Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

The Cost of Casual Scepticism to Human Rights

Modern aversion to human rights protection in the United Kingdom can be seen on the surface of British politics, from Theresa May’s indignation that she was  unable to deport an illegal immigrant because he had a pet cat, to Nigel Farage’s demand that we “scrap the EU Human Rights Act”. The modern rallying cry for human rights sceptics often takes the form that we, the British,  have no need for coffee-drinking, baguette-eating European to tell us how to do human rights. The problem though is that rights protection is not that simple, and never has been, so why do we let human rights be disparaged by these tabloid-level soundbites and mantras?

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. (Credit: Europe’s Human Rights Watchdog)

When bashing human rights, politicians are most commonly referring to the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) which was created by the Council of Europe which, for clarity’s sake, has nothing to do with the European Union – incidentally making Farage’s claims about the “EU Human Rights Act” farcical. The ECHR established the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), frequently referred to as ‘Strasbourg’ in lieu of its location. These elements of European influence running through our human rights make it an easy target for politicians wanting to exploit the rife Euroscepticism that exists in modern Britain. This is why, perhaps unsurprisingly, key features of the ECHR’s history are left out by its critics.

The ECHR can find its origins in the ruins of Europe following World War Two, and the Holocaust, in which it was decided action must be taken to prevent future human rights abuses across the continent. Winston Churchill, and the British delegation, played a key role in the drafting of the Convention and were ardent supporters of it. Since then, the Convention has evolved according to the changing nature of Europe and has helped in reducing discrimination and exposing rights abuses. 

Looking then at the face of modern Europe, the significant role of the ECHR may seem unnecessary and can even seem to be an inconvenience to public protection and government policy. However, the Convention should not be perceived as only existing to prevent grave breaches of human rights, but also to remedy all forms of discrimination, such as the right of LGBT couples to adopt or for people of all faiths to have the same job opportunities. These breaches still occur across Europe, with significant examples appearing in Poland and Hungary where radical anti-LGBT policies are being enacted, such as ‘LGBT free zones’.

This is one reason why it is more crucial than ever that other States party to the Convention continue to believe in and abide by it. If disagreements with Strasbourg start to appear over issues, for example prisoner voting rights, it waters down the impact of the ECtHR’s rulings and threatens the possibility that judgments given by the Court to clear breaches(such as those appearing in Eastern Europe), are swept aside, and ignored by the violating State. Arguing and fighting for proper rights protection is not done only for yourself, or your group’s, but is done for the wider community.

This is why the rhetoric used in modern politics about seemingly humorous issues, like the failed deportation of a man because of his cat, and other false remarks which attempt to sabotage the mechanisms for rights protection are dangerous. Dangerous not only for the prevention of relatively benign issues that may appear in nations like the UK, but also for those that rely on the Convention to prevent fundamental breaches of human rights, which appear more likely to occur  on a daily basis, and cause one to consider the events that led to the creation of the ECHR.

Aidan Taylor, History in Politics Contributor

Mary I: The First Queen of England and the Legacy of Female Leadership

Whilst the first Queen of England’s reign is largely overshadowed in favour of the other Tudors, namely her father Henry VIII and half-sister Elizabeth I, the historiographical interpretations of Mary I illuminate interesting notions associated with female leadership. Mary I was the first woman to ascend to the throne of England, as the succession of Empress Matilda in the twelfth century never materialised due to the eruption of civil war. Only four centuries later do we witness the succession of a female monarch in England, and this was not without issues, as there had been earlier attempts to bar her from inheritance. Her gender, as well as her supposed illegitimacy, provided the grounds for such attempts as her younger half-brother was placed above her, when she was eventually restored to the line of succession.

Mary I’s reign is largely interpreted as one of hysteria and irrationality. Such a notion of hysteria is particularly of note as the term has long been associated with the assumption that women are unable to control their emotions and are thus unfit to rule. Shakespeare’s common depictions of a madwoman within his works have fostered this link of femininity with that concept of hysteria, particularly illustrated in Hamlet through Ophelia. Literary representations have certainly exacerbated the historical issues of female rule.


Portrait of Mary I, Antonis Mor, 1554. (Credit: Public Domain)

Historians are critical of both Mary’s personal life, due to her failure to conceive, as well as her broader policies that saw the intense persecution of Protestant sympathisers, which led to her title of ‘Bloody Mary’. The issue of motherhood in politics is still prevalent in our times, as seen by the scrutiny Theresa May faced within the media and from other members of the Conservative Party due to her choice not to have children. With regard to Marian politics, the stabilisation of economic policy her reign is often underplayed and when acknowledged, is widely credited to her male councillors or the reforms laid by the Duke of Northumberland before her advent to the throne. Mary is thus painted as weak, feeble and ineffective. The first Queen of England is largely portrayed as conforming to the gendered anxieties that the elite ruling class had regarding the notion of female monarchy. Women were deemed as far more emotionally charged compared to their male counterparts and would be unable to conduct rational governance as a result.

In the 21st century, women still face significant opposition to reaching the highest positions of political power. Britain’s only popularly elected female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is often represented as contradicting feminist values. The US has never elected a woman to that highest position of President, and notably Hilary Clinton’s gender played a significant role in right-wing opposition to her election. Such ideas regarding female hysteria and heightened emotion have arguably laid a basis for the preference of male leadership and have correlated with deeming women unfit for positions of political power. The qualities associated with leadership are still often presented through characteristics which men are more likely to be socialised to have, therefore perpetuating the idea that women are not suited to power.

What we can draw from the accounts of Mary I’s governance and her later treatment in historical research is that female leadership is not often deemed a suitable option, nor do women find easy pathways into politics. These ideals surrounding female inferiority have

historical precedence in sixteenth-century England as illustrated by the analysis of early modern Queenship. These notions have not been undermined or significantly challenged by the twenty-first century. Mary I’s legacy illustrates how she has been utilised to highlight the perceived barriers to effective female governance. Arguably, this has set a precedent for the limited role that women play in politics within our modern era.

Ellie Brosnan

Seeing like Cassandra: a New Role for Literature in Political Risk Analysis?

Political conflicts and situations of crises in a multitude of forms continue to mark our present. Indeed, early crisis prevention is a question so pertinent to our times that it has prompted researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany to explore an unusual  method of conflict prediction: studying fictional literature of specific regions prone to crises  to examine if it is possible to identify potential future threats through literary texts. The project is entitled “Projekt Cassandra”, alluding to the Greek mythological figure of Cassandra, who was famously able to predict the future, although cursed so that nobody would believe her prophecies. 

The study led by Tübingen  appears to have demonstrated potential  as an alternative method of strategic analysis  and is being partially being funded by the German Ministry of Defence. The “Projekt Cassandra” has so far investigated three centres of conflict for model analyses, notably the Serbo-Kosovan conflict (1998-1999), the Nigerian terror epidemic caused by the group Boko Haram, and the tensions in Algeria preceding the election in 2019. While the study is still underway, it poses an essential question: can literature truly function as a tool for the early detection of crises?

Tens of thousands of Algerians protesting Algeria’s presidential vote, Algiers, December 12, 2019. (Credit: Ramzi Boudina, via Reuters)

Conflict and crisis prediction are an essential part in the field of risk analysis. With regard to the hypothesis of “Projekt Cassandra”, we can draw parallels with the idea that “history repeats itself”. While the extent to which the past really “repeats” itself is debatable, this argument  rests on the assumption that history provides us with patterns which allow for a certain degree of “prediction”. A similar concept could be applied in the case of literature through the ages, where the identification of patterns relating to past crises could help identify future potential conflicts. 

In considering concrete examples, the picture becomes more complex. By association, we might immediately consider literature as actively imagining the future, such as the famous 1984 by George Orwell. This dystopian classic from 1949 is set in a distorted future of censorship and surveillance, which could be interpreted as a prediction of certain elements that we now  find in our present. However, it must be noted that  science fiction and dystopian literature often provides less a prediction of the future,  than a reflection of respective historical circumstances. 1984 for instance stems from the context of the beginning Cold War, in which surveillance and espionage were considered primary threats. This however does not mean that there is a necessary correlation between the content of a novel like 1984 and the  realities of the future. 

The ‘Projekt Cassandra’ logo. (Credit: Project Cassandra, via Twitter)

 So how can early crisis detection through literature function? Predicting crises is a lot about the identification of patterns. This is why it also matters what type of crisis is being investigated. For instance, a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic can hardly be said to have been predicted by Camus, merely because his novel The Plague (1947) describes a situation that is eerily similar to current events. 

We do however find a poignant example favouring this hypothesis relating to military conflict in British literature. Starting in the 1870s, literature imagining a new European war, at various instances between Britain and France or Britain and Germany, was increasingly popularized, so much so that “invasion literature” became an entirely new genre in British literature. The most famous example is the novel The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which propagated Germanophobia in Britain, through its imagined German invasion of Britain.  This can in hindsight, be considered a near-prescient account of elements of the First World War. Invasion literature even influenced politics:popularised concerns  of a new European conflict accelerated the arms race of the 1900s,which ultimately played  a role in the eruption of the First World War. 

Literature, it must be reiterated, is not an accurate tool of strategic prediction. It does however frequently capture underlying social currents that can later become problematic, such as ethnic tensions or larger societal unrest. These currents are often subtle, yet can function as inspiration for authors. To the extent that these societal undercurrents can effectively alert us to the potential of future crises and conflict, only Cassandra knows.

Cristina Coellen

Who Won the Good Friday Agreement?

The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, heralding a new era of peace after the decades of violence that characterised the Troubles. But who benefitted the most from the signing of the Agreement, and is the answer different today than it was twenty years ago?

For unionists, represented most prominently by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Good Friday Agreement ultimately symbolised the enshrining of the status quo in law: Northern Ireland remained a part of the UK. In addition, the Republic of Ireland renounced articles two and three of its Constitution, which laid claim to the entire island of Ireland. It may seem, then, that unionism was the victor in 1998, but elements of the Good Friday Agreement have been responsible for tectonic shifts in the period since, arguably exposing it, ultimately, as a victory for nationalism.

While Irish republicans in the form of the Provisional IRA were required to put down their weapons and suspend the violent struggle for a united Ireland, there is a compelling argument that the Good Friday Agreement laid the platform for the growth of the movement and perhaps even the fulfilment of the goal of Irish unity. For one, it mandated power-sharing between the two sides of the Northern Irish divide: both unionists and nationalists must share the leadership of government. Since 1998, this has acted to legitimise the nationalist cause, rooting it as a political movement rather than an armed struggle. Sinn Féin, the leading nationalist party in the North, have moved from the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness to new, younger leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill. Irish unity propaganda now emphasises the economic sense of a united Ireland, the need to counter the worst effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and a sensible debate about the constitutional nature of a new country, rather than the adversarial anti-unionist simplicity of the Troubles. Here, nationalism did gain significantly from the Good Friday Agreement because it allowed this transition from the Armalite to the ballot box in return for legitimacy as a movement.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair (left) and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern (right) signing the Good Friday Agreement. (Credit: PA, via BBC)

Most prominently for nationalists, however, is the fact that the Good Friday Agreement spells out the route to a united Ireland, explicitly stating that a ‘majority’ in a referendum would mandate Northern Ireland’s exit from the UK. While unclear on whether majorities would be required both in the Republic and Northern Ireland, as was sought for the Agreement itself in 1998, as well as what criteria would have to be met in order to hold a vote, this gives Irish nationalism a legal and binding route to its ultimate goal of Irish unity, arguably the most prominent victory of the peace process.

Since 1998, Northern Ireland has seen a huge amount of political tension, governmental gridlock and occasional outbreaks of violence, most recently witnessed in the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. However, the Good Friday Agreement has served crucially to preserve peace on a scale unimaginable in the most intense years of the Troubles. If Irish nationalism achieves its goal of uniting the island, it will come about through a democratic referendum, not through violence. The very existence of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly its survival for over 20 years, is testament to the deep will for peace across the communities of Northern Ireland, forged in decades of conflict; it is this desire being fulfilled, even as the parties squabble in Stormont and the political status of Northern Ireland remains in the balance, that continues to make the biggest difference in the daily lives of both unionists and nationalists.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

The Painted Word – Political Allegory in Early Modern Royal Portraiture

Portraits of sovereigns were always conceived with a political function in mind. Monarchs used their official portraits to cultivate an image of majesty, prestige, and royal authority, a key component in the broader construction of an inherently politicised royal public image. Whilst there is a discourse within the existing art-historical scholarship that seeks to depoliticise royal portraiture and downgrade the importance of symbolism, it is fruitless to extricate the paintings of early modern sovereigns from their clear political intentions. Close inspection of contemporary art indicates a distinct propensity for allegory, which served as a central way in which an image of Renaissance princely magnificence was promoted. 

‘The Rainbow Portrait’, 1600-1602. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The famous portrait of Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait, has received significant attention due to its religious significance; however, little emphasis has been placed on its impact as a highly politicised piece of art. The most potent political thread of this painting is the portrayal of Elizabeth as ageless, when by 1600 she was nearly seventy years old. At the turn of the seventeenth century, England’s monarch was nearing the end of her life without a legitimate heir to succeed her. Through this lens, the depiction of Elizabeth as wearing the ‘Mask of Youth’ appears undeniably political. Contributing to the fiction of an eternal present, this portrait was a product of the period which attributed the physical likeness of the monarch to the health of the state, and served to alleviate the political anxieties surrounding the succession and a potential return to a turmoil akin to the Wars of the Roses. However, if we look closely at this painting, there is a distinct sense of political iconography. Some scholars have considered this painting as an exemplification of Elizabeth’s sexual power, a credible concept which recognises the inextricable connection in the early modern period between a female monarch’s sexuality and her political authority. The transparent rainbow she grasps in her hand, whilst iconographically establishing a connection with the divine and implicitly presenting Elizabeth’s legitimacy as a deific leader, also reflects her sexual power. The phallic symbolism applied to the rainbow consolidates her supremacy over the masculine, establishing a dominance that was essential for a female ruler in the early modern period. Through this specific painting, it is evident that royal portraiture was undeniably politicised as a visual representation of strength and control.

However, although the symbolic content of royal portraiture was the central means of constructing a political image, it is also significant to consider the role that portraits served as a princely currency and an integral component of political discourse in the diplomatic relations within the European princely community. Portraits were exchanged to ameliorate political relationships, as well as to serve as symbols of recognition of other rulers within the royal fraternity. Whilst this role was undoubtedly significant, its longevity is eclipsed by the allegory and symbolic weight which timelessly pervades the paintings of sovereigns, such as the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I. 

Maximus McCabe-Abel, History in Politics Vice President

Margaret Thatcher: A Feminism Icon?

Thatcher’s lasting impact on twenty-first century feminism is widely debated. Whilst her actions have inspired future generations of ambitious young women in all professions, Thatcher was undoubtedly not a feminist. In fact, she actively disliked and directly discouraged feminist movements. Thus, Margaret Thatcher works as an apt example that a successful woman does not always mean a direct step forward for the women’s equality movement. Instead, whilst Thatcher was our first British female Prime Minister, it never occurred to her that she was a woman prime minister; she was, quite simply, a woman that was skilled and successful enough to work her way to the top. 

Throughout Thatcher’s eleven-year premiership, she only promoted one woman to her cabinet; she felt men were best for the role. When questioned about this, Thatcher remarked that no other women were experienced or capable enough to rise through the ranks in the same way that she had.  Similarly, whilst Thatcher demonstrated that women were now able to get to the top of the UK Government, she certainly did not attempt to make things easier for women to follow; she pulled the ladder straight up after herself.  Thatcher claimed that she ‘did not owe anything to women’s liberation.’ Reflected in her policy provisions, she ignored almost all fundamental women’s issues. Despite hopeful attempts to raise female concerns to her, childcare provision, positive action and equal pay were not addressed during her years as Prime Minister. One can therefore diagnose that Thatcher’s loyalty was almost exclusively to the Conservative Party and her vision focused on saving the country, not women.

The May 1989 Cabinet: CREDIT: Photo: UPPA

Thatcher resented being defined by her gender, but she worked naturally as a role model and continues to do so (despite her policies) on the basis that she was simply, a female. She was made unique by feminists (and women generally) in the media simply for being a woman. In this way, examples matter; this is in the same way that Obama’s presidency matters for young generations of the BAME community. Perhaps Thatcher’s disacknowledgement of the glass ceiling is precisely what allowed her to smash it so fearlessly. If she couldn’t see it, no one could point it out to her! Amber Rudd has claimed that she is a direct beneficiary of Thatcher’s valiance, as her work debunked the idea that only men could survive, let alone prosper, in political life. Men were undoubtedly perturbed by Thatcher’s female presence and conviction; John Snow has gone as far as describing interviewing her as ‘unnerving.’ These predispositions, held by both men and women, were fundamentally and forcefully shifted by Thatcher.

Yet, is symbolism alone enough to praise Thatcher as a feminism icon? It is of course clear, that being a role model symbolically is incomparable to those who have actively and tirelessly campaigned to seek change for women. The influence she had on the feminist movement was not a result of her own actions or policies. Rather, her influence is a result of her being the first woman who made the exceptional progress, as a total outsider, to not only become our Prime Minister, but go on to win two successive elections convincingly. 

Amelia Crick

Four “Non-feminist” Feminists in British history

When we think of feminism, we think of women holding strongly coloured flags of green, white and gold or green, white and purple in historical photos. We think of women and girls who spoke on the news demanding equal opportunities, more provision of pregnancy and abortion advice and the liberation of females in third world countries. We think of Malala speaking at international conferences, Jessica Chastain acting in Zero Dark Thirty and FaceBook executive Sheryl Sandberg on the cover of Time Magazine. They are all strong women in their declaration as being a feminist and are frequently and publicly involved in feminist organizations and activities.

Yet, we often forget to include some women as feminists, either due to the fact they do not carry those clear ‘feminist features’ as mentioned or simply that they do not consider, or even refuse to consider themselves as feminists. They are the Celia Foote character (interestingly also played by Jessica Chastain) in The Help, who were not feminists in a conventional way like the Skeeter character (played by Emma Stone), and even often doubted themselves, but went against the mainstream in terms of thoughts and actions, and are undoubtedly feminists who proved to be great thinkers and writers of all times. 

Hildegard of Bingen

Unknown to many, feminism was rooted in religious contexts in which women found themselves with the opportunity to express their thoughts as freely as male. Since ancient history, especially in Europe, families sent their ‘unmarriable’ daughters away to convents. Some women found the time and quietness a great opportunity to think, read and write. One of them is our first ‘non-feminist’ feminists, Hildegard of Bingen. 

Saint Hildegard. (Credit: Franz Waldhäusl, via imageBROKER – http://www.agefotostock.com.)

Hildegard was born in the 11th century and became a nun when she was a teenager (the exact age of her enclosure is subject to debate). She later became the abbess of a small Rhineland convent. People normally do not consider her as a feminist as she lacked most essential elements contemporarily associated with feminism, yet she was certainly a pioneer of proving that women can do exactly what male can do with her actions. Hildegard was considered by many in Europe to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. She is also one of the few known chant composers to have written both the music and the words. Hildegard also produced two volumes of material on natural medicine and cures and three great volumes of visionary theology, which were all well celebrated and led to her recognition as a Doctor of the Church, one of the highest titles given by the Catholic Church to saints recognized as having made a significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing.

Not only was she deeply involved in what conventionally thought as works of male – music, academics, medicine and religious theories – she also frequently wrote letters to popes, emperors, abbots and abbesses expressing her critical views and thoughts on a wide range of topics. These significant political, social, economic people often approached her for advice. She even invented a language called the Lingua ignota (“unknown language”).

Despite her apparent feminist approach of doing things, another thing that often dissociates her with feminism is her frequent self-doubt. Often doubtful towards her ‘unfeminine’ activities, she was always insecure of being an uneducated woman and was not confident of her ability to write. She once wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the leading churchmen of the time, asking whether she should continue with her wiring and composing, even though at that time she was already widely known and honoured for being an incredible writer and musician. 

But still, Hildegard was one of the few women in medieval history that wrote so freely and critically on everything and was viewed as an impressive writer, musician and religious leader, based on her achievements instead of based on her gender. That made her a feminist. 

Margaret Cavendish 

Margaret Cavendish was born in the 17th century into a family of well-established, Royalist landowners, and later married the Duke of Newcastle. She was one of the few fortunate women of her time who had her husband encouraging her to pursue her literacy ambition. 

At first, she started writing on topics mostly associated with women’s internal struggle, ranging from their worries regarding their family to their common fear and sorrow about their children’s sickness and death, though she did not experience what she wrote. Well-reserved by women, her writings were found to be very moving and unexpectedly understanding of the harsh realities faced by many women at that time. 

Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle. (Credit: Kean Collection, via Getty Images)

At later times Cavendish started writing philosophical verse. Though her work was widely recognised, same as Hildegard, Cavendish often had self-doubt about her capacity and duty as a woman when she was writing. A modern biographer once remarked that Cavendish felt torn between ‘the (feminine and Christian) virtue of modesty’ and her ambitions. On the one hand, she was very serious and confident about her work; on the other hand, she often depreciated her work and justified them with defensive and apologetic justifications. 

From Cavendish’s degradation of her work, it seems that she lacked the confidence and guts of feminists to denounce the conventional status of women and to loudly declare that her work should be equally recognised. But she wrote like a feminist in a sense that she brought womanly issues, which was thought to be a topic not worthy of writing and of no political, social or any importance, to public attention. She brought the dark side, the internal perspective of women’s struggles in the household into the open light. She also spoke out against the hostility towards any women regarded as outspoken or ambitious, which at her time was deemed as madness and dangerous. Her writings also encouraged later women to write and urged them to unite together instead of always being jealousy critical of other women’s achievements. That made her a feminist. 

Dorothy Osborne 

Same as Cavendish, Dorothy Osborne was born in the 17th century into a family of Royalists. She is comparatively less well-known than our other four ‘non-feminist’ feminists as she did not produce writings or theories as significant as those produced by Cavendish or Hildegard. She could even be seen as an anti-feminist by some people as she was one of those critics who heavily denounced the work of Cavendish, a more obvious feminist, as ‘extravagant’ and ‘ridiculous’. 

Funnily enough, what made her on the list is her criticism of other people’s work (including Cavendish’s) in letters exchanged between her husband and her. She read widely, often had heavy criticisms of other people’s work and exchanged her thoughts with her fiance, then husband, Sir William Temple in letters. These ‘witty, progressive and socially illuminating’ letters were later published and became large volumes of evidence that Dorothy was a ‘lively, observant, articulate woman’. Even Virginia Woolf later remarked that Dorothy, with her great literacy fashion, would have been a novelist in another time. 

An additional point that made her a true feminist was her actions against an arranged marriage and conventional family mindsets. During the 17th century, marriages were usually business arrangements, especially for a rich family like Dorothy’s. Being in love with Sir William Temple, who was refused by her family due to financial reasons, she protested by remaining single and refused multiple proposers put forth by her family. At last, her struggle was rewarded with her finally marrying Temple. But her feminist acts did not stop there. Later references showed that she was actively involved in her husband’s diplomatic career and matters of the state, quite contrary to what an ordinary wife would behave in the 17th century. 

Dorothy had not ever said that she was a feminist, or intended to act like a feminist. But her thoughts, words and actions clearly showed that she lived a feminist life by becoming a free-willed, critical woman. That made her a feminist. 

Mary Shelley 

Mary Shelley, who famously wrote Frankenstein, is the woman who wrote several of the greatest Gothic novels of all times and was considered to be the pioneer of writing science fiction. 

Mary Shelley was born in 1797. Her father was the political philosopher William Godwin and her mother was none other than one of the first public feminist activist in British history, Mary Wollstonecraft. Under the influence of two great parents, Mary Shelley was encouraged to read, learn and write, and her father gave her an informal, nonetheless rich, education. 

She later fell in love with one of his father’s followers, a romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married. After the death of Percy’s first wife, Mary and Percy got married. They were certainly two talented, happy people married. But Mary’s luck then seemed to run out. Three of her four children died prematurely and Percy later drowned when sailing. In the last decade of her life, she was constantly sick. 

Despite her miserable life, she was able to produce great novels such as Valperga, The Last Man, The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, etc. Perhaps due to her own sad stories, her novels were strikingly dark, in a sense that it created no hope for the characters. Mary’s novels, especially her most famous one, Frankenstein, did not have any strong female characters; ironically most female characters died. In a conventional perspective, her work is not feminist at all. But what she explored was the struggles of women in an age which society was driven by reason, science and patriarchy. One commentator once said that ‘[t]he death of female characters in the novel is alone to raise enough feminist eyebrows to question how science and development is essentially a masculine enterprise and subjugates women.’ She was radical in thought and critical of society’s norm. Alongside writing, she devoted herself to raising and educating her only surviving child, Percy Florence Shelley, who later famously supported amateur performers and charity performances. 

What made Mary Shelley a legendary woman, in addition to her great writings, was her strength in turning misery into energy and striving as an author and a mother despite her miserable life. That made her a feminist. 

Chan Stephanie Sheena

Anne Boleyn: A Forgotten Victim of ‘Fake News’?

Anne Boleyn is an enigma. Contemporaries and historians alike have painted this infamous ‘beheaded’ second wife of Henry VIII as a ‘noble lady,’ ‘a whore,’ ‘an innocent victim,’ ‘a scandal of Christendom,’ and whilst the list of juxtaposing descriptions about the woman with ‘a long neck,’ ‘middling stature’ and ‘black and beautiful’ eyes could go on, flipping back and forth between praise and criticism of the lady that ‘bewitched’ Henry VIII, I would like to add another interpretation of Anne Boleyn to the list, in light of the historical evidence and our own current political climate. 

Thanks in part to President Trump, the term ‘fake news’ has entered our political vocabulary. Over the past few days for example, we have been bombarded with media headlines that the New York Times claimed the President of the United States paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016-2017. This has of course been labelled as ‘fake news’ by Donald Trump. You are probably reading this article and wondering what on earth Donald Trump could possibly have to do with Anne Boleyn? This article proposes that ‘fake news’ culture should not be perceived merely as a Donald Trump tagline, but a much more dangerous reality for the court of Henry VIII back in 1536.

A painting of Anne Boleyn by an unknown artist, 1570. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

It is widely known that Anne Boleyn was beheaded on the 19th May 1536. However, it is has been commonly understood by the twenty first century masses that Anne Boleyn had been murdered by her ‘tyrannical’ husband merely because she failed to deliver in her promise to provide the King with a male heir, something which also caused the downfall of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Anne Boleyn was Catherine of Aragon’s former Lady-in-waiting who had by all accounts ‘bewitched’ the King and had him follow her to ‘Mass’ and ‘everywhere,’ according to the Venetian ambassador in 1532. Boleyn failed to live up to the expectations of a Tudor Queen after she was crowned, because of the birth of a daughter, Elizabeth on the 7th September 1533 (future Elizabeth I), a miscarriage in 1534, followed by another miscarriage that was reported by the Imperial Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys of a deformed son of three and a half months on the 26th January 1536. The birth of Elizabeth, who was named after Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York and the miscarriage of what would have been Anne Boleyn’s ‘saviour of a son’ is not the entire story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. This article suggests that Anne Boleyn’s execution was the result of ‘fake news’ and not merely her fertility, as many believe. 

The majority of Tudor historians are in agreement that Henry VIII confided in Thomas Cromwell in the year 1536. He sought an end to his marriage to Anne Boleyn because he had fallen in love/lust with Anne Boleyn’s own Lady-in-waiting the ‘naturally sweet natured’ Jane Seymour, after Anne Boleyn’s two miscarriages. This article proposes that this is where the need for a campaign of Tudor ‘fake news’ came into play at the court of Henry VIII. We cannot ever be completely sure that Henry VIII did not directly behest his chief minister Thomas Crowmwell to find an excuse to execute Anne Boleyn, however it seems unlikely that Henry VIII requested Anne Boleyn’s execution as a way to ensure that his marriage was dissolved. In light of historical evidence housed at The British Library, where an original letter written by Thomas Cromwell himself is preserved, it seems more likely that it was Thomas Cromwell and not Henry VIII who was the architect and political mastermind behind the murder of Anne Boleyn. This letter is the piece of ‘evidence’ that was presented to Henry VIII by Thomas Cromwell himself, accusing Anne Boleyn of lying with five men, including her own older brother. Fake news in the 21st century is typically defined as false stories that are spread across media platforms either because it is intended as a joke or because it seeks to influence political views. If we understand letters to be the Tudor equivalent of our BBC News, CNN and Fox News, Thomas Cromwell’s own letter laced with accusations of Anne Boleyn’s marital affairs could be read as fitting with our own definition of ‘fake news’ as Henry VIII’s infamous secretary potentially concocted these ‘abominable’ crimes in order to fulfil his King’s desire to detach himself from his ‘Most Happy Queen,’ whom he had a ‘sunshine and showers’ relationship with, according to Antonia Fraser. Indeed, it seems likely that Thomas Cromwell invented these affairs in order to influence political views of Anne Boleyn because the likes of Hilary Mantel claim that Thomas Cromwell supposedly sought to avenge the key role that Anne Boleyn played in the execution of Thomas Cromwell’s own mentor, Thomas Wolsey. It appears that Thomas Cromwell potentially wanted to remove Anne Boleyn permanently, which could not have been achieved through a mere annulment of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s marriage. Perhaps, Thomas Cromwell needed some ‘fake news’ in order to remove Anne Boleyn from a pedestal of power, an experience that Donald Trump would no doubt claim to identify with. 

Was Anne Boleyn guilty of having sexual intercourse with the five men presented in Thomas Cromwell’s letter? Or was Thomas Cromwell creating some ‘fake news’ to dispose of Anne Boleyn? Perhaps the truth is malleable, and as we see in the age of Trump, it is not what is done or said, but how it is presented that matters. Either way, the accusations made by Cromwell cost Anne Boleyn her life. She was beheaded on the 19th May 1536 by an executioner sent from France, who killed her ‘swiftly’ with a sword for crimes that were either ‘true’ or ‘false.’

Sophie Overton

‘You Can Get Rid of the Mines, But You Can’t Get Rid of the Miners’: Industrial Legacy and Contemporary Identity in Durham

Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’. 

The 135th Durham Miners’ Gala, 2019. (Credit: The Northern Echo)

The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building. 

Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.

James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes? 

Emily Glynn


Bibliography

Bloodworth, James, ‘Labour is becoming a historical re-enactment society’, International Business Times, 11 July 2017, https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/jeremy-corbyns-labour-tribute-act-socialism-trade-unions-back-nostalgic-leader-1570061 

Lawson, Jack, Peter Lee, (1949: London)

Labour Party ‘A Green Industrial Revolution’ Manifesto 2020