Your Silence Will Not Protect You

People ask me why my research matters, why history research matters at all.

They ask out loud over drinks at a party, because some people find arguing helps them relax.

And they ask with their eyes and their eyebrows, their shuffling feet and phone-fiddling fingers.

Deep down, they ask the same of all of us – doctors, cleaners, teachers, programmers – I know, but I think they ask with special insistence “What do we need with historians?”

I rehearse bland arguments about learning from the past, although everyone knows they carry no true weight (the point of history, I remember someone pointing out recently, seems rather to be our complete inability to learn from the past).

I appeal to a vague ‘humanity’: what would life be without the arts, without culture? (They smirk. What is a PhD thesis on legal practices in nineteenth-century Germany to Breaking Bad?).

If I am feeling particularly cynical, I talk of how a degree in history prepares my students to be good (docile?) workers, gives them analytical skills and writing skills and people skills and pretending to give a damn skills. A Bachelor’s in how to stay awake when someone has been talking for 40 minutes about something you don’t care about.

And I don’t want to answer the question.

But this is not a post about my silence, but about the silences I study.

I want to leave the question of ‘why’ unanswered, fumble on with a vague sense that because I try to write women, workers, the illiterate and dispossessed into the narratives we tell about the recent past, just as I try to live a life that is alive to the differences and inequalities of society today, that somehow this should just be self-evidently worth doing.

To some people, it isn’t.

And then sometimes something hits me harder about the connections between this life I’m living and the research I produce.

This week, I noticed.

After a long period of scrambling to catch up with teaching commitments, job applications, and a variety of things that are part of the job but that we never seem to count as part of the job, I finally got a chance yesterday to spend a whole day working to re-write part of my doctoral thesis into an article draft.

The article is about a seamstress from nineteenth-century France, and the songs she sang to a folklorist named Félix Arnaudin, whose manuscripts my doctorate was based on. Catherine Gentes was one of his favourite singers, and one of the things I noticed about her songs was that she tended to leave out references to sexuality. This is surprising in a region of France known for some of the raunchiest folk songs in the national catalogue, so my article is about why this might be the case.

It argues that this is because Catherine was freighted with the burdens of a whole series of expectations about her body.

As a seamstress, she probably encountered assumptions about her promiscuity, assumptions that have their roots deep in the kinds of work seamstresses did, touching other people’s bodies and entering their homes. These assumptions played out in the lives of real women. Of the other singing seamstresses I studied in my doctorate, over half had children outside of marriage.

As a woman with a limp, Catherine would also have dealt with cultural assumptions about her sexual appetites. Doing my research, I was surprised to discover that limping was associated with pronounced sexuality in the folk culture of the region I studied. People talked of the effect limping had on the body, accentuating buttocks, rubbing thighs.

A seamstress with a limp: to the people around her, Catherine’s body was marked, different, sexual, no matter what she herself felt about her work and flesh.

And this, I argue in the article, is why she goes to such lengths not only to play down sexuality in her songs, but to forcefully assert her own control over and ownership of her body. She was the only person to sing the following verse to Félix, and the song does not appear to be known outside of the region:

“I have taken, and I have given,
[But] I did not give up my body.
I have taken, and I have some left,
I am not an abandoned girl.

I suggest that historians learn something important about the subjectivity of an ordinary person through the example of Catherine and what she chose to sing, or not sing.

Historians learn how women built identities with words that were not their own, and how someone with a disability might struggle to make the body that marked them as different their own. They learn about a whole informal realm of negotiations of sex, bodies, and words that constituted everyday identities in this period.

And as I have been writing this, I have felt with particular force that everything changes, and everything stays the same.

I am thinking of comments made in conversation this week by colleagues about other colleagues’ bodies.

I am thinking of a news story and twitter debate about how women in academia are expected to dress (

And I am thinking especially of this excellent post by Dorothy Kim about everyday micro-aggressions at academic conferences:

Her post made me realize I was talking about the same thing, the ways that certain bodies are marked and manipulated, appropriated by sexist and ableist behaviours (in the case of the piece I am writing) as well as racist and homophobic ones (in the events that DK is dealing with).

What, then, is the point of studying history?

The point is that the cultural assumptions Catherine’s family, neighbours, and acquaintances made about her limp and her work as a seamstress are alien to what many people today would understand about bodies and sex, even though she died just a hundred years ago.

They are part of a different cultural understanding of the body, but our assumptions today, just like theirs, are also cultural, which in no way to say that they don’t maim, disfigure, and repress.

Quite the opposite.

From thinking about what sexist and ableist attitudes did to Catherine’s life and how she tried to improvise a meaningful subjectivity in the face of these constraints, perhaps we can learn something about the micro-aggressions that we are complicit in everyday, even when we make the strongest efforts to avoid committing them ourselves.

I find no blame in the strategy of silence that (I believe) Catherine employed, the ways she passed over topics that made her uncomfortable. But I agree with Dorothy Kim when she quotes Audre Lorde to encourage others to speak up when they witness harassment. In the end, ‘Your silence will not protect you’.

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