Lisa Hilton’s Athenais: When spite is mistaken for women’s history

I came across this book in a charity shop. I’m glad it only cost 50p, otherwise I’d have to write to the publisher demanding my money back for mis-selling a deeply spiteful text as a “biography” of Athenais, mistress of King Louis XIV of France.

Whilst the premise is ostensibly biographical, it’s mostly a treatise on how ugly women deserve to be treated like pieces of shit. And, any man who cheats on his ‘ugly’ wife has every right to; especially if you are the King of France and like pretty things. Then you get to be as abusive, cruel, and selfish as you like. You can humiliate and insult your wife, pretend she doesn’t’ exist, and still be considered a good guy, Because, hey, you’re the king, And, even the ugliest guy doesn’t deserve an ugly wife. Even if they are violent and hateful and cruel.

Even Athenais is dismissed as irrelevant once she stops being beautiful. Her beauty gone because she got fat. After giving birth to 9 children and being in a relationship with a man who forced all of those around him to eat too much.

Below are three images of the snide way in which women are treated. Hilton’s misogyny was accompanied by the usual classism and racism, but I have just picked examples of her loathing of women.

Here we have the theory that Queen Marie-Therese was so ugly that King Louis XIV was required to cheat on her repeatedly.

The Dauphin’s choice of an ‘ugly’ woman was clearly because he was insane. As no proper king would choose such an ugly woman (except, obviously, his father who was also trapped in a marriage with an ugly woman). 

And, women are stupid. Therefore, completely deserving of being described as hysterical.

No one should bother reading this book, and I am now stuck between burning the copy I have, keeping it so no one else is forced to read it, or returning it to the charity shop I bought it from.

Burning it is my current default position.

#womenwrites (September)

MPs call for end to abusive men using courts against families by Sandra Laville

Getting real about bad advice  by @wordspinster

A high school student accused a classmate of sexual assault. Her school suspended her by Nora Caplan-Bricker

Councils to be allowed to opt out of child protection laws  by Sara Ogilvie

Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”? 

Men are increasingly invading feminism – excluding them isn’t ‘man hating’
by @bindelj

Bad science misled millions with chronic fatigue syndrome. Here’s how we fought back by Julie Rehmeyer

The Science Museum and the Brain Sex game by Young Crone

Trust > on men in the feminist movement

“He had the house, the kids – I had nothing” by anonymous @thepooluk

How has rape become such a common trope of television drama? by Ellen Vanstone

Glasgow Women’s Library: a treasure trove that shows how far feminism has come by Libby Brooks

Domestic abuse: Coercive control in Scottish Law by Vicky Allan

The scale of historical sexual abuse in the UK is a catastrophe. We need catharsis | Beatrix Campbell

Angela Bassett, the genius that defies age by Rooney Elmi via @WritersofColour

Medieval Embroidery, ‘Proper Art,’ and the V&A’s ‘Opus Anglicanum’ exhibition  via @LucyAllenFWR

Calling selective schools ‘new grammars’ won’t eliminate the old problems by Iesha Small

Why we have to take white working class people’s fears seriously by Jacinta Nandi  via @WritersofColour

#womenwrites – an archive of essential writing by women

https://storify.com/LeStewpot/womenwrites-essential-writing-by-women-572ef9b20951079662ba9404

Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music & the transing of history

UnknownI love Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music: a fictionalised account of the unsolved murder of Jenny Bonnet in San Francisco in 1876. Donoghue’s strength as a writer is both the quality of her historical research and her ability to centre women within history. You can see this in her anthology Astray, Slammerkin, and The Sealed Letter.

Frog Music‘s heroine is Blanche Beunon – a former circus performer from France who became a ‘soiled dove’ in San Francisco working as a stripper and a prostitute.  Beunon is both the archetype capitalist in search of the American Dream and a mother of questionable ability (or desire). She only discovers the tension between these two competing ideologies due to a chance encounter with Jenny Bonnet – a woman who wore men’s clothing and tried to live outside the expected social constructions of working class women. We only see Bonnet through the eyes of Blanche, who is not the most aware character caught in an abusive relationship.

Frog Music is about women’s friendships, motherhood, male violence, women’s sexuality and survival. Donoghue ends Frog Music with this:

There is one myth I would like to put to rest. Jenny Bonnet shows up all over the Internet these days as a proto-trans outlaw: presenting as male, persuading women to give up the sex trade and forming them into a thieves’ gang. Attractive though this image is, it seems to derive from one highly colorful article that was not published until three years after [her] murder (“Jeanne Bonnett”, Morning Call, October 19, 1879) and an equally unsubstantiated popular history from 1933 (Ashbury’s The Barbary Coast), and I have found no evidence to substantiate it.

Frog Music is a powerful testament to the history of women’s gender non-conforming behaviour. There should be no need for these types of statements since there is no evidence for Jenny Bonnet (or Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I)  being ‘proto-trans’ because they predate the trans movement. This ‘transing’ of women’s history is ahistorical nonsense forcing a anti-feminist political agenda on the bodies of women who simply would not recognise queer theory or, indeed, see themselves as “men born in the wrong body”.

Queering history and literature can be quite fun – just take a look at the brilliant Lucy Allen’s breakdown of the new Anne of Green Gables films – but you can’t rewrite history in order to push a postmodern narrative of transgenderism onto women who have fought the gender straitjacket throughout history. Women have been gender non-conforming – at great personal risk – for centuries. And, we should be celebrating their accomplishments. Not erasing their activism or their bodies. After all, the Suffragettes learned JuJitsu not because they believed they were men – since fighting and self-defence was viewed as a male pursuit – but to protect themselves from male violence – sexual and physical.

The history of women’s gender non-conforming is an essential part of women’s history. Erasing women to claim them as ‘trans’ is misogyny. It is no different than the constant erasure of women from history by male historians.

 

 

#WomenWrites: Essential Writing from March

https://storify.com/LeStewpot/womenwrites-for-march

Helen Castor’s Joan of Arc: A History

UnknownI was disappointed by Castor’s Joan of Arc but only because I had not realised what it was Castor was writing. I wanted to read a biography of Joan and chose Castor’s book simply because I absolutely adored Helen Castor’s She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. It was historically accurate, as well as imaginative. There is so very little writing left by the women Castor profiled that any biography would be contingent on teasing out finely spun threads within the misogynist writings of those around them.

Castor’s Joan of Arc is the contextualisation of Joan within the history of Europe. It is about the France that existed in Joan’s beliefsIt contains little of Joan’s own dictated letters or chunks of testimony from the trials. As I wanted to read more of Joan, I chose to read The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc by Larrissa Juliet Taylor next. The Virgin Warrior contained more direct testimony of Joan but engaged in the hero-worship that Castor was arguing against. Equally, without having read Castor’s book I would not have been in a position to understand the historical context in which Joan was living. I knew the basics of the 100 years war and the various Henrys running about, but not enough about the political situation. Taylor’s text in focussing more on Joan does not contextualise her life and accomplishments within the greater political scene.

I suppose what I really wanted was a history of Joan of Arc that traced the myths as well as the history – rather like Bettany Hughes utterly brilliant Helen of Troy. Whilst I haven’t found that (and I’m always open to recommendations). Castor’s text Unknownis a well worth the read. She’s funny, sarcastic, and accurate – a skill set not many historians have. I love the way Castor challenges historical orthodoxy whilst making it clear that how we interpret history actually erases the lived experiences of those we are writing –  making Joan a “legend, icon and saint” but no longer a young girl. Instead, we label Joan schizophrenic without recognising the reality of faith during Joan’s life where talking to saints was considered a gift – not a curse. Castor made Joan real – and that is an essential rewriting of history.

 

And, because there is never a moment when Horrible Histories isn’t a good plan:

My Favourite Books of 2015!

In no particular order:

Biographies:

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41A9RTmB7dL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Gabriella Gillespies’ A Father’s Betrayal

Esmeralda Santiago’s When I was Puerto Rican – A Memoir

Jackie Kay’s Red Dust Road

Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship

Jeanne Theoharis’ The Rebellious Life of Mrs Rosa Parks

Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Fiction

UnknownBucha Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood

Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk

Maggie Harris’ Kissadee Girl

Jamaica Kincaid’s See Now Then

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their eyes were watching

Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone

Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must GoUnknown

Yejide Kilanko’s Chasing Butterflies

Sarita Mandana’s Tiger Hills

Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy. Snow. Bird

Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters who walk this path

Nancy Richler’s The Imposter Bride

Tatiana De Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key

Unknown 2

 

Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guave Orchard

Padma Viswanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon

Shauna Singh Baldwin’s The Selector of Souls

Kamaria Muntu’s A Good Lynching Should be Enjoyed

 

Unknown 1Sunny Singh’s Hotel Arcadia

Madeleine Miller’s The Song of Achilles

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love

 

 

 

The following by Jhumpa Lahiri’s

Unknown 1 Unaccustomed Earth

Lowland

The Namesake

 

 

 

And, Andrea Levy:

Levy Unknown

Every Light Burning in the House

Never Far From Nowhere

Uriah’s War

The Fruit of Lemons

 

 

(To be fair, I’ve loved everything I have ever read by Andrea Levy)

 

“Deeply Romantic” : Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife

I received a free copy of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife via the Mumsnet Book of the Month Book Club. I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve received free copies of with the notable exception of Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cakewhich bored me senseless and I gave it up after 50 pages. The Paris Wife, though, made me rage incandescently.

It started with the comment on the front from Sarah Blake who wrote The Postmistress : “As much about life and how we try to catch it as it is about love even as it vanishes …”. My first instinct was to bang my head off my desk. This is a book about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage; the Ernest Hemingway who isn’t precisely renown for his respect for women. I’ve not read Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress so I don’t know if this book represents her understanding of love but it sure as hell doesn’t meet mine.

The back cover is worse. It bears the quote “Deeply Romantic” from the Times Literary Supplement which is a publication I generally avoid because of, well, Rupert Murdoch. The less said about that man, the better. But, back to the point: “Deeply Romantic.” This is the story of an psychologically abusive man who belittles and isolates his wife Hadley at every opportunity whilst they live in Paris and then, in a grand gesture of romance, tries to get her to live in menage-a-trois with his mistress; one of Hadley’s only “friends.”

There is nothing ‘romantic’ about this relationship. Hadley is a lonely and isolated young woman who enters into a relationship with the first man she really manages to meet whilst living in a fairly suffocating family situation with a dying mother. Hadley may be several years older than Ernest but this isn’t a relationship of equals. She gives up everything for him and he tries to destroy her.Ernest used Hadley because he could but he had an escape route and she didn’t. This isn’t romance. It’s psychological abuse and it is utterly misogynistic to pretend otherwise. Ernest had sex with another woman in the same bed as Hadley. It doesn’t matter that this other woman becomes his second wife Pauline or that she instigated the encounter. The point is this is a self-destructive man destroying the women around him and burning through friendship after friendship with his narcissism. This isn’t romantic behaviour. It’s soul-destroying.

Whilst this is a fictional account and we can not know what happened during Hadley and Ernest’s marriage for certain, it is utterly irresponsible to peddle this kind of victim-blaming misogyny as “romance.” If this were advertised simply as a fictional/biographical account of their marriage, then it would be an incredible book because it is beautifully written and McLain has some lovely descriptions of the loneliness within marriage and the feelings of isolation from everything but it’s peddled as a “romance”. That is dangerous because it reinforces a cultural trope about “artistic” men which blames their victims for not being “understanding.” Roman Polanski has benefited quite well from this trope which has allowed him to take no responsibility for his very serious crime of child rape. And, get a standing ovation for his Oscar which was, frankly, one of the most appalling scenes of mass victim-blaming ever.

If Hadley were my friend, I would be phoning Women’s Aid on her behalf. The trope of abuse as romance is destructive and violent. It starts when we tell little girls that the boy in their class who pulls their hair and calls them smelly “loves” them. We teach our daughters that men don’t know how to communicate love effectively so have to resort to crass bullying and violence. Good men don’t need to have their egos stroked daily nor do they get upset if you have friends. Good men don’t treat their wives as appendages to be discarded when they get “old” or have the temerity to give birth and change the shape of their body.

Don’t get me wrong. I did enjoy this book. It is beautifully written and McLean’s descriptions of their marriage are equally sad and moving but this isn’t romance. It isn’t love. It also isn’t actually about Hadley; mostly Hadley serves as a tool for defining Ernest. Depressingly, the book is really all about him. Hadley is just there, in the background, serving no purpose except as “sweet little wife” to big, important author. It would have been more interesting if it had been about Hadley. We spend far too much time celebrating “Great Men” and not enough time simply acknowledging women. The thing which would improve this book is to have advertised it as ” The Real Woman’s Guide to Spotting an Emotionally Abusive Fuckwit,” then Hadley wouldn’t be insignificant in her own story.

As long as we keep peddling these relationships as “romantic,” we will continue to institutionalise Intimate Partner Violence as normal. The Paris Wife might be representative of Hadley and Ernest’s marriage but it most certainly should NOT be representative of marriage.

I call this The Norman Mailer Rule. If you meet a man who says Mailer is romantic, don’t date them. Life is too short and love too precious to waste on these relationships.

These are the signs of Intimate Partner Violence as outlined by Women’s Aid:• Destructive criticism and verbal abuse: shouting/mocking/accusing/name calling/verbally threatening

• Pressure tactics: sulking, threatening to withhold money, disconnect the telephone, take the car away, commit suicide, take the children away, report you to welfare agencies unless you comply with his demands regarding bringing up the children, lying to your friends and family about you, telling you that you have no choice in any decisions.

• Disrespect: persistently putting you down in front of other people, not listening or responding when you talk, interrupting your telephone calls, taking money from your purse without asking, refusing to help with childcare or housework.

• Breaking trust: lying to you, withholding information from you, being jealous, having other relationships, breaking promises and shared agreements.

• Isolation: monitoring or blocking your telephone calls, telling you where you can and cannot go, preventing you from seeing friends and relatives.

• Harassment: following you, checking up on you, opening your mail, repeatedly checking to see who has telephoned you, embarrassing you in public.

• Threats: making angry gestures, using physical size to intimidate, shouting you down, destroying your possessions, breaking things, punching walls, wielding a knife or a gun, threatening to kill or harm you and the children.

• Sexual violence: using force, threats or intimidation to make you perform sexual acts, having sex with you when you don’t want to have sex, any degrading treatment based on your sexual orientation.

• Physical violence: punching, slapping, hitting, biting, pinching, kicking, pulling hair out, pushing, shoving, burning, strangling.

• Denial: saying the abuse doesn’t happen, saying you caused the abusive behaviour, being publicly gentle and patient, crying and begging for forgiveness, saying it will never happen again.

What about the women: The existence of brothels in Nazi Concentration Camps

This is a response to a post at Everyday Whorephobia called “When the State Traffics Women“. I posted a brief response on the blog itself [which is currently in moderation]* but I wanted to write a longer response. Women’s history is something I am very passionate about and this particular topic is something I am quite familiar with. Whilst I am glad more women are writing about this topic, I do have some reservations about some of the conclusions within this piece.

Sexual violence and rape were common during the Holocaust. The fact that these experiences are not common knowledge is because of sexist constructions of a specific Holocaust narrative which privileged testimonies of male survivors like Elie Wiesel over women, Gay men, people with disabilities, and children, to name a few. Partly, this was because of the historical context in which Holocaust narratives became well-known as very little academic research was done until the 1960s. Testimonies published in the immediate post-war era, of which there are many, had very small publishing runs as many people were simply not interested in analysing the full spectrum of violence perpetrated during World War Two. Holocaust history was written during, and is historically situated by, the Cold War. The political desires of the US and the USSR impact how Holocaust history was written and who it was being written for. Racism was a motivating factor of the crimes against humanity during the war as much as it was a motivating factor for how the history of the war was written.

As with all history, the Holocaust was complicated. Mass genocide does not simply occur because a few men in one nation order it. The Holocaust required the participation, active and passive, of much of Europe. That is a fact which very few are willing to acknowledge but it is something we need to remind ourselves of daily.

“When the State traffics women” does raise awareness of just how prolific sexual violence was during the Holocaust. This point cannot be emphasised enough; sexual violence was ignored by mainstream historians until well into the 1990s. Feminist historians were writing about in the early 1970s but this researched was dismissed, as women’s history frequently is. Since the 1990s, there have been numerous collections of essays on the experience of women published as well as numerous conferences which dealt specifically with the gendered experiences of women. There also been an explosion in the sheer number of women’s testimonies being (re)published. In 2010, an anthology specifically about sexual violence against Jewish women was published. As I write this, there are a multitude of PhDs, essays and books being written about sexual violence during the Holocaust. Women’s experiences are being written back into the history of the Holocaust and the extant of sexual violence against all peoples is finally being questioned.

My personal belief is that there cannot be enough research and writing on the Holocaust. The Soviet archives, which were only recently opened, have demonstrated just how much we did not know. 10 years ago, a group of scholarsdecided to establish the official number of slave labour and concentration camps. It was double what was previously believed and includes at least 500 brothels. So many records still need to be archived. What we thought we knew has turned out to be only a brief snapshot of what actually happened.

This piece had the potential to increase public awareness of the existence of brothels and the treatment of prostituted women. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the essay. First, it occasionally  conflates the experience of prostituted women within Nazi Germany with the experience of all women within the concentration, death and slave labour camps. This conflation is not helpful when researching sexual violence. The treatment of individuals within the camp system depended on their nationality, race, age, sex, sexuality, criminal activity, disability and skill. During the 1930s, the Nazis deliberately targeted prostituted women under the category of ‘asocial’** for incarceration, however we do not know how many women incarcerated as ‘asocials’ were prostituted women as the category included convicted criminals, women with disabilities, and those who are still othered in the UK now. The category of ‘asocial’ included anyone accused of moral degeneracy. It is also included women who were Lesbians. Lesbianism, unlike homosexuality, was not illegal under the Nazi regime. Lesbian women were still incarcerated but they were charged as ‘asocials’ rather than for the crime of homosexuality. This category was specifically about women living within Nazi Germany before the outbreak of war and at the beginning.

Secondly, the number of prostituted women who were incarcerated in concentration, slave-labour and death camps which had brothels is open to debate because of this issue of identification. We know, for the camps where records were not destroyed, how many women were incarcerated as ‘asocials’ but that does not give us an accurate record of women incarcerated for prostitution. This is a very important point when addressing the issue of brothels and which women were required to “work” in them because women incarcerated for the crime of prostitution were by no means the only women forced to “work” in the brothels.

The establishment of the brothels, as the piece correctly points out, were in direct response to two issues: Heinrich Himmler’s “incentivisation” program for male inmates working within the armaments factories in the slave-labour camps and homosexuality within the camps. Brothels were obviously the answer to both problems. I have some personal reservations about the brothels being developed to combat homosexuality within the camp system since the men who were incarcerated for the crime of homosexuality were subjected to sexual violence and medical experimentation. Being a known homosexual was much more likely to result in death than a pass to the brothel. The problem within the camps was sexual relationships between men who were not homosexuals and the rape of teenage boys by adult men. Both issues need far more research.

The women who were raped in the brothels included lesbian women as punishment for being lesbians and Jewish women; the laws of Rassenschade were generally ignored in the camps. “Working” in the brothel did involve better food rations. The women were also allowed to bathe and had access to better clothes. They also got to work inside which was an important consideration for many women. Women’s testimonies vary on how women were “chosen” to work in the brothels but most involve the women themselves “volunteering” to be raped in the brothel and women being forced to parade naked in front of SS guards and the most beautiful being chosen. Stories of women “volunteering” to work in the brothel include women who made the “choice” in order to access extra rations to smuggle to their sisters, which may or may not have included biological sisters as the benefits of sisterhood and the importance of women’s relationships are a common theme in women’s testimonies. There are also stories of women who were incarcerated for prostitution “volunteering” for the brothels in order to spare other women the degradation of being raped.

The women “working” in brothels generally represented in women’s testimonies in two ways: as debased women or as true sisters helping other women. Much more research needs to be done into the experience of women who worked in the brothels: who they were and, for those who “volunteered”, why did they make the “choice”.

The third, and in my opinion, the biggest problem with ”When the State traffics women” is that it focuses on men and their feelings, effectively erasing the humanity of the women “working” within the brothels. Men were given tokens for ‘good behaviour’. The tokens were bartered around the camp for food and other extras. Women’s bodies were bartered as objects and then the women were raped but not just by male inmates, and certainly not Jewish men. SS guards also raped the women within the brothels, as they did with women in all the slave-labour, concentration and death camps. Jewish women were allowed to be raped by men but Jewish men were not allowed in the brothels.

As the piece states, the men were given tokens to the brothels were subject to ”humiliating genital examination and a prophylactic injection before being taken to the room”. The piece fails to mention that the women within the brothels were also subject to humiliating genital examinations. SS guards certainly did watch in some camps but not in others. In some camps, SS guards were the only people allowed to rape the women in the brothels.  The women were also raped by dozens of men every day but no mention is made of the effect of this on the women’s bodies. The article also suggests that women who were infected with STIs were sent back to the main camps. It does not mention that this was frequently followed by a death sentence. It is also important to note that the campaign against STIs, as with the campaign against lice, was actually about the “safety” of the SS officers within the camps rather than concern about the male prisoners. The women, obviously, did not count. And, yes, the pregnancies which followed mass rapes were frequently aborted. Depending on the camp, this abortion could simply involve the murder of the women or the women dying from the abortion. It is certainly not quite as easy as the article implies.

This is the piece of text with which I have the most reservations:

What motivated the men who used the service? The need to relieve sexual frustration was one motivation but survivor testimonies also refer to many men wanting to talk or simply feel the physical closeness of a woman. In the pitiless world of the concentration camp they simply sought a few minutes of tenderness. They were as much victims as the women.

Whilst the men were as much victims of the women, it wasn’t for the reasons stated above. After all, the women weren’t exactly in a position to decide whether or not they wanted to talk or just feel the physical closeness of a male body. The women were being raped dozens of times a day by dozens of men. The men had a choice. The women did not and to ignore this point is to ignore the experience and trauma of the women. This failure to acknowledge the very gendered nature of the Holocaust has led to women’s lives being written out of history.The issue of brothels within the camps is complicated because it does “challenge prevailing orthodoxies about the nature of Nazi oppression”, but, and this is very important, race was a key factor in the privilege to access to the brothels. Polish resistance fighters, German criminals and western POWs were allowed access to the brothels. Jewish men were banned and Soviet POWs were considered suspect. For the women, race was generally irrelevant. Once women were incarcerated in the camp systems, they were victims of sexual violence from all men*** without the added factor of being incarcerated in the brothel. For women out with the camp system, race also impacted on their experience of sexual violence. German soldiers raped whomever they wanted and the rape and murder of Jewish women in the ghettos guarded by regular German troops. The mass rapes by the Soviet army as the moved west is well-known, less so is the mass rapes committed by Allied forces. The stories of rape of women in Western Europe have not been fully explored.I do agree that the story of sexual violence needs to be historically situated within the wider context of Nazism, however the article refers to a now questionable construction of womanhood in Nazi Germany that was based on Nazi propaganda rather than the reality of the lives of Aryan women [and the conflation of *all* women with Aryan women here is telling]. This, however, is another essay for another time.Sexual violence was an integral experience of the Holocaust for many women and I will write further about the experience of Jewish women in the camps. What I will say is that current research into sexual violence in the Holocaust has shown just how integral sexual violence is to genocide and human rights violations. The fact that rape was not mentioned once during the Nuremberg trials is disgraceful. The fact that neither “forced prostitution” nor rape were considered war crimes until 2002 is a crime in and of itself. When writing women’s histories we need to be careful that we do not use their life-stories to reinforce a narrative based on our political leanings. The experience of women during the Holocaust has already been erased from history once to met a male political narrative. This cannot happen again.

*And, before anyone assumes anything. I only posted the comment yesterday. I’m sure they have a moderation policy which is run by volunteers. Moderating is a time consuming process and not one that anyone should have to do on a Saturday night.

** I have placed a number of terms in quotation marks because they are deeply problematic and outlining why they are problematic is an essay for another day.

***Clearly, not all men in the camps were involved in the rape of women and teenage boys but the threat was there for women.

There is more research on the experience of women available here:

The Holocaust at Women Under Siege
New Holocaust findings highlight larger gap in conflict and rape research at Women Under Siege
Remember the Women Institute

Rape as Genocide: Understanding sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the context of the Holocaust

This is a conference paper I wrote in 2006. I am sharing it today as part of Holocaust Memorial Day. Since I wrote this paper, more research into rape and the sexual exploitation and violence perpetrated against women and children has been undertaken. Women Under Siege is an excellent source of information as is the book Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women during the Holocaust. My own research in feminist theory has changed my understanding of sexual violence and genocide.

 

In the light of the stories of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape that are a part of the larger narratives of genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, it is almost becoming a truism to suggest that sexual violence is an intrinsic feature of genocide. In the realms of Holocaust history and studies, however, it is still a subject that has not attracted a great deal of attention. Certainly, scholars who are working on the ambit of female experience, such as Myrna Goldenberg and Joan Ringelheim, have always acknowledged the existence of these stories in Holocaust testimonies, but they have focused on the specific sexual vulnerability of women due to pregnancy, motherhood, and amenorrhea and so mention only small numbers of testimonies of women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted or raped, or even having witnessed these. Furthermore, they have also tended not to look at male testimonies concerning the sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape of female prisoners and even fewer have looked at stories of male sexual vulnerability, abuse or rape.[1]

My own (feminist) readings of the testimonies of witnesses Lucille Eichengreen, Sarah Magyar Isaacson, Thaddeus Stabholz, Weislaw Kieler and Fania Fénelon[2], however, led me to believe that there were more stories of sexual violence than have been acknowledged. Furthermore, if one accepts that sexual violence is not only a common part of genocide but can also be a genocidal act, then it is one that needs to be explored within the context of the Holocaust and the murder of Soviet POWs, the Sinti and the Roma, the mentally ill and differently-abled, and the exploitation of ‘Slavic’ slave-labour during the course of Nazi Germany. This includes not only the sexual violence perpetrated by the German SS, the Wehrmacht, and other Aryan administrators, but also that of the Soviet mass rapes of women at the end of the war and during liberation, as well as the sexual violence by all other militaries, Allied or Axis, and that perpetrated by ‘victims’ of Nazism against other victims of Nazism.

In fact, stories of sexual violence are more common than early feminist Holocaust scholarship has previously acknowledged, which is not to say that it was widespread, although this is likely, but simply that there are more stories than first recognized. There has also been an expansion in the number of stories of sexual violence in testimonies, partly due to new feminist research into rape, pornography, prostitution, and sexual trafficking,[3] which casts some testimonies in a new light, partly also due to the fact that the number of Holocaust testimonies published has increased exponentially since the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. These new testimonies include more stories of sexual violence and interpret more events as having a sexual component rather than simply an act of violence of humiliation.

But while the increase in the numbers of stories of sexual violence is partly simply because witnesses now understand and write about specific events in this manner it is also because current feminist reading of testimonies includes a greater knowledge and awareness of sexual violence and reading my/contemporary definitions of sexual assault against the definitions given by witnesses is also essential to my thesis. Furthermore, it is the tension between my reading and what is written/not written that makes this a fascinating area of exploration. It also acknowledges, as Anna Hardman has previously noted, “the difficult interpretative questions as to the relationship between actuality and representation.”[4]

I believe, therefore, that the most significant reason for the expansion in the number of stories are the evolving definitions of the terms rape, sexual abuse, prostitution, humiliation, and choice by scholars, witnesses, and readers of these stories. There are numerous stories now interpreted as sexual violence. These include but are not limited to forced sterilizations of Mischlinge Jews, the Roma and the Sinti and the ‘asocials’, (that is the undesirable elements of society); forced abortions due to race; refused abortions due to race; forced pregnancies; viewing the abuse of others; forced stripping and performance; forced ‘prostitution’; brothels in the concentration camps; and the fear of rape. As a feminist, I feel that these stories needed to be placed in the centre of Holocaust studies along with the stories of abuse, humiliation, torture, starvation, deportation, murder and mass murder, ghettos and gas chambers.

What I consider to be the one of the more common forms of sexual violence during the Holocaust is what Myrna Goldenberg has termed ‘sex for survival.’[5] That is to say, stories of women, men, and children being exploited sexually in exchange for food, clothing, accommodation, work permits in the ghettos, or ‘good’ jobs in the slave-labour and concentration camps. Stories of ‘sex for survival’ exist in diaries written during the war and post-war biographies and oral testimonies.[6]

One such story may be found in one of the most well-known Holocaust testimonies: Fania Fénelon’s published testimony Playing for Time, also published as The Musicians of Auschwitz. Fénelon’s text is one of the most [in]famous memoirs of women written about Auschwitz-Birkenau and, more specifically, about the women’s orchestra in that camp. Fénelon was arrested as a member of the French resistance but was also half-Jewish. She spent nine months in the transit camp of Drancy, where she was tortured, before being deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1944. She remained in Birkenau until November 1944 when the Jewish members of the orchestra were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where they were eventually liberated in April 1945. Upon arrival in Birkenau, a member of the orchestra recognized Fénelon as a cabaret singer and her ability to sing Madame Butterfly placed her in the privileged orchestra protecting Fénelon from the severe abuse and torture of the ‘normal jobs’ in the main camp.

Before discussing in depth the stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s testimony one must acknowledge the controversy surrounding it and the subsequent Arthur Miller play and film adaptations based on the text, particularly in relation to the issue of lesbianism and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch and her testimony Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen.[7] The debate is worth mentioning because of its discussion of identity, the use of survivor interpretations of the behaviours of others, the labels they attribute to other inmates, and the differences in the types of witness testimony, (literary texts, memoirs, poems). Succinctly, the debate concerns Fénelon’s description of the other members of the female orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau and the boundary between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, particularly of the characters ‘Marta’ and ‘Clara’. Fénelon devotes a section of the text to the relationships between the other prisoners in the privileged orchestra which includes a reference to a lesbian relationship. One of the women involved in the lesbian relationship was a cello player. Lasker-Wallfisch has been very clear that she was the only cello player in the orchestra and that she was not involved in any lesbian relationship and that Fénelon was well aware of this.[8]

There are a number of stories of ‘sex for survival’ in Fénelon’s text but the ones I want to discuss centre around Fénelon’s relationship with the character ‘Clara’ who she meets on the train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I am engaged in a ‘literal’ reading of the text here in order to demonstrate some of the difficulties inherent in [re]-reading and [re]-writing representations of memory and identity. The problematic status of this particular text is does not lessen its value as a document, rather it is another instance of the problematic use of memory and representation to write a ‘history’ of  the Holocaust. The character of Clara is described as “a girl about twenty with a ravishing head set upon an enormous, deformed body”[9]; a body deformed in the transit camp by starvation, a well-brought up girl who was engaged to a boy she loved. Clara is apparently still a virgin; we do not know about Fénelon. The two young women become friends during the journey and pledge to help one another in the camps.

Fénelon and Clara’s first encounter with the concept of ‘sex for survival’ happened quite quickly after arrival in Auschwitz:

A soldier was walking next to Clara. He had a totally unremarkable face, something between animal and mineral. Suddenly he addressed her in French, in a voice as devoid of expression as he was himself: “I’ll get you coffee if you’ll let me make love to you.[10]

The two girls ignore him and the subject is not brought up again. But the soldier’s statement, so early after arrival, after several days trapped in a cattle car, is a lesson about Birkenau. As Fénelon comments:

Coffee? Either a woman wasn’t worth much around here, or else coffee was priceless. She said nothing and he let it drop.[11]

We do not know if either girl has some prior experience with this in Drancy; both were there for an extended period. It is quite likely that they did but this is assumption rather than factual knowledge. The other, more experienced, girls in the orchestra are quick to point out how cheap a woman’s body, and, by extension, a man’s and a child’s, were in the camps. Jenny, another girl is the orchestra tells them: “All you need to do is find yourself a man; here sausage replaces flowers.”[12]

We can interpret this as a story of prostitution but, while, there is a tremendous amount of feminist research into the coercive aspects of ‘prostitution’ in ‘normal’ society, exchanging sex for food in the midst of a centre for genocide changes and questions the terms we use to define the activity. Not all women who were given the option to engage in sexual activities in exchange for food ‘chose’ to do so, but, some did. Obviously, the term ‘choice’ is also questionable. The terms prostitution, sexual vulnerability, and sexual slavery are debated in feminist scholarship, but once we are within a situation where the intent to commit genocide is evident, trading sex for food, moves outside of common definitions of prostitution. Yet, the term ‘sex for survival’ also seems insufficient to describe the situations that many people found themselves during the Holocaust; indeed, the terms we use to describe these stories seem almost irrelevant in their inability to demonstrate depth of meaning.

Clara, quite quickly, makes the ‘decision’ that food is so important that sex can be traded for it. Furthermore, according to Fénelon, she hoards the food for herself and she is not particular in who the partner is. Several of the other girls have ‘lovers’ whom they sleep with for food, some even sleep with the SS but Fénelon does not describe these other women in the same manner that she describes Clara or her ‘choice’. In fact, Fénelon is extremely dismissive of it, claiming Clara was more interested in food than remaining ‘female.’ Thus it is unclear whether Fénelon is disgusted with Clara because of the sexual act, claiming Clara had lost her ‘womanly dignity’, or that she is disgusted with Clara because Clara is actually transgressing sex or gender boundaries, by refusing to engage in communal survival and share the extra food received. As Fénelon says:

Clara had changed quickly, very quickly. A month after our arrival in the music block, one evening at six o’clock, she’d said to me … I won’t share with anyone anymore.” The next day, at dinnertime, I opened her box by mistake and saw a pot of jam. Clara rushed at me. “Leave that; I told you to keep your hands off it.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking. All our boxes look alike. I certainly wouldn’t touch that nobly earned jam of yours!”

There were tears of rage in her eyes, perhaps a last glimmer of a former morality, a remnant of dignity. The donor was probably a kapofrom the men’s camp. Only the kapos, the blockowas, all Poles, Slovaks, or Germans, could come to our block.

Had she been a virgin? It was possible, it wouldn’t have been a decisive factor. Besides, the risk of pregnancy for internees was virtually nonexistent.

I felt sorry for Clara when I saw her twitching her large behind, … She had been an innocent young girl who loved her boyfriend and who still nourished childlike dreams. Living in a sheltered milieu she was innocent of life, like the adorable and naïve Big Irene, who remained so, while Clara changed so quickly and so totally. She had become frighteningly selfish; she would do anything to get food. In the middle of all these painfully thin girls, her obesity was a wonder, a most effective lure for men, who paid court to her in butter and sugar.[13]

But what is ‘womanly dignity’ inside a concentration camp? Can we not interpret part of Clara’s behaviour as an attempt for semblance of human contact or even love?  It is easier to interpret it in this fashion when Clara is engaged in relations with other male prisoners in privileged positions, but it is more difficult to do so when the boyfriend is a particularly brutal (German) kapo who, apparently, voluntarily worked as an executioner for the S.S. guards in the camp, apparently for pleasure rather than requirement. Fénelon posits Clara’s relationships against her own relationships with Leon, her ‘lover’ from Drancy who volunteered for the transport to Auschwitz in order to be with Fénelon.[14] Clara’s ‘boyfriends’ gave her food in exchange for sex, Leon gave Fénelon poetry and letters for, apparently, nothing. Love exists but Clara does not know what it is and is confused.

What is particularly interesting is Fénelon’s construction of Clara’s changing identity, and the way in which she contrasts her transformation from a good virginal girl to a prostitute with her understanding of the behaviour of ‘real’ prostitutes in France. While Fénelon defends the behaviour of French prostitutes who engaged in sexual acts with German soldiers to gather information for the French Resistance in terms of heroism, Clara’s attempt to survive through sex is viewed with disgust, a contrast that is highlighted in Fénelon’s description of Clara’s outrage at her participation in cabarets where German officers were the major clientele:

“I couldn’t have heard you sing,” said Clara rather primly. “We’d stopped going out at night. We didn’t mix with the Germans, and no one went to nightclubs except Germans and collaborators.”

I fell silent, slightly ashamed; it had been very good business. How would Clara have judged the proprietress of Melody’s, who looked like a madam – indeed, perhaps she was – but who protected us? How she would have despised those tarts that hung from the necks of German officers and gave us papers, photographs, and information.[15]

But, why is Clara’s transformation into a ‘prostitute’ to save her own life so negative? Partly, it is because Clara does behave increasingly violently towards the others. Certainly, when Clara is given the job as a kapo, (an inmate barracks supervisor), Fénelon claims she behaves with ruthless and vicious violence, beating the block inmates sadistically for various rule infractions. But this did not happen until after the girls were transferred to Bergen-Belsen; Clara’s ‘prostitution’ occurred in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.[16]

This story of ‘sex for survival’ is not uncommon. What is different is the way in which it is contrasted with ‘good’ stories of using sex for resistance. But how is resistance different from survival? Obviously Clara’s brutal behaviour as a kapo in Bergen-Belsen is part of the story and can partly explain Fénelon’s construction of Clara, but we do need to separate Clara’s behaviour in Bergen-Belsen from that in Birkenau to understand how Clara’s ‘choice’ was choiceless and thus to recognise her experience as one of sexual assault. More generally I think this story reveals the complexity of sexual vulnerability, abuse and rape in the Holocaust in that at a certain point Fénelon forgets Clara’s identity as ‘victim’ and recasts her as a ‘perpetrator’ and in so doing, makes the sexual exploitation of Clara a footnote to the dehumanising effects of their situation. In order to rehumanise her (and many other victims of the Holocaust) we must therefore acknowledge and recognise the way in which sexual vulnerability is accentuated by and essential to genocide.

 

 



[1] This is not a criticism of their research but an acknowledgment of the research required. See Myrna Goldenberg, “Different Horrors, Same Hell: Women Remembering the Holocaust”, in Roger Gottlieb (ed.), Thinking the Unthinkable: Meanings of the Holocaust, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), pp.150-166; Joan Ringelheim, “Women and the Holocaust: A Reconsideration of Research”, in Signs: A Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 10, no. 4, (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1984-1985), pp. 741-761. Other examples of this sort of scholarship include Judith Tydor Baumel, Double Jeopardy: Gender and the Holocaust, (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1998). Renate Bridenthal et al., (eds.) When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984); Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000); Marlene E. Heinemann, Gender and Destiny: Women Writers and the Holocaust, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986); Sara R. Horowitz, “Memory and Testimony of Women Survivors of Nazi Genocide” in Judith R. Baskin (ed.), Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing, (Detroit: Wayne University Press, 1994), pp.258-282.

[2] Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, translated from the French by Judith Landry, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1997, 1976); Judith Magyar Isaacson, Seed of Sarah: Memoirs of a Survivor, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Illinois  Press, 1991); Wieslaw Kielar, Anus Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz, translated from the German by Susanne Flatauer, (London: Penguin Books, 1982 [1972]); Thaddeus Stabholz, Seven Hells, translated from the Polish by Jacques Grunblatt & Hilda R. Grunblatt, (New York: Holocaust Library, 1990)

[3] Much of this research has grown in relation to the wars in the former Yugoslavia. See: Beverly Allen, Rape Warfare: The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia (Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986); Alexandra Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bison Books, 1984); Anne Llewellyn Barstow, War’s Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes against Women (Ohio: The Cleveland Press, 2000).

[4] Anna Hardman, Women and Holocaust, (U.K: Holocaust Educational Trust Papers, 1999–2000), p. [check notes]

[5] Myrna Goldenberg, “Rape and the Holocaust”, paper presented at Legacies of the Holocaust: Women and the Holocaust Conference, (Krakow, Poland: May 2005)

[6] Mary Berg, Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary, (New York: LB Fischer, 1945); Trudi Birger with Jeffrey M. Green, A Daughter’s Gift of Love: A Holocaust Memoir, (The Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, 1992); Lucille Eichengreen with Harriet Hyman Chamberlain, From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust, (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994); Hedi Fried, The Road to Auschwitz: Fragments of a Life, edited and translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Gisella Perl, I was a Doctor in Auschwitz, (New Hampshire: Ayer Co., 1992, 1948).

[7] Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Inherit the Truth 1939-1945: The Documented Experiences of a Survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, (London: Giles de la Mare Pub., 1996)

[8] For an excellent discussion of this debate see Anna Hardman, Women and the Holocaust, (U.K.: Holocaust Educational Trust Research Papers, 1999 – 2000), pp. 20-27.

[9] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.12

[10] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[11] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.18

[12] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.66: Jenny to Clara

[13] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p.105-106

[14] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[15] Fania Fénelon with Marcelle Routier, Playing For Time, p. 15

[16] This post facto reconstruction of Clara may of course speak volumes about the nature of memory and memoir.