Referencing sisterhood.– ego, guilt and being kind

I want to think about the possibility of working, together, kindly with respect. When your own institution lists ‘kindness’ as one of its key strategies there are interesting possibilities in the feelings at work, at work.


We will seek to be known as a ‘kind’ institution. We will care for each other and for the world around us, in responsible and sustainable ways. We will value collegiality and mutual support across all of our actions and activities. Sussex2020 Strategic Framework

So this blog is a way to explore how to protect the parts of ourselves that we give away when our personal is political. As Sara Ahmed says ‘to live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work’.  But that means my institution gets a whole load of stuff out of me that was never in my job description. It means that when I’m evaluated, fedback upon, quantified, its not just my outputs, but my whole personal and political self that’s being measured. Furthermore, feminism is a beautiful, stretchy, broad old chorus, and its never simple when ‘being a feminist at work’ is by necessity informed by your own personal as political.

Part of our manifesto in The Subcultures Network is

‘don’t be a wanker’


 ‘sometimes you just need to get out of the way’.

But what is the line between not being a wanker and being ‘kind’ when ‘kindness’ is shadow labour? When the emotional labour of kindness, reinforces a disproportionate nurturing role? When we might give it out with no expectation of receiving it in return because we recognise that it is needed in others.

We know that pastoral support disproportionately falls on female staff’s shoulders. We know that calling for more visibility is a call for more work. We know how racialized ideas of the ‘angry woman’ are.

How many times have we had students come to our offices and say:

“Hi I’m not on your course, I’m actually in Professor x’s course. But he’s just soooo clever I find him really intimidating so I thought I’d come and ask you”.

 In effect – because you are kind.

I really have no answers but want to reflect on what happens when we make our personal political. And explore kind anger (or angry kindness perhaps)

So this is the scenario I thought work though, I’m sure I’m not alone, I know I’m not alone, but I’ve been in many rooms, listening to many people presenting their work as new, gap filling, ground breaking, and I know a woman or women have published on the very same area but have gone unacknowledged. I’ve also been that woman and sat in a room and been so unacknowledged that I was the one who felt embarrassed.

It hurts your feelings, makes you feel like your work is pointless, and erased. But the whole thing also made me uncomfortable, As kind academics we aren’t supposed to have egos, or mind. In fact as a feminist historian I feel it is part of our currency, – to model collective responsibility, but it is also a faultline for feminism. Being kind is emotional labour, not minding is emotional labour. And we have much higher expectations of kindness from our sistrrrs than we do from anyone else.

So I confess I’m not particularly kind, or nice, as some of you already know. I’m generally pretty angry.  I take my lead from Ari Up from The Slits, we will kill them, she said, we will kill them with love. Angry kind love.

How does angry kindness work? I’m struck by some words by J Brown in an article that she wrote about Poly Styrene and Annabella Lwin in gender, race and punk. In which she contextualises anger but also references the work she builds on. She explicitly builds on Sianne Ngai’s work on Ugly Feelings.

‘of all emoting, anger is the most consistently gendered. Despite the fact that emotionality has been understood as the preserve of women, anger is different. Anger is heavily masculinized affect, as are its performances of rebellion, militant resistance and insurrection.  All negative emotions are depoliticized and read as passive when expressed by women. “.

So I’m writing this in the spirit of angry kindness and a bit of awkwardness.  What is it like when we aren’t referenced or acknowledged? And what can we do with those feelings?

Of course we have no right to be read. But if you are going to claim that you are filling a hole then make sure the hole exists. Time pressured quantifiable academia encourages us to over pitch our interventions.  To sell ourselves as lone scholars, out on a limb, slaying dragons, striving quantifiably forward. But there is another way of working, we can do it together. We are in a conversation with every historian before us, alongside us, and yet to come. We should show our working.

Quite a while ago I was at a conference listening to a paper (more than tangentially) related to my own research, unacknowledged. One of the few other women in the room, Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite – piped up for me; she footnoted me in her question.  It is really hard to say –what about me? But Florence reminded me we can say it about each other.  Young female musicians have recently taken to consciously amplifying other women on social media, in the knowledge that they will most likely be pitted against each other in the mainstream press. #WomenInMusic

Cheryl vs Lily, Taylor vs Katy, Cardi B vs Nicki Minaj, Gaga vs Madonna, Azealia Banks v Iggy Azalea, Courtney Love vs Kathleen Hanna, Mariah Carey vs. Jennifer Lopez, Miley Cyrus vs. Sinead O’Connor, Lil’ Kim vs. Foxy Brown, Bette vs Joan, Nancy vs Tonya, Whitney vs Mariah,

Being name checked by Florence in that moment was more powerful than being forgotten. At conferences like the Writing the History of Youth conference in Sheffield, and at the most recent Subcultures Network conference, I was struck by how many more references my colleagues like Laura Cofield, Sarah Kenny, and Sian Edwards made to women historians, including those in the room. Referencing is a feminist issue.  It matters, not as impact, reach or citation but because it says something about how we see our collective work. Referencing is a way of modelling the knowledge economy between women.

I thought I’d think through a few of projects that have really helped me think about what collaboration and a shared knowledge economy has taught me. And to think about a blog that amplifies women rather than calling them out.

When I worked with Laura Cofield in the riot grrrl collection at the Fales Library New York,  there was a sisterhood in sitting side by side in the archive. But even more so because it helped me to reflect back back on my own assumptions, processes and position. I couldn’t have gone to the archive without Laura – literally the funding was attached to her not me.  We went to New York on a Santander Mobility grant awarded to Laura. But I also couldn’t have been there with the archive if Laura hadn’t helped me think about what it meant to be there  Laura taught me to disrupt the model of feminists coming in waves in which one generation is set up against another  and put my own fangrrrling in context.  It was really our conversations about Taylor Swift that turned that training into an intellectual development point and we recently received another Santander grant to attend this year’s KISMIF conference in the hope of building a network grant application..

But the content also gave us its own kind of angry kindness. The riot grrrls had their own stuff to teach us together.

Bikini Kill’s Kill, B. (1990). Bikini Kill Color and Activity Book. Small Zines. D. P. Archive, District of Columbia Public Library. Folder 1.

          ENCOURAGEMENT IN THE FACE OF INSECURITY is a slogan of the revolution
“No matter how great your accomplishments, recognize that you are not a magically designated “special” person. Yes, you do bring your own individual history to your work and you are super cool – but, acting elitist makes it hard for others to join in on the fun”.

For me , the message is clear, you are not special, except in your relationality.

(Don’t worry Bikini Kill also told me to check and acknowledge my privilege.)

There’s two other examples where the kindness of working together has taught me more than weeks in an archive as a lone scholar ever would.

I’ve just been putting together a talk to share my experiences of working on the film Queerama at this year’s LGBTQ* History club opening at Brighton Museum. The film was funded by the BFI and  made in 12 weeks from  pitch to premiere. It is a montage archive history set to a sound track by John Grant and Goldfrapp It honours the anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. It is a queer film in subject, intent, form and process. The team, Daisy Asquith, Mike Nicholls, Campbell X, Simon McCallum, the editors and me wanted to work queerly.  We worked together as a queer family, engaged with queer thought and though about what a queer documentary form might be. In the words of CampbellX – ‘we cut [edited] for the throb’.


Similarly the Observing the 80s team, worked through politics and processes of collaboration as a subject of historical analysis. Working with MOP and  the then Head of Academic Services & Special Collections Jane Harvell and the Observing the 80s team, helped me think about the politics and processes of collaboration as a subject of historical analysis.  The role of Jill Kirby here was really important, she managed the project, recording each component’s labour, ensuring its integrity, but politically she held our collaboration together.  It made me think a lot about the central value of facilitation in collaboration.

In both projects we have produced an open educational resource, one via Sussex’s then VLE ‘Study Direct’, and one via OER Commons. It seems right to give our stuff away, and share the work of so many amazing researchers.  As we’ve toured Queerama globally, we invite people to play with the OER in the hope will turn the viewer into an active analyst adding their experience to the collection of stories.  But more powerfully for me we worked openly and collaboratively. In both projects the different elements of the team working together reproduced the project’s methodological goals.  We wove together teaching and research, and different types of evidence (life history, ephemera, oral history) in ways which shone a different light on each component, individually and in concert.

Both projects were collaborative in form, but also in relationship with their evidence too. The Mass Observation Project makes you work collaboratively with not on your sources. The MOP respondents are not the subject of our analysis, they are co-analysts with us. They don’t do what we tell them to, and they often tell us more than we seek to ask.  Similarly the history of queer representation in film is sometimes the history of not being easily seen, or of not easily getting what you want, and of having to work really hard to find yourself represented. Of having to work really hard with what you are given when you are represented as the freak, the pervert, the duplicitous spy, the blackmailer the dead body.

One of the things that I found most interesting was the care that the Queerama team put into acknowledging the academic work that inspired them – particularly that of Matt Cook, Andy Medhurst. I know how we reference a documentary in an article, but how does it work vice versa? If we want to make sure that we recognise each other’s labour we need to think about that when academics are more than ‘the talking head’ but are actually methodological inspirations for ways of thinking and working.

When the best thing about this job is what you get out of working with other people, of learning from not about our evidence then why not put that to the front. Footnote your workings.

If our work as feminist historians is to uncover the marginalisation and agency of women in the past, then we owe it to those that inspired us to do the same with our work processes. A historical account of the past is a political demand about the here and now.  That includes how we situate ourselves in our own histories.

The personal as political is no easy option, sisterhood is not always easy. Sisterhood doesn’t always come easy as the historian Sian Edwards once told me, Sisterhood is like love ‘it’s a game of give and take’.

So what can we do ? we can think about who has our back. We can note it, acknowledge it , reference it, and pay it forward. And sometimes we can just get out of the way.

Our work is a conversation with others past, present, known and unknown. Who acknowledges whom is an intensely political, angry and kind process.

(A much earlier version of this blog was presented as part of the Conversation ‘Working as Feminist Historians’ for MBS 2017 , the ultimate footnotes go to – Sally Alexander, Hester Barron, Caitriona Beaumont, Claire Langhamer, and Penny Summerfield. And lovely coffee with the lovely Mike Riley set me thinking )

Leave a Reply