More (International Women’s Day 2018)

The woman wants it all;

she’ll take the bread and look you

in the eye, hold the gaze as if

to ask why it’s so difficult

to keep her body and soul together

but it’s hard to understand

what more she could need when you

gave her the bread, more than enough

to keep her going


her dreaming fashions roses


Perhaps she wants it all

even in soft pink palaces

and flowery compliments

don’t ever stop her mouth

don’t ever stop her

don’t ever stop her seeking

a place to set out

bread at her own table


On “Much Ado About Nothing”: RIP Jo Cox

I spent a long time yesterday evening reading everything the internet had to say about the murder of Jo Cox, and this morning I had a line from Much Ado About Nothing stuck in my head. I’d got it slightly wrong but now I’ve looked it up:

“you have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady”.

It’s Benedick when he decides that the story isn’t funny any more, calls Claudio out, resigns his commission and walks away. It’s one of the points in Shakespeare’s comedy when we see the ugliness and violence beneath the surface of the games that powerful people play. Benedick calls them all out: there was a moment, back then, “among you”, when people’s lives started mattering less than something else, when the only thing you saw was your honour and reputation, when you wanted to be the big man, or you wanted to be one of the lads, more than you wanted to be compassionate or hear the truth, and right then, “among you”, someone was caught in the crossfire.

(Of course in the play we – and even Benedick – know Hero isn’t really dead. But, having seen the violence that exploded against her, we also know that she could have been).

And Benedick, the joker, has realised that this isn’t funny any more. If Benedick can’t make a joke, if a situation’s got too serious, you might expect him to walk away. That’s his normal style, he’s got form. But he doesn’t, not this time. He steps forward. He walks right into the heart of the trouble. It doesn’t bother him. He calls Claudio out. He takes the ridicule that comes his way, he doesn’t even seem to notice it. He doesn’t let it go. We know why, and so do the “lads”:

“DON PEDRO: He is in earnest.

CLAUDIO: In most profound earnest; and, I’ll warrant you, for the love of Beatrice”.

Beatrice. She’s the voice of passion and compassion; she’s wise and funny and angry and strong and loyal, and she’s never taken in for a minute, and she won’t give up. There’s that astonishing scene where we – with Benedick – hear all her rage against the wrong done to her kinswoman, and how clearly she sees the truth, and how powerless she is to do anything, and how little hope she has that anyone will do anything:

“What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands; and then, with public accusation, uncovered slander, unmitigated rancour,-O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place”.

You get the sense that she’s not just talking about this incident, and she’s not just angry with Claudio, and it’s not just this one wrong she wants to set right. She’s calling out everything that’s wrong with the world she lives in, all the “much ado about nothing”, all the stupid power-games with real casualties, all the cruelty disguised as wit and all the small and large failures to notice what love demands.

And at that point at least one other person steps forward, instead of walking away. Which, in this play, is enough.

There’s a point when “much ado about nothing” stops being funny. In this referendum campaign we reached it a long time ago and didn’t stop. And we’re not in a light Shakespearean comedy, so death is real. But I’m hearing Beatrice’s rage and maybe it’s not too late for people to step forward.

Scattered thoughts about women, work, bodies and voices

I haven’t managed to make these add up to anything. They’ve been on my mind since a panel discussion of gender, sex and systematic theology at a conference I attend regularly.

A made-up story

Broadside Electric – lead vocals by my friend Melissa Demian – adapted a traditional song to create “When I Was a Fair Maid”. (I’ve since heard at least one other version, same basic story with a different uniform, performed by Serious Sam Barrett and entitled “The Female Drummer”).

It’s a fun song, about which I’m being far too serious here. In the version I know, it’s the story of a young woman (“about seventeen”) who gets bored at home and runs away to join the Navy.

I ‘listed in the Navy, a sailor lad to stand, For to hear the cannons rattling and the music so grand…

It turns out that our heroine not only can pass for a man without difficulty, but can also make a notable success of naval life. She fits in well with the crew of the ship – in fact you get the sense that what she relishes most of all is the cameraderie. But she’s also very good at her job; she can beat at least some of her new comrades at (what’s supposed to be) their own game. And she even enjoys, not only the work, but also being a ‘woman in a man’s world’. She doesn’t feel threatened – this is romantic comedy, after all. She doesn’t worry about being (secretly) different; it adds an extra level of excitement to what she’s doing, she likes knowing something nobody else knows. She’s entirely in her element, even though she’s not supposed to be here. She knows that this theoretically impossible life is the life for her, and the fact that it’s supposedly impossible only makes her love it more.

My waist being tall and slender, my fingers long and thin, Oh the very soon they learned me, I soon exceeded them…

And taking off my blue coat, it oft times made me smile, For to think I was a sailor and a maiden all the while…

And then, inevitably, somebody notices that she’s a woman. Not because of anything that happens on the ship. It’s about the sexual scripts she’s expected to follow. Or it’s about the way that ‘personal’ lives, love and sex and reproduction and marriage and family, only stay irrelevant to the life of the ship if they conform to a clear pattern that she, as a woman, simply can’t follow. Perhaps she realised on some level that sooner or later this was bound to happen, even while she was planning to be a sailor for the rest of her life.

A lady fell in love with me – I told her I was a maid; And she went unto the captain and my secret she betrayed…

At that point, of course, her life becomes actually, as well as theoretically, impossible. Her continued presence on the ship will cause an intolerable failure of the system. Her body just doesn’t belong here. It’s nothing personal. The captain would like to keep her on board – though even he can’t help seeing her as a woman, now that somebody’s pointed it out.

It’s a pity we should lose you, such a sailor lad you made; It’s a pity we should lose you, such a handsome young maid….

But I always love the way that the song (as this band perform it) ends not with regret but with a dance, a mischievous carnival-style celebration of things that aren’t supposed to happen but somehow do. The sailor-woman holds confidently to what she learned about herself; this wasn’t a sham or a self-betrayal, this was real. What she promises herself – and her beloved captain and comrades – at the end of the song is almost unthinkable and certainly as things stand un-reasonable (even the words make that clear). But her own experiences and desires won’t let her concede that it’s impossible – and even though the system can’t be argued with or evaded, she’s got at least some people on her side. There’s a moment to dream about how things might be different if she could put herself back together, be the whole person she is and do the work she does. Even though that’s not about to happen.

But if ever the Navy needs a man – a sailor I’ll remain; I’ll put off my cap and feathers and I’ll run the rigging again…

A piece of a story

I remember the phone conversations I had with my paternal grandmother in the last few years of her life. Her dementia meant that she lived in different periods of her past life, and it sometimes got a bit hard to keep track. When I talked to her, she was very often in the few years she spent working in a research lab in the 1930s. She enjoyed it, you could tell that it energised her; she particularly liked having colleagues, people to solve problems with, people to share the task with. She and I swapped workplace stories, in this strange time-space in which both of us were young women. In the real timeline, she fell in love with a man who worked in the same labs, married him, and immediately lost her job. She did some more lab work during the war, but mostly from then on she looked after her family. She was a cheerful, strong, intellectually alive woman throughout her life. But when she could go anywhere, in those final years, she often dropped in to the lab.

An old story, with some theology in it

Elizabeth Bathurst died in 1685 (or thereabouts) in her early thirties. She was best known for her systematic presentation and defence of Quakerism: “Truth’s Vindication: or a gentle stroke to wipe off the foul aspersions, false accusations and misrepresentations cast upon the people of God called Quakers”. Despite a lifelong disabling illness (“she was four years of age before she could go alone”, writes her father) she also during her short life undertook a preaching tour to the south-west, spent some time imprisoned in the Marshalsea after disrupting worship at a Presbyterian meeting house, and acquired a national reputation among Quakers as a preacher and writer.

No offence to Robert Barclay, but I’d read Bathurst rather than him any day. It’s about the voice. In “Truth’s Vindication” she speaks in a voice that’s personal and confessional, and simultaneously the voice of someone who’s passionate about hard thinking and good arguments. She tells you what it felt like trying to persuade herself to believe in double predestination, and then explains carefully why it’s a problematic doctrine. She piles up a rich contradictory collection of biblical metaphors to show you how hard theological speech is, and then tells you – I have found it to be this… She holds to her experience and keeps a deep commitment to thinking things out. And as far as I can see, she never or hardly ever, despite the personal tone, draws attention to the fact that she’s a woman – nor, for that matter, to her youth or her ill health. Theologically, for her, it’s irrelevant; she’s worried about writing the book and doubts her ability to do it well because the task is so great and the subject-matter so important, but never because women can’t write. (She’d already written a long defence of women’s ministry – with a vision of the equality of men and women lost in the fall and restored through redemption).

Quakers were accustomed enough to women preaching and teaching. But people did notice that the author of “Truth’s Vindication” was a woman; some of them seem to have had trouble noticing anything else. Her book was reissued after her death with a collection of “testimonies”. One or two, though noticeably not the ones from her immediate family, draw attention to the apparent conflict between her body and her writing. George Whitehead, who admired her greatly, knows that because of the “meanness or weakness” of Elizabeth’s person,  it’s widely doubted that she wrote the book herself – but he can prove that she did, because he conducted her viva: “she showed it me in her own handwriting, and gave sufficient demonstration of her understanding in those subjects she writ upon”. He calls her a “virtuous and pious Maid”, refers repeatedly to the prophesying “Daughters” in Joel. Charles Marshall, whom I don’t like so much, makes her a “Hand-maid of the Lord” and one of the “wise virgins”, and finally one of the “king’s daughters, who are glorious within”, an example of piety for other unmarried young women to follow. His astonishment at her preaching and teaching ability comes through on every page (even though he says much more about her prayer life and her religious seriousness, and nothing at all about her studies – unlike her father, whose short and moving testimony notes that she was “much devoted” to reading from an early age).

It’s pretty clear to me that Elizabeth didn’t think she was being an exemplary “pious virgin”. She thought she was vindicating the Truth. And the theological writing was hard but it was what she was meant to be doing.  Some of the time at least, you can tell she’s enjoying it. She loves the words of the Bible, hearing the poetry that bursts out of them, then trying to set down what it means. She has found a distinctive, careful, passionate voice without really looking for it. She’s not doing this to prove anything. She’s doing this because it’s her work, and also because it’s more than hers. She writes at the end of the exercise “I have not been mine own”. It’s a not-impossible space.

The unrecorded and entirely unexpected life of Edith

So after writing this post I continued, in odd web-connected moments, to look for scraps about Edith Moggridge, as a much more pleasant alternative to the latest thing Twitter was getting angry about.

And I also  – just for the sake of it – got hold of a copy of her book, the one that was privately printed in 1972. The copy that the web-market turned up first for me is one that was presented to Girton College library “by the author”. That’s not what shocked me when I opened the very slim package. What shocked me was the ascription.

“Selected Poems by Sister Edith Moggridge”.

It turns out that the reason Edith disappears from the web-available records between about 1915 and 1972 is that she decided to “disappear” from most of the world. From a little more fishing around, and some clues in the poetry book (like a whole section on the “Ascent of Mount Carmel”), I’m pretty sure that from her early thirties onwards she was a member of the group of enclosed Carmelite nuns who live (still) at Fulwood near Preston.

Her death record is from that district. She died in 1974, aged about 88, two years after she gave her old college – and who knows who else – this very slim book of poems.

The book contains a short section of “Early Poems” (including the butterfly orchids poem); a prose “proem” with (what I think are) some intriguing theological reflections on the overwhelming and excessive beauty in nature; a very large number of poems on devotional themes; and then a few almost childish nature poems at the end. From the prose section, I still think her degree might have been Natural Science. She writes with a mixture of precision and reverence about natural phenomena. (Actually the prose, in my not-particularly-qualified opinion, is a whole lot better than the poetry. The poetry’s not really my kind of poetry).

It’s a very odd discovery to make. It’s hard to overcome a slight sense of disappointment. Which says a lot about my prejudices, I think. Turns out that I had an idea of what success would look like, which didn’t incorporate Edith’s idea of success.

If this were a certain kind of novel, it would be easy to write an explanation for Edith’s decision to enter the convent; clearly she would have lost her only true love in the war, and decided that a vowed celibate life was now the only option for her. And I suppose it’s not impossible that some of the vocations of nuns in the early twentieth century were linked to that kind of experience. But in the story I’m writing about Edith I’d like at least to try for a reason that’s about her own development rather than about the men in her life (or the lack of them).

In the early poems she included in the collection, there’s a very striking and very sad one called “Inaction”. It’s basically about the waste of her life and her inability to find anything useful she can do with it (this must be in her mid-twenties, while she’s living in London “on private means”); that her energy and desire to do good in the world is like a stream that’s found no channel and is soaking away into marshland.

It makes a kind of sense; one can imagine that woman ending up in that situation. And it then makes a kind of sense – even if still not a sense I can fully relate to – when she takes her energy as well as her intellect and her education into the convent. The energy’s all there in the later devotional poems, and she’s found a direction for it.

And of course she’s also back to living in a highly structured community of women (many of whom besides her are probably highly educated). But without the mixed-sex political conversations.

More or less, that is. Allow me a moment of self-indulgent improvisation on history. I found a great story about a very hard-fought by-election in Preston North in 1964. The Conservative incumbent, chasing every last vote, makes a stop at the isolated and enclosed Carmelite convent in Fulwood, to try to secure the postal votes of the 14 nuns then in residence.

The incumbent eventually retained his seat by 14 votes.  The author of this TES article, understandably enough (and because it makes such a good story), assumed that all the nuns – normally forbidden television and radio and rarely remembered by local politicians – cast their postal votes for “the only candidate they definitely knew existed”.

But I’d like to think that, if she got to talk politics with him during his visit, the elderly ex-Fabian Girtonian nun gave the MP a run for his money. And it’s just possible that he had to get his 14th vote somewhere else.

The first all-women shortlist, and investigating an unrecorded life

With thanks to Mel Prideaux.

Here’s a quirky story that came to my attention recently, and is posted here simply to record the results of internet research pursued in idle moments.

The second president of the Cambridge University Fabian Society (the predecessor body to Cambridge Universities Labour Club) was Edith Moggridge, of Girton College. That was in 1906, a long time before women were allowed to vote in national elections and even longer before women were allowed to take degrees at Cambridge.

Edith was definitely part of a vanguard. The Fabian Society was the first student society at Cambridge to be founded for both men and women members; one of its co-founders was Amber Reeves of Newnham. Even in the very progressive political circles of the national Fabian society, the existence of this mixed student society and the election of a female president were judged noteworthy enough to be mentioned in the national newsletter. Unfortunately Edith’s college apparently didn’t see eye to eye with Edith and her fellow Fabians, and refused to allow her to take up the post. This was all the more unfortunate because, as the letters of one of the society’s founder members (Frederic “Ben” Keeling) make clear, Edith’s election was the result of a deliberate plan to make a statement about commitment to women’s equality. It was the result of what was probably the first ever use of an all-women shortlist.

“We were all keen Feminists… After the presidency of V. H. Mottram we decided to elect a woman as president, to assert the principles of female equality as aggressively as possible. Two Newnhamites were nominated in order that we might have the fun of an election. When they were ordered to stand down by their college authorities, Edith Moggridge, of Girton, was surreptitiously communicated with, put up, and elected. But she was never allowed by her college authorities to take the chair at a meeting. The position was therefore left vacant for a term by way of protest, and ever since the Society has had a woman treasurer, Mrs. Bianco-White being the first. (Some of them have kept accounts, which was more than one of the two male treasurers did.) No doubt it was all very childish. But Cambridge and life generally have been very different experiences for me owing to the fact that women were admitted to the C.U.F.S. I only hope that others feel that it was a small shove worth making…”

(Frederic Keeling, The Keeling Letters, edited by E.T. (London 1918), pp. 10-11)

Nothing new under the sun.

So you can’t help wondering, or at least I can’t – who was Edith Moggridge, how did she get involved with the Fabians, and what happened to her next? I’ve been having some fun pursuing this human-interest story. Here’s what I think we know.

Edith was born in about 1886 in Monmouthshire, which had been her family’s home (intermittently, as we’ll see) for some generations. She was the youngest of seven children – four elder brothers and two elder sisters (of whom I think all survived into adulthood).

Her family had a very long history of social reform and intellectual enquiry. Her great-grandfather, John Hodder Moggridge, was something of a radical among industrialists, using the considerable wealth he acquired as a clothier in Somerset to set up “model” communities (on similar lines to Robert Owen’s New Lanark) in Wales. Edith’s great-grandfather, grandfather and uncle were also keen botanists and natural historians. The uncle, John Traherne Moggridge, was a correspondent of Charles Darwin; he’s listed in the edited volume of Darwin correspondence as an “orchid specialist”.

John Hodder Moggridge was a leading Unitarian, but at some point at least some of the family went “Establishment”, because Edith’s father Matthew Weston Moggridge graduated from University College Oxford and was ordained in the Church of England. There are some puzzles about his career; he moved around a lot (at the time of his brother’s correspondence with Darwin Matthew was a curate in Leicestershire; but the seven children were born in various different places – Surrey, Bradford, Hampstead and back in Monmouthshire) and he doesn’t appear always to have been a parish priest. In the 1881 census he gave his occupation as “Journalist and Editor of “Social Notes” [a journal devoted to debating “social questions”]”. He was a prolific writer on social issues; titles like “Method in Almsgiving”  and “Public-Houses for the People: A Plea for Better Taverns” don’t exactly inspire confidence in his commitment to far-reaching social reform, but he clearly inherited his grandfather’s concern for the responsible use of wealth and for structural as well as individual responses to societal problems.

Unfortunately it doesn’t look as if Edith, the baby of the family, would have had the chance to get to know her father at all, let alone debate social questions with him. Her mother (also Edith) died in the year she was born; I would like to know more about the first Edith but haven’t found it yet. Five years later Matthew Weston Moggridge (having taken up a post as priest in charge of a mission church in Dufftown, Fife) was drowned in the sea off Lossiemouth, while trying to rescue two boys from his Sunday-school trip who had swum out too far. The boys both survived. The 1891 census, a few months later, finds Edith and all her siblings (except the eldest brother, who was an undergraduate at Cambridge) back in Wales – presumably where their family’s property was. The 1901 census finds most of them in London. And – five years later Edith was at Girton, being surreptitiously elected president of a political society.

I’d rather hoped to find that she went on to a glittering political career (like her Girton near-contemporary Dorothy Jewson, one of the many interesting people I found out more about along the way to this story), but she nearly disappears from the internet-accessible records. The 1911 census finds her aged 25 living in London on “private means” – which in her family must have been considerable (though she seems to be living with her elder, also unmarried, sister, who is recorded as a “pianist and teacher of music”).  At least some of her time was spent writing poetry; and at least some of her poems were published in Modernist journals – some of which some kind people have archived or indexed online. One of the poems is entitled “Butterfly Orchids”, which makes me wonder whether she was influenced by her uncle and grandfather and whether her Tripos would have been natural science. She either didn’t marry, or wrote under her maiden name.

A privately-printed book of “selected poems” by Edith Moggridge was issued in Cambridge in 1972; if that wasn’t a posthumous publication, it puts her in her late eighties. I’d like to think that she was still alive in 1972 to see the first admissions of women to formerly all-male colleges. And as the second-hand copy of her book says it has an inscription “by the author”, I’ll allow myself to think that.

And I love the fact that all of this and more is available from a sequence of internet searches, many of them leading to primary documents.

In place of conversation – an old post transferred from the blog’s previous home following a spam outbreak

Thinking  about Mike’s comment on the post below, and subsequent discussion, I’ve been mulling over a more general way of talking about why and to what extent we want to induct students into “scholarly conversation”. I’m toying with something like this: Scholarly conversation in the arts and humanities is concerned with finding, explaining, testing, discussing [etc] questions of truth, meaning, value and quality. (Roughly: What can we truthfully say about this/ is this true/ what’s really going on here? How does this fit in with everything else? What is the point of it? Is it any good? I’m not particularly attached to the list of four and only four, there are comparable lists around with more or fewer). Then: Graduate jobs are jobs in which people need to be able to think about questions of truth, meaning, value and quality – with regard to a very wide range of subjects, with different emphases on different questions, etc etc. People in different graduate jobs will not only ask these questions about different topics – they’ll end up doing very different things with the answers. (Eg for a teacher the end product of thinking about all these questions with regard to a particular subject will often be a lesson – though it might also be e.g. the formulation of educational policies, a choice of textbook or syllabus, etc). But the need to be able to think critically and constructively, together with others, about questions of truth, meaning, value & quality will still be there.

So we induct students into scholarly conversation, and make them write essays, because that’s the easiest way to “isolate” (if you like) this set of thinking processes; because in the university that kind of thinking (about questions of truth, meaning, value and quality) is the main thing we do, and we pursue it wherever it leads, and we specialise both in practising it and in reflecting on how it’s done.

It then makes sense for us to spend time (especially at level 3) working with students on different contexts in which their thinking will be needed, and the relevant different genres/methods of communication.It also makes sense for us to think about the goal of an essay-writing task as not “you will learn to write a good essay” but “you will learn all the things that are best learned through writing essays” [and as a consequence will, we trust, be a better citizen, educator, leader, manager, writer/communicator, judge, campaigner/persuader/advocate, etc etc].I am not sure how that would change how we set up the essay-writing task.

 Actually I’m not sure about anything I’ve just written, but it’s worth a try.


I spent most of today at an asylum appeal hearing – my first experience of this process, and something of an education. There are, probably, other situations in which one person is entitled to ask another person more or less any question about his or her life and demand a full and accurate answer, with absolutely no comeback or challenge – but I don’t come across them very often, and on your first time it’s disturbing. I found myself thinking about how odd it was that person A was the one asking the questions and person B the one answering them and person C the one taking notes and about to decide what it all meant; that there were these enormous asymmetries of power in the small room, based on who was sitting in which chair. I tried thought-experiments – what if we all got up and swapped places, so that the asylum appellant was cross-questioning me about the date on which I had visited a certain place three years ago, and the judge became a mere observer?

And I came back to thoughts I’ve had for a while about judging people. For a while I’ve had this idiosyncratic reading of “do not judge, lest you be judged” – that it’s analogous to what you might say to a small child, “don’t cut with that sharp knife, or you’ll cut yourself”. It’s the idea that there’s a moral and spiritual danger inherent in the activity of passing judgement. Judging’s not “a bad thing to do”, it might be a necessary thing to do; but it’s high risk, you don’t do it carelessly; if in doubt, you put the knife down before it cuts back; you don’t cut stuff/judge people just because you can; and incidentally, unlike the child with the knife, you are never going to get to the point where you’re a fully competent judge of your fellow human beings.

Thinking about it today I realised that the knife analogy isn’t bad (maybe it should be the sword of justice). The knife is completely asymmetrical. One person’s at the handle end, the other at the sharp end.

And I suppose those of us who pass judgement as part of our jobs, or [perhaps] habitually as part of our way of responding to people, need occasional sharp reminders that the orientation of the knife, the distribution of the power to judge – the question, in today’s courtroom, of who gets to sit on which chair – is a very temporary, and at most provisionally important, matter. In the long run, it cuts both ways.