With apologies for the delay, here’s a look back on some of the things that I heard about during the Gendered Voices conference last week. This post is about the first day’s papers. I’ll do one for the second day later.
The first session was all about stereotypes, and began with Sauleha talking about Muslim women in Frankenstein. I had entirely forgotten about this. There is a character in Mary Shelly’s book called Safie who is initially presented as a veiled, cowed Eastern woman, but who throws off her patriarchal shackles and becomes a character with a fair amount of agency and something of a happy ending. It is revealed that her mother was a Good Christian woman who was kidnapped by a Vile Oriental, and intimated that her ability to escape her situation is only because of her Christian blood.
One the one hand, headdesk, Mary, what were you thinking? On the other there are apparently signs of progressive thinking. One of the dafter things that 18th Century Britons believed is the idea that in Islamic theology women have no souls. Goodness only knows where they got this idea from. Apparently Mum (Mary Wollstonecraft) had swallowed this one whole, but Mary Jr. wasn’t so sure. She was, after all, writing about an artificial being, the Monster, whose claim to having a soul was far more dodgy than Safie’s.
Gender and theology and science fiction: I could not have asked for a more interesting start to the day.
Paper two from Leonie was about Vita Sackville-West and the book review program that she had on BBC radio, complete with actual audio from one of the shows. My goodness, that woman had a cut-glass accent. I can quite see where the idea of the Sackville-Bagginses came from. On the other hand, I ended up quite liking her. Vita shared her reviewing duties with a male colleague (whose name I have shamefully forgotten), each doing a show every other week. She listed the books she was going to cover in the Radio Times in advance, and encouraged readers to write in with their own views. She also managed close to a 50:50 gender split on authors. He just turned up for his shows and talked at his audience.
Finally in that session, Sam told us all about her research into gendered attitudes towards pain relief. I am going to be one of her test subjects in early June. Work like this is badly needed because there is very little understanding of how the various aspects of health care are different for women.
On then to session two which was all about religion, kicking off with our first male presenter, Alun, who was talking about the Song of Songs. This is a particularly intriguing part of the Old Testament, because it is basically about sex. Alun is interested in it because of the possibilities for sex-positive theology, which some parts of Christianity could badly do with. I’m interested in the possible origin of these verses.
Other parts of the Old Testament, specifically the tale of Jezebel, suggest that some people in ancient Israel worshiped other gods, including Baal and Asherah, who are of Mesopotamian origin. In Mesopotamia kings have a tendency to legitimize themselves by describing themselves as the Beloved of Ishtar (or some other version of the goddess). It is possible that the Song of Songs was originally a religious rite in which the goddess, in the form of the High Priestess, confirms the king’s right to rule because of his sexual appeal to her and the Daughters of Israel.
Next up was Jade who was talking about female divinity in Catholicism. Specifically she was discussing the figure of Lady Poverty, who features in stories about Saint Francis. She is depicted as someone at least as old as Adam and Eve, and therefore a semi-divine figure of sorts. Of course this being Catholicism her femaleness has to be controlled by marrying her to Francis. Personally I am deeply suspicious of the idea of a man marrying a personification of poverty; it has way too many sexist jokes about it. Interesting paper nonetheless.
Our final religious paper was Chiara who is studying the works of the experimental novelist, Kathy Acker. Acker has a complicated relationship with just about everything, and religion is no exception. Chiara was looking specifically at Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula and My Mother: Demonology, both of which have strong religious elements. Personally I want to read Pussy, King of the Pirates because, well I think that should be obvious.
After lunch we began with a session on fertility. One speaker had to cancel so we were down to two papers, starting with Claire on the subject of pregnancy and childbirth in mediaeval letter. She focused on the famous Paston letters from Norfolk, and in particular the matriarch, Margaret Paston. It is lovely to see sane discussion of pregnancy between a mediaeval husband and wife, though I suspect that the idea that all men through history have been uninterested in “women’s issues” is yet another of those 19th Century lies. If anyone knows why the Paston women were obsessed with eating (presumably very expensive) dates while pregnant, Claire would probably love to talk.
Maria told us all about a fascinating French novel, Constance et la Cinquantaine (Constance in Her Fifties), which is all about a group of feminist friends who panic when going through menopause because their men are deserting them for younger women. Apparently the only thing that results in a happy ending is becoming a lesbian.
The final session was on various expressions of gender. It began with Di explaining the complex history of the image of Medusa from a scary, quite masculine version in Bronze Age Greece to a much more feminine version in later times. The Romans, bless them, used both. I’m particularly fascinated by the image on the pediment of the temple in Bath, which shows the snake hair on the head of a male Celt.
James entertained us with images of gendered behavior from Sparta, which is a fascinating place (and which got very bad press from the Athenians). He didn’t specifically mention non-binary gendered presentation, but we chatted a bit and I do have a few clues to follow up. He did mention the possibility that songs written to be sung by a girl’s chorus celebrated same-sex attraction between women.
The last paper of the day was from Lucy, a fellow fan of Romosexuality, who introduced us to an amazing mosaic from a villa in Spain. On the one hand it is a stunningly beautiful piece of art. On the other it is obvious that it depicts only people (female and male) whom Zeus is said to have raped, and is intended to imply that the man of the house is just as powerful and rapey as old Thunderbolts himself.
That’s it for day one. More later. And if you think the owner of that Roman villa reminds you of Trump, just wait for the next Roman paper.