Sex, Lives and History Books

by Dr Louise Foxcroft on 28 February 2017

Dr Louise Foxcroft
B A  History 1992-95
PhD 2000

Have you any notion of how many books are written about women … have you any notion how many are written by men … are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?

                             Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, (London, 1929)

Feminism propelled me into education, though I didn’t realize it at the time. As a young woman I was constantly frustrated by the way society treated me and women in general – here’s a snapshot: in the late 1970s, newly married, I needed my husband’s signature to open a bank account. Institutional burdens such as this were overlaid with what we now know and deride as everyday sexism. Back then, I didn’t have the arguments or answers to effectively elucidate my frustrations and, living in a rural location with small children, I lacked anyone of like mind to discuss it with. I started an Open University degree and within the first year of study I had applied to read history at Lucy Cavendish. Revelatory is not the word.

I chose history because I see it as fundamental to all other subjects: how can one fully understand William Godwin’s political philosophy, say, or The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, or Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own without having a grasp of the milieu, the context in which these works were produced? In 1992, I was in the first cohort of a new special subject on women’s history, ‘Gender in History and Society’, put together by Betty Wood, Deborah Thom, and Hazel Mills. I was introduced to the ‘place’ of women in society - economically, politically, educationally… it was an endless list of aspects of life in which women had suffered discrimination. I read Mary Wollstonecraft, Betty Friedan, Elaine Showalter, Kate Millet, Judith Butler, Judith Walkowitz and many more (have you read Gloria Steinham’s ‘If Men Could Menstruate’?). I have to say here that I think feminism is for everyone; my sons are feminists, they believe in equality for their partners and daughters.

In researching the history and philosophy of science, particularly medicine, it’s striking how negatively women were seen in terms of participation and treatment. Historically, we have been excluded because of our lack of financial autonomy, poor educational opportunities, marital status and, often, our own belief that we couldn't compete with men – our intellect wasn't deemed up to it and we were allegedly better off serving. But many brilliant women had worked behind the scenes: the mathematician, physicist and linguist, Emilie du Chatelet, was eclipsed by Voltaire; Caroline Herschel did all the complicated calculations for her brother's splendid astronomical work, saying that she was nothing, a puppy dog could do what she had done; Rosalind Franklin, responsible for much of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of DNA, was all but written out of the Crick and Watson story, dying before they were awarded the Nobel Prize.

Dr Louise FoxcroftAnd where did this subservience come from? From science itself. The earliest 'scientific' writing on women described them as deformed males, inherently  pathogenic and amoral, with cold and wet brains – unlike the warm and dry male brain that could excel in intellectual vigour. Passing these ideas off as 'nature' consigned women to the hearth rather than the lab, fit only for breeding - and heaven help them (because doctors wouldn't) when they hit menopause and ceased to pop out the babies. This was the ‘gateway to death’, a physiological event that apparently doomed women to life thereafter as ‘castrates … harmless docile creatures missing most of life’s values’. (Dr Robert Wilson, Feminine Forever, 1966).

Hot Flushes, Cold Science: A history of the modern menopause (Granta, 2009) is the most provocative book I’ve written, not least because of people's reactions to it. Their age and gender came into play in an obvious and astonishing way. When I spoke about it most women were immediately fascinated, one or two definitely not, and some men (most) were just embarrassed. HFCS won the Longman/History Today Book of the Year award and, at the ceremony in London, the overwhelmingly male gathering of historians laughed amongst themselves when the title was announced. By this time I wasn’t surprised at their reaction, but I had had enough. I told them that this wasn’t a comedy award, that menopause affects more than 50% of the population and was happening or would happen to their wives, sisters, friends, and colleagues. It is as deserving of a historian’s gaze as any other aspect of our lives and experience since it involves cultural attitudes that mould our lives.

There is feminist history exploring the past with a feminist perspective (and that is a movable feast); there is the history of feminism which can be written from any number of angles - I’m sure that Andrew Roberts, for example, would write a very different interpretation to my own; and there is the history of women, which was ushered in by the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s. I know that feminism is sometimes seen as a dirty word, which I find superlatively crazy. I cannot for the life of me see any other option than to count myself a feminist. And feminism is for all of us: men, women, children, everyone. It affects us all, in our society, education, legal system, religious ideas or lack of them, in our politics – indeed all history is political history. And now, perhaps more than any recently, is the time for it.  As demonstrated in January by the Women’s March in Washington and across the world, the need for education, vigilance and activism is always with us. Looking at our history is the best place to begin.

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