The inevitability of sexism at the Oxford Union, 1936

On the 21st May 1935 the Oxford Union was due to debate the “inevitability of progress” with C. E. M. Joad (philosopher, Fabian and anti-capitalist – whose career was ultimately ended by an unpaid train fare), St. John Ervine (an Irish playwright whose fame seems to chiefly rest on the fact that he was standing next to suffragette Emily Davison before she threw herself under the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby), and Ronald Knox (Catholic priest and writer of detective fiction).

The day before, Elizabeth received this letter from Ian (surname unknown), sending her tickets for the debate – and at the same time informing her that he was off to vote against her membership of the Union. How charming…

This letter makes me fizz with anger: how dare this man – whoever he was –  write to my grandmother like this. I obviously don’t know the grounds on which Ian planned to vote against Elizabeth’s membership of the union. Politics presumably, but I can’t help but feel that the whole thing smacks of patronising misogyny (down to the final love and kisses).

Is this what she had to take at every turn as a woman who was interested in politics and wanted to be taken seriously at Oxford in the 1930s? Elizabeth was at least as clever as Frank (if not cleverer – and she was certainly more diplomatic), and her political activism and passion for changing the world certainly rivalled his. And yet, after the Second World War, their focus was on Frank’s education and career and – although she was politically active her whole life, and achieved a whole raft of things – she never had a serious career in the way that he did (despite her early educational privilege). Attitudes like this must have had something to do with that – just one more woman lost among successive generations of Shakespeare’s sisters.

Here it is, from 20th May 1936, with transcript below – along with notices of various other Oxford Union debates from Elizabeth’s time at the university (apologies for blurry images).

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Continue reading The inevitability of sexism at the Oxford Union, 1936

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23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

The announcement of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) on 23rd August 1939, only a week before Germany’s invasion of Poland, and Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, was a key event in the lead up to the Second World War.

This letter, written by Frank on the evening that the pact was announced (a Wednesday), captures some of the intensity of – and speed at which events were moving at – this time. It is written from Newcastle on International Brigade notepaper (Frank was working for the north-east branch of an International Brigade committee at the time), and was sent to Elizabeth – apparently still at Ashintully (“languishing in idleness”, according to Frank). Frank and Elizabeth married almost immediately after the war broke out – so within a few weeks of this letter.

I don’t know what or who the “S. T. D.” that Frank is awaiting a reply from refers to (any pointers gratefully received) – nor who Jack Sword (?) and the Bickfords are.

Transcript below, along with a copy of the invitation to their Diamond Wedding party – they eloped, so this is the closest there was to any kind of wedding announcement.

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Continue reading 23rd August 1939, German-Soviet Pact announced

Frank’s Catalonian Identity Card, 1st February 1938

Seventy-nine years ago, on 1st February 1938, Frank was issued with this ID card (Carnet d’Identitat) for the Generalatit de Catalunya, the government of Catalonia. The Catalonian text states (roughly): Frank Knowles Girling serves in this Comissariat, as  editor of English bulletins. 1st February 1938.

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A few months later, in his own account of what had brought him to Spain, and his activities while there (see Frank’s International Brigade personnel file in the Comintern Archives: 1), Frank would write of his work as a translator for the Generalatit, and his growing disillusionment with the Catalonian government:

Having by this time learnt Spanish and a little Catalan came to Barcelona at the end of January hoping to be able to join the I.B. and serve usefully the cause. Being offered a post in the Propaganda Office of the Generalitat I accepted it thinking that as a translator I might be more useful than as a soldier. Now convinced of the inefficiency of the Cat. Government and in particularly of the Esquerra Republicana I do not want to continue and no other work offering I shall go back to England to stimulate the propaganda for Spain.

His account of coming to Barcelona at the end of January would fit with the issuing of this card on 1st February – and his description of himself as a “translator” fits roughly with his description on the card as an “editor”, although I still don’t really know what his activities were at this time (I have a feeling that he ended up broadcasting on the radio at some point). The Generalitat and the Republican Left of Catalonia (the Esquerra Republicana that Frank talks about) were in internal turmoil throughout the Spanish Civil War (as described by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia), with numerous groups and factions competing for control – I don’t pretend to understand the intricacies of all this, but perhaps his disillusionment was in some part linked with his allegiance to a particular faction, or perhaps it was due to frustration at the overall factionalism in the face of ongoing assault from Franco’s forces.