Friendship in Emblem: Negotiating Gender and Sexuality in the Poetry of Katherine Philips

By Mimi Goodall

It is fascinating to analyse the ways in which female writers, working within a predominantly male tradition, negotiate their gender, femininity and sexuality in their writing. In women’s writing, the “female” shifts from existing as written object to active creator of the text. As they subvert or adapt traditional representations of women in writing or ascribe to women emotions or thoughts conventionally attributed to men, notions of femininity and the female are reworked and defined by new boundaries. The poetry of Katherine Philips engages with the platonic and soulful friendship between women, which previously had only been considered to exist between men. Her poems follow the Donnean tradition, rich with highly wrought conceits and skilled logical argument. We see Philips emerge as a scholarly poet and woman, reformulating the gender politics of earlier poetry. She lived as part of a vibrant, intellectual community and draws on this community in her poetry, addressing her female peers with esoteric sobriquets; her retirement poems are punctuated by imperatives or apostrophes to female friends: “Be kind, my dear Rosannia”. Philips was, and still is, associated with the Greek poetess Sappho, although her poetic persona was typically named “Orinda”. Representations of Philips’ (or, indeed, Philips’ poetic persona) gender and sexuality have been shaped largely by the encomia and paratexts of her poetry, which describe her as a pure and virtuous woman, eliding any possible expressions of homosexual desire. This subsequently has been inverted by critics of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, who seek to discover the “hidden” evidence of homosexuality in the verse. This presents a complex critical dilemma: how much does a critic’s own identity politics infiltrate their representation of an author’s self and poetics?     

Nevertheless, the central positioning of female friendship in Philips’ poetry, homosexual or not, represents an aspect of women that had previously been ignored or denied by male writers. Montaigne’s “On Friendship” claims that friendship between two men is like a flame with “a constant and settled heat, all pleasure and smoothness that hath no pricking or stinging in it”. Friendship with a woman in this way is impossible because her fire “is more active, more fervent, and more sharpe”. Men’s flame in “lustfull love…is a ranging and mad desire”. Moreover, women do not have “minds strong enough” to “endure the pulling of a knot, so hard, so fast, and durable”.  John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essay circulated widely in England and went through multiple editions in the seventeenth century; it would not be surprising for Philips to have read it. Philips uses the same imagery of a flame yet rejects Montaigne’s ideas. In the poem “Friendship” she accepts that “Passion hath violent extremes” but demonstrates a fine comprehension of the “pure fire” of friendship “where neither hurt, nor smoke, nor noise is made”. It is “cleare and open as the summer’s light”.  She as a woman does not lack the intellectual capacity or the consistency to experience such a bond. She insists that it is “a design injurious and rude” for men to exclude the female sex from “friendships’ vast capacity” as “the noblest friendships” can be formed by women. Yet, like Montaigne arguing that women could not physically commit to such friendship, other literature of the time emphasises how unimportant the quality of friendship between women was considered to be. In 1630 Richard Brathwaite published a conduct book entitled The English Gentleman and one of the eight figures of virtue on the frontispiece is that of “Acquaintance”, elaborated upon “in a long section on male-male friendships and their importance”. The female equivalent, The English Gentlewoman, was published a year later. It did not, however, include an equivalent section on female friendship. Philips nevertheless explains that female friendship provides a “heroique” example and “governs actions best/ Prescribing Law to all the rest”; for Philips, the ability for women to form friendships is as important a piece of moral behaviour.

Philips proves her academic and scholarly capabilities by placing her poems in the Donnean tradition. In “Friendship in emblem” she makes explicit references to and adapts Donne’s love poetry. She proposes that Orinda’s “friendship” with Lucasia will “transmit to fame” both their names. Donne purports that all shall “invoke” his and his lover’s name and “beg a pattern” of their love. Both poets consider their relationships epitomes. Philips employs the conceit of a compass (like Donne in “Valediction Forbidding Mourning”) to explain that the friends “are and yet they are not two”. Much like  how if Donne and his lover’s souls “be two they are two so/ As stiffe twin compasses are two”. The compass was a well-known emblem expressing fidelity and constancy and Philips “no doubt” used it as “the badge of the society” of intelligent female friends she belonged to. This community becomes a very important way for Philips to express herself and her gender. It identifies itself as scholarly and learned. Its members have classical sobriquets such as “Antenor” and “Ardelia”. While taking recourse to Donne’s love poetry categorizes Philips as an unusual female intellectual, it also raises the question of whether female “friendship” equates to female “homosexuality” in her poetry. Her poetry highlights and confronts the critics’ own preconceptions of gender and sexuality. Abraham Cowley saw Orinda’s public innocence and humility (she made a great show of disliking that her poems were published) as her best characteristic. Moreover he in fact explicitly denied any aspect of homosexuality in Philip’s verse, saying she wrote with a “gen’rous scorn/ Of things for which we were not born”. Sir Charles Cotterell explained Orinda actually surpassed Sappho in virtues and although Philips’ poetry should be valued as “highly” as Sappho’s, he wishes to distance Philips from Sappho’s tarnished reputation.

Twentieth and twenty-first century critics however argue that Philips’ poetry is proof of her homosexual feelings. Philips’ explains she “can no likeness find” to her friendship with Lucasia and no “crown’d conquered mirth…compar’d can be” to the rewards from such a friendship. Comparisons will always fail in rendering the relationship fully as the speaker holds “all the world” in Lucasia and comparisons represent only a tiny segment of the world. Paula Loscocco posits a comparison between Donne’s homosexual poem “Sappho to Philaenis” and this aspect of Philips’ poetry. There are no signs of Sappho and Philaenis’ relationship; no more “then fishes leave in streames, or birds in aire”. This is partly because it is a female homosexual relationship but also because “the likeness being such” between the two women means that conceits are not needed to link the two bodies and souls. Love poetry between women does not require extended metaphors to express the women’s similarities. Therefore Loscocco argues that the proof of Philips’ homosexuality lies in her accepting that the language of comparison cannot render her love.

These dissimilar readings underscore the problem of authorial self-representation, which is inevitably studied through the lenses that a critic wishes to apply. Philips’ contemporaries may have wished to highlight her virtues and chastity, while twentieth-century feminist critics may aim to reveal what they read as repressed sexuality. Similarly, I have my own motives in emphasizing Philips’ intellectuality as it is the aspect of Philips’ verse that I find most striking. Therefore I conclude tentatively, aware of my own personal bias in analyzing an author’s self-representation. Of course, it is crucial to note that when female writers are studied the primary critical focus is so often fixated upon their gender. Katherine Philips could be read alternatively as a Royalist civil war poet; her representation of female friendship could be seen as the textual creation of a Royalist community in retreat. Philips’ interest in women, then, is not necessarily erotic or homosexual, and tropes of friendship in her poetry are used to intellectual and political ends. Philips craves intimacy of an intellectual kind, imagining an exclusive coterie of female thinkers. When Philips’ poetry does negotiate preconceptions of gender and sexuality, the adoption and adaption of Donnean poetic style shows how Philips is consciously a reader and analyst of literature and creates an intellectual female persona in her verse.

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Gertrude Stein

By Siobhan Fenton

Behind every great man is a great woman. The shallow reality of this phrase is perhaps never so brilliantly exposed than through the life of Gertrude Stein, who was not merely behind one great man, but several geniuses: Picasso, Hemmingway, Matisse and Cezanne. Stein, the American art collector and modern writer, is an often overlooked cog in the furious machine of modernist, post-war culture; having had a key role in many fundamental changes ranging from literary, to societal and artistic in import.

Stein 1

Stein was born in the early spring of 1874 in the United States before escaping to Paris in 1903. This was later to become her adopted country and lifelong home. During her former life as a resident of the United States, Stein had gained a limited but not insignificant reputation as an art collector. But it was with her reincarnation as a Parisian that she realised her true artistic potential. From her arrival, she carefully garnered a name for herself in artistic and literary circles through her weekly gatherings on Saturday evenings in her home on the Parisian Left Bank. She cherry picked the city’s most promising and intriguing characters who would mingle at her soirees and share their ideas on contemporary art and literature. Guests at her salon included some of the most influential modernists of the age: Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, F Scott Fitzgerald and a number of other key artists. Her little Parisian drawing room became a melting pot of cultural ideas as some of the greatest geniuses of Europe were drawn around Stein’s tea table at these Saturday gatherings.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso 1905-1906

Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Picasso 1905-1906

Stein stood out as an almost unique female body in the artistic world within this period; one of the few women who influenced artists not as a model, mistress or love interest but as a colleague.

Mabel Dodge, a friend of Stein’s, offered a rather harsh but fascinating description of her: ‘Gertrude Stein was prodigious. Pounds and pounds and pounds piled up on her skeleton—not the billowing kind, but massive heavy fat. She wore some covering of corduroy or velvet and her crinkly hair was brushed back and twisted up high behind her jolly, intelligent face. Yet with all this she was not at all repulsive. On the contrary, she was positively, richly attractive in her grand ampleur. She always seemed to like her own fat anyway and that usually helps other people to accept it. She had none of the funny embarrassments Anglo-Saxons have about flesh. She gloried in hers.’[1]

Crucially for Stein, she refused to be satisfied with the role of submissive Edwardian lady shuffling around all these great men with the height of her interaction being to offer them tea and biscuits. She was keen to engage with them as equals and in time became a valued colleague and friend. One of the attendees of her Saturday salon has passed on an anecdote[2] revealing just fundamental her opinion was to some key visitors. On one occasion a young Picasso, confidante and prodigy of Stein, revealed he was thinking about straying from painting into composing poems. Reportedly, Stein took Picasso into an adjacent room, read some of his poems he proffered in silence for half an hour before laying a hand on both shoulders and saying simply but effectively, ‘Pablo, go home and paint’. Picasso was crushed enough by this blow to abandon his literary whims and focus on his easel. It is of course impossible, but nonetheless fascinating, to speculate just what modernist art could have been bereft of if Picasso had not been stopped in his plan to swap his brush for the pen.

A postcard from Picasso to Stein from the intimate correspondence that the two friends were to maintain throughout their lifetime.

A postcard from Picasso to Stein from the intimate correspondence that the two friends were to maintain throughout their lifetime.

A catalyst of creativity was not merely in existence within Stein’s drawing room walls but just as intense within her own mind. Given the guest list of which we are aware, it is perhaps unsurprising that Stein not only nurtured others’ creativity but possessed plenty of her own. The salons were by no means a one way process; it appears Stein was every bit as inspired as her guests. She played with what are arguably some of the most bizarre and beautiful early modernist experiments on page. Poised somewhere between children’s nonsense verse and a mad woman’s rant, her novels were written in a stuttering, energetic stream of consciousness. She sought to defamiliarise language, in her most famous work she appears to rant at us, ‘a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’; until the word seems to lose all of its sense to us. She plucks the very word forcefully by the stem and rips off each petal one by one until we are left with a rather different word to the one we have heard on hundreds of different occasions throughout our lives without particularly thinking about it; a word altogether fresh, strange and new. Stein, never one to hide her own light from the world, proudly claimed that she had made the rose red for the first time since Chaucer.

Stein’s novels are immensely complex and seemingly illogical works; plot is not present in any way that can be recognised by the conventional reader, nor is narrative or time distinguishable. Her writing continually played against the conventions established by literary history; for instance, her novels may have two ‘Chapter Nine’s and ‘page 368’ is just as likely to be followed by ‘page 174’ as anything else. Like her Cubist colleagues who painted fragmented and abstract forms which would clash and collide until they resembled something vaguely similar to a bizarre version of a human face on the human face; she sought to present disorder and thus create something truly original and thought provoking in the world of literature. The literary critic Butler says that ‘the language experiments of Stein echo or parallel the Cubist breakdowns of the elements of representation in painting’[3].

In her lifetime, Stein wrote a number of novels, as well as a biography of her life with her lover Alice Tolkas.

In her lifetime, Stein wrote a number of novels, as well as a biography of her life with her lover Alice Tolkas.

However, despite their similar origins and motivations, perhaps one of the key reasons why Picasso’s work had and still has a greater societal impact is due to this cubist theory working better on the canvas than at the typewriter. Her biographer Diana Souhami praises Stein’s ambition in mimicking cubist brushstrokes: ‘She wrote as if she were painting, with a word and a word and a word and going back over it with a brush and a colour and a colour.’[4] Yet offers this understanding of the lack of her work’s popularity compared with her fellow painters: ‘the difference with her writing and a cubist painting however is that with a painting you don’t have stand in front of it for two weeks’. Indeed, whilst one can be absorbed in a Picasso painting for a number of moments and have given in serious contemplation within this time period, Stein’s hefty novels can demand attention for a fortnight and so leave a reader feeling as though he is completing an endurance test rather than enjoying culture. And indeed, Stein’s writing can be exhausting; whilst a Cubist painting engages the eyes, Stein’s prose is an assault on all senses and much more draining. However, the reader who perseveres with Stein’s writing will be more than rewarded in the experience they get from it.

Stein was not so much a ‘no nonsense’ woman, as one who believed that every aspect of life was utter nonsense; a fact which she embraced and felt liberated by.

Whilst her name may not have been celebrated in the public consciousness as much as her prodigies’, following her death in 1946 her legacy lives on through twenty first century modern life. It is impossible to escape the touch of the ripples sent forth from her Parisian salons; the impact of which can still be felt throughout art galleries and across the pages of some of our most loved novels today.


[1] From Gertrude Stein’s War, by Janet Malcolm published by the New Yorker on 2nd June 2003

[2] As quoted on Radio 4’s ‘Gertrude Stein: Great Lives’ first aired on 20 April 2012

[3] Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: literature, music and painting in Europe 1900-1916

[4] Souhami speaking on Radio 4’s ‘Gertrude Stein: Great Lives’ first aired on 20 April 2012

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Alice Vanderbilt Morris: Interlingua and the case for a Global Language

By Verity Heir

The need for interlanguage

As the world became increasingly more international in the twentieth century, with the rise of technology and more transportation options, there became a demand for a common language so that nations could communicate effectively without the use of translators. To solve this linguistic conundrum, individuals such as Alice Vanderbilt Morris sought to find a solution, pursuing studies into the ‘international auxiliary language’; creating a new language, Interlingua to act as a mediator language between two different cultures.

The studies of international auxiliary languages, or IALs, could be argued as the forerunners to the emergence of a global language. However, it is important to note that Vanderbilt Morris was not the first to create an international auxiliary language. Many individuals dating back to the 1800s published ideas and cultivated their own different versions of the ‘interlanguage’, an intermediate language to serve as a means of mutual communication between two languages. The first widespread example of an international auxiliary language was Esperanto, which was created by Dr Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof in 1870s. Esperanto, like other IALs, is an artificial language, and Zamenhof cultivated its roots from Romance languages (i.e. Latin based languages such as Spanish, French and Italian). Its purpose was to be a second language, with simple pronunciation and grammar, so that speakers could learn the language and be understood easily.

Although many attempted to create universal languages that were neutral in meaning and could allow communication worldwide, Vanderbilt Morris was a great driving force behind the studies into IALs. Vanderbilt Morris contributed to the development of Interlingua, but also the made great contributions to the linguistic field by founding the International Auxiliary Language Association to aid studies into IALs.

A brief biography

Alice Vanderbilt Morris (nee Vanderbilt Shepard) was born on 7th December 1874 to a wealthy family of the Dutch Vanderbilt lineage. During her formative years she suffered an accident which resulted in scoliosis and ill health. Due to being regularly incapacitated, she developed keen academic interests and pursued the most extensive linguistic research for the time. However, it was after a trip to a clinic for treatment that she became aware of Esperanto, after finding a brochure detailing auxiliary languages.

In a heavily male dominated arena such as linguistics, it is striking that Vanderbilt Morris was a key contributor to the field, and the study of auxiliary languages. She was educated at Radcliffe College, Harvard University, where she undertook most of her linguistic studies, but her main recognition came from an honorary doctorate she was awarded for her unique work in international auxiliary languages.

 The beginning of the IALA and Interlingua

Vanderbilt Morris, with the help of her husband David Hennen Morris, founded the International Auxiliary Language Association (or IALA, which ran from 1924-51) to encourage the study of IALs. The organisation carried the mission statement that “promote widespread study, discussion and publicity of all questions involved in the establishment of an auxiliary language, together with research and experiment that may hasten such establishment in an intelligent manner and on stable foundations.”

The IALA did not initially intend to cultivate its own language, instead aiming to identify the most efficient auxiliary language for communication across different languages, and encourage interest and study into it. However, Interlingua was created as a more efficient language as the IALA decided that none of the other auxiliary languages were suitable.

As a consequence, Interlingua was rigorously developed between the years of 1937 to 1951 by the IALA. Similar many other IALs, Interlingua was created with its own unique set of characteristics to make it more accessible and proficient as an interlanguage.  Akin to Esperanto, its vocabulary is mainly based on Romance languages, however Interlingua could be argued to be more of simplified Romance language, a subject-verb-object syntactic word order, and much of the vocabulary and alphabet derived from Latin roots.

Vanderbilt Morris invested herself extensively both the bringing Interlingua and the IALA to prominence. She provided the foundation for the organisation and Interlingua by editing the IALA’s Foundations of Language series in the 1930s and co-authored the 1945 General Report of the IALA. Furthermore, she continued as the Honorary Secretary of the IALA until her death on 15th August 1950. Six months after her death, the Interlingua-English Dictionary was published, leaving her legacy posthumously.

The move towards a global language

Overall, Vanderbilt Morris’ work towards creating a standardised language has contributed to establishing a mediator language for the present day. Although the case for the international auxiliary language and Interlingua ultimately failed, the ideals of a regularised vocabulary, grammar and syntax are being transferred and cultivating into a new interlanguage, Global English. English has become the global language due to colonisation and trading across the Asia and Africa over many centuries, and has rapidly become the lingua franca due to the invention of mobile phones and the internet whereby English is the default language. Therefore the English language is rapidly becoming simplified so that it could be learnt and used for communication across nations, not dissimilar to Vanderbilt Morris’ dream for Interlingua.

Although these artificial languages have not come to populace, Vanderbilt Morris has made a strong contribution to the case for a universal language; moving towards a universal auxiliary language, and better connected world.

 References

Esterhill, F (2000). Interlingua Institute: A History. New York: Interlingua Institute. 3 – 4.

Faulk, J (1999). Women, Language and Linguistics: Three American Stories from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. London: Routledge. 61.

Janton, P (1993). Esperanto, Language, Literature and Community:. 3rd ed. Albany: State University of New York Press. 42.

Kachru, B (1990). The Alchemy of English: The Spread, Functions, and Models of Non-Native Englishes. USA: Illini Books. 132

 

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Making the Marginal the Pivotal: The importance of writing maritime history from a ‘gender perspective’

By Marianna Massa

“… women, that group that was supposed to be on the land, sailed the sea in a variety of ways”.

-          Jo Stanley

 In the making – and writing – of history, women’s contributions have been overlooked. It is the same case in maritime history. Women have been the ones left behind on the shore looking wistfully at the ocean wondering when their husband will reappear on the horizon; always the supporter of a son’s or a husband’s ambition rather than the pursuer of her own life. There are accounts of exceptional women who have ‘set sail’ that aim to challenge this assumption, however, that is exactly what they are: exceptions. A lack of data on women at sea in their various capacities highlights the need for grounded, contextualised analysis in order to deduce patterns in women’s behaviours and their relationship with the sea[1]. A ‘gender perspective’ aims to do just this. It not only discerns woman’s contribution to the history of the sea but reveals patterns of power and patriarchy along with attitudes surrounding other cultures, and the impact of ‘othering’ understood by Michel Foucault and Edward Said as a factor affecting the acquisition and formation of knowledge and as a tool used to acquire dominance[2].   

Gender as a category of historical analysis has the ability to, according to Shephard and Walker, ‘complicate and revise received narratives of change’[3]. It concerns ‘the consequences of being male or female, the meanings ascribed to femininity, the manner in which those categories are constructed, the practical repercussions of gendered language and concepts, and the relation of gender to power’[4]. Before the term was introduced as a distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955, by John Money, the idea of biological determinism flourished and the relationship between gender and power gained little consideration. Applying ‘gender’ questions, rigid structures, and paradigms and aims to reveal the fluidity of gender in its practice and construction reflects the character of the sea.

The concept of ‘recentring’, according to a gender perspective, highlights the importance of coastal industries to the maritime success of Britain, for example, ‘the herring girls’[5] who had a pivotal role in maintaining Britain’s fishing industry, and recognises the relationship between the land and the sea rather than making one the Other in much the same way woman has been considered other than man. Existing binaries, and their connotations of, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, ‘land’ and ‘not land’ are questioned and patterns of domination and subordination present in maritime history are exemplified and demonstrated in the division of labour aboard steamships[6]. Jobs considered ‘unskilled’ became ‘feminised’ and were assigned to certain men on account of their race or physicality, conflating race and gender in order to legitimate the degradation that was imposed on both wages and working conditions[7]. These imperial attitudes towards both race and femininity have been constructed through the interaction between colonial developments by ship and the accepted attitudes of the home country then applied to shipboard workers in the action of maintaining white, male, ruling class subordination, undermining the idea of the ship as a democratised space existing outside land based social hierarchies[8]. Here we can consider Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopias’[9].

Women also had a presence aboard ship apart from in the ‘passive category’ of women and children[10]. Anne Bonny and Mary Read employed ‘transvestism’ in order to sail the seas as pirates in the 18th century therefore transcending their assigned gender attributes of domesticity and passivity[11]. However, would they have been able to do this as ‘women’? External ‘markers’ and behaviours have consistently been internalised and have become ‘natural’ to the respective sex[12]. This process was linked to the consolidation of 19th century middle class priorities of property ownership and consumption insofar as a man would work, keeping his wife at home, emphasising the interaction between maritime experience and land-based cultural production.

There cannot be one hegemonic literature regarding maritime history. As Simone de Beauvoir points out, the ‘othering’ of women ‘tends to cast suspicion upon all the justifications that men have been able to provide for it’[13], because it has not accounted for differences in experience. Applying a gender perspective engages women’s histories with the histories written by men and about men. It moves women away from the periphery in order to make a more whole and complete history. Applying the category of gender not only reveals women’s relationships with the sea, but also their relationship with men, as a constructed feminine being. It unites the land with the sea, and confronts the hierarchical relations amongst men, women, and different races.


[1] Stanley, J., ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives? Possible futures for women’s maritime historiography’, The Journal of Transport History, 23 (1), pp. 9 – 22, [accessed on Googledocs on: 06/03/11], p. 10.  

[2] Said, E. W., Orientalism, (New York, 1978), p. xviii and Foucault, M., Of Other Spaces, (1967), http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html, [accessed on: 19/04/11].

[3] Shephard, A., Walker, G., ‘Gender, Change and Periodisation,’ Gender and History, 20 (3), (Nov., 2008), pp. 453 – 462, p. 453.

[4] Ibid, p. 455.

[5] Stanley, ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives?’, p. 12.

[6] Stanley, J., ‘The Company of Women’, The Northern Mariner/Le Marin du nord, IX (2), (April, 1999), pp. 69 – 86, p. 72, uses Sari Maenpaa, “A Woman at Sea,” Nautica Fennica (1995), 23-33, uses David J. Morgan’sgender-specific constructs of labour from Discovering Men: Critical Studies on Men and Masculinities (London, 1992).

[7] Tabili, L., “A Maritime Race,” Masculinity and the Racial Division of Labour in British Merchant Ships, 1900 – 1939’, in Creighton, M. S., Norling, L.(eds.) , Iron Men, Wooden Women; Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700 – 1920, (London, 1996), pp. 169 – 189, p. 169 and Stanley, ‘The Company of Women’, p. 76.

[8] Pagh, N., At Home Afloat; Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest, (Alberta, 2001), p. 115.

[9] Foucault, M., Of Other Spaces.

[10] Stanley, ‘And after the cross-dressed cabin boys and whaling wives?’, p. 12.

[11] Reddiker, M., “Liberty beneath the Jolly Rodger” The lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, Pirates’, in Iron Men, Wooden Women, pp. 1 – 33, p. 3.

[12] Dugaw, D., ‘Female Sailors Bold: Transvestite Heroines and the Markers of Gender and Class’, in Iron Men, Wooden Women, pp. 34 – 55, p. 34.

[13] De Beauvoir, S., The Second Sex, (London, 1993), p. li.

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Book Review: The Persephone Book of Short Stories

By Riana Patel

Over the course of nearly fifteen years Persephone Books has been publishing a range of books written by women around the middle of the 20th century, from biographies to science fiction to poetry and even to cookery. Every book is selected to be “intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written” and also features a distinctive grey jacket. To celebrate publishing its 100th book, The Persephone Book of Short Stories brought together ten stories each from previously published books in its collection and its magazine and another ten from its archives. There is a great diversity of authors – some well known like Edith Wharton – that span nearly eighty years of literary fiction. Though these thirty stories focus mostly on the quotidian, they still manage to convey the profoundness of emotions and relationships in a nuanced way.  

The 1967 story, “A Bad Cold” by Elizabeth Spencer illustrates just how the mundane can be turned into a story with a feeling of purpose. A character, Pete, is at home, sick with a cold, whilst his wife and children go about their daily routine. He is insistent that his wife has a secret lover, jokingly prodding her about this hypothetical affair to the point that his wife becomes quite exasperated. He is, however, still smiling through “the provoking haze of headache, sore throat, bleared eyesight, and severe nasal congestion,” perhaps at the expense of his family’s nerve. This routine conversation between a wife and husband somehow leaves the reader wondering about the lives of the characters and their happiness, which is no easy feat.

Interestingly, the book features the 1948 classic by Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery,” which is a warning tale of blind adherence to tradition. In a quiet town, “the lottery” takes place as a tribute to the corn harvest, yet it is only revealed at the end that the other members of the community harshly stone the winner of the lottery, Mrs. Hutchinson, to death. Her voice, that only can cry out how “it isn’t fair,” is lost amongst the collective mass of the villagers that conform to the ritual of the lottery. The brutality of the situation is written fairly clinically; the further irony being that her son, Davy, is given stones meant for his own mother, which further marks Jackson’s treatment of mob mentality. Written just after the end of World War II, “The Lottery” remains a harrowing reminder of the dangers of the group psyche in the face of tradition.

However, arguably the best story of the collection is the first one, “From A to Z,” by Susan Glaspell. Written in 1909, the story centers upon a new college graduate, Edna Willard, who works on copying definitions from a dictionary in a publishing house and her relationship to her colleague. This well-crafted conceit allows for wit in the exploration of the dullness of a dictionary, framed by the chemistry between the two characters. The style of the prose is straightforward yet imbued with feeling, all leading to the question as to whether “things like rain and streetcars and wet feet and a sore throat [determined] life” Here, as with in most of the stories in the collection, is the idea that the most commonplace things can have the most meaningful impact.

In the stories by Spencer, Jackson, and Glaspell, and most of the rest of the stories, the characters are revealed subtly and through a slow-burning plot, featuring women who are important yet not dominant and emotional yet not foils. The nature of “The Lottery” makes its clinical tone all the more chilling, whereas “From A to Z” seems to radiate a warm tone whilst refraining from being too cloying.  “A Bad Cold” unfolds more like a vignette than a story with a distinct plot, but focuses on the ordinary. The ordinariness of the lottery, the publishing house, and Pete’s bad cold are incredibly important to the characters that inhabit each story, yet alone are seemingly insignificant. What these authors, as well as the others featured in the collection, have managed to craft are windows into the process of time that shows how the accumulation of the small snowballs ending up being the big, or the things that matter most. Perhaps the greatest strength of the collection is that it offers readers a sampling of women writers from over a hundred years to not so long ago, who can then trace the changes of history to the changes in the stories and styles. It would be difficult not to see the parallels between the women in the stories and the women who wrote them—although much has changed for women over the span in which the stories were written, much has stayed the same. In fact, much has always been there; the exquisite and the everyday, evoked by these thirty authors into stories that are emotional and profound.

Through the small and quiet, the stories in The Persephone Book of Short Stories reflect the ethos of Persephone Books: “intelligent, thought-provoking, and beautifully written” indeed.

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Discussion: Should we embrace ‘erotic capital’?

From: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Sent: Friday, April 06, 2012 5:49 PM
To: Charlotte Fischer, Katya Behrens
Subject: Erotic Capital

Dear Katja and Charlotte,

Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in our Bluestocking’s latest email discussion!

In Erotic Capital: The Power of Attractiveness in the Boardroom and Bedroom, sociologist Catherine Hakim argues that since women’s physical attractiveness – or “erotic capital” – inevitably has a big impact in all areas of our lives, we must embrace it and put it to good use. Do you think the use of “erotic capital” is admissible in gaining social and/or professional status, and does it compromise commitment to gender equality?

Once again, many thanks for taking the time to do this, and we look forward to reading what you have to say!

The Bluestocking Team

From: Katja Behrens
Sent: 11 April 2012 18:46
To: Charlotte Fischer
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Erotic Capital

Hi Charlotte,

Erotic Capital!?

May it be my educational choice, professional pathway, or even only my upbringing. Something inside me immediately rebels against conforming to this expression. Is it really necessary to abstract a woman’s eroticism and project it as an alleged economy relevant factor?

Mixing ambiguous terms such as ‘physical attractiveness’ and ‘erotic’ with the subtitle ‘The Power of Attractiveness in the Boardroom and Bedroom’; is from my point of view creating the phenomenon that is then wished to be analysed. Moreover it appears in Hakim’s book to be particularly allocated to femininity. What is left when all flowery pans have been taken away? A loose, generalised, and highly stereotypical assumption…

Nevertheless, there is something I like about it: it includes sexuality, (physical) attraction, or our instinctual inclinations into a branch of life of which (I feel) is sometimes conceived of, as if employees strip of their instincts and only enter their office with pure rational and mere economic intention.

What do you think?

All the best,

Katja

From: Charlotte Fischer
Sent: 23 April 2012 21:44
To: Katja Behrens
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Erotic Capital

Hi Katja

I think you’ve hit on something when you point out that this understanding of capital only is considered to apply to women. It seems to be that the point of erotic capital isn’t about saying people should enjoy and not be embarrassed about their own sexuality – by turning it into capital, it says your sexuality’s value depends on what other people think of it. Your power doesn’t come from your own sexuality – it comes from other people’s approval of it. (This is how capital works, right? A second party has to agree to an understanding of its value. If I thought your five pound note was just a piece of paper, no matter how many tins of beans you thought it should be worth, you could only buy a penny sweet or two.).

In my head erotic capital is basically just a rehashing of this fake-sexuality-liberation that’s been going on with all the crap around pole dancing, ‘reclaiming’ the Playboy logo, Girls Gone Wild etc. Feminism fought hard for women to be able to own and enjoy their sexualities. So why do we have another movement focusing our sexual value on men’s appreciation of it?

X

From: Katja Behrens
Sent: 29 April 2012 10:12
To: Charlotte Fischer
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Erotic Capital

Hi Charlotte,

Interesting points you raise about how ‘erotic capital’ appears to be the supply for a particular (and male) demand.

Remembering my work experience, I was sort of able to indicate an important factor: authenticity. I have seen girls who thought that wearing short skirts and cleavages would help them to improve their position. And I’ve seen girls who tried to strictly only convince with their job-related skills. And most importantly, I have seen both of these approaches succeed and fail. So I think the answer really lies in who it is one is facing and whether or not their physical attraction is part of them or just a costume they wish to put on.

Being authentic and confident about oneself is gender-comprehensive and as far as I am concerned the most striking ‘weapon’.

Best,

Katja

From: Charlotte Fischer
Sent: 11 May 2012 10:13
To: Katja Behrens
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Erotic Capital

Aloha Katja,

I completely agree with your point that sexual attractiveness is itself subjective. Where I disagree with you on is that it is the authenticity of your sexual self-presentation that affects your career prospects (have I understood you right? That you were saying that it’s not how sexually you present yourself, but how authentic that presentation is?).

Sadly, I think women have very little control over how other people respond to a presentation of themselves. We should strive to be authentic, but not because people will automatically understand us -  but because it’s how we can be fully ourselves.  In a patriarchal world, women will continue to be seen predominately for their sexual attractiveness  – their value is not of themselves, but as their use as sexual play things of men.

So when we have women who have the audacity to be considered heteronormatively beautiful AND want a career (quelle horreur!) we try and diminish the power they have (professional AND sexual power! Too much! It burns my eyes!) by turning them into sexual playthings. On the other hand, if women dare to want a career and power AND NOT be heteronormatively attractive (a la Hillary Clinton, for example) we diminish her by saying she’s horrific, she’s ugly, she’s a nutcracker, she’s a bitch – HOW DARE SHE APPEAR IN PUBLIC AND NOT MAKE HERSELF BEAUTIFUL FOR US.

The second thing about this is actually, I think it’s very hard to know what message people are trying to ‘authentically’ present. Let’s say I wear a mini skirt. Who can tell if I’m wearing it because it feels nice to have wind against my legs, because I just feel comfortable in it, because it is brown suede and after a history degree at Oxford I’m obsessed with brown suede, or because I’m secretly hoping that every person who sees me in said skirt will want to jump at me straight away.

We’re free to share our bodies with whoever we want, to celebrate them, to enjoy them as we see fit. But ultimately, people should stop trying to assume they can tell the ‘messages’ people send out by them – especially in regard to women. My legs are my own.

From: Katja Behrens
Sent: 19 May 2012 16:13
To: Charlotte Fischer
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Erotic Capital

Howdy Charlotte,

Your last e-mail made one point especially clear: people dress or better create their appearances for various reasons. And I agree that we are hence very likely to misinterpret the message (or whatever we’d like to call it) the other person wants to put forward. On this basis your call for refraining from judging people by their appearances makes sense…

But from my point of view this is more than idealistic, if not utopian. The implicit assumption remains that we indeed deliver a message. That we dress to express…that we are not getting a tattoo for nothing, but for a reason which in turn gives at least cues about us, our character.

I really do perceive clothing as communication, a mode of expressing ourselves, would you not agree? Moreover, I think it was human drive to bring about the demand for differentiation and individualisation partially supplied by multiplying brands and stores. What I want to put forward here is that I do not think not considering origins of the wish for the opportunity to dress as someone wishes will a) help and b) be realisable. Although I can see why you would wish for such a liberal approach in observing one another.

I would call for a perspective on appearances that affirms the expression of ourselves – including giving cues about our character, motives, beliefs, etc. Looking good and feeling good in what we wear is related to attraction, beauty and eroticism… Accepting the origins of creating one’s appearance is necessary, understanding it through an economic lens (erotic capital) is not.

xx

Katja

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The Role of Political Spouses – A Discussion

From: Bronwyn Stippa
Sent: 20 July 2011 19:23
To: Jack Campbell
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Concerning the question of whether spouses should matter:

As far as I can tell there are two camps: One argues that politicians’ personal lives (including personal relationships) are irrelevant to their public work. If they do a good job, it shouldn’t really matter what their spouses are doing.

This is a nice ideal, but I think it’s naïve.

Personal character is largely factored into assessing political merit. After all, politicians are chosen to not only DO, but to BE representatives. Thus, it may be argued that as public figures, politicians’ personal lives should be scrutinized. Since spouses (generally) are the central ‘others’ in people’s lives, following their activity can be particularly telling.

Thoughts?

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 21 July 2011 11:41
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

I agree that it is naive to attempt to completely detach politicians from their spouses given that we inevitably do scrutinise politician’s personal lives. Similarly, I also accept that following the activities of politician’s spouses may be ‘telling’. However, some political spouses are, or have been, more than merely one of many aspects of a politician’s personality.

Some political spouses have been able to wield real power, simply by virtue of being in a relationship with an elected politician. From where do ‘activist’ political spouses gain legitimacy for their overtly political actions (for instance, Hilary Clinton’s work on healthcare reform in the 1990s)? Whilst spouses will undoubtedly play some role in politics, it is important for a successful democracy that they do not become unelected politicians.

Thanks

________________________________________

Jack,

But is the political power that a spouse can wield really any different from the power that any celebrity wields? (i.e. Geri Halliwell,  Angelina Jolie, Arnold Schwarzenegger and even Ronald Reagan were all public figures before they became successful activists and politicians). Purely in virtue of their status, public figures have a better chance of getting the ears of people and access to forums that us plebs can’t.

And besides, I’d rather have spouses pushing their agendas openly rather than exerting covert Lady Macbeth-style influence over their partners.

What do you think?

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 24 July 2011 18:17
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

Sorry it’s been a few days-I came down with a chronic case of man flu.

The analogy comparing the power of political spouses to those of other high profile public figures is fundamentally flawed. I acknowledge that a range of public figures do possess influence without the legitimacy that popular election confers. However, the key distinction with political spouses that this analogy ignores is that they are (usually) extremely close to the real levers of power- closer even than many elected politicians who do have this legitimacy.

Whether spouses are pushing forward their agenda in the open or in secret is irrelevant. The fact is that some political spouses are, at times, able to wield power far beyond that which democratic theory suggests they should.

Cheers,

Jack

________________________________________

From: Bronwyn Stippa
Sent: 29 July 2011 16:23
To: Jack Campbell
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Hey Jack,

While spouses can throw their heft behind an Act, they can’t themselves introduce an Act in Congress. You cited Hilary Clinton earlier: She was actually put in charge of the task force to sell Clinton’s health care plan to the public. While she certainly served a quasi-offical role in it’s promotion, it was still Bill’s brain-child.

Or take Michelle Obama and the Child Nutrition Act — she’s hailed as the Act’s champion, but she doesn’t have special powers to push it through Congress.  It stalled in the House of Representatives and she couldn’t do anything about it.  It’s not as if the Act would in no way have been passed or introduced without Michelle, she just gave a voice to a not-so-glamorous issue.

So, at least concerning American politics, I still maintain that spouses are a species of celebrity lobbyist: they have the ear of the President and the heart of the public. This being so, they can be the face of any piece of legislation they choose to back, but this power still does not come any closer to the power of an elected official.

Hope you’re feeling better. This stateside heat-wave has been like living with a fever….

Bronwyn

________________________________________

From: Jack Campbell
Sent: 02 August 2011 00:07
To: Bronwyn Stippa
Cc: bluestocking.editor@gmail.com
Subject: RE: Bluestocking Discussion

Bronwyn,

I think that you overstate the importance of constitutional formalities at the expense of the importance of informal political power. The actual legislative procedure is but one small part of the political process that political spouses (and anyone else in a position of influence-elected or otherwise) are able to influence in many different ways.

Ultimately, you seem to be suggesting that, as political spouses are nothing more than ‘celebrity lobbyists’ (in the case of American politics at least), their power cannot come close to that of elected politicians and therefore they do not play a particularly significant role. In contrast, I suggest that, irrespective of the level of power they hold (which incidentally I believe is, in many cases significantly greater than elected politicians and more significant than you acknowledge), the fact that they have some degree of power which they do not legitimately hold is problematic.

Thus, in an ideal democratic system, political spouses would not matter.

Best,

Jack

________________________________________

Hi Jack,

Your argument does not seem inconsistent from my previous point: namely, that spouses’ informal political power derives from their being members of the larger set of influential people in general, whose power derives from their wealth, celebrity status or job description (i.e. politicians, lobbyists). While we don’t cast a ballot for public figures, by not either (1) refusing/ failing to take heed of them and their doings, or, (2) if we don’t like what they are advocating for, actively fighting against them, we bestow and acknowledge their informal power upon. Public figures exist because we, the public, sustain them. I’m unclear as to what circumstances spouses might have MORE power than elected officials.  Perhaps a few examples of problematic spousal activity would have been helpful on this point?

So, in sum, I agree with your final statement and would push it further:

In an ideal democratic system, politicians would not have personal lives or relationships.

But, as it stands, the activities of political spouses don’t seem to me to be an especially dire threat to the democracy.

This has been fun! Enjoy your vacation!

Bronwyn

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