British Tory racism, sexism, and history

This video from England is called Nottingham Clarion Choir – Women of the Working Class.

By Louise Raw in British daily The Morning Star:

Hands off our history!

Wednesday 19 October 2011

by Louise Raw

We need to talk about David. We’ve all grown wearily used to Dr Starkey‘s pantomime baddie routine, twirling his imaginary moustache while he cuts people down to size with his acerbic soundbites.

Until he decided to branch out into racism on Newsnight after the riots in August, sexism was Starkey’s thing.

Female historians were wrecking history, making it unbearably girly.

They lacked Starkey’s intellectual rigour, signally failing to make endless programmes about Henry VIII and insisting on talking about – yuck – women, instead.

And of course they only got where they were by using their “usually quite pretty” looks.

I can’t better curator Lucy Worsley‘s own riposte to that – “If it wasn’t insulting and degrading to judge historians by their looks, I would point out that Dr Starkey looks like a cross owl in the pictures on his own book covers.”

Indeed. And ironic that, precisely because of Starkey’s beloved sexism, a female “cross owl” would never get on to prime-time telly in the first place, let alone for the eye-watering sums Starkey commands – £75,000 an hour, according to some estimates.

What Starkey wants, it seems, is no women on TV at all.

Though no-one below royalty seems worthy of his historical attentions, even royal chicks get on his wick.

The current Queen is too thick for him, Princess Di was “hysterical,” Mary Queen of Scots was “a whore and a trollop” – and don’t ask me what the difference is, Starkey’s the expert on women round here.

And on history itself – he can sum up the whole of European history in one line. Beat this, National Theatre of Brent: “If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.”

Surprising, really, that Starkey could be bothered to knock out books about such minor players as, oh, Elizabeth I, say.

The problem for him is not just female historians’ gender but their insistence on “feminising” history – turning it into “historical Mills and Boon.”

Well, quite. Who can forget the gushy romanticism of Sheila Rowbotham‘s Women, Resistance and Revolution or that pink, sparkly cover on Hidden From History: 300 Years Of Women’s Oppression?

Again, Starkey is being hypocritical at best. He made his own name with a very gossipy Channel 4 look at Henry the – you guessed it – VIII, and the famously numerous wives thereof.

Yet all this not-so-casual misogyny didn’t ruin Starkey’s career. Far from it.

Sexism is rarely considered a serious flaw in a man – more a mark of character. If anything, Starkey’s poisonous sniping made him. He himself told friends that his “rudest man in Britain” tag was worth “at least £100,000 a year.” Nice work if you can get it.

The media played along. Interviewers fawned – a reporter for the Independent called him the “dream dinner date,” and seemed to think it simply adorable when, asked if history was important, Starkey replied: “As a good, free-market Thatcherite, if you can make a good living out of it, then it must.”

That appals me. But it would – I’m not only a woman but also a historian and a feminist.

That’s three strikes against Starkey and me ever being best buds and it also means I am by definition humourless and overly earnest.

My sense of humour failure extends to taking misogyny as seriously as, say, racism. And to seeing history as vitally important, not least in understanding where such ghastly prejudices come from.

But it wasn’t until Starkey went all Enoch Powell on us that he was seriously condemned. After his disgraceful comments on Newsnight, fellow guest Owen Jones, author and sometime writer for this paper, said: “At other times, those comments would be inflammatory, but this blatant racism is downright dangerous in the current climate.

I fear that some people will now say that David Starkey is right, and you could already see some of them on Twitter. I am worried about a backlash from the right and he will give legitimacy to those views in the minds of some.”

I sincerely hope Jones is right about Starkey’s latest outburst being “career-ending” – having a man who is the EDL‘s dream come true as the face of British history can’t be a good thing.

Because if Starkey sees history as merely a vehicle for his ego and means of filling his bank account, most of us know that it’s more important than that.

Despite what most history programming would have us believe, the history of women, migrants and the working class is the true history of Britain.

We would never have become the first industrial nation without the labour of working-class women, working in appalling, life-shortening conditions for poverty wages.

The Victorians rewarded them by asserting that “respectable” women didn’t work, and comparing those who had to – the majority – to prostitutes.

In fact, it was the rising Victorian middle class, which made its money from female labour, that most condemned it as unsuitable for decent women.

And at least some of these were among the men who condemned female immorality in public but paid for it in private. Go figure.

It was working-class, Irish, poor women, the matchmakers of Bryant & May, who laid the foundations for the entire modern labour movement – and yet it took me years to separate the truth about their strike from historical obfuscation.

Because prejudice like Starkey’s is self-perpetuating and powerful.

An insistence that history should be exclusively by and about the “male, stale and pale” harms us all.

That’s not just theory, but fact.

It’s been proved that the exclusion of women from history, incorporated into the education system, has directly affected the way women today feel about themselves and their abilities.

In a study by clinical psychologists, male and female students were given articles to read, about either a man or woman who had succeeded in their field.

Afterwards, female students who’d read about successful women rated themselves more highly than those who had read about a man.

There was no such division among male students.

It’s not just women who are largely ignored by history, of course.

Despite decades of attempts to foreground working-class and black and ethnic historiographies, we seem to be back to endless kings and queens and the heritage agenda, in which rosy-cheeked rustics are jolly happy with their lot, the aristocracy is kindly, everyone knows their place and there’s no need for any of that nasty politics – for “politics,” read anything vaguely left-wing or working-class.

Consider the fate of the Women Chainmakers’ Festival.

Cradley Heath in the Black Country was the centre of chainmaking in England.

The work, often carried out in sheds behind the women’s own homes, was hard and dangerous.

A woman had to hammer up to 5,000 links a week to earn the equivalent of 25p.

Robert Sherard, in his White Slaves Of England, saw women trying to make the best of things, talking and singing as they worked.

“At first, the sign of this sociability makes one overlook the misery which, however, is all too visible… in the foul rags the women wear, in their haggard faces and the faces of the frightened infants hanging to their mother’s breasts, as these ply the hammer, or sprawling in the mire on the floor, amidst the showers of fiery sparks.”

The son of a chainmaker later talked to a local historian about his own birth.

His mother had made chains from 6am to 6pm before crossing the yard to give birth, returning immediately afterwards to her anvil, where she worked until 10pm.

In 1909, legislation required an increase in wages in some of the most exploitative trades, including chainmaking.

Employers instead tried to trick workers, many of whom couldn’t read, into signing forms opting out of the minimum rates.

Those who refused were told there was no work for them.

The National Federation of Women Workers called a strike, and the so-called “Cradley Heath lockout” began in August 1910.

Backed by Mary Macarthur, Labour MPs and ministers, donations to the strike fund poured in. Pathe news showed film in 600 theatres of the women marching and singing protest songs.

But not until October did the last of the employers cease their machinations and agree to be bound by the new rates of pay.

After the women’s victory, there was still sufficient in the strike fund to build a Workers’ Institute, a two-storey building known as the “Tute.”

In 2006 thanks to a lottery grant of £1.5 million, this was moved brick by brick to the Black Country Living Museum.

The museum began to hold an annual Chainmakers’ Festival, which became increasingly popular, featuring national speakers and entertainers, including recreations of the marches and speeches of the strike in period costume.

In 2009 the museum asserted the importance of the event.

“The festival ensures that this historic episode is celebrated by the local community and trade unionists from all over the country.”

But by 2011 the festival was banned by the museum as “too political.”

New director Andrew Lovett was behind the ban, supposedly based on complaints he had received.

And so it came to pass that in September, a brave audience had to settle for being bellowed at through a microphone by yours truly, in a field in Cradley Heath in the rain.

The organisers did a sterling job of rearranging at the last minute, but it all fell on a few shoulders.

Those who were there noted that the chainmakers also had to hold meetings in fields in uncertain autumn weather and that at least the festival was now back home in Cradley Heath.

But they were understandably angry too. I was told that the supposed “complaints” might have amounted to no more than one, from a prominent local Conservative who is, coincidentally, a friend of the new director.

I have been unable to confirm this, as the museum has not responded to my phone calls, but obviously that wouldn’t be “political” at all.

This attack on working-class history has largely gone unnoticed. The TUC has not, as far as I’m aware, condemned it.

Lovett proposes a jolly alternative festival on October 22, featuring a Punch and Judy stall among other attractions. I vote we not only boycott his Disneyfied version of working history, but email, asking Lovett to provide proof of the “complaints” and demanding that he reinstate the trade union festival. And, ideally, resign.

I have nothing against the museum – I’m a fan, in fact, and have spoken there twice. But I can recognise the tip of a nasty iceberg when I see one.

The right seems to have its hands all over our history.

Historian Niall Ferguson, interviewed in the Guardian, struggled to say what he loved about Britain beyond its public schools, and has left our shores for LA – I think we’ll get over it. But this doesn’t stop him banging on about how marvellous the British empire was.

I’m well aware that, like Starkey, Ferguson likes to provoke. He says the left “love to be enraged” by him – it makes us feel better about our lives, apparently. Ah, Niall, if only it were that simple and you really were the Prozac of the left – goodness knows, we need it.

But the effects of watching him recently, calling the key features of Western civilisation its “killer apps” like a trendy vicar trying to be down with da kids, was more emetic than cheering, I felt.

This does not mean we should just ignore him or, easy and irresistible though it seems, treat his wafflings as a joke.

Ridiculousness does not equal harmlessness – look, if you can bear to, at Boris Johnson.

If we allow the right to define their ideology as neutral and only ours as negatively “political,” we are allowing them to set the agenda for future generations.

We can see through their rhetoric – but will our children?

They should be challenged at every turn.

Hands off our history.

Louise Raw is the author of Striking A Light: The Bryant & May Matchwomen (Continuum Press). She will be giving the Gilda O’Neill Memorial lecture at the WriteIdea Festival, Whitechapel Ideas Store on November 11 at 7pm.

12 thoughts on “British Tory racism, sexism, and history

  1. Dear Kitty – A interesting post! Starkey’s comments about black youth, in relation to the August riots were tactless. What’s dangerous is the speech by Cameron around September denouncing the rioters as a ‘sick strain’ within society. A bad message to send out at a time of tension and only liable to bring greater resentment & disunity. As for Niall Ferguson – I really don’t know what he is for.

    Do you have an email address I could contact you on re. the blog? I couldn’t find one here or a contact form – sorry for putting this into the comment box – Laura


  2. Hi Laura, I agree with you on the danger of what Cameron said. I think Cameron is extremely opportunistic.

    One of the things Ferguson certainly supports is war.

    I have sent you a private message with my e-mail address.


  3. Dutch women’s pensions lower than men’s

    Posted on Jan 26, 2012

    Dutch women draw the short straw when it comes to pensions in the Netherlands.

    The proportion of over-65 women receiving supplementary pensions has grown over the past decade, though the gender gap is still substantial. Generally, women receive only half the amount male pensioners get, according to Statistics Netherlands.

    Half of women received supplementary pensions in 2000 in addition to the general old age pension (AOW). The proportion for women was 59 percent in 2010 versus 92 percent for men.

    In the category women living with a partner (married or unmarried), the proportion was relatively low, but this category showed the fastest growth from 21 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2010.

    The proportion of single women receiving supplementary pensions grew little. These women often build up a pension during their active career or receive a surviving relatives’ pension. The gender gap for single women is much smaller than for over-65s living with partners.


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