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The personal & the political: In parallel with the histories December 30, 2016

Posted by Tomboktu in Feminism, History, LGBT, Women's rights.
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My paternal grandmother was told by her doctor in the 1930s that she would be risking her life if she were to have another child. She approached her parish priest to seek his support on raising this with my grandfather, but was told that if God called her and another child to his side, then she should accept God’s will. At some stage between the end of the 1950s and the early 1990s she told my mother, her daughter-in-law. My mother, in turn, told me of this about a decade ago. My mother was clearly angered at how my grandmother had been treated. Her own life was affected by the ban on contraception, although all her children were born before the Supreme Court ruling on contraception in the Magee case or the formation of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement.

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A micro-scene early in the film Pride has the fictional character ‘Bromley’ step out of the Pride parade to watch from the footpath. A woman passes him, and announces her view: ‘disgusting’. And he says ‘Yes’ and nods approvingly. In the succeeding few seconds, George MacKay, the actor who plays ‘Bromley’, conveys the horror that his character feels at betraying what he came to London for that day in 1984, and in a few moment he rejects that betrayal and rejoins the Pride march and the real-life Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

Later in the film, his sister and mother accidentally find his cuttings from Capital Gay and photographs from events with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, and we are shown, in silhouette and without dialogue, his parents confronting him when he returns home late that night. Although ‘Bromley’ was a fictional character added to the dramatisation of a historical event, a tweet after the film was screened on St Stephen’s night showed that it reflected a real, lived experience: “Thank you #Pride & the character Bromley for explaining to my family why my uni years were concealed, distant & disassociated.”

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I don’t know if there is a historical school or method that studies the personal experiences of people in social and political changes, particularly of those not in key roles. There might not be; maybe at that stage it ceases being history and becomes biography or sociology. It would also be a more challenging approach: the records are probably less likely to be available. In many cases, the reason will not be that a record was not kept but that there was nothing to record: a silence, the absence of a conversation — even an avoidance of thinking about something.

But those hundreds of thousands of personal experiences and histories are important. A history without them is incomplete. Without survivors of domestic violence telling their stories to other women, there would not have been the campaigns to change police practices, create new laws, or fund emergency shelters, which are the stuff of that history. The narrative of lgb equality is missing something central to its history without the accounts of coming out, of not coming out, of being told, and of different lives in two places, and how those changed over the decades. The stories in the history matter.

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1. Michael Carley - December 30, 2016

Sounds like what David Kynaston does in his X Britain books.

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2. lcox - December 30, 2016

This is a lot of what good oral history work does.

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3. Róisín - December 31, 2016

“The Seed is Mine: The Life of Kas Maine, a South African Sharecropper 1894-1985” by Charles van Onselen. It does pretty much what it says on the tin, building from oral history interviews about the life of one man otherwise unknown to history as a means to understand the history of South Africa. (Though it can be critiqued for the way van Onselen regards certain points, such as women’s memories and experiences)

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WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2016

Thanks for that. That’s an interesting point re perceptions shaping experiences, particularly those regarded by those who are quoted as ‘others’. Not as big a problem today but genuinely problematic in regard to views of the past.

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4. Tomboktu - December 31, 2016

Don’t oral histories tend to be incidental parallels to, rather than integral parts of, mainstream narratives?

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lcox - December 31, 2016

Mainstream narratives in the sense of “kings and battles” history used to treat oral history as trivial, certainly. In large part this was a question of the relationship between preferring a certain kind of source (written vs oral) and preferring a certain kind of focus on history (top-down vs bottom-up). Irish history is still fairly strongly slanted this way by comparison with history in other European countries or North America.

Social historians focussing on e.g. working-class or peasant life (ie that of most people) and historians of revolutions and social movements (where the problems of relying on top-down or organisational sources are fairly hard to overlook) tended to take oral history on board much sooner. There are, for example, vast OH archives relating to the Civil Rights Movement in the States.

Terry Fagan’s oral histories of inner-city Dublin seem to me considerably better as history (in that he has no objection to drawing on written sources) than mainstream accounts which rely on written sources alone – then as now the ownership of the means of intellectual production (or more specifically producing written accounts which will be preserved for posterity and used by historians) tend to exclude most working-class people (tempered somewhat by the production of memoirs etc.)

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Róisín - December 31, 2016

Oral histories aren’t automatically seen as incidental parallels. There was a time when it was oral sources v written sources but nowadays there is more of an effort by decent mainstream historians to integrate different types of sources – for example, to investiagte why interviewees remember events happening in a certain way rather than to discard them because their recollection is “incorrect”, especially as that can tell us something about the creation of memories (which we’re all meant to be focused on nowadays).

Saying that, Irish history in particular does seem to suffer from everything-must-be-one-or-the-other syndrome, despite the sheer numbers working in the field (working class history as separate to “history”, women’s history as separate to “history”, diaspora or those at home, all as if the island was one thing for ever and always with no one changing, moving, or adapting).

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5. GW - December 31, 2016

Easily the best book I’ve read about the GDR/DDR was a book of oral histories called ‘The DDR was a part of my life’ – M. Fraumann with life- and work-stories from all kinds of people ranging from those who worked with the state, those who resisted it and those who just tried to ignore it as much as possible.

For instance there’s the story (recorded in 1994) of the gay tram-driver Fredi, who was seen kissing another man on a train during his apprenticeship and got a lot of aggravation from his school-mates when the rumour went around. He went the party secretary to complain and that person had a word with the ‘apprentice-masters’ and after that he had no problems. Homosexuality in the DDR was legal (or at least not illegal) from the age of 16 so at least formally you were better off than in West Germany with it’s infamous Paragraph 175.

Fredi claims that the East German gay scene was more directed towards forming longer-term relationships and with re-unification it was hard to come to terms with a more ‘market-like’ scene. The East German scene was more based around well-known pubs and private parties. Someone tried to open a dark-room once in East Berlin but no-one liked it and it quickly shut down, according to Fredi.

Recommended.

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WorldbyStorm - December 31, 2016

Sounds very interesting. Always liked Rudolf Bahro’s accounts of DDR too, albeit they weighed heavily on his prison time there. Interesting character in many ways.

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CMK - December 31, 2016

Sounds a bit like Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Second Hand Time’ about the collapse of the USSR. Currently reading it and it is highly recommended. Some of the contributions are horrifying; like the NKVD veteran who was an active participant in the purges.

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6. CL - December 31, 2016

“School is a process of taking beautiful kids who are filled with life and beating them into happy slavery.”

“Jobs are not big enough for people.”

“I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers can have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers.”

“My mom had always wanted me to better myself. I wanted to better myself because of her. Now when the strikes started, I told her I was going to join the union and the whole movement. I told her I was going to work without pay. She said she was proud of me.”

“That’s the worst thing, the way they treat you. Like we have no brains. Now we see they have no brains. They have only a wallet in their head. The more you squeeze it, the more they cry out.”

““If I had enough money, I would take busloads of people out to the fields and into the labor camps. Then they’d know how that fine salad got on their table.”
-Studs Terkel, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/826265-working-people-talk-about-what-they-do-all-day-how-they-feel-about-wh

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7. Tomboktu - January 4, 2017

Here’s one, which I was reminded of on foot of a conversation this evening, that I reckon appear in the ‘official’ lgb history.

Twenty years ago I worked for an lgbt organisation. One day I took a call from a lesbian who worked in a factory, on a production line. After some months with the firm, at drinks after work on a Friday, she came out to some colleagues. All seemed well until Monday. A few remarks were made on the factory floor in the morning, but nothing too bad. But in the afternoon she got called into HR. Two issues: (a) she was not to take her coffee break with the rest of the people on her line (a whole line stopped for 20 mins each morning to go to coffee together); (b) a floor plan was produced, with a red line showing the path she was to take if she needed to go to the toilet. Oh, and she was to avoid speaking to women on the shop floor unless they said they were willing to have a conversation with her.

She came out of the meeting and went straight to the shop steward. He said he;d deal with and, and arranged a meeting HR. He came back to her a day or two later. Good news, he announced: he’d secured her job. That’s when she came to us.

I phoned her union’s national official with an equality brief. She was stunned, and asked if my contact, and now de facto client, would call her. After that raw deal from her union, she didn’t want to. But she was willing to let me tell the union official what the workplace was. A week later, the union equality official called me back to say the shop steward had been told to back to HR and lay down the law. The following day my de facto client phoned me.

What, she wanted to know, had I said to the union?

Nothing other than her story. Why?

Her shop steward had got the restrictions lifted and told the other members they must not refuse to socialise with her. And he wanted to know how she knew the union’s general secretary. She didn’t. So, her shop steward wanted to know, how did he get to hear about the issue and call him personally and warn him that he faced expulsion if he didn’t get her case sorted?

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