Father figure?

Exactly four years ago I wrote a post on this blog, bemoaning the absence of fathers from television Christmas advertisements. After running through that year’s crop of ads, highlighting the invisibility of men in their sentimental seasonal narratives, I added the following reflection:

Of course, it could be argued that fathers are somewhat peripheral to the story of Christmas. When our children were young, we bought a set of Nativity figures to display in the fireplace at Christmas. When we unpacked them, we found that the set consisted of seven figures: Mary holding the baby Jesus, an angel, two shepherds and three kings – but no Joseph. It’s as though he’d been erased from the narrative – and I suppose some would say that the notion of a virgin birth makes a human father pretty redundant anyway. 

Even when Joseph is present in representations of the Nativity, he’s often a peripheral figure, sitting or standing in the background and looking on while all the attention is focused on Mary and her newborn Child. You’d look in vain for images that present Joseph as a model for ‘hands on’ fathering.

So I was really pleased to come across this reproduction of a 15th century French icon, via Scott Hahn’s Facebook page. It shows Joseph caring for baby Jesus while Mary studies the Scriptures: a great example of caring fatherhood and equal parenting! 

Merry Christmas!

New book chapter on masculinity, faith and care

I’ve contributed a chapter to a new book on Care Ethics, Religion, and Spiritual Traditions, edited by Inge van Nistelrooij, Maureen Sander-Staudt and Maurice Hamington, and published by Peeters of Leuven.  

According to the publisher’s blurb, the book is ‘a collection of original essays that address the intersection between contemporary feminist care ethics and religious morality’ and it ‘engages theorists from various disciplines in discussing the continuities, discontinuities, and applications of feminist care ethics, spiritual traditions, and religion.’

The book consists of thirteen substantive chapters, divided into three sections, with contributions by authors from across Europe and North America, representing a variety of religious traditions. My own chapter – ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care’ – is in the second section of the book, which explores issues of ‘embodiment, gender and family’. In the chapter, I use the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War as a springboard to discuss the ways in which, contrary to received opinion, certain forms of religious belief can motivate and inform a caring masculinity, and more broadly an ethic of care. (This is the second time I’ve drawn on these family letters in an academic publication: in my article for the special issue of Genealogy on ‘Fathers and forefathers: men and their children in genealogical perspective’ that I edited in 2020, I used them as a resource for challenging popular assumptions about fathering practices in previous generations.) Here’s a description of my chapter from the book’s Introduction:

Because care ethics developed out of feminist analysis and was rooted in women’s traditionally under-valued experience, understandably, there has not been as much written about care and masculinity. This absence is changing as care ethics grows in popularity across a variety of disciplines. Martin Robb, who has written extensively about masculinity in the context of care, furthers this vital conversation in ‘”With Prayer from Your Loving Father”: Men, Masculinity, Faith and Care.’ The chapter begins on a personal note, with Robb sharing excerpts of letters from his great grandfather to his grandfather. He leverages these letters in the context of Christian Methodism to argue for a Christian masculinity compatible with care theory. In particular, Robb challenges the notion that Christian masculinity was handed down as a monolith. On the one hand, he acknowledges that one form of Christian manliness was reinforced as ‘neo-Spartan virility as exemplified by stoicism, hardiness, and endurance’ by Christian and quasi-Christian social institutions. However, that form of masculinity existed in tension with a narrative that Robb finds revealed in his great grandfather’s letters where ‘the emotional spirituality of Methodism offers him a language in which to openly express his love for his son’ as in closing his letters with kisses. Robb concludes with a note about the significance of imagination for care. Although the tendency is to address care theory in the rational and analytic tradition of Western academic theory, he contends there is a need for an ‘imaginative superstructure to inform and motivate care’ that religion can provide. 

The new book is published as open access. You can find more details, and download the whole book for free, here

Arguing with Edith Stein

OK, so the title of this post may be somewhat provocative, not to say presumptuous. After all, Edith Stein was an eminent philosopher, a brilliant writer, and an actual saint. And I’m…none of those things. She’s also a heroine of mine, someone whose life story has been an inspiration to me, especially since my return to faith. Indeed, I started writing this post on 9th August, Edith Stein’s feast day in the Church calendar. So, in a sense, this post feels a little bit like arguing with family.

A more accurate – but less eye-catching – title for this post might have been ‘Reflections on reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Woman as a man.’ And specifically, as a man who researches and writes about men and care. As for ‘arguing with’: it might be more appropriate to describe this post as an attempt to make sense of some of Stein’s key ideas about sexual difference – ideas to which I responded negatively on first coming across them – and their implications for thinking about men and masculinity.

Edith Stein as a young woman

But before going any further, perhaps there’s a need for some background information about Stein, for those who are not familiar with her biography or her work. Edith Stein was born into a Jewish family in 1891, in what was then Breslau, Germany, but is now Wroclaw in Poland. For a vivid account of her early life, I’d recommend her autobiographical account Life in a Jewish Family, though with the caveat that some details have been challenged by members of her family: see, for example her niece Susanne M. Batzdorff’s Aunt Edith: The Jewish Heritage of a Catholic Saint.

Stein studied philosophy in Göttingen under Edmund Husserl, the founding father of phenomenology, and worked for a time as his assistant at the University of Freiburg. In 1922, she was received into the Catholic Church, then spent some years as a teacher and lecturer before becoming a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. In 1939, in the face of the growing threat to Jews from the Nazi regime, she was transferred to a monastery in the Netherlands. However, following the Nazi occupation of that country, and the public condemnation of anti-Jewish policies by the Catholic Church, Jewish converts to Christianity, including Edith and her sister Rosa, were deported to Auschwitz, where Edith was murdered on 9th August 1942. Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Edith Stein’s contributions to philosophy include her influential thesis On the Problem of Empathy and her attempt to reconcile phenomenology and Thomist ideas in her major work Finite and Eternal Being. However, it was in her lectures and articles on women’s education and vocation, published after her death as Essays on Woman, that Stein set out her central ideas about sexual difference, particularly in the two essays entitled ‘The ethos of women’s professions’ and ‘The separate vocations of man and woman according to nature and grace’. These are the essays I’ll be referring to in this post.

So why should contemporary researchers, interested in issues of gender and care, take seriously the writings of an early twentieth-century Catholic nun? Well, firstly because those ideas might be helpful in developing an alternative, faith-based feminism (and male pro-feminism), and a way of thinking about sex and gender that’s compatible with a consistent life ethic, of the kind that I’ve been exploring in recent posts. But also because Stein is regarded by a number of modern feminist commentators as a feminist pioneer, someone who argued for women’s suffrage and promoted women’s education at a time when support for such ideas was by no means universal. In addition, there have been claims that her philosophical work, particularly in her writings on empathy, represents a potentially significant contribution to contemporary care theory. US care ethicist Maurice Hamington (2004) suggests that Stein’s work on empathy is helpful in understanding the part played by imagination in care, while the Czech philosopher and ethicist Petr Urban (2022) argues that Stein’s ‘ethical thought makes her a forerunner of some recent developments in feminist ethics, particularly ethics of care’.

Petr Urban (via ethicsofcare.org)

In fact, it was coming across articles by Petr Urban about Stein’s ideas on sexual difference, as well as conference papers of his discussing her thought as a resource for an ethic of care, that first alerted me to her work in these fields. Incidentally, it was Petr’s articles that also introduced me to the work of Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa on sexual difference, ideas that I’ve found extremely helpful in my own recent thinking. Reading Petr’s papers, and the essays by Stein to which they referred, I was intrigued, but also somewhat disconcerted, as a male reader, and as someone with a firm belief in men’s capacity for care. It wasn’t so much what Stein wrote about women that perturbed me, so much as the implications of what she wrote for men, or rather what they implied about men by default.

For example, in her essay on ‘The ethos of women’s professions’, Stein argues that, although women and men share ‘a basic human nature’, a woman’s ‘faculties’ differ from those of men,‘therefore a differing type of soul must exist as well’. She continues:

Woman naturally seeks to embrace that which is living, personal, and whole. To cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth is her natural, maternal yearning.

Stein elaborates on these distinctive feminine qualities elsewhere in the essay, and also in her essay on ‘The separate vocations of man and woman’, where she writes:

True feminine qualities are required wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Above all, this activity involves the total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other.

According to Stein, these ‘natural’ feminine qualities equip a woman not only for motherhood, but also for her additional vocation as a ‘companion’. 

To grasp what Stein believes about men’s ‘natural’ qualities, one has to read what she says about women as if in a mirror. Although she doesn’t say so explicitly, the implication of what she writes is surely that men do not possess these innate qualities: they (we) do not have an instinctive feel for all that is ‘living, personal and whole’, they are not characterised by ‘feeling, intuition, empathy and adaptability’. And they don’t have an innate capacity for activities which involve the ‘total person’, such as caring for others.

Stein doesn’t have a great deal to say directly about men’s innate qualities (perhaps not surprisingly, given that her focus is on women’s vocation), except for one or two brief sentences. For example, in the first essay she writes:

Man is consumed by ‘his enterprise’, and he expects others will be interested and helpful; generally, it is difficult for him to become involved in other beings and their concerns.

And in the second essay we read that ‘masculine vocations’ tend to require not only ‘bodily strength’ but also ‘the ability for predominantly abstract thought, and independent creativity’.

As I read these lines, they just didn’t seem to align with my own experience, or the experiences of men I knew, or those of the ‘hands on’ fathers and male care professionals whom I’d interviewed as part of my research. Didn’t these men have an innate regard for what is ‘living, personal and whole’? Were they constitutionally, because of their sex, unable to respond as a ‘total person’ in their caring? And in their care for others, did these men (did we) find it difficult to ‘become involved in other beings and their concerns’? Speaking personally, as I read these essays by Stein I felt put into a box that didn’t feel at all comfortable or familiar.

Nancy Dallavalle (via nancydallavalle.com)

While I was in the process of writing this post, I discovered the work of the Catholic feminist writer Nancy Dallavalle,  an associate professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In a 1998 article, Dallavalle criticised Pope John Paul II’s 1988 text, Mulieris dignitatem (‘The dignity of women’) – which is heavily influenced by Edith Stein’s ideas – in which he describes women’s innate capacity for ‘community’, but in Dallavalle’s opinion fails to present ‘any positive description of a male psycho-physical structure’, except to assert men’s deficiency in this capacity: ‘Men, in other words do not “naturally” care for others’. This omission, and the implicitly negative picture of masculinity, Dallavalle believes, significantly weakens John Paul’s account of sexual difference, and I suggest something similar could be said about Edith Stein’s account.

This is not the only criticism that could be, or indeed has been made, of Edith Stein’s notions of sexual difference. Sarah Borden (2007) sums up the criticisms of some later feminists as follows:

The claim that women’s ‘genius’…lies in their personal and relational capacities, as an orientation toward concrete, actual persons and their holistic development, is precisely the view of women that has caused trouble all these years. This view is, in fact, the reason the women’s movement and feminism were born. The critics might insist that, although Stein might claim that she is not limiting women to the nursery and home, yet that would be precisely the effect. In arguing that women’s genius lies in persons and attention to persons, Stein they would say has in essence put women back in children’s wards and the low-paying jobs and blocked their path to higher education or positions of leadership. One might argue that no matter what Stein may say about not limiting roles or jobs, this will be the inevitable result of allowing such gender distinctions into our discussion. The objectors might further argue that Stein’s descriptions also play into the hands of the worst stereotypes about women—seeing women as submissive, as secondary, simply the assistants to the more important work, and the ones who clean up all the dirty work when the day is done. Women care about people, so let them be the martyrs for all the men.

In her defence, it should be said that Edith Stein was writing at a time when women were still defined largely by negative traits, and by the ways in which they didn’t measure up to the positive qualities that were associated with men. For example, women’s supposed emotionality was generally seen as a weakness, not as the kind of strength and resource described by Stein. Her writings could be seen as an attempt to reclaim the positive value of these traditionally ‘feminine’ qualities.

Moreover, in the very essays from which I’ve been quoting, Edith Stein anticipates these later criticisms and makes it clear that she is certainly not arguing for women’s exclusion from certain professions or their confinement to ‘traditional’ roles. In fact, quite the opposite. On the one hand, she argues that ‘certain abiding attitudes are unique to the feminine soul and form a woman’s professional life from within’ and that ‘the very nature of woman draws her to certain professions’. But in the same essay she also suggests that ‘there is no profession which cannot be practised by a woman’:

Indeed no woman is only woman; like a man, she has her individual specificity and talent, and this talent gives her the capability of doing professional work, be it artistic, scientific, technical, etc.

Furthermore, she explicitly challenges the traditionalist view that a woman’s ‘natural’ place is in the home:

Obviously now, because of the development of the last decades and of recent years, we must consider as closed the historical epoch which made an absolute differentiation between the duties of the sexes, i.e. that woman should assume the domestic duties and the man the struggle for a livelihood.

Elsewhere, she elaborates:

Should certain positions be reserved for only men, others for only women, and perhaps a few open for both? I believe that this question…must be answered negatively. The strong individual differences existing within both sexes must be taken into account. Many women have masculine characteristics just as many men share feminine ones. Consequently, every so-called ‘masculine’ occupation may be exercised by man women as well as many ‘feminine’ occupations by certain men.

I have to admit that this last passage left me feeling somewhat puzzled. Doesn’t this contradict Stein’s earlier argument to the effect that women and men possess distinctive, innate qualities that fit them for different kinds of activity? Don’t those statements become meaningless if you then go on to say that, in fact, men can display ‘feminine’ characteristics and women ‘masculine’ ones?  Are these different qualities innate in men and women – or aren’t they?  And although Stein uses the term ‘so-called’ to describe masculine and feminine occupations, there is still an underlying sense that she thinks of care work (for example) as ‘feminine’, even when it’s undertaken by a man.

I tried to articulate some of this sense of confusion, as well as my initially negative response to Stein’s ideas about sexual difference, in an email to Petr Urban, back in 2017. He was kind enough to reply, and we entered into a brief email discussion, which we continued in person when we met in the following year at the inaugural conference of the Care Ethics Research Consortium in Portland, Oregon. I’ll try to summarise Petr’s response to my queries by referring to a recent paper of his which makes many of the same points that he made in our conversation. In this paper, he argues that it is on the ‘experiential, phenomenal level that [Stein] finds the core differences between man and woman.’ He continues:

Stein obviously does not think of ‘woman’s peculiarity’ in terms of exclusive traits and faculties. The personal traits in question are primarily human ones, and all faculties that are present in woman’s personality are also present in man’s personality. Nonetheless, Stein argues, the human traits may generally appear in different degrees and relationships in man and woman.

This makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure about that ‘obviously’, or that the casual, as opposed to the philosophically sophisticated reader, would pick up this more nuanced meaning from Stein’s own writings. I find Petr’s interpretation of Stein’s thinking to mean that the same qualities exist in ‘different degrees and relationships’ in men and women a helpful one, and certainly one that I find sympathetic, but I’m not sure how explicit it is in Stein’s work.

Later in the same article, Petr refers to an earlier paper of his, in which he provided ‘a detailed argument in favour of a phenomenological reading of Stein’s “dual anthropology” by stressing that Stein conceives of the sexual difference as a difference between two related styles of intentional life rather than a difference between two separate essences (regardless of if it is ontologically or biologically defined).’ He continues: ‘From the phenomenological perspective it seems plausible to read Stein’s descriptions of woman’s specific capacities and attitudes as describing a particular life form that can be shared by women and men alike’ (my emphases).

Sara Heinämaa (via britishphenomenology.org.uk)

This is somewhat similar to the distinction made by Sara Heinämaa, when she argues (2013) that a phenomenological account of sexual difference offers an alternative to both ‘naturalist’ (i.e. essentialist) and ‘constructivist’ (or social constructionist) theories of gender. Heinämaa writes:

Whereas gender-theories aim at explaining observed differences between men’s and women’s behaviours, dispositions, accomplishments, and positions, by the interplay of social, cultural, and biological forces, phenomenology studies how the sense of sexual difference is established in personal and interpersonal experiences in the first place.

I have to admit that, as a non-philosopher, I still struggle to understand what this means, just as I’m not quite sure I fully comprehend Petr’s description of gender identity as a ‘style of intentional life’.  I’m still waiting for the lightbulb moment when all of this begins to make sense. In my simplistic way, I still want to know whether these authors (and indeed Edith Stein) believe that the differences between men and women are innate, or learned, or somehow both, or neither?

In conclusion, I should make it clear that I’m not at all averse to the notion that there are innate differences between the sexes. As I’ve tried to suggest in my recent posts, I’ve moved from a position of believing that gender differences, particularly in relation to the capacity to care, are wholly socially constructed, to an acceptance that significant differences between men’s and women’s care might exist, and to trying to find ways to articulate those differences in a way that is compatible with my unchanged belief in gender equality. I suppose I wish that, instead of claiming that women have an innate and exclusive propensity for ‘caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and in encouraging the gifts of the other’, which by implication men don’t have, Edith Stein had asserted that women and men both care, but care differently – because we are different.

I’m prepared to accept that this difference may well derive, at least in part, from what Stein calls woman’s ‘primary’ maternal vocation. As she writes: ‘Only the person blinded by the passion of controversy could deny that woman in soul and body is formed for a particular purpose.’ I’m certainly willing to agree (in a way that I wasn’t in my social constructionist days) that, in Stein’s words, ‘because of the close bodily tie between child and mother, because of woman’s specific tendency to sympathise and to serve another life’, women’s care – particularly for children – will tend to have a distinctive quality that men’s care lacks. But this doesn’t mean that men have no capacity for care, or that their caring is somehow deficient: it’s just different. Just as, according to Stein, women have a ‘natural, maternal yearning’ which inclines them to ‘cherish, guard, protect, nourish and advance growth’, so surely men can have a natural paternal yearning, a yearning that may express itself in different ways, but which ‘inclines’ them (us) towards the same things.

To end on a more positive note. Needless to say, my quarrel (if that’s what it is) with some of Edith Stein’s ideas doesn’t take away from my enormous admiration for her as a philosopher (not to mention as a spiritual model and guide). I’m already finding her work on empathy a valuable resource in my ongoing project exploring personalist thinking as a resource for an ethic of care, and I plan to write more on this in future posts.

A personal postscript

One of my side projects over the past few years, unrelated to my academic work, has been researching the life and work of Theodor Kern (1900-1969), a painter and sculptor who was born in Salzburg, Austria but spent the second half of his life in Hitchin, the English market town where we’ve lived for the past twenty years or so. My website about Kern can be found here. In addition to my intererest in his art, and the way it expresses his Catholic faith, I was intrigued to discover that, when living in Vienna, Kern had been a close friend of the philosopher and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich von Hildebrand, and indeed had helped him (and others) to escape from Austria following the Nazi Anschluss of 1938, activities which eventually led to Kern’s own flight to England. I’ve long been an admirer of von Hildebrand’s writings and in the past few years have enjoyed attending (virtually) the lectures and seminars organised by the Hildebrand Project, based in Steubenville, Ohio. One of the project’s leading lights is Professor John F Crosby, a former student of von Hildebrand and himself an eminent exponent of personalism, whose writings I’ve found immensely helpful in framing my own thinking in recent years. 

Stephen Schwarz (via https://web.uri.edu)

One of the pleasures of researching Theodor Kern has been making contact with people who knew him, people who were also part of the circle around von Hildebrand – including John Crosby, who kindly shared with me his own reminiscences of meeting the artist at the annual meetings of a religious community to which they both belonged. I had a particularly helpful exchange with another US-based philosophy professor, Stephen Schwarz, whose German-born father Balduin Schwarz was also a student and associate of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and also a vociferous opponent of Nazism who was forced to flee his native country. 

In one of his emails to me, Stephen shared the following story:

My father and Edith Stein were colleagues in the philosophy department at the Institute for Scientific Pedagogy in Münster, in the Spring Semester 1933.  They were also close personal friends.  She came to visit my parents at regular intervals, for extensive talks with my father over tea, about Christ, philosophy and the current horrible political situation.  But before the serious discussions she always made it a point to go to the baby room and hold little baby Stephen, born November 8th of the previous year...This is surely one of the greatest blessings of my life.


Borden, S. (2007) ‘Foreword’, in Padua, M.M., Contemplating woman in the philosophy of Edith Stein, Manila: Far Eastern University.

Dallavalle, N. (1998) ‘Neither idolatry nor iconoclasm: A critical essentialism for Catholic feminist theology’, Horizons, 25 (1).

Hamington, M. (2004) Embodied Care: Jane Addams, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Feminist Care Ethics, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Heinämaa, S. (2013) ‘Sex, gender and embodiment’, in Zahavi, D. (ed.) Handbook in Contemporary Phenomenology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 216-242

Stein, E. (2017) Essays on Woman, Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications

Urban, P. (2016) ‘Edith Stein’s Phenomenology of Woman’s Personality and Value’, in Alles Wesentliche Lässt Sich Nicht Schreiben’: Leben und Denken Edith Steins im Spiegel Ihres Gesamtwerks‘, Regh, S., Speer, A., eds., Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder 2016; 538–555.

Urban, P. (2022) ‘Care Ethics and the Feminist Personalism of Edith Stein’, Philosophies, 7:60

The genesis of gender

In a recent post, I wrote about my growing dissatisfaction with aspects of mainstream feminism (and male pro-feminism), as my own religious and political beliefs have gone through a process of change. I mentioned my interest in the work of a number of writers and thinkers who are attempting to develop an alternative, faith-based feminism, one that acknowledges the gains made by the women’s movement in the past century or so, but at the same time is critical of some of the directions taken by recent feminist thought. In particular, I mentioned the work of Erika Bachiochi, whose important book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published last year, makes a seminal contribution to this ongoing discussion, by recovering forgotten aspects of the work of Mary Wollstonecraft and other feminist pioneers. I also mentioned the work of Abigail Favale, recently appointed as a professor at the McGrath Institute at the University of Notre Dame, whose book The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory, was about to be published. I’ve now read Favale’s book and want to share a few thoughts about it, and extracts from it, in this post.

Favale’s book is very different to Bachiochi’s in a number of respects, and presents a contribution of rather a different kind to the development of an alternative feminism. Bachiochi is a legal scholar and a good deal of her focus is on developments in the law and public policy, whereas Favale has a background in the humanities and gender studies and is more concerned with offering a critique of aspects of contemporary feminist theory. In addition, while The Rights of Women is a more straightforwardly academic book, The Genesis of Gender, though grounded in a deep knowledge of academic theory, is aimed at a broader readership, and combines an extremely accessible analysis of ideas about gender with elements of the author’s personal story. It’s the story of a former teacher of gender studies, who was once a true believer in postmodern feminist theory, but whose conversion to Catholicism has led to a revaluation of those ideas, but by no means a complete disavowal of feminism.

A third difference is in the specific issues that each author chooses to foreground. Although her scope is much broader than this single issue, Bachiochi returns time and again to the vexed question of abortion. By contrast, although Favale does tackle the arguments surrounding abortion (particularly in the chapter entitled ‘Control’), she is primarily concerned to offer a critique of what she calls the ‘gender paradigm’ (and what others would describe as gender identity ideology) and its impact on the lives of women and children. A final important difference is that, whereas Bachiochi’s book, though clearly rooted in its author’s personal religious and ethical commitments, does not use explicitly religious arguments to make its case, Favale’s book, as evidenced by its subtitle, is clearly aimed at a predominantly Christian audience. In fact, the book’s aim could be said to be helping its Christian readers, who may have scant knowledge of or interest in the finer points of gender theory, understand current debates about gender identity – and at the same time presenting an alternative vision rooted in a deeply sacramental vision of the human person. 

Abigail Favale (via Twitter)

Having said that, The Genesis of Gender is something of a mixed bag of different kinds of writing, and there are certainly parts of it that a non-believing reader would find interesting and helpful. The book’s title has a double meaning and the text includes two very different origin stories. One, which will appeal mainly to readers who are believers, is a metaphorical reading of the creation of man and woman in the book of Genesis. In a sense, Favale is reprising here the account provided by Edith Stein in her essay on ‘The Separate Vocations of Man and Woman’, which is referenced in the book. I like the way that, in Favale’s feminist reading of the creation story, the ‘dynamic of domination’ of men over women, and the sexual objectification of women by men, are seen as a ‘distortion’, rather than as part of the original plan. And I especially like the way Favale draws out from this narrative a sense of the fundamental goodness of human embodiment and of the sexed body in particular:

Sexual differentiation is not a mishap, but cause for celebration and wonder. This difference is good, our bodies are good, and both of these are an integral part of the created order, which is good. The emergence of man and woman from the sleep of nonbeing is not a footnote in our origin story: it’s the ecstatic culmination. There is more, if we dig deeper still…the body reveals the person. Our bodies are the visible reality through which we manifest our hidden, inner life. Each person’s existence is entirely unrepeatable, and our unique personhood can only be made known to others through the frame of our embodiment.

William Blake, ‘Endearments of Adam and Eve’ (1808)

This emphasis on the body revealing the person will have implications, later in the book, for Favale’s argument about gender theory. The other origin story in the book is, in fact, an account of the development of contemporary ideas about gender. Although inflected with its author’s profoundly Christian perspective, there is much here that secular readers concerned about current confusions around gender will find helpful. In a way, Favale is providing a shorter, more accessible version of the extensive and more philosophically informed narrative developed by Kathleen Stock in Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, published last year (which I would also highly recommend).

As I mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve always found Favale’s account of the development of gender theory, as articulated in her articles and interviews, both persuasive and easy to follow. She reprises that story here, particularly in the chapter headed ‘Waves’, which is a kind of potted history of feminist ideas, and in the chapters on ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’, which offer a step-by-step account of how thinking on these topics has developed, and how one has come to be increasingly separated from the other.

However, although she is critical of some of the recent directions taken by feminist theory, warning of ‘the danger of embracing feminism unthinkingly and letting it become a totalising worldview,’ Favale remains committed to the basic tenets of a feminist approach and believes ‘there is also a danger is dismissing feminism too hastily, because that leaves important concerns unaddressed’. As she writes:

Despite feminism’s conquest of the mainstream, girls and women are constantly bombarded with images that objectify and degrade them. Depression, anxiety and self-harm are sky rocketing among preteen girls. That same demographic is, in exponential numbers, deciding to reject womanhood altogether and embrace a male identity. The questions that feminism seeks to address are still vital and relevant, even if the answers feminism provides are often self-defeating.

To these issues she might have added continuing concerns about gender-based violence, concerns which sadly have been highlighted recently, here in the UK, by the shocking murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. However, what Favale is keen to do is point out some of the ways in which, in her view, feminism has been blown off course. She maintains that the complete separation of notions of gender from the body and biology in contemporary gender theory can be traced back to developments in second wave feminism: 

[T]he gender paradigm is the Oedipal offspring of feminism – offspring because it is through feminist theory that the concept of gender has taken hold of our imagination, and Oedipal because like Oedipus’ murder of his own father, this concept has eroded the very foundation of feminism, turning ‘woman’ into an identity that can be freely appropriated by men, regardless of material reality. 

Judith Butler (via en.wikipedia.org)

However, it is with the ‘postmodern turn’ taken by feminist theory in the past half century that, according to Favale, things really began to unravel, and as in her earlier writings on this topic, she pins particular blame on the influential work of the eminent gender theorist Judith Butler: or more precisely, on the ways in which some of Butler’s key ideas, such as her notion of gender as performance, have percolated into popular thinking:

In my years reading and teaching Butler’s writing, I have never seen a student correctly grasp the full implications of her argument. They latch onto those aspects that are intelligible and jibe with their own experiences, and on the basis of that minimal confirmation, embrace the rest wholesale. This creates a phenomenon of what I call ‘trickle-down gender theory’: the widespread popular acceptance of ideas that spring from a worldview that most people…would reject. Because that worldview is never clearly articulated, it is smuggled onboard unseen.

Elaborating on this claim, Favale argues that students tend to respond positively to Butler’s idea of gender performativity ‘because there is a sense in which it is true.’ She continues:

Most people have had the experience of playing up their masculinity or femininity in order to conform to sex stereotypes. There is certainly a basic arbitrariness to some of the visible signals of sexual differences in terms of hairstyles and clothing, which vary from culture to culture. There is a sense in which all of us perform, or enact and embody, our sexed identity.

However, Favale argues that students, and others who use Butler to reinforce their arguments about gender identity, tend to overlook the more radical implications of her ideas:

She’s saying that sexed identity is only a performance, that there is no ‘real’ woman or man underneath the various cultural expressions. The cultural expressions themselves are merely creating an illusion that men and women exist.

One of Favale’s key arguments is that, although Butler is in a sense the godmother of gender identity ideology, that ideology in fact represents a profound misreading or reversal of her central ideas:

Judith Butler’s theories have arguably shaped the gender paradigm, but those theories morph once they are swept into the capricious winds of popular culture. For example, Butler’s early work, particularly her hit concept of performativity, does not align with the transgender narrative of having a gendered essence that is in the wrong body…This is an essentialist narrative, one that cuts against Butler’s denial of gender having any essence at all.

Much of what follows in the book is a working through of the implications of this wrong turn in gender theory, illustrated by sensitive accounts of conversations with young people caught up in the web of the ‘gender paradigm’. In sharing these personal narratives, Favale is concerned not to judge or to condemn, but rather to empathise and understand. She sees in the gender confusion experienced by an increasing number of young people, and especially young women, an underlying desire for healing and wholeness. As she writes: ‘There’s a holy side to every longing.’

As well as highlighting the often devastating consequences on young lives of the ‘gender paradigm’, Favale is also concerned to critique it on an intellectual level, and particularly its reinstatement of the essentialism against which feminists once fought:

Both narrow-minded traditionalists and postmodern genderists fall prey to the same error: defining manhood and womanhood by stereotypical caricatures and policing those stereotypes, assessing how well individuals conform, or fail to conform, to a fantasized ideal.  Part of countering the gender paradigm must be a greater openness to the variability within the categories of man and woman.

In the later chapters of her book, Favale presents an alternative vision, one informed by a recognition, rooted in Christian personalism, of the unique value of each human person, and a sense of the profound unity of body and soul. It’s a vision which resonates with phenomenological insights into the ‘expressive body’ and the sense of the living body as an ‘expressive whole’, which I discussed in the previous post. I’ll end with a quotation from Favale which crystallises this vision:

Our consideration of sex and gender must be attuned to the holistic and sacred reality of the person – the person as an integrated unity of body and soul. We must follow a path of contemplation that sees the various dimensions of personhood in order to receive the miracle of each person. This is a path that moves toward integration, from disorder to wholeness. The postmodern approach to sex and gender runs in the opposite direction, into fragmentation, a piecemeal self, where body and psyche and desire are split off from one another and rearrangeable – where the body is not the foundation of personal identity, but rather its lifeless tool. In contrast, the personalist approach allows us to see each human being as a person, rather than a collection of ever-proliferating labels, and, more importantly, to attune our awareness to the sacramentality of every human body.

Amen to that.

‘We…need to have a long and deep conversation about masculinity’

Following on from my recent post about the search for a faith-informed, ‘consistent life ethic’ feminism, and the implications for thinking about men and masculinity…I came across this powerful, heartfelt blog post by Jonathan Tobias, written in the aftermath of the recent spate of mass shootings in America, and I thought it worth quoting in full:

We in the Christian community, especially clergy (and in my case, Orthodox Christian clergy), need to have a long and deep conversation about masculinity, what it should be and what it is not.

There are Christian writers who suggest that males growing up in America are somehow neglected, somehow repressed in their masculinity. Somehow they suffer because their ‘boyhood’ is not celebrated enough, because they haven’t been encouraged to go out and play in the dirt, play cowboys and indians with popguns and later, discouraged from wielding and shooting their weapons of choice.

There are some Christian writers who insist that men possess a divine right to dominate their relationships, especially with women and their families and institutions — a domination that others like me recognize as oppression and tyranny.

And there are Christian writers who encourage this mythical arc of grievance, these narratives of self-pity, and identify the ‘enemy’ of masculinity as the liberal secular order of egalitarianism — an order that displaces the male with ‘others.’ And since the male-dominant order is said to be divinely-established, the liberal secular order should be resisted and replaced.

Such writings, which may be putatively ‘Christian’ and are merchandised by Christian publishers and websites, are not actually Christian.

Christian masculinity is not defined by oppression and domination – even in its own New Testament setting. If headship is discussed, it is immediately re-defined and radicalized as complete self-sacrifice and denial of ego. At no moment is the Christian male ever permitted to demand his own position of power or his own ‘rights.’

Simply put: there is no such thing as ‘Christian male libertarianism.’

The masculinity that is thrown around in discussions of ‘complementarianism’ and ‘headship’ is most often a complete distortion of the simplest meaning of discipleship, of following Jesus Christ and bearing His Cross.

In this culture of grievance and extremism and the weekly tragedy of mass shootings, in which young adult males fester and languish in Discord and 4Chan sites, where they gather into fascist cults and willingly commune with cults of nihilistic violence,

We clergy need to step up to our moral responsibility.

We need to tell young adult males that they are replacing the Gospel with a religion of grievance and nihilism.

We need to redefine Christian masculinity in terms of meekness, servanthood, and the kenosis of bearing one’s cross.

We need to preach against the cult of domination and violence and extremism as the ‘new pornography’ – because that is exactly what those themes are.

We need to foster a culture of peace and true righteousness – a righteousness defined not by the simplistic notions of the culture wars, but a righteousness defined by the Sermon on the Mount.

Why, why have so many of us in the pulpit on Sunday mornings spent so much time railing against liberalism and secularism, C[ritical]R[ace]T[heory] and B[lack]L[ives]M[atter], and not nearly enough time teaching about the Beatitudes?

I think we preachers, all of us, are guilty of allowing a corrupt definition of righteousness to fester and rise, a definition that contradicts the Gospel and is mostly a libertarian promotion of self – self-identity, self-pity, self-costuming, self-arming, self-defending, self-vengeance-taking.

Another feminism

(and what it might mean for men)

Towards the end of my interview for the Now and Men podcast last year, I was asked whether I considered myself a feminist. I think I dodged the question and gave a fairly wishy-washy, non-committal answer. Why was that? After all, it’s only a few years since I criticised men’s rights activist Glen Poole, on this very blog, for describing himself as a ‘non-feminist’. In response to the podcast interviewer’s question, I offered a couple of excuses for my indecisiveness. Firstly, I suggested that, in common with many other men working on gender equality issues, I’d never been sure if ‘feminist’ was a label that men had any right to claim for themselves, and that instead I’d always preferred to describe myself as ‘pro-feminist’. 

More importantly, I also argued that since ‘there are so many debates within feminism at the moment, you’d have to define what you meant by “feminist”’. Which you may think was a weaselly way of avoiding the question. But I think I was right to highlight the ways in which, even since that online spat with Poole back in 2015, significant fissures have opened up within feminism that make it important to be clear which kind of feminism, exactly, you’re aligning yourself with. The most recent division, and the most ferocious in terms of rhetoric, has been between feminists who adhere to the currently fashionable gender identity ideology, and those who believe that same ideology represents a threat to women’s hard-won sex-based rights. 

But if feminism has changed in recent years, then I have to be honest and admit that so have I: see my last post for a rather lengthy explanation of how and why. Some time ago, on my political blog Martin In The Margins, I wrote a post setting out my growing discomfort with some aspects of contemporary feminism – and male pro-feminist activism – as my personal political and philosophical views had begun to shift. I’d become increasingly concerned that support for a feminist or pro-feminist agenda had come to mean signing up to positions that clashed both with my new political centrism and, more importantly, with my rediscovered religious faith and support for the ‘consistent ethic of life’ that is central to Catholic social teaching (as well as to some branches of secular humanist thought, it must be said).

Now, I realise that in proposing that there might be any kind of rapprochement between feminism and Catholicism, I’m risking the ridicule of many of my readers – those for whom the Catholic church is the arch-enemy of feminism, the sexist institution par excellence, a major part of the problem, when it comes to women’s oppression, and certainly with nothing useful to contribute to the solution. I get it: after all, this was one of the factors that kept me away from the Church for much of my life. However, I believe passionately that my rediscovered faith – and in particular the Christian personalist philosophy to which I find myself increasingly drawn – demands a radical commitment to the equal dignity and value of women and men, and opposition to all forms of prejudice and discrimination based on sex (as also on ethnicity, class, age, and so forth). But finding a way to connect the two sets of beliefs has often proven difficult, and identifying writers and thinkers who have trodden that same path, without ending up either renouncing their support for feminism on the one hand, or denying or watering down the truths of their faith on the other, has been by no means easy.

So it was with relief and delight that I eventually stumbled on the work of campaigning organisations like New Wave Feminists, whose slogan is ‘consistent non-violence from the womb to the tomb’; Feminists for Life, who claim that their principles are ‘shaped by the core feminist values of justice, non-discrimination, and non-violence’; and Feminists Choosing Life of New York, who state that their campaigning work ‘draws connections between the root causes of violence, inequality and the social forces that dehumanize’; as well as more avowedly secular ‘consistent life ethic’ organisations like Rehumanize International, which campaigns against the death penalty and unjust wars, as well as against abortion and euthanasia.

Meanwhile, on the academic front, I’ve been heartened to discover the work of writers like Erika Bachiochi, who is a Senior Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute in Cambridge, Massachussetts, where she founded and directs the Wollstonecraft Project. Bachiochi’s book The Rights of Women: Reclaiming a Lost Vision, published in 2021, is a seminal text in the emerging field of what one might term ‘consistent life ethic’ feminism. The book begins by revisiting the legacy of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, uncovering a moral vision in her philosophy which the author argues has been abandoned by contemporary feminism, in favour of the relentless pursuit of individual autonomy. Bachiochi argues for the renewal of a ‘dignitarian’ and communitarian feminism, regarding abortion as a symptom of, rather than a solution to, the social and economic relations that oppress women, and especially poor women. As Bachiochi argues in an article published earlier this month:

The justice we need today would look to both protect and promote the health and well-being of unborn children and their mothers and ensure that all women, especially the poor, have the financial resources, medical support, and workplace accommodations they need to care for their children once they are born…It will demand the father’s participation (which will mean securing good work for working-class men).

Another key figure in the drive to create a faith-informed feminism is Abigail Favale, Dean of Humanities and Professor of English at George Fox University, who, to my mind, has provided some of the clearest and most accessible explanations of the ways in which gender theory has developed and where it may have lost its way. Favale’s much-anticipated book, The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory, will be published later this month, but she has already shared her thinking in talks and interviews and has published some incisive articles, including one in which she expertly traces the history of gender theory via the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, suggesting that contemporary gender identity ideology is ‘a trickle-down version of Butlerian performativity’ (though elsewhere I’ve heard Favale argue that this ideology actually involves a misreading of Butler). For Favale, one of the contributions that a Christian, and specifically a Catholic incarnational perspective, can make to thinking about gender, is to reinstate the importance of the body, as a response to the disembodied idealism of gender identity ideology. She argues that ‘we must “reincarnate” gender somehow, reattach gender to its generative, etymological root (gens).’ Favale continues:

Anchoring gender identity in the sexed body not only reaffirms the dignity of the body and the goodness of sexual complementarity—it also arguably expands the confines of “man” and “woman” to lived instantiations beyond stereotypes…. Masculinity is simply the way of being a man in the world, and is thus uniquely inflected by each individual personality… This embodied, personalist understanding of masculinity and femininity reaffirms the meaning of the sexed body, without collapsing cultural stereotypes into natural categories.

A third commentator worth attending to is Leah Libresco Sargeant, who recently launched a Substack under the title Other Feminisms, which sets out to provide a newsletter ‘for women who are an uncomfortable fit within present-day feminism’, and in which she argues that ‘the world must remake itself to be hospitable to women, not the other way around’, which will mean ‘valuing interdependence and vulnerability, rather than idealizing autonomy.’

Leah Libresco Sargeant, Abigail Favale and Erika Bachiochi at a panel discussion of ‘The Dignity of the Sexed Body’, University of Notre Dame, 23 November 2021 (via catholicnewsagency.com)

It’s notable that all three of these writers are converts to Catholic Christianity who have refused to renounce the feminism they formerly espoused or to be seduced by traditionalist forms of gender essentialism. Understandably, their priority is to explore the implications of their faith-based feminist vision for women. Nevertheless, they have things of interest to say about men and masculinity along the way. Bachiochi’s recovery of Wollstonecraft’s ‘virtue’ feminism certainly has some stark moral implications for men’s sexual behaviour. But in addition, and refreshingly, from my perspective as a man researching men and care, all three women appear committed to promoting men’s participation in care within families, and in society more generally. For example, in an interview with Favale, Bachiochi argues for generous family leave to encourage fathers’ involvement in caring for their children, while in a conversation between Sargeant and Favale, the former contends that we don’t talk enough about men wanting to take of children, simply because they love being fathers and not just because the mother is working, to which Favale responds by describing her own husband’s work as a stay-at-home dad as ‘one of the most beautiful things about his masculinity’ and as something genuinely counter-cultural. As it happens, Leah Sargeant’s husband Alexi recently published an article about men and fatherhood and, in linking to it on Twitter, Leah shared this lovely photo of him with their two young children:

The suggestions by these writers of the implications for men of a faith-based feminism are necessarily brief and undeveloped, and there’s certainly work to be done in exploring further what Bachiochi’s ‘dignitarian’ feminism, or Favale’s ‘incarnational’ approach to gender, or Sargeant’s embryonic ‘other feminism’ might mean for thinking about masculinity. It’s work that I’d like to contribute to, and I’d be interested to identify others who may be thinking or working along similar lines. 

In my quest to find other academics and writers who might have something to contribute in this area, I was pleased recently to make contact with María Guadalupe Rodríguez García, a Mexican-born researcher whose research for her Masters degree in Social Anthropology at Aberdeen University explored the concept of machismo through the lens of Christian personalism. María now works some of the time for the International Institute of Culture and Gender, for whom she recently coordinated an online course, ‘Towards an adequate anthropology of masculinity’.

Me with María Guadalupe Rodríguez García in London, 20 June 2022

Last week I had the pleasure of meeting Maria in person, when she was passing through London, and I was delighted to discover that our ideas and interests around masculinity, personalism and research methods converged in many respects. We discussed a number of ways of taking things forward, through academic research and writing, and possibly developing a network of researchers working on issues of men and masculinity from the perspective of Christian personalism and a consistent ethic of life. If that includes you, dear reader, then I hope you’ll get in touch.


‘To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.’

John Henry Newman

‘Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.’

David Bowie

I thought I’d write something about the ways my thinking has changed during my time as an academic. This will probably be of little interest to anybody besides me, so feel free to scroll past this post, if you find the intellectual navel-gazing of an ageing academic a less than appealing prospect. However, since I’ve always believed that one of the purposes of a blog is to provide its author with a space to work out what he or she actually thinks, I won’t be too bothered if the main (or indeed only) audience for this post is me. At the same time, I feel I owe it to the readers of this blog (and I know there are one or two, from time to time) to explain the thinking behind the things I write here: to clarify where I’m coming from intellectually, as it were.

Another reason for wanting to clear the intellectual decks, so to speak, is that I feel I’ve held back from writing about some of the things that currently interest me, for fear of alienating or alarming my (few) readers. I want to be more honest, going forward: there are some issues I want to write about here, and some debates I want to engage in more openly, which require me to come clean about my intellectual opinions and how they’ve changed over time.

So, where to begin? I was reflecting recently, in a conversation with some colleagues, that it’s an astonishing thirty-one years since I became an academic. I joined The Open University, back in January 1991, as a Lecturer in Community Education, after a decade of frontline work organising and teaching in education projects with marginalised groups and communities. Before that, I’d been a student of English Literature, first at Cambridge University and then at Manchester, with a year’s break in between doing full-time voluntary work (see this post), which, arguably, turned out to be more influential than my academic studies in determining my future career.

Paulo Freire (via en.wikipedia.org)

I came to the OU, and entered academic life, fortified by a fairly familiar amalgam of philosophical and political opinions. My work in community education had been informed by a passionate desire to extend educational opportunities to adults who, for whatever reason, had been excluded from them. I’d been inspired, at least initially, by the de-schooling philosophy of Ivan Illich and more especially by the ideas of the radical Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who criticised the dominant ‘banking’ model of education which regarded students as empty vessels to be filled, and proposed instead a dialogic model in which learning builds on the everyday knowledge and experience of those he called ‘the oppressed’. 

However, over time I had come to believe that a purely Freirean approach was inadequate for overcoming educational exclusion. Claiming to start from where people were in their lives, in my view it risked leaving them there, rather than helping them gain access to powerful bodies of knowledge. I’d also become increasingly concerned about a trend I’d noticed in adult education, in part inspired by Freire and Illich: a move away from its historic concern with widening access to knowledge, whether of the arts, or history, or science, and towards a more process- and skills-oriented approach, one that spoke about ‘learners’ rather than students, and appeared to devalue the role of the educator: in fact, it was becoming de rigeur to talk, not about teachers or tutors, but instead about facilitators of learning.

Raymond Williams (via en.wikipedia.org)

As someone from a modest socio-economic background, whose parents had made the transition away from their working-class roots when we moved from the East End of London to suburban Essex in my childhood, and as the first person in my family to go to university, I was deeply grateful for the possibilities that education had opened up for me, and as an educator I wanted nothing more than to extend similar opportunities to others. I was concerned that the new, ‘personal development’ orientation of adult education, with its implicit hostility to bodies of knowledge, smacked somewhat of privileged educators pulling up the ladder behind them. My own educational philosophy had been inspired by the long tradition of radical adult education in Britain, and particularly by the work of the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who had been one of my lecturers at Cambridge, with his emphasis on culture as a common heritage which should be made accessible to all.

Stuart Hall (via open.ac.uk)

One of my jobs before joining The Open University was organising an education project in Stoke Newington, a poor, multicultural borough in north London. In my lunch break I used to browse the shelves of Centerprise, the community centre and radical bookshop close to where I worked, where I first came across the writings of Stuart Hall and his Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, becoming an avid reader of his articles on contemporary politics and culture in the magazine Marxism Today. (For my later reflections on Hall’s political thinking, and my encounters with him at the OU, see here). It was through Hall that I was introduced to the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (I bought my copy of his Prison Notebooks in the Centerprise shop), whose ideas about education and its role in social change would be a major influence on my own thinking. Gramsci’s approach to education could be summed up in the title of Harold Entwistle’s classic book Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical PoliticsThe Italian thinker pointed out that an emphasis on process and feelings had actually been a hallmark of Mussolini’s education policy and argued that the purpose of a truly radical education was rather to introduce students to the breadth of human culture and empower them to become critical contributors to it. Around this time, I also began to read the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, with its emphasis on dialogue and discourse as the key to understanding social processes.

Antonio Gramsci (via en.wikipedia.org)

These influences formed part of my broader political philosophy. I’d been a ‘soft’ leftist in my youth, identifying with the Tribunite wing of the Labour Party. I didn’t read Marx properly until much later, in my late twenties, around the same time that I also began to read feminist writers like Germaine Greer. I’d always felt personally constrained by conventional gender roles, so I was a natural and enthusiastic convert to a pro-feminist worldview. At the same time, my experience of working in multicultural north London had confirmed me as an avowed anti-racist.

On joining The Open University, I found a sympathetic mentor in my colleague Andy Northedge, with whom I worked developing the OU’s first pre-degree ‘access’ courses, firstly in social sciences and then in the arts and humanities. Andy, the author of the bestselling Good Study Guide, helped me to refine and elaborate my thinking about the role of discourse in learning, introducing me to the ideas of thinkers like Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Bruner. I distilled some of this thinking in a book chapter co-written with Andy’s partner, Ellie Chambers, in which we argued that the OU’s access model transcended the opposition between traditional ‘subject-centred’ and Freirean ‘student-centred’ models of learning, proposing instead a discourse-based model which brought ‘everyday’ and academic forms of understanding into critical dialogue.

When the OU’s community education programme was eventually wound up, and we were absorbed into our sister department of health and social care, I felt a need to re-equip myself intellectually for my new role, so I began studying psychology via the OU’s own courses in my spare time, working first for an Advanced Diploma in Child Development and then for a Masters degree in Psychology.  Via the latter, I became interested in critical social psychology, and particularly in discourse analysis: it helped that one of the doyennes of the subject, Margaret Wetherell, was a professor of psychology at the OU at this time. 

Margaret Wetherell (via theoryculturesociety.org)

It’s perhaps not surprising that someone whose original academic training was in English Literature should be attracted to a form of psychology that foregrounded language: engaging in discourse analysis did occasionally remind me of doing literary criticism as an undergraduate. However, my interest in discourse was also part of the generally social constructionist view of the world that I held at the time. I drew on these perspectives as I started working on courses designed for people working in health and social care, developing a particular focus on work with children and young people. At the same time, I began to develop my own research interests in men, masculinity and care, rooted both in my intellectual commitment to gender equality, and in my personal experience as a new, ‘hands on’ father. My first, small-scale research project involved interviewing men working in childcare, and was informed by a Foucauldian interest in how social discourses around masculinity and care framed these men’s experiences. I used a similar approach in my second study, interviewing ‘involved’ fathers about their care for their children. Over time, my research interests expanded to include the processes that led to men opting to be involved in ‘care’, which then prompted an interest in the shaping of young masculine identities. I led a team that undertook a major study of the role of gender in work with young men using social care services, and on the back of that, was invited to lead the UK strand of a three-country study of young men, masculinity and wellbeing. 

During the time that I was working on these research studies, my thinking was informed by the ground-breaking work on masculinities of writers like Raewyn Connell, and on gender more generally by theorists such as Judith Butler. I don’t think I was ever a fully paid-up poststructuralist, however. This was partly because my left-wing politics retained a humanist core and I was sceptical about what I saw as the anti-humanism of poststructuralism. To the extent that I was a Marxist, it was the humanist early Marx that I was drawn to, and the historian E. P. Thompson’s classic critique of Louis Althusser and his school, in The Poverty of Theory, remained an intellectual touchstone for me.

Via Twitter

Over time, I became increasingly dissatisfied with discourse analysis as a tool for making sense of the data from my research. Around this time, in the early 2000s, there were some fascinating debates at the OU between Margie Wetherell and another professor of psychology, Wendy Hollway, whose own work had moved from an early emphasis on social discourses to a position increasingly informed by psychoanalysis. I recall conversations with Wendy in which she argued that it was important to understand what motivated particular individuals to invest in specific social discourses. For her the missing link was the work of psychoanalytic feminists such as Jessica Benjamin.  Influenced by Wendy, I began to read and draw on Benjamin’s ideas, and my shift to a psychosocial perspective was further enhanced by working with other Open University colleagues like Mary Jane Kehily and Peter Redman, whose research adopted a similar approach. Although I’ve since become more sceptical about the claims of psychoanalysis, Wendy Hollway’s book The Capacity to Care: Gender and Ethical Subjectivity remains a key influence.

Wendy Hollway (via open.ac.uk)

At the same time, my disillusionment with poststructuralism and move away from the relativism of social constructionism was part of a wider shift in my political outlook. I was becoming uneasy with some of the directions being taken by the contemporary Left, which in my view were inextricable from the influence of postmodernism. Two egregious examples were Michel Foucault’s lauding of the autocratic mullahs’ regime in Iran, and Judith Butler’s notorious claim that the misogynist, antisemitic terrorist group Hamas was part of the ‘global Left’. At the party political level, I had become disillusioned during the 1980s with the dogmatism and diehard oppositionalism of the Bennite ‘hard’ left, which I had once supported. I welcomed the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader: in fact, it prompted me to re-join the party, having allowed my membership to lapse during the long years of intra-party factionalism. I was a critical supporter of Blair’s ‘New Labour’, praising its attempts to make Labour electable again and relevant to the changed social and economic realities of the ‘New Times’ so accurately described by Stuart Hall and other reformists on the Left, though I was less enthusiastic about some aspects of Blairite social policy. 

Norman Geras (via theguardian.com)

I had also grown wary, particularly after the events of September 11th 2001, of the radical Left’s embrace of a kneejerk anti-Americanism and naive ‘anti-imperialism‘ which seemed to view authoritarian regimes elsewhere as preferable to our own admittedly flawed democracies: a perspective that would eventually go mainstream when one of its leading proponents, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader of the Labour Party. In 2007 I started a political blog, Martin In The Margins, and became part of a group of bloggers that gathered around the late Norman Geras, a retired Marxist professor and pioneering political blogger, who developed cogent arguments for an anti-totalitarian leftism which eventually coalesced into the Euston Manifesto, and also found expression in the short-lived online journal Democratiya

However, this post wasn’t supposed to be about politics, except as an adjunct to explaining the shifts in my intellectual position. For those who are interested, I’ve written more extensively about my personal political journey elsewhere. But perhaps I should bring the political story up to date, before moving on: suffice it to say that I’ve joined the ranks of the politically homeless, unable to identify fully with the platform of any single party, though I find myself in sympathy with many of the ideas of Blue Labour. And if a UK equivalent of the American Solidarity Party were to come along, I’d probably vote for it…

…which is kind of a neat segue into talking about (takes a deep breath) religion (if you look up the ASP’s platform, you’ll see why). Alongside my political journey, I’d been on a spiritual journey as well, and it’s impossible to write about the shifts in my intellectual perspective without bringing up the subject of religious belief. I acknowledge that some of my readers may tune out at this point. However, for me, it’s difficult to disentangle the religious from the intellectual and political.

I was brought up in a devoutly nonconformist Christian home: my parents are active Methodists, and as a teenager I underwent the standard evangelical conversion. At university, I went through a time of profound questioning, but instead of leaving Christianity behind altogether, I eventually found myself drawn towards Catholicism. The appeal was philosophical and aesthetic, as well as spiritual. In addition to the intellectual tradition of the Church and the beauty of its sacramental life, it was the radical faith of Catholic Worker movement founder Dorothy Day, of the Trappist monk and peace activist Thomas Merton, and of the Latin American liberation theologians, that appealed, and didn’t seem at all incompatible with my left-wing commitments. 

Dorothy Day (via en.wikipedia.org)

However, I drifted away from my new faith once I left university and started work: or rather, I simply stopped practising it, as I came under the influence of Marxism, feminism, and a whole host of other appealing –isms that seemed to leave no room for faith. I was never able to completely shake off my religious background, though. I remember, at the end of a course on literature and social history that I was teaching for the Workers’ Educational Association – a course which in my view had been solidly secular in its approach – a sweet elderly couple thanked me and told me how much they appreciated that everything I’d said had been inspired by a deeply Christian perspective. 

Despite the secular humanist socialist-feminist beliefs that animated my work in adult education, and later in academia, an interest in spirituality, and the search for a spiritual grounding for my life and work, never entirely left me (perhaps there’s a permanent god-shaped hole in everyone who has once believed) and in my middle years I experimented with Buddhism and eastern spirituality. I certainly gained a good deal from meditation and similar spiritual practices, but in time I concluded that the unworldliness of Buddhism was out of sync with my abiding interest in the social, the cultural and the historical. I wanted to celebrate the world, and maybe change it, but certainly not escape from it. I also came to believe that a good deal of western Buddhism was actually a stripped down, exoticised version of Christian spirituality, with the more difficult and challenging bits left out.

At an intellectual level, I also came to believe that many of the ideas we take for granted in western thought, and which in fact are foundational for ‘progressive’ thinking, such as a belief in the value of the individual human person, and the sense that history has a trajectory and purpose, rather than being an endless, meaningless cycle of events, have their roots in a Judaeo-Christian worldview and are inexplicable without it. Vestiges of these ideas remained after Christianity lost its historical influence and can even be seen as underlying the Enlightenment, despite its formal opposition to traditional religion. However, as even the Enlightenment has been increasingly undermined by postmodern thinking, those foundations have begun to crumble. Increasingly, I came to the view that only a religious, and specifically a Christian worldview, could provide a stable basis for holding on to a humanist perspective. This intellectual questioning, together with my personal yearning for a spiritual grounding for my life, would eventually lead me back to Christianity and to Catholicism, though the process of return has not been without its bumps along the way, with the secular humanist ‘me’ continuing to argue with my newly rediscovered spiritual self.

Edith Stein (via en.wikipedia.org)

As a tentative religious believer and recovering social constructionist, I began to look around for an alternative – and realist – intellectual grounding for my academic work. I became very interested in phenomenology, which I discovered initially mainly through twentieth-century Catholic philosophers, such as Edith Stein and Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had been shaped by this philosophical perspective, which is rooted in the work of the twentieth-century German thinker Edmund Husserl. According to Robert Sokolowski, author of one of the best introductions to the subject, ‘phenomenology is the study of human experience and of the way things present themselves to us in and through experience’ and, by contrast with postmodernism, ‘insists that identity and intelligibility are available in things.’ Also, by contrast with the dominant philosophical tradition that has come down to us from Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, et al, which assumes ‘that when we are conscious, we are primarily aware of ourselves or our own ideas’, phenomenology argues that ‘we are not trapped in our own subjectivity’, that the mind is not isolated from the world. Perhaps you can see the appeal of this kind of thinking to someone like me, recoiling from the relativism and anti-realism of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and searching for a philosophical correlate for a renewed spiritual intuition of the ‘givenness’ of the world. I should add here, though, that I am by no means a trained philosopher and that reading philosophical writings, still less making sense of them and applying them to my academic work, remains a struggle for me.

Via Twitter

I’ve found phenomenology a useful tool in my academic work: for example, the work of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty on embodiment has proved helpful in my continuing quest to understand the relationship between gender and care, while the writings of the Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa have reframed my thinking about sexual difference more broadly. My interest in phenomenology seems to be part of a wider trend: I’ve noticed an increasing number of postgraduate research students opting to use Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis, or IPA (which some purists would argue is not ‘real’ phenomenology), for their research, whereas a decade ago their predecessors were all mad keen on discourse analysis.

At the same time that my intellectual outlook changed, so my academic research interests began to shift. Although I was writing a book on men’s care for children, and still working on research projects on aspects of fatherhood, I was also beginning to develop an interest in the field of care ethics. I corresponded with a number of care ethicists and contributed a paper on the development of caring masculinities to the inaugural conference of the international Care Ethics Research Consortium. More recently, I’ve written a chapter for a new book on care ethics, spirituality and religious traditions which is due out in the next month or so.

In time, my reading in phenomenology led me to personalism, a philosophical tradition which in part grew out of phenomenology, so that many phenomenologists – Stein and Hildebrand would be leading examples – were also personalists. Personalists draw on the philosophical resources of phenomenology, existentialism, and in some instances Judeo-Christian religious traditions, to emphasise what the American personalist philosopher John F. Crosby terms ‘the unconditional worth in all human persons’. As I wrote in a post last year, personalism offers a corrective to some of the depersonalising tendencies of contemporary society, and to the devaluing of the human person.

My research and writing continue to have two strands, one empirical the other more theoretical. In the former, I’m continuing to explore men’s involvement in care, for example, through my current project on fathers and perinatal loss (see the previous post). In the latter, I’m exploring the potential of personalist thought for developing an ethic of care. Although I’ve found the work of feminist care ethicists like Joan Tronto, Virginia Held and Eva Feder Kittay, enlightening, I also find myself arguing with some aspects of their work. Rather than remaining a perpetually negative critic, however, I’ve been casting around for alternative foundations for an understanding of care. I’m interested in developing a dialogue between personalism and feminist care ethics, identifying aspects in common, such as a shared relational view of the self, but perhaps supplying a normative perspective that mainstream care ethics currently lacks, as well as a deeper insight into the nature, and value, of the human person.  

My inner debates continue, and I’m sure there’ll be more ch-ch-changes in my thinking before I’m done. Now that I’ve set out some of the background to my current thinking, I want to use this blog as a space to work through some of the issues around care, gender, identity and personhood that continue to interest and exercise me.

‘We are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again’.

This is a kind of footnote to my last post about the conference on ‘Care Ethics and Precarity’ that I attended recently in Portland, Oregon. Thanks to Twitter, I came across this beautiful article by comedian Jeremy McLellan, on welcoming people with intellectual disabilities. You don’t have to share the author’s religious beliefs (though I do) to conclude that this is a perfect encapsulation of (one aspect of) an ethic of care. Here’s the key passage, but do read the whole thing:

Our culture does not make it easy to welcome intrusions. Avoiding such inefficiencies is baked into liberalism itself. We have worked to replace a social order built on a rich web of unchosen obligations with a series of voluntary relationships entered into by rational, sovereign, independent individuals. And once our obligations are reduced to only those to which we have freely consented, we cannot help but regard the uninvited presence of the other as an intrusion.

It is no mystery, then, why close forms of community, particularly the extended family, have collapsed in the West. After all, you do not choose your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, ancestors or heritage. You can choose whether to have children, but you cannot (yet) choose what they will be like. You can choose a spouse, but you do not get to choose how that person will change. Over time, he or she will become a different person. And so will you. In the end, every marriage is an arranged marriage.

So whether it is the disabled, the unborn, the elderly, the poor, the refugee or anyone else, our attitude is often the same: We did not agree to this. This was not part of the plan. They are burdens. And they are. But we are all burdens. We were once burdens, and we will be burdens again.

The First World War and Modern Masculinity*

Next week, all being well, I’ll be in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. The title of the paper that I’ll be presenting is ‘”With prayer from your loving father”: faith, fatherhood and masculinity in one man’s letters to his son during World War One.’ The paper shares the results of my analysis of letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to his son, my grandfather Arthur Ernest Robb, in early 1916, when the latter was a Private in the Royal Fusiliers, awaiting embarkation to the Western Front in France. I’ve written about these letters in earlier posts on this blog (start here and work forward), and I spoke about them at a seminar on fatherhood organised by the Open University’s Centre for Citizenship Identities and Governance a few years ago.

Coincidentally, one of the other presentations at next week’s conference is also about First World War writing, though of a rather different kind. Lowell T Frye will be speaking about the treatment of masculinities, war, and trauma, in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. As preparation for attending the session, I’ve been reading the novel, something I’ve meant to do for a while. The action takes place in Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh, where shell-shocked soldiers were sent for treatment. Among the central characters are psychiatrist William Rivers and two of his more famous patients, the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart Hospital during the First World War (via bbc.co.uk)

I’m about halfway through the novel at the moment, and I’ve just reached a passage which I suspect will find its way into the presentation at next week’s conference. Rivers is reflecting on a patient saying that he sees him not as a father figure but as ‘a sort of…male mother’:

He disliked the term ‘male mother’. He thought he could remember disliking it even at the time. He distrusted the implication that nurturing, even when done by a man, remains female, as if the ability were in some way borrowed, or even stolen, from women – a sort of moral equivalent of the couvade. If that were true, then there was really very little hope.


(F)athering, like mothering, takes many forms beyond the biological. Rivers had often been touched by the way in which young men, some of them not yet twenty, spoke about feeling like fathers to their men. 


One of the paradoxes of the war – one of the many – as that this most brutal of conflicts should set up a relationship between officers and men that was…domestic. Caring. 


The war that had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known. No wonder they broke down. 

These extracts provide an interesting link with the topic of my own paper. In analysing my great grandfather’s letters, I’ve been struck by the way in which his Methodist Christian faith provides him with two distinctive registers for his practice as a father, and his identity as a man. One, clearly drawing on the puritan earnestness of nonconformist Christianity, is a register of moral exhortation, emphasising effort, courage and persistence in the face of temptation – traditionally ‘manly’ virtues. But the other register is drawn more specifically from Methodism. The historian of masculinity, John Tosh, has written about the ways in which Methodism provided a language that allowed Victorian men to be emotionally expressive, with its emphasis on the love of God, a personal relationship with Christ, and an almost feminine image of Jesus.

However, it’s difficult to disentangle the influences on Charles’ performance of fatherhood and masculinity in these letters. How much can be attributed to his religious faith and how much to his personal biography? For example, I know that my great grandmother had died eleven years before these letters were written, leaving Charles to bring up their children (including Arthur, who was only seven years old at the time) on his own. To what extent was my great grandfather a ‘mother’ as well as a ‘father’ to my grandfather, and how might this be reflected in what he writes in these letters?

Then again, what does it mean to say that a man is ‘mothering’ his children? In what way is a man’s parenting different from that of a woman, if at all? Is William Rivers, as characterised in the novel, right to protest at the way that ‘nurturing’ is seen exclusively as a female virtue, and that men who nurture (whether children or other men) are simply ‘borrowing’ female characteristics? To quote the title of Canadian sociologist Andrea Doucet’s book about fatherhood: do men ‘mother’?

These are questions that continue to intrigue me as a researcher working on issues of gender and caring. In what sense is the care that fathers offer to children different from that provided by mothers? And is it possible to talk about these differences (if they exist) without falling back on stereotypes about men being responsible for setting boundaries and women as providers of emotional support? These questions have become particularly pertinent in the past few decades, as men have been urged to take a greater role in the day-to-day care of children, both in the home and professionally. For those who believe that gender is simply a social construct, the apparent ‘differences’ between men’s and women’s caring are simply the result of cultural conditioning and will disappear as relationships between the genders become more equal. For others, such as the psychologist Wendy Hollway, there is something irreducibly different about women’s ‘capacity to care’ (to quote the title of one of her books), because of the bonding that takes place between a mother and child before, during and after birth.

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via www.nationaljournal.com)

An image of masculinity from a WW1 propaganda poster (via http://www.nationaljournal.com)

As for the claim, voiced in the last paragraph from Regeneration quoted above, that the trauma of the First World War somehow ‘unmanned’ men, and even changed the nature of masculinity, that’s a question beyond the scope of this blog post. Certainly, it could be argued that the straitjacketed, stiff-upper-lip masculinity of Victorian and Edwardian England expired on the killing fields of northern France. But the evidence in his letters of my own great grandfather’s masculinity – on the one hand patriotic and nationalistic but also anxious about the corrupting influence of the army on his son, morally earnest but at the same time loving and warmly emotional – suggest that ‘traditional’ masculinities may have been more complicated than we sometimes think.

*My title is a nod to Paul Fussell’s classic book The Great War and Modern Memory.

Scenes from a clerical life

The title of George Eliot’s novel – slightly adapted in my heading – seems singularly appropriate to the life of my 9th great grandmother, Anne Wane, who is the subject of this final post in my series about remarkable women from my family history. Her life story is noteworthy, not because of anything she actively achieved, but because of its peculiar circumstances – to modern sensibilities, at any rate. To put it in a nutshell: Anne spent all fifty years of her life at the rectory of Clayton-cum-Keymer in Sussex, first as the daughter of one rector, and then as the wife of no fewer than three of his successors.

Anne Wane’s life coincided with a period of dramatic change in English history. Born in 1611 in the eighth year of the reign of James I, the year in which the Authorised Version of the Bible was published and Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were first performed, she was a young woman when Charles I was king, brought up her children during the tumult of the Civil War, and died a year after the Restoration of the monarchy.

Birth and background

Anne was the daughter of William Wane, who was already rector of Clayton when she was born, and his wife Joan. William Wane was born at Westerham, Kent in 1561, in the third year of the reign of Elizabeth I. He was ordained deacon on 28th May 1598 and priest on 24th June in the same year. Having served briefly as the curate of Wivelsfield, Sussex, he was appointed rector of Clayton-cum-Keymer on 1st January 1601 or 1602 (depending on whether you’re using the old Julian or or modern Gregorian calendar). Clayton is a small village in west Sussex, about 10 miles to the west of Lewes and 7 miles north of Brighton. Its ancient parish church is famous for its colourful murals, uncovered during repair work in Victorian times, and probably painted in the Middle Ages by monks from Lewes Priory.

One of the murals uncovered in Clayton parish church

One of the murals in Clayton parish church

Anne Wane was christened at Clayton, presumably by her father, on 2nd March 1611. I haven’t found evidence of any other children born to William and Joan Wane. According to one source, in 1606/7, William ‘was in trouble with the Court on account of his relations with a woman named Ellenor Poulter’, though the exact nature of those ‘relations’ and its impact on his family and his position remains unknown. He died in 1626, in the second year of the reign of Charles I, and was buried at Clayton on 22nd September. I don’t know when Anne’s mother Joan died, but I have reason to believe that she predeceased her husband.

First husband 

Just six days after William Wane’s funeral, a new rector arrived in Clayton. He was John Bantnor, who had been born in Westmeston, Sussex, in 1595/6, the son of the local rector. John Bantnor had been ordained deacon in 1618 and priest on 18th December 1625. On 9th July 1628, a little under two years after his arrival in Clayton, John Bantor married Anne Wane. He was about thirty years old at the time, though she would have been only 17. It’s possible that John Bantnor found the orphaned Anne living in the rectory when he arrived, and took responsibility for her, marrying her when she reached an appropriate age.

I’ve found christening records for two children born to John and Anne Bantnor. A daughter named Anne was baptised at Clayton on 17th May 1631, while a son named Thomas was christened there in 1635. John Batnor died in 1638 when he was about 42 years old. Anne would have been about 27 at the time.

External view of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Clayton

External view of the parish church of St John the Baptist, Clayton (via wanderinggenealogist.files.wordpress.com)

Second husband

The next incumbent of Clayton was William Chowne, who was instituted as rector on 17th July 1638. He was the eldest surviving son of Thomas Chowne Esquire of Alfreston and his wife Rachel Campion, and grandson of Sir George Chowne, who had been Member of Parliament for Rochester in 1593. Rachel was the daughter of William Campion of Camberwell and sister of Sir William Campion, the Royalist leader who was killed during the Siege of Colchester in 1648. Some sources suggest that William Chowne was the person of that name who went up to Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1625 and was later a fellow of St John’s College.

Four months to the day after his arrival in Clayton, on 17th October 1638, William married the widowed Anne Bantnor née Wane. Perhaps, like his predecessor, he found Anne living in Clayton rectory on his arrival there, possibly with two young children (we know that her son Thomas, at least, survived to adulthood), and felt moved to take them under his wing.

I’ve found a baptismal record for a William Chowne, born to William and Anne and christened at Clayton on 5th October 1639. Sources tell us that this child died in infancy, though he was still alive when his father William made his will in May 1640, since a number of properties were bequeathed to him and his mother Anne. William Chowne senior was buried at Clayton on 10th June 1640, leaving Anne a widow for the second time.

Third husband

Six weeks later, a new rector arrived in Clayton, fresh from his curacy in Wadhurst, east Sussex, which was close to his family home in Burwash. This was Magnus Byne, my 9th great grandfather, and destined to become Anne’s third husband. Magnus, who had graduated from Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1634, was inducted to the rectory of Clayton-cum-Keymer on 24th July 1640, two years before the outbreak of civil war in England. He was 25 years old, four years younger than Anne.

Magnus and Anne Byne had five children together over the next decade or so, coinciding with the period of the Civil War. Despite the Royalist connections of Anne’s previous husband, there seems little doubt that the Byne family, like most of Sussex, were supporters of the Parliamentary faction (though, of course, many families had divided loyalties during the war). Magnus Byne’s brother Edward, also an Anglican minister, was a notorious Puritan rabblerouser when he was at Cambridge in the 1640s, and after Anne’s death, Magnus would marry the daughter of another prominent Puritan (see below).

Magnus and Anne Byne’s daughter Mary was baptised at Clayton on 29th July 1641 but died in infancy and was buried there on 26th August 1643; their daughter Ann was baptised there on 18th January 1643 but died at the age of twenty in 1662/3; their son Stephen was born in 1649; Edward was next, though the exact date of his birth is unknown; and John (my 8th great grandfather) was baptised on 11th March 1651/2.

Cover of Magnus Byne's book

Cover of Magnus Byne’s book

In 1656 Magnus Byne published a book entitled The Scornfull Quakers answered and their railing Reply refuted by the meanest of the Lord’s servants Magnus Byne, which was printed in London by William Bentley for Andrew Crook at the sign of the Green Dragon in St Paul’s Churchyard. The book, which was prompted by Magnus’ encounter with two Quaker evangelists in his parish, is written in question and answer form and contains a good deal of personal invective. It provoked a reply by one of the evangelists, Thomas Dawson, which was also published in 1656, the shorter version of whose title is The Lip of Truth opened against a Dawber with untempered Morter, A few words against a book written by Magnus Byne, Priest in the county of Sussex…   The founder of the Quakers, George Fox, also responded to Magnus’ book in his 1659 publication, The Great Mistery of the Great Whore unfolded and Antichrist’s kingdom revealed unto destruction.  (Seventeenth-century polemicists had a thing about long book titles.)


Anne Byne died when she was fifty years old and was buried at Clayton on 11th March 1661/2, a little less than a year after the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. There may have been an epidemic or an outbreak of plague in the area at the time, since Thomas Bantnor, Anne’s son from her first marriage, was buried at Clayton three days later; he was 26 years old.

When their mother died, Stephen Byne was fifteen years old and had probably already begun his apprenticeship as an upholsterer in London; Edward was about thirteen years old; and John eleven. Six months after Anne’s death, their father Magnus would get married for a second time, to Sarah Bartlett, daughter of the radical stationer and bookseller John Bartlett, who had been imprisoned under Charles I for printing ‘schismatical’ books, but was later commissioned to publish the text of Parliament’s ‘Grand Remonstrance’ against the King. Magnus’ son John would also work as a stationer at Tower Hill, and my theory is that he was apprenticed either to his stepfather or to the latter’s son, who was also a bookseller. (John later married Alice Forrest, daughter of a Tower Hill haberdasher, and it was their daughter Mary Byne who married goldsmith Joseph Greene: see my last post).


What are we to make of the strange circumstances of Anne Wane’s life? The fact that she was married to three successive rectors of Clayton seems to be evidence that, before the modern era, women were regarded as a superior kind of property. When John Bantnor, William Chowne and Magnus Byne each in turn became rector of Clayton, it appears that Anne ‘came with the territory’, and marrying her was almost a condition of their appointment.

Nor was this a unique case. Adrian Tinniswood’s book about the Verneys, a prominent seventeenth-century family, includes the story of the newly-appointed rector of a Buckinghamshire parish, who was unable to take possession of the rectory because the former incumbent’s widow refused to move out. After protracted but unsuccessful negotiations, he solved the problem by marrying her. Did something similar happen in the case of my ancestor Anne Wane? And does that mean that none of her marriages, including her last marriage to my 9th great grandfather Magnus Byne, were for ‘love’? Or does Anne’s story emphasise the futility of trying to impose modern notions on people living in very different times?

It’s frustrating that we don’t have access to my 9th great grandmother’s side of the story. Did she insist on remaining in the rectory when her father, and then her first two husbands died, like the woman from Buckinghamshire mentioned above? Perhaps the marriages were actually her idea, a way of securing a home for herself and her children, rather than something that was imposed on her? There’s no way we can ever know.

As I was writing this post, I was listening to a discussion on Radio 4 about the lack of films about women’s lives. One of the contributors argued that this is because, apart from a few rare individuals, most women’s lives are literally hidden from history – or at least, the official histories. The records of what most women in previous centuries thought, felt and achieved simply don’t exist. Anne’s last husband Magnus, my 9th great grandfather, was a published writer, so we have some insight into his thoughts and feelings. And the actions of a number of of my other male ancestors are written about in contemporary records. But no records remain of what Anne thought or felt. In common with countless other women, her voice is lost to history. Recovering her story, and and those of other women in my family history, is a small step towards making up for that loss, and honouring their memory.