Globalising the History of Feminism: Methods, Sources and Contexts, with Professor Jocelyn Olcott

By Clara Oxley and Hannah Speed

On 26 May 2022 students on the MSc Gender History at the University of Glasgow were treated to a wide-ranging discussion and workshop with Jocelyn Olcott, Professor of History, International Comparative Studies, and Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University. The workshop followed on from a lecture that Professor Olcott had hosted the day before, ‘Sexing Development: South-based Women’s Networks and the Politics of Feminism after 1975.’ The workshop’s aim was to examine the methods, sources and contexts of transnational and global historical study, to allow us to think about how we might apply such approaches to our own research. The fifteen or so of us in attendance created a cosy and conversational atmosphere within which we could discuss transnationalism on both a broad and personal level, particularly as we went around the room, sharing our names and our research interests. The diverse range of academic specialisms from which we all came, such as history, language and translation, music, education and literature, demonstrated from the beginning the interdisciplinary nature of transnationalism, as well as the importance the field holds in allowing us to view our own research in a new light.

Professor Olcott began the seminar by asking us to think about what we thought transnationalism meant. A range of answers cropped up, but the one we all agreed upon was the idea that transnational study meant the study of connections: connections between places, across places, across political boundaries (although without disregarding them altogether). We discussed the most ‘obvious’ cases of connections that transcend ostensible boundaries, such as organisations and businesses which proliferate across borders, as well as the likes of the internet and how the digital age could be considered a transnational movement in itself, allowing people across the globe to connect on unprecedented levels. Yet there were also less obvious examples, such as the spread of music genres, jobs and commodities. Indeed, Professor Olcott demonstrated that transnational study is unique in the way it allows researchers to look at case studies both synchronically and diachronically. She drew upon a useful analogy for understanding such phenomena, first used by Cindi Katz to describe the links between place, time and political differences. This was the idea that transnational study was like topography, and that discovering transnational connections was similar to following the contour-lines of a map, connecting ideas and themes across the borders of would-be obstacles in our research.

An interesting point that was mentioned was the idea that transnationalism did not even have to be about multiple countries or nations, but could be applied to the study of just one nation. An example of this that was drawn upon was the issue of nuclear politics and weaponry: a single nation may have access to such power, but this access has global implications. In order to do this, we should attend to the specificity of time and place, while at the same time linking evident tendencies and similarities across such physical and temporal borders, following the flow of ideas—in short, transcending the traditional boundaries which we normally use in our research. One point that Professor Olcott was quick to point out, however, was that we should avoid accidentally reducing transnationalism to a comparative study, something which maintains and strengthens the very boundaries of nation, politics and people which transnationalism strives to overcome.

We then turned to the practicalities of transnational research. The discussion centred around one of the key issues of transnational history: scope and coverage. Many transnational projects are, by definition, projects with a large geographic scope. Historians always want to ensure that we give accurate context and factual detail and avoid making sweeping generalisations, but equally, with a project of this nature, it is impossible to be totally comprehensive. We discussed how to balance these considerations in practice.

Professor Olcott encouraged us to think through the process of conducting archival research step-by-step. Firstly, we considered how to assemble your own source base for a transnational project, which may require drawing on multiple archives or collections. Professor Olcott advised us that the body of sources we choose does not need to be totally comprehensive as we need to keep the work focused and manageable. We discussed ways to select sources, such as following one particular movement, organisation, text or idea through the archives. For example, Professor Olcott’s lecture explained some of her new work tracing the activities of south-based women’s networks such as Development Alternatives for Women for a New Era, starting with their published and online records then working outwards. Further selection criteria might include focusing on under-studied sources supported by good-quality secondary literature rather than revisiting the whole source base. We concluded that there are many effective ways to select sources; the most important thing is to justify and explain whichever methods you choose.

We then considered how to locate archival materials. For transnational history, this requires taking into account additional practical considerations like time and funding to travel abroad, proficiency in other languages, and gaining access to archives which may be restricted. On the other hand, transnational research is being supported by archive and museum digitisation projects which increasingly make materials accessible online. Our discussion so far had emphasised careful planning and structure, but Professor Olcott also reminded us to allow space in research plans for serendipitous discoveries in the archives leading our research in new directions.

Once you have built an archive, you then need to analyse it. We started by sharing the techniques we all use for taking notes or other records (such as photographs) at the archives, online, and when reading secondary literature. Professor Olcott reminded us of the importance of being systematic and having clear processes in place to organise notes and citations, particularly over the course of a large project or long career. 

We then came back to the issue of how to write sufficiently detailed transnational histories without the project morphing into a comprehensive history of the world! Professor Olcott suggested it can be helpful to focus on one very specific topic in a transnational context, to give you a clear thread to follow. For example, if you were studying the history of feminism, this might mean tracing a particular organisation, its members, their movements and networks, or the circulation of books, journals and ideas. Alternatively, you might anchor your research by primarily focusing on a topic in one country, then working outwards to explore transnational links. Professor Olcott pointed out that even using these approaches, transnational history takes a long time. A full project may be more suited to a PhD or book project than to a master’s dissertation. However, if you are interested in transnational history, you can look out for transnational links in your current research to help you build a larger transnational research project at a later date.

As the workshop drew to a close, we reflected on the insight we had gained. The workshop highlighted the ability of transnational gender history to disrupt traditional boundaries and categories: it can help lift history out of national borders, challenge conventional periodisation and generate fresh perspectives on gender. We came away from the workshop with plenty of new ideas, questions and practical advice for transnational research, as well as some of Professor Olcott’s infectious enthusiasm for its interest and importance.

Core reading

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’, boundary 2, Vol. 12, No. 3, On Humanism and the University I: The Discourse of Humanism (Spring – Autumn, 1984), pp. 333-358.

Olcott, Jocelyn, ‘A Happier Marriage? Feminist History Takes the Transnational Turn’, in Making Women’s Histories: Beyond National Perspectives, ed. Pamela Nadell and Katherine Haulman, (New York: New York University Press, 2013), pp. 237-258.

Olcott, Jocelyn, ‘Transnational Feminism: Event, Temporality, And Performance At The 1975 International Women’s Year Conference’, in Cultures in Motion, ed. Daniel T Rodgers, Bhavani Raman and Helmut Reimitz (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), pp. 241-66.

Further reading

Davis, Kathy, The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels across Borders (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007)

Katz, Cindi, ‘Lost and Found: The Imagined Geographies of American Studies,’ Prospects, Vol. 30 (2005), pp. 17-25.

Steedman, Caroline, Dust (Manchester University Press, 2002)


‘It’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness I lack. Not rationality.’ Feminism and gender identity in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2. (1109 words)

Film director Quentin Tarantino is best known for his acclaimed contributions to postmodern film, and The Kill Bill duology is hailed as the standard choice for showing his feminist leanings. The films tell the tale of a female assassin, Beatrix Kiddo, and her desire for revenge after being murdered at her wedding by a gang of assassins that she formerly belonged to. The leader of the gang, Bill, shot the pregnant bride in the head and placed her in comatose for four years. After waking up, she had a desire for revenge and aimed to kill everyone who was complicit in her death. To the audience, this story appears feminist. A strong female protagonist endures physically and emotionally challenging events in her quest for retribution. On the other hand, portrayals of extreme violence, mostly against women, and the significance of her pregnancy seem to contradict feminism. Does Beatrix Kiddo adhere to positive feminist interpretations? Does she still fall into the same tropes that are written for female characters? Or is she more complex than this? I would argue that throughout her evolution in the films, she holds a complicated identity and a characterisation that is ultimately feminist. Her ability to perform both masculine and feminine roles implies that she is more than just a one-dimensional character adhering to standard gender stereotypes.

By attempting to identify stereotypes that Kill Bill played into, I realised I was giving validity to social constructs that are abstract. Gender stereotypes are defined as personal beliefs about gender differences in trait characteristics, and is largely attributed to socialisation (Oxford Reference, 2020). The problem with stereotyping is that it enforces a gender binary and two strict categories under which one must fall. In addition, it fails to account for the flexibility in behaviour and appearance given a situation and ignores examples of men and women who do not fit certain gender stereotypes. Beatrix Kiddo provides a unique example of a female protagonist who shows duality in her gender performance. In Kill Bill 1 & 2, she is presented to the audience as both a deadly assassin and a loving mother. Her physical aggression and acts of violence are stereotypically masculine traits, whereas her maternal role is inherently a feminine one. Both roles are said to come natural to her. For example, in the final scene Bill calls her a ‘natural born killer’, yet she is also affectionate with her daughter when reunited. It is impossible to restrict Beatrix Kiddo to the dichotomy of masculinity and femininity because she defies the binary by performing both.

1: B.B. and Beatrix Kiddo, Kill Bill Vol. 2.

When seeking revenge against Copperhead, one of the gang members, Beatrix says is ‘It’s mercy, compassion and forgiveness I lack, not rationality’. Rationality is often a trait associated with masculinity, whereas compassion is feminised. Her self-awareness rejects the stereotype that suggests women should be forgiving and not seek violence, and it shows that she can be masculine in nature, not just feminine. On encountering Hattori Hanzō, the man she wished to make her a samurai sword, she first pretends to be naïve to the Japanese language. In this scene, she acts coy in an attempt to charm him. When he has warmed to her presence, she stops the act and proceeds to speak to him in fluent Japanese, asserting that she wants him to make her a sword for nothing in return. This illustrates the performative aspect of gender roles, and the ease with which she executed her feminine performance to get what she wants. Similarly, she performs similar feminised behaviour for Esteban Vihaio, a father-figure of Bill’s who knows his location. Beatrix’s performance of femininity allowed her to succeed in getting what she wanted from male characters and supports the theory of gender performativity. This suggests that we develop our gender from our performed behaviour (Judith Butler, 1990).

2: Uma Therman as Beatrix Kiddo (aka The Bride), visiting Hattori Hanzō in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Feminist critiques of Kill Bill have drawn parallels with other action films like Terminator (2001) and Alien, both featuring a strong female action lead. These films are criticised for glorifying masculine characteristics as opposed to female ones, continuing the dominance of masculinity in action films. The female protagonists are also surrounded by a cast of male co-stars (Cristelle Maury & David Roche, 2020). It is unfair to say that these films glorify male traits, as women are capable of being masculine as men are feminine. We should be pushing beyond the rigidity of a masculine/feminine gender binary, not adhering to it. Beatrix is known in popular culture for her androgynous yellow jumpsuit, rather than a stereotypically hypersexualised appearance that is made for the male gaze. One famous example of this stereotype would be Lara Croft, who originated in the Tomb Raider videogames. The videogames industry, similar to comic books and films, is notorious for its reinforcing of gender stereotypes and misogynistic tropes.

3: The Bride in her yellow tracksuit, Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Kill Bill is criticised for reinforcing the maternal stereotype. After finding out she is pregnant, Beatrix gives up her job as an assassin live in a small town with her husband. Moreover, it can be argued that the films reinforce the idea that women are dependent on the patriarchy to fulfil their independent role (Lisa V. Mazey, 2020). I would argue that this is part of her evolution, as she returns to the life of an assassin in order to seek revenge. It is fair to highlight how Beatrix receives martial arts education from Pai Mei, a character portrayed as incredibly misogynistic. His teachings helped her escape being buried alive, and one of his techniques allowed her to kill Bill in the final scene. This master-student story may be seen as reinforcing the patriarchy. However, she is a deadly assassin after all. Would it not be in her best interest to be under the tutelage of a master in martial arts?

Tarantino’s films are known for their violent bloodbath scenes, so to have a female protagonist lead performing these scenes subverts the hypersexualised stereotypes that are often placed on women in films and other media (like videogames as mentioned above). The intent of Tarantino as a feminist can be questioned, but Uma Thurman can be credited for bringing the role of Beatrix Kiddo to life through the lens of gender performance. Performing both masculine and feminine behaviours shows the audience that women can be complex characters, and that showing masculine traits is not a bad thing. Kill Bill is feminist in its gender ambiguity, and that is a legacy that should not be erased.


Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990)

Maury, Cristelle & David Roche, Women Who Kill: Gender and Sexuality in Film and Series of the Post-Feminist Era (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2020).

Mazey, Lisa V., Cinematic Women, From Objecthood to Heroism: Essays on Female Gender Representation on Western Screens and in TV Productions (Delaware: Vernon Press, 2020).

Oxford Reference, Definition of Gender Stereotypes, (Accessed 20th February 2021).

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

‘There is no advantage in being a homosexual in a heterosexual world’ – Examining the Gendering of Lesbian Experience through ITV’s ‘Lesbians’ (1965)

Iona Tytler

Content warning: discussion of homophobic attitudes

The first British documentary to focus on lesbian existence as its subject matter was broadcast in January 1965 as part of ITV’s current affairs programme ‘This Week.’ This was a follow up instalment to their programme from the previous year, ‘Homosexuals.’ (Gardiner 2003, p.99) Over twenty-six minutes, reporter Bryan Magee interviewed six participants and questioned them on their sexuality, alongside a doctor who had lesbian patients, and Esme Langley of the Minorities Research Group, which produced the lesbian magazine Arena Three.   

Image of Bryan Magee in Lesbians (1965)
© ITV Archive Hub, Courtesy of the BFI and BFI Player

The influence of documentaries on contemporary public attitudes is important, being recognised by Arena Three at the time as key to informing and shaping public attitudes on sexuality, as well as reaching a wider group of lesbians at a time of community fragmentation.  (Jennings, 2007, p.149) A particular focus for historians of queer sexuality has been how the documentary depicts the oppression lesbians faced for both their gender and sexuality. (Buckle, 2018, p.21) However, the documentary also highlights the ways in which the lesbian experience itself is gendered, and their lack of control over their representation as the documentary’s ‘gendered subjects.’ Magee constantly defines the participants through their experiences and lack of experiences with men, and throughout they are ‘othered’ and separated out from womanhood due to their sexuality.

Homosexuality in 1960s Britain was considered a societal issue, rather than an identity to be asserted. Historian Sebastian Buckle argues the topic was only mentioned in ‘whispered suspicions and innuendos’ and that many queer couples lived closeted existences. Campaigns for gay rights based on ‘identity politics,’ an individual’s self-definition through their sexuality, were not seen for another decade. (2018, p.9)  Lesbian existence is regarded within the documentary as a societal issue but also as an afterthought, defined as an offshoot of male homosexuality. Magee describes it as the other ‘half of the problem’ to this, emphasising that it exists among women ‘just as among men,’ but was not criminalised. (0:31, 1:14)  

The documentary does not create a space for the participants to control the narrative which is being created of their sexuality. This can be seen through the lack of ‘agency’ given to these women, meaning the absence of power that they had to articulate themselves and their sexuality on their own terms.  On a positive note, the opening of the documentary does focus on the testimony of one of the participants, who discusses that that there was ‘not a typical human being or a typical lesbian.’ (0:08)  This is encouraging, as it ties into dispelling the viewer’s preconceived ideas of heteronormativity, an invisible but prevalent societal idea which marginalises queer existence. (Warner, 1991, p.3) This  contrasts with later documentaries such as ITV’s ‘Gay Life: Lesbians’ (1980) episode, which opens the discussion by asking the public what ‘lesbian’ meant to them.

Therefore, the opening of Magee’s documentary put the agency in the hands of those experiencing the identity. However, this was short-lived, as the questions asked were heavily catered to the straight audience, being based around male reactions to female homosexuality and male expectations of female availability. By asking participants if they have ‘any sexual feelings for men’ and ‘what felt wrong about making love to a man,’  the documentary is continuing to proffer lesbianism as simply a reaction to men. (6:34, 19:50) This relates to Monique Wittig’s (1992, p.20, p.13) theory of womanhood, which argues that women are societally defined through their ‘specific social relation to a man,’ and lesbianism’s rejection of heterosexuality feeds into a wider rejection of womanhood itself, as being a woman means being the possession of a man. Wittig (1992, p.25) also asserts that the societal norm of heterosexuality is so pervasive that lesbians can only be ‘heard if they speak in their [heterosexual] terms.’ As the documentary presents the lesbian experience as revolving around men,  it is portraying their identity as based on their rejection of men and how this relates to their own womanhood, rather than their embracing of women.  

Image of the first participant in Lesbians (1965)
© ITV Archive Hub, Courtesy of the BFI and BFI Player

The language used in the phrasing of the questions also led to the othering of lesbians. Magee’s language is polarising, and divorces lesbianism from the idea of heterosexual normalcy. Notably he asks, ‘normal people often say that they find the idea of physical sex between two women disgusting- what do you say to that?’ and ‘do you feel unnatural? Do you feel any shame or guilt?’ (7:10, 5:49) By using this language, he is placing lesbians as possessors of unnatural desire. Adrienne Rich (1980, p.649, p.652) in her theory of compulsory heterosexuality argued that by rejecting the ‘compulsory way of life,’ lesbians are viewed as ‘deviant,’ or ‘pathological,’ with their sexuality as a ‘lifestyle.’ The association of lesbianism with deviant behaviour is continued, as Magee asserts that there are lesbians living in Britain whose ‘true relationship [is] unsuspected by others,’ with this wording implying that lesbianism should evoke suspicion and fear. (7:41) The ‘pathological’ element of lesbianism is seen in the documentary’s inclusion of a doctor with lesbian patients, who argued that female homosexuality is related to ‘damage done in infancy,’ with the capacity to be reversed depending on its severity. (15:05)  At this time, medical professionals were viewed as a main source of information on lesbianism, and consequently lesbians were left ‘confused or alienated,’ and seeking treatment. (Jennings, 2008, p.893) By outlining the deviancy in straying from sexual norms, the documentary places connotations of lawlessness and guilt onto lesbianism despite its legality and highlights it as a condition which can be reversed, as opposed to an identity.

Overall, the documentary is the first of its kind, and should be watched due to the way it draws attention to the unique experiences of lesbians in 1960s Britain. The lesbian experience was clearly gendered, with their sexuality meaning they were being defined through their relationships with men and divorced from womanhood itself. It highlights the clear societal attitudes towards lesbianism in this period as abnormal, and how attempts to understand the women themselves were centred around their rejection of societal norms and heterosexuality itself, placating the imagined straight viewer, rather than giving lesbians a platform to vocalise their own experience.  Could it be argued that these relations to heterosexuality were simply used as reference points for the straight viewer  to comprehend female homosexuality? Although this remains a possibility, the documentary is still indicative of the ‘othering’ of lesbians and outlines the heteronormative feel which can be applied to society more broadly.

Video References

 ‘Gay Life: Lesbians,’ (1981) British Film Institute.  (accessed 01/02/2021)

Timestamps come from ‘Lesbians,’ (1965) British Film Institute. (accessed 01/02/2021)


Buckle, Sebastian. Homosexuality on the Small Screen: Television and Gay Identity in Britain. (London: Bloomsbury, 2018)

Gardiner, Jill. From the Closet to the Screen: Women at the Gateways Club. (London: Pandora List, 2003)

Jennings, Rebecca. ‘The Most Uninhibited Party They’d Ever Been To, The Postwar Encounter between Psychiatry and the British Lesbian, 1945–1971’ Journal of British Studies. 47(4) (2008) pp.883-904

Jennings, Rebecca. Tomboys and Bachelor Girls: A Lesbian History of Post-War Britain, 1945-71. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)

Rich, Adrienne. ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ Signs. 5(4) (1980) pp. 631-660

 Warner, Michael. ‘Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet.’ Social Text, No. 29 (1991), pp. 3-17 (accessed 01/02/2021)

Wittig, Monique. The Straight Mind and Other Essays. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)


The Comfort Women: ‘The world is so good. I do not want to die. ’

  Content note: sexual violence and the chastity idea 

                                         By XU Jiexin

Documentary Film on the later lives of ‘Comfort Women: Thirty-Two ( November 11, 2014 Mainland China

‘In 1991, the comfort women system became well-known because of the remembrance of the fifty-years-anniversary of the Pacific War.’ (Su Zhiliang, 2000, p.114) The ‘Comfort Women’ is a serious subject because it has touched culture, human rights, and international relationship, and even the field of war, race, and gender. The history of the comfort women is the most harrowing sex slavery records through the women’s history. (Su Zhiliang, 1998, p.89) One of the comfort women documents suggested, ‘ There would be no less than 360,000 and 410,000 women who suffered from the sexual violence during the war after the implementation of the comfort women system among the seven years.’ ( Su Zhiliang, 2000, p.181) This blog will use the documentary Thirty-Two as primary source to discover how the ideas of chastity influence the victims’ lives after war. 

The comfort women is a translation from Japanese ianfu (Japanese: 慰安婦). Comfort women were women and girls forced into being sex slaves in the military brothel ( Japanese: 慰安所) by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied countries and territories before and during World War II. (Digital Museum The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund. [accessed 1 March 2021]) Comfort women mean women who could bring care for soldiers, which did not match the reality. Historians and gender historians have suggested that the term ‘comfort women’ should no longer be used to define victims. They argued that this distorts the facts, blurs the essential distinction between the comfort women system and decriminalisation of sex work, and that it rationalists the sexual violence committed against the women by the Japanese army. They proposed redefining victims as ‘sex slaves’. (Su zhiliang, 2020, p.116)

Figure 1: A young Chinese comfort woman is interviewed by an allied officer in Rangoon, Burma, on Aug. 8, 1945. 
Image accessed from History of the Comfort Women of World War II 

Thirty-two is a documentary on the subject of comfort women. It tells the story of Wei Shaolan (July27,1920- May5, 2019), a victim of the comfort women system of the invading Japanese army, and her mixed son (Chinese and Japanese), Luo Shanxue. In 1944, twenty-four-year-old Wei Shaolan and her one-year-old daughter were taken into the military brothel. After spending months of torture, she fled back to her home with her daughter. However, her husband did not forgive her, and no one gave her any sympathy. Her husband said, ‘You are back? I thought you would never come back.’ Later, when she found out she was pregnant, her situation became even worse. This documentary is significant because the director Guo Ke presented the life of Wei Shaolan as a victim from a gender perspective. As a woman, she suffered physical abuse during the Second Sino-Japanese War. She was defined as a comfort woman because of the sexual violence of Japanese soldiers. In the early years of liberation, as a woman, she suffered psychological abuse. She was called a ‘Japanese whore’ because she did not meet the requirements of ideas of chastity. In traditional Chinese concepts, reputation was essential for Chinese manhood. Men had to defend their reputations by controlling the behaviors of those around them. They found that regulating the sexual practices of their female kin could protect their reputation. (Bret Hinsch, 2011, pp.169-204) Hence, keeping physical purity was what feudal ethics required of Chinese females. In short, the ideas of chastity required that women only have sexual behavior with their husbands. Therefore, the comfort women’s horrible experience contradicted the traditional Chinese sexual moral standard. The director showed Wei’s life through interviews, reflecting the chastity idea on sexual violence victims. 

Until Guo Ke’s documentary, most scholars and artistic creators have been more interested in the system of ‘Comfort women’ and its historical significance, rather than the women’s gendered experiences. For example, Japanese scholar Yuki Tanaka’ work, Japanese Comfort Women, focuses on ‘using and misusing sex to govern the military.’ (Yuki Tanaka, 2002, p.1) The Korean film Her Story, based on a real historical event, the Pusan ‘Comfort Women’ and Women’s Labour Corps Members VS. Japanese Government Lawsuit ( Japanese: 関釜裁判; Korea: 관부재판), tells the story of Korean comfort women victims who went to Japan to sue the Japanese government. The documentary can also be used as a reference for the study of changes in ideas of chastity, as the changing view of female virtue is vital to the study of Chinese women. In this short review, I will focus on what the documentary reveals about the extent to which the chastity idea has affected the lives of victims of sexual violence. 

It is hard for comfort women’s victims to tell the experience of what happened to them during the war. At that time, said Wei, ‘Tears flowed in my heart.’ In dealing with the narrative of her past, director Guo took an approach that respects Wei. He took Wei’s mixed son as a symbol of her past. In the past, the victims of sexual violence were ashamed to admit their experiences. It stems from the concept of chastity idea; its limitations fundamentally deny women any rights in sexuality. Simultaneously, the idea of chastity has forced people to ignore the unequal experiences of victims of sexual violence selectively. The writer Tan Enmei (Amy Tan) once described the importance of virginity to Chinese women, ‘When you lose your face…, it is like dropping your necklace down a well. The only way you can get it back is to fall in after it.’( Amy Tan, 1993) Thus, in the past, chastity was vital to Chinese women.

Since ancient times, China has followed Confucianism, which believes in the importance of reputation and purity for humans. Women’s innocence was the standard by which they measured their value. Furthermore, the rights granted by law to men and women in gender relations were not equal. Women were appendages to men, and their bodies belonged to their husbands. In this case, the concept of chastity required them to guard not their bodies but to guard the purity that their husbands placed in their vaginas. Wei’s husband did not praise her wisdom and courage but said indifferently, ‘I thought you would never come back.’ Firstly, in a circumstance where chastity was larger than life, Wei was raped by the other man, which was the sign of her disloyalty. Secondly, as her husband’s appendage, Wei’s experience has made her husband ashamed because his private property was no longer pure. 

This idea of shame was not limited to men’s minds; the victims also internalised it. Another victim, Li Ailian from Shanxi Province, was taken into a military brothel by the Japanese army after her new marriage. When she fled back to her village, her husband said, ‘ It is not your fault. The Japanese took you.’ When Li spoke of this, a relieved smile appeared on her face, knowing that her husband did not dislike her. But it reflected her inner thoughts that she identified herself as disgraceful and unclean, that her husband should have resented her. She said, ‘The shame I felt inside would eat away me for the rest of my life.’(Guo ke, 2017)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the ideas of democracy, freedom, and science had taken root in the West. Freud, Russell, and others who opposed the old traditions on marriage, family, and sexuality were widely spread. The women’s movement for gender rights and liberation was in full swing. China’s cultural pioneers embraced Western ideas of democracy, equality, and science. They began to criticise the limitation of chastity ideas, which had shackled Chinese women for thousands of years. However, when modern civilisation challenges traditional rituals, it takes time to iron out the differences in between. After the calamity, Wei lives most of her life in the shadows. In her later years, Wei lamented, ‘The world is so good. I do not want to die.’ It perhaps signifies that she is probably finally liberated, and the inflicted on her by the chastity is healed.

For victims of sexual violence, the worst pain does not originate from the physical body but the shackles of morality and mental humiliation. The change in social consciousness and ethics at all levels of society is a long process, and even today, we still find some traditional negative concepts in people’s minds. Therefore, it will always take time to iron out the limitations of ‘chastity’ completely. Wei’s story tells us the spiritual injury is hard to cure. Thirty-two reminds us of the importance to stop thinking ‘losing chastity is a shame’ when faced with sexual victims. It is also vital to bear in mind that ignoring the victim’s emotion would injure them psychologically, which is also a crime.

Figure 2: It is the film poster of Thirty Two. 
Image accessed from the official microblog of Thirty Two

Primary Sources

Guo Ke, Thirty-two, 2014 

Guo Ke, Twenty-two, 2017


Su Zhiliang, Re-examination of the ‘comfort women’ issues,Research on the history of war, 2000, p.114

Su Zhiliang, Chen life, A Brief Discussion of the Comfort Women System of the Japanese Army Invading China, History Study, 1998, p.89 

Su Zhiliang, A few points on the Japanese comfort women system, Anti-Japanese War Studies, 2000, p.181

Digital Museum The Comfort Women Issue and the Asian Women’s Fund.

Su Zhiliang, Re-examination of the ‘comfort women’ issues, p. 116

Bret Hinsch, Male Honor and Female Chastity in Early China, NAN NÜ, 2011, pp.169-204

Yuki Tanaka, Japan’s Comfort Women—— Sexual slavery and prositution duding world war ii and the us occupation, Taylor & Francis Group, p.1

Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club, 1993


The Ostensive Step Forward in Gender Equality in 1920-30s Soviet Art and Sculpture

By Jeremy Wolfers

WWI saw major changes to the socioeconomic position of women in the workforce and new fashions in their wake, emphasising a new, “modern” womanhood based around entrance to the previously male-dominated labour market (Roberts, 1993, p. 660). Fashions, as well as depictions of women, carried political messaging, and in France the femme moderne was hystericized during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, with more pressing political matters of Bolshevism and the post-war structures being somewhat overshadowed. Bolshevism itself perhaps was a cause for the concerns around fashion, as Soviet artwork and theory generated a new image of the Soviet woman as having been given the ability to participate in public spaces and serve as a productive, rather than, or as well as, a reproductive agent. In particular, emphasis was placed on allowing women to escape domestic life in text, but the imagery of soviet art and the realities of Soviet society instead reinforced traditional gender roles (Turton, 2018, p. 70). In particular, the 1930s Five-Year Plan, which set high production goals and reintroduced women to some industrial labour, saw women being portrayed less and less in industrial settings and saw them experiencing worse labour conditions and fewer services (Schrand, 1999, p. 1456).

Soviet propaganda poster portraying a woman in red clothing in front of several signs saying "workers clubs, libraries, cafeterias, universities and a home for her child".
“This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women”, 1920. International Museum of Women (2021).

This 1920 poster depicts a female industrial worker, who thanks to the Bolshevik revolution has been given “workers clubs, libraries, cafeterias, universities and a home for her and her child”. This embodied the duality of Soviet imagery on gender roles, simultaneously portraying her independence and participation in work and public spaces whilst emphasizing her reproductive role at home. Of note, however, is the lack of depiction of any radical fashion accompanying her position; her red dress is a striking representation of communism, but her and the babushkas in the background are dressed in traditional peasant clothing.

The political image of the emancipated woman in the soviet context is thus free from the gender constraints of capitalism, but remains in many ways “traditional”, and lacked the appeals to modernism and new “freedom of movement” that were embodied in contemporaneous French fashions (Roberts, 1993, pp. 661, 675-678). Russian constructivist fashions were present in this period, but were unpopular and never made it to the forefront of Soviet realist art or sculpture, because they were primarily made by female artists who were often restricted in their access to painting materials (Kiaer, 2009). Additionally, the aesthetics of constructivism borrowed from the capitalist French fashions of the late 1910s/1920s, which were visually and ideologically counter to Soviet realism. The “Prozodezhda” constructivist outfits, inspired by industrial uniforms and functional design, were unsuccessful, and more modern fashions akin to the Flapper fashions were stigmatized due to their capitalist connotations. The cartoon below from the Soviet Women’s magazine “Zhenskii Zhurnal” portrays women with modernist, “flapper” fashion as scowling jealously at a woman with more domestic and less “dynamic” clothing. As such, whilst advertising and concepts existed for more modern style fashion, it had little place in the propaganda posters which retained the traditional portrayal of women as mothers, peasants and in traditional clothing; productivity and its governing factors of health and naturality was emphasized (Rudova, 2014, p. 391).

A magazine cartoon portraying some women in "flapper" fashion looking scathingly at a woman in more traditional middle class "domestic" clothing.
“Zhenskii Zhurnal”, Issue 11 (1928), p. 9. Rowley Soviet Ephemera, Blavatnik Archive.
A Soviet poster portraying a peasant woman, coloured red and standing tall and forebodingly, denying "Priests and Kulaks" access to a Collective Farm.
N. Mikhailov, In Our Kolkhoz [Collective Farm] There is No Place for Priests and Kulaks (Original printed in 1930).

Progressively through the 1930s the emphasis shifted from opening opportunities for women to consigning them to specific spaces, especially peasant work and domesticity/reproduction (Schrand, 1999, pp. 1455-8). The Zhenotdel Women’s Department, the Soviet government’s women’s pressure group, was dissolved, which reduced the influence women had on policy. Most of the party higher ups were apathetic when it came to actually providing emancipatory policies and services for women in employment. Portrayals such as the above poster for collective farms portrayed women as powerful productive agents, but in more traditional settings of peasant work. Her tall stance and red colouring represent her as a powerhouse for soviet production compared to the “priests” and “kulaks”, other traditional figures of pre-revolutionary Russia with no place in the system. As a result, the traditional image of the female peasant worker was propagated despite many other traditional societal roles being extinguished.

A statue by Vera Mukhina for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition, portraying a male factor worker with a hammer and a female peasant with a sickle united.
Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937)
Last Accessed 10th February 2021

Perhaps the most iconic piece of Soviet Realist sculpture was the iconic Worker and Collective Farm Woman produced for the Paris International Exhibition in 1937. Whilst a dynamic image highlighting the freedom of the peasant woman, and the steel plated construction highlights the industrial modernism of the Soviet people, the woman is a farm worker, specifying her space in the fields where women had worked for a much longer time. Additionally, women’s remaining role in industrial labour was both smaller and less well regulated, with 50% of women, 28% of the industrial work force, being unemployed due to a shift away from light industry. An increase in women’s employment came in informal, unskilled labour following sudden shortages into 1930. Women’s tasks in industry were perhaps intentionally unclear and often they were only portrayed on breaks and not actually working, a trope outlined in the 1935 Thematic Plan, which dictated the approved artistic direction for Soviet artists (Reid, 1998, p. 138). With decreased funding for day-cares and nurseries, women were consigned back to domesticity, in contrast to the supposed goals of equality of the Bolsheviks and the initial aims in the 1910s and 20s.

Soviet practice of gender equality never quite reached its goals, as the productivity of the Soviet system declined such that the funding for nurseries and day-cares that would allow women into productive labour was cut. As a result, the 1930s saw women increasingly being coded as peasants, and their real opportunities declined as the decision making of the USSR more or less ceased its already surface-level commitment to gender equality. Fashions and goods for women were discouraged in propaganda, and as such women’s role was conveyed to be increasingly domestic and in line with traditional gender roles.


Christina Kiaer, “The short life of the equal woman”, Tate-etc, Issue 15 (2009). Last accessed 10th February 2021

Susan E. Reid, “All Stalin’s Women: Gender and Power in Soviet Art 1930s”, Slavic Review, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1998), pp. 133-173

Mary Louise Roberts, “Samson and Delilah Revisited: The Politics of Women’s Fashions in 1920s France”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 3 (1993), pp. 657-684

Larissa Rudova, “’Who’s the fairest of them all?’ Beauty and Femininity in Contemporary Russian Adolescent Girl Fiction”, The Russian Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2014), pp. 389-403

Thomas G. Schrand, “Five-Year Plan for Women’s Labour: Constructing Socialism and the ‘Double Burden’, 1930-1932”, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 51, No. 8 (1999), pp. 1455-1478

Katy Turton, “Gender and Family in the Russian Revolutionary Movement”, in Melanie Ilic, The Palgrave Handbook of Women and Gender in Twentieth-Century Russia and the Soviet Union (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2018), pp. 69-82

Primary Sources

N. Mikhailov, In Our Kolkhoz [Collective Farm] There is No Place for Priests and Kulaks (Original printed in 1930). Last Accessed 10th February 2021

Vera Mukhina, Worker and Collective Farm Woman (1937) Last Accessed 10th February 2021

“This is what the October Revolution has given to the working and peasant women”, 1920. International Museum of Women (2021). Last Accessed 10th February 2021

“Zhenskii Zhurnal”, Issue 11 (1928). Rowley Soviet Ephemera, Blavatnik Last Accessed 23rd May 2021.


Winter is Coming: Sexual Violence in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Image of a silhouette  of a wolf's head, looking like it is sculpted from white, blue ice. In the foreground skeletal trees. Edges of cover in black.

Before starting this post, I would like to say that in this article I will only focus on the series of novels of A Song of Ice and Fire, and not on the HBO adaptation. I also want to warn readers that this post contains explicit scenes of rape and sexual violence.

The dark fantasy series of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire written by George R. R. Martin, is set in a medieval-inspired universe, which emphasises the brutality described in the books as this era has the reputation for being brutal, and it contains graphically violent scenes of war, death, and rape. The series has five books published so far and tells the story of different kingdoms fighting to access the Iron Throne using every means to obtain it, such as war, political machinations, or treachery. The one who gains this throne would govern all the kingdom.  Sexual violence as a recurring theme of the novels represents a variety of different issues linked with patriarchy and sexism, such as the rape of women, and their objectification, as they are treated like a piece of merchandise when they are given to a man in a marriage with no regards to their feelings. Patriarchy is a system that gives power to men while subordinating women. (Butler, 2006 p.56).  In some cases, raping a woman is a way to objectify and possess her, as Robert does to Cersei. Cersei herself rapes another female character to impose her superiority over someone else, and to attempt to escape the patriarchal oppression in which she is imprisoned. This behaviour is coherent with Cersei’s general behaviour throughout the story. She spends the five novels struggling to keep as much power as she can, first as a queen, then as a regent for both her sons. Thus, claiming power through rape is only one more attempt by her to seize more power. Other characters, such as Gregor Clegane and his men, use rape to assert power over someone weaker than them. Consequently, it seems like rape is an issue that touches both sexuality and power.  

In the Song of Ice and Fire series sexual acts are often used to reflect the characters’ personality. Thus, much can be said about the characters who perpetrate rape; when Robert raped Cersei, he was always drunk. (Martin, 2005, p.692). Furthermore, Robert assumes that because Cersei is his wife, he has the right to have intercourse with her, even if she does not consent. This way of thinking is one of the principles of the patriarchal system present in the Westerosi society. The rape of a wife by her husband is not considered as a rape, but simply as a normal sexual intercourse between a married couple because what matters is what the husband wants. The patriarchal system, which is also present in the real world, places men at the top of the hierarchy by promoting male privileges and by subordinating women. (Butler, 2006, p.57). The conjugal rape of Cersei by Robert is representative of the subordination of women. Women are seen as inferior to men because they do not have power over men, nor over their own lives, so much so that they are seen as having no desires of their own. Wives are then subordinate to their husbands because their will and desires are not considered, and because they must obey their husband’s every decision. Thus, Robert does not ask Cersei’s permission before sexual intercourse because, as his wife, she must obey him.

Instead of accepting her subordination, Cersei chooses to try and act like a man to obtain some of the privileges reserved to men. To feel like a man, in a society where domination is linked with masculinity and power and where women are powerless and only valuable as child bearers, she rapes Lady Taena, one of her companions:

Cersei wondered what it would feel like to suckle on those breasts, to lay the Myrish woman on her back and push her legs apart and use her as a man would use her, the way Robert would use her when the drink was in him (Martin, 2005, p.685).

In this passage from Cersei’s perspective, her motivation for the rape is quite clear. She wants to rape Lady Taena not because she is attracted to her, but because she wants to have the same sexual experience as a man raping a woman. Moreover, she is comparing what she is about to do to Lady Taena, with what Robert did to her. She states that she wants to “use” Lady Taena as Robert “used” her. The choice of the verb “use” for sexual intercourse reveals how Cersei felt when Robert raped her, as well as the presence of the patriarchal system in the novels. The verb “use” is mostly applied in the context of using objects, thus, choosing this verb to describe a sexual encounter reinforces the objectification of the other that is a fundamental aspect of rape. Cersei was objectified by her husband; thus, she objectifies another woman to take a man’s place and gain a man’s privilege, at least regarding other women. Her actions can be likened to what Deniz Kandiyoti called the patriarchal bargain (Butler, 2006, p.60). Kandiyoti explains that women employ strategies to gain a degree of power and freedom within the patriarchal system (Kandiyoti, 1988, p.276). By acting like a man Cersei is attempting to make a bargain with the patriarchal system of Westeros to become empowered. The bargain she is attempting to make with her patriarchal society is that by gaining power over other women via rape she would be able to acquire some power, thus gaining some male privileges. However, by gaining power she sacrifices another woman’s power, removing her agency, objectifying her, and re-enacting what Robert did to her (Fraser, 2015, p.152; Young, 2017, p.52). Cersei is attempting to break free from an oppressive system, but she is unsuccessful because she has internalised the misogyny and prejudice of her society (Carroll, 2018, pp.65 -66). By having a woman raping another woman, Martin could have wanted to show the damage that rape could have on women by representing Cersei’s rape as part of her trauma. This can also be linked with the damage patriarchy could cause. A man hurt Cersei so her only option to get some power back is to hurt another woman. However, with this scene Martin has also been criticised. He was accused of writing it only for the benefit of male readers’ fantasies, which is a recurrent problem in fantasy literature (Carroll 2010, p.103).  

Besides, Cersei states that during a war, rape victims ‘were probably praying for a good raping’ (Martin, 2005, p.674). Being herself a victim of rape, she shows no compassion for other women in the same predicament. On the contrary, she is expressing the sexist opinion that if a woman has been raped it was probably because she was asking for it (Fraser, 2015, p.174).

Gregor Clegane and his men also use rape to express power and domination over people weaker than them. They rape the daughter of an inn keeper just because they could, and because the father of the victim was powerless to defend her (Carroll, 2018, p.90). This rape was perpetrated not only because of a sexual drive, but also because the men were in a position of power over the inn keeper and his daughter, and they abused it. One of the men who gangraped the inn keeper’s daughter said after the fact that, ‘maybe she’d decide she liked it after all’ as the young girl stops resisting (Martin, 1998, pp.467, 468). This statement carries the idea, also present in our modern society, that for a woman to be a ‘true victim of rape she had to prove that she had been fighting her aggressor’ (Fraser, 2015, p.174).  Moreover, what the soldier declared after the rape echoes what Cersei will say two books later when speaking about war victims being raped, that they were waiting to be raped.

In the series A Song of Ice and Fire rape and sexual violence is a recurrent theme. It is used in the novels to emphasis the harsh and medieval environment in which the characters exist. In addition, it also represents the personality of the characters, as seen by Cersei’s selfishness and hunger for power, or Clegane’s brutality. Rape is also a reflection of the oppressive patriarchy that is present in the Westeros society. Despite graphic depictions of rape within the novels, the author makes no effort to show how the victims of rape overcome their trauma, except in the case of Cersei.


Butler, Judith, (2006) History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism, University of Pennsylvania Press

Carroll, S. (2018) “Frontmatter”, in Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. Boydell & Brewer

Fraser, Courtney, (2015) ‘from “ladies first” to “asking for it”: benevolent sexism in the maintenance of rape culture’ in California Law Review vol. 103 no. PP. 141-203.

Kandiyoti, Deniz, (1988) ‘Bargaining with patriarchy’, in Gender and Society, Vol. 2, No. 3, Richmond College UK

Martin, George R.R. (1988) Clash of Kings, Voyager Books, Glasgow

Martin, George R.R. (2005) Feast for Crows, Voyager Books, Glasgow

Young, Joseph, (2017) Enough about whores: sexual characterisation in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mythlore Spring/Summer vol. 35 no. 2 PP. 45-61.  

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Edwardian Women’s Struggle: The Arrogant Male Gaze under Pygmalion

By Xinuo Liang

Due to the fact that Edwardian women lacked any right to full citizenship, there was a desire to change this legal disadvantage – by striving for the freedom of suffrage, marriage, property and occupations (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). However, most Edwardian women were imprisoned under the male gaze and involuntarily became the ideal wife who did everything that the ideal husband wished (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193). George Bernard Shaw sympathised with women’s suffering, and stated that “Woman, if she dares face the fact that she is being so treated, must either loathe herself or she must rebel” (Shaw, 1932, pp.36-37); and Pygmalion is one of his most famous feminist plays which expresses his claim. 

While Pygmalion is famous as Shaw’s play, most people know itfrom the 1964 film adaptation My Fair Lady. But My Fair Lady as the adaption of Pygmalion seriously violated Shaw’s original intention of this play, which had been created for the feminist revolution. Hollywood distorted Eliza’s character from independence to dependence. Because in Shaw’s design, a new woman should not be limited by marriage (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32).

The relationship between Eliza and Professor Higgins can only be described as “enemies”. From the moment they met, Eliza was constantly under Professor Higgins’s male gaze; however, she attempted to break free from Higgins’ bondage and become a truly independent woman (Pygmalion Overview) by saying: “Then I shall not see you again, professor, goodbye” (Shaw, 2013, p.75).  Eliza’s leaving was not impulsive or caused by her anger; instead, it was the inevitable result of Eliza’s rising independent consciousness. The ending of Eliza’s leaving was inspired by A Doll’s House, in which the heroine Nora chooses to break away from the image of the ideal wife and away from marriage and the responsibilities imposed upon her female identity. Shaw criticized the marriage system as being unfair to women (Shaw, 1931d, p.32), and argued that women’s independence must be away from the bondage of marriage.

On the road to independence, Eliza must first give up everything that Professor Higgins gave her – the fancy clothes, the fine jewellery and the cosy home. Leaving is the inevitable end for a new woman who was educated. For Professor Higgins, Eliza is merely the fruit of his linguistic education, a mindless object, an exhibit of his superior education that he shows off to the socialites and an exhibition of the professor’s superior educational “skills”. There is no doubt that Higgins’ teaching is successful. He helped a lower-class girl become a skilful and educated woman; on the other hand, Higgins wanted to train Eliza to be an elegant ‘duchess’, which means he trained Eliza in the image of the ideal woman. During his training, Eliza becomes gradually aware that she is a human who has the same intelligence as Higgins. As a result, his education was a failure to himself because it created an independent new woman who does not need to rely on anybody, which does not fit with his expectations.

Pygmalion is a legendary figure from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses who falls in love with his exquisite sculptures. Shaw used Pygmalion’s original story as a model and attempted to discuss the tensive relationship between ‘sculptor’ and ‘sculpture’ of Professor Higgins and Eliza. Eliza undoubtedly occupies a significant place in Higgins’ heart. However, his feelings for Eliza are not a sort of love, but a complex of his linguistic career. Under his gaze, Eliza was never equal to him. From the moment they first met, Professor Higgins was extremely rude and impolite towards Eliza, and even surprised when discussing Eliza with Colonel Pickering by saying “Nonsense! He cannot provide for her. He shall not provide for her. She does not belong to him. I paid him five pounds for her. Doolittle, either you’re an honest man or rogue” (Shaw, 2013, p.62). Higgins completely and financially dominates Eliza, and she has no choice but to obey and rely on Higgins if she wants to continue her privileged middle-class life.

Figure 1: ‘Pygmalion’ 1913 performing copy, UK, 1913-15. Courtesy of The Society of Authors.

Higgins was living in the middle-class with an ideology of separate spheres (Harrison, 1978, p.59). His thoughts about gender had already been disciplined like other men in the Edwardian period, with contempt for women – arrogantly disparaging their potential for independent living, believing that women are naturally of a lower social status than men and that naturally powerful men should rule them. However, when Eliza mastered the educational skills of linguistics, she had acquired a skill that would allow her to live as an independent woman in defiance of patriarchal domination. As a dramatic figure of the independent woman of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Eliza breaks through the separate spheres and attends the public affairs that were previously reserved for men. Eliza is a mirror that reflects the Edwardian woman’s desire to be recognized by the public. In this aspect, Edwardian feminists promoted political equality through various movements, such as the movements of “Suffragettes”, “Cat and Mouse Act” and “Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act”.

Figure 2: The Smoking room of a ladies’ club, UK, 1910s. Phil May, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw gives Eliza the courage to resist the patriarchal system, but he also recognizes that men of the time had a neglectful attitude towards the “independent woman” (Holroyd, 1979, pp.17-32). The “independent woman”, like the “male”, was a woman in terms of “biological sex” who had been socially alienated into the male “social sex” (Morgenroth and Ryan, 2018, pp.1-9). Edwardian men obstructed women’s fight for their rights and freedom because they thought women were not deserving of economic and intellectual equality with men (Graham, 2012, pp.167-193).

In Pygmalion, Shaw uses the case of a Cinderella story to satirize that under the arrogant male gaze, when a woman’s identity awakens, they can draw the same nourishment from daily life. The nature of culture under patriarchy is occluded by Shaw, and economics still determines an individual’s social position. The social class difference pushed Edwardian women to break through the regulation of gender norms. However, it is difficult for individuals to understand reality authentically: most of those who are dominated are often left to accept the ideological shroud, to take reality for granted and to unconsciously accept the values of their dominators, leading to a distorted understanding of their state of being (Hartsock, 1987, pp.187-206). In the process of women achieving epistemological equality, political and economic inequalities change from hidden to exposed (Gilligan, 1982, p.126). Darwinists in Edwardian society mistakenly believed that social order and social hierarchies are naturally fixed (Richards, 2017. p.53). The cultural roots of masculine power alienated gender relations.

The difficulty and the lack of widespread acceptance of women’s political rights are because behind it lies the opposition between the dominant and dominated classes of the patriarchal order of society (Oppenheim, 1994. p.90). These classification criteria are cultural, biological, and artificial, constructed by groups following their particular power relations (Books, 2021. pp.323-346). Likewise, culture is an artificial system of constructs. The independence Eliza aspires to is a rebellion against the male gaze of the “perfect female paradigm”.

Pygmalion is an insight into the confusion of women’s struggle for an independent identity in Edwardian England. As Eliza leaves Professor Higgins – who protects her but restricts her – in order to reinvent herself, she becomes an icon of women’s struggle for independence at the time. Like Eliza, independent women leave their families, and although life becomes more of a struggle, they at least gain freedom.


Shaw, Bernard and L. W. Conolly. pygmalion. London: Bloomsbury, 2013

Graham, Philip. “Bernard Shaw’s Neglected Role in English Feminism 1880-1914.” Journal of Gender Studies 23, no. 2 (2014): 167-183

Shaw, G.B. 1932. The womanly woman. Major critical essays. London: Constable, 32–41

Rubinstein, D., 1986. Before the suffragettes: women’s emancipation in the 1890s. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press

Michael Holroyd, George Bernard Shaw: Women and the Body Politic, 1979

Shaw, B. 1931d. The Philanderer. The complete plays of Bernard Shaw. London: Constable, 28–61

Shaw, B. 1932. The womanly woman. Major critical essays. London: Constable, 32–41

Harrison, B. 1978. Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1st ed.). Routledge

Morgenroth, T and Ryan, M. “Gender Trouble in Social Psychology: How can Butler’s Work Inform Experimental Social Psychologists’ Conceptualization of Gender?” Frontiers in Psychology 9, (2018): 1320-1320

Hartsock, Nancy. “Rethinking Modernism: Minority Vs. Majority Theories.” Cultural Critique no. 7 (1987): 187-206

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. London;Cambridge, Mass;: Harvard University Press, 1982

Richards, Evelleen. Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017

Oppenheim, Janet. Victorian and Edwardian Women: The Halves of Modern English Social History. Vol. 66. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Researchers from Oxford Brookes University Report on Findings in Zoology [Darwin’s Closet: The Queer Sides of the Descent of Man (1871)] NewsRX LLC, 2021.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

‘How could it’ve happened to me?’: The People at No. 19 and the Sexual Double Standard

By Fay Marsden

‘The People at No. 19’ (1949) is a melodramatic film created by the Ministry of Health and the Central Council of Health Education, which aimed to educate the public about available treatments for syphilis (VD). It tells the story of a young married couple – Joan and Ken – who have recently discovered that Joan is pregnant. Joan returns from the doctor looking despondent, finally admitting that she has syphilis. It soon transpires that Joan had engaged in casual sex whilst Ken was away at war. In the ensuing argument, the public learns that syphilis is easily treatable with frequent trips to the doctor and that Joan will still have a healthy baby. The film ends by hinting at the couple’s reconciliation. The film was part of a series of measures undertaken by the Ministry of Health following a peak of VD infections in 1946 (Hall 2001, 132). The goal was to inform the public about treatment and to dispel the myth that only sex workers spread syphilis (Hall 1999, 215-216). However, viewing the film through a lens of the sexual double standard shows that it nevertheless represents female sexuality as dangerous and polluting, and equates the spread of syphilis with sex workers and ‘good-time girls’.

Still captured from ‘The People at No. 19’ (1949), (15:23)

In his seminal article on the subject, Keith Thomas describes the sexual double standard as the longstanding perception of ‘unchastity’ or casual sex being ‘a matter of the utmost gravity’ for women, whilst being at most a ‘mild and pardonable offense’ for men (Thomas 1959, 195). It explains why women who engage in casual sex are labelled as ‘whores’ and receive a damaged reputation, while men who engage in the same behaviour receive little to no backlash (Panteá, Braun & Rowney 2017, 545). When thinking specifically about the history of VD, this double standard is visible when examining perceptions about the disease, as well as responses to it. Female sexuality – particularly that of sex workers – has long been blamed for spreading disease, with men presented as victims. For example, the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s allowed police to detain suspected prostitutes and subject them to forced medical examinations and imprisonment until clear of syphilis (Davis 2011, 512). These degrading acts policed unacceptable female sexuality and pathologized women’s bodies, while their male customers received no similar punishment.

The deep-seated connection between female sexuality and VD continued well into the twentieth century, particularly during the Second World War, when the rising number of venereal infections compounded fears about national health, hygiene and manpower (Davis 2011, 512). By this time, not only were professional prostitutes associated with VD, but also the ‘good-time girl’ or ‘amateur prostitute’ – women who enjoyed casual sex for no commercial gain (Davis 2011, 512). Meanwhile, an onslaught of wartime propaganda warned men against ‘easy’ women, presenting men once more as victims of female sexuality. It is against this backdrop of heightened fear of female sexuality and rising venereal infections that ‘The People at No. 19’ was created.

‘The easy girlfriend’, poster, England, 1943-1944. Credit:
Science Museum, LondonAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

The intention of ‘The People at No. 19’ to educate the public and minimise the stigma surrounding syphilis is undermined by the film’s format. B. Crowther describes such films as melodramatic ‘moral tales’ – where vital information is mixed with moral instruction (Crowther 2009, 126). Arguably, educating the public about syphilis with a tense and sometimes violent film (both Joan and Ken brandish a breadknife at various moments) ensures that it continues to be perceived as a grave and corrupting disease, further increasing its stigma. Additionally, presenting this story as a ‘moral tale’ also ensures that sufferers are seen as either ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent’ – and in this case, the film continues to perpetuate the sexual double standard by laying the blame for the spread of syphilis firmly at the door of women.

The subtle winks and nods to the audience about Joan and her friend Doris would easily be interpreted by an audience which already associates syphilis with ‘amateur prostitutes’ as confirmation of this stereotype. As the film unfolds and Ken realises that Joan had an affair, he also realises that it must have occurred whilst Joan was friends with Doris, a woman with a poor sexual reputation. He even hints that Doris is now a sex worker, slyly stating that he had recently seen her “Walking… Just walking up and down as far as I could see” (9:21). This is of course a coded hint that Doris is now soliciting men for sex, walking the streets to find customers.

Doris is not alone in being associated with sex work, as Joan’s own behaviour is also reminiscent of stereotypes of unacceptable female sexuality. Joan finally admits that whilst drinking with Doris, she had met a group of men and had sex with one of them. As she forlornly asks, “How could it’ve happened to me?” (12:00), she is berated by Ken who asks, “What do you think you are, eh? Somebody too high class to meet up with a common germ? But not too high class to pick up with any Tom, Dick or Harry?!” (12:06). The implication of this comment is clear: while technically anybody can ‘meet up with a common germ’, women engaging in ‘lower class’ promiscuity are particularly to blame for the spread of VD. While it is implied that Ken also had an affair (11:00), it is Joan’s sexuality and friendship with a prostitute that gives her the reputation of the dangerous ‘good-time girl’ so warned against during the wartime propaganda campaign.

Ultimately, ‘The People at No. 19’ perpetuates the sexual double standard by presenting female sexuality as responsible for the spread of syphilis. With subtle references to Doris’ sex work and Joan’s drunken promiscuity (so typical of the infamous ‘good-time girl’), the film continues the historical tradition of representing male sexuality as healthy yet susceptible to being corrupted by unacceptably sexual women, swarming with disease and death.


‘The People at No. 19’ (1949). The Ministry of Health and Central Council of Health Education. <> [accessed 9.02.2021]

Crowther, B. ‘The Growth of British Sex Education Films: Negotiating What We Shouldn’t Know.’ Medical Humanities 35 (2009): 126-127.

Davis, Gayle. ‘Health and Sexuality.’ In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, edited by Mark Jackson, 503-523. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Farvid, Panteá; Braun, Virginia; Rowney, Casey. ‘“No girl wants to be called a slut!”: Women, Heterosexual Casual Sex and the Sexual Double Standard.’ Journal of Gender Studies 26 (2017): 544-560.

Hall, Lesley A. ‘Venereal Diseases and Society in Britain, From the Contagious Diseases Acts to the National Health Service.’ In Sex, Sin and Suffering: Venereal Disease and European Society Since 1870, edited by Roger Davidson and Lesley A. Hall, 120-136. London; New York: Routledge, 2001.

Hall, Lesley A. ‘War always brings it on’: War, STDs, The Military, and the Civilian Population in Britain, 1850-1950.’ In Medicine and Modern Warfare, edited by Roger Cooter, Mark Harrison and Steve Sturdy, 205-223. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999.

Jolin, Annette. ‘On the Backs of Working Prostitutes: Feminist Theory and Prostitution Policy.’ Crime & Delinquency 40 (1994): 69-83.

Thomas, Keith. ‘The Double Standard.’ Journal of the History of Ideas 20 (1959): 195-216.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The flapper in advertisements – a symbol of women’s liberation or immorality?

By Barbara Gabeler

The New Woman or the flapper is an iconic figure of the interwar period. She defied traditional gender norms not only through her fashion – mainly her bobbed hair and boyish dress – but also through her behaviour; smoking and drinking in public, attending dance halls until the early hours, and generally participating in activities that were deemed the prerogative of men. Consequently, as much as she was admired, she was also vilified for her immoral behaviour. Advertisements for cars and cosmetics from the 1920s and 1930s – two booming industries – that feature flappers seem merely sexist at first glance. However, placing them within wider debates around the flapper in the interwar period reveals that advertisers actively played into these discourses. Indeed, they are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. Advertisers tried to accommodate both views, recognising and normalising the flapper’s agency while also preserving traditional views of women and remaining silent about more controversial topics such as her career and income.

The interwar period was internationally marked by anxieties about the perceived subversion of traditional gender roles. The First World War played a significant part in this, having emasculated shellshocked and disabled men and increased the visibility of women in the workforce (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 161; DeGroot, 1996, p. 306). The emergence of a new consumer culture further exacerbated these anxieties as increasing consumer power and new leisure activities such as dancehalls were believed to have a corrupting influence on young people, prompting scientific studies into this (Tinkler, 2003, p. 214). Although flappers likely only existed in small numbers, they were blown out of proportion in popular culture and became particularly contested due to their ‘radical’ and overtly sexual behaviour and fashion, thereby posing a threat to traditional family life. Advertisers, however, having learned from wartime propaganda that emotions are a highly efficient tool to mobilise the masses, saw potential in the flapper as a lifestyle that could be sold to the public (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). Not buying into this lifestyle, the ads indicated, would make consumers unhappy and generally old-fashioned (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 185). The car and cosmetics industries were particularly well-suited to this type of advertising as two booming and gendered businesses that represented modernity.

The first advertisement from an American magazine from the 1920s shows an acceptable, toned down version of the party girl flapper – still recognisable by her short hair, hat, and dress – driving a new Chevrolet. The text ‘easy to drive’ suggestively plays into the idea of women as bad drivers and the need for a car that would be easy to control. In fact, the word ‘easy’ seems to be highlighted above all in this advertisement – it is not about its safety, or the way it looks. Instead, when a woman is at the steering wheel, the emphasis is on easy.

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Figure 1: Chevrolet magazine advertisement, USA, 1920s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

Despite the overt sexism that women are bad drivers, by depicting the flapper in a car, the advertisement is an important acknowledgement that women had a legitimate place in the public world of leisure and shopping with the emergence of a new consumer culture. In fact, by 1928, 97 percent of all advertising was aimed at women, and they were also responsible for buying 67 percent of all consumer goods (Pumphrey, 1987, pp. 184 – 5). In that sense, the normalisation of women as active participants in public life, which this ad contributes to, undoubtedly gave young women more freedom and power.

Nevertheless, historian Martin Pumphrey (1987, p. 186) points out that there are very important silences in the narratives of such advertisements. Indeed, the flapper depicted is not as provocative as the original party girl, indicating a need to pacify conservative forces, but also revealing the conventional views about gender the advertisers held themselves. More importantly, although the car is advertised as affordable, such an expense was unquestionably the prerogative of the middle and upper classes. Considering that flappers were young, single women, it inevitably evokes the question of how she was able to afford such a car. Not without reason, historians have increasingly called the idealised narrative of modernity and the new education and job opportunities for women into question. Selina Todd (2005, p. 806), for instance, points out that while more young women took up work, their wages were of growing importance to the family income in the face of high numbers of male unemployment during the economic depression. Furthermore, Pumphrey underlines that the work performed was low-skilled and that most middle- and upper-class women stopped working once married (Pumphrey, 1987, p. 183). The flapper lifestyle was therefore only attainable for a few.

The second advertisement is for Maybelline from an American magazine from the 1930s. It depicts a flapper putting on the new Maybelline ‘eyelash beautifier’. She looks away quite playfully, and the text underneath suggestively highlights that this makeup makes your eyes sparkle when opened, but gives them an ‘inviting depth’ when partially closed. Altogether, the advert sells the product by underlining that it makes women charming and ‘irresistible’ whatever their mood is.

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Figure 2: Maybelline advertisement, USA, 1930s. Courtesy of The Advertising Archives.

With the rise of cinema and the consequent idealised forms of femininity depicted in films, Kathy Peiss (2001, p. 12) poses that makeup became a key product that allowed young women ‘to buy into rapidly changing norms of self’. Although clearly visible makeup had been contested due to its deep-rooted association with prostitution, this era saw an important shift away from using a limited amount of makeup in a way that made it look like you were a natural beauty to showing off the use of various products. New portable cosmetics allowed women to touch up their makeup in public spaces to maintain their appearance (Houlbrook, 2007, p. 159). Unsurprisingly, then, this advertisement emphasises that it is necessary for women to be ‘irresistible’ and ‘alluring’ at all times.

On the one hand, this is not too controversial considering it was important for young, single women to be able to attract a potential husband. Yet, on the other, the ad is overtly sexual considering the ambiguous text as well as her mischievous look, and it leaves the spectators to be seduced open to our own interpretation. Arguably, the advertisement actively plays into the sexual promiscuity of the flapper. In fact, historian Liz Conor (2002, p. 43) poses that the flapper lifestyle liberated women as it allowed young women to see themselves as a sexual beings as well as to present themselves as desirable objects to be pursued. Therefore, the flapper put heterosexual relations on public display, constantly seeking the attention of multiple men (Conor, 2002, p. 55). This contrasts starkly with the more traditional courtship between one man and woman in the private sphere.

The flapper was undoubtedly a product of consumerism and advertising as her lifestyle was presented as a product to be bought. Advertisements with flappers are telling of the tension that existed between the flapper as a symbol of modernity and women’s liberation on the one hand, and of immorality and deviance on the other. While advertisers did portray the flapper as the former, they did so to a limited extent. The often toned-down versions of the flapper in advertisements are revealing of advertisers’ own conventional views about gender as well as the need to pacify more conservative forces. This is further underlined by the ads themselves, which were sexist and maintained important silences in the flapper’s narrative. Nevertheless, for those able to afford her lifestyle, the flapper offered unprecedented freedom.


Conor, L. (2002). The Flapper in the Heterosexual Scene. Journal of Australian Studies. 26(72), pp. 41 – 57.

DeGroot, G. (1996). Blighty: British Society in the era of the Great War. London: Longman.

Houlbrook, M. (2007). The Man with the Powder Puff’ in Interwar London. The Historical Journal. 50(1), pp. 145 – 171.

Peiss, K. (2001). ‘On beauty … and the history of business’. In: P. Scranton, ed. Beauty business: commerce, gender and culture in modern America. London: Routledge. pp. 7 – 23.

Pumphrey, M. (1987). The Flapper, the Housewife and the Making of Modernity. Cultural Studies. 1(2), pp. 179 – 194.

Tinkler, P. (2003). Cause for Concern: Young Women and Leisure, 1930–50. Women’s History Review. 12(2), pp. 233 – 262.

Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects Uncategorized

Mary Hamilton: A Woman Wronged

By Kirsten Blackham

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

‘Word is to the kitchen gone

And word is to the hall

And word is up to madam the queen

And that is the worst of all

That Mary Hamilton’s born a babe

To the highest Stuart of all’

(Baez, 1960)

Mary Hamilton is possibly one of the most well-known and prolific folk ballads of all time. This ballad has been interpreted and sung for more than 400 years and survives to this day. In an era when reproductive rights, consent, and social judgment are at the forefront of governmental change and legislation, this ballad holds unprecedented significance. It is evidence that these issues have been a point of social distress and discussion for hundreds of years.

The ballad itself is the result of ‘group authorship’ – stories that have been told and amended over a large period of time (Tolman, 1927). Ballads and other folk music spread in a similar manner to gossip, and this seems to be particularly relevant to Mary Hamilton (Coffin, 1957). Though altered over time, the song’s emotional core remains; a woman is coerced by a man, often the king, and as a result becomes pregnant. She kills her baby, and hides the evidence of its birth, but not before being discovered by the Queen. As a result she is put to death.

There are two possible real-life sources for Mary Hamilton (Long, 1973). The first source originates from the 16th century, occurring in the court of Mary Stuart, and is mentioned in John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. In Knox’s account, a maid became pregnant and disposed of the baby with the aid of her purported lover, the Apothecary. Both were hanged in Edinburgh for their crimes (Knox, 2017). The second source comes from 18th century Russia. This is where the last name Hamilton comes in. Mary Hamilton was a Lady in Waiting to the Empress Catherine (Long, 1973). Her story is strikingly similar to Mary Stuart’s unnamed maid, with the notable exception that Mary Hamilton alone was put to death. She bore the legal weight of the infanticide, and her partner was not held responsible. All surviving versions of this ballad contain elements from both women’s stories.

Mary, Queen of Scots by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

This begs the question: why does this ballad survive? What is so important about the tale of Mary Hamilton that it has survived for so long? The answer may be found in the content of each version.

There are at least 28 different recorded variations of the ballad, most of which were preserved by James Francis Child in his collection English and Scottish Ballads. However, ballads are meant to be continually sung and reinterpreted by each reciter, and therefore the actual number of ballad variations is unknown. That does not mean, however, that each version is inconsistent with one another. There are a few key points of the ballad that appear in almost every variation. These lines which are the most consistent with the ballad over time can tell us how people felt and continue to feel about her fate.

The first and most common, the naming of the four Mary’s, firmly placing the court of Mary Stuart:

‘Yestreen four Maries made Queen Mary’s bed,

This nicht there’ll be but three,

A Mary Beaton, a Mary Seaton,

A Mary Carmichael, and me.’

(Child Ballad: 173k.8)

This line is essential to the ballad and it appears in almost every single version. Though it is certain that none of the famous four Mary’s who served Mary Queen of Scots were killed for terminating a pregnancy or infanticide, this line is essential to both period and location placement and is an added embellishment that enforces the sense of betrayal later in the tale when Mary Hamilton is put to death.

The next line outlines Mary’s sense of worth as she approaches her death through a choice of clothing.

‘I winna put on my robes o black,

Nor yet my robes o brown;

But I’ll put on my robes o white,

To shine through Edinbro town.’

(Child Ballad: 173A.7)

Mary, instead of choosing brown clothes to indicate a desire to blend in as she rides to her judgment, or black a symbol of mourning, chooses to wear white, a color that represented purity, and may have been quite expensive. This may indicate that the interpreter felt that Mary was, if not innocent, then at least not afraid of her judgment, and wanted to stick out from the queen’s retinue as they rode through the city.

The next line is intriguing, particularly as it relates to the public sentiment towards Mary, and it echoes how the audience should feel about her while listening to the ballad:

When she cam down the Cannogate,

The Cannogate sae free,

Many a ladie lookd oer her window,

Weeping for this ladie.

(Child Ballad: 173A.11)

This line is arguably one of the most important to the ballad when looking at gender, and in particular, women of the past. Though abortion and infanticide were both punishable by death at this time, and throughout most of the lifetime of the ballad, women mourned for Mary. Mary responds to them in the ballad by saying they should not weep for her because she took responsibility for the action of killing her baby (Child, 2010) However, that did not prevent them from weeping for her, nor does it prevent the audience from sympathizing with her. The interpreter further emphasizes the need to sympathize with Mary with the next line:

‘Oh little did my mother think,

The day she cradled me,

What lands I was to travel through,

What death I was to dee.’

(Child Ballad 173A.15)

Invoking the image of her mother cradling her as a child reminds the audience that Mary too was someone’s child, and that her parents could not have known what misfortunes would befall her in the future.

The final line focuses on Mary’s betrayal:

‘Last night I washd the queen’s feet,

And gently laid her down;

And a’ the thanks I’ve gotten the nicht

To be hangd in Edinbro town!’

(Child Ballad: 173A.17)

Mary feels wronged and claims that the only reward she received for her service to the queen was death. It also implies the interpreters felt that Mary had no control over what happened to her. Whether her pregnancy was the result of coercion and rape or of a whirlwind romance from a man at court, she should not have been put to death by the queen.  

Video accessed from on 18/02/2021

There could be many reasons for the long life of this ballad. It could have survived because it was a piece of salacious court gossip, or used as a cautionary tale. However, the most probable reason for its survival, considering the tone set by these lines, is that the story of Mary Hamilton is relatable.  Mary Hamilton would not have had access to birth control, and even if she had chosen to keep the baby, she would most likely have lost her position and been banished from court, a fate that may have sentenced her to death in itself. It is unlikely that she would have received support from her partner, and she almost certainly would have been forever labeled for having a child out of wedlock. To this day, people still face the pressure of these circumstances. The legalization of abortion is not even across the board in all or even most countries, and even where it is legal, there is a distinct social stigma attached to it. This ballad represents a social issue, even a trauma that we feel to this day


Baez, Joan, Mary Hamilton (Vanguard, 1960)

Brickdale, Eleanor Fortesque, “The Queen’s Marie” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1919) <’s_Golden_book_of_famous_women_(1919)_-_The_Queen’s_Marie.jpg>

Child, Francis James, English and Scottish Ballads Volume 2 (, 2012)

Coffin, Tristram P., “‘Mary Hamilton’ and the Anglo-American Ballad as an Art Form,” The Journal of American Folklore , 70.277 (1957), 208–14

Eyre-Todd, George, Scottish Ballad Poetry (Volume 3) (General Books, 2012)

John1948SevenB, “Joan Baez – Mary Hamilton (BBC Television Theatre, London – June 5, 1965)” (Youtube, 2015) <>

Knox, John, History of the Reformation in Scotland; Volume 2 (Andesite Press, 2017)

Long, Eleanor R., “Ballad Singers, Ballad Makers, and Ballad Etiology,” Western Folklore, 32.4 (1973), 225

Preston, Cathy Lynn, “The Way Stylized Language Means: Pattern Matching in the Child Ballads,” Computers and the Humanities, 23.4–5 (1989), 323–32

Tolman, Albert H., “Mary Hamilton; The Group Authorship of Ballads,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 42.2 (1927), 422–32 Uknown, Mary, Queen of Scots, 1560-1592 <>