Breaking the silence

It’s been a long time since I have posted, over three months in fact.  This is not down to a lack of material to write about (I have pondered at least a post a month which has never been written) and only slightly to do with lack of time (although I am pleased to say that the book is now four draft chapters long and well on the way to being completed in draft form).  Rather, I have got out of the habit of blogging and have struggled to get back into it.

Posting on here requires me to make the time to identify subjects, think them through and actually write posts down. Other things have to take a lower priority for this to happen and, as Matt Houlbrook recently pointed out, there are times when other things need to be prioritized.  Life can be more than history, and neither history nor historical blogging can alway console us for everything life throws us.

But there comes a point when even the priorities beyond history cease, at least temporarily, to be so compelling, when the deadlines retreat for a while, when the business of teaching and admin and childcare and housework have the potential to be treated as background noise rather than the narrative itself. But restarting old habits, however beneficial we may know them to be, can be difficult.  Blogging, like any other form of writing, at least for me, is a form of concentrated labour that needs time and space, time and space which need to be consciously carved out of already crowded days.  Forcing myself to do something that is difficult and time consuming but which has no deadline may be a very good self-mortifying discipline; that doesn’t mean I can or will do it.

So, in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of finding some time and space to write in this voice, a voice which I know is important to me both personally and professionally, I present you with the following query and half-formed thoughts which arose yesterday when I asked on Twitter whether any historians had included details of childcare responsiblities in their grant applications.  I received no more than a dozen responses, so this is a deeply unscientific survey, but the results interested me on a number of levels.  From the answers I did receive the following information emerged:

– The inclusion of childcare most often occurs as an explanation for past behaviours (time off for maternity leave) rather than as justification for proposed future behaviours (such as why a certain number of research trips of a certain length have been budgeted for).

– Some funders (take a bow, AHRC) have specific policies for taking childcare responsiblities into consideration. I did not know this. I am very glad I do now.

– There is a US/UK divide, with US applicants much more willing to view childcare as a legitimate concern of funders than UK applicants.

– Almost all responses were from women. Where men did responded it tended to be to be in relation of their female partner’s applications, rather than their own.

– All responses expressing anxiety about how the inclusion of childcare would be viewed by funders came from women, but so did the cheerleading for funders who explicitly stated that childcare consideration could and should be included in applications.

As I say, the tiny sample of responses makes any conclusions difficult to draw, even if I had any, but I remain interested in seeing where this discussion might take me, not least because of my own responses.  I have never included childcare in any application beyond the statement of maternity leave taken and the inclusion of my children’s birth certificates as evidence of my qualification for time credited for leave.  But now I am seriously questioning whether I should have done or do so in the future.

Thinking about it, I realise the extent to which I still separate my caring responsiblities from my professional identity, despite the immense impact they have on each other, an impact I freely acknowledge here.  How I ensure my children are properly cared for while fulfilling my obligations as a researcher and a teacher is an immensely complicated issue requiring great good will from many others (as I was reminded when my son fell ill two hours before my husband was due at work and 2.5 hours before I was due to teach as seminar).  Yet I still assume that sorting them out is my responsibillity rather than my funders.  That others, funders and academics, don’t see it as such is both cheering and challenging.

There is also a question of gender to be addressed, a question that seems obvious but which I find surprisingly hard to articulate.  Is childcare still a dominant concern of women? Are men more confident in asserting their right to have childcare responsibilities taken into account?  If so, why?  And what about other caring responsibilities?  Like so many of my colleagues, the necessity of caring for aging parents is becoming an increasing demand on my time and emotional energy, time and emotional energy that cannot then be invested in research.

I will need to think more about this, ask more questions, have more discussions, write more blog posts.  If I want to change the status quo, my own as much as anything, I need to break silence.

 

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2 for 1

I realise it has been a long time since I have posted anything.  I am still writing a lot – conference papers, a journal article, an introduction and a couple of guest posts on other blogs.  I have just been gifted a bit of time today, so I am hoping there will be a new post later this morning.

In the meantime, in case you missed them, my guest posts on disability and masculinity and the medical evacuation process can be found here and here.

What fresh hell is this?

This post is one of an occasional series that might be entitled ‘Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while’.  In fact, my silence on the blogging front has been something of a frustration as I have at least three posts that I want/need to write.  The problem, as always, is finding the time between grant deadlines, an overdue book review, an even more overdue article, teaching, marking and, oh yes, the research project that I am actually contracted to be undertaking!

And that is just on the formal professional front.  As a (semi-)public historian in this centenary year, I find myself juggling interviews, requests for interviews, requests for articles and comments, as well as the private demands of family life which, as my tag-line for this blog indicates, are as much a part of my identity as anything related to the histories of gender or the First World War.  So the post I had planned to coincide with International Women’s Day has been rather swamped by the fact that my son still hasn’t written his thank you cards for his birthday presents (meeting deadlines is clearly not a skill that runs in the family). Such are the ironies of working motherhood.

So yes, there is a lot going on in my life, but probably not any more than any other working parent, and I am blessed by having a job with a certain amount of flexibility built into it.  It is when I bump up against immovable deadlines, like the current grant application which is due next week and which has been slowly driving me mad with its looming urgency and terrifying complexity, that something, somewhere, has to give.  Generally speaking, it is this blog, the space where I explore the aspects of my life and work that I find thought-provoking but not necessarily immediately productive.

My apologies, therefore, if you have been eagerly awaiting my comments on the spate of recent First World War media outputs (and for once I know that this group includes more than just my mum as I did promise someone a comment on the Max Hastings/Niall Ferguson debate).  There will be, I promise, some thoughts on being a female First World War historian, on why shell shock is not the same thing as PTSD, and how I have been haunted by a (still unfulfilled) research project since I wrote my PhD, eventually.  But not until after 25th March.  Sorry.

Talking about Mary Beard…

So I have spent quite a lot of time this past weekend thinking about the controversy that has surrounded Mary Beard for the past couple of weeks.  For those who are unaware of it, Mary Beard is a professor of Classics at Cambridge and public intellectual.  A couple of weeks ago she appeared on Question Time, a current affairs programme in which a panel of politicians, journalists and others discuss questions posed by the audience.  Guests are often chosen for their potential conflict, although this being the BBC, said conflict rarely gets beyond eloquent (and not-so-eloquent) disagreement and polite put-downs.  The most controversial guest on the night in question was Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, a political party that wants Britain to leave the European Union and generally dislikes what it sees as an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe consequent to that membership.

I didn’t actually watch the programme (the frustration of yelling at the television on a regular basis is not worth whatever intellectual gain I might make from hearing opinions spoken that generally appear in other media anyway), but apparently a question was asked relating to the effects of immigration on Boston in Lincolnshire, to which Professor Beard responded quoting a report that viewed such impact as positive.  The debate that this provoked extended from the programme itself to many other media, including a large number of extremely rude tweets and e-mails directed at Professor Beard.  Many of these were, according to Professor Beard’s own account on her blog A Don’s Life, either withdrawn or led to more polite forms of debate, but significant forms of abuse remained, including the posts on a website, Don’t Get Me Started (which has since been closed).  As Professor Beard herself explains, this abuse was vicious and graphically sexual in nature, having little relation to the topic involved and everything to do with Professor Beard’s appearance and identity as a woman.

I followed the controversy via newspaper articles (which picked up the story fairly quickly) and through Twitter, where I follow Professor Beard.  In addition to a number of interesting contributions from other women in the public sphere who have been at the receiving end of such abuse, both from the relevant website and other quarters, there have been a number of retweets of some of the abusive comments addressed to the professor.  One of these was to the effect that she should grow some balls because she was in the public eye and therefore abuse was only to be expected when she voiced unpopular opinions.  The irony of the suggestion that Professor Beard acquire male genitalia in order to protect her from abuse directed at her primarily because, as a woman, she lacks said physical attributes struck me strongly enough that I posted a reply to that effect.  It was not a particularly witty tweet and, beyond a rather incoherent response from the original commenter to the effect that David Starkey and Simon Schama showed more dignity by not talking about being abused for their views, it sunk more or less without a trace.

What set me thinking, however, was the fact that, while it took me only a couple of minutes to compose my tweet, it took me a good 15-20 minutes to decide to actually post it in a public forum.  As I say, it wasn’t particularly clever or insightful, but nor was it abusive or even unkind.  It was simply a rather sarcastic contribution to an ongoing public discussion.  Yet I was worried about posting it and, I have realised, that that worry derives in part from the fact that I am a woman.

As a published author, I have received my share of green-pen correspondence.  Fortunately they have taken the old-fashioned form of letters signed by a named individual who even gave their address.  They were extremely personal about my intellectual capabilities, which was quite upsetting, but never strayed into more personal territory, beyond the suggestion (which I have heard a number of times now) that as a woman I cannot possibly understand what it was like to be a (male) soldier in wartime.  I was fortunate to receive strong support from my editor at the time and, while very upsetting, I never felt threatened.

What Professor Beard, and many other women who speak out in the public sphere of popular media, have suffered is of another order.  The abuse is explicitly sexual and often both implicitly and explicitly violent.  What is for me the most worrying aspect are the number of threats I have read about directed towards the families of these women, including their children.  Like the sexual threats and commentary, there appears to be no equivalent aimed at men who participate in public discussion.

Which means that, as the mother of young children, I am uncomfortably aware that publishing an opinion in public may not only put me at risk of the sort of sexual commentary and threat that no individual, whatever their opinion, should be subject to, but may also lay my children open to threats of violence through absolutely no fault of their own.  This terrifies me, as it should anyone who values democracy, discussion and freedom of speech.  At the same time, as an historian working in a field that is of considerable (and soon to be increasing) public interest, I want my voice to be heard, even if the stories I have to tell may not be the ones everyone wants to hear.  Although nowhere near as eminent as Professor Beard and the many other courageous women who carry on contributing to civilised discourse in face of irrelevant abuse, I need to find the courage to carry on speaking out in public, to refuse to be silenced.

So I am glad I posted that tweet, however silly and sarcastic.  And I will carry on putting forward my views in the hopes that some day the voices of reasonable argument will drown out the abuse and threats of those who would seek to silence us, women and men alike.

Why Am I Here?

A couple of recent comments, both on here and via e-mail, have caused me to start thinking a bit more seriously about the point of this blog. Over the past few months I have commented fairly extensively on manifestations of First World War history in the wider culture and a bit less on my own particular field of research. What was originally intended as a space for me to work out ideas relating to the history of non-commissioned members of the RAMC during the war has become a rather more general First World War blog.

I have to admit, this makes me a bit nervous. There are an awful lot of First World War buffs (in the most general sense of those interested in the war, not just pure military history obsessives) out there, and this blog is never going to be able to cater for all interests and I won’t even begin to try. I worry, however, that I spend an awful lot of time defining myself negatively as a historian. I am NOT a military historian (although I do know an increasing amount of military history as I get to grips with the complex systems of evacuation employed by the RAMC during the war). I CANNOT identify specific uniforms not am I likely to be able to help with queries about genealogical research (although I may be able to point people in the right direction). I am NOT a transnationalist and my knowledge of the non-British experience of the war is woeful, although I am hoping this will change in the not-to-distant future.

So where do all these negatives leave Arms and the Medical Man? Well, there are still plenty of positives, I hope.  I AM a cultural historian of warfare. I DO know a great deal about popular literature and the war, and an increasing amount about the medical history of the war.  I AM a gender historian which helps me locate my studies of the war in the narrative of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I still hope to use it as a space to work out my ideas, especially now that I am starting to have more primary material to work with. I am in the Wellcome archive this week, discovering just how little there is on the work of the nursing orderly, something I am going to have to think hard about as I am due to give a paper on that very subject in two months time. And, as the centenary gets ever closer, I will carry on discussing representations of the war in British popular culture. That aspect of this blog has been the source of the greatest amount and potentially the most fruitful discussion so far. And while creating a forum for discussion about the war was not necessarily my main purpose in starting out with this blog, if that is a role that it fills (in a civilized manner, naturally) then far be it from me to resist!

On which note, here is an article that was doing the rounds last week, in case you haven’t seen it. Encouraging to have the problems of commemoration voiced by such an authoritative source, although I am not sure where we go from here. More discussion, then.