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Thursday, 1 June 2023

I suppose these days one would call this being cancelled

Have been reminded by the currently notorious case of the chemical weapons expert who was disinvited from speaking on his sphere of expertise at a government conference because of his opinions on the government expressed on social media, of a fairly trivial instance where an invitation I had received to speak at a conference was rescinded on grounds which did seem to me at the time had a flavour of 'moral panic', (I don't think the term 'woke' was much in general use at the time, but I suspect that there was a fear that I would introduce a certain, ahem, 'wokeness' into my presentation.)

(I realise this also falls rather apposite to the inception of Pride Month 2023...)

I have a minor area of expertise in the history of women in medicine in the UK, developed largely through having had to do with relevant archives over a significant period of time, leading to organising exhibitions of same, doing promotional work via lectures, etc etc. In 2013 I was approached by a rather staid heritage body preparing a major conference for 2014 - one of many celebrating the notable centenary falling in that year - to present on - actually I cannot remember after all this time whether it was just women docs or women health professionals more generally (e.g. the Almeric Paget Massage Corps) in World War I. To which I said yes, as it fell within the general remit of my duties as an archivist drawing attention to the materials in our collections.

Early in 2014 I was to give a presentation at the Florence Nightingale Museum on 'Passions Between Women in Victorian Britain' (to which I had been persuaded by the then curator). 

I think it was when this was in the process of being publicised that I received a rather nervous phone-call from the organiser of the conference indicating that concerns had been expressed and they would therefore rather I did not participate in their event. I had not in fact intended to introduce any speculations about, e.g. the relationship of Louisa Garrett Anderson and Flora Murray, as I felt I had quite enough material on, you know, the amazing and undervalued contributions women made to medical care during the Great War in the teeth of official hostility.

I hope they found someone else to speak on this important topic.

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Pretending medical conditions for journalistic clout

I have lately been seeing a lot of understandable pushback concerning the BBC Panorama documentary involving a journalist going undercover to access private diagnosis and treatment for ADHD - for which there are very substantial waiting times in the NHS. This had been described by the ADHD Foundation in their Response to BBC Panorama “Private ADHD Clinics Exposed” as

a poorly researched, sensationalist piece of television journalism. This programme has focussed on a niche issue whilst completely ignoring the broader context, including why there has been a rapid growth in private providers.  Some private providers do provide quality service. We believe the unscrupulous behaviour of some people/organisations in the private sector should be challenged, but it must also be contextualised within the wider environment of our health services.

I am not sure if anyone else was reminded of this, but it recalled to me the 1974 scandal around articles in the News of the World, subsequently published as a book, Babies for Burning, based on very dodgy undercover journalism involving abortion providers. The authors, Michael Litchfield and Susan Kentish, made unsubstantiated claims about the practices of abortion providers, including non-profit organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, up to and including offering abortions to women who were not even pregnant. In the course of their investigations, the couple gave themselves out as seeking an abortion for Kentish, who was not pregnant: they had provided themselves with a urine sample of a confederate who was, to lend verisimilitude to their narrative.

The libel case brought by BPAS is substantially documented in their archive at Wellcome:

Much of the content of the book was found to be based on misleading evidence, as revealed in a Sunday Times article, 'Abortion Horror Tales Revealed as Fantasies'. The authors withdrew their allegations against the BPAS in a statement in open court on 18th January 1978. They ‘apologise[d] for any distress and damage’ which their allegations had caused and ‘recognise[d] that BPAS exercises the greatest care in the employment of qualified medical practitioners, and in selecting and training its counsellors.’ There is also documentation of several other separate but related cases[.]

There is also a significant group of files relating to the case in the archives of Brook, as well as Diane Munday's own file among the archives of CO-ORD: Co-ordinating Campaign for the Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act:

Papers, correspondence and press cuttings relating to statements made in the book Babies for Burning (1974) alleging that pregnancy testing agencies deliberately informed women that they were pregnant when they were not. The BPAS claimed that many of the conversations allegedly reproduced in the book were distorted by the authors. 

Litchfield and Kentish were not only found guilty of several instances of libel: they were also guilty of lying to the Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill (1975), by submitting to it transcripts which they alleged were a faithful account of interviews and tapes recorded:

I wish, Mr. Speaker, to raise a question of privilege.... Mrs. Diana Munday, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has spent 300 hours transcribing the tapes and comparing them with the transcripts produced to the Select Committee. As you may know, Mr. Speaker, apologies have been made to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and all the allegations against it have been withdrawn.... My point is that the Select Committee was deceived by Miss Susan Kentish and by Michael Litchfield and lies were told to the Select Committee in order to mislead and influence that Committee's conclusions. This is a serious matter.

The case is discussed in Sally Sheldon, Gayle Davis, Jane ONeill and Clare Parker, 'The Abortion Act (1967): a biography', Legal Studies (2019), 39, 1835:

The investigation had a clear impact on early attempts to restrict the Abortion Act. One MP is said to have based his personal research for his 1975 abortion bill on reading the proofs, and others explicitly attributed their support for it to the book. Litchfield and Kentish were invited to give evidence to an important Parliamentary Select Committee, which in turn influenced further measures aiming to restrict the Act.

They suggest that 'While it was without doubt the most important scandal to have engulfed the Abortion Act, more than forty years on, Babies for Burning has been largely forgotten' but that 'the ongoing use of media stings... [has] become a significant and recurrent feature of [the Act's] life'.


Saturday, 29 April 2023

Some minor updating as to what I've been up to

My chapter, 'The Afterlives of Victorian Scandals: The Memorable, the Neglected, the Factitious', appeared in Brenda Ayres, Sarah E. Maier (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Victorian Scandals in Literature and Culture (2023).
I have previously mentioned my chapter, 'Send in the Clones?: Naomi Mitchison and the Politics of Reproduction and Motherhood' in James Purdon (ed), Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time (Edinburgh UP, 2023) (glorious cover).
Also on a related topic, a tribute to the pioneer woman doctor and birth control advocate Alice Vickery, as part of Pascal Theatre Company's Women in 19th Century Bloomsbury Project. 

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

International Women's Day 1923: will this centenary be celebrated?

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923

I am not sure whether this is generally considered a major leap forward in the advancement of women in England, but the writer Clemence Dane certainly believed it was:

[T]his slip of paper is one of the most important scraps of paper in the history of women, in the history, at any rate, of English women.... [it] defined, so long as England and the English idea shall endure, the status of women: it concedes for the first time her absolute right as a human being to the same law and the same justice that man enjoys. (Clemence Dane, The Woman's Side 1926, pp. 106-7)

I.e. it legally recognised a Single Moral Standard between the sexes, rather than having a much higher bar of marital misconduct in the male for authorising the dissolution of marriage. While it did not go anything like as far in establishing the wider grounds for divorce as some bodies had advocated to the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce prior to the Great War, nonetheless it was a significant step in making divorce more available.

It is not entirely easy to ascertain how far women took advantage of this new measure. In spite of the difficulties under the previous law a significant number of divorces had been sought and achieved by women. Under the new law (and possibly even before), there was a social convention that, if a couple wished to divorce, and were not on completely hostile terms, they would come to an arrangment whereby, whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the husband would let the wife divorce him by providing evidence of adultery. This would obviously somewhat exaggerate the statistics.

Even if he was the guilty party, the man might spare the reputation of the woman he might, after all, intend to marry once his first union was dissolved, by employing the services of a hired co-respondent, who would provide 'evidence' by going with him to a hotel, where the bill would reveal that he had taken a double room. and the pair would be discovered by the maid who brought the morning tea. The actress and nightclub entrepreneur Elsa Lanchester described in her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester Herself how as a penurious young woman she would undertake this masquerade - no actual sex was involved, they would usually play cards to occupy the time. 

An instance of this 'judicial farce' was recently revealed when the papers of the solicitor who handled Wallis Simpson's 1936 divorce from her husband were opened in 2019. The hotel to which Ernest Simpson took his anonymous companion -  'the woman named' - was very proud of its reputation for discretion about its guests and therefore reluctant to disclose any information to the inquiry agent.

It was not until 1937 that AP Herbert's Matrimonial Causes Act finally extended the grounds beyond adultery, and even then the action remained adversarial and based in concepts of 'guilt' and 'innocence'.




Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The archivist regrets...

I was recently reminded by discussions elsewhere of a rather gloom-making instance of a very prolonged interaction, or rather, recurrent interactions, I was involved in during my years as an acquiring archivist. This was possibly the most frustrating case in my recollection - which professional omerta forbids me from actually naming, and indeed, such are the mysteries of what organisations do with their records and then forget they've done until they suddenly turn up where no-one expects them, I should like to think that not all hope is gone...

This was different from the annoyance that was created when we had, over a period of years (we thought) nurtured a relationship with the last surviving inheritors of a pretty much defunct organisation, and persuaded them that their archives were of permanent historical value, and ought to be somewhere other than somebody's cellar. And then they turned around and placed the records in Another Repository. With which, I suppose, there was some relevant connection, and at least the records survived and had been placed in safe custody.

There was the case where the person who had the papers of an organisation in which they had been a prime mover and was quite happy for them to come to us, died suddenly, and whoever cleared the house just chucked them into the skip. That was immensely infuriating.

But this one I first mentioned: the frustration came because I had actually seen the records, which had at one time been in the hands of a research centre within a university. As was the way of research centres, this was, I think, defunded, or at least ceased to engage in activities involving the holding of archives, and one collection they had been holding came into our care, but another, related, collection, went back to the creating organisation.

Attempts to gather in this collection, which was substantial and would have been of considerable importance, and related closely to other materials we already held, persisted over a period of decades. Unfortunately we would make an approach and things would seem to be moving along and then the person with whom we had been dealing left, or moved to a different post, or there was a general reshuffle, and re-ordering of priorities, and it was down the snake back to square one.

There were a few occasions when researchers were permitted to consult these archives on site.

At one point we heard the rather horrifying news that it had been decided to microfilm the records in the interests of saving space. The collection was significant enough that we were even prepared to take it in this form that would be a nightmare to process and catalogue. On the whole one is perhaps just slightly relieved that they did not go overboard in digitising in the really early days of that becoming a possibility, because while microfilm is not a preservation medium, it's a good deal more robust than most digital media.

But it was back to snakes-and-ladders and silences and this remains one of the regrets of my archival career. Still, maybe one day somebody will look a filing cabinet drawer and wonder what are all these boxes of microfilm - 

One may only hope they don't just throw them out.

Monday, 16 January 2023

Paradoxes and contradictions among early twentieth-century birth control activists

 I was extremely gratified last week to see the updated Edinburgh University Press webpage for the forthcoming volume of essays, Naomi Mitchison: A Writer in Time, edited by James Purdon, which has this absolutely gorgeous cover:

My essay is 'Send in the Clones?: Naomi Mitchison and the Politics of Reproduction and Motherhood'.

In this there was so much to address about Mitchison's own involvement with ideas on these subjects over her long life, in her activism, non-fiction writing, and in both realist and science fiction, that I did not have space to address her position as one of several leading figures in the interwar birth control movement who found themselves in a somewhat parodoxical and rather contradictory position.

When women in the 1920s began speaking out about the necessity for birth control and setting up clinics, this was taken in itself as a sign of immorality. The worthy founders of the Manchester, Salford and District Mothers' Clinic, were not only decried from the local Catholic pulpit as 'attempting to introduce unnatural vices' but 'the kind of idle women who visit matinees and sit with cigarettes between their painted lips'*: a very misleading characterisation of Mary Stocks and Charis Frankenberg (discussed in Mo Moulton's The Mutual Admiration Society (2019)), who probably saw themselves as rather dowdy social workers.

In order to avoid the associations with immorality and accusations of promoting vice and promiscuity, the birth control movement leaned, with reason, on the figure of the overburdened multiparous married women and the gains for maternal, and also infant, welfare, to be accrued through fewer, better-spaced, pregnancies. The Workers' Birth Control Group, set up by women in the Labour Party in 1924 to lobby for advice as part of publicly funded welfare services, presented itself as representing working mothers, and therefore, 'control of its policy was to be in the hands of men and women who had known the responsibility of parenthood' (apart from Dorothy Jewson, MP, as there were no married Labour women MPs at the time).** This occluded the contributions to their activities of the very unmarried and childless Stella Browne.

The public image of the birth control movement, therefore, was heavily invested in rhetorics of conventional marriage and parenthood, even if there was also a commitment to new egalitarian models of these relationships.

However, a significant number of the leading figures in the movement, including Mitchison, saw birth control and women's reproductive agency as part of a wider vision of transformed relationships, not merely on the theoretical level, but in practice. Mitchison, like Helena Wright, Margery Spring-Rice, Margaret Pyke, Dora Russell and Joan Malleson, herself lived a life of unconventional relationships and evolving new moralities (these did not always work out well, as the disastrous end of the marriage of Dora and Bertrand Russell demonstrated). Mitchison also revealed, in an oral history interview late in life, that although the birth control movement was careful to dissociate itself from abortion, nonetheless at the North Kensington Women's Welfare Centre, where she had been a volunteer, they all knew people who would perform abortions and helped out women in desperate trouble.***

So there was a careful negotiation going on over public-facing presentation and those more private beliefs and behaviour, which might possibly have been expressed in certain sympathetic niche venues.

There was also rather careful negotiation going on with the Eugenics Society. On the whole, the birth control movement was much more interested in improving the lot of actual women in the present and their immediate offspring, than improving the quality of generations yet to come. Some activists had more, and some a good deal less, sympathy with the concept of eugenics, and work on individual clinics has indicated that this varied a lot from clinic to clinic, but that eugenic considerations very seldom had any bearing on actual practice.

[Later thought added] Women birth control activists might also have felt somewhat leery of a body which saw them (and educated white middle-class women generally) as a eugenically desirable demographic whose primary duty ought to be breeding for The Nation. Marie Stopes herself had no truck with that line and voiced forceful objections in Radiant Motherhood. Mitchison, it must be said, was very unusual in this cohort with her seven children: but also (this is discussed in my essay forthcoming in the book!) expressed strong political cavils to C. P. Blacker of the Eugenics Society on the basis of her left-wing convictions.

However, the Eugenics Society had money, and the birth control movement, like most organisations primarily founded and run by women, did not. It lacked the resources of society charity available to the much more respectable National Birthday Trust Fund aimed at improving conditions of childbirth. Because birth control was still regarded rather dubiously even after 1930 when the Ministry of Health had conceded that advice might be given in local authority maternal welfare clinics, and the Lambeth Conference had conceded that it might have a licit place in Christian marriage, a lot of possibilities for fund-raising were not accessible. Mitchison, in her novel We Have Been Warned (1934), has the clinic in 'Sallington' scraping by on the proceeds of jumble sales and amateur dramatic performances. 

A wealthy organisation prepared to put up the money for among other things, research into improvements in contraception was a great temptation. Especially when another tempter was the commercial sector - Jess Borge in Protective Practices has shown how the London Rubber Company was extremely eager to make use of the National Birth Control Association/Family Planning Association for its own ends (the archives indicate that they were far from unique in this respect). Given the very longstanding stigmatisation of birth control propagandists as shills for the rubbergoods and abortifacient industry, the movement had to be extremely cautious about any commercial tie-in.

So, really, the birth control movement between the wars, and indeed, well into the 1960s, was engaged in a very delicate balancing act among paradoxical positions and living with contradictions.

*Mary Stocks, My Commonplace Book (1970), p 161, cited in Audrey Leathard, The Fight for Family Planning (1980), p. 32.

**Workers Birth Control Group files in the Dora Russell papers at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, nos 402 and 403.

***Transcript of interview with Naomi Mitchison by Barbara Evans, 1982, for biography of Dr Helena Wright: Papers of Philip Rainsford Evans and Barbara Evans in the Wellcome Library, PP/PRE/J.1/24