We’d like to thank Elizabeth Kajs for coming all the way from Bristol to our network meeting today. It was wonderful to hear a bit more about Elizabeth’s research and how it has progressed since she presented at the Gendered Spaces symposium in May (organised by the Gender and Sexuality cluster).
Elizabeth contextualised Kollwitz’s art in the political climate of late 19th and early 20th century Germany. She explained that women were seen as the guardians of tradition, were expected to behave passively, as well as assuming the role of the nurturing mother. Kollwitz’s art subverted these ideals of the 3rd Reich and protested against the poor conditions in which the proletariat lived. Elizabeth highlighted the controversial nature of Kollowitz’s art in her portrayal of subject matter such as unwanted pregnancy and domestic abuse. Kollwitz explored these issues in the lives of the working class and took inspiration from the medical records kept by her husband who was a doctor.
The Q and A included a discussion on the reaction of the Third Reich to Kollwitz’s work, its dissemination (such as in a pro abortion pamphlet), the artistic movement into which she fitted best (Elizabeth explained that Kollwitz didn’t fit into any specific tradition but shared some tendencies with naturalism), and her aiding progressive movements through her art (such as drawing an image of a pregnant impoverished woman which was used in a pamphlet produced by an anti-abortion campaign).
Thanks again to everyone to coming along to yet another fascinating paper. We’ll see you next time on the 14th November for Lubna Bahamman’s paper on Saudi Women on twitter.
Well, that was a very controversial seminar indeed! Thanks to all who attended – was fantastic to see such a packed room.
Nick’s talk on jealousy and monogamy was intriguing -certainly a different tone from our previous papers. He was very keen to outline his personal vision for humankind – that of a world without monogamy. His passion was clearly evident in his enthusiastic delivery. Nick argued the merits of non-monogamous relationships and discussed the role which jealousy can play in monogamous relationships. He questioned whether this feeling could be managed through partaking in non-monogamous relationships. He even delighted us with some personal anecdotes about Grinder (nicely leading us into our talk next week)!
After Nick’s paper we had our most lively debate yet! Members of the audience asked Nick whether he had considered the feminist arguments and the role of society in promulgating certain gendered stereotypes. He was also asked what he believed the role pornography has played in defining sexual relationships. We also asked him to consider his argument from an LGBT perspective.
Monica Palmero Fernandez’s insightful paper introduced us to the ancient land of Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria in the modern day) and the significance of goddesses in the cultural context of this society. She provided us with various visual representations of the goddesses which included drawings of these figures in human, symbolic, and animal form. Monica explained the complex gender identity of the gods and goddesses, stating that the same gods/goddesses were sometimes represented as male in one depiction and female in another. Their sexualities were also complex and did not reflect sexual norms in Ancient Mesopotamia. Monica connected the powers attributed to the goddesses by the ruling elite to the power structures this elite wished to enforce in the society they governed. For example, kings would write poems declaring their relationships to various deities throughout their lives in order to legitimate their royal status. She ended her paper by discussing the complexities of grappling with her methodological approach to written and visual depictions of the goddesses, which included looking at intersectionality and queer theory.
After her paper, the discussion centered around the role of elite women in male dominated Mesopotamian society, the link between the goddesses and nature, as well as the lack of sources describing the lives of members of society at the lower end of the hierarchy. Furthermore, Monica explained the difficulty in determining the gender of these goddesses from the Sumerian language because it does not have masculine and feminine pronouns or articles.
Maria and Sophie would like to thank Monica for her delightful paper and everyone else who attended our final seminar of 2015. We hope to see you next year for our very first paper which will take place on Thursday 14th January. It will be presented by Carl Gibson from the Politics and International Relations department. He will be providing us an insight into his fieldwork in Palestine.
The paper this week was given by Yanos Soubieski, a doctoral researcher in the Department of Politics and International Relations, titled: “What’s Wrong with Marxist Feminism? An Althusserian Alternative”. We had a great turnout and a real range of questions in the discussion.
The first half of Yanos’s presentation was centred around criticisms of Marxist feminism. Feminist readings of Marx identify the relations of dominance and abuse that (can) develop from a division of men into the public sphere of production and women into the private sphere of reproduction, that is, producing and raising either female children, who can then also reproduce, or male children, who can enter the workforce, once they have become adults. By being limited from entering the sphere of production, women’s earning potential is severely reduced and they are put into a relationship of dependency on men. Within readings like this, sex antagonisms are reducible to class antagonism caused by the phenomena of private property in capitalism. Yanos highlighted how this is inadequate for understanding patriarchy (loosely understood as a society characterised by male domination over women), because women occupy a lower position according to men in all classes, meaning that dynamics of relations between men and women must be operating independent of, at least to some extent, economic factors. Additionally, patriarchy can be found in non-capitalist societies, such as pre-capitalist societies, and supposedly post-capitalist societies such as in the Soviet Union.
To address these criticisms, Yanos put forward the alternative theory that he is developing in light of recently (2014) published manuscripts from Louis Althusser, a Structural Marxist who was writing most prolifically in the 1970s. Althusser, while not looking at patriarchy, develops a theory of subject formation which lessens the economic determinism in traditional readings of Marx. What we understand as society is a composite formation of different structures, such as the media, the school, the family, each of which attempts to maintain its own stability through ideological interpellation. We become subjects (that is, who we understand ourselves to be) through our recognition of ourselves in relation to an external Other. In a crude summary of Althusser’s example, when a policeman hails us out on the road and we turn around, we have become a subject because we have realised that the policeman is talking to us and that we are obliged, through our relationship with the policeman, to listen to him and turn around. Yanos identifies the family structure as the primary location of subject formation, as we are interpellated as subjects by our parents and the rest of the family before we are even born. This is a crucial point for Yanos’s application of Althusser to patriarchy, because sex plays a key role in subject formation of a new child, such as the name chosen, the pronouns used to describe the child, without even going into clothing, toys and the decoration of the nursery.
A range of points were brought up in the discussion, such as Vicky, an external visitor from Cardiff, sharing her personal experience from Cuba. Cuba is ostensibly a Communist country, but still has prevalent sexism and sex divisions, which backs the criticism of Marxist feminism that sex antagonisms operate in a different way to class antagonisms. Dr Andreas Behnke highlighted that woman and men are not so clearly divided as they once were, with women visible and active in the workforce. Yanos countered this with the observation that women still suffer from inequality, being on average paid less, occupying a minority of high-level positions and occupying a majority of part-time and other precarious job roles compared to men. Patriarchy continues to have a strong presence in the ordering of society, despite the decades of protest and efforts for change for women. A subsequent more general Marxist response to this would also be that a solution is not to open up the exploitative capitalist workplace to women as well as men, but to remove the exploitative structure in the first place.
We thank Yanos for giving his paper and engaging with the discussion afterwards. The next seminar will be on Thursday 3rd December at 1-2pm in G09, given by Monica Palmero Fernandez of Archaeology on “The Realm of Goddesses in Ancient Mesopotamia”. We look forward to seeing you there!
Our next meeting will take place on November 26th at 1pm in G09 at the Graduate School. The paper on the interaction between Marxism and Feminism will be presented by Yanos Soubieski from the department of Politics and International Relations.
Here is his abstract:
Marxist Feminism as it stands strictly perceives patriarchy, a society characterised by male domination over women, in terms of capitalism. Marxist Feminism focuses specifically on the roles that capitalism designates to women in the production process and the harmful implications this has. Marx’s own analysis of capitalism was not as economically rigid as this would have us believe, with terms like alienation, exploitation and ideology all owing their theoretical rigour to Marx. My research is predicated on taking the economics out of Marxian analysis in the context of patriarchy. I shall do this by applying the Althusserian theory of ideology to understand the reproduction of patriarchy. I thus aim to provide a new form of Marxist Feminism contrary to the economistic variant which has survived for so long.
We look forward to seeing you there! We are hoping to see many of you from the politics department but also from other disciplines too.
One of the reasons for creating this blog was for us to discuss issues relating to gender and sexuality. As well as reporting on our meetings, we would like for this blog to be a platform on which we and you can write on the subject of gender and sexuality. If you would like to write for us, please let us know.
Below is the first in what we hope is a number of articles that will be posted on this site on gender and sexuality related topics. The author of this article is our co-organiser Maria Tomlinson who asks… ‘Why are periods such a taboo?’ The opinions held in the article below and completely hers (bar the theorists etc. to whom she refers) and she hopes you find it insightful yet entertaining.
You may remember in March the controversy over a certain photo on Instagram. Photographer Rupi Kaur posted a photo of a girl lying in bed wearing pyjamas with a menstrual bloodstain on both her tracksuit bottoms and on the sheets. Instagram removed this photo twice as the powers that be deemed it to be offensive and too graphic. When one in two of us in the world have to live with periods every month, and it is a completely natural biological process, why did Istagram try to forbid the user from displaying this photo? More importantly, why did many of the people who viewed this photo react to it with disgust? (Even I myself felt a slight repulsion towards it).
Well, in Western society the idea that periods are polluting, contagious, and should be kept out of sight goes all the way back to biblical times. In the Bible the menstrual taboo manifests itself in Leviticus. In this book, it is suggested that women be ‘put apart for seven days’ (Leviticus 15:1) when they are menstruating and that their husbands must not approach them for sexual activity during this time. It even states in Leviticus that if a man ‘lies with a woman’ on her period they should both ‘be put apart among their people.’ (Leviticus 20:18) Therefore, according to the Bible, a menstruating woman is taboo to her husband especially because going near her may lead to both of them being banished from the community – a pretty serious punishment! This menstrual taboo also exists in other religious texts such as the Qur’an, which forbids a menstruating woman from praying, fasting, and entering a mosque, and also in various Hindu scriptures, which insist that a menstruating woman must not handle food that others will be eating or even do housework (this may be a nice break perhaps). All of these restrictions reinforce sexual difference and women’s subordinate position in society.
Some feminists think that the idea of PMS is a patriarchal construct devised by medics in order to keep women in their places by painting the female body as deviant. The thinking behind this line of argument is that men feel threated by women (why wouldn’t they, we are pretty awe-inspiring) and want the inconvenience of menstruation to stop them from advancing in their work place. I don’t agree completely with this view point, but I am sympathetic to Dale Spender’s declaration that menstruation ‘would have been the locus for glorification had it been the experience of men.’ (See ‘Defining reality: a powerful tool’ in Language and Power, eds. Mureil Schulz et al) The Bible states that semen is only polluting for one day, yet menstrual blood is polluting for seven days. Of course, there is no explanation as to why. Perhaps if women had written the Bible, it would have been the other way round. It is unsurprising, then, if we bear in mind the religious traditions upon which our societies are built, that we treat periods and their representation with such aversion and despondency. We fear contamination and pollution, and therefore images such as that which appeared on Istagram provoke in us a sense of horror as if our mere gazing upon the menstrual blood of another may infect us.
In fact, our reaction to this blood is what feminist and post-structuralist theorist Kristeva would call ‘abject’. Kristeva mentions periods as one of the many bodily discharges, such as excrement or pus, which incites an abject reaction in those who witness it. According to Kristeva, the reason why menstrual blood revolts us is that it reminds us of the fleshy boundaries of our bodies and by association our mortality. Because of our disgust for anything that reminds us of our animalistic nature, we try hard to not think about the materiality of blood and try extremely hard to hide the fact that we are bleeding. This is evident when we contemplate that girls are taught about menstruation at school in terms of hygiene and how to conceal their menstrual flow from others. Menstruation is rarely described in a positive light (e.g. “It means you are fertile – hurray!”). Often a mothers only gives her daughter information after the onset of her first period, but again this is usually only about how to remain clean and how to disguise the fact that she is menstruating (“Don’t let any boys see you with sanitary equipment”). Adverts are also a testament to the fact that we view periods as abject because adverts also emphasise concealment. Furthermore, when commercials show you how absorbent their tampons or sanitary towels are (you are probably slightly perturbed when reading me clearly mention such things – oh the horror) they use a blue rather than a more representative red liquid. Perhaps this is more to do with society’s fear of blood or its association with death, but it also represents our discomfort when thinking about the reality of our bleeding. Another evidence of our refusal to think about the reality of monthly bleeds is our reluctance to speaking directly about menstruation, we feel the need to refer to it euphemistically as our ‘time of the month’, ‘having the painters in’ or ‘the communists are coming’ (perhaps some wish they were after the Conservatives were re-elected) etc.
So that is a brief look at why in this day and age when we are becoming more and more open about sex (less so if you are British maybe), yet we still feel ashamed to talk about such a natural and not at all scandalous biological process that many of us experience. So women, stop beating about the bush when you need a feminine hygiene product because aunt Rose is visiting. Let’s stop feeling ashamed about the fact that we menstruate, use the word ‘period’ in front of other females and males (they’ll get used to it eventually too), and educate our children about the wonders of being a woman (bleeding and all). Then maybe just maybe one day the taboo will finally be completely broken. Happy Menstruating!
Postgraduate students are invited to join us for the screening and discussion of the film ‘Concerning Violence’ in Old Whiteknight’s house, room G09, 5-7pm.
‘Concerning Violence’ is a ground-breaking documentary by Goran Olsson which is based on Frantz Fanon’s essay ‘De la violence’ (On Violence) in his work Les Damnés de la terre (The Wretched of The Earth). The film has won many awards at film festivals across the globe.
The event is organised by Carl Gibson from the Politics department at Reading University with the support of Maria Tomlinson and other PhD students. Maria will be one of the members of the panel who will discuss the film, the works of Frantz Fanon, and the role of violence in the modern world. As co-organiser of the Gender and Sexuality Research Network and a PhD student incorporating feminist theory into her project, Maria hopes to bring a critical feminist perspective on the work of Frantz Fanon. She will be questioning Fanon’s representation of women and also more generally women’s involvement in violent combat and other feminist modes of resistance.
If you are interested in attending please email Carl Gibson at firstname.lastname@example.org or Maria Tomlinson (see contacts page) by 18th March.