have we moved, slowly, towards an understanding of marriage as a contract between legal equals.

The rise of romantic love in marriage:

The ideas of love and marriage were for a very long time seen as incompatible. Through the middle ages in Europe, marriages tended to be arranged by families, often without even a meeting between the bride and groom before the wedding. A good illustration of the emergence of romantic love is Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur - a 15th-century retelling of older English and French tales about, among others, King Arthur. The book includes both the story of the love triangle between King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, and the much older tale of Tristan and Isolde.

Superficially, the stories are similar: queen falls in love with knight who is not her husband. The main difference, which hints at the difference in period of origin, is that there is no meaningful relationship at all between Isolde and her husband King Mark. Guinevere, on the other hand, genuinely loves both Arthur and Lancelot.

While even into last century marriage was the only legal expression of sexuality, there have been periods, notably the 12th century, when a strong belief was held that love was impossible in marriage and could only be found in adultery. The idea that love and marriage actually go together is much more recent.

Hartog argues (in a US context which, however, is largely also reapplicable to Western Europe) that over the last 200 years we have seen the gradual evolution of marriage into an expression of an individual's right to happiness.

Divorce:

When researching this post, one of the things I found most surprising was the varied history of divorce. I expected that divorce wouldn't really come onto the scene until the 20th century (unless of course you were Henry VIII). And while in many cultures - for instance ancient Israel - divorce was frowned upon or prohibited, it was quite common for the Romans. There were even periods in Roman history when husband and wife could divorce by mutual agreement - something which has yet to return to all of Europe. In the post-Roman period and early middle ages, marriage was often still seen as a civil legal contract. It was not until the 12th century that the Christian church began to extend its influence and marriage became a sacrament. It was due to these changes that marriage was declared insoluble except by death. Combined with other factors like coverture, this pretty much put women under mens' control for their entire lives.

It is only with the recent reframing of marriage as an expression of the right to happiness and as a contract between two equals that divorce has really started being relevant again, and that we have made any progress in divorce legislation. Initial progress was the legalisation of divorce when one party was at fault, e.g. through infidelity or other acts deemed "incompatible with the marriage". No-fault divorce is still not available in many countries around the world. Even in the US, it was not available in the state of New York until 2010.

Same-sex marriage:

Strangely enough, it is only when we start looking at same-sex marriage that the oppressive effects of historical, "traditional" marriage on women become really apparent. I was struck by a recent post on Conservative Home which claimed the Britain has the most "anti-family" tax system in Europe. When you look at how this is calculated, it becomes apparent that the implied Conservative definition of "family" is a unit of one man who goes out to work, one woman who stays at home and two kids. When traditional, segregated gender roles are so deeply embedded in your world view it is not surprising that [c/C]onservatives find it difficult to deal with families where both partners are of the same sex. Ask any gay couple and they will tell you of the countless times someone has asked them "So which one of you is the man and which the woman?" It is this expectation of gender roles which is damaging to women and LGBT people alike. For a slightly satirical but ultimately very down-to-earth look at gender roles and same-sex marriage, I highly recommend Gay marriage: the database engineering perspective.

The LGBT community has had an inconsistent history when it comes to marriage. Historically, some LGBT people have rejected marriage as an institution, due to the history of oppression it comes with. More recently, marriage equality campaigns have been successful around the world. One of my favourite stats is that until about six months ago there were more countries in the world who executed people for being gay than countries which permitted same-sex marriage. I am incredibly pleased that this has now changed. Ten countries and a few other jurisdictions, including several US states and the Native American Coquille Nation, currently permit same-sex marriage, with several others recognising marriages performed in other countries or having other forms of same-sex civil unions.

Cohabitation:

Finally, here we are in the 21st century, and while a lot of people still get married - some even to people of their own sex - and some get divorced, a lot of us choose to simply cohabit. If marriage is not about "ownership" of property or children anymore, if it is no longer the only legally sanctioned form of sexual expression, a lot of people simply no longer see a point in it.

Of course, there is still a point. Being recognised as husband and wife or as civil partners by the state confers a whole lot of rights and obligations on you. I am reliably told that the UK Civil Partnership Act was one of the most complex pieces of UK legislation: as the intention was to make civil partnerships equal to marriage, all of the same legal rights, privileges and obligations has to be included - apparently right down to changes in the Abattoirs Act.

Things like being allowed to visit your partner in hospital and make decisions for them if they are incapable of doing so themselves can be hugely important. In case of separation, figuring out how to split property can be a challenge, whether you are married or not, but unmarried women tend to suffer disproportionately financially at the end of a relationship. Every few years someone comes up with the idea that cohabiting couples should be given some rights.

I must admit I am ambivalent about this. We've already established that the smart thing to do would be to take independent legal advice before you get married. I don't particularly want to have to do that before I move in with someone too. As it is, the state already treats my partner and me as married for benefits purposes, so even though he is currently looking for a job, he is not receiving any job seekers' allowance or any other benefits. I am expected to support him, pretty much regardless of how long we've been together for, what the nature of our relationship is, or how long ago we moved in together.

Marriage through the ages is a highly complex subject, and this post has barely scratched the surface. What I hope it has shown is that women have only recently become equal partners in this institution, that the current arrangements around the world vary wildly, especially when it comes to provisions for divorce and same-sex marriage, and that cohabitation, too, comes with its own set of thorny issues. Food for thought as we near the end of Women's History Month.

[Elsewhere] Free your gadgets

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I would be willing to bet you a not-insubstantial amount of money that Steve Jobs would love to be able to say that the iPhone was the first mobile phone to control a space craft. But it's not going to be. Instead, British scientists are planning to put an Android phone - exact model to be confirmed - in space.

Read more at ORGZine.

In defence of Stonewall in the UK

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It may be the largest LGB rights charity in the UK (and, apparently, in Europe), but Stonewall is hardly immune to controversy. In fact, for LGBT activists, it's a little bit like Marmite. As a member of the LGBT network at my workplace, I am involved with Stonewall's Diversity Champions programme, and that gets me the occasional sneer from other activists outside of work. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was attending last Friday's annual Stonewall Workplace Conference, I got a link to this call to protest Theresa May's appearance as a keynote speaker at the event. (I must admit I myself found Theresa May an... interesting choice of guest speaker, and wanting to hear what she had to say on the subject of LGB rights was a major factor in my decision to attend the event.)

The controversies that surround Stonewall range from their on-again, off-again relationship with the trans community (Stonewall Scotland include trans rights in their remit, Stonewall GB don't; they came under fire for nominating Julie Bindel, who is known for transphobic comments, for a journalist of the year award) to them being rather late to the party when it comes to campaigning for full marriage equality. Chief Executive Ben Summerskill himself openly admits that Stonewall is not a democratic organisation and does not speak for all lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Frankly, given the diversity inherent in the LGB community, I'd be much more worried if he claimed otherwise.

What Stonewall does do very successfully is present the "respectable" face of LGB activism. It's a bit like putting on a tie makes you trustworthy enough to give financial advice: wearing a suit, getting banks to host your champagne receptions and schmoozing with politicians suddenly makes you look like you're part of the mainstream. And once you look like you're part of the mainstream, people are a lot more willing to engage with you. It is not a reflection on Stonewall but on the way our society values conformity.

And so on the train back from the Workplace Conference I reflected on Stonewall's modus operandi and their achievements. This was after all the day I had heard Theresa May - a woman with an absolutely appalling voting record on LGB rights - declare that the government she was part of was considering introducing full marriage equality for same-sex couples. She sounded a little bit like someone was holding a gun to her head, but let's face it - this government is talking the talk, and we're beginning to see evidence of walking the walk. Ms. May had to leave the event before the Q&A session to be in the House of Commons for the Prime Minister's statement on Libya, so I never got to ask her what made her change her mind. With hindsight, I am glad I didn't get the opportunity, as I was not in the right frame of mind.

See, the conclusion I have reached since is that if someone like Theresa May is both saying the right words and backing them up with the right actions, even if they're screaming on the inside, I should perhaps not challenge them. I would still like to know what made Ms. May change her mind - not in order to be contrary but because I would like to learn from this success how to persuade others with a similar history of opinion to hers.

I do believe Stonewall's work in reaching out to political and business leaders, making the business case for equality with employers, and making LGB activism appear cozy and safe has a lot to do with some of the conversions we have seen. Combined with being prepared to challenge discrimination in the courts, for instance on LGB people serving in the armed forces, this carrot and stick approach has allowed us to make massive progress in the area of LGB rights over the last ten or so years.

Did you know that until eight years ago, teachers could not talk about homosexuality in schools - and most of them took that to mean they could not intervene in homophobic bullying cases? Only eight years ago you could be sacked from a job just for being lesbian, gay or bisexual. Until seven years ago there was no legal recognition for same-sex couples. And four years ago it was still legal to deny someone the provision of a good or service (even when they were paying you!), again, just because of who they were. These are not things which Stonewall has achieved single-handedly - but their contribution towards the rapid change in the legal situation of LGB people in the UK is highly significant.

Do I want Stonewall to embrace trans rights across the UK? To be honest, I'd like Stonewall to listen to trans people and do whatever is right for them, whether that is backing out of the space entirely or embracing it in a way that is truly constructive. Do I think they get every single thing right in their campaigns? No, but what organisation ever does? Do I believe they should have a more collaborative approach to other LGB charities in the UK? Oh yes. But do I also believe that Stonewall does extremely valuable work on behalf of lesbian, gay and bisexual people across the UK? Unequivocally, YES.

[Elsewhere] The future of TV has just arrived

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Netflix, the US TV and movie streaming service has been in the news rather a lot recently. It seems Hollywood can't quite figure out whether it should be embracing or trying to kill the company.

As Greg Sandoval points out, Netflix is posing significant commercial challenges to Hollywood's current business models and distribution channels. It competes - with astounding success - with channels as diverse as DVD sales, movie sales to airlines, and cable and broadcast television.

Read more at ORGZine.

[WHM] The women of Station X

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As a geek, Bletchley Park is one of my favourite places in the world. Today, it houses the National Museum of Computing as well as the National Codes Centre. During World War II, this top secret location was the main code-breaking site in the UK, intercepting and decoding German messages.

Bletchley often features in LGBT history as the place of work of mathematician and computing pioneer Alan Turing, who as well as being a genius was also gay and was tragically hounded to death by the state because of it. It was only in 2009 that the UK government officially apologised for the state's actions in this matter.

What is less well known about Bletchley Park (or Station X, as it was known during the war) is that the vast majority of the 12,000 people stationed there over the course of the war (around 80%!) were women. While the senior officers and most of the mathematicians and cryptographers were men, there was a lot of manual clerical work and machine operation to be done which was performed by women. Anything from transcribing coded messages to operating Turing's Bombe machines for decoding Enigma messages - one of the most demanding jobs on site - was done by women.

One of the ways in which women were recruited to Station X was through Times Crossword competitions. You needed people with good general knowledge, outstanding analytical and problem solving skills, and ability to work under pressure. What better way to find them than to set a challenge to solve the Times Crossword in under 12 minutes? Those who did were offered a position at Bletchley Park - and those reluctant to take it up were offered the most ghastly alternatives available, providing a good incentive to move to the relative peace and quiet of the countryside.

At its peak, there were 9,000 people stationed at Bletchley Park in January 1945, all of whom needed to stay in touch with their families. The quiet town of Bletchley couldn't be seen to attract attention through vast quantities of post, so up to four separate addresses were set up, all of which redirected to the secret Bletchley Park post office. There was a limit on the number of letters the women could send and receive each week, and the arrival of post from their families had an appreciable effect on the women's morale.

Women's contributions to the war effort at Bletchley Park were not something I was aware of until I visited there a few months ago. It is definitely something that deserves a lot more attention than it gets, and therefore a perfect topic for Women's History Month.

[Elsewhere] Who owns your Twitter username?

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When you signed up to Twitter, did you read the small print? Or did you just scroll past the 10-line box of monospaced font Twitter gives you to view their Terms of Service (which are actually six-and-a-half pages long, excluding the "Twitter Rules" which are also part of the ToS), and click "Create Account"? If you're anything like me, you probably did the latter, and thus missed the following crucial point:

Read more at ORGZine.

[Elsewhere] Maker Faire 2011

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Maker Faire UK is a two-day celebration of creativity, sharing and the pure joy of making things, which took over Newcastle's two main science venues, the Centre for Life and the Discovery Museum, over the weekend of March 12th and 13th. It's an event with a long tradition in the US, and this year saw its third UK incarnation.

Read more at ORGZine.

What No2AV don't tell you about the BNP

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[We interrupt your Women's History Month schedule for a public service announcement on electoral reform.]

I was unimpressed with Councillor Terence Paul's contribution to the electoral reform debate. In a piece which is frankly insulting to the intelligence of voters - BME or otherwise - Mr Paul questions Operation Black Vote's support of the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign. With choice quotes from Nick Griffin, Mr Paul raises the spectre of bus-loads of BNP MPs, all in our Parliament thanks to the Alternative Vote.

Leaving aside the questionable underlying premise that people whose views we find distasteful should not be represented, the argument the Councillor makes is still tenuous. It tries to create a false equivalence between the Alternative Vote and Proportional Representation by claiming, among other things, that the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign would like the former to become a stepping stone for the latter. So let's get our facts straight.

Firstly, the Alternative Vote and Proportional Representation are not one and the same thing. Even the No to AV campaign goes to great lengths to point this out, in an attempt to divide and conquer pro-reform voters.

Secondly, neither the Yes To Fairer Votes nor the No to AV campaign have an official position on Proportional Representation. What is on the table on May 5th is a choice between First Past the Post and the Alternative Vote, and this is what the campaign is all about. Claiming that the Yes to Fairer Votes campaign wants AV to be a stepping stone to PR is a bit like claiming that everyone in the No campaign wants to keep FPTP - it is simply not true.

Thirdly - and this is the really important bit - the British National Party is actively campaigning against the Alternative Vote. Does this look to you like the action of a party which believes it will massively benefit from a change to AV?

I find it a constant source of amusement how the No campaign continues to rely on the bogeyman of the BNP for its scare tactics, while at the same time being supported by them. What is even more ludicrous are the repeated attempts to square the circle by scaring us with the prospect of the BNP in Parliament, while keeping supporters of other small parties on side. Here is my favourite quote from the No to AV website:

"AV ensures that the BNP will gain more votes and more legitimacy, while not giving any help to small parties like the Green Party."

Quite how this will be achieved is never explained.

I, for one, have had enough of the No campaign's attempts to create fear, uncertainty and doubt, enough of lies, half-truths and bad arguments. I believe voters deserve our respect, and to be treated as intelligent human beings. Arguments like Terence Paul's simply don't wash.

What is on the table are not bus-loads of BNP MPs but a small change to our voting system which will make a big difference for voters. It will give us a stronger voice and give MPs an incentive to work harder to represent us all. You can vote for that, or you can vote to keep first-past-the-post, the system which keeps MPs in jobs so safe that some of them don't even bother to hold a surgery in their constituency.

Whichever way you choose to vote, I hope it's on the basis of facts and truth, rather than fear.

[WHM] The census as a political tool

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Earlier this week, I received my 2011 UK Census form. There are a number of things that are wrong with it. Top of the list, of course, is that it's being administered by a US arms manufacturer which among other things raises significant questions about confidentiality. The way some of the questions are asked, as well as the questions which are omitted, are also problematic. "What is your sex?" with the options "Male" and "Female" leaves thousands of transgender and intersex people unrepresented and unaccounted for. The fact that we are still not asking about sexual orientation, despite "Civil Partnership" being one of the marital statuses available on the questionnaire, is inexcusable. While Civil Partnerships will give you a very rough idea that gay people exist in the country, not all gay people will be the marrying kind, and to top it off those of us who are bisexual are completely invisible. "Gypsy and Irish Traveller" is presented as a single ethnic sub-group under "White" - putting the census on the same level as Channel 4's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding when it comes to understanding of ethnic groups. Personally, I also had some fun with the questions about national identity (European) and language (English is both my third and my main language at the moment).

My own gripes with the census aside, there have been a few census-related political campaigns recently. They range from the sublimely hilarious suggestion on how to answer Question 17, to calls to boycott the census, to the BHA's campaign to get people to make a distinction between belonging to a cultural tradition related to a religion, and being genuinely religious. So what does all of this have to do with Women's History Month?

This is not the first time the census has been used for political campaigning. There are at least two prominent cases of the Women's Suffrage movement using the 1911 census as a campaign tool. This Times article from 1911 documents Suffragists' efforts to evade the census, while this 2009 article reveals the extent of the campaign, evident from the 1911 census data released in 2009. Women spoiled their census forms, for instance by writing "If I am intelligent enough to fill in this paper, I am intelligent enough to put a cross on a voting paper." They had a point.

One woman truly stands out in this. Emily Davison is better known for giving her life for the cause of Women's Suffrage by jumping in front of the King's Horse at Epsom. 2 years earlier, however, she spent a night hiding in a broom cupboard in the House of Commons so that she could register that as her residence on the day of the census.

The census is an extremely powerful tool. Census data is used to allocate funding for public services, to understand current demographics and trends, to help us build a picture of who we are as a society. Completing the census or otherwise is a political act, and an act of self-expression. The Women's Suffrage movement knew this, and clearly a lot of people today know it. Moreover, 2011 may be your last opportunity to perform this particular political act. Relish it!

[Elsewhere] Online community shames minister out of office

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Much has been talked recently about what (if any) impact Twitter has on revolutions, and what Wikileaks will do for Western democracy. Mr. Morozov's glum assessment aside, technology is having a massive impact on the relationship between the state and the individual in many areas - sometimes to the advantage of the state and sometimes otherwise.

Read more at ORGZine.

I read a lot of science fiction, as I find imagining the future is a good way of examining our past and present. As Cory Doctorow points out in his latest Locus column, explaining something to a Martian is a great tool for disentangling the mess of practical arrangement and moral judgment that tend to lead to our way of life. So today I'd like to look at an aspect of women's history by starting from the future.

"Looking Through Lace" by Ruth Nestvold is a science fiction short story which I first encountered in Sex, The Future, & Chocolate Chip Cookies, the first James Tiptree Award anthology. Let's take two steps back: James Tiptree, Jr. was the pen name of science fiction author Alice B. Sheldon. As it was not known until ten years into her writing career that Sheldon was a woman, she did a lot to break down perceptions and prejudice about "typically male or female" writing. The award bearing Tiptree's name has been given out annually since 1991 to works in science fiction or fantasy which expand and explore our understanding of gender. I have read many delightful and thought-provoking pieces of writing as a result of the Tiptree award and would highly recommend books and stories which have been shortlisted or won it. One final warning before we move on: if you are planning to read "Looking Through Lace", do it now - this post will contain spoilers.

***

Great, you're back.

"Looking Through Lace" starts as a somewhat predictable feminist first contact story: an all-male first contact team encounters a matriarchal society. A female linguist (Toni) is quickly brought on board as the matriarchs refuse to have anything to do with the men on the team. The set-up is not dissimilar to Marion Zimmer Bradley's "Ruins of Isis".

At a first glance, the new culture appears to be purely oral - the contact team can't find any evidence of written records. At the same time, the women appear to be very involved with a kind of needlework, not unlike crochet or lace making. They even bring their crochet into meetings, and finished pieces of lace are often displayed on walls as decoration. Men, it is said, are not permitted to make lace - it is not manly.

What emerges eventually is that the "lace" is actually writing - and that discovery made me physically sick. The story is set up perfectly for maximum impact: from the first contact team's condescending attitude towards what they see as a typical female activity of lace making, their incomprehension of why men would want to engage in this in the first place, to the reversal of gender roles compared to our own history - for me everything was lined up perfectly for an insight to hit me like lightning.

For me personally, language is a key part of my identity - I am fluent in three. The subset of language that is written is hugely important in my life: I earn my living (indirectly) reading and writing things. A lot of the time - like right now - I interact with the world through reading and writing. When I'm sad, or angry, or frustrated, I write; when I'm happy, I write. (It gets me into trouble sometimes.) When I want to know something, I read up on it; when I want to relax, I read; when I want to think, I read! If I was not allowed to read and write, I would not be me: I would be materially and spiritually poorer, I would quite literally not be the same person.

This is why "Looking Through Lace" had such a powerful impact on me: it pointed me at our own history, at the countless generations of women who were not allowed to learn to read or write, whose history was taken away from them - and from us - because they had no way of recording it.

So today I would like to celebrate just a few of the remarkable women who - despite everything - did manage to write, and whose voices have remained with us through the ages.

Claudia Severa was not a philosopher, or theologian, or social commentator, or writer of fiction. What she wrote was "I shall expect you, sister. Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail." The reason this is remarkable is that it is the oldest known Roman document written by a woman. It was found in a Roman fort called Vindolanda, about 30 miles from where I live. The Vindolanda tablets give us a remarkable insight into life on the borders of the Empire around 100CE. They show a bustling town, more than a military fort, where officers' wives lived with their husbands, wrote to each other, and invited each other to birthday parties. The tablets are exhibited at the British museum, yet looking at its description of the Vindolanda tablets, you would hardly know this document existed.

Heloise was a 12th-century French nun, whose lengthy correspondence with her former lover Pierre Abélard ranges from emotional to spiritual and philosophical matters. The telling of Heloise's story often focuses on her romantic relationship with Abélard, sidelining her contributions to medieval theology.

Sei Shōnagon was a Japanese courtier and social commentator in the late 10th and early 11th century. She is known as the author of the "Pillow Book", a remarkably readable and at times extremely witty collection of diary entries, musings, observations and poems. As well as being supremely entertaining, Shōnagon gives us a brilliant insight into life at the Emperor's court. Here is an excerpt from the Penguin edition translated by Ivan Morris:

A good lover will behave as elegantly at dawn as at any other time. He drags himself out of bed with a look of dismay on his face. That lady urges him on: "Come, my friend, it's getting light. You don't want anyone to find you here." He gives a deep sigh, as if to say that the night had not been nearly long enough and that it is agony to leave. Once up, he does not instantly pull on his trousers. Instead he comes close to the lady and whispers whatever was left unsaid during the night. Even when he is dressed, he still lingers, vaguely pretending to be fastening his sash.

We learn so much about relationships between men an women in Shōnagon's society from this one passage! Shōnagon comes across as confident, empowered, often opinionated, highly intelligent. She is an absolute delight to read.

Murasaki Shikibu was a contemporary (and rival) of Sei Shōnagon's. Murasaki is known as the author of The Tale of Genji, generally regarded as the world's first novel.

These four women for me showcase the full spectrum - from writing about "women's things" which our culture doesn't value (Claudia Severa's birthday party invitation), right through to playing on the big stage - writing novels and making contributions to philosophy and theology. We should celebrate them and treasure them, along with the few other women whose words still reach us through the ages. We should, above all, be aware of how privileged we are to live in a time where reading and writing is not considered "un-feminine", and we should be aware that there are still parts of the world today where wanting an education is life-threatening for a girl. We have a duty to those who have gone before us, both recorded and unrecorded, and to our less fortunate contemporaries to remember, to raise awareness, and to keep writing. This is what Women's History Month and International Women's Day are all about.

[Elsewhere] Copyright gone mad

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Earlier this week, BoingBoing covered the story of Zazzle - an online merchandise company - taking down a badge which read "While you were reading Tolkien I was watching Evangelion". The original story alleged that this was prompted by the Tolkien Estate claiming copyright infringement, though subsequently it has emerged that it was actually Zazzle acting on their own initiative who caused the withdrawal of the product.

Read more at ORGZine.

[WHM] Lise Meitner

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As the first of my Women's History Month posts, this is a little reprise of one of my Ada Lovelace Day posts from last year. Ada Lovelace Day is all about raising awareness of women past and present in science and technology. One of the women I chose to write about last year was Lise Meitner.

I found out about Meitner by chance, on my way home from work, listening to Radio 4's Great Lives. Given that she was Austrian, that I carry and Austrian passport, and that I completed most of my education in the Austrian school system, this is practically criminal. Thank you Austrian education system, for failing to acknowledge even Austrian women's contributions to science, for failing to present me with female role models in the sciences, for being incredibly uninspiring when it came to both science and history education. Thank you BBC, for finally bringing this amazing woman to my attention!

Lise Meitner in 1900

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 to a Jewish family. She studied physics and became the second woman to obtain a doctoral degree from the University of Vienna. She moved to Berlin where she became Max Planck's assistant (the Max Planck of the Planck Constant but also the Max Planck who wouldn't, before Meitner, even allow women into his lectures).

Most of Meitner's research was in collaboration with the chemist Otto Hahn. In the early 1930s they worked on attempts to create elements heavier than uranium by bombarding heavy nuclei with neutrons. With the rise of Hitler in Germany and the Anschluss of Austria, it became unsafe for Meitner to remain in Germany and she fled to Stockholm. From Stockholm, she continued her correspondence with Otto Hahn, who by that point was getting some really interesting experimental results from his attempts to create heavy elements - what he found was that as he bombarded heavy nuclei with neutrons, the output was actually lighter elements.

It was Meitner, with her physics background, who provided the theoretical explanation for what Hahn was seeing in the lab. She suggested that, instead of sticking to the nucleus and making it heavier, the neutrons were actually splitting it into two smaller nuclei - the process we now know as neutron-induced fission.

As the practical implications of her work were recognised, Meitner was invited to join the Manhattan Project, which she declined. Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on nuclear fission, while Meitner was not recognised. In later life, she even refused to appear in a documentary about the atomic bomb as she did not want her name associated with it, though she is believed to have been bitter about not receiving any official credit and recognition for her work on fission.

Lise Meitner was a pioneer, not just as a female physicist, but of physics in general. In my last post I talked about how restrictive gender roles result in women being denied access to certain areas of life as well as women's contributions to those areas they do traditionally have access to generally being less valued. Meitner's career in particular, and women in the sciences in general illustrate that first effect very well. Where higher education was easily available to men of a certain wealth and standing at dedicated institutions, Lise Meitner had to complete hers privately, and had to fight to be allowed to do a PhD. She had to fight to be allowed into Max Planck's lectures. She had no role models to follow, and had to create her own path, and yet she managed to contribute to one of the 20th century's most significant discoveries in science.

To date, only five women have won a Nobel prize in physics or chemistry, and two of those come from the same family! Another ten have won the Nobel prize in medicine, and there has been a single female winner in the Economics category. This is not because women are not good at science! People like Lise Meitner, Marie Curie, Claire Gmachl and many, many others more than prove that. It is because, historically, there has been a lot direct discrimination against women, and even today the way career structures in the sciences are set up indirectly discriminates against women who are not willing to sacrifice all else to get to the top.

By being aware of our history, by talking about the female role models that do exist, and by constantly challenging the structures which favour men and disadvantage women, hopefully we will be able to get to a truly level playing field where women are enabled and empowered to make outstanding contributions to science, and where those contributions are recognised and rewarded accordingly.

[Elsewhere] Selling the Internet

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One of the three things I learned from my economics & politics degree (I'll tell you the other two some other time) is neatly summarised by the following stat: out of said three-year degree, we spent one week learning how the free market worked, and the remaining time learning about all the ways in which it doesn't.

Read more at ORGZine.

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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