Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

Introduction

Find out about social sciences at the British Library including collections, events and research. This blog includes contributions from curators and guest posts by academics, students and practitioners. Read more

30 July 2021

‘Like tripe on a slab’: women’s accounts of reproductive healthcare provision in Spare Rib magazine are now available through the Library’s digital map.

A guest post by Alice O’Driscoll

 

Find out more about the letters and listings made available via the Library's Spare Rib magazine digital map

 

Spare Rib 1972

Spare Rib 6 December 1972 p. 27 © Sue Coe, courtesy Galerie St. Etienne

 

When Jo Evans from Bristol was diagnosed with an ovarian cyst after a visit to the hospital in late 1981, her (male) doctor gave her the ‘stark and unsettling ultimatum’ of either having a baby straight away, or a hysterectomy. A third option was available, he conceded, but it was expensive.

Evans was incensed, not just by the lifechanging decision she was being faced with, but with how her doctor had presented the dreadful choice in a ‘jocular fashion’ while several of his medical students awkwardly looked on. ‘He should stop whipping the wombs out of the women of Bristol and resign’ she wrote, ‘so that more women can rise to the top of the gynaecological profession’. (Letter from Jo Evans, ‘Hospital Confrontations: Taking on the “Big Man”’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, pp. 24-5.)

Evans wrote into Spare Ribmagazine shortly after this experience to vent her frustration. She also wanted to express her gratitude to the magazine for their timely publication of an article about hysterectomies, written by Kath Cape with the aid of the Sheffield Women’s Health Group and Sheffield Radical Nurses. (Kath Cope, Sheffield Women’s Health Group, and Sheffield Radical Nurses, ‘Womb Loss’, Spare Rib 112, November 1981, pp. 6–8, 38.)

Complete with diagrams and patient testimonies, the piece, called ‘Womb Loss’, aimed to inform and, consequently, empower. In the case of Evans, it worked. She also consulted friends in the medical profession, and the classic feminist tome on women’s health, Our Bodies, Ourselves.

Her letter, which opened with an account of her degrading treatment at the hands of hospital staff, ends with an assurance that she ‘will return to the hospital and tell the consultant how outrageous his suggestion is’. Her determination to become an active and assertive recipient of healthcare is clear, this transformation catalysed by her poor treatment and facilitated at least in part by the informative contents of Spare Rib.For scholars interested in the history of women’s healthcare, the form and function of feminist publishing, or the women’s liberation movement more broadly, there is much material to work with here.

 

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First UK edition of Our bodies ourselves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978 (X.319/18521) 

 

Another ‘jolly consultant’ was the object of Abigail Mozley’s ire, a Spare Rib reader from Falmouth who wrote of her humiliation at being surrounded by a ‘small horde of medical students’ during childbirth. (Letter from Abigail Mozley, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 4, February 1973, p. 4.)  She felt the same impotence as Evans in the face of an inconsiderate medical profession: ‘they discussed my interesting case as if I wasn’t there, then had me stripped naked’.

A reader named Kathryn Woodward from Sheffield similarly reported having a ‘group of staring students’ standing round her hospital bed as she was giving birth. (Letter from Kathryn Woodward, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 4, February 1973, p. 4.) She too considered herself relegated during the experience, feeling ‘superfluous’ at her own labour, since ‘all congratulations at the end were for the doctor… my only role was being that of a nuisance’. A mother, she said, ‘is often still regarded as an object – a stupid one at that’.

All of these letters are searchable on the interactive Spare Rib magazine digital map of women’s liberation movement networks and activities. The Spare Rib letters pages are littered with accounts such as these, which relay the distress of women made to feel passive and irrelevant, ‘like tripe on a slab’. (Letter from Paula Harmer, ‘...And Choosing Women Doctors’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, p. 25.)

 

The rise of the epidural

Many of those who wrote into the magazine perceived the problem to stem not from the attitude of the physicians themselves, but in the limitations of their empathy because of their gender. The solution offered by Evans - that more women become gynaecologists - alludes to this, as does Mozley’s memory of being told her epidural would not hurt (‘it did bloody hurt actually’). Paula Harmer from Knottingley asked ‘can we insist on a female doctor, who will perhaps be more thoughtful and understanding?’ (Letter from Paula Harmer, ‘...And Choosing Women Doctors’, Spare Rib 115, February 1982, p. 25.)

The rise of the epidural – touted in one Spare Ribarticle as enabling painless childbirth – is undoubtedly a remarkable moment in the history of women’s reproductive healthcare. For the author of this piece, journalist and author Kathleen Tynan, it was a feminist victory, facilitating her own ‘thoroughly unnatural’ labour which defied the ‘Puritan hand-me-down that, to be rewarding, childbirth must also be an agonising process’. (Kathleen Tynan, ‘Epidurals’, Spare Rib 6, December 1972, pp. 6–7.)

Woodward’s letter, however, inserts a poignant qualifier into this triumphant narrative, one which expands the definition of labour pains by taking into account her dismissive treatment at the hands of the medics around her. Following the epidural, she conceded that she ‘felt no pain’, but she ‘was frightened and humiliated’,  leading her to conclude that ‘drugs are just part of the answer’.

Despite the ‘ultimate lack of pain during the delivery I hated the experience and only remember it with horror’ she said, ‘I felt like a failure’. The contractions which had caused her to be in ‘excruciating’ agony before the epidural kicked in were not to be overlooked either.

 

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A screenshot of the interactive Spare Rib digital map

 

Breast vs Bottle

One letter, written by reader Jane Cottingham and published in 1981, offers a root cause for the problem with the medical profession which would perhaps appeal to the women above whose reproductive healthcare was so distressing: ‘concern is almost always with the infant and rarely with women’. (Letter from Jane Cottingham, ‘Breastfeeding - How Men Brandish the Bottle’, Spare Rib 103, February 1981, pp. 4, 22.)

Cottingham wrote on behalf of ISIS, the women’s international information and communications service based in Geneva and Rome, and her letter therefore not does feature on the Spare Ribdigital map of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The map offers an easily searchable sample and visualises the location of women’s health groups and related events, such as a ‘spiritual midwifery’ tour in 1982, but does not include international letters and listings.

The matter at hand in Cottingham’s case was the recurrent debate between advocates of breastfeeding and bottle-feeding. She had contacted the magazine after having become aware of companies exploitatively promoting their formula to poor women who were then forced further into poverty once their own supply of breastmilk ceased and bottle-feeding became the only option.

Cottingham’s anger was not wholly directed at the market-driven brands, although she was stung by the acute irony that they were ‘capitalizing (literally) on the ideas of the early women’s movement – that our oppression stemmed from our biology and thus we had to get away from reproduction, motherhood, and everything to do with child care in order to be liberated’.

She reserved some of her frustration for the ‘male government delegates, World Health Organisation experts, industry representatives and consumer advocates’ who weighed in to ‘argue about breast or bottle as though the two were interchangeable commodities’ with little regard for the difference forms of parental labour required of the two.

Cottingham’s aim was to problematise the fact that these conversations about ‘breast versus bottle’ were led, at least in the public arena, by the medical profession and corporate stakeholders in childcare. The exclusion of mothers’ perspectives facilitated the commodification of women’s bodies. The fruits of women’s maternal labour, she concluded, were consequently rendered products and services akin to any others in the capitalist system.

While this letter takes a different tone to other, highly personal accounts of their healthcare, Cottingham’s description of the erasure of women’s experiences at a policy level might still have resonated with those who felt invisible during their own treatment, and is part of a larger conversation within the movement that took place through a network of talks and conferences on childbirth, searchable on the Spare Rib map.

The subject and the provenance of Cottingham’s letter speak respectively to the magazine’s international outlook and reach. Regarding those letters about reproductive healthcare which stemmed from within the UK, however, the map can serve as an extremely valuable resource for scholars.  It is a wonderful tool for those interested in writing local or geographically-sensitive histories: a full postal address is supplied by many readers and printed alongside their letter, meaning that it is possible in many cases to pinpoint exact hospitals, GPs, playgroups and nurseries.

The map is also searchable by category, allowing researchers to identify relevant material across the two decades the magazine was in print – for instance, ‘Health, Sex & Therapy’. A more specific keyword search allows users to search for, e.g. ‘childbirth’. The cases above are just a fraction of those which have been plotted so far, but their candour and detail hopefully indicate the potential benefits of this resource for scholars of feminist publishing in modern Britain.

 

Alice O’Driscoll is a PhD student in History at Jesus College, University of Cambridge. Her thesis focuses on women and warfare in seventeenth-century Britain and Ireland, but she is interested in all aspects of gender and violence.

28 July 2021

Hundreds of definitions for a big word: The Refugee Dictionary comes to the British Library

Emma Cherniavsky, UK for UNHCR CEO, holds The Refugee Dictionany

The Refugee Dictionary, photo by Simon Jacobs, PA Wire

Today is the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention. The UN Refugee Convention, signed on 28 July 1951, defined who a refugee is in law and set out the human rights of women, men and children fleeing the horrors of war and persecution to seek safety in another country. It also set out the legal obligations of states to protect refugees.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (known as UN Refugee Agency or UNHCR) is the custodian of the Refugee Convention and works around the world to protect the rights and wellbeing of people forced to flee conflict and persecution. Their work includes responding to emergencies, providing access to essential services such as health care and education and also supporting the complex needs for refugees wanting to return to their homes. The charity UK for UNHCR helps raise funds and build awareness to support this work in the UK.

To mark the 70th anniversary, UK for UNHCR have created a very special dictionary to highlight the many personal experiences of refugees and their friends, families, colleagues and others. The Refugee Dictionary has been compiled from hundreds of definitions of just one word: ‘refugee’. The result is a powerful work, at times beautiful, recounting the experiences of fleeing persecution, hopes, building new homes and new relationships. Sometimes it’s as simple as sharing a joke or favourite food.

Examples of the definitions contained in The Refugee Dictionary include:

A refugee is the unexpected but joyful addition to my family. A surprise second son’ (Jane, Lewes)

the Asian family who fled Idi Armin’s Uganda. They arrived with just one small suitcase each, but in them they had gifts for us’ (Anne, Stourbridge)

Someone in search of what most of us take for granted’ (Andrew, Glasgow)

You can read all the definitions, including contributions from faith leaders across the UK, Lord Alf Dubs, Khaled Hosseini, and Emma Thompson, online at https://www.unrefugees.org.uk/refugeedictionary/

photograph of Emma Cherniavsky presenting The Refugee Dictionary to Xerxes Mazda at the British Library

Emma Cherniavsky, UK for UNHCR CEO presents The Refugee Dictionary to Dr Xerxes Mazda, British Library Head of Collections and Curation. Photo by Simon Jacobs, PA Wire

Yesterday, a print copy – one of only two – was presented to us at the British Library, to add to our collections. We are honoured and delighted that UK for UNHCR chose us to hold a copy. The British Library is a place where we celebrate the written and spoken word, and the meanings that we give to them. Even more, The Refugee Dictionary and the Convention that has inspired its creation, speaks to our aim to ensure that our collections reflect the diversity of voices that make up published communication. That could be through fiction, poetry, song, blog posts, charity campaigns, the latest scientific papers or popular magazines.

Our collections have been influenced and enriched by the experiences of refugees and the work to protect the rights of refugees.

Our Oral History recordings include testimonies from people who fled persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany and during the Second World War. More information on these collections can be found at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-jewish-experience-and-holocaust-testimonies

The Vietnamese Oral History project includes interviews with refugees from Vietnam to the UK, alongside interviews with refugee support workers. This collection, and others documenting refugee experience, is described at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/oral-histories-of-ethnicity-and-post-colonialism

The British Library is a depository library for the United Nations, and provides access to the published documentary history of the UN and its agencies, including UNHCR. You can find out more about these collections, and find out how to access the many documents that are now freely available online, at https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/publications-intergovernmental-organisations

Our Social Welfare Portal provides access to reports and other information from a range of UK charities and agencies working to support the rights of refugees in the UK.

Our Contemporary British Publications reflect the growing range of academic research, news, commentary and creative expression on the experience of being a refugee. We are very pleased to add The Refugee Dictionary to this collection, marking the 70th anniversary of the UN Refugee Convention.

20 July 2021

Unfinished Business: finally giving black feminist history and contribution its due

A guest post by Dr Hannana Siddiqui

Dr Hannana Siddiqui is a leading multi-award winning expert and activist on violence against black and minority women. She has worked at Southall Black Sisters for 35 years and is also a freelance consultant researcher and policy advocate. She has published widely on black feminism and co-edited the book, ‘Moving in the Shadows’ in 2013. 

Walking around the British Library’s exhibition, Unfinished Business, with mask and mobile phone camera in hand, I went mad with taking photographs. There was so much to take from the first edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and protest poems written on toilet paper in Holloway Prison by Sylvia Pankhurst to objects and images from modern feminism, both familiar and unfamiliar. A world of discovery for old feminists and new; but also much to learn for the unaware and the unreconstructed.

In one corner, there are pictures of me! (Surreal or what?) The section on Southall Black Sisters (SBS) is part of a familiar history, but distilled into a few objects. SBS has a long and proud history of struggle and survival, having led black feminists' fight against gender-based violence in black and minority communities for over 40 years. I saw the annual report that I assisted in writing, and a poster and note from the Free Kiranjit Ahluwalia Campaign that I helped to win. Kiranjit is an Asian woman who we campaigned to free from life imprisonment after she was convicted of the murder of her husband, who had subjected her to ten years of violence. In 1992, the conviction was overturned, and she was released. The landmark case reformed the law of provocation so that it took account of the cumulative impact of abuse on women; and propelled the issue of domestic abuse in Asian communities onto the national agenda. A poignant piece, which I had to dig up from piles of documents in the office, was the Charter of Slavery, a note in which Kiranjit promises to give up all her freedoms and hopes to placate her abusive husband. A sad moment in history, but also, ironically, a liberating one, as its presentation in court proved the history of abuse which ultimately freed her.

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Banners on display at Unfinished Business

The other pictures I captured on my camera and in my mind included key campaigns led or supported by black and minority women. One featured Sophia Duleep Singh, a lesser known suffragette, who was a recent discovery for SBS too. The survivors at SBS acknowledged her contribution to obtaining women’s right to vote in a banner at the centenary celebrations in 2018. Another section showed the Grunwick Strikers, led by Jayaben Desaiand other Asian women to win worker’s rights. Camden Black Sisters were also featured along with black feminist icons such as activists and authors, Claudia Jones and bell hooks, as well as black politicians, space scientists, artists and punk rockers. Old banners also hung from the ceiling (remember to look up!). One SBS banner marked a 1980s march on violence against women. The banner was based on the controversial SBS poster of a multi-armed Goddess, Kali, holding multiple weapons to fight male violence. Also hanging up was the banner produced for the successful legal battle for our race equality fight for specialist services in 2008. These and other exhibits highlight the intersections with race, gender and class inequality which black and minority women have led on to address without proper credit, until now.    

Grunwick poster

Dan Jones, Look back at Grunwick, 1978 On loan from Bishopsgate Institute.

I bumped into Susie Orbach and we shared our enthusiasm for the exhibition, which we were both unfortunately rushed through in the early morning before a busy day at work.  Susie co-founded the Women’s Therapy Centre back in 1976, a place where I have referred women seeking recovery from the trauma of abuse. The section on her work in the exhibition connected the past with the present. Mental health problems are now heightened with the Covid-19 pandemic and over a year of lockdowns and social distancing. Domestic abuse has surged with black and minority women particularly affected. Asian women are three times more likely to kill themselves than women generally, and I worry how many are being driven to suicide and self-harm while in isolation or locked in with abusive partners or family members. SBS and other women’s groups have seen a rise in mental health problems, and have called for more action from government to alleviate the crisis.

In the midst of these and other troubles, the feminist struggle continues, and there is indeed ‘unfinished business’. However, although we still have much to do, the exhibition is also a symbol of hope as we know from the past that victories, small and great, have been won and so will be in the future. I need to go back as there is much more to see and know. Next time, though, I must remember to take my husband!

 16 July 2021

Twitter: @hannanasiddiqui