Bodies, Hearts, and Minds: Using the Past to Empower the Future

Today we are launching our project toolkit – Bodies, Hearts, and Minds: Using the Past to Empower the Future. The toolkit uses historical sources to help young people think differently about their emotional and bodily wellbeing in the present, and their capacity to make change in the future.

Bodies, Hearts, and Minds Toolkit

The toolkit is made up of activities that young people can carry out on their own or in groups. It is split into themes of ‘Generations’, ‘Growing Up’, ‘Body Image and Self-Expression’, and ‘Sex Education’. It includes a glossary of important terms, a list of resources to help young people start campaigning, and pointers to organisations that can provide support if they are experiencing problems.

Accompanying the toolkit are resources for group leaders and teachers. Activity guides provide brief historical overviews, tips for running sessions, and ‘take home’ messages. These are complemented by sheets providing learning objectives and curriculum links for topics related to personal, social, and health education for England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

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It has taken a long time, and help from lots of people, to create the toolkit. Back in 2017, when I was applying to the Wellcome Trust for funding for the Body, Self, and Family project, I didn’t know how to even start thinking about public engagement – What did I want to do? Who did I want to reach? What was I even capable of doing?

Talking to passionate, enthusiastic, and creative friends and colleagues about their work was inspirational (if also a little terrifying – these are seriously impressive people). Dave Wyatt’s CAER Heritage Project and SHARE with Schools, Dawn Mannay’s creative work with families and care-experienced young people, EJ Renolds’ AGENDA toolkit on positive relationships all showed what could be done at a grassroots level with enough determination.

Even after these conversations, I still had doubts. I wasn’t sure what I was capable of doing – I’d never really stepped outside my academic comfort zone before. I also wasn’t sure what I should work on. Dave, Dawn, and EJ all urged the importance of working on something that matters to you.

Tracey’s module handbook cover

It took a while for the penny to drop. I eventually realised that I already spent a lot of time communicating about things I cared about enormously – in my undergraduate module on the history of gender, sexuality, and health in twentieth-century Britain. In this module, I tried to introduce students to topics that resonated with their present, and that helped them find different ways to negotiate a sometimes-hostile world. Why not try to reach younger people in similar ways?

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This central aim never changed. But the sense of what the toolkit might achieve expanded a great deal over the next few years. Daisy Payling and Kate Mahoney, the postdoctoral researchers on the Body, Self, and Family project, brought their own considerable ideas, energies, and creativity. I often retreated to the background while they powered work on the toolkit. Its final form is a genuine act of co-creation.

It also bears the marks of all the people and organisations that worked with us. Daisy created and trialled activities at the University of Essex’s Digital Arts Festival, the Being Human Festival, the Annual LGBTQ+ History and Archives Conference, and the Royal College of Nursing Library and Archives/Surgery & Emotion Valentine’s Late. Kate went to Cardiff to run a focus group with the charity ACE (Action in Caerau and Ely). She spent multiple evenings driving around the furthest reaches of Essex to develop activities on period poverty and protest with Girl Guiding Groups, which she also ran with students at Colchester Academy. As we worked in these different contexts, we redrafted and refined the toolkit.

Our interactions with these different groups forced us to wrestle with difficult problems. We wanted the toolkit to show the reality of oppression in past and present societies. This is essential to validate struggles against racism, homophobia, and sexism. At the same time, we wanted to celebrate diverse voices and images – for young people to recognise themselves in the toolkit, and to understand their beauty and strength.

Working with historical sources made it especially difficult to balance these aims. One manifestation of power imbalances is the absence of representation in mass culture. How could this be shown in the toolkit? Simply finding exceptions to the rule of white heterosexual women and including them without comment presents a misleading picture – one that erases past racism and homophobia. But only discussing certain groups in terms of their oppression denies the joy in their identities and experiences.

Pupils creating a “healthy body” collage as part of a Body, Self, and Family session at the University of Essex’s Digital Arts Festival

We directly confronted these issues every time we encountered different audiences. As they asked us questions and shared their experiences, we renegotiated our own understandings of our responsibilities, and of the possibilities of the toolkit. In February 2020 we held a closed workshop to get further feedback on approaching these questions. Dawn Mannay, Priya Mistry, Khadija Osman, and Alison Twells provided invaluable guidance based on their own experiences of creative, artistic, and historical work with young people.

Our next step was to seek more formal feedback from our intended users of the toolkit – young people and group leaders, including teachers. The first lockdown in March 2020 made this more difficult than we had intended. Fortunately, Healthwatch Essex’s Young Mental Health Ambassadors were willing to trial our draft toolkit. Their feedback was hugely encouraging, but also made us confront some more difficult issues – not least that we needed more material aimed at all genders, not just girls.

Teachers also had insight that we lacked. Matthew Eggerton of Cardiff and Vale College, with extensive experience as a secondary school teacher, suggested that additional materials were needed to make it a truly useful resource. His guidance prompted us to produce activity guides, learning objectives, and curriculum links that help with lesson planning and delivery.

The ‘Dear Agony Aunt’ activity guide to support group leaders and teachers

Now in the final stages of design, we commissioned activities that could plug the gaps in our own historical knowledge – mainly around young men’s experiences of health and wellbeing. Rich Hall contributed activities on generations in postwar Britain based on his research on fathers and sons; Mark Anderson put his scholarship on men’s hair to use in designing an activity on hair, schools, and stereotypes; and Katherine Jones supplied activities on masculinity and emotions, and sex education.

Around this time, we also read about Prim ‘N Poppin’. In this project, Julia Comita and Brenna Drury recreate vintage make-up advertisements to make them more inclusive. The resulting images tell us much about what – and who – is often missing in media depictions of beauty and fashion. The project responds to the dilemma about how to be inclusive while acknowledging social exclusion. We were thrilled when, with the permission of featured talent Cory and Kaguya, Julia and Brenna licensed us to use two Prim ‘N Poppin’ images.

There was still much work to do, but the toolkit now existed in a recognisable shape. Inspired by EJ Renolds’ AGENDA toolkit, we pulled together resources to help users find out about important issues, and work towards change. Natasha Richards pointed us towards organisations we had missed. Mindful of working with children who did not know what ‘menstruation’ meant, we also collaborated on a glossary. Finally, Kate produced a truly stunning design that perfectly represents the ethos of the toolkit – a DIY aesthetic that looks to the past but shapes it into something new; a powerful graphic that showcases the diversity and beauty of everyday lives.

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It is strange to see the toolkit out in the world. It has been a background part of my working life for a long time. Writing about its creation reveals much about public engagement as a collaborative enterprise too. Daisy and Kate created the toolkit with my support, but so many other people have contributed along the way – in providing answers to our questions, but also in asking questions that we didn’t know needed answers; in inspiring us when we didn’t know where to start; and in encouraging us when we weren’t sure what to do next.

We believe the effort was worth it. It is important to know what happened in the past so that we can understand how we ended up where we are today. Knowing where we came from helps us to work out where we are going. Understanding how experiences of health and wellbeing were different in the past, especially what has changed and why, can help young people to think differently about the choices that are open to them.

Tracey, Daisy, and Kate (L-R) at Daisy’s ‘Made Up: Health and Beauty Secrets Past and Present’ Being Human Festival event, November 2019

Responding to the Government Women’s Health Strategy Call for Evidence

by Daisy Payling

On International Women’s Day in March 2021 the Government Department of Health and Social Care announced a call for submissions of evidence to inform the development of a Women’s Health Strategy.

The call acknowledged that the health and care system had to this point been designed ‘by men for men’ and that this had ramifications for women’s health contributing to poorer advice, diagnosis and worse outcomes. The call aimed to put ‘women’s voices at the centre’ of a strategy to tackle these ‘health inequalities and the wider determinants of health’.

Women’s voices

As part of our research, we have conducted oral history interviews with ninety-one women born between 1940 and 1970, which are due to be archived at the British Library in 2022. These interviews employ a life-course approach, exploring how women’s everyday health experiences, including medical encounters, their emotional wellbeing, and their thoughts and feelings about their bodies, have changed across the course of their lives. We asked women about topics relating to their childhood health, their experiences of puberty, their sexuality and relationships, the trajectory of their working lives and its impact on their wellbeing, having or not having children, their social activities, the menopause, and ageing. As a result, the interviews are a rich resource for understanding women’s lived experiences of the healthcare system in Britain across their life course. Lived experience research helps us to understand how women’s individual lives are informed by wider developments in healthcare policy and provision. In acknowledging how life experiences are shaped by different factors of an individual’s identity, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion, lived experience research also sheds light on how health inequalities are perpetuated within society, with the view to eradicate them.[1]

Our interviews provide valuable evidence for the Women’s Health Strategy. In her ministerial foreword for the Strategy, Nadine Dorries MP cited the importance of adopting a holistic approach to women’s health that acknowledges women’s changing health and care needs across their lives, and the impact of specific life events or stages of life on women’s wellbeing. Our interviews demonstrate that a life-course approach to women’s health should not view women’s medical encounters in isolation. Rather, these encounters should be situated within the context of women’s broader lived experiences, recognising the memories and emotions that accompany the myriad of medical interventions and encounters that occur over the course of women’s lives.

We presented our evidence by exploring the emotional impact of poor treatment on women’s lives, the effects of poor treatment on women’s relationships with the NHS, factors that restrict women’s capacity to complain following mistreatment, and examples of women’s positive experiences within the NHS.

A summary of our evidence

Our interviews with women suggest that understanding women’s experiences of healthcare across their lives means more than focussing on how health needs change at key moments like childbirth or menopause. It means acknowledging that women’s health needs and experiences are shaped by previous medical encounters, relationships and caring responsibilities, and aspects of identity such as gender, class, ethnicity and sexuality. Our submission highlighted many negative medical encounters experienced by women as well as some positive ones. It showed how negative experiences, such as poor communication, insensitive behaviour, being ‘told off’, missed and incorrect diagnoses, and having to push for treatment, often have long lasting emotional effects as well as physical consequences. Negative experiences clearly affect women’s relationships with the health service and how they seek out treatment and interact with medical practitioners going forward. Women’s lack of agency can be exacerbated by barriers to complaint or failures to acknowledge complaints by the health service. Other research has found that BAME and LGBTQ+ women face additional barriers to healthcare, and there have been notable studies on the inequality of outcomes for BAME women and babies, and on access to gendered cancer screening for women who have sex with women.[2]

Our findings and those of others reiterate the need for patient-centred care, where women are treated as whole people, listened to, treated with respect and encouraged to work with medical practitioners. Our work with medical students outlines that though medical students are often aware that this is how they should treat patients, they worry that understaffing caused by underfunding in the health service will prevent them from being able to provide this care. We recommended that a patient-centred approach is built into the health system at every level.

What happens next?

Many other organisations with an interest in women’s health have made recommendations. Recommendations made by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists included a commitment to funding evidence-led campaigns and projects that aim to reduce stigma around women’s health, reinforcing the requirement for the introduction of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools, and setting a target of a 50% reduction in the disparity in maternal mortality rates for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in the next five years.

Although the commitment to listening to women’s voices outlined by the Women’s Health Strategy is a welcome one, the King’s Fund questioned whether the voices of all women were being heard. As the King’s Fund reported, women from disadvantaged groups are least likely to have their voices heard and ‘the initial response rate to the call for evidence from some groups was so low’ that the deadline for submissions was extended by two weeks.  Women from Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and women over 50 were further encouraged to submit evidence. The British Medical Association also included within its recommendations that a comprehensive strategy for women’s health be ‘inclusive of the specific healthcare needs of transgender and non-binary individuals’, including that ‘transgender and non-binary individuals can access routine healthcare services in line with their gender presentation’. 

There has since been a change in leadership of the DHSC with Sajid Javid replacing Matt Hancock as Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in June 2021, and Nadine Dorries becoming the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the September 2021 reshuffle. Nevertheless, the DHSC will be analysing the evidence collected and preparing a strategy. It remains to be seen how effective this listening exercise will have been and what shape the Women’s Health Strategy will take.


[1] Robin M. Boylorn, ‘Lived Experience’ in Lisa M. Given, The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods (SAGE: Thousand Oaks, 2012), p. 490

[2] Public Health England, ‘Maternity high impact area: Reducing the inequality of outcomes for women from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities and their babies’, (London: Public Health England, 2020); Public Health England, ‘Improving the health and wellbeing of lesbian and bisexual women and other women who have sex with women’ (London: Public Health England, 2018).

Writing Ourselves: Body, Self, Family and the Mass Observation Archive

In Autumn 2020 the Mass Observation Project issued a Directive developed with the Body, Self, and Family project on ‘Health and Wellbeing in Everyday Life’. The Directive asked respondents what health and wellbeing means to them, where their ideas about health and wellbeing came from, and what has influenced their own experiences in health and wellbeing in everyday life. The responses to this Directive are now available to consult in the Mass Observation Archive at The Keep, Brighton. The responses are as fascinating as you might expect, and we’ll reflect on them in publications soon. In the meantime, Tracey Loughran put herself in a Mass Observers shoes and tried answering the questions – see her responses below!

Health, wellbeing and the healthy body

What does “health” mean to you? What does “wellbeing” mean to you? How do you define these words?

This is a really difficult question! Feeling healthy and well means feeling a lot of things at the same time – at ease but also at peace, energetic and ready to tackle anything, and looking forward to the future.

What do you think about when you imagine “a healthy body”? Please share the first five words that come to your mind when you think of this term.

My five words: toned, athletic, muscular, proportioned, glowing. I think of someone who is athletic or sporty-looking, but in an “ordinary” way. Equally, someone who has a certain indefinable energy – the way people sometimes look when they’ve got their mojo back after a bad relationship, or when they seem to be hitting their stride in the world.

Point Break (1991) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow Shown: Keanu Reeves

Is there a particular person or image that comes to mind? Please describe, or draw, this person.

Not sure how well this fits with the above, but for some reason it’s either Keanu Reeves in Point Break or Steffi Graff. (You can leave the nineties, but the nineties will never leave you).

Identity

How do you think that your own experience of health and wellbeing has been influenced by your gender, ethnicity, social class, or sexual orientation? Do you think your experience of health has been influenced by these or other aspects of your identity at all?

My experiences of health and wellbeing have definitely been influenced by all those factors. In terms of actual interactions with the medical profession, I spent more than two decades seeing a nurse at regular intervals for prescriptions of the oral contraceptive pill – that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been a woman in heterosexual relationship. I suspect my lack of confidence in my younger years in arguing my case with doctors, or insisting on diagnoses for particular complaints, was influenced by being female and working-class – it’s taken a lot of life experience, education in the gendered biases of healthcare, and shifts in my professional status to get over that. I am very sure that my reluctance to go to the doctor unless absolutely necessary is a result of growing up in London and the difficulty of getting appointments. I also know that I’ve definitely benefitted from my whiteness, though because that manifests as an absence of negative experiences, it’s difficult to pin down exactly how.

Growing up and learning about health and wellbeing

When and where did you first become aware of “health” or of “wellbeing”?

I’m not entirely sure, but the first thing that comes to mind is that when I was at primary school my older brother embarked on a campaign to get my mum to stop smoking, including putting no smoking signs round the house.

Who had responsibility for looking after your health and wellbeing when you were younger?

Mainly my mum – I was one of four children, and she worked part-time around our school hours for most of my younger years, so she was the person who usually took us to the doctors and so on. My dad would also go to the chemists or administer medicines if necessary.

Do you remember your parents, or other caregivers, talking to you about health? If so, what did they talk to you about? Where did these conversations take place?

I don’t remember any conversations about health. I don’t think we were a particularly health-conscious family, though my dad always exercised a lot.

Did you receive any education about health in school? And/or did you learn about health and wellbeing in other ways – from friends, magazines, or the internet, for example?

There wasn’t much in school. We had the basic sex education in Biology. There was definitely a video showing childbirth and a blurry purple carbon-paper diagram of the reproductive organs to label.  I don’t remember much else about it. I’d already educated myself through Dr Miriam Stoppard’s Every Girl’s Life Guide, Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, and I’m a Teenage Health Freak Too!. (Before the internet, the library was very important). I also read a lot of magazines that dealt much more practically with health matters in general, including teen magazines like Just Seventeen and Mizz, and the women’s magazines that my mum read.

Key moments

As an adolescent, when did you first become aware of bodily changes associated with puberty?

It was in my final year of junior school, when my periods started and my body started to change in other ways. I remember feeling quite self-conscious in communal changing rooms when I went swimming with my school.

Are there any moments or rituals that you think are particularly important for young women or men? These might include, but are not limited to, first period, voice breaking, buying the first bra, or shaving, for example?

It’s difficult not to answer this as a historian who has asked similar questions in oral history interviews! Much depends on the individual, and on the specific circumstances of the moment or ritual. Many women seem to have quite vivid memories of their first periods – it’s definitely the formative moment that comes to my mind. I missed out on the bra-buying ritual (third child + not much money = hand-me-downs), and I only realised quite recently that it’s a rite of passage for many young girls. I’ve got no idea when I first started shaving my legs, though I do remember absent-mindedly cutting my leg hair with a pair of scissors one day when I was nearly twelve – not as a grooming technique, just because the scissors were there and I wasn’t really thinking – and my brother laughing at me!

How did you feel about these moments if/when they happened to you?

I was really quite freaked out when my periods started, even though I had a good level of abstract knowledge about what might happen, and when. It’s very different reading about something to experiencing it within your own body. I didn’t feel particularly good or bad about it, just strangely surprised that it was happening.

Growing older

Throughout your life, what if anything, have you done to actively maintain your health both physically and mentally? Has this changed at all over the years? If so, was this due to a particular event in your life?

For most of my life, I haven’t done much to actively maintain health. I smoked for about a decade, from my late teens until the smoking ban came in. I like unhealthy foods, fizzy drinks, and alcohol, and always will (old comfort foods die hard). In retrospect, I probably became progressively unhealthier across my twenties and thirties, not helped by highly stressful working conditions, a long-distance relationship, and some difficult life events. When I was 39, I made a really concerted effort to get healthier – at first, this was driven partly by a desire to lose weight and partly by the need to tackle my depression in a new way, but I then started to actually enjoy exercise. I had never thought that I would! I am now very grateful that I had swimming lessons when I was a child, and was able to pick this up again easily. When I started exercising, I felt so heavy and discomforted in my own body that it made an enormous difference to be able to do something where I felt weightless, in tune with my body, and disconnected from my normal surroundings – the blue of swimming pool water is mesmerising.

Brightlingsea Lido – a community-run lido with mesmerising blue water

Where do you get information about health and wellbeing now?

Like most people, mainly from the internet! If there’s something I’m exceptionally interested in, I’ll read a book, but that’s much rarer.

Would you say you are you more or less aware of your body now? Why do you think this is?

I don’t think I am more or less aware of my body than I was in my younger years, but I am certainly differently aware of it. I spent a lot of years not particularly liking my body, and not particularly liking living in it, in a range of different ways. Exercising made me more aware of my body and its potential power, and I like that. When I was younger I wanted to be thin, but now I want to be powerful. It’s also true that as a woman over 40 I am now invisible to certain groups of people to all intents and purposes – not to any groups of people that actually matter – and that is incredibly relaxing and empowering in itself.

In future years how do you expect your approach to health and wellbeing to change?

I’d like my approach to health and wellbeing to stay more or less as it is, perhaps with a slightly better attitude to work-life balance. I’ve found getting older very liberating so far (bar the enforced confinement of several lockdowns since I hit 40!). I’m better at looking after myself, and at standing up for myself in medical encounters. It’s been amazing to discover exercise. If I can carry on in this frame of mind, with the ability to run and to swim, I’ll be happy.

Health, wellbeing and appearance

In your view, how are health and wellbeing related to external appearance?

In terms of an individual’s psychological health, how they feel about their external appearance is hugely important. If someone can manage not to care about their external appearance, or to care only in a way that makes them happy, that is wonderful. For many people, myself included, it’s not that easy. It’s also important to recognise that psychological orientation to external appearance is not only a matter of individual effort. I have been obese (a word I’m using here as a neutral descriptor) and I know that certain people did judge and treat me differently as a result. Those people were wrong to do so, but that did not make living with their negative perceptions of me any easier.

The hairstyles Tracey did manage …

Have you ever been influenced by popular ideals of beauty or physical appearance?

Yes and no. I’ve never sought model good looks, and there have always been certain popular ideals that I’ve actively disliked. But there are also always aesthetic trends that have appealed – I always really wanted True Blue-era Madonna platinum bleached hair, for instance, even though it never really suited me.

Do you think your parents were influenced by these kinds of ideals? If so, in what way?

Yes, but that’s their story, not mine.

Are there any health or beauty products (excluding medicines) that you couldn’t live without? What would be your Desert Island item?

My Desert Island item is soap, though deodorant is a close second. On a more frivolous level, lockdown proved that I can live without haircuts, but I am much, much happier when my skin fade is in place. I am quite shallow when it comes down to it.

Getting ready to leave the house

Do you remember your mother or father getting ready to go out for work, or for the evening? If so, can you describe their rituals?

I don’t have very clear memories of this. My dad usually left for work very early in the morning, and as he was a plasterer, didn’t get dressed for work in any special way. When I was a child, my mum would go to cleaning jobs in her normal clothes. They didn’t socialise a great deal so there weren’t really set rituals around getting dressed to go out.

What is your own routine when getting ready to go out for work or for socialising? Has this routine changed over time?

Getting reading to go out for work is quite functional. If it’s a day when I’m in meetings or teaching (so seeing people), I’ll wear something smart-ish and put light make up on. My hair is very short so I don’t do anything with that apart from run some hair clay through it – it takes about three seconds. I do tend to wear cologne as it makes me happy, but I have definite day and evening colognes. I do have an ideal set of rituals for going out. If everything went according to plan, I would have a long bath, maybe with a face mask (luxury!). I’d then put some music on to dance round to while I picked clothes, got dressed, and put make up on. If I’m going out, I usually put make up on that matches my clothes, and wear bolder jewellery. I’d then paint my nails. I very rarely actually do this. Usually I’m in a rush, so it’s a shower, some quick dancing while I rush the dress-make up-jewellery stage, and then a doomed attempt to pain my nails almost as I run out the door, smudging them in the process and then probably whacking some nail polish remover in my bag so I can get rid of the paint on the bus/train.

Our grandmothers’ lives

Georgina Ashton was born in 1925 near Prestonpans. Her dad was a miner. She went into service at fourteen. She could only see her family once a month. The man of the house bothered her. During the war, she was in the NAAFI. She met Joe Johnson from Fulham, a soldier for the duration. In 1948 they married, and in the 1950s they moved to London. They had five children, three boys and two girls. They were living in a cold, damp rented room when the fourth baby was born. She blamed the squalor and stress for his genetic disorder. They were given a council house in Tooting. A few years later, the menopause turned out to be a fifth baby. They stayed in the house in Tooting. Their children grew up, moved to different parts of London, and had children of their own. Joe died in 2001. Georgina stayed in the house in Tooting, still carer for her youngest son. She got older. The family worried. She couldn’t stay there anymore. She and her son moved closer to her youngest daughter and her family. They moved in with them. Georgina and her son both developed dementia. They needed so much care. Georgina moved into a nursing home in 2019. Somehow, she made it through the worst of the COVID pandemic. No one could believe she manged to hang on so long. She died in May 2021.

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On holiday, 1993

My nan, Georgina Johnson. The only adult always pleased to see me. Her house the safest place I knew. Always radiating love. I think about her, and it is fragments, child’s eyeline images, running through the front room on a Saturday afternoon, her voice, the smell of her house and her clothes. I don’t know how to build a narrative of her life. I’m not sure of the dates, the names, the places. She had some stories about the past, but not many. Most of what I know about her is refracted through her relation to me. She was solid, she was warm, she was comfortable. She created spaces where her grandchildren could be entirely self-centred, secure in her love. I don’t know much about her life because I didn’t ask. And it might sound wrong, but it didn’t matter. Who we were to each other didn’t have much to do with words. There was never much substance to our conversations. We existed in relation to each other only through love for each other. Her love sheltered me from the moment I was born. It was uncomplicated. She made it easy to take that love for granted. I doubt she ever thought about it, but if she had, she might have said that was her job. That was the way things were supposed to be.

***

I have spoken to lots of women about their lives. I chose to do this as part of my work. I wanted to understand women’s histories, and I have tried to do this by eliciting their stories. Reading back through the transcripts of oral histories that I have collected over the past three and a half years, alongside Kate Mahoney and Daisy Payling, for the most part, women did not say much about their grandmothers. This is because for the most part, we did not ask them. There was only one question on our interview schedule directly about grandmothers, and that in a roundabout way, as a follow-up question: How has your life been different to your own mother’s? How was your mother’s life different to your grandmother’s? We focused a lot on women’s relationships with their mothers in our interviews, but did not trace back further.

We’re not unusual in this respect; writing this without access to a library or my own books, I can’t double-check, but I am fairly sure that classic works on mother-daughter relationships by Carolyn Steedman and Miriam Glucksmann don’t say much about grandmothers either. Now, confronted by the loss of that anchoring presence in my own life – understanding my nan’s presence as an anchor through her irreversible absence – I wonder if this inability to fully see the grandmother, to put her at the centre of our histories, says something about the particular qualities of many loving grandmother-grandchild relationships. We know our (maternal) grandmothers through our mothers; always there, but behind or to the side of our mothers; always part of us, but first of all, part of the person who made us. The happiest mother-child relationship is more fraught, more complex, more inescapable than the grandmother-grandchild relationship. Maybe those of us with happy relationships with our grandmothers simply don’t see their sharpest outlines because they were never the ones who caused us pain, but always the ones who kissed it better.

(Or maybe not. Maybe it is simply a case of not asking, and not listening.)

When asked about differences between the lives of their own mothers and grandmothers, many of the women we spoke to thought first of all about poverty, lack of opportunities, and narrow lives; about grandmothers who went into service, ‘working in a posh house as a servant’, who married young, did not expect to have careers; grandmothers whose ‘job, basically, was to have children, look after the family, cook meals, and generally just be there’. Reflecting on their grandmothers’ lives, women whose own lives had been difficult in many ways often now spoke about progress across the generations: ‘it gets better and better … my mum’s life was certainly better than my gran’s, and my life was certainly better than my mother’s, and hopefully my daughter’s will be better than mine’. But they also spoke about the resilience of their grandmothers; the refugee, terrified of air raids in the war, ‘scared of everything’, but at the same time ‘very feisty’, determined that she and her daughters would survive; the mother of four who ‘rolled up her sleeves and did everything herself’ because her husband was a ‘drunk and wastrel’.

The sideways glimpses we were afforded of grandmothers’ roles were in some ways even more interesting. When we asked mothers where they had found information about bringing up children, many said something along the lines of ‘oh, through my mother and back through my grandmother’. One woman remembered that when she had her first baby, her mother was very annoyed at her grandmother (the baby’s great-grandmother) interfering and assuming that she did not know how to hold the baby properly:

But the funny thing is, when my granddaughter was born, she … my mother did exactly the same to me!  And I had a flashback to that moment, and I was nursing my granddaughter, and my mother was saying, “No, no, you must do this’, and ‘you must do that’, and I was like, ‘Oh!  You’re exactly the same!’  You know, as if I’d never had an experience of my own child!  But I remember, I’m thinking of that moment, ‘Oh, you’re exactly the same as what Nana used to say!’

These were throwaway responses, but they showed awareness of how much passes through the maternal line – how much of everyday care has its roots in relationships stretching back through generations. By the same token, how much of our grandmothers must survive in us, embedded in our smallest movements, untraceable, but part of how we move through the world every day.

***

Mrs Grant

If I had tried to explain it, much of my life would not have made much sense to my nan. She left school at fourteen and none of her children went to university. She was proud when her grandchildren graduated, but as a concept, ‘university’ didn’t make much sense to her. As for what a PhD meant, forget it. I never tried to explain properly what I do for a living, though maybe in simplifying it, I got across the important bit; she was proud that I’d managed to become a teacher. I never did get up the nerve to explain to her that I hadn’t changed my name when I got married. Minutes after the ceremony, beaming, she said ‘Congratulations, Mrs Grant!’ And Mrs Grant I was, to her, for the rest of her life. That smile meant a lot; she liked my husband, she was always happy to see him too, and she understood this part of my life that for her, meant her granddaughter would be loved and cared for. That was what mattered.

We were divided by generation, by expectations, by life experience. She lived through things that I will never understand, including real, biting poverty, and caring for a disabled child into her nineties. This is one reason I can’t describe her life. But it is also because we were united by other things; the blood tie, but more than that, the willingness to love each other no matter what, to put everything else aside. As she forgot more and more, she did not remember my name, and she was not sure exactly who I was, but for as long as I could see her in person, she knew that she knew and loved me. She recognised me in every way that counted, and she was still always pleased to see me. I still can’t put her into words, but I will make her recipes, I will remember her voice, I will think of her as I try to be that solid, comfortable, unquestioned presence in the lives of the children I know. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, I will dream of her and she will still be here; because in the very deepest part of me, she can never really be gone. Sleep well, nan.

What Do Everyday Health Objects Sound Like? Combining Oral History, Sound Art, and National Dried Milk

by Kate Mahoney

On the Body, Self and Family project, we aim to explore the expansive ways in which women understood their health across their daily lives in late twentieth-century Britain. One way in which the women that we have interviewed for the project consider their everyday health experiences, is through their description of everyday health objects. BG, born in 1944 and interviewed in 2018, for example, recalled how her mother repurposed a National Dried Milk tin to serve as her family’s first aid kit.[1] Whilst the tin in question – a container for foodstuffs – did not have immediate medical connotations, BG drew on her own experiences to imbue the item with a purpose, emotions, and values that rendered it vital to her sense of their everyday health.[2] I therefore wondered if I could draw on our interviewees’ descriptions of “everyday health objects” to promote the project’s expansive definition of everyday health to a public audience.

In February 2020, I designed and led an activity titled ‘What Do Everyday Health Objects Sound Like?’ at a museum “late”, organised by the University of Roehampton’s ‘Surgery and Emotion’ team and hosted at the Royal College of Nursing. Janet Weston promotes the value in encouraging public audiences to listen to interviews because ‘the gestures, the performance, the tone and emotional content’ of recordings can be lost when the interview is presented in a written format.[3] I wondered if the act of listening to interviews might be enhanced further if listeners could simultaneously engage with a historical object being discussed by the interviewee. This activity could lend a tangibility and tactility to the events and experiences that the interviewee was describing. I selected three “everyday health objects” that feature in our interviews – the National Dried Milk tin discussed by BG, a black plastic shopping back, and a small bin for sanitary items. After buying versions of these items online, I inserted MP3 players containing the relevant interview extracts inside them, and plugged headphones directly into the object; this generated the sense that participants were listening to the stories of the objects themselves.

National Dried Milk tin, purchased on eBay

Whilst I received positive feedback for the activity, aspects of its design limited participants’ engagement with both the historical objects on display and the interview extracts that they contained. Many participants felt uncertain about picking up and wearing the headphones without my encouragement. I also found that participants spent most of their time holding the headphones to their ears, so were unable to simultaneously engage with the objects. I wondered if these issues could be remedied by creating a historical health object that played an interview extract on its own accord through an integrated speaker, when a participant either touched it or picked it up.

I decided to experiment with whether this was possible using a National Dried Milk tin and oral history interviewee BG’s testimony. National Dried Milk was introduced in 1940 as part of the Ministry of Health’s National Milk Scheme. Pregnant women, and mothers with children under the age of one, were entitled to seven pints of free or subsidised milk per week on top of their normal entitlement.[4] The tin held enough powder for these seven pints. Dried milk was decontrolled in 1954 as rationing in Britain was curtailed. Its distribution was reallocated to local authorities and it ceased to be produced in 1976.[5]  Given their widespread distribution, it can be safe to assume that National Dried Milk tins featured in almost every British home that contained infant children in the immediate post-war period. When discussing her family’s National Dried Milk tin, BG closely associated it with being a child growing up shortly after the Second World War, as the extract I used demonstrates:

 ‘And we had orange juice. We were fortunate in a sense of being babies after the War because we had a good diet. And we had things like that. When my mother was feeding – she wasn’t breastfeeding – but when she was feeding Michael, it was National Dried Milk, in the big tins. I remember the tins because she – that’s right! – she used one as a first aid thing as well. So, there would be Germolene, iodine, and bandages, and things like that all rolled up. It was a very big, tall tin. So, that was for cuts and grazes, and I remember I always had grazes on my knees’.[6]

The “everydayness” of the National Dried Milk tins means that they are readily available to purchase on eBay for under £10. It felt exciting to create a responsive object from a genuine historical artefact that accurately matched the item being discussed in the oral history interview. I did debate whether converting a historical object into an art or exhibition piece would in some way deface the object, tampering with its historical relevance by altering its original structure. In order to incorporate a speaker into the object, for instance, I had to drill holes into the lid of the tin so that the participant could clearly hear the recording that it contained. I justified the changes that I made to the tin on the basis that they are readily available to buy and, as BG demonstrated, have historically been repurposed to perform new tasks. I hoped that my reformulation of the tin could also be situated within this narrative of reuse.

Kate working on the National Dried Milk tin

In constructing the tin as an object that told its own story, I first uploaded BG’s oral history extract onto a Bare Conductive Touch Board, which is powered by a USB power bank. The Touch Board enables you to turn any conductive object into a sensor or switch which can be used to trigger a sound to play. Drawing on my somewhat shaky soldering skills honed in Year 8 Product Design, I built a battery-powered amplifier speaker from Kitronik, which connects to the Touch Board via a mini jack. I then used copper tape and a crocodile clip test wire to connect the surface of the tin to the Touch Board. This ensured that the Touch Board knew to trigger the interview recording when someone touched the tin. I drilled holes in the lid of the tin to replicate the design of a telephone speaker, before gluing the amplifier speaker to the underside of the lid. To save the contents of the tin rattling around, I constructed a cardboard stand to go inside it, which held the power bank and Touch Board in place.

The equipment used to adapt the National Dried Milk tin

The National Dried Milk tin remains a work in progress. The capacitance levels, which the Touch Board uses to sense touch, are currently affected by the USB battery pack and speaker being inside the tin. This means that the tin only responds to touch when the battery pack is placed outside the tin, and its lid remains off. However, I am working on a solution that would mean that the tin responds to touch when all elements of its circuit are contained inside. It still feels very satisfying and engaging to hear an “everyday health object” tell its story simply by tapping it. Unfortunately, the curtailment of public engagement events due to the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that I have been unable get feedback on the National Dried Milk tin from members of the public. One area I would like to explore is how the tin depicts childhood health experiences. By combining BG’s testimony with the historical object that she discusses, the tin provides a sense of the changing size and scale of the objects and environments that informed her health experiences as she grew up. In her interview, BG repeatedly commented on the size of the tin. She remembered how National Dried Milk came in ‘big tins’, and recalled that her mother was able to repurpose one as a first aid kit because it was a ‘very big, tall tin’.[7] Interacting with the tin as an adult, it has clearly diminished in scale – I would unscientifically say that it is a medium-sized object. However, when holding the tin whilst listening to BG’s extract, it immediately becomes clear that the object would appear far larger and grander when held in the hands of a child.

I wonder if part of the reason why I embarked on this making project is because BG’s description of the tin really resonated with me. Growing up, my parents stored our first aid kit in a repurposed ice cream tub that was stored on the top shelf of one of our kitchen cupboards. I remember feeling a sense of excited pride when I had sustained a cut or a graze that warranted a plaster from the ice cream tub, and I was always disappointed when they did not. It felt almost ceremonial when my parents were obliged to bring the ice cream tub/first aid kit down onto the kitchen counter; a plaster was a badge of bravery and honour. I am therefore wary of the extent to which I might imbibe BG’s extract with the feelings that I associate with my own childhood health experiences. However, I also think that there is value in listening to these feelings, perhaps as a way to speculate how others might respond to the National Dried Milk tin in a public space. Certainly, when my partner saw the tin, and heard our participants’ story, he was immediately reminded of the fact that his mother stored their family first aid in an old metal biscuit tin. I look forward to using the tin to explore with others how everyday health objects have informed their own health experiences across the course of their day-to-day lives.

Press play to listen to the National Dried Milk tin

[1] BG, interviewed by Kate Mahoney (25 January 2018).

[2] Tracey Loughran, Kate Mahoney, and Daisy Payling, ‘Women’s voices, emotion and empathy: engaging different public with “Everyday” health histories’, Medical Humanities, forthcoming.

[3] Janet Weston, ‘History at Large: Oral Histories, Public Engagement and the Making of Positive in Prison’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 87 (Spring 2018), pp. 211-223 (p. 217).

[4] Pam Carter, Feminism, Breasts and Breast-feeding (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995), p. 54; Robert Mackay, Half the battle: Civilian morale in Britain during the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 242); Richard Titmuss, Problems of social policy (1950), quoted in Pete Alcock et al. (eds.), Welfare and wellbeing: Richard Titmuss’s contribution to social policy (Bristol: Policy Press, 2001), p. 84; Ina Zweiniger-Bargielowska, Austerity in Britain: Rationing, Controls, and Consumption, 1939-1955 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 131.

[5] National Archives, ‘Ministry of Food and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food: Registered Files: National Dried Milk (NDM Series)’, available at https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10709 [accessed 13 April 2021].

[6] BG, interviewed by Mahoney.

[7] BG, interviewed by Mahoney.

‘Lonely Gems …’ Horoscopes in Sappho magazine c.1972-3

by Daisy Payling

The first time I met my girlfriend’s friend Amy, she wanted to know the exact time I was born so she could work out my Rising Sign. Three years later, I’m still not entirely sure what a Rising Sign is, but the importance of astrology in queer communities hasn’t gone anywhere. In fact, astrology can appear “completely hegemonic” in queer spaces, and on dating apps, in a way that leaves sceptics feeling alienated. Chani Nicholas, a big name in LGBTQ+ astrology circles, explains the popularity of astrology as providing “alternative ways of seeing ourselves or being witnessed”, when other institutions refuse to make space for those who do not conform. Others trace a lineage through feminist and New Age spaces into today’s queer communities. Alongside these trajectories, however, astrology and its most mainstream articulation – the horoscope – have been a regular part of newspapers and magazines since the 1930s. Queer publications, modelling themselves on mainstream magazines, incorporated horoscopes alongside other magazine formats like letters pages to build a sense of community with readers.[1]

Sappho – a newsletter for lesbian and bisexual women in 1970s Britain – was one such publication. Formed in 1972 out of the ashes of predecessor Arena Three, it ran until 1981. Sappho was influenced by the politics of the Women’s Liberation Movement and the emergent Gay Liberation Movement.[2] It aimed to create an environment in which lesbian and bisexual women could find information, share stories, and build local and transnational connections. It published letters and poems from readers as well as summaries of monthly meetings and socials held in London. In 1973 a reader from Kent thanked Sappho:

‘May I say the simple fact of the arrival of Sappho through my letter box has already made me feel less isolated. Until yesterday I felt I could well be the only one of my kind on earth’ (1973, 2:3).

Combating loneliness and isolation was an integral part of the magazine, more so than the research focus of Arena Three. Connecting women and creating community went hand in hand with an espousal of the Gay Liberation Front’s ‘Glad to be Gay’ rhetoric and an emphasis on the positive effects of coming out. Multiple articles spoke of how difficult it was to sustain a ‘double life’ (1972, 1:6) and the limiting effects of hiding one’s feelings, but articles also criticised readers who, once out and happily partnered up, did not give back to their community (1972, 1:7).

Sappho. Available in the British Library.

For the first couple of years, Sappho included a regular horoscope column called Sapphoscope. Horoscopes are generally read for fun; maybe even read aloud with friends. Sapphoscope fits this framing. The horoscopes were very short – usually only two lines long. They were often themed or based on puns of the star sign in question. But horoscopes do have a serious side. For a start, for people who believe in them, horoscopes can partly determine how they view themselves. Horoscopes categorise people and make claims about their behaviour. They also often provide advice. We can therefore use horoscopes to see what kinds of problems and solutions were being offered to readers, in this case, lesbian and bisexual women in early 1970s Britain.[3]

Love and romance dominated Sapphoscope. But unlike mainstream women’s magazines which stressed the importance of maintaining relationships with men at all costs, Sappho presented lesbian and bisexual women with a variety of options.[4] Sometimes readers were encouraged to maintain partnerships:

🐏 Aries were told; ‘Mars, your ruling planet, is bugging you. Fight for her, not against her’(1972, 1:3).

👭 Geminis were encouraged to ‘get down to reality with procrastinating partners’ (1972, 1:5)

🏹 Sagittarians were advised to ‘Stop cruising. Settle down to a home life and you’ll become a landlubber with a lovely lover’ (1973, 2:4).

At other times, however, women were encouraged to move on or to play the field. Virgos were told that ‘Chased is more fun than chaste’ (1972, 1:1) and Taureans to ‘get over the hang ups and overs and play the field’ (1972, 1:3). On occasion ‘playing the field’ was a strategy to keep hold of a lover; ‘partners may be like picadors. Don’t holiday in Spain. Cruise the broads and she’ll stay with the partnership’ (1972, 1:5). Women were encouraged to have agency in their relationships. Scorpios were advised to reach out: ‘so your phone has stopped ringing. Transfer the charges and find out why’ (1972, 1:1), and Aries with ‘domineering partner[s]’ were told to ‘Join the Gateways’ (1972, 1:4) – a well-known lesbian nightclub.[5] In Sapphoscope, Sappho presented queer women with multiple options of remaining connected and in community with one another – whether in romantic relationships or not – reflecting a fundamental value of the newsletter.

In Sapphoscope we can also see Sappho’s attempts to acknowledge the different kinds of women it was speaking to. ‘Parental Gems’ – women with children – were reassured that they were ‘in for a good time with offspring’ (1972, 1:8). ‘Watch it relatives don’t impose meantime’ acknowledged that lesbian motherhood could be difficult.[6] In another issue, ‘country-dwell[ing]’ Aries were told that their way of life was ‘streets ahead of the urban alternative’ (1972, 1:5) – reassurance perhaps aimed at lonely women writing in from the countryside lamenting their inability to attend London meet-ups. Butch/Femme dynamics were acknowledged with ‘Femme Aquas’ told they had ‘a great financial month ahead’ (1972, 1:8), whilst butch Taureans were warned to ‘shell out not on birds but on nest eggs’ (1972, 1:8). Bisexual women were largely side-lined with jokes about ‘Pisexual’ Pisces but Scorpios were encouraged to keep their options open: ‘Build up your boyfriend … but go to bed with her. That way you’re for the biways’ (1973, 1:10).

Sapphoscope in Sappho (1973, 2:7)

The Sapphoscope also acknowledged coming out – which was a big theme in Sappho’s pages. In the first issue Aries were told ‘this is your time of the year so have the time of your life. Come forth. Come out’ (1972, 1:1). Five issues later, Geminis were asked ‘feel like you’re leading a double life?’ – a pun on the twins with serious implications. They were offered a choice: ‘Now’s the time to choose between in and out. Be happy’ (1972, 1:6). Despite the suggestion that coming out was the route to happiness, Sapphoscope did acknowledge that it was not always possible. On occasion, readers were reassured that even if they could not come out, romance was not off the cards: ‘Lonely Gems, who haven’t come out, are due a touch-and-go affaire. Hang on. She’s the one’ (1972, 1:4).

After only two years, Sapphoscope disappeared – possibly because the author ran out of puns. There is only so much purring a Leo can perform, and the column soon became repetitive. While it lasted though, Sapphoscope used pun-based humour to highlight readers’ potential problems and provide blunt, proactive advice. Less intense (and less nuanced) than problem pages, Sapphoscope used the stars to show lesbian and bisexual women that they were seen and to guide them, not to their fates, but to the Gateways nightclub, and to love, friendship and community. Horoscopes might not tell us the future, but if we take them seriously as traces of queer intimacy, they tell us something rather lovely about the past.[7]


[1] Tracey Loughran, ‘‘The most helpful friends in the world’: Letters Pages, Expertise and Emotion in British Women’s Magazines, c. 1960–80’, in Laurel Forster and Joanne Hollows (eds), Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1940s-2000s, (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2020), 134.

[2] Laurel Forster, Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Form, (Bloomsbury: New York, London), 108-109.

[3] Edson C. Tandoc Jr. and Patrick Ferrucci, ‘So says the stars: A textual analysis of Glamour, Essence and Teen Vogue horoscopes’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 45 (2014), 35.

[4] Tandoc and Ferrucci, ‘So says the stars’, 37.

[5] Rebecca Jennings, ‘The Gateways Club and the Emergence of a Post-Second World War Lesbian Subculture’, Social History 31: 2 (2006), 206–225.

[6] Rebecca Jennings, ‘Lesbian Mothers and Child Custody: Australian Debates in the 1970s’, Gender & History 24:2 (2012), 502-517.

[7] Thanks to Hannah Elizabeth for comments, conversation and this line.

VAT, Period Poverty, and Menstrual Stigma

by Hannah Froom

In 1973, the UK Government applied a VAT rate of 17.5% to menstrual products.[1] In 2001, the government dropped the tax rate from 17.5% to 5% but refused calls for its complete removal as recently as 2015.[2] In Scotland, menstrual products have been free for all since 2020; for the rest of the UK, the 5% tax rate applied to menstrual protection products was removed from 1 January 2021.[3] 

Campaigners had long argued that the classification of menstrual products as ‘non-essential, luxury’ items was sexist and stigmatising. Laura Coryton, founder of the #EndTamponTax petition stated that it was ‘astounding’ when contextualised within a broader understanding of what HMRC did deem essential – including jaffa cakes and bingo.[4] The longevity of the ‘tampon tax’, and the government’s labelling of menstrual products as non-essential, shows how menstrual stigma has persisted in the UK.

In 1996, cis-women who wrote to Mass Observation (MO) expressed their dissatisfaction with the VAT charge on menstrual products. In replies to a directive called ‘Women’s sanitary protection and menstruation’, many cis-women outlined their disapproval both of paying tax on menstrual products and the ways that MPs without adequate understanding or experience made decisions directly impacting their embodied menstrual experiences and day-to-day lives. 

The MO responses mirror issues raised in the 2010s. For instance, one MO writer stressed that there was no VAT on champagne, and in this context, VAT on menstrual products was wholly nonsensical. Another compared it to taxing bread and water, branded it unfair, and asked, ‘does the government want women to go back to the days of rags and bandages?’. Another respondent stated that it was ‘sex discrimination to charge’, recalled a government minister comparing menstrual products to shaving equipment, and concluded ‘it strikes me as impertinent that men in the government should make such suggestions’.[5] 

These responses reveal longstanding unhappiness at the imposition of VAT, and an acute sense of the casual sexism and menstrual stigma perpetuated through both the legislation and ignorant discussion of it. Nearly twenty years later, campaigners were still making similar points to MO respondents. In 2015, in direct response to tampon tax campaigning, concerns about taxation on men’s razors came to the fore, highlighting that there was no comparable ‘essential’ tax for cis-men.[6] In many ways, little had changed over this twenty-year period.

‘Prelude’, Mary Rouncefield. This was one of several images selected to promote World Menstruation Day in 2015. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Stigma, shame and cost barriers still define many young people’s understandings and experiences of menstruation.[7] Campaigns against VAT were one part of a much larger conversation concerning how we learn about menstruation, how it is positioned politically and socio-culturally, and how governments and other agencies fail menstruating people. 

Plan International UK state that ‘49% of girls have missed a day of school due to their periods, whilst 10% are unable to afford products, the cost leading 14% to borrow from friends, 12% to improvise, and 19% to change to unsuitable or improvised alternatives’.[8] In an attempt to tackle this, from January 2020 onwards every state-maintained school and college in England have been able to order free period products for their students. This change was facilitated by Amika George and the ‘Free periods’ scheme. Yet research has since shown only 40% of institutions have signed up to the scheme.[9]  

When it comes to education, there is growing evidence to suggest that a lack of knowledge about periods and how to manage associated health issues (Endometriosis, PCOS, PMDD, POI) causes increased absences and reduced performance in school, along with an increased vulnerability to debilitating health conditions. Yet schools in Wales have the option to opt-in, or out, of menstrual wellbeing education. Campaigns to make it compulsory led by Fair Treatment for the Women of Wales (FTWW) were voted down in January this year.[10]

One of the main reasons for a lack of access to resources and education is stigma. A Plan International brief on inclusivity and diversity highlighted that it is often difficult to see period poverty and the barriers stopping people from accessing period products because stigma keeps menstruation hidden. “ Stigma,” a Bloody Good Period representative reflected, “is undoubtedly the biggest frontier” in starting conversations about menstruation.[11]

The dearth of information about period poverty is intensified when it comes to understanding the menstrual experiences of trans, non-binary and intersex individuals. Kenny Ethan Jones and Plan International UK suggested that menstrual education can be made more expansive and inclusive by pushing for corporations and the media to use gender-neutral language.[12] But in 2020, official government legislative documents on the removal of VAT still referred to menstrual health and menstrual products as ‘women’s sanitary protection’. The most marginalised continue to be excluded from these conversations at an institutional level.[13]

 Menstrual stigma plays a huge part in why it is so difficult to write histories of menstruation and menstruating people. In Menstruation: A Cultural History, Shail and Howie state that advertisements have been the ‘most explicit and loudest form of discussion of the menses’.[14] This reveals just how limited representation and discussion was for people in the past. This makes it challenging to explore the history of menstruation and to understand the ways having a period and facing menstrual stigma affected people’s lives. It is difficult to find personal stories of menstruation, and even harder to do so the more marginalised a person’s identity because the sources do not exist. Yet reading the historical accounts that do exist, such as MO testimony, both for what they do say, and for what they don’t say – their blind spots and limitations – we can start to understand some of the reasons why this stigma has persisted until today. 

 [1] Laura Coryton, ‘This is how you can help end tampon tax, once and for all’, (December 2019), available at https://www.stylist.co.uk/long-reads/period-poverty-government-tampon-tax-sanitary-pads-schools-food-banks-money-opinion/256517 [Accessed 08/02/2021].

[2] Amelia Butterly, ‘Why the tampon tax is here to stay – for a while at least’, (9 Febru

ary 2015) https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-31299254   [Accessed 08/02/2021]

[3] Patrick Collinson, ‘Budget 2020: chancellor plans to finally end tampon tax’ (6 March 2020) https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/11/rishi-sunak-confirms-tampon-tax-will-be-scrapped [Accessed 08/02/2020], ‘Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill 2020, https://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/CurrentCommittees/112914.aspx [accessed 08/02/2021]

[4] Laura Coryton, ‘This is how you can help end tampon tax, once and for all’, (December 2019), available at https://www.stylist.co.uk/long-reads/period-poverty-government-tampon-tax-sanitary-pads-schools-food-banks-money-opinion/256517 [Accessed 08/02/2021].

[5]  Responses to Spring 1996 Mass Observation Directive.

[6] Every month campaign, ‘Tampon Tax: Why it’s such a Bloody mess’ (10 February 2019), https://www.everymonthcampaign.org/blog/2019/2/10/tampon-tax-why-its-such-a-bloody-mess [accessed 08/02/2020].

[7] Laura Coryton, ‘This is how you can help end tampon tax, once and for all’, (December 2019), available at https://www.stylist.co.uk/long-reads/period-poverty-government-tampon-tax-sanitary-pads-schools-food-banks-money-opinion/256517 [Accessed 08/02/2021].

[8] Gwen Schemm, ‘Top 10 Facts about period poverty in the UK’ (July 15 2019) https://borgenproject.org/top-10-facts-about-period-poverty-in-the-uk/ [accessed 08/02/2021

[9] Free Periods Website, https://www.freeperiods.org/free-periods-in-schools [accessed 09/02/2020].

[10] FTWW Admin, Menstrual Wellbeing Education: Bringing back the Amendment to the Education Curriculum Bill (4 February 2021), https://www.ftww.org.uk/mentrual-wellbeing-education-bringing-back-the-amendment-to-the-education-curriculum-bill/ [accessed 09/02/2020].

[11] Dr. Annalise Weckesser, Gemma Williams, Dr. Angela Hewett, and Amie Randhawa, ‘Inclusivity & Diversity- UK Expert Views’’, https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-ltp-learning-briefing-3pdf/download?token=BIB_vIpS (Accessed, 08/02/2021).

[12] Dr. Annalise Weckesser, Gemma Williams, Dr. Angela Hewett, and Amie Randhawa, ‘Inclusivity & Diversity- UK Expert Views’’, https://plan-uk.org/file/plan-uk-ltp-learning-briefing-3pdf/download?token=BIB_vIpS (Accessed, 08/02/2021), p.6.

[13] HM Revenue & Customs,  Revenue and Customs Brief 1 (2021): Introduction of the zero rate of VAT for women’s sanitary products, (23 December 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/revenue-and-customs-brief-1-2021-introduction-of-the-zero-rate-of-vat-for-womens-sanitary-products [accessed 08/02/2020].

[14] Andrew Shail and Gillian Howie (eds), Menstruation: A Cultural History (Basingstoke, 2005) in Chris Bobel, New Blood Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation (Rutgers University Press, 2010), p.33. 

Something Worth Staying In For …

…. OK, maybe we don’t have much choice about that at the moment. But if you have to stay indoors, what better way to fill the time than listening to brilliant historians share their research?

On 11 January 2021, we launch our seminar series on Gender, Subjectivity, and “Everyday Health” in the Post-1945 World. We’re kicking off with Katrina-Louse Moseley, Peder Clark, Fabiola Creed, and Louise Morgan exploring ‘The “Beautiful” Female Body as a Site of Health, Pleasure and Harm in Modern Britain’, with papers on weight loss clubs, rave culture, tanning, and clean eating. This will followed later the same day by Professor Carol Tulloch’s keynote, ‘… and breathe. Style narratives, composing a life and wellbeing’.

The series will run until mid-June, with seminars taking place on a weekly or fortnightly basis. Over the next five months, we’ll hear from historians on different continents talking about topics from GPs’ waiting rooms to hair salons, dental dams to vasectomies, menstruation to menopause – in fact, from birth to death and nearly everything in between.

Like many things that have happened over the past year, we didn’t envisage the seminar series happening in quite this way. Our original aim was to hold a conference in April 2020. When that proved impossible, we hoped we’d be able to reschedule and meet in person sooner rather than later. But when it became clear that couldn’t happen, we decided to take the event online as a seminar series instead.

Turning a three-day conference into a seminar series has not been easy. We’ve tried very hard to make the seminar series accessible to as many people as possible. This has included scheduling papers at different times of day to ensure that those with childcare or work commitments will be able to attend some sessions, if not all; putting together guidelines on the accessibility of online presentations; and inviting registrations to let us know about any particular requirements beforehand so we can work with speakers to meet their needs.

Any extra work has all been worth it. Our speakers have been incredibly generous and adaptable in fitting in with new timetables – we can’t thank them enough. But we’ve also seen a flood of registrations for panels from across the globe. The seminar series will reach more people, in more different places, than the conference could ever have accommodated.

Inevitably, over the past nine months, most of us have been painfully aware of all the ways in which our worlds have shrunk. For those of us involved in setting it up, this seminar series represents some of the ways the world has expanded too, in unexpected but welcome directions. We are also looking forward to remembering what is best about being part of a research community – to hearing from enthusiastic, curious, compassionate, and engaged historians about the research they love; to learning from each other as part of a collaborative and supportive endeavour; to hearing, seeing, and actually feeling part of that community again. This isn’t what we first planned, but it’s definitely what we need in 2021.

Seminar Series Now Live!

We are excited to announce that you can now register for our seminar series on ‘Gender, Subjectivity, and “Everyday Health” in the Post-1945 World. We will soon have a dedicated space on the website for the seminar series, including interviews with speakers, playlists, and recipes – but for now, you can download here:

Hope to see you in January!



Stories of my Birth: Remembering, Researching, and Relearning

Written by Kate Mahoney, with Louise Mahoney

Last year, I conducted research on the women’s health activist Jean Robinson. Robinson became chairperson of the Patients Association in the early 1970s.[1] The organisation, which still exists today, fought against the widespread assumption that doctors knew best, and that patients should simply do as they say.[2] Whilst in her role, Robinson received numerous letters from women writing about their traumatic experiences of childbirth. Their accounts focused on new technologies, such as episiotomy and chemical induction, that obstetricians were increasingly using to actively manage their labour.[3] Previously only applied in emergencies, from the 1960s onwards, these techniques became routine practice. In 1965, 15% of births were induced. This figure had risen to 41% by 1974.[4] Many obstetricians promoted these technologies because they increased the pace of labour, supposedly aiding mother and child by reducing the mental and physical impact of a long birth.[5] However, Robinson collected some 800 letters relating to induction alone. Women believed that they were induced too early. “They said it would take too long without the drip”, one woman stated. “‘Too long for whom?’ I wondered”.[6] Another felt completely out of control. “I feel I didn’t have my baby at all”, she wrote. “He was produced for me with the aid of drugs and machinery”.[7] The letters demonstrated that induction was extremely painful and distressing, and that women’s feelings both during and after the procedure were completely ignored.

Jean Robinson pictured in the Times Health Supplement in 1981 (Jean Robinson, ‘Cervical Cancer: A Feminist Critique’, Times Health Supplement, (27 November, 1981), p. 16.)

I was shocked at how similar the accounts Robinson collected were to my mother Louise’s experiences giving birth to me. I spoke to her about this, and she provided her own account of what it was like:

‘I gave birth to Kate, my first child, when I was 29 years old and living in Solihull in the West Midlands. These are the memories of that time, 30 years later. 

Antenatal classes focused on the practicalities of looking after a young baby rather than the birth itself. I do not remember being asked about the sort of birth I was hoping for or being encouraged in any way to be an active part of the process. I had two close friends who had recently given birth but they did not speak in great detail of their experience and I didn’t question them. I was excited about holding my new baby and I think I put the labour process to the back of my mind as it appeared to be something I had very little control over.

Kate was due at the end of October and was a week overdue (due to the doctor’s calculations) by the time I started to experience Braxton Hicks contractions. My husband and I went to the hospital, only to be sent home for a couple of days. The contractions continued and got worse and so we went to the hospital again. We were admitted. Labour did not progress and my care was passed from shift to shift. Different teams seemed to have different ideas about what was best. One midwife said that she was very pro interventionist.  I had my waters broken and was put on a drip to speed up the contractions. I remember a midwife mechanically boosting the contractions and my body experiencing such unexpected pain that it had no ability to manage or control. I had an epidural which numbed the pain totally for what seemed like a short while. Kate was born following an episiotomy and a forceps delivery. She looked worryingly grey at first and her head was elongated.  Following her medical examination and tests, she was handed to me and after a quick glance around the room, she fell asleep. The contrast between holding this beautiful human being and the journey we had gone through together to get to this place was immense.  She slept for a number of hours – she must have been exhausted.   We stayed in hospital for a few days afterwards.  Because I initially found breast feeding excruciatingly painful, I was repeatedly told to give up. There was always a trolley of made-up formula on the ward provided by a manufacturer. I did persevere because this was something I could decide on.  

Less than three years later I gave birth to my son in Gloucestershire. They were trialling a ‘domino scheme’ there. Before the birth, each midwife on the team came to the house so that I could meet them. When you felt that you were in labour, the midwife came to the house and we went to hospital together (gas and air in the car foot well) just for five hours for the actual birth’.

Kate and her mother Louise in 1990.

Feminist sociologists have argued that obstetricians normalised technological intervention in childbirth in order to bolster their clinical authority.[8] In 1984, Herbert Barrie, consultant paediatrician at West London Hospital, stated that expectant mothers who specified how they wanted to give birth were ‘not entitled to tell doctors how to do their work’.[9] The societal normalisation of the procedures that surround childbirth means that there is little recognition of the long-term impact that it has on women, as well as the wider inadequacies of maternity services in Britain. Last year, the BBC reported on how difficult it was for women to access vital support for postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Perinatal psychiatrist Rebecca Moore stated that women felt unable to speak to about their symptoms for fear of being judged or criticised.[10] As reported in The Guardian last month, Black women in the UK are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than white women. Tinuke Awe, co-founder of Fivexmore, which campaigns to combat this shocking disparity, experienced a late diagnosis of pre-eclampsia at thirty-eight weeks: “I kept saying ‘I’m in pain, I’m in pain’, but I was completely dismissed and fobbed off – no one looked at me”, Tinuke recalled. “I was just left feeling like I didn’t matter, that no one really cared”.[11]  

Tinuke Awe and Clotilde Rebecca Abe, founders of Fivexmore, photographed for The Guardian (Alexandra Topping, ‘“Something has to be done”: tackling the UK’s Black maternal health problem’, The Guardian (2 October 2020)).

By conducting research on how the difficulties of childbirth have come to be normalised in society, I realised that I too had normalised my mother’s experiences of giving birth to me. I’d always known that my birth had been long, with Mum having contractions for five days, but I do not think I had ever framed this as being beyond the realms of what was expected when having a baby. Childbirth was meant to be painful. Growing up, I knew that babies could be born prematurely, or with complications, and might spend a long in hospital receiving treatment before going home. These births seemed serious, difficult, and traumatic. I had not been one of those babies. I therefore assumed that my birth had been okay. It was not until I carried out research on childbirth, that I came to comprehend how my mum might have felt whilst having me, that the pain she experienced was not “normal”, and that she was obliged to negotiate various forms of medical expertise and authority throughout the process. Ultimately, I have found this to be an unexpected outcome of working on the ‘Body, Self and Family’ project; in exploring the expansive history of women’s everyday health in late twentieth-century Britain, I’ve also gained a far better understanding of the experiences and emotions of the women that I am closest to.


[1] Kate Mahoney, interview with Jean Robinson (5 December 2018).

[2] Alex Mold, Making the Patient-Consumer: Patient organisations and health consumerism in Britain (Manchester, 2015), p. 121.

[3] Emma Ashworth, ‘An Interview with Jean Robinson’, AIMS Journal, Vol. 29, No. 4, available at https://www.aims.org.uk/journal/item/jean-robinson-aims-interview [accessed 24 November 2020].

[4] Angela Davis, Modern Motherhood: Women and family in England, 1945-2000 (Manchester, 2013), p. 85.

[5] Kieran O’Driscol et al., ‘Active Management of Labour’, British Medical Journal (21 July 1973), pp. 135-137.

[6] Jean Robinson, ‘Active management of childbirth “reduces harm and anxiety”’, The Times (12 August 1974), p. 6.

[7] Robinson, ‘Active management of childbirth’.

[8] Soo Downe and Christine McCourt, ‘From being to becoming: reconstructing childbirth knowledges’, in Soo Downe (ed.), Normal Childbirth: Evidence and Debate (Ednburgh, 2008), pp. 3-27 (p. 4).

[9] Herbert Barrie, ‘Back to Nature’, Faculty News (October 1984).

[10] Sarah Griffiths, ‘The effect of childbirth no-one talks about’, BBC Future (24 April 2019), available at https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190424-the-hidden-trauma-of-childbirth [accessed 24 November 2020].

[11] Tinuke Awe, quoted in Alexandra Topping, ‘“Something has to be done”: tackling the UK’s Black maternal health problem’, The Guardian (2 October 2020), available at theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/oct/02/something-has-to-be-done-tackling-the-uks-black-maternal-health-problem

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