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Thursday 24 May 2012

Bateman exhibition at the Cartoon Museum

Last Friday I participated in an evening event at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury in connection with their current exhibition on the work of H M Bateman. Bateman is probably best known for his series of tableaux of social shame, 'The Man Who...' embarrassingly committed some solecism or faux pas but his long career included numerous other contributions to the cartoonist's art. (His vivid evocations of shame and humiliation resonate with Nash and Kilday's suggestion that shame continued as a compelling cultural force well beyond the period conventionally assigned to the rise of a guilt culture.)

I was asked to speak on women in the Edwardian period - Bateman has a number of rather conventionally hostile cartoons of suffragettes, but he often depicted women as terrifying and/or grotesque, and one feels that pillars of the anti-suffrage forces would not have gained any very flattering treatment either. Conversely, there are some more sympathetic portrayals of women, for example the Woman with Flat Iron and several of music hall performers. I didn't see any works illustrating 'khaki fever' in the early months of the Great War but one is rather surprised that he didn't make something of this.

It occurred to me, in my consideration of the wider changes in women's lives and their increasing move into public spaces for both work and leisure purposes, whether some of the hostility towards the suffrage movement, and the often very nasty ways in which they were portrayed, was because they were in some sense an epitome of, or a scapegoat for, disturbing changes more generally in the relations of the sexes at the period.

Friday 11 May 2012

Forthcoming appearances

18th May giving a brief talk on the diversity of women's lives in the early C20th in the context of the 'Edwardian Evening' event in connection with the HM Bateman exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, Bloomsbury

22nd June keynote speaker at 'Health and Welfare in the Archives': A Symposium at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast

12th July Exploring the History of Sexualities at the Wellcome Library (event organised as one of the Raphael Samuel History Centre Archive Days, currently focusing on LGBT sources)

7th -9th September Women's History Network 21st  Annual Conference Women, State and Nation: Creating Gendered Identities  (presenting a new piece of work ' Between the Waves: feminism's forgotten decade?' on the 1930s)

10th-12th September Emotions, Health and Wellbeing – Society for the Social History of Medicine Summer Conference (presenting my paper '“Sentimental follies” or ‘instruments of tremendous uplift”? contrasting views of women’s same-sex relationships in interwar Britain')

13th November giving a seminar in the 'Public and Private Traditions of Eugenics' series at Oxford Brookes University, ‘“Send in the Clones”? Naomi Mitchison (née Haldane)’s Musing on Reproduction, Breeding, Feminism, Socialism and Eugenics from the 1920s to the 1970s’

Friday 4 May 2012

Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (2011)

I read this book several months ago and in something of a rush, in order to be able to include some of its important insights into the final round of revisions to the new edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, and have been meaning to do a somewhat more extended consideration of it ever since, a project significantly stymied by the arrival of various other commitments and deadlines demanding my time and energy.

This is certainly an extremely useful study. While some of the material in the earlier chapters was fairly familiar from previous work on the birth control and abortion law reform movements, Brooke brings some useful new analyses of the material by placing sexual politics in their long and often conflicted relationship to the more conventional political sphere (a nuanced and detailed working out of some of the issues I briefly delineated in my article in Socialist History, Vol 36, 2010, 'No Sex, Please, We're Socialists': The Labour Party prefers to close its eyes and think of the electorate') . Sexual Politics also provides a particularly valuable account of the rather less explored area of the various shifts taking place in political and social cultures around reproductive control, women, motherhood, and the family from the advent of the NHS to the C21st. Brooke makes some thought-provoking interventions into questions about periodisation and the place of continuities and co-existence of differing paradigms rather than abrupt hiatus and definite changes. The narrative also demonstrates shifts within political culture in response both to activism around sexual issues and to wider social change and new concepts of citizenship and what came to be included within the sphere of political activity.

Sexual Politics additionally constitutes a useful reminder of the tensions and conflicts and different levels of activity over these issues within the Labour Party itself. Although the title invokes 'the Left', the book focuses on the Labour Party, with a nod or two to the Communists, largely at the national level, though with an awareness of the significance of local groups and special interest campaigns. Brooke inscribes the importance of class in both the increasing acceptance of family planning as a licit concern of the left, culminating in the non-controversial permissive National Health Service Amendment (Family Planning) Act of 1967, and in the long reluctance, in spite of such pioneering socialist icons as Edward Carpenter, to consider homosexual law reform. This came about, arguably, more as one element within a smorgasbrod of liberalising reforms which the party, or at least, certain leading powerful figures (Brooke places Roy Jenkins as pivotal), saw as part of its agenda in the 1960s. Although most of these measures originated as private members' bills, governmental allocation of time for debate and help with drafting played an essential role in getting them through.

It would have been interesting (though this book already covers a great deal of territory) to have incorporated more about those causes described at the World League for Sexual Reform Congress in London in 1929 as the 'planks' in its 'platform': these included marriage reforms such as improved facilities for divorce as well as education for marriage, sex education of the young, and the abolition of censorship. Some of these aims were indeed achieved during the 'liberal moment' of the 1960s. But some were not. Sex education, for example, remains a contested and controversial issue. Some attention to these topics, the penumbra of sexual reform issues, might also have overcome the slight cynical feeling that occasionally arises that homosexuality could possibly have been included to extend the potential audience for the book by broadening its appeal beyond those concerned with reproductive politics (Brooke himself points out in the text that much of the territory of gay politics/left politics and their intersections since the 1967 Act has been ably mapped by Lucy Robinson in Gay Men and the Left). These were also issues which for which there is a narrative trajectory, rather than endless reiterations with little to show. There are indeed useful points of comparison and contrast illuminating the differing interests and agendas within Labour to be gained by taking these particular issues, and the choice undoubtedly pays off as the narrative is taken on to the initiatives of the 2000s.

(Many of the questions and points raised above are dealt with in much fuller detail and with greater nuance in the revised and expanded second edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880, now in press.)