‘Father figures’ seminar and new research project

As advertised in my last post, I helped to organise a seminar on 3rd June on ‘Father figures: research and practice with men who care for children.’ The seminar, a collaboration between The Open University and the Family Matters Institute, was designed to launch a new joint research project on social fathering.

You can read all about the seminar, and find out more about the project, at the new blog that we’ve created:


And you can follow the project’s progress, and get involved in the discussion on social fathering, on Twitter:



Reflections on the American Men’s Studies Association Conference

I arrived home on Monday from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’d been attending the annual conference of the American Men’s Studies Association. It was a rather different affair from last year’s conference in New York City. That was a big, high-profile event, coinciding with the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and featuring celebrity guests such as Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Sheryl Sandberg. It was deliberately aimed at gender equality activists as much as researchers, and as such was certainly a heady and inspiring few days. However, it  could be argued that academically it was somewhat less satisfying, and specifically that there was little in the programme to appeal to those from a humanities background.

Flag pole on the 'Diag', University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

Flag pole on the ‘Diag’, University of Michigan campus, Ann Arbor

This year’s conference was smaller, more intimate, with a greater emphasis on academic research, and an explicitly interdisciplinary focus. From such a stimulating programme  it’s perhaps invidious to mention only a few presentations. However, highlights for me included the opening plenary in which three literary academics talked about masculinity in American novels, the keynote lecture by linguist Scott Kiesling discussing the ‘masculine stance’ in language and the history of the word ‘dude’, and a couple of fascinating papers analysing gender relations in popular television programmes. The poster presentations were very good too: I was particularly pleased to link up with Tawfiq Ammari, a PhD student at Ann Arbor, who is researching the use of social media by fathers, including some of the British ‘dad blogs’ that I’ve started to follow.

Preparing for the panel on fatherhood

Preparing for the panel session on fatherhood

My own paper, analysing faith, fatherhood and masculinity in the letters written by my great grandfather to my grandfather during the First World War (see my last post), was part of a panel session first thing on Saturday morning. I was presenting alongside Joyce Lee, another Ann Arbor PhD student, and Carol Watson-Phillips, a retired researcher from Massachusetts, both of whom were examining aspects of contemporary fatherhood. Despite the early start, the session was well-attended and the questions were intriguing, even if being asked to extend my analysis to my relationship with my own father was somewhat challenging!

Networking at the AMSA conference

Networking at the AMSA conference

The School of Social Work at the University of Michigan were excellent hosts, and I made some useful contacts and had plenty of memorable and stimulating conversations. Ann Arbor itself was a fascinating town to explore: not just the university campus itself, with its imposing architecture and impressive art gallery, but the Art Deco theatres, the multitude of bookshops and restaurants, and the impressive collection of memorabilia at the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. The weather was (we were given to understand) typical of Michigan: spring sunshine one day, biting wind and snow showers the next (though not the deep drifts we had to contend with last year in Manhattan).

I don’t yet know where AMSA 2017 will be held (somewhere warmer perhaps?), but if the programme is as interesting as this year, I hope I’ll be going.

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.

Presenting our research at the Houses of Parliament

Yesterday Brigid Featherstone and I gave a presentation at the Houses of Parliament to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Fatherhood, on ‘Beyond Male Role Models’, the ESRC-funded research study that we worked on with Sandy Ruxton and Mike Ward (with support from Anna Tarrant and Gareth Terry) between 2013 and 2015. The study, which was a collaboration between The Open University and Action for Children, explored the role of gender in work with vulnerable young men.

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

David Lammy MP talks to participants at the APPG meeting

The presentation seemed to go well and prompted some interesting questions from members of the audience, who included policy-makers, practitioners and service users, as well as other researchers. We also received many requests for further information – the pile of reports that I’d brought with me certainly disappeared very quickly – and we made some great contacts in the networking session at the end of the meeting. It was also good to see friends there from Working With Men, one of our other partners in the research, including some of the workers and young service users who had featured in the film we made as part of the project (and which you can view here).

Perhaps the most challenging question came from David Lammy MP, who chairs the APPG. In our talk, we had emphasised that the young men we interviewed valued the personal qualities of support workers – including respect, care, consistency and commitment – far more than their gender identities. David wondered whether we thought that the young men who used services needed to earn respect, rather than simply expect it. I think we acquitted ourselves well in our answer, in which we argued that unless workers offered unconditional respect to young men, many of whom have been treated with a lack of respect by professionals in the past, then it would be difficult even to begin to form a productive working relationship, in which young men’s behaviour could certainly be challenged further down the line. Anyway, we were encouraged that David Lammy asked for more information about our research, and by the suggestion that it might find a place in the review that he is carrying out, at the request of the Prime Minister, into young black men in the criminal justice system.

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the blue shadow is because I was standing in front of the screen)

With Brigid Featherstone and Elina Einio (the strange blue shadow is due to the fact that I was standing in front of the projector screen)

There were two other presentations yesterday besides our own. Elina Einiö from the University of Helsinki in Finland shared the findings of her research into mortality rates among men who had been young fathers. Her large-scale population study certainly showed a connection between young fatherhood and early mortality, but it was difficult to draw conclusions about the precise causes. Was it because young fatherhood produced additional economic and emotional stresses, diverting men from investing in their own wellbeing? Did it mean that more support should be offered to young fathers, or conversely did the research demonstrate that early fatherhood should be discouraged? It was interesting to hear about Elina’s findings in the context of the conclusion, from our own study, that young fatherhood could actually have a positive impact on the lives of vulnerable young men, acting as a catalyst that helped them make the transition to a ‘safer’ and more responsible adult masculinity.

The final presentation, by Shane Ryan from Working With Men, reported on moves to establish a new Fathers’ Development Foundation. I attended the first meeting of the foundation at Kings Place, London, back in February. At the moment, the group is really a loose coalition of individuals and organisations with an interest in fatherhood matters, but the hope is that it will coalesce into a body that can have a positive influence on public policy, particularly in relation to the most marginalised and disadvantaged fathers.  According to the foundation’s website, an official launch is planned for next week.

IMAGES of men: a report from Vienna

Last week I was in Vienna, Austria for a consultative meeting organised by Promundo, the international organisation that promotes gender equality by engaging men and boys, as well as a number of other international agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to share the findings from IMAGES – the International Men and Gender Equality Survey – and to discuss possibilities for extending the survey to other countries. There were about thirty of us at the meeting – representatives from countries that have already implented IMAGES, as well as researchers and activists working on gender equality issues across Europe and beyond.

(New York, 19 September) — To kick-start a solidarity movement in support of women’s rights and full equality between women and men, UN Women held a special event for the HeForShe campaign from the United Nations Headquarters in New York today. With UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, UN Women Goodwill Ambassador and event co-host Emma Watson called on men and boys worldwide to join the movement for gender equality today. They were also joined by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, senior UN officials, such as UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin and UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, actor Kiefer Sutherland and civil society representatives, participated in a discussion about the central role men and boys can play in the achievement of gender equality. CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer moderated the night. Pictured: Gary Barker, International Director, Promundo-US and Co-Chair, MenEngage Alliance Photo: UN Women/Simon Luethi For more on the event, please see: http://www.unwomen.org/news/stories/2014/9/20-september-heforshe-press-release To join the HeForShe campaign, please visit: http://www.heforshe.org/

Gary Barker of Promundo (via promundoglobal.org)

IMAGES, which was created by Promundo and the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), is ‘a multi-year, multi-country effort to build the evidence base on how to change public institutions and policies to better foster gender equality and to raise awareness among policymakers and programme planners of the needs, realities and attitudes of men in terms of their health and development’. It was fascinating to hear, from Gary Barker of Promundo (US) and Øystein Gullvåg Holter from the University of Oslo, about the findings emerging from the survey so far, including claims about the impact of childhood experiences on adult attitudes. For example, it was suggested that if a boy sees his father taking a share in household tasks, then he is more likely have a positive attitude to gender equality as an adult. On the other hand, if a boy witnesses domestic violence in his family, or is involved in fights himself, then there’s a good chance that he will grow up believing that violence against women is acceptable. Perhaps the most encouraging message to emerge from the study was the positive correlation between men’s belief in gender equality on the one hand, and experiencing good mental health and a general sense of wellbeing on the other.


In addition to these general findings, there were two presentations from individual countries that have implemented the survey, both thought-provoking in their own way. One was from Eleonora Grosu from the former Soviet republic of Moldova, where there were certainly some encouraging signs, but also some worrying statistics, such as the finding that 41% of men and 19% of women think it’s sometimes acceptable for women to be beaten. Also intriguing was the presentation by Srjdan Dusanic from Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the legacy of civil war and inter-community conflict continue to have an impact. One notable observation was that men who held ethnocentric or extreme nationalist views also tend to have negative attitudes to gender equality: a case of one kind of intolerance fostering another. Interestingly, the same study found that boys whose fathers had been absent during the war, and had therefore had to help their mothers with household tasks, tended to continue taking an equal share in those tasks in their adult relationships. A perversely positive effect of father absence, perhaps?

The final presentation, from Shereen El Feki, reported on attempts to implement IMAGES with men in the Middle East and North Africa. The discussion offered a fascinating insight into how to work on gender equality issues in cultures perceived to be hostile to the concept. Shireen talked about the multiple and complex influences on men’s attitudes in the Arab world, where a nuanced understanding of contemporary masculinity needs to take account of factors such as widespread unemployment, political disruption, and the worrying rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the younger generation.

The meeting ended with a highly topical exploration of the possibility of extending aspects of IMAGES to the large numbers of refugee and migrant men who have recently arrived in Europe. Recent events, such as the assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve, have focused attention on the sexual attitudes of refugee men from the Middle East and North Africa. Is it possible to study these men’s attitudes and the roots of their masculine identities, in a way that doesn’t reinforce racist stereotypes? At the same time, as I noted in a recent post, it’s important that gender researchers and campaigners don’t fall back into a cultural relativism that is reluctant to condemn sexist behaviour when it’s committed by non-westerners. I was reassured by the evenhanded approach advocated by Promundo, which places equal emphasis on getting men to take responsibility for their actions, and at the same time attempting to understand (but not explain away) that behaviour. My own contribution to the discussion was to suggest that one way of avoiding relapsing into biological or cultural essentialism was to focus attention on the impact that the disruption and displacement caused by war, loss and migration might have had on refugee men’s masculine identities.

Shereen El Feki (via the guardian.com)

Shereen El Feki (via theguardian.com)

While its findings are intriguing, the work of IMAGES raises some interesting methodological issues. For example, is it possible to use the same survey, and the same research measures, in countries and cultures that are so widely different? For example, we heard that in Egypt, all research surveys have to be approved by the government. How might that influence men’s responses to the questions? Would they be concerned about giving the ‘approved’ answers in case they faced official consequences? And would they be worried about where the information might end up? More generally, is the whole notion of surveying personal attitudes rooted in the individualism of liberal western countries, where holding your own opinion is considered a virtue? How relevant is such research in cultures where men and women tend to draw their beliefs from collective traditions or religious teachings, rather than individual reflection? And if gendered inequality is deeply rooted in some of those contexts, is it surprising that many women choose to echo their male partners’ attitudes, even on issues such as domestic violence?

Despite these methodological concerns, it was clear from the Vienna meeting that IMAGES has already has achieved some important results that can provide support for promoting gender equality and engaging men. The proven positive correlation between gender equality and mental health can certainly be helpful in persuading men that promoting equality is in their own interest. And the connection between childhood experience and adult attitudes should encourage the growing field of positive work with boys on equality issues. It would be good if IMAGES, or aspects of it, could be extended to the United Kingdom – and it would be fascinating to see how the results here refleced the peculiarities of our national context – and whether they replicated those elsewhere in the world.

Inside out: working with offenders

Last week David Cameron made a major speech about prison reform, in which he set out his vision of ‘a modern, more effective, truly twenty-first century prison system’. Although the Prime Minister reiterated his belief that the role of prison is primarily to punish, he was also keen to emphasise that ‘we must offer chances to change, that for those trying hard to turn themselves around, we should offer hope.’ This week, the current Minister of Justice, Michael Gove, and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, jointly published an article highlighting the importance of rehabilitation, arguing that prisoners must be ‘kept occupied with useful activity, whether studying towards educational qualifications or doing worthwhile work whilst behind bars.’

For those of us with a longstanding involvement in the rehabilitation of offenders, this was music to the ears – and long overdue. Government ministers seem finally to have woken up to the fact that investing in rehabilitation makes sense pragmatically – it prevents future offending and lowers the crime rate – but also morally. As the Prime Minister said in his speech: ‘in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.’

In at the deep end

My own interest in this issue goes back a long way – to the very beginning of my working life, in fact. Working with offenders helped to launch my career and set me on the path to the work I’m doing today as an academic. However, it came about through a series of accidents. When I finished my first degree, I had to wait a year before starting a postgraduate course. In the interim I applied to do some full-time voluntary work as a Community Service Volunteer. You filled in an application form, went for an interview, and then waited to be sent to wherever there was an organisation that could make use of your skills.

Prime Minister David Cameron Visits Wormwood Scrubs Prison And Makes A Speech On Criminal Justice

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, visiting Wormwood Scrubs prison, London

For some reason, I was sent to work in a hostel for emotionally disturbed ex-prisoners in Worcester. Iris House provided accommodation and support for men who had serious problems rehabilitating into the community. Some had been in secure hospitals, such as Broadmoor and Rampton, and many were persistent and serious offenders. Our job was to house them, feed them and offer practical and emotional support. It was all a bit of a shock for a rather sheltered English Literature graduate from suburban Essex.

We were a small, mostly young team and we worked in pairs, alternating between day and night shifts. The atmosphere in the hostel could be quite oppressive: some of the residents had violent pasts and a few had to be controlled by heavy medication. But there was also a quirky side to the place that was sometimes like being in a dated TV sitcom. For example, the highest room in the hostel was home to a very well-spoken white-haired resident, a former fraudster, who treated the place like a hotel and somehow managed to have residents of humbler origin waiting on him hand and foot.

Then there were the two probation officers attached to the project. One was a Salvation Army officer who fancied himself as an amateur psychoanalyst; he diagnosed one resident’s burglaries as ‘night-time penetration offences’ and put them down to sexual frustration. The other probation officer was a rather glamorous Swiss woman, at whose leaving party the project manager memorably, and inappropriately, thanked her for being the team’s ‘sex object’. But that was typical of the sexual attitudes prevalent at the time. I remember a tense house meeting at which the male residents vigorously denied accusations that ‘homosexuality’ was rife in the hostel. And then there was the stash of pornographic magazines kept in the medicine cupboard, which we were expected to hand out nightly with the sedatives.

The experience of working at Iris House was certainly a baptism of fire. It left me with a sense of the emotional damage suffered by many people who end up in prison, and of just how difficult it is to resettle such people into anything like ‘normal’ life. I returned to academia as a PhD student in Manchester with a sense of relief, never thinking that I would ever return to working with offenders. However, a couple of years later, feeling an urge to do some voluntary work in my spare time, I happened upon a literacy project run by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO), just a few streets from the university. Thinking this was an area where I could make a contribution, I signed up to spend an hour or so a week, helping mostly young male offenders with their reading and writing. In the process, I became keenly aware of the fact that a large proportion of offenders (60% of UK prisoners, according to recent figures) have poor literacy skills, making it tough for them to hold down a job or simply cope with the demands of everyday life, and as a consequence making it more difficult for them to stay out of trouble.

Essex boys

My student grant ran out before I finished my thesis, so I moved back home to Essex and began to look for paid work. I took a series of part-time teaching jobs – with the Workers’ Educational Association, local further education colleges, and a memorable spell teaching numeracy to blood-spattered trainee butchers in Smithfield. But then, quite by chance, a family member spotted a tiny ad in a local paper, seeking a full-time course development worker for a brand new education project being set up by NACRO in Basildon, about 15 miles from where I lived. It seemed tailor-made, so I applied and got the job.

The project, based in the local probation office, was one of a number being started around the country, funded under the government’s Voluntary Projects Programme for unemployed people. By coincidence, the scheme’s HQ was in Manchester, just around the corner from where I’d done my voluntary work: in fact, that project was being used as a template for the new centres. I went back to Manchester for my induction and met others who had been recruited to run similar schemes in other towns and cities. They encouraged me to apply for the vacant project manager post in Basildon: so I did, and I was successful.

Eventually we recruited other team members, two of whom – Debbie Amas and Sandy Ruxton – I’m still in contact with many years later, and indeed Sandy and I recently worked together on a research project with vulnerable young men. Our brief in Basildon was to provide basic education classes for offenders – again, they were mostly young, mostly male – who were referred by the probation service. But we also offered volunteering opportunities for the more able probation clients: one of our volunteers was David Akinsanya, who went on to become a successful filmmaker.

To begin with, the project didn’t have premises of its own, so we had to hire rooms in local community centres. Most mornings would find us loading equipment into the boot of a car and driving to one of the outlying estates, where we’d set up our classes. It was often a little chaotic, to say the least, but hugely rewarding when it worked. Again, it was a revelation to discover just how many of those who ended up in the criminal justice system had been failed by the education system. More positively, it was encouraging to see how a second chance at learning could help them to turn their lives around.

A clean break

After a year in Basildon, I found a more permanent job at yet another NACRO project, this time in inner London. The North London Education Project had been set up to provide housing and support for ex-prisoners who had begun to study inside and wanted to continue their education on their release. It owned two hostels – one in Islington, the other in Hackney, where I was based, and where my main responsibility was setting up a new education day centre in the basement of the building. This was partly for project residents, but also for local probation clients, and for local unemployed and disadvantaged people generally. We developed a lively programme of day and evening classes – not only literacy and numeracy, but also computing, cookery, dance, weight-training – even a political discussion group.

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

Pentonville Prison (via Getty Images)

My job also involved visiting prisons to interview prospective hostel residents. This was both the most fascinating and the most dispiriting part of the job. We accepted referrals from all over the country, but our closest links were with the two North London prisons, Pentonville and Holloway, which were thoroughly depressing places to visit – the former because of its grim Victorian architecture, the latter because it housed many women who really shouldn’t have been there. Many of the women were themselves victims of violence, while others had psychological problems that were only made worse by incarceration. As I was writing this post, I read about the tragic case of Sarah Reed, a woman with severe mental health problems who died in her cell at Holloway only last month, suggesting that very little has changed in the intervening years.

For many of the men and women locked up in these prisons, education classes were a real lifeline – a route to new opportunities on their release. However, the prison education staff worked in very trying circumstances, with classes frequently being cancelled or prisoners refused permission to attend them, at the whim of prison officers.

It was an invigorating time to be working in inner London. Our project was at the heart of a vibrant multiracial community, working alongside a number of other innovative community projects, and we were funded by generous grants from the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (neither of which any longer exist). As I wrote in another post, it was a rude shock when I eventually moved to Oxfordshire, and found myself working on an all-white rural housing estate, with huge social needs but very little funding.

In moving to Berinsfield, I also left behind working with offenders and moved into generic community education work, and then later to The Open University. However, I never lost my commitment to the cause of offender rehabilitation, and my belief in the vital importance of education as a part of that process. In fact, soon after joining the OU I wrote and presented a programme on Radio 4 about women in prison, which involved revisiting some of the community organisations with whom I’d worked in North London, such as the Clean Break theatre company.

The need for a ‘third space’

My attitudes to crime and offending have inevitably mellowed over the years. When I worked for NACRO I was influenced by the ideas of radical criminology that were in the air at the time, viewing crime as a symptom of social inequality, and offenders as people who did what they did because they had very little stake in society. Perhaps it’s a sign of age, or being a parent, or a property-owner, but these days I find myself more likely to emphasise the role of individual responsibility and the impact of crime on the poor and powerless. I wrestled with these issues in a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post after the riots of 2011.

End-of-award conference for the 'Beyond Male Role Models' project, march 2015

End-of-award conference for the ‘Beyond Male Role Models’ project, March 2015

However, I’d still maintain that we need to strike a balance (as I think – to be fair – the government ministers do, in the interventions I quoted at the beginning) – between emphasising personal responsibility for crime, and attending to the social and relational factors that contribute to offending – and re-offending. As part of the Beyond Male Role Models research project that Sandy Ruxton and I, with other colleagues, were involved in recently, we interviewed young men at a support project for ex-offenders run by Action for Children in the west of Scotland (some of them were featured in the film we made as part of the study, which you can view here). Reading through the transcripts of the interviews took me back to my time in North London and those depressing prison visits, to the projects I worked on in Basildon and Manchester, and to the hostel in Worcester where my involvement in this work began. The stories the young men told were depressingly familiar: a lack of jobs, poor housing, chaotic childhoods and problems of addiction and abuse handed down from one generation to another.

But we also heard more positive stories of young men who, despite their terrible experiences, were beginning to turn their lives around. For some, it was the experience of becoming a father that was the catalyst for making the transition from irresponsible to responsible young masculinity. For all of them, the support project itself was a vital ‘third space’ where they learned new skills and began to see the possibility of leading a different kind of life – rather like the education projects that I was privileged to work on all those years ago.

The government’s new focus on rehabilitation is to be applauded, but as well as reforming what goes on inside prisons, I hope they won’t overlook the agencies and projects working with ex-offenders ‘on the outside’, many of which are facing cuts or closure at a time of austerity. As our recent research and my own experience show, these projects have a vital part to play, to quote David Cameron, ‘to help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path’.


Beyond male role models: gender identities and work with young men, the research project that Sandy Ruxton, Brid Featherstone, Mike Ward and I worked on together, was featured this week in an article at the Huffington Post, based on an interview with me.

Gloria, Bernie, and the perils of identity politics

The legendary feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem got into a spot of bother last week over her comments on the battle for the Democratic nomination in the US presidential election. Speaking on the Bill Maher show, Steinem, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton, suggested that young women were only supporting her rival Bernie Sanders in order to meet ‘boys’:

They’re going to get more activist as they get older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.

It didn’t help that, on the very next day, another prominent Clinton supporter – former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – urged women to vote for Hillary on the grounds that ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.’

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Gloria Steinem (via Wikipedia)

Both women have since attempted to explain and apologise for their remarks, but the damage was already done. A political campaign in trouble – Sanders won the New Hampshire primary convincingly and was neck-and-neck with Clinton in Iowa (see this post for my shameless attempt to claim a very indirect personal connection to his campaign) – looked like it was resorting to desperate measures, implying that it was the duty of American women to vote for Hillary, simply because of her gender. I wonder if Albright or Steinem would have said the same about Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, or a few years ago, about that bête noire of Democrats, Sarah Palin? And I’m not sure I can imagine other female politicians – such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, or Angela Merkel – arguing that people should vote for them simply because they were women.

The backlash against Steinem’s and Albright’s interventions has been pretty fierce, even among feminists. Cultural commentator Camille Paglia, a self-confessed Sanders supporter and never one to mince her words, wrote this about Steinem’s statement:

With Bernie Sanders’ thrilling, runaway victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, the old-guard feminist establishment in the U.S. has been dealt a crushing blow. 

Despite emergency efforts by Gloria Steinem, the crafty dowager empress of feminism, to push a faltering Hillary over the finish line, Sanders overwhelmingly won women’s votes in every category except senior citizens. Last week, when she told TV host Bill Maher that young women supporting the Sanders campaign are just in it to meet boys, Steinem managed not only to insult the intelligence and idealism of the young but to vaporize every lesbian Sanders fan into a spectral non-person. 

Steinem’s polished humanitarian mask had slipped, revealing the mummified fascist within. I’m sure that my delight was shared by other dissident feminists everywhere. Never before has the general public, here or abroad, more clearly seen the arrogance and amoral manipulativeness of the power elite who hijacked and stunted second-wave feminism.

And as for Albright’s contribution, Paglia commented:

Waspishly policing the earth was evidently insufficient for the feminist politburo, who are now barging into the salvation and damnation game.

The rest of the article rehearses the reasons why Paglia fell out with those whom she calls the ‘old guard’ of second wave feminism.

Many people thought that Gloria Steinem’s statement was out of character, but I have to admit that it didn’t really surprise me. It brought back memories of when I heard her speak at an international gender equality conference in New York last year. (This was the same conference at which that other doyenne of feminist activism, Jane Fonda, made a surprise appearance at the end of our seminar presentation.) Steinem was one of the keynote speakers at the gala event on the first evening. For the first ten minutes or so, her speech was engaging and entertaining, and something of a relief, coming at the end of a three-hour event in which we’d heard a succession of very worthy but often rather dull presentations.

But then Gloria went off script and treated us to a long historical excursion, which was just as much out-of-left-field as her comments last week. The main burden of her argument seemed to be that, in the ancient world, everything in the garden was rosy in terms of gender equality – until nasty old European civilisation came along and began to oppress women. Turning to her own country, Steinem claimed that Native American women enjoyed full equality until, once again, those pesky Europeans intervened and spoiled everything. Gloria told us about her frequent visits to Central Park to hug the rocks that have been there since ancient times and which connect her to the lost world of gender equality that our horrible western civilisation destroyed.

Well, one doesn’t have to be a professional historian or a cultural imperialist to think that there might be some flaws in this account. Personally, I think Steinem had things back to front. I’m not an expert on ancient civilisations, and some of them were certainly matriarchal and others had features we might admire. But surely there’s a strong argument that it was only with the coming of the European Enlightenment, and its proclamation of innate human rights and liberty and equality for all, that it became possible to think of women as autonomous human agents, rather than the chattels that they often were in ancient times? Some would go further and argue that the Enlightenment built on a longer western tradition, based on the dual pillars of Judaeo-Christian ethics and Greek philosophy, that emphasised the sacred value of every human life.

By contrast, Steinem’s version of gender history seemed to be spun out of a kind of fanciful New Age romanticism, in which non-western cultures were idealised and modern western civilisation demonised. Does it matter? Well, I’d argue that perhaps it does.

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College

Human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie being heckled at Goldsmiths College (via The Guardian)

In my online disagreement with Glen Poole back in December, I took issue with his attempt to write off feminism as a whole, because of some of its more extreme manifestations. At the same time, I acknowledged that, like any broad social movement, contemporary feminism certainly has one or two troubling aspects. I gave as an example the experience, earlier that month, of Maryam Namazie, the Iranian-born secular feminist campaigner, whose speech at Goldsmiths College in London was noisily disrupted by male members of the college’s Islamic society. Instead of standing up for her, the Goldsmiths Feminist Society issued an astonishing statement condemning Namazie and supporting the actions of the Islamic society. Since then, we’ve had the events in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, when dozens of women were sexually assaulted by gangs of men, said to be of North African or Middle Eastern origin. Some feminist commentators seemed slow to condemn these actions and appeared more comfortable excoriating the admittedly racist groups who sought to take advantage of the situation than the perpetrators themselves.

For some, these examples confirm a trend within western feminism to ignore or downplay the oppression of women in non-western countries and cultures. I got into a disagreement on Twitter recently when I took issue with a United Nations report that highlighted the inequalities suffered by women in the United States, surely one of the freest and most equal societies in the world for women – rather than focusing attention and resources on the countries in the world where women are truly oppressed – whether that means being sexually enslaved in ISIS-controlled Iraq, married off before puberty in Yemen, or imprisoned simply for being dressed ‘inappropriately’ in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

These are deep waters, and as a mere male pro-feminist I’m reluctant to wade in, particularly as I know Gloria Steinem’s writings have meant so much to many women. However, I’d suggest that a straight line can be drawn between the kind of anti-westernism and romantic idealisation of non-western cultures that I heard Steinem espouse in New York – and the skewed priorities that we witnessed in the cases of Maryam Namazie and the Cologne attacks.

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders

Young women voters supporting Bernie Sanders (via The Guardian)

After Cologne a number of critics proclaimed the ‘death’ of feminism. They were wrong, of course. But if the movement for gender equality is to survive and win over a younger generation, and at the same time counter the criticisms of the men’s rights movement, then I’d argue that it needs to let go of cultural relativism and embrace a bold vision of universal human rights, without fear or favour towards any culture or grouping. And it needs to forsake the kind of crude identity politics that Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright indulged in last week. Indeed, some have argued that it’s precisely his refusal to play this game (despite being the first Jewish candidate, and indeed the first non-Christian, to win a US primary election), and instead his keenness to emphasise that ‘we’re all in this together’ that may help to explain why the ‘boys’ – and girls – are increasingly ‘with Bernie’.

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.