Fathers in the Home: the Longview

Family, home, work, and schooling have collided in the last year thanks to Covid. This has made visible the tensions between different parts of our lives and brought into stark relief gender stereotypes about caring. These issues were the spur to an open lecture exploring the role of fathers in the home today and in the past which I presented with Professor Tina Miller, chaired by Dr Patrick Alexander. It was part of the Oxford Brookes University Think Human Festival that will culminate in a series of exciting events in April 2022.

Tina and I work on fathering and fatherhood and we were both keen to talk about this in the light of Covid19. After all, lockdown has seen more of us spending time in the home for work, education, and leisure as well as family life. This has led to much questioning of gendered caring roles and opened up to scrutiny the issue of who does what when we’re at home and how this gets organised and practised. In our presentations and Q&A we ask what do fathers do in the home? Are fathers more involved now than ever before? Do men and women share the physical and emotional labours of parenting?

Do take a look at the recording here!

Military Masculinities in the Long Nineteenth Century

The conference on military masculinities (20-21 May 2015) was one of the most interesting I have attended, thanks to excellent organisation by Anna Maria Barry and Emma Butcher, and to the innovative and interesting research presented throughout.

Speakers were a brilliant mix of new, early career, and established scholars (the programme is here) and the audience was unfailingly convivial and supportive. It was great to meet people I only knew through Twitter and to discover tweeters new to me while tweeting about the papers.

One of the things I found really surprising was that I could listen to the speaker, tweet about his/her paper, while reading other people’s tweets on the same paper (less difficult than it sounds) and engage in a ‘live’ conversation that really sparked ideas, thoughts, and questions, which the speaker could join in during Q&A and later via Twitter.

I’m a historian of emotions and materiality and thus my paper explored the role of both in circulating and ‘fixing’ ideals of military masculinities – soldiers and sailors – to individuals and society more broadly. You can see the Prezi presentation of my paper here:


– not much substance available because I’ve yet to write up chunks of it, but lots of gorgeous images and objects!

Perhaps one of the things that struck me most is the extent to which many scholars from different disciplines are using both emotions and materiality to think about research questions and issues. It seems to me that this is going to open up so many possibilities and different directions.

Many of us considered soldiers, sailors, and their families’ emotions and inevitably we began to consider how these might change within the different periods and technologies of the Napoleonic wars through the Crimean to the modern, mechanist wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Military men’s bodies were often central too, and we discussed idealised bodies, inadequate bodies, ill, broken, and abused bodies, and, even, immaterial bodies in the form of ghosts.

The conference was also a feast for the senses. It was wonderfully evocative to hear military songs sung live and early recordings of music. So too was seeing so many glorious images and objects on speakers’ presentations. I was just stunned by the lovely objects that were on display from the York Army Museum, which we were able to handle. These highlight what a wonderful resource military ‘sources’ are for scholars beyond the field of military history.

I am so excited by the prospect of an edited collection published from this conference because it will showcase inter-disciplinary and important work on the power of military masculinities.

Manliness in the form of sailors who shed a tear 1760-1860

I had the honour of presenting a paper at the ‘Gendering the Maritime World’ at the National Maritime Museum on Thursday 24 April.

The symposium was tremendously thought-provoking and had a fantastic range of papers and observations from attendees. More will emerge from the day, I believe, in the shape of blog posts and journal publications. For now, here is the link to my Prezi presentation if anyone would like to have a look at my contribution!


For more on tears check out Thomas Dixon’s work here and here.

Having done a little work on images of sailors for this paper, I have found my new historical desire and ambition, which is to do some research on all the wonderful images of the sailor’s ‘farewell’ and ‘return’ held in this collection, such as this one –

sailor's return

This is Thomas Stothard’s The Sailor’s Return in Peace (1798) held in the NMM’s collection http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/12617.html.

I can highly recommend a browse of the NMM’s online collection for any kind of historian!

Is masculinity to blame for men who murder their children?

I have written this post in response to an article in The Observer today, titled ’Masculinity Crisis leads to family murder, according to new study.’ It is a short piece, which states that Birmingham City University criminologists have studied 59 men who between 1980 and 2012 killed their children and, sometimes, their wives as well. It states that the study concludes that:

the increasing instances of the crime were a reflection of “masculinity in crisis”. He [Professor David Wilson] said: “Some men are unable to come to terms with different and developing notions of the institution of the family, where women increasingly play a much more dynamic role than they had in the past.”

The same study’s findings were reported in The Daily Mail in May this year. In this report, the causal factors of marriage breakdown were highlighted. Elizabeth Yardley, one of the criminologists working doing the research comments that the murders ’find it impossible to cope when their families break up’. All ’seem to have one thing in common. They feel that their masculinity is being threatened’.

Binding of IsaacI have to say that I am delighted that this crime is being investigated. Like everyone else, I have found the incidents reported extremely troubling and, as a historian, have been struck that this phenomenon seems to be relatively ‘modern,’ in that I am not aware of similar cases in the past. Moreover, the press reports which call these crimes ‘tragedies’ seem to me to be obscenely recategorising terrible pre-meditated murder as family breakdown tragedy. Thus, I want criminologists and social scientists to help explain why this happens and how it can be prevented.

But today’s article really worries me and seems to represent a trend in discussing gender more generally. I want to point out that I have not been able to track down the study itself, which is published, so my comments are reserved for these articles themselves. Yet, this is significant since this is where most people will meet the information and – rightly so – will assume that it is unproblematic because experts have carried out empirical reserach and drawn conclusions from it.

In the first place, to assign 59 men’s killings of their children over 32 years as the result of a crisis in masculinity is strikingly problematic. Surely a crisis cannot last that long? What about the concept itself? Historians of masculinity (like John Tosh) show that the notion of a ‘crisis’ in masculinity is flawed; for each supposed example, such as in the seventeenth century or the late nineteenth century, when societies shifted due to changes in labour or because women’s status improved, there is little evidence that ALL men experienced anxiety about their identity, their position relative to women, or their autonomy.

Nor is this weight of historical evidence unknown to the social sciences. Harry Beynon’s Masculinities and Culture, published in 2002, devotes a chapter to ‘Masculinities and the notion of crisis’. He points out that the concept is at best ’ill defined and elusive’ (p. 75) and after describing the problems concludes that the crisis has:

become a contemporary cliche, a catch-all container into which anything negative about men is simply poured. (p. 95)

I hate this tendency to talk about men as a collective who are all ‘naturally’ violent, sexually predatory, and liable to exploit women and children given the ‘right’ circumstances – which seem to include both not being in control and being in control. Thanks to unreflective articles of the kind we see in The Observer today, to use Beynon’s words:

Boys are constantly confronted with the notion that men are by nature brutal and emotionally damaged. (p. 97)

Indeed The Daily Mail’s report ends with the shocking claim that as marriages continue to breakdown:

there is no way of predicting which men are going to carry on being loving fathers — and which are going to act on these feelings and turn into Family Annihilator

But the men who who spitefully murder their children as a way to damage further their estranged wives are not representative of men in general, nor of men who find it difficult to cope with changing gender constructions. They are psychologically damaged, no doubt, since they seem unable to comprehend of their children as individual humans with rights of their own. Indeed, I wonder if they see their offspring simply as extensions of their mothers and therefore abuse them as such. Arguably this may have links to some models of masculinity since the study found that many of these killers were policemen or soldiers. These institutions do promote forms of masculine identity that use controlled violence to achieve specific ends. However, of course, it is the word ‘controlled’ that is important. Neither of these institutions should automatically produce men who can kill their children.

All in all, I would like to see more precise language and concepts being used to think about domestic violence in all its forms. This kind of reporting is crass and insults men as well women by following the usual ’victim blaming’ route.

Please note that this post is also hosted on Ending Victimisation and Abuse Website.

Image is The Binding Of Isaac, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Marriage, surnames and identity

I’ve written this post because BBC Radio Leeds asked me to contribute to the Mark Forrest show (22 July 2013) featuring a discussion of a recent survey’s findings on the numbers of women keeping their maiden name at marriage. To listen, click here.


Arbutus Free Wedding Stock Photography, Creative Commons 3.0

The survey was carried out by Facebook this year in the US and the UK by examining the names of married women using the social media site and comparing their surnames with their husbands’ profiles. The findings are strikingly similar.  In America Facebook examined the names of 14 million married females, ranging in age from 20 to 79. It reported that 65 percent of women in their 20s and 30s changed to their husbands’ name. Older women changed their names at marriage in greater numbers. (Huffington Post)

In the UK 62 percent of women in their 20s have adopted their husbands’ surname. Again, the numbers increase as women’s ages increase. 74 per cent of women in their 30s and 88 per cent of women in their 60s did not keep their maiden name. (Daily Mail)

It is striking that the headlines have used these findings to declare that fewer women are now keeping their own names; and I infer a sense of relief in these articles. Other writers have suggested it is part of retro fashions more generally (The Daily Beast)

BBC Radio Leeds were very interested that it is younger women who are becoming more likely to keep their own names. One could ask whether this is a deliberate attempt to demonstrate equality with men; even perhaps a shift from the practice of women in their thirties who faced more of a backlash if they admitted to a feminist perspective.

Yet, I’m not sure that the figures suggest that there is a resurgence of feminism amongst young women. There are still more women who do not use their maiden name. I’m sure a small minority have an active political view, and a few more keep their own family names to signal that they are separate from their husband: an individual with a distinct identity. I suspect that most women who keep their birth name do so for practical reasons. Professional, high earning women will retain the name that they are known by in the world of work. Once you have published in one surname, for example, it is almost essential to keep that name or you will be missed by search engines and risk virtual disappearance.


And practical reasons underlie English women’s custom of taking their husbands’ names in the past. Women who married fell under the Common Law Doctrine of Coverture which removed their legal identity and placed them under the ‘cover’ of their husband. As feme-coverts, women could not enter economic contracts. Yet for much of the early modern period and into the eighteenth century it was wives who shopped for the home. Since cash was often in short supply, credit was the usual means of economic exchange. The Law of Agency tackled this paradox, by allowing wives to use their husbands’ credit. But of course since most credit was local and relied on trust, wives, shopkeepers and traders found it much easier for the women to refer to themselves by their husbands’ surname. And thus an economic necessity shaped naming practices. (See my free article ‘ Favoured or oppressed ? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800’ Continuity and Change 17 (3), 2002, 351–372;  and Katie Barclay’s blog post What’s in a name? Or leaving your patrilineage behind).


I do think that feminism is somewhere in this situation, nonetheless, in that women now have the choice whether to take their husbands’ name or not. Many realise the complications of keeping their own name or using both their husbands’ and their own birth names, particularly when they have children. For many, therefore using a single surname is easier. Probably, most of these women would be shocked that anyone would consider that they were subordinating themselves by taking their husbands’ name. I think they see it as an act of commitment to the relationship, even a declaration of unity.

Of course, the question remains: why does unity entail taking the man’s surname; why not the woman’s?

Embedding and embodying gender in history

This post is based on a paper I gave in 2010 when I was asked to think about gender history. I’d been thinking hard about gender while writing my book and at the centre of this musing is the question: why did I change my book’s title over the three years I was working on it from: Parents in England c. 1760-1830: gender, identities, and generations to Parents in England c. 1760-1830: emotions, identities, and generations?

I began by collecting all my accounts of parenting from 1760 to 1830. I soon found that where parental identities are concerned the historian faces two assumptions; that parenting is a natural instinct and that motherhood and fatherhood are profoundly gendered, distinct, identities. The first assumption presupposes stasis, the second allows for change in parental identities. If becoming a mother or a father is engendering – that is, a process that is understood to produce a woman or a man, then it provides a specific female or male identity. Outside influences that shape the way femininity and masculinity are seen will therefore influence the way maternal and paternal identities are constructed. Scholarship offers varied accounts of both continuity and change. Social histories identify considerable continuities in the elements of parenthood for both sexes. More culturally attuned studies [histories of art and literature], on the other hand, posit transformations in motherhood – with a cult of maternity, for example, notable in the eighteenth century. A cursory look at recent work in the social sciences suggests that maternal and paternal identities are seen to have undergone rapid shifts and concomitant tensions in the second half of the twentieth century.


The Husbandman’s Return from Labour: Saturday Evening (1795) (colour engraving) after William Redmore Bigg (1755-1828) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

I decided that one way forward was to take an embodied approach to investigating gender identities. How was parenting imagined and experienced in terms of bodies and materiality? How did emotions shape gender identities? I found that thinking about bodies and emotions complicated my assumptions about gender difference and opened up the question of gender identities beyond binary oppositions. Parental embodiment in the eighteenth century, for example, need not be restricted to the well-researched concerns about maternal breastfeeding. An embodied approach opens up distinctions between gender-specific and gender-related parenthood and parenting, for the gendered stereotypes of mothers providing physical care and fathers offering material care and government becomes far more multi-layered and complex.

Loving arms and nurturing bosoms were also paternal, and the labouring bodies praised for providing for children were maternal as well as paternal. The culture of sensibility and Christian ideals of manhood celebrated sensitivity, physical care, and tenderness in men – all encompassed within the role of father and these were expressed through the body as tears, hugs, and kisses. Of course, the relationship between bodies and social conventions about gender remain open to investigation. For example, historians find it fruitful to scrutinise how paternity, grounded in biology, could be different to fatherhood, a social, male gendered identity – though both defined a man as a father.

Emotions history also lets me consider the ways in which the emotions associated with gendered identities were reconfigured in different ways at different times. Emotions are, after all, human and let us explore gender identities within a different framework. My research on parents in England therefore also encompasses anger, anxiety and sympathy and such historically specific forms of ‘feeling’ as tenderness, distress, and benevolence – and in some cases uncovers how these were not always mapped onto sexed bodies.

So why did I omit the word ‘gender’ from my book title? I think that my replacing ‘gender’ with ‘emotion’ signifies how much more embedded my understanding of gender has become. If it is any indication of wider developments, then it is that gender is being integrated more fully into a variety of topics, that we are more willing to think about the construction of feminine and masculine identities through different perspectives and lenses, and that new research agendas are being applied to the study of gender identities.