Anti-Abortion: The Architect of New Conservatism 

(Note: This article was written before the midterm elections in the United States of America last November.)

Roe v Wade’s reversal has put abortion at the heart of public debate. Progressive communities boil with rage. Meanwhile, the anti-abortion movement celebrates success while watching states sanction barbaric abortion bans. Today’s bitter divisions, however, didn’t always dominate politics. So, in light of the right’s growing effort to restrict abortion, many wonder: How did we get here? Why did conservatives turn against abortion? 

Surely, the anti-abortion movement fundamentally changed the Republican Party. Adopting pro-life beliefs was a desperate attempt to revive conservatism. They enabled Republicans to exploit women’s bodies as a political attention tactic. But broadly, anti-abortion gave way to the conservative community’s identification with religious and family values.

An Undivided Issue

Before the 1970s, abortion wasn’t squarely divided across party lines. Put simply, it was a non-partisan issue concerning individual privacy. If anything, it was mainly discussed with regards to medicine

According to Anna North, Republicans supported “abortion at about the same rate as Democrats.” In 1967, when he was California’s governor, Reagan loosened abortion restrictions. Conservative Vice President Rockefeller similarly fought for abortion rights in New York. The Equal Rights Amendment surprisingly passed with 84 percent of Republican support. Importantly, the amendment would give a de facto right to abortion. Overall, the pre-1970 anti-abortion movement was largely Catholic men, and thus could not be associated with either party

Right to Life Revolution and New Right

“Will the liberals capture the GOP?” asked a right-leaning newspaper in 1975. Conservatism was on the decline. With progressives controlling the White House since the 30s and Watergate tainting the Republican name, young conservatives wanted to separate themselves from the “Old-Right.” A fresh issue was necessary to save the dying party. Simultaneously, the giant National Right to Life Committee emerged, seeking to regulate abortion and women’s bodies. So it’s no surprise that the anti-abortion movement would help cauterize the Republican party’s wound. 

Mildred Jefferson promised to intertwine the Right to Life Revolution with New Conservatism. She aimed to harness the political force of anti-abortion Evangelical and Catholic voters. Other political strategists turned abortion into a tool too – one that shifted blocks of voters from the Democrats to the Republicans. This was successful, to say the least. For one, grassroots anti-abortion groups sparked across the nation. Even more, Republicans endorsed Feminists for Life and strategically spoke against abortion. Then, the Hyde Amendment, which prevented Medicaid-funded abortions, passed, signaling a new era for politicizing abortion. 

Anti-abortion policies gradually became more extreme. The Federal Abortion Act of 2003 banned late-term abortions and extraction. Around 20 years later, and today, Republicans plan to fully ban abortions. This policy evolution reflects a wider radicalization of the Republican party. 

The anti-abortion movement captured and reinvigorated the Republican party. But the movement was only a prelude to the New Right’s campaign. 

The Family Party 

In effect, anti-abortion provided a blueprint for the new conservative motto. By encouraging birth and motherhood, the new anti-abortion stance painted the Republican party as “pro-family.” Pro-family, though, wasn’t only about family. Republicans grew worried about a loss of respect for tradition. Thus, pro-family meant a reversion to conventional sexual, marital, and economic norms. Laws limiting same-sex marriage, opposing contraceptives, and banning critical race theory all o fell within the realm of “pro-family.” This campaign redirection triggered a surge in social conservatives and mobilized many to vote. 

Today, conservatives like Ron Desantis assert that “Parents’ rights have been increasingly under assault” and proceed to punish speech about sexuality. Remember that this Floridian pro-family policy stems from abortion. After all, the anti-abortion movement shook the foundation of conventional conservatism by involving it in the social aspects of society. Conservatism previously focused on economics and government moderation. But the anti-abortion ideology set off a social chain reaction, pushing the Republican Party into modern culture wars

The Christian Party

Abortion is by no means secular. While the rejection of abortion was initially led by Catholics, Southern evangelicals hopped onto the anti-abortion train. The political potency of anti-abortion proponents thus shifted from Catholic states to Southern evangelical regions. This had grave consequences. While most Catholics disapproved of abortion, they supported anti-poverty programs, maternity insurance, and government-funded day-care. Southern evangelicals did not. As economic conservatives — and now social conservatives — evangelicals rejected abortion as well as any program to support poor pregnant women. This was a recipe for disaster. Clearly, commingling moral, religious, and economic regulation was not a good idea. Even worse, progressive Catholics were forced to sacrifice otherwise liberal positions and identify with the new anti-abortion party — the GOP.

This seismic religious shift was not without precedent. Rather, it is a continuity of religious zeal in American politics. Between the 1870s and 1920s, conservative Christians fervently fought for alcohol prohibition. Religious conservatism had transformed party politics. Likewise, between 1970 and the present, the anti-abortion movement has engrained religiosity into conservatism.

Anti-abortion biblical beliefs prompted religious enthusiasm within the Republican party. It laid the groundwork for a party unified by faith. But while religious, abortion was never meant to be a political issue. It is a private concern. Republicans were mistaken to think they could control women’s lives without resistance.

A Hazy Future 

The best hope for women and abortion advocates lies in their vote. If Democrats secure the midterm elections, they can move past a filibuster and grant federal abortion rights. With a heavy majority supporting at least some abortion rights, it’s possible — as shown by the Kansas citizens. Americans need to make noise. After all, millions of women’s lives depend on it. 

The birth of New Conservatism was precipitated by the anti-abortion movement. How will it end? Logically, abortion should cause its downfall too. Yet the overturning of Roe v. Wade sends that prospect far into the future. Right now, Republicans are toning down the anti-abortion rhetoric for contentious midterm elections. They understand that anti-abortion is a minority view but will never give it up. It has hoisted the Republican platform and has shaped the contours of modern conservatism. 

It’s a shocking thought that abortion was once a non-partisan issue. The moment the anti-abortion movement introduced abortion’s partisan face to conservatives, though, politics spiraled. Now, the 1970s decision to conflate anti-abortion and conservatism profoundly impacts every facet of the Republican Party and daily life. Here’s some finishing food for thought: America is the only Western nation that experienced such a tectonic political shift in opposition to abortion. Why? 

By Ashwin Telang

Our Own COINTELPRO: The Black Britons under surveillance by the Black Power Desk

The Black Power Symbol (P.C. Wikimedia)

On the 8th of March 1971, a small group from the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI – an American political organisation – raided the FBI’s office in Media, Pennsylvania. During the raid, they burgled over 1,000 documents about Operation COINTELPRO. COINTELPRO was a series of illegal and covert projects conducted by the FBI against American citizens after 1955, on the grounds that those civilians were seen as “politically subversive”.

The American state’s fight against “political subversiveness” is well known, yet its British counterpart, now known as the Black Power Desk of the 1960s and 70s, has little notoriety. Founded in 1967 by Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, its composition and formation are still debated. On the one hand, some historians have suggested that the Desk was part of MI5. On the other hand, however, the more popular – yet hardly uncontested view – is that the Desk was part of the former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism unit, Special Branch. The Desk’s recent discovery in the 2010s by Robin Bunce and Paul Field, and via the Special Branch Files Project led by Eveline Lubbers, has enabled us to finally see some of the Black Power Desk’s intel, operations and implications. 

The most extensive information currently available about those under surveillance by the Desk pertains to people identified as prominent members of the British Black Panthers (BBPM) and the Racial Adjustment Action Society (RAAS). Trinidadian-born Michael de Freitas, known under the aliases Michael Abdul Malik and “Michael X”, is the most frequently mentioned Black Power activist. Abdul Malik’s foundation of the RAAS in 1967 and his North-London-based community centre Black House, made him a key person of interest because of his status as the first non-white person to be charged under the Race Relations Act of 1965 in November 1967. 

Indeed, Abdul Malik’s charge and his supposed tendency for criminality underpin the Desk’s surveillance reports. This characterisation of a British Black Power leader as criminal, orator of hatred towards the white British population and insurgent against the state, embodied the general pattern of reports by the Desk. In December 1968, Obi Egbuna, a co-founder of the Universal Coloured People’s Association (UPCA) and later a member of the BBPM, was arrested and tried alongside fellow members Peter Martin and Gideon Dolo for threatening to murder a police officer. According to reports collated by the Special Branch from their surveillance of the BBPM, informants acquired ‘reliable information’ about plans to destroy police boxes and government buildings in conjunction with the Branch supposedly finding evidence of formulas for explosives written by the BBPM. Of course, the group rebuked these claims, and historians have questioned the “reliability” of such intelligence since the arrest came shortly after Egbuna’s speech on resisting police brutality and injustice that same year. Yet, it is clear that the themes underpinning reports into Malik were along very similar lines to the report into Egbuna.

Finally, the protest on the 9th of August 1970 in support of the Mangrove Restaurant and the emergence of the Mangrove Nine were intricately documented by the Metropolitan Police and sent to the Desk. Three of the nine: Barbara Beese, Darcus Howe and Althea Jones-LeCointe, were leading figures in the Black Power movement and BBPM. Likewise, they had the most detailed and least redacted surveillance files relating to their involvement in the movement, the protest, and personal relationships, including mention of Beese’s absent father. The fact that the three most investigated individuals were three leaders of the Black Power movement cannot be ignored, as it suggests surveillance into them predated the Mangrove Nine and instead was part of the Black Power Desk’s investigation into supposed “subversion”.

It is unlikely the arguments will ever be conclusively proved, as we will likely never know the full extent of the Black Power Desk and its activities. Compared to what we know about COINTELPRO and its campaigns against civil rights groups and the Black Power movement, our knowledge of the full extent of the Black Power Desk’s activities is minute. The struggle Lubbers and her team initially endured gaining access to documents relevant to the Desk and Special Branch reveals the British Government’s reluctance to allow anyone to view them. Additionally, the legacy of the Black Power Desk appears to have outlived its dissolution. According to whistle-blower and former Special Demonstration Squad officer Peter Francis, covert surveillance was in place for the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign during the 1990s. Therefore, it is likely the Black Power Desk engaged in far more surveillance than we know of, yet the likelihood of this being revealed any time soon is minimal.

Stephanie Ormond, Summer Writer

Boris Lloyd George?

The nation was in a state of crisis. Entering through the door of 10 Downing Street as the new Prime Minister was one of the most charismatic politicians Britain had seen for decades. This man was David Lloyd George. A leading Liberal politician, he replaced his party leader Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916 at the height of the First World War. The government then being fiercely divided in the wake of the continued stalemate and the threat of the breakup of the cross-party wartime coalition.

The same description could almost as easily be applied to Boris Johnson’s entry into office as Prime Minister in July 2019. During his time in British politics, he has come to develop his own idiosyncratic brand, which has made him instantly recognisable to the average voter. He too entered Downing Street at a time of nationwide political crisis after Theresa May and Parliament failed to pass a deal for leaving the European Union.

Johnson has made no secret of his penchant for Winston Churchill, even authoring a biography of his political hero, but perhaps his parallels to Churchill’s one time political ally and friend, Lloyd George, are even more striking.

Instantly on a personal level, the similarity is evident. Both men share colourful private lives, with the continued mystery surrounding the number of Johnson’s children and Lloyd George’s affairs with numerous women, most notably his long-time mistress and secretary, Frances Stevenson. A relationship which resulted in two abortions and the birth of an illegitimate daughter. Equally, both during their time in office have faced accusations of ‘sleaze’ from Johnson’s awarding of Covid contracts and life peerages to Lloyd George’s ‘Cash for Honours’ scandal in the 1920s, where knighthoods, baronetcies and peerages were sold for the appropriate contribution to Lloyd George’s personal political fund.

Furthermore, perhaps most potently for us in the aftermath of Covid-19, both served as Prime Minister during the time of a global pandemic. As the First World War neared its close in 1918, Spanish Flu began to rage across Europe. Lloyd George caught the virus in September 1918 in the early stages of the pandemic, at the age of fifty-five. He experienced a weeklong fever, requiring a respirator for breathing. His condition was later described by his valet as ‘touch and go’. Lloyd George would go on to make a full recovery, but the pandemic would cost 228,000 lives in Britain alone. Johnson similarly caught Covid-19 in the pandemic’s early stages , coincidentally also at the age of fifty-five. Requiring treatment in a hospital intensive care unit, he then spent two weeks recuperating at the prime ministerial country retreat, Chequers.

Image: Robert Cutts via Flickr

In political terms, the comparisons also are striking. Both men have changed their political ideologies to suit their agendas. Once seen as a small state liberal, Johnson is now pursuing a policy of state expansion in everything from the NHS and social care to education and other public services, as outlined in the government’s most recent Budget. Taxes, moreover, are set to reach their highest level since the Second World War. It is with this agenda he hopes to continue to hold the support of Red Wall voters in the North. Lloyd George, equally, in the later stages of his political career shifted his views in the hopes of reviving the Liberal Party. Originally as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Asquith’s government, he spearheaded the introduction of a series of ad hoc social policies, including the establishment of labour exchanges, old age pensions and National Insurance, to help deal with the problems of poverty and unemployment. Yet by the 1929 general election, with the Liberal Party’s fortunes fading, Lloyd George put forward a new, radical campaign, ‘We Can Conquer Unemployment’, in a shift towards the left. In the hope of attracting new voters, he promised to return unemployment to normal levels within one year through a programme of public works using the unemployed to build houses, construct new roads and extend telephone lines.

However, perhaps the most interesting parallel between Johnson and Lloyd George is the latter’s  role in the foundation of the welfare state to tackle poverty and Johnson’s stated aim to raise living standards. Lloyd George was a committed ‘New Liberal’, who led his party to ‘wage implacable warfare on poverty and squalidness’, most notably through his 1909 ‘People’s Budget’. Johnson, equally, is claiming to pursue a similar vision to ‘level up’ standards across the United Kingdom and now after the pandemic to ‘Build Back Better’, a slogan which echoes the spirit of Lloyd George’s 1918 election promise to build ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ at the end of the First World War. Citing in recent speeches the need to tackle regional differences in key issues like life expectancy, Johnson’s aim is beginning to emerge through his plans for greater investment in local communities, the creation of a ‘National Skills Fund’, the introduction of Free Ports and support for major infrastructure projects like HS2. Though yet to be seen in practice, it is in this stated ambition to ‘level up’ and ‘Build Back Better’ that the parallel between Boris Johnson and Lloyd George’s government policies  are perhaps most interesting and unusual.

Thomas Hewitt

Weaponising ‘safety’: Laws of displacement and the crisis faced by Syrian Refugees in Denmark

In March 2021 the government of Denmark announced that the Damascus region of Syria, a state still gripped by the civil war which broke out in 2011, was ‘safe’ for human habitation. The claim not only shows Denmark’s support for Assad’s regime which now controls the territory but has enormous implications on the status of the 35,000 Syrians who fled to the Scandinavian state to restart their lives in the wake of the violence. In lieu of the capital’s ‘safety’ Denmark is revoking the residency of many Syrians and embarking on schemes of deportation and repatriation, generating outcries from global charities advocating for the rights of the displaced. As of early October 2021, stories are appearing in Middle Eastern newspapers claiming that those fearful of being sent back to Syria are fleeing Denmark for the Netherlands and becoming, once again, displaced. As claims to asylum are reportedly being made against Denmark itself due to the verdict, the situation raises questions which those concerned in the histories of international migration and human rights law must address; is the host-state’s right to declare a refugee’s homeland ‘safe’ ever appropriate? Does current legislation confine refugees to a permanent state of flux? 

Firstly, it has been claimed that the Danish government’s decision defies the principle of non-Refoulement embedded in international human rights law. Following the drafting and implementation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, international legislation forbids states from deporting refugees to countries in which the ‘danger of persecution’ would still pose a threat to their life. Under Denmark’s claim that Assad’s Damascus is ‘safe’, such a principle would not apply, but activists within the Syrian diaspora and global rights agencies are denying that this ‘safety’ is a material reality on the ground. UK-based international justice chamber’s Guernica 37, for example, released a statement in July which claimed that Syrians forcibly sent to Syria would no doubt face scrutiny and even violent punishment from the ruling powers. They also worriedly noted the ‘precedent’ of acceptability  such deportations may set and the implications that this would have on all of those displaced globally. 

A sculpture named “The Refugee Ship” by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiøt. Credit: Jens Galschiøt via Wikimedia Commons

We must therefore acknowledge that the crisis faced by Syrians in Denmark is reflective of the possibilities for misuse allowed for within current international rights legislation. The Danish government’s ability to declare a region ‘safe’ and deport residents accordingly, despite said ‘safety’ not being accepted on the international stage, shows the worrying potential for a weaponised notion of ‘safety’ in state’s dealings with asylum claims. 

It is important to consider the theoretical issues raised by the deportation of Syrian residents from a state in which their presence had previously been accepted. If those with accepted claims to asylum who have built livelihoods, raised families and become members of vibrant communities can have their right to remain in their new home stripped away so easily, the question remains as to whether international legislation is really doing enough to protect them. The act of deportation is a conscious distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but to suggest that Danish Syrians had not viewed themselves as part of the same community as their fellow Danes is a reductive view of national identity. Their status as legal Danish residents went from being unquestionably accepted to being stripped at the whim of a declaration of their previous place of residence’s ‘safety’ by the state in which they made their new home. One cannot imagine the emotional turmoil caused by such a situation, and the proactive conversations which centre Syrian voices emerging across the diaspora must be taken into consideration by those considering the legality of the situation. 

By George R. Evans, Summer Contributor

Politics meets religion: The Ayodhya dispute

Religious violence and contention is by no means unfamiliar to India. Conflicting religious beliefs have been rife for centuries, with historians tracing problematic relations between Hindus and Muslims in the country as far back as the thirteenth century, the time in which the formation of Islamic communities in India began. There is equally a consensus, however, that significant Hindu-Islamic tension is a more recent by-product of Partition in 1947, an event in itself driven by contemporary religious disputes. Nevertheless, conflict between the two religions in India is not confined to history, as recent controversies make it more pertinent than ever in the twenty-first century.

A specific conflict over land, known as the Ayodhya dispute, serves to prove this. A dispute prolific for causing riots and political tension over the last century or so in India, it has arguably caused the most political rupture within the past three decades. This one hundred and fifty year old debate between Hindus and Muslims across India concerns a disputed sacred area of land in Ayodhya, a city in Uttar Pradesh, the northern region of the country. The debate involved a supreme court case in which members of the two religions were both fighting for control and authority over this same plot of land. Indian Muslims are of the belief that a mosque was built on the site by a commander of Babur in the sixteenth century, and thus the site is sacred to them. However, the site is equally sacred to Hindus, as they believe the same site was the birthplace of Lord Ram, a sacred Hindu deity and reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Not unlike other examples of Hindu-Islamic contention across India’s history, violence has been central to this specific dispute from the very beginning. Fears of an outbreak over the case were evident in 1949 when the Indian government made orders denying permission for Muslims to be within two-hundred yards of the site. Concern over potential outbreak turned to violence in 1992, when unrest over the lack of progress in the case broke, and the sacred Ayodhya mosque was torn down and destroyed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, a right-wing Hindu activist group, acting under the belief that the site was rightfully theirs. This event had national repercussions, triggering a mass of communal riots which left over 2000 dead, most of them Muslims. The Indian government even detained crowds of citizens in Ayodhya amid fears of violence following the final court ruling in 2019.

Hanuman Garhi, a major Hindu temple in Ayodhya close to the site mentioned in this article. Credit

The official end to this case shows the deeply political roots of Hindu-Islamic antagonism. The dispute came to an end in the eyes of the government in 2019, when India’s supreme court finally ruled in favour of the Hindus. This result was no surprise, however, considering the lack of independence of the Indian judiciary – former chief justice Ranjan Gogoi having been appointed by Modi – coupled with the aims of India’s ruling right-wing political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to define a national doctrine characterised by Hindu nationalism. Thus, it can be argued that this lengthy dispute illustrates a deep modern politicisation of India’s religious conflict, and furthermore, it has infiltrated the heart of the nation’s identity politics. Following the 2019 ruling, Modi, the Prime Minister of India, tweeted that the verdict “shouldn’t be seen as a win or loss for anybody”. Considering this concerns a debate that has severely exemplified the continuation of the polarisation of the country’s two dominating religions in the modern day, this statement blatantly implies sympathies towards Hindu nationalism, particularly as social and religious divisions have only deepened nationally since the BJP came into power in 2014.

Therefore, tensions between the two religions in India are undoubtedly far from over, and mosque-temple disputes are still central to Indian Hindu supremacist politics. Since 2019, other examples of similarly structured temple disputes have risen over similar issues, such as recent court orders in Varanasi this year to investigate whether there is any structural overlapping between Gyanvapi mosque which is adjacent to a Hindu temple. This particular example has unsurprisingly been a decision made by the court following petitions from Hindu nationalist groups, claiming a Muslim emperor demolished part of the Hindu temple in the seventeenth century to build a mosque.

Although antagonism between the two religions is clearly historically rooted in India, right-wing Hindu nationalism is what is continuing to fuel this conflict in the modern day. Thus, until crucial notions of right-wing Hindu nationalism cease to dominate the political landscape of India, further antagonism between the two religions will only continue. 

By Miriam Shelley, Summer Writer

‘Men write history, but women live it.’: Essay Competition Winner

The arrangement and preservation of knowledge about the past is ultimately a question of power. History is a process that both legitimates and reflects gender relations. For most of human history this process has been controlled by men. The notion of ‘men write history, but women live it’ ascribes gender relations at both a literal and metaphorical level. It posits that men not only control and assemble the historical narrative, but they also monopolise historically significant activity – metaphorically ‘writing’ a kind of historical providence that women endure. The Nigerian ‘Women’s War’ offers an insightful lens through which to explore this idea. Between November 1929 and January 1930, 10,000 women protested against both British colonial indirect rule and the rumoured imposition of direct taxation.[1] The women were largely of Igbo descent, but were also joined by five other ethnic groups from south-eastern Nigeria – Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo and Umuahia. The event has been chronically misconstrued in conventional historiography.[2] Nigerian women have been written out of a narrative that they created, and reinscribed into an enduring patriarchal framework that sees their actions as a violent assault on femininity and order.[3] However, history is an ongoing process that continually reimagines the past – albeit if not changing the way in which Nigerian women were forced to ‘live it’. Nigeria’s rich lore and dance tradition problematises the notion that women live in the shadow of male decisions and challenges Eurocentric historical methodological approaches surrounding the Women’s War.[4] Furthermore, the Women’s War illustrates how problematic the binary notions of male agency and female passivity are. Not all men have monopolised history – some have been subject to it too. Questions of history, power and gender ultimately need to be intersectional in order to prevent a Manichean division of the world that obscures more than it reveals.

The historical record surrounding the Women’s War embodies the idea that men write history and women live it. Indeed, the fact that until recently the rebellion was labelled the ‘Aba Riots’ makes this clear. Van Allen claims that the ‘control of language means the control of history’.[5] Through labelling the organised and largely peaceful actions of the women as a non-specific and violent outburst, the historiographical record not only justified the militant action male British colonial officials took to quash the rebellion, but is an oppressive assault on Nigerian female identity and history – ‘de-politicising its feminist impetus’.[6] Although Van Allen goes on to claim is the result of the ‘sexist bias of Western scholarship’ that so little is known about the event, in reality, the androcentric  historical record was crystallised much earlier on.[7] As a result of the deaths of over 50 women on the back of the rebellion, two commissions of enquiry were set up by British officials and their reports form the basis of the historical record. Not only did the inquiry describe the rebellion as a conspiratorial ‘mob’ spearheaded my local male vigilantes, but of the 485 witnesses interviewed, only 103 were women.[8] Part of the reason this monopolising of the historical narrative seems so violent and exploitative is because the Women’s War was not a story for men to tell. Almost ironically, a struggle envisaged as an attack on patriarchal forces becomes testament to them.

At a metaphorical level, male colonial officers monopolised both the historical precedent and legacy for gender relations in Nigeria. Before the imposition of colonial rule, women had several roles in Igbo society.[9]  Political power was disparate and decentralised – with women allowed to participate in local assemblies and taking a particularly important role as arbitrators in settling disputes.[10] Allen describes how status was achieved not ascribed and thus women had the opportunity to carve out their own identity.[11] Political institutions like the ogbo – ritual-based arbiter lineage associations – and the mikiri – a kind of precursory trade union – allowed women to assert themselves in the public sphere.[12] Indeed, it has been argued that political power in Nigeria was ‘bisexual’ before the advent of colonialism, with men and women writing and living the historical record together.[13] However, history’s utility as a tool for asserting colonial control under the guise of tradition resulted in a rewriting of the historical narrative that characterised gender relations in Nigeria. In 1900, southern Nigeria was declared a protectorate. The ogbo and mikiri were abolished – thus erasing an historic symbol of female autonomy and forcing women to live in an imported Victorian historical narrative that worshipped the cult of domesticity and submission – effectively constituting cultural imperialism.[14]  Despite the Women’s War of petitioning against these issues, the legacy of this engineered erasure of Nigerian female history and tradition is felt even today. The ogbo and mikiri were never reinstated and the 1933 abolition of ‘self-help’ – a custom that approved force as a means of self-defence – buried Nigeria’s rich tradition of female activism.[15] Women still do not take leadership roles in local government – and although not entirely down to the actions of colonial officials, their historic invisibility strips them of legitimate claims to power.[16]

History is a living process and the historical record can, and is, changing. Nigerian women who took part in the rebellion undoubtedly had to live with the consequences of an engineered androcentric historical narrative, but that does not mean that all women still have to. Since the 1970’s, Aba historiography – riding on the wave of second-wave feminism – has sought to challenge the narrative purported by the colonial commissions of inquiry. [17] Although Scott suggests that revising historical narratives to focus on the ‘impact of events on women’ is unhelpful, and instead we should be looking at areas of sexual difference and experience, the fact is that the historical narrative does not exist.[18] Any exploration of sexual difference cannot take place until a somewhat credible account of events is established.  The revisionist work of historians like Van Allen, and more recently Falola and Paddock does this. Through highlighting the complexity and sophistication of the Women’s War, the authors free the event from ‘living’ within a reductive narrative. Texts such as Nwapa’s 1966 Efuru self-inscribes the invisible female voice into Igbo history and interrogates both imperialist authority and a male-dominated literary tradition – allowing women to both write and live history.[19] As historiography continues to reflect a society that questions and challenges conventional gender distinctions, one can only assume that although the past lives of women were controlled by men, their legacy and the binary gender divisions that the question suggests, will be further dismantled.

And yet, whether men even solely wrote the history of the Women’s War is up for debate. Arguably the western historians aforementioned have a limiting, Eurocentric and textually-based notion of what constitutes history. Van Allen continually stresses the ‘invisibility’ of the women that took part in the Women’s War.[20] Smith claims that if ‘the past is like a foreign land, the history of women is not only foreign but largely unchartered’.[21] Both of these claims unhelpfully start and end with the absence of female voices in textual sources. As Strobel notes, due to the low level of female literacy, Igbo women have conventionally used songs, rituals and stories in order to ‘write’ their history.[22] Albeit a potentially fragile and tenuous means of accurately recording the past it does nevertheless challenge the exclusivity that ‘men write history, but women live it’, suggests. Indeed, relying on written sources alone is risky – as many may have been subject to a masked colonial influence that hides behind the ‘authentic’ voice of the native.[23] In the context of the Women’s War, Igbo women used dance as a means of cultural expression and memorialisation – collectively preserving and performing a memory for future generations of women. Indeed, Hanna claims that ‘women express their…power in dance-plays’.[24] The relationship between history, power and gender is crucial here. Historians have a tendency when revising the historical narrative to simply present women as victims of oppression – confining them to an androcentric conceptual framework under the guise of liberation.[25] Although historians like Van Allen are crucial in interrogating and questioning the established narrative surrounding the Women’s War, they have to also use alternative sources to posit a new history that gives the women agency on their own terms.[26]  Female Igbo practices of writing history seem to offer the perfect challenge to the idea that where men write history, women live it. Through memorialising the Women’s War through dance and activity, women not only write their own history but keep it alive through constantly recreating, sharing and living it.

Particularly when applied in other historical contexts, the nature of the statement, ‘men write history, but women live it’ seems to be more reductive than illuminating. For a start, not all men write history. The use of the word ‘but’ implies a kind of exclusivity whereby only women are subject to the implications of male history writing. Under British rule in Nigeria, all history was distorted and buried. Prior to colonial rule, authority amongst men was based on lineage.[27] Tradition and custom were passed down through rituals and obligations amongst sons, and history celebrated Nigeria’s rich natural environment and landscape.[28] Under colonialism, the construction of a new ‘industrial masculinity’ was accompanied by the erasure of the past.[29] Men, much like the Igbo women, were forced to live in the shadow of a constructed history. As Lerner points out, the binary division of men and women often ends up alienating and splitting two sides that actually share a great deal in common.[30]  Cixous’ belief that every theory of society can be reduced to ‘hierarchical oppositions that come back to the man/woman opposition’ seems outdated and naïve.[31] Men took part in the Women’s War too. Perhaps a more insightful notion would be that it is the patriarchy, as an oppressive ideological framework that oppresses both men and women, that writes history. Indeed, the links between a whitewashing patriarchy and colonialism have been noted before.[32] Carlyle’s maxim, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” – seems to unintentionally expose this idea, problematising the homogenising implications of a male/female dichotomy. Lastly, the notion of all women ‘living’ history together completely lacks any intersectional awareness. Albeit in the case of the Women’s War, the distinctions between identifiers like class, sexuality and religion are subsumed under the context’s broader gendered and racial framework, in many cases not all women will ‘live’ or suffer the same history. Feminist historians must seek an intersectional approach to recording the past in order to avoid just re-inscribing women into another historical framework that denies them a voice.[33]

Overall, it is clear that neither men nor women exclusively ‘write’ or ‘live’ history.  History, being the assemblage of knowledge about the past to produce an argument, is inherently fluid and the product of its social context. Admitting otherwise risks a tacit acceptance of the presentation of the past and women and men’s roles within it. Although in regard to the 1929 Women’s War, male colonial officials did engineer a policy of historical erasure and monopolised the way in which the event was presented, the effects are neither permanent nor confined only to women. Nothing can be done to change the lives of the Nigerian women who lived under colonial rule, but historians can change how the event is perceived and broaden the sources used to tell it.  If anything, it is a patriarchal ideological framework which has written history. The focus on ‘great men’, state politics and a ‘patriarchal ordering of values’continues to exclude women and other groups who existed outside the realm of political power and warfare.[34] The future of history must be intersectional – empowering and celebrating the diversity of human identity and activity. If not, events like the Nigerian Women’s War will continue to be misrepresented and overlooked for generations to come.

Evie Nicholson


Andrade, Susan Z. “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary Tradition.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): 91–110.

Brown, Carolyn. “Race and the Construction of Working-Class Masculinity in the Nigerian Coal Industry: The Initial Phase, 1914–1930.” International Labor and Working-Class History 69, no. 1 (March 2006): 35–56.

Declich, Francesca. “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among the Zigula and Shanbara.” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): 93–122.

Great Britain. Foreign And Commonwealth Office. Library. Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire into the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, December, 1929. Lagos: Printed By The Government Printer, 1930. <>.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Dance and the ‘Women’s War.’” Dance Research Journal 14, no. 1/2 (1981): 25–28.

Lerner, Gerda. “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges.” Feminist Studies 3, no. 1/2 (1975): 5–14.

Meyerowitz, Joanne. “A History of ‘Gender.’” The American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (December 2008): 1346–56.

Pierre, Elizabeth A. St. “A Historical Perspective on Gender.” The English Journal 88, no. 3 (January 1999): 29-34.

Scott, Joan W. “Women and War: A Focus for Rewriting History.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1984): 2–6.

Smith, Bonnie G. “The Contribution of Women to Modern Historiography in Great Britain, France, and the United States, 1750-1940.” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (June 1984): 709-732.

Strobel, Margaret. “African Women’s History.” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): 509–22.

Toyin Falola, and Adam Paddock. The Women’s War of 1929 : A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.

Van Allen, Judith. “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 6, no. 2 (January 1972): 165–81.

———. “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of Women.” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 6, no. 1 (1975): 11–39.

Ware, Susan. “Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, no. 3 (January 2010): 413–35.


[1] Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” 

     Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 6, no. 2 (January 1972): pp. 

     165–81 ; Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of 

     Women,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 6, no. 1 (1975): p. 12.

[2] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 177

[3] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 174-6.

[4] Francesca Declich, “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among the  

     Zigula and Shanbara,” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): p. 94 ; Margaret Strobel, “African Women’s History,” 

    The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): p. 512.

[5] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 11.

[6] Susan Z Andrade, “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary 

     Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): p. 96.

[7] Van Allen, “Aba Riots, p. 14.

[8] Great Britain. Foreign And Commonwealth Office. Library, Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to 

     Inquire into the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, December, 1929. (Lagos: Printed By The 

     Government Printer, 1930),

[9] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 14.

[10] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 19.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 27.

[15]Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 24

[16] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 165.

[17] Susan Ware, “Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 

       40, no. 3 (January 2010): p. 415.

[18] Joan W Scott, “Women and War: A Focus for Rewriting History,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1984): 

       p. 3.

[19] Susan Z Andrade, “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary 

        Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): p. 97 ; p. 105.

[20] See for example, Van Allen, “Sitting on a man”, p. 165; p. 181.

[21] Bonnie G. Smith, “The Contribution of Women to Modern Historiography in Great Britain, France, and the 

        United States, 1750-1940,” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (June 1984): p. 109.

[22] Margaret Strobel, “African Women’s History,” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): p. 512.

[23] Francesca Declich, “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among 

       the Zigula and Shanbara,” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): p. 114.

[24] Judith Lynne Hanna, “Dance and the ‘Women’s War,’” Dance Research Journal 14, no. 1/2 (1981): p. 27.

[25] Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges,” Feminist Studies 3, no. 1/2 (1975): pp. 


[26] Ibid.

[27] Carolyn Brown, “Race and the Construction of Working-Class Masculinity in the Nigerian Coal Industry: The 

        Initial Phase, 1914–1930,” International Labor and Working-Class History 69, no. 1 (March 2006): p. 38.

[28] Brown, “Race”, pp. 35-56.

[29] Brown, “Race”, p. 43 ; p.48.

[30] Lerner, “Placing Women in History”, p. 9.

[31] Cixous, Hélène, and Annette Kuhn. “Castration or Decapitation?” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): p. 44.

[32] M. A. Jaimes Guerrero. “”Patriarchal Colonialism” and Indigenism: Implications for Native Feminist Spirituality and Native Womanism.” Hypatia 18, no. 2 (2003): pp. 58-69.

[33] Elizabeth A. St. Pierre, “A Historical Perspective on Gender,” The English Journal 88, no. 3 (January 1999): 

        pp. 29-34.

[34] Lerner, “Placing Women in History”, p. 10.

The Colosseum: A Political Tool

Arguably the most iconic arena in the world, Il Colosseo still stands at the very centre of modern Rome as a testament to both the glory and the cruelty of the Roman Empire. Constructed almost two thousand years ago, around six million people still flock to Italy’s capital to explore the history and grandeur of what remains of the largest amphitheatre the world has ever seen.

Despite the majestic architecture and its cutting-edge design, the Colosseum is most well-known for the brutal and bloody spectacles it hosted. Gladiatorial contests, animal hunting, war processions, battle reenactments, plays, and executions all provided the people with entertainment during its five centuries of activity.Four hundred thousand people and one million animals are believed to have died throughout the Colosseum’s lifespan, clearly illustrating the sheer bloody-mindedness of Ancient Rome. 

The Colosseum in Rome, April 2007. (Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

While less discussed, the Colosseum’s significance was actually far more than just as a theatre for mass entertainment; from its design and architecture through to the events it played host to, the amphitheatre served as a tool to Roman Emperors for political control. 

Following the suicide of Rome’s fifth emperor Nero in 68 AD, Rome grew deeply fractious, with civil war briefly breaking out and social, military, and political upheaval ensuing. Emerging victorious from this turmoil was Vespasian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, who needed to consolidate his position as emperor with the Empire close to ruin. Seeking inspiration from Rome’s first emperor Augustus who had supposedly planned to build a permanent amphitheatre, Vespasian commissioned the construction of what was to be known as the Flavian amphitheatre:a gift to the Roman people. The goal was panem et circenses(bread and circuses). A means of providing entertainment to the masses to appease public discontent and win over popular support in response to the recent struggle and instability of the Empire. 

Rome was indeed hungry for entertainment and distraction, and the Colosseum’s events reflected the various rulers’ desires to win over political capital and strengthen their rule. Victorious battle reenactments served to foster the spirit of Roman imperial prowess, and the courage of gladiators symbolised the might of the Roman warrior. Executions of criminals were incorporated into the theatrical performances, some were catapulted in from outside the arena in a timely manner so as to re-enact deaths in plays. The one hundred days of games put on for the opening of the Colosseum was an unprecedented spectacle in entertainment, and the people of Rome were enraptured. 

Underlying the political support won from the construction of and events held was the political significance of the architecture and design of the Colosseum itself. It was no coincidence that the amphitheatre was built upon former emperor Nero’s lake, as it represented a handing back of land to public use following the confiscation of property that occurred under his rule. The key element here though is its sheer scale. To build the largest amphitheatre in the world, an amphitheatre that could house over fifty thousand spectators, was a sure way of providing both entertainment to the greatest of masses and a landmark to be in awe of that symbolised the greatness of Rome. 

The Colosseum was an opiate  to the masses and a tool for political support. Although Vespasian never lived to see it open, we can be certain that he would’ve been proud. 

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer


Lord Byron, Celebrity

The idea of celebrity was conceived within the Romantic period, in part, through the prominent figure of Lord Byron. Following the French Revolution there was an increased focus on the individual and this was epitomized in the emerging figure of the celebrity. With the surge in publishing technology there was, according to historian Tom Mole, a ‘general democratization of media’, which meant far more people could have access to Byron’s work than ever before and he could occupy a bigger part of public consciousness. 

Interestingly, the public responded to this in a way that helped cultivate their own sense of self. In the private sphere, particularly women could write letters to Byron and created common-place books. These were effectively scrap-books, which the owner would fill with their chosen excerpts of poets’ work, making their own personalized collection. It was an expression of the community of readers and consumers which allowed them to mediate their own experience of celebrity. We could compare this today to clubs and fan pages dedicated to specific celebrities. 

Through fan letters, historian Richard Schickel has suggested that there formed an idea of a ‘false intimacy’ within letters to Byron. Fans could imagine they knew him and could position themselves as the romantic subjects of his poetry and respond accordingly. We see this today as people claim the deeply personal effect celebrities have had on their lives despite never actually having met said person. This individualized reception of the celebrity, such as Byron, thus became a space where the fan could form a subjectivity of their own. They could pick and choose which of Byron’s verse was significant in their commonplace books and thus this moved away from the individuality of the celebrity themselves.

This movement away from Byron personally to a more modern embrace of celebrity was evident in the commodification of his celebrity. As today, we attempt to personalize and immortalize an embrace with celebrity culture, such as a concert, through buying a t-shirt or keeping an autograph. With Byron, this was with the new technologies of steel plate engraving, allowing a reproducible element to Byron’s commodified celebrity, but also a condensation of his characteristic visual trademarks, described as ‘a curol of hair, a high forehead, an open collar.’ Technologies like this infused celebrity commodity culture more and more, and reproductions of Byron’s silhouette became less and less like him, according to historian Tom Mole. 

Portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips, c. 1813. (Credit: Newstead Abbey, via The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Finally, and perhaps most uniquely, the commodification of the celebrity with Byron can be given a diplomatic quality, with regards to his tangible participation and support of the Greek War for Independence. Byron acted as a commissioner in raising a loan for Greece in February 1824, to help facilitate a defense against the Turks. His individualism acted as a diplomatic rod between nations, particularly as Byron panders not to his original nationality, English. Insightfully, historian Jason Goldsmith relays that, ‘Britain expands under the sign of Byron.’ Byron provided perspective on the Greek situation, particularly through his Turkish Tales and reinforced the English dread of Ottoman barbarism. 

This can clearly be seen in how celebrities are used today in charity and political agendas, given their large following, even if they may not have particular political experience. One recent example may be the use of Marcus Rashford’s celebrity to further political agendas. 

Lord Byron is a hugely interesting figure when looking at celebrity culture. Facilitated by the meteoric rise of printing, people could have access to great writers like never before and personalize their experience with them, making the idea of ‘celebrity’ far bigger than the individual it represents.

Anna Shepherd

France and the Arab World: A Tale of Tension

Tensions are rising between France and the Arab world. The last few weeks has seen protests in Libya, Syria and the Gaza Strip, along with calls for a boycott of French goods in many Middle Eastern countries. This growing tension comes in the wake of the brutal, horrific murder of a French school teacher named Samuel Paty. Paty, 47, was beheaded in the suburbs of Paris, close to the school at which he worked, for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his students in a class on freedom of expression. 

A woman in Marseille holds a sign (‘I am a teacher’) at a gathering in homage to Samuel Paty, October 18. (Credit: CNN.)

This assault on a French citizen and on a core French value was swiftly responded to by President Emmanuel Macron, who stated that this was an “Islamist terrorist attack”. The President also spoke on the issue of publications that may be insensitive towards the religion of Islam, passionately defending the right to show cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in the name of freedom of expression, and other civil liberties that the French hold on to dearly. The response to President Macron’s remarks suggests that this defence of secularism and France’s liberal values has been received as an attack on Islam by many in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Whilst tensions may be rising rather sharply at the present time, this is not the first time President Macron, or previous French Presidents have enacted policy or made statements that have angered the Islamic community. 

In 2011 under the Presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, France brought in a ‘Burka ban’, making it illegal for a Muslim woman to conceal her face behind a veil when in public, becoming the first European country to impose such a law . This new law was faced with strong backlash from the French Islamic community, being seen as a restriction on their freedom to practice religion. It also faced deep criticism from others, with the executive director of the Non-Governmental Organisation Human Rights Watch labelling the ban as Islamophobic . It was, however, defended as a stand for secularism and French societal values and norms, with the ban remaining in place even during the coronavirus crisis and the mandating of masks in certain areas. While the ‘Burka ban’ is one of the most commonly cited issues when looking at tensions between France and members of the Islamic community, there are other areas in which the tension comes to the fore. 

Islamist terror attacks inevitably spark division between communities, as animosity tends to rise towards Muslims in the wake of such attacks, but Macron has stressed the importance of distinguishing between the Islamic religion and radical-jihadism. What is clear is that Emmanuel Macron is going to face ongoing criticism for his defence of what he holds as core French values, namely freedom of expression, due to the potential offence caused to Muslims in France and across the world. But what is perhaps more apparent, following the string of terrorist attacks in France over the last few weeks and the President’s response, is that Emmanuel Macron is remaining steadfast in his commitment to upholding France’s freedoms and ensuring that France’s values remain.

Leo Cullis


Ireland’s New Government Shows the Limits to History in Politics

It has been a historic week for Ireland. After nearly 100 years, the Civil War divide appears to be coming to an end. Four months after a stunning election result, the newly formed government sees the two traditional parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, enter formal coalition with each other for the very first time.

The two are remarkably similar ideologically, sitting somewhere between the centre and the centre right. Yet, they have regularly rotated as government and opposition despite their little difference, something that is a political peculiarity.

For generations, Irish politics has been defined by a historical, rather than ideological, divide. On one side were those in favour of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, led by Michael Collins. On the other were those opposed to the Treaty, led by Éamon de Valera. This fracture in Irish politics was later translated into party politics. Fine Gael represented the pro-Treaty side, while Fianna Fáil represented those who were anti-Treaty.

This divide has prevailed long after the Civil War, with voting often following family lines rather than more common factors, such as class. There was some sense in this in the early years of the new Irish Republic. For many, the War of Independence and the Civil War were still raw. These were lived experiences for a number of generations and thus this divide ran deep. My Mum tells me the story of how my Grandad would demand the TV to be switched off if De Valera ever came on the screen. 

My grandparents’ generation, however, are no longer as large a group in the Irish electorate as they once were. To an increasing number, the old historic divide means increasingly little. Moreover, the ideological similarity of the two parties has led to frustration, particularly amongst the young, at a lack of progress on various issues. It is perhaps becoming clear the old system of Irish politics is no longer relevant or fit for purpose.

Image of Irish town with flags and banners. (Credit: Tamara Gurtler, via Upsplash).

The 2020 election and the rise of Sinn Féin revealed a large portion of the electorate eager for proper change and many for the first time willing to vote for Sinn Féin. Much has been made of the party’s history, such as its links with the IRA. However, under the leadership of Mary Lou McDonald the party has worked to modernise its image. Judging by the result in 2020, they’ve had some success. Though, there is still much to be done on that front to convince others – it was cited as a reason why neither of the other two major parties would contemplate coalition with Sinn Féin.

This raises the broader question of the role of history in politics. For generations, history has played the dominant role in Irish politics. The main two parties are built on a near 100-year divide, while challengers Sinn Féin are inextricably linked to Republican violence more recent in memory. Yet the 2020 election appeared to suggest that the Irish electorate is beginning to move on.

History undoubtedly plays an important role in politics. It shapes and informs where we are now and provides a rich archive from which to learn for future decision-makers and voters. But, it is not automatically relevant. In Ireland, the Civil War and the Troubles are becoming increasingly less salient. Voters appear to be far more worried by contemporary issues, such as Ireland’s housing crisis, and are voting to reflect that, rather than what side of the Civil War their ancestors were on.

James Reid