Mission: a dangerous enthusiasm?

Or thoughts prompted while organizing my folder of public domain images…

(Woman’s Holy War, 1874, By Currier & Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I worked through my PhD, I developed a basic argument that went something like this:

Evangelical religion allowed women in the nineteenth century to do things that they would not normally be allowed to do.

For example, if a woman felt strongly that she had been called by God to be a missionary (or, in the early period, a missionary’s wife), she could leave the domestic sphere and go out to the mission field, where she would usually experience more agency and power than women back at home. (It has to be remembered that missionaries were often ill, and wives often temporarily took over the running of the mission.)

Other women became activists in the anti-slavery or temperance movements, because they believed that their religion required them to act. Still others became successful writers of religious tracts and even novels, in order to use their talents for a godly cause. And later in the century, Constance Maynard believed that she had to establish a university college for women, because that was what God had called her to do.

The advantages that these women enjoyed have led some of us in the 20th/21st century to question whether they perhaps feigned their faith in order to access life beyond the domestic sphere. In fact, I started out at this position.

I changed my mind though, when faced with the evidence of emotions felt by these women – and men – on embarking upon their various missions. In the early nineteenth century, sailing to the mission field was highly dangerous and pretty much meant never returning to your home and family. Missionaries, and their families, did not live very long. Biographies made these facts very clear, and letters from missionaries to loved ones show their understanding of the case.

Later in the century the interaction between faith and ambition may have been more complex. I was often struck by how convenient it was that Constance Maynard’s god-given vocation was so in line with her aspiration to become the principal of a London college… However, certainly in Maynard’s case, evidence suggests that vocation was an emotional issue, involving serious soul-searching and inspired by enthusiastic faith. I was struck by her description (in her diary) of how she felt that her struggle to establish a women’s college was part of the evangelical crusade:

I would like to fly high, to attack the very top, storm the very citadel within, to shew my brothers that nothing is too strong if we have the Lord with us, and that after very patient, skilful obedient working, we may shout for the Lord hath given us the city!

(La Battaglia di Legano By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I decided to take women missionaries’ and activists’ attestations of faith seriously, and it led me to a greater understanding and sympathy of Victorian woman, beyond my initial judgement: ‘Victorians were crazy’.

Of course, another question is whether other Victorians believed that women activists were being truthful about their motivations. The image above ‘Woman’s Holy War’ would suggest that many in America around the time of the Temperance movement did believe in the notion of religiously motivated, righteous women agents taking action to redeem mankind. However, this other image of the American temperance movement (1874) reminds me very much of Dickens’s attitude towards women missionary supporters (for so long one of the only mentions of women and mission I could think of in literature!):

(By BPL (Flickr: Mother’s Gone Crusading) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby (in his novel Bleak House), these women campaigners are neglecting their home duties for the sake of what they present as their religious duty to go ‘crusading’. The main criticism of activist women is that they have misunderstood their religious duties – which clearly lie in the home with their angelic children, saving their babies, husbands – and pets – from the distress of their absence. (Library catalogues use keywords such as ‘distress’ and ‘children crying’ to categorise this image.) But is there also in this image a suggestion that some Victorians didn’t buy women activists’ justifications of faith for their activities outside the home? The women’s studied expressions of harsh solemnity, the hands prominently folded to indicate prayer, are depicted in a way to accuse them of cant and hypocrisy. Though the women can be seen as martyrs being burnt at the stake (the steam of father’s tea-making becomes the smoke surrounding them), it is their family, the artist suggests, who are the real martyrs.

The song itself (available here) might be taken to continue this theme as it is from the point of views of the neglected child at home, who sings of the happiness of family life when alcohol is absent:

There’s no cruel blows at our home, no bitter words or brawls. And King Alcohol don’t know us, And so he never calls.

In fact, though, the song is not that critical of mother going crusading; the child is proud of his mother and calls on others to join the crusade. The text of the song was written by Mrs M.A. Kidder, who also wrote hymns. And in its advertisement for the song in 1874, the Folio (a Boston musical journal) promoted it for the use of temperance societies:

A wide awake Temperance song […] It hits the spirit of the times to a T, and all Temperance people and societies should have it. Selling fast. A humorous lithograph title-page. (Folio, July 1874)

The popularity of the song would suggest that temperance societies weren’t put off by the ‘humorous’ title-page.

It is possible to blame people other than the crusading women for the domestic chaos depicted in the lithograph. The father, though he is said to be ‘for temp’rance’, does not crusade with his wife and by the end of the song is ‘fast asleep’. As the descriptor used in the Folio’s advert shows, the temperance movement used the phrase ‘wide awake’ for themselves and their songs, meaning that they were so alive to the evils of the alcohol industry they simply had to take action.

And of course, the alcohol industry and ‘the times’ themselves can also be blamed. The fact that a mother, in her zeal to save people from the broken homes caused by alcohol, in effect ‘breaks’ her own domestic haven through neglect can be read as ironic. But it can also be read as a necessary – and temporary – sacrifice: until ‘other fellows fathers […] go for temp’rance too’, until others can enjoy ‘happy households’, these women must sacrifice their domestic havens and take to a life of crusading martyrdom.

In the end I tend to come to the conclusion that when Victorians accuse activist religious women of hypocrisy they aren’t usually questioning the faith that inspires their activism. What’s more in question is whether they are truly being martyred. I think Victorians accepted that it was ok that evangelical religion caused women to do things that they would not normally do. As long as they didn’t enjoy it.


C0-editing a special issue

Words cannot quite express how excited I am that the special issue that I worked on over the past couple of years is now published (http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rwhr20/25/1) – and that a print copy of the entire issue arrived just the other day!

Words also cannot express how very grateful I was for this opportunity. What happened in this case was that June Purvis, the editor of Women’s History Review heard about a symposium on Constance Maynard that we were putting on at Queen Mary (University of London), and, because she thought it might make a good special issue, got in touch. It was also thanks to Thomas Dixon and Nadia Valman at QMUL that I was involved in the symposium at all. And it was thanks to the patience and assistance of Sue Morgan (the deputy editor at WHR, and a speaker at our symposium) that we got through the editing process!

In many ways this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Writing my article and responding to peer review might have been the easiest part. Harder was choosing people to invite to contribute; ensuring the article topics worked together; working out what to do when people dropped out; finding and managing peer reviewers; and being diplomatic if contributors got harsh peer reviews, or missed their deadlines and didn’t get back to us…

The most enjoyable challenge was co-writing the introduction. Having just finished the solitary experience that can be a PhD, it was great to get together with other people to plan a piece of writing. I was lucky in my co-editors and we had a truly collaborative experience. I only thought afterwards about how awful it might have been had we not all agreed on our vision for the special issue, and appreciated the different perspectives and approaches that we each brought to the project.

Here are some of the things I learnt about editing a special issue:

Reasons editing a special issue is an amazing experience:

  • You get to commission articles on things that really interest you.
  • You get to read the latest research as it is developing, before anyone else.
  • You get to work with some really great editors of journals, contributors, and peer reviewers.
  • You learn about yourself as a scholar – what sort of work you respect/enjoy/want to emulate, and what direction you want to take your subject in.
  • You develop the confidence to disagree with other editors, or peer reviewers, and to stand up for your contributors and your vision.

Things that I would do differently next time:

  • Be clearer about the word count from the start – and make people stick to it. I sincerely apologize to all my contributors for making them cut their wonderful essays at the last minute.
  • Think about alternative contributors earlier in the process – not wait for two contributors to drop out before searching for a replacement.

Other advice:

  • Three co-editors is probably the perfect number. We could split out the work evenly, each keeping up with our own pet contributors and their peer review process – we re-distributed if people dropped out or if our personal work loads had changed – but we didn’t have too many competing ideas.
  • Work with people you enjoy. Despite the stresses of putting together a special issue, we had fun, especially when we had to continue our editorial meetings via Skype when I moved away. There’s nothing quite like a cat-on-the-laptop interruption for lightening the mood.

So, all in all, I highly recommend this process to others. If you would like to access the result of our hard work, it’s available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rwhr20/25/1

(Most of the articles are only accessible from a library that subscribes to the journal, although if you scroll down you will find that Lesley Hall’s article on same-sex relationships in inter-war Britain is available to download for free.)

You can download a free copy of our introduction here (limited number of copies): http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/XstCSIUXdnfr55tBVHDy/full

And a free copy of my article here (limited number of copies): http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/vSigHhuGVGIjXARWTBum/full


Helpful Tips for Tuesday

From blogs I follow:

The Thesis Whisperer suggests cures for ‘Readitis’ based partly on Marie Kondo’s ‘Konbari’ method: http://thesiswhisperer.com/2016/01/20/readitis/

Pat Thomson advises on the deeper problem behind word repetition when discussing previous scholarship: http://patthomson.net/2016/01/18/use-and-abuse-of-the-word-bank/

And historian George Gosling muses on opening sentences for essays: https://gcgosling.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/opening-sentences/


Revising a paper for publication

As I read through the essay on my computer screen I found myself getting lost. What point was this person making? Where had the thread of the argument disappeared to? Why was it so complicated? I felt like I was marking the work of an undergraduate.

Unfortunately the author of this piece was no 18 year old. It was me. Admittedly the piece had been written about 2 years before I’d gained my PhD, but I was somewhat shocked by how incoherent it now seemed. Luckily the editors of the collection still wanted my essay, but obviously it needed ‘significant revision’. I was tempted to start again with a blank sheet of paper.

But I didn’t, and within a month I had a far more coherent, better argued essay that was far more appropriate for the collection. So, before I forget how I managed this, I thought I’d set down my reflections on this process, the stages I went through and the strategies I used when revising my paper. Some of them are specific to my particular situation, but it might be that some of them can be applied in other situations and could be of help to others struggling with that initially unwelcome instruction to ‘revise and re-submit’. I’m currently second-drafting another essay (less revision needed on this one!) and will certainly be following some of my own advice.

Stage 1: Dismay, anger, depression

Revise and resubmit

It’s never nice to get negative feedback, even if you know it’s going to be constructive in the end. I was dismayed by the amount of work my editors thought the piece needed and annoyed at some of what I initially thought were petty or not constructive comments. So after reading through all the comments, I closed the email and saved it for later.

Strategy: Take some time

In the same way I don’t think you should ever answer an email when angry, I don’t think it’s a good idea to deal with comments until you’ve had time to digest them. Time away from them tends to take the sting out of any objectionable comments and results in a calmer, more reconciled and accepting disposition. I took a week for this.

Stage 2: Rational re-evaluation

A week later, as I read over my essay, any negative feelings towards my editors were replaced by embarrassment, and any feelings of annoyance were now directed at my former self. Since writing this paper some eighteen months earlier I had come to a few realizations about my thesis subject and approach, and this piece seemed so inferior to what I had been confidently producing more recently. I couldn’t blame my editors for calling out the glaring mistakes which I myself now admitted to and had only recently solved in my thesis. Of course, neither could I blame my former self for not knowing yet what I knew now (that would be a bit unreasonable). I looked on the bright side, reflecting that I actually agreed with a number of the comments, and now had the chance to bring this paper into alignment with my new thinking. Many of the problems with it stemmed from a lack of clarity over what exactly I was trying to do – which I was now a lot clearer on – and others stemmed from the fact that I was an English literature student intervening in what was essentially history (interdisciplinarity poses challenges as well as providing opportunities…).

Strategy: Think through reviewers’ most fundamental issues and your responses to them

Being a great believer in Thinking Writing, I found it helpful to do this as a written exercise. I wrote out the reviewers’ issues as questions and wrote my immediate answers to them. I’d respond to these answers with more probing questions until I felt that I had the issue thrashed out to my satisfaction and was confident with my answers. I didn’t agree with all the reviewers’ comments, or the positions these revealed, but arguing with them in this way allowed me to realize how certain misunderstandings may have occurred and to articulate my positions more clearly. I was then able to use bits and pieces of these articulations in my re-writing.

Stage 3: Additional reading

My intervention in this collection’s rather wide field (nineteenth-century missionaries) was based on knowledge of one particular corner of the subject (missionary biographies). I had read pretty extensively, but I had tended to avoid case-study articles, in the belief that any findings which would apply generally to my question would make it into more general studies or surveys. Of course, in the few years that had passed since my initial research, much more had been published, and my editors were able to alert me to a number of really helpful case-study articles and newly-published works on missionary families, for example.

Strategy: Take the time to read and re-engage with scholarship

My editors had not suggested too many additional things to read, so I made the effort to read them all and add them to my references. I enjoyed this stage, as I found that more scholars were now engaged in the same questions that had interested me in the first place and were coming to interesting conclusions.

Stage 4: Re-reading and re-structuring for clarity of argument

A wholescale re-structure is probably not always necessary. For this piece however, the argument was rather convoluted. Now that I was clearer on my approach I needed to get clear about how my argument progressed and how each section of the essay contributed. To better organise this piece it really helped me to use a strategy I use with my students. 

Strategy: Paragraph analysis

I teach my students that each of their paragraphs should make one point and that one-sentence summaries of each paragraph (perhaps the topic sentences) placed in order should produce the outline of the argument. So I went through my essay and worked out what, exactly, each paragraph was trying to do. As I did this, I ended up deleting of a lot of extraneous material, combining paragraphs making the same point, moving paragraphs to different sections, and eventually I ended up with a much more tightly argued and better organised essay. I’m quite a logical person, so this exercise was really satisfying for me.

Stage 5: Systematic revisions and re-writing

By this point I had lost sight of some of the original comments, so it was important to me to come up with a way of being sure that my revisions had covered my editors’ points.

Strategy: Lists

I decided to make just one list, which would force me to work systematically through every revision necessary and not put off the more difficult ones. However, I imagine another way would be to group the comments/revisions by type in different lists (e.g. theoretical/methodological issues, grammar/re-phrasing, additional references). This list was useful in that I could then easily create a report for the editors if necessary, making clear what revisions I had made and which suggestions I had accepted (and which I had not). It was also pretty satisfying to cross off each item on the list once it had been resolved.

Stage 6: Final read through

By now I was pretty happy with my revisions, so I read the revised essay through for sense, tweaking the expression and language as I went, and deleting words and sentences where possible (to keep within the word limit).


Final reflections

  • Stages 3-5 of the process above can be carried out largely synchronously.
  • While I was engaged in all this I couldn’t work out whether I was more annoyed at the time-lag that publishing in the humanities seems to involve – it all seemed a very long time since I’d agreed to write the piece – or whether I was pleased – the delay had given me the chance to develop my ideas. I’m still not sure.
  • I was, and still am sure that the editorial process was highly valuable, as I was really pleased with how I was able to improve my work thanks to all the intervention from experts in other parts of the field.

I’d be very interested in other people’s advice about revising work – or any thoughts on the process of editing and publication more generally.