In honour of National Poetry Day, I am going to sing the praises of Enheduanna, whose name is displayed below in cuneiform, the first known author and poet.

enheduanacunieform

A Brief Biography  of Enheduanna

Writing around 2500 BCE in the city of Ur (in what is now Iraq), she was the first fully attested holder of the En Priestess of Nana title which became a long lasting office traditionally held y the daughter of the King and which was one of the most influential religious offices. Despite being Akkadian she composed in Sumerian, the language of the religious and literary traditions of the Sumerian south, which was newly conquered by her father, King Sargon of Akkad. To further assert his dominance over the Sumerian south and to create a sense of unity between the two cultures Enheduanna was tasked with composing a series of  Hymns known as ‘The Sumerian Temple Hymns’ designed to be read in all the temples of Sumer and Akkad.     The office she held, En Priestess, may itself have been designed to suit this new idea of religious and cultural unity between Sumer and Akkad, taking elements from older traditions and creating a new office.  The office of En Priestess – The High Priestess of the moon God Nana at Ur – lasted for hundreds of years after Enheduanna and there is evidence later En Priestesses were aware of Enheduanna and held her up as a influential figure; indeed she may have been elevated to a semi divine status.

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Tonight’s Call the Midwife on BBC1 was essential viewing. I’ve been a fan of the series since the beginning, although it attracts criticism for being ‘fluffy’ I’ve found that as well as offering the cute babies and typical sunday night drama fayre it has always shone a light on areas of social history too often forgotten. The birth of the NHS, the desperate poverty of many in postwar Britain and what life was like for working class women, covering issues such as pregnancy out of wedlock, interracial relationships, sexual assault and disability.

Tonight’s episode was one of the most moving yet. It focused on Nora, a mother of eight living in a cramped two room flat who finds she is pregnant again and is desperate not to be. Her husband struggles to ear a living doing casual dock work and they already struggle greatly to feed their family. She feels life with another mouth to feed would be unbearable, she is desperate and more than once asserts she would commit suicide if she had to endure another pregnancy and bring up another child.

The series is set in the mid 1950s, abortion was not made legal in the UK until 1967. Nora has already visited a ‘herbalist’ whose prescribed herbs failed to induce an abortion. She reaches out to Jenny, the midwife who can sense how desperate she is but cannot offer her anything but ante natal help and a referral to the family planning association after the baby is born. In desperation Nora tries gin, epsom salts and scalding hot baths, she is revealed to have bruises around her stomach when examined and her husband comes in having purchased knitting needles and a crochet hook. The Doctor she sees at an ante-natal clinic states, with a heavy heart, she cannot have a termination as there is no medical reason for it. This one comment sums up the whole pro-choice argument to me, here is a woman who is driven to such desperate measures, a distressed and suicidal woman, being told there is not a good enough medical reason for her to undergo a procedure. Her life, her body, her choices do not come into it. The law, made by rich, middle and upper class men, takes precedent over her life. This approach boils down to the assertions that a woman’s health, mental and physical, is not a good enough reason to have an abortion and that her opinions and ability to make choices about her own body, her own life are not valid reason.

Eventually, after selling her prized curtains and wedding ring as well as clearing out all their savings she returns to the herbalist who performs a surgical ‘detachment’ on Nora’s kitchen table. We are not shown what instruments she uses but Nora is in agony as  no anaesthetic was used, and bleeds heavily. She is eventually rushed to hospital with a ‘miscarriage’ and treated kindly by doctors who turn a blind eye to what they know is an illegal abortion. She contracted septicaemia from the unclean instruments used and falls into a coma. However this being Sunday night on the BBC she is one of the lucky ones, she survives. As gruesome as her story is, she was one of the lucky ones, one of the very lucky ones. Countless women died due to unsafe abortions, often performed at great cost by unskilled practitioners, and millions of women worldwide still die in the same conditions, one only has to look at the recent preventable death of Savita Halappanavar. To be anti-choice and anti-abortion and anti-contraception is the opposite of being pro life.  It is to disallow women choice over their own bodies. It is to leave women to die in horrific circumstances.

hanger

Whether abortion is legal or not some women will always be desperate enough to resort to measures they know may kill them, they may even deliberately choose suicide.

Safe, reliable and affordable/free  contraception has been a godsend to women and safe, legal abortion has been a godsend too. To remove those choices from women is a death sentence.

‘Pro Life’ is a disgusting term for an ideology that condemns millions of women to death, disease, serious injury, mental health problems and lives of utter misery as well as denying us agency and control over our own bodies. It is why I use the term ‘anti choice’.  There is a very good reason women campaign for reproductive rights using the symbol of a wire coat hanger, that is the reality of illegal abortion and no access to contraception. Along with knitting needles, toxic chemicals such as bleach, detergents, scalding hot baths, cocktails of unknown, unsafe medicines, throwing ones self down the stairs, hitting oneself viscously in the stomach and many other dangerous methods. I can’t reinforce this enough:

PRO LIFE IS A DEATH SENTENCE FOR WOMEN

I am glad the BBC decided to tackle this issue, perhaps it will make people think about the reality instead of being too quick to judge women who abort as ‘selfish sluts’ and other such untruths and vicious stereotypes.

 

image credit ms magazine

 

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UPDATE: The curriculum will continue to include Mary Seacole & Oludah Equiano. Government notes state the following will be studied:
  • Britain’s social and cultural development during the Victorian era, including:  the changing role of women, including figures such as Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole, George Eliot and Annie Besant
  • The slave trade and the abolition of slavery, the role of Olaudah Equiano and free slaves

Source Operation Black Vote

The latest mooted reforms to the national curriculum include the dropping of figures such as Mary Seacole and Oludah Equiano in favour of a stronger focus on ‘British’ icons such as Oliver Cromwell, Winston Churchill and many other rich white guys.

Mary Seacole

I am currently working as a historian on a small community history project for a church in Liverpool and couple with my background as an archaeology student with an interest in women and my love of intersectional feminism and indeed intersectional everything, the thing that strikes me so much about this project is how little of the history I know. How much of it is ignored or relegated to a tiny footnote in the mainstream, white male narrative of both national, local and international history. I am not just talking about ‘minor’ local events but major events of national and international importance such as the Race Riots of 1919 and the forced repatriation of Chinese seamen who left behind families, who have only recently been honoured with a commemoration plaque . I have

also come across many discussion, both historical and current academic thought on historical sources, as to the nature of ‘Britishness’ and how non-white British citizens were deliberately excluded from the definition of ‘Britishness’ and thus less ‘worthy’ than ‘native’ british citizens. The sorts of arguments played out in 19th and 20th centuries are again rearing their ugly racist heads in tory policy on immigration and misinformed rhetoric on ‘foreigners’ being a drain on resources. Obviously it’s a lot easier to get away with such things if we remain ignorant about the history of Britain,whether it be in our own cities and towns or nationwide, which has been a multicultural society for a very long time.

 

This is just one reason why we need an inclusive, intersectional history. If you remove peoples past you remove their right to a stake in the present, you remove a part of them, you remove their validity as individuals, communities, people. You imply they don’t matter, that because their past is irrelevant their present and future is too. When you define the default, human experience as white male, elite, heterosexual, non disabled white male especially,  you imply everyone else (which is most of us) is ‘the other’.

More troubling, is the deliberate erasure of ‘troublesome’ history, history that gives many of us a reason to be angry,  that reminds us of the struggles of the past and how they are related to struggles today and perhaps more importantly how the unfairness of the past has often given root to the power structures still in evidence today, for example how the trade in enslaved africans allowed Europe and the US to dominate world trade, to enhance their power, influence and dominance, the same with colonialism and empire.

Given the conservatives record on equality issues, especially on issues such as immigration, multiculturalism  this is a deliberate and worrying manipulation.

History is often used to legitimise the present, ‘things have always been this way so don’t fight it’,  to implant a sense of pride in where you come from, your traditions, your culture. To take this away from people is hideous. This old argument, highlighted in ‘shakespeare’s sister’  by Virginia Woolf is often used to back up claims of the superiority of the dominant group over everyone else. It relies on erasure and distortion, removal of context  and the promotion of certain figures and facts over others. As a feminist I’m used to the ‘but women haven’t done as much stuff as men’ argument, something which falls apart when you examine the history of women, a history of women doing amazing things despite being actively held back by men. Similar erasure applies to the history of

A linear, blinkered history focused on rich white men, such as Gove proposes, is a history that not only ignores the vast majority of the british population, but ignores the vast majority of OUR history. It seeks to  assert white male greatness with a distorted focus on rich white men, with little or no examination of the history of everyone else or indeed the atrocities committed by rich white men, like Churchill and his labour camps or Nelson and his support for slavery and an awareness of how these men and the society, kyriarchy, patriarchy etc benefits from this exploitation.

History is bloody, gory and messy. It cannot be sanitised, the tired ‘political correctness’ excuse used against Seacole’s inclusion is often implied as shorthand for making things nice and fluffy as to not upset anyone. Yet the history Gove and the conservative ilk want is sanitised and censored to the hilt. They seek to paint the ‘narrative of our island history’ in tales of glorious victory and achievement whilst remaining ignorant of the exploitation, bloodshed, oppression and all manners of evil committed to achieve it. Without this, the warts and all, it’s not history they seek to teach but propaganda and a propaganda that asserts a hierarchy with rich, white men at the top.

 

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Edit & addendum

A comment I left on Glosswitch’s post about History and Gove, “History? It’s all about me”  which I thought I’d post here too cos it makes some points I didn’t quite emphasise above.

I’m trained as an archaeologist , which I suppose has taught me that an awful lot of ‘fact’ is interpretation (that and the feminism). What worries me the way Gove et al are going is not only that history will be taught in this narrowly defined way but that due to the fact it’s impossible for anyone who’s not really quite loaded atm to do postgraduate studies (personal bitterness creeping in there ahem), esp in the humanities, the history of the future will be interpreted and created by yet more privileged white men.

It’s human nature to focus on what we can relate to easily, any good historian must be aware of their own cultural biases and how that affects their work, which is essentially their interpretation of what happened. A good example is the translation I came across studying my dissertation, a priestess had been translated as ‘son of’ so and so purely because of the bias of the translator. The original Sumerian word had no gender implications and meant ‘offspring’. Translator (early 20th c , but lets face it it could happen today) had just assumed that this child was male due to the fact his society saw/sees ‘male’ as the default, as well as her powerful position. The point is lots of these little ‘mistakes’ are still there, in print in books by academics with titles like ‘professor’ and remain unchallenged and they all add up.

History, archaeology etc are full of these, often laughably incorrect, assumptions whether they be based on gender, race, sexuality, class, whatever. They need to be challenged, after all if they are robust enough they’ll stand up to interrogation. Though I assume people like Gove (I’m not entirely sure, he does seem rather thick at times too) know deep down their take on things is not robust hence a strong desire to stop any real intellectual inquiry and focus on this narrow ‘remembering stuff you are told but not asking for any evidence to back it up’ and reinforces the idea that the history and culture of rich white dudes is history relevant to everyone and that the history and culture of everyone else is a special interest only for that group, i.e ‘women’s history’ ‘lgbt history’ ‘black history’ etc (De Beaviour has an excellent paragraph or so on history and ‘the other’ in the second sex).

The more we focus on the history of a narrow group of people and have our history defined by such a narrow group who decide what is worth studying decide what is seen as ‘important’ and part of the ‘narrative’ (usually themselves), the more we have a skewed sense of our past and a a result a skewed sense of the present. History needs to be more diverse, both in teaching it and creating it. The old saying is true, history is written by the victors and it’s often propaganda. Propaganda is exactly what Gove wants imho.

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I have been reading up on Ancient Egyptian Wisdom texts and various literature and I came across the classic ‘Dialogue Between a Man and His Ba*’ which must be one of the first examples of existential angst.

It has some beautiful, poignant lines musing on the futility of it all ;

“My soul is ignorant about easing the misery that is due to life, and restrains me from death before I have come to it.”

“Those who built in granite, who constructed & completed beautiful pyramids,
in perfect realisation, when the builders became gods, their altars were bare”

“Whom can I talk to today? I’m laden with misery for lack of an intimate friend.”

It also contains what could be considered musing on suicide, it certainly reads like the thoughts of a depressed man:

 

“Death is in my sight today, like the smell of myrrh, like sitting under a sail on a
windy day.
Death is in my sight today, like the smell of lotus flowers, like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.
Death is in my sight today, like a path washed by rain,like a man’s coming home from an expedition.
Death is in my sight today, like the sky’s clearing, like a man’s grasping thereby what he didn’t know before.
Death is in my sight today, like a man’s longing to see home after he has spent many years in captivity.”

 

Reading this makes me realise there is something constant about the human condition no matter how much changes and  how many years pass, we will always have that longing, that sense of unease, that ennui, that thing we can never quite find a word for despite the millions of languages and millennia we’ve had to try and figure it out. This idea of depression as a modern malaise is clearly rubbish.

The text ends on a positive note, fitting of Ancient Egyptian wisdom, tough I am never really a happy ending fan being the misery guts I am.

“Desire me here, thrust the West** aside, but desire that you may attain the West when your body goes to earth, that I may alight after you are weary; then will we make an abode together.”

Which is rather nice of the soul, who seems to be saying “live with me now and when you do eventually die it’ll be cool”.

A Ptolemaic Ba bird model

 

* The Ba roughly translates as ‘Soul’ but the Egyptians had a very complex way of describing themselves and the different parts of a human. I still don’t get it after sitting through lectures on it. Perhaps that’s the point. It’s represented as a little human headed bird.

** ‘The West’ refers to death and the afterlife, associated with the setting of the sun.

Image of  a Ptolemaic Ba bird from: http://www.egyptological.com/2011/04/eye-of-ra-eye-of-horus-1155/img_5537

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