End of first year.

So, turns out I am crap at updating blogs.

So after my first year as a PhD student, how is it going?
I wrote “very well” and then deleted it as I am a natural pessimist, but, you know, it’s actually going OK.

My research has covered lots of fascinating ground, from menstrual taboos to witches, with a huge encompassing framework of psychoanalysis and endocrinology. I have touched on menstruation in law, sexual difference, sexual education, female education, homosexuality, feminism, gender theory, anthropology, medical research, physiology, psychology, eugenics and the birth control movement.

Chronologically my research has it’s roots in nineteenth century nerve concepts of menstruation and female health, before moving into the world of zoological comparison at the fin de siècle and finishing triumphantly in the health obsessed, hormone driven 1930s.

Menstruation is key to discussions about female health, about sexual difference, about mental stability, female capability and mood. If you tell women that they have to take to their bed once a month (middle class and upper class women only, of course) because otherwise their present and future mental/physical health and the health of any future children they might have, relies on it, it limits them and gives them bigger hurdles to climb.

It’s also about the power of the female body over the children it carries. The womb is a mysterious place where a child can get birthmarks or deformities from its mother’s behaviour. A woman needs to behave and stay calm whilst carrying her precious cargo, because even her moods can affect the baby. I even came across one account from 1917 that said that the negative behaviour of a girl as a child could affect the eggs inside her, thus causing problems for a future baby. If a girl isn’t ‘glad and good’ as a child, then her baby won’t be either. This was from a very progressive child training series called ‘Practical Child Training’. (I’m not going to footnote because the books are downstairs and I am eating biscuits in bed, but happy to pass on details if anyone wants them).

I will come back and write more. I’ll try not to leave it so long.

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Evaluation

So I have now been a PhD student for seven months, how am I doing?

Honestly?

This has been the steepest and hardest learning curve of my entire life. I did my MA in 2004.

2004.

Its amazing how much you can forget in ten years! Plus, well, I didnt actually do too well on my dissertation. It was in my fourth year in a subject I was thoroughly sick of. I thought Ancient History would be full of phalluses and sex and drinking and all that fun stuff, turns out thats mostly Classics. Ancient History is about battles and politics and the law and a really dire book about the Hellenistic world that was essentially the minutes of council meetings about wheat. I wanted to do a dissertation about women. I got a very nice supervisor who suggested Augustus’s daughters (women arent very prominent in Ancient History, what with them being mostly uneducated furniture). I wrote the entire dissertation on about five statues and a handful of coins. Thats all the evidence there was pretty much. I hated every second, wrote it all in the week before it was due in, got 13 out of 20 and immediately tried to forget all about it.

In the last seven months I have had to:

Learn how to research from scratch, find journal articles and understand them, learn about psychoanalysis from a position of zero knowledge, learn a whole new language of academia and science, remember how to use a library, lost some friends to jealousy, come home crying with the screams of my son ringing in my ears as they have pulled him off me at nursery, dug in the dirty washing pile repeatedly for clean items of uniform for my daughter when my organised washing system broke down due to my research, fallen asleep on my books at 1am and got up at 6am to start the school run, cried in general (surprisingly quite a lot).

I have missed most of the university training sessions due to childcare issues so I have very much been doing it by myself.

And most of the time it has been brilliant (bar the crying of course). Being a SAHM was a level of stagnation I cannot even begin to explain in words. Unless you have been there you can read about it but it doesnt convey the sheer bonenumbing boredom of looking after a baby or toddler everyday, the repetition of tasks until you want to scream, the bodily fluids, the lack of adult conversation. It was like moving through mud, the days were so slow and I was watching everyone else zoom by as I dragged my carcass along. I should add here that I did have some untreated PND which made the whole business a whole lot worse, I know a lot of people enjoy being at home with their kids. I was at home with mine for 9 (NINE!) whole years. It wasnt my choice which made it harder I think.

Conclusion: I am incredibly lucky with this opportunity and whilst sometimes it feels like climbing a mountain made of glass in slippers, the alternative is a fuck of a lot worse.

There must be a word

For that feeling when you discover that a really thick book, one filled with lots of scary new words is much shorter than it first appears. 

I can’t be the only one that checks to see exactly how many pages I have to read of a particular book, so why isn’t there a word. Relief doesn’t really seem to cover it, there is much more of a celebratory quality to it in my opinion.

The book that prompted this post is about Otto Weininger, a Viennese gentleman who wrote an anti-Semitic and misogynisic text called ‘Sex and Character’ around 1903. Then he killed himself shortly afterwards in his early twenties. I’m on page 4 and this is all I know so far. Only 154 pages to go.

I have two other books on the go at the same time, so I can switch between this without having to focus on one thing all day (too tiresome). One is a psychoanalytic study of witchcraft in early modern England focusing on the maternal origins of the aggression towards witches. I came across a brief synopsis somewhere and the ideas suggested in it were startlingly similar to Chadwick’s. However Chadwick doesn’t get a mention anywhere, it’s all based on Kleinian theory. Very interesting considering Klein and Chadwick’s ishoos (Yes necessary, no, not sorry for spelling it like that). 

 

The other book I am dragging myself through is volume one of Havelock Ellis’s ‘Study in the Psychology of Sex’. Very interesting but no coherent narrative as such and mostly composed of source material from others, especially anthropologists. Very very relevant though, as it deals with periodicity and menstruation, a rich source of further reading and ideas.

My research

I don’t actually remember what I entitled my initial proposal and to be honest I am still not one hundred percent sure where I am going with it. The core of the thing is menstrual mood disorders (PMT, menarche and menopause), essentially looking at how they were constructed and treated in the 1930s. However this is one of those subjects where I am pretty much forging new ground. The way my research develops literally depends on what I can find and I am struggling with a lack of secondary material directly related to the subject.

One of the leads I have been following is a lady called Mary Chadwick who was a trained nurse and a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1920s and 30s. In 1932 she wrote a book called ‘The Psychological Effects of Menstruation’ which she followed up with ‘Adolescent Girlhood’ and ‘Woman’s Periodicity’in 1932 and 1933. In total she wrote 8 or 9 books between 1925 and 1940, the majority of which were written for a general audience (and often ran to several editions). She also contributed articles to a wide range of journals.

If you google her you will come up with a couple of references to her analysis of Hilda Doolittle (HD), the Imagist poet. She also appears in a lot of lists with the same female analysts- those who studied at the Medical-Psychological Clinic in London and fellow child analysts. Occasionally there is a reference to her being the first English child psychoanalyst or her issues with Melanie Klein.

I had to do a LOT of research and came up with a timeline of her life and a little bit about where she stood in the psychoanalytical world. She is an utterly fascinating person and it really is such a shame that she has become so overshadowed by some of her psychoanalytical contemporaries.

My next stage is to look at where she fits into the nineteenth thirties, which involves research into psychiatry, physiology, medical research, menstruation, hormones, vitamins, the historiography of witchcraft, anthropology, eugenics, sexology, feminism, periodicity, theories of sexual difference, reflex theory, gynaeology, nursing practice, adolescence and psychoanalysis. All of which are new to me. My next task is to submit a tentative bibliography to my supervisor within the next two to four weeks. Exciting, but there are a lot of subjects there I know nothing about….at all.

My spirits have been lifted a bit by a massive bargain I came across the other day. I have coveted ‘The hygiene of life and safer motherhood’ by Arbuthnot Lane for weeks but it was £42 and I can’t justify that. It’s a series of articles from popular health writers that he put together in the mid-thirties, one of whom was Chadwick. I have the personal supplement to the book which is brilliant (it’s on the special problems of women) but I needed the book for my research.

I came across it on Abebooks, two volumes for £2 and £3 delivery. I took a chance and ordered it anyway expecting the worst. This time my gamble paid off. The thing is huge and beautiful and includes another copy of the personal supplement as well. It’s heavy so I definitely got a massive massive bargain. So happy!

Saying goodbye to the old me

So doing this PhD has meant completely changing my life, mostly for the better. One thing I have been reluctant to face until now was the necessity of making space on my shelves. Books have always been an important part of my life, not just the reading them but just having them there lining the walls.

Over the last week I have finally tackled my shelves. Each time I have had to do this (usually when moving, which we have done a lot), it has been quite traumatic, but this time it was slightly easier. Each book was a reminder of something- a phase, an illness, a happy memory, but the majority of them were from my pre-PhD searching for knowledge phase, the seeking of a subject that could hold my interest for longer than a year. Now that I have one I can suddenly let these books go.

I think I got rid of two hundred or so. Fantasy escaped virtually unscathed, as did zombie novels. I culled the history books to my favourites and excised many of the books from my first degree in Ancient history. Not the primary sources of course, except for Herodotus, Seneca, PLiny and Virgil who I took great pleasure in hurling into a bag. Then I got rid of any books that I knew I would never read again and some of the remnants of my phrases. Those were the most upsetting, evidence of the strain I was under and the desperate seeking for some sort of mental stimulation.

I kept a few – ‘cancer ward’ from my Russian phase, Lyndal Roper from my witch phase, Aristocrats from my 18th century phase (and Tom Jones and Pamela of course). I got rid of half of my biographies of famous and rule breaking women, those that were dull and poorly written. I came across a stash of sewing and crafting books from the time I was really ill and desperate to learn something new but unable to deal with anything complicated. They had somehow made it through previous culls but finally getting rid of them was very cathartic.

I had a supervision yesterday, it went well I think. My supervisor is happy with my progress. He wants me to move out to look at the larger picture and the context this lady was working in. I am allowing myself today off, an easy thing when I have my son home from nursery today. Shopping, housework, childcare – Virginia Woolf had a point. Nothing got done from my to do lists but I was busy the whole day anyway!

There are some cracking series on 4oD I have been catching up on recently – I loved ‘Big Women’ a drama covering twenty five years of a feminist publishing house. I didn’t see it the first time around and whilst it had its flaws it was very refreshing.

Next time, something about my research……