The Power of Language.

My computer is running very slow this morning so rather than fire up my thesis document and feel frustrated at the pinwheel of doom that keeps appearing I thought I would ramble here. This is a free-writing exercise so may not make sense by the end …

Part of my research involves the decoding of culturally loaded language. For example when someone uses the word ‘spinster’ what ‘extra’ meaning does that word convey? The OED lists spinster as

a. Appended to names of women, originally in order to denote their occupation, but subsequently (from the 17th century) as the proper legal designation of one still unmarried.

b. A woman still unmarried; esp. one beyond the usual age for marriage, an old maid.

But if you describe someone as a ‘spinster’ today what images would that conjure up? It’s a very dated expression now, and one that you rarely hear in common usage and it is usually applied with regard to women who are elderly and unmarried.  But as recently as the 1950s magazines such as marvel were still using the term as a threat:ImageAs such it evokes nostalgia and images of pejorative female stereotypes; prudish, stuffy, old-fashioned. If one looks for synonyms for ‘spinster’ the tell-tale nature of them denote it as a negative label, one that diminishes rather than enhances a woman’s reputation;

None of the above inspire positive images. The spinster is also behind the mythologised/pathologised woman; the sinister crone, witch, hag, valkyrie, siren, all of which are deemed to be in league with the devil in order to undermine male potency with sorcery and trickery.

Whilst the spinster, as a label, is no longer common currency,  it was very much in use in 1911 and it was the task of journalists such as Dora Marsden and Rebecca West to generate debate about the destructive nature of such a label.  Through wit and parody, the writers of The Freewoman revealed the Nietzschean philosophy of ‘what Labels me, negates me’; for to be labelled as a spinster in 1911 meant you were viewed as an economic drain on society, a burden to your close family and undesirable and worthless. On the other hand you were viewed as naive, unworldly, unintelligent and prudish – you couldn’t win.

So why is it relevant to modern day life to be discussing such old-fashioned language? It would be reasonable to say that times have changed, things have moved on and terminology that was meaningful to those in 1911 no longer applies to us in the modern day. And in some ways this is true of us in the West but this culture of the unmarried women being of no economic value is still relevant to those in the far east. Especially when you witness the atrocities imposed upon China’s unwanted baby girls … These children are cast aside because they are considered culturally, politically and economically of less value than male children. The following videos are distressing and I should warn you, are not easy to watch.

The Dying Rooms 1

The Dying Rooms 2

The Dying Rooms 3 (unavailable because of copyright issues)

The Dying Rooms 4

It may seem a huge leap from spinster to the Dying Rooms but it is the fear of what these girl children will become – effectively the fear of them growing into unmarried burdens on their parents – that prompt ordinarily loving parents to dump them in orphanages and try for a son. For the Chinese, the Spinster is a modern day spectre that continues to haunt them.

Language plays an important role in how we view the world. To call another woman by a pejorative label, endorses a society that thinks less of its women than it does its men. To judge a woman on the basis of her sexual activity is just a stone’s throw away from calling a woman a spinster in 1911 – it’s using a different motif but its intention is the same; to keep women in their place. If you think this is just nonsense that men have it just as hard, then come up with a pejoration for a man, that is unique to men, that cannot be applied to a woman and that diminishes that man in the eyes of men and women alike. It’s harder than you think isn’t it? There is no male equivalent to ‘whore’, ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘shrew’ or even ‘bitch.’ Words like bastard and cunt are applied to both sexes without distinction and really don’t convey the same capacity to diminish as those thrown at women … it’s something worth thinking about.

Whilst we in the West enjoy a high level of equality, I would argue that it remains precarious and we should be vigilant. Our rights are precious and as such should be protected, because they were hard-won to begin with.


When is a feminist not a feminist?

I am always surprised by women who describe themselves as ‘not a feminist’ … because to me if you are a woman, how can you not be feminist? I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a feminist, if I am truthful. It isn’t like a religion where a conversion or awakening was needed for the transition to take place. I was just raised to believe in the equality of women.

Notice I used the word equality there … not supremacy! Feminism isn’t about proving women are better than men — it’s about expecting to be viewed, socially, politically and economically, as equal to men. On the same level playing field. It’s about not being treated like a second-rate citizen or accepting a subordinate status.

It’s also not about blaming men for everything or putting men down. Any feminist who does that is as misogynist as any woman-hating man. Patriarchy is a word bandied about by many women as the root of all evil, but let us not forget that as many women as men supported patriarchy. It takes two to tango as the saying goes. Women have historically also been culpable of oppressing women. It isn’t about addressing a sex imbalance as a societal one.

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is something that both men and women participate in. – Ashley Judd


I found a great quote for a friend of mine who claims not to be political or a feminist (she is actually both) which said

A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men – Gloria Steinem

And for me that is one of the best definitions I have come across. It’s true that the label “feminist”has become pejorative for modern women who cannot identify with the militant, perceived as predominantly gay, feminist movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Many modern men, though, have little trouble in accepting the label, and will happily call themselves ‘feminist’ …

So why are modern women so sure that feminism is not something that should concern or worry them or that they cannot identify with? Should we be trying to rehabilitate the ‘label’ or are we working towards an era where labels seek to exist. As Soren Kierkegaard once wrote:

‘Once you label me, you negate me.’

As a scholar in feminism and gender studies I can see the damage that some schools of thought have done, building barriers instead of breaking them down. Feminism should be something that is accessible and that women of all sexualities, ethnicities, cultures and political persuasions can identify with. Yes, a lot of damage has been done, though arguably it was necessary for women today to be enjoying the rights that they do … so has our comfortable status (achieved by the previous actions of other women) made us, as women, apathetic to what are forebears suffered, that we may enjoy equality? (Though that equality is still often arbitrarily bestowed and not world wide – there is still plenty to be fought for, other wise there would be no need for demonstrations such as One Billion Rising.) Can it be argued that feminism has achieved so much that the fear of what previous generations suffered has receded into the annals of the past, and no longer motivates their children?

Is feminism a 21st century issue or a thing of the past? Is it time to redefine ourselves as humanists? Individuals? To forget the sex-divide? I fear that even though progress has been made, the attitude of a society that can still call its females things like ‘slut’ still needs to be changed. A society where a woman is still judged by her sexual history is still prejudicial. A society where the heterosexual norms are still given higher social status than the non-heterosexual needs to change … Any society that imposes judgements on the way a women dresses, and punishes them for non-compliance needs to reassess their priorities.  Whether that be in court after being assaulted or in the street for not abiding by an imposed religious or political dress code.


But what we forget is we ARE society. It’s not anyone else. It is each individual that makes a difference. The personal is the political and together, we can affect change. For the better. And maybe there is still a real need for people to be proud to call themselves feminist. I know I am. But even if you eschew labels … be the best person you can be, uphold the values that you value and fight, when necessary, to make the world a better place, regardless of what sex you are or what labels you hang on your sleeve.

And, just incase you were wondering,  THIS is what a feminist looks like … I hope you all have a feminist sort of a day!

Christmas is a Feminist Issue.

And the prize for the BAH HUMBUG blog entry in Christmas Week goes to The PhD PIMPERNEL *applause*


I am probably not the first woman,nor will I be the last, to feel that the pressure on the female of the species at this supposedly ‘Festive’ time of year is just incomparable.

I feel as though my head is going to explode and work is just not happening due to the constant demands for other things to get done.

I’d like to share with you an adaptation of the poem ‘IF” by Rudyard Kipling adapted by a fellow Blipper and friend, which for me sums up ( a little too kindly) the current situation for many women.

If You can Keep Your Head when all At Work and all around You
Are Screaming down the phone, and Shouting At You,
If You can trust yourself, to Run past Boots,
Without Buying up half the No 17 counter,
But Still remember to Buy Essentials.
If You can wait, On the 13 Minutes Past,
Even when it comes at 42 minutes Past,
And Not Be Fed up to the Back Teeth,
If They Lie to You, Don’t Accept their Guarantees,
You are better than that.

If You Can Dream, and Live Happily in them.
If You can Think, and Be Pleasantly Surprised,
If you can meet with Dolce & Gabba, and DKYN
And Know Fakes from Genuine and still be
Quite happy to buy the Cheapest Version.
If you can hear what you’ve said to someone
Spoken back and it sounds like utter drivel;
But see you Children fall and be hurt,
STOP and put them back together with your heart.

If you can take everything you have,
And Risk it on the Last Minutes Sales, 48 Hours before Christmas Day
And Find they aren’t Starting til Boxing day.
And Not Cry with Frustration, knowing the Prices will
Be So much better on 28th.
If you can Force a Smile, and Grit Your Teeth
And be nice to Everyone who Says “I’ve done all mine?”.
Go forth and buy everything required at Exorbitant Prices
Even tho your will says ?”Hold On”.

If you can walk down the High Street, and not Loose your head
Or walk through Malmasion, with your pants tucked in your skirt,
If No Evil Shop Assistant, or Vicious Conductor can hurt you,
If your daughter can count on you, to get exactly what she needs,
If you can fill the unforgiving Advent
With 12 Days of Bloody Shopping,
Yours will be Christmas and Everything it brings,
And, which is more, You will be A Mother, You will!

I find this time if year an incredible strain as despite the fact I am meant to be working FULL-TIME on a Ph.D come Christmas I am suddenly expected to make the holiday perfect for everyone else – if I delegate the job simply doesn’t get done the way it should be done, because it seems no one else is really that bothered; well until it isn’t done and then they wonder why!

My tree still isn’t up! My house is still not ready and I am taking a leaf out of the Man’s Handbook to Christmas – and I’m not bothering!

After a long rant to my mother (yes my MOTHER) she enquired if I was ‘on the change’ …

Christmas is most certainly a feminist issue!

Geeks’ Corner

What do you call a gathering of Geeks … a conference. Boom Boom

Ok! so my career as a stand-up comic is still never going to happen developing but yesterday I was inspired to write about my support network after reading the lovely Jacqueline’s post ‘Calling all Dreamers’. She hit on something that has underpinned my entire academic career – that of support.

I have been the beneficiary of so much support, from my family from my friends and most importantly (in some respects) my fellow Geeks – the number of which totals two. These two people provide me with a very important outlet – the space to talk shite! about what I love to talk about most – literature, politics, gender dynamics, feminism, history. I know I can drop the odd quote into the conversation without sounding like an utter freak. I can spout forth about Nietzsche and there isn’t a single eyebrow raised or a glazed over eye. It is so important to have a context like this in which you can feel, well how shall I put this, normal. 


My aspirations are shared with these friends (only one of which is still in academia, the other is now in retail but still has the heart of a true Geek). When I whine about want to discuss my supervisor they don’t groan and tell me to change the record, they can often share some sympathy, if not empathy and horror stories of their own. Like fellow academic bloggers they can offer me the correct panacea for my troubles, inste

ad of scrabbling around for relevant platitudes …

most importantly ~ They GET my jokes!

If I come unstuck in my research I can seek out their

advice. When I am feeling insecure about my work I can get one of them to give it a quick glance over and say ‘aye that’s ok’ (he’s a bloke and very succinct in these matters). But most of all I can relax, laugh and be so utterly geeky in their company and not be embarrassed. I don’t have to justify what I do (which even with very supportive family can be a bit of a bone of contention). The same things rock our boats. Sharing discoveries about our research is met with shared euphoria and you don’t feel as though they are doing it just for your benefit.

The Thesis Whisperer blog today issued a post about collaborative work and this kind of fits in with what I wanted to say as well. Because, it may be a cliche, but a problem shared really is a problem halved. Working in isolation, as we inevitably have to, we need these points of contact with fellow like-minded people to sustain our energy and enthusiasm. It also kind of plays into my posts about Conferences, Forums and Symposia acting as a sort of ‘living well’ of community and inspiration. It is important to sustain contacts and relationships of this mutually supportive and understanding nature.

What follows is an example of the consequences of eschewing this kind of mental support – albeit an extreme one and one taken from the early part of the Twentieth-century, but , still in my opinion, one worth re-telling.

***GEEK ALERT*** What follows is also related to my Phd and may provide the cure for insomnia should you choose to read on! To any one interested in Suffrage and Women’s Rights it may be of vague interest. 

‘A Brave and Beautiful Spirit’

 As human beings were are designed to live in a community (even if it doesn’t feel much like it a lot of the time). Mentally it is proven that bouncing ideas around ‘brain storming’ and taking part in collaborative work can have enormous benefits to our own personal intellectual development. This already acknowledged fact was  given  further credence recently as I read my god help me if I lose it, damage it, am late returning it British Library Book ‘A Brave and Beautiful Spirit’: Dora Marsden 1882-1960. Marsden was an intelligent and remarkable woman, who began her intellectual life at 13 when she became a Teacher-Apprentice. She worked as a teacher and attended, via scholarship, Owen’s College at Manchester University receiving a BA. Manchester was one of the first colleges to accept women and confer them with degrees.During her time at University she became interested in the hot topic of the day Suffrage becoming friendly with many women who would later become synonymous with the Woman Movement of the early Twentieth-century. In 1908 she became active in the WSPU whilst still a teacher  ~ there is a strong affiliation between women teachers and the suffrage movement which began life with Mary Wollstonecraft’s assertion that women should be educated back in the 18th century. She quickly rose to prominence and carried out some incredible stunts to draw attention to the movement and the rights of women to secure the vote.  Not least was The Winston Churchill Affair which has become legendary in suffrage history briefly recounted here from Spartacus.

4th December, 1909, she joined Helen Tolson and Winson Etherley in attempting to disrupt a meeting in Southport that was being addressed by Winston Churchill. According to the local newspaper “the security for the meeting was unprecedented in the history of the town”. While Churchill was speaking he was interrupted by Marsden. Emmeline Pankhurst later recalled that Marsden was “peering through one of the great porthole openings in the slope of the ceiling, was seen a strange elfin form with wan, childish face, broad brow and big grey eyes, looking like nothing real or earthly but a dream waif.”

Dora Marsden provided an account of what happened next in Votes for Women: “A dirty hand was was thrust over my mouth, and a struggle began. Finally I was dropped over a ledge, pushed through the broken window, and we began to roll down the steep sloping roof side. Two stewards, crawling up from the other side, shouted out to the two men who had hold of me.” Despite being arrested the local magistrate dismissed all charges against them.

Disaffected with WSPU autocracy, she and fellow members Grace Jardine and Mary Gawthorpe left and began a small periodical called The Freewoman: A Feminist Review in November 1911. It was a notorious and controversial publication which eventually was banned from distribution by W.H. Smith and in it Dora Marsden was to pursue her continued interest in Philosophical academics. Her life is one of tragedy. So brilliant a star was dimmed by a series of events which led to her moving from the hub of literary life, London, to a small place called (ironically) Seldom Seen, near Ullswater, ostensibly to get the peace and quiet she required to ‘think clearly and work industriously’ … it was the beginning of a very slow and sad decline, which Les Garner believes culminated  with an attempted suicide in 1935. She spent the last 25 years of her life in an asylum for the mentally ill in Dumfries, still continuing ‘her work’. Like many great thinkers (Descartes for example) she believed that isolation was the key to clear and lucid understanding, when in fact what she most likely needed was the discursive community she had striven to create  within the pages of The Freewoman/ The New Freewoman. Once she withdrew from this ‘living debate’ her mind lost its ability to relate philosophy to reality and as a consequence it drifted towards insanity instead of brilliance.

So sad, so tragic and (albeit a rather  extreme) a salutary lesson to anyone who thinks they can’ go it alone’ .

Going Experi-mental

Are you guilty of playing it safe? Of sticking to tried and tested methods of writing, researching, thinking? I know I am.

Write Dangerously

However the way to discover new things is to think outside the box, to challenge conventions and to get go a little bit experimental!

In the past I have talked about software I’ve downloaded, tactics I’ve tried, thoughts I’ve had, mind mapping, even blogging – all of these are my way of trying to find fame, fotune, a wealthy husband, notoriety, success, media attention  a new way to succeed in a very traditional field, that of Literary Criticism.

Yesterday’s post about lacking originality was another way of trying to find a pathway to something new – even when you feel there is nothing left to find.

It is very hard to be innovative when studying something like literature. But when you  analyse literature to any degree you are immediately confronted with writers who are trying to do something new, something hitherto unseen, something exciting. The trend of the Modernists to ‘make it new’ was a reaction against the generic formulaic Victorian and Georgian formalism. Modernism was the apotheosis of experimentation, with Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake being the apotheosis of that apotheosis … imagine if he had stuck to the tradition of writing in linear, structured, coherent sentences.  Whilst Joyce is often held up as inspirational and ridiculous in equal measure, and often to cries of Emperors New Clothes, it cannot be denied that his work has the authenticity of longevity – we will be talking about if for many, many decades to come. Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf wrote fervently to create ‘the woman’s sentence’ – the antithesis of the black imposing masculine ‘I” that had dominated literature in the preceding centuries. They argued against the male dominance of the novel and took a step allowing women writers to engage a more feminine approach.

If unlike me you are not into Modern and contemporary literature, it isn’t a far stretch to look at the greats, such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, et al and recognise experimental literature when you see it … any banned book is another test case for change and advancement.

It’s easy to dismiss this ‘experimental verve’ as part of the artistic or ‘creative’ process that as academics we ‘should’ sit outside of, but we don’t and we shouldn’t. Any piece of writing involves the creative process. Yes we do have to follow certain conventions, but that doesn’t mean what we ‘say’ has to be conventional. Whilst I do find some forms of new criticism, like the idea of Hymenal Space (especially considering it’s medically questionable that the Hymen actually exists/ed)  ‘out there’ and I find my nose wrinkling up slightly at the thought, I do applaud anyone who is prepared to push back boundaries to create or investigate something new.

We don’t have to be Joyce, Woolf or even Leavis, Bahktin or Chomsky, but we can all try to look at our work from a different angle, structure our work in a way that works for us as well as for the examination boards and test the boundaries (via out supervisors) a little. Even if it turns out it doesn’t work, you will have learned new things in the process and become a more thorough academic in the process.

And if we can’t do that in our actual Ph.Ds we can do it in places like this! Or NaNoWriMo … places that encourage you to be different and new and unique and uninhibited – unleashed from the constraints and conformities of traditional academic writing.

So today is ‘Forget health and safety Tuesday – go a little bit experimental’.

Past Lives

… are wonderful things to investigate, especially when those lives are so eloquently reported in such a periodical as Votes for Women.

I spent a marvellous few hours absorbed in the minutiae that was the weekly organ of the WSPU, laughing at the satirical cartoons, to rival Gyles, and the witty ‘court reports’ which regaled readers of suffragist exploits in the preceding week.

Regular features included protest reports and then follow-ons referring to the arrest and trial of those involved. One such protest, which was carried out on the 21st of November 1911, resulted in 232 arrests – all of which were carefully reported over four pages. The names of those arrested appeared like an honour roll each week … it really brought home what some women endured to give me (and all women) the power to have  a say in the way their country is run. It is such a shame that political apathy is so prevalent in young women today; they obviously feel very disconnected from the inequalities and oppression felt by their foremothers.

Amongst all of this reportage I found a large announcement referring to another magazine I am working on, which will prove useful in my discussion on rhetoric, as it stands apart, stylistically and tonally, from the rest of the newspaper. I had to transcribe it into type as taking images is not allowed unfortunately – a photocopy would have been wonderful However the binding was badly damaged and several leaves were loose and ragged. It smelt of years gone by and when I first began to turn the pages the dust from it caused me the wheeze a little.

After nearly six hours with no break or refreshment I left, having taken copious notes  – but plan on returning very soon for another forage. It was inspirational to be able to handle these age-worn editions personally. Often archival material is too fragile to touch (I have to say given the state of these I was surprised to be allowed access) so when you do get to manhandle some it is a very worthwhile experience.

The facilities at the NLS are pretty good, although the desks are a little high for typing on a laptop (or maybe the chairs are a little low?) so it can also be uncomfortable when working for long stretches. I am taking a cushion next time.