Author: sarahclairedunstan

“He shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”: Examining notions of Gender through the lens of Material Culture

by guest contributor Sarah Bendall

Our everyday lives are surrounded by objects. Some are mundane tools that help us with daily tasks, others are sentimental items that carry emotions and memories, and others again are used to display achievements, wealth and social status. Importantly, many of these objects are gendered and their continued use in various different ways helps to mould and solidify ideas, particularly, gender norms.

In the early modern period two objects of dress that shaped and reinforced gender norms were the busk, a long piece of wood, metal, whalebone or horn that was placed into a channel in the front of the bodies or stays (corsets), and the busk-point, a small piece of ribbon that secured the busk in place. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries these accessories to female dress helped to not only shape expressions of love and sexual desire, but also shaped the acceptable gendered boundaries of those expressions.

Busks were practical objects that existed to keep the female posture erect, to emphasize the fullness of the breasts and to keep the stomach flat. These uses were derived from their function in European court dress that complimented elite ideas of femininity; most notably good breeding that was reflected in an upright posture and controlled bodily movement. However, during the seventeenth century, and increasingly over eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lovers not only charged busks and busk-points with erotic connotations but also saw them as tokens of affection. Thus, they became part of the complex social and gendered performance of courtship and marriage.

The sheer number of surviving busks that contain inscriptions associated with love indicate that busk giving during courtship must have been a normal and commonly practised act in early modern England and France. A surviving English wooden busk in the Victoria and Albert Museum contains symbolic engravings, the date of gifting, 1675, and a Biblical reference. On the other side of the busk is an inscription referencing the Biblical Isaac’s love for his wife, which reads: “WONC A QVSHON I WAS ASKED WHICH MAD ME RETVRN THESE ANSVRS THAT ISAAC LOVFED RABEKAH HIS WIFE AND WHY MAY NOT I LOVE FRANSYS”.

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‘English wooden Stay Busk, c.1675, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Accession number W.56-1929’

Another inscription on one seventeenth-century French busk exclaims “Until Goodbye, My Fire is Pure, Love is United”. Three engravings correspond with each line: a tear falling onto a barren field, two hearts appearing in that field and finally a house that the couple would share together in marriage with two hearts floating above it.

Inscriptions found on other surviving busks go beyond speaking on behalf of the lover, and actually speak on behalf of busks themselves, giving these inanimate objects voices of their own. Another seventeenth-century French busk, engraved with a man’s portrait declares:

“He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover

Who would very much like to take my place”

This inscription shows the busk’s anthropomorphized awareness of the prized place that it held so close to the female body. John Marston’s The scourge of villanie Three bookes of satyres (1598, p. F6r-v) expressed similar sentiments with the character Saturio wishing himself his lover’s busk so that he “might sweetly lie, and softly luske Betweene her pappes, then must he haue an eye At eyther end, that freely might discry Both hills [breasts] and dales [groin].”

Although the busk’s intimate association with the female body was exploited in both erotic literature and bawdy jokes, the busk itself also took on phallic connotations. The narrator of Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock (1712, p. 12) describes the Baron with an ‘altar’ built by love. On this altar “lay the Sword-knot Sylvia‘s Hands had sown, With Flavia‘s Busk that oft had rapp’d his own …”  Here “His own [busk]” evokes his erection that Flavia’s busk had often brushed against during their love making. Therefore, in the context of gift giving the busk also acted as an extension of the male lover: it was an expression of his male sexual desire in its most powerful and virile form that was then worn privately on the female body. Early modern masculinity was a competitive performance and in a society where social structure and stability centred on the patriarchal household, young men found courtship possibly one of the most important events of their life – one which tested their character and their masculine ability to woo and marry. In this context, the act of giving a busk was a masculine act, which asserted not only a young man’s prowess, but his ability to secure a respectable place in society with a household.

Yet the inscriptions on surviving busks and literary sources that describe them often to do not account for the female experience of courtship and marriage. Although women usually took on the submissive role in gift giving, being the recipient of love tokens such as busks did not render them completely passive. Courtship encouraged female responses as it created a discursive space in which women were free to express themselves. Women could choose to accept or reject a potential suitor’s gift, giving her significant agency in the process of courtship. Within the gift-giving framework choosing to place a masculine sexual token so close to her body also led to a very intimate female gesture. Yet a woman’s desire for a male suitor could also take on much more active expressions as various sources describe women giving men their busk-points. When the character Jane in Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday (1600) discovers that the husband she thought dead is still alive, she abandons her new beau who tells her that “he [her old husband] shall not haue so much as a buske-point from thee”, alluding to women’s habit of giving busk-points as signs of affection and promise. John Marston’s The Malcontent (1603) describes a similar situation when the Maquerelle warns her ladies “look to your busk-points, if not chastely, yet charily: be sure the door be bolted.” In effect she is warning these girls to keep their doors shut and not give their busk-points away to lovers as keepsakes.

To some, the expression of female sexual desire by such means seems oddly out of place in a society where strict cultural and social practices policed women’s agency. Indeed, discussions of busks and busk-points provoked a rich dialogue concerning femininity and gender in early modern England. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bodies (corsets) elongated the torso, until the part of the bodie that contained the busk reached to the lady’s “Honor” (Randle Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon…., p. 94)[1] In other words, the lowest part of the busk which contained the ‘busk-point’ sat over a woman’s sexual organs where chastity determined her honour. The politics involved in female honour and busk-points are expressed in the previously discussed scene from The Malcontent: busk-points functioned as both gifts and sexual tokens and this is highlighted by the Maquerelle’s pleas for the girls to look to them ‘chastely’.

As a result of the intimate position of the busk and busk-point on the female body these objects were frequently discussed in relation to women’s sexuality and their sexual honour. Some moralising commentaries blamed busks for concealing illegitimate pregnancies and causing abortions. Others associated busks with prostitutes, and rendered them a key part of the profession’s contraceptive arsenal. Yet much popular literature and the inscriptions on the busks themselves rarely depict those women who wore them as ‘whores’. Instead these conflicting ideas of the busk and busk-points found in sources from this period in fact mirror the contradictory ideas and fears that early moderns held about women’s sexuality. When used in a sexual context outside of marriage these objects were controversial as they were perceived as aiding unmarried women’s unacceptable forward expressions of sexual desire. However, receiving busks and giving away busk-points in the context of courtship and marriage was an acceptable way for a woman to express her desire precisely because it occurred in a context that society and social norms could regulate, and this desire would eventually be consummated within the acceptable confines of marriage.

Busks and busk-points are just two examples of the ways in which the examination of material culture can help the historian to tap into historical ideas of femininity and masculinity, and the ways in which notions of gender were imbued in, circulated and expressed through the use of objects in everyday life in early modern Europe. Although controversial at times, busk and busk-points were items of clothing that aided widely accepted expressions of male and female sexual desire through the acts of giving, receiving and wearing. Ultimately, discussions of these objects and their varied meanings highlight not only the ways in which sexuality occupied a precarious space in early modern England, but how material culture such as clothing was an essential part of regulating gender norms.
[1] Holme, The Academy of Armory and Blazon, p. 3.

Sarah A. Bendall is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Her dissertation examines the materiality, consumption and discourses generated around stiffened female undergarments – bodies, busks, farthingales and bum rolls – to explore how these items of material culture shaped notions of femininity in England between 1560-1690. A longer article-length version of this blog post has appeared in the Journal of Gender & History and Sarah also maintains her own blog were she writes about the process of historical dress reconstruction.

Saving Nigeria

by guest contributor James Farquharson

The year 2017 will mark fifty years since the start of the Nigerian Civil War. One of postcolonial Africa’s most devastating conflicts, the war left between one and three million people dead. This year is also the fiftieth anniversary of a forgotten peace mission organized by four prominent African-American civil rights leaders in an attempt to halt the Nigerian conflict.  In the midst of one of the most significant phases in the civil rights revolution in the United States, the four co-chairmen of the American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa (ANLCA)—Martin Luther King Jr., Roy Wilkens of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Whitney Young of the Urban League—attempted to craft a diplomatic settlement between the Nigerian federal government and the self-declared Republic of Biafra. It is an effort that has been mostly ignored in the scholarship or written off as the final act of a moribund organization, but it deserves a much closer examination.

Between March 1967 and April 1968, the ANLCA dedicated its financial, political and individual resources to stop the fighting. Theodore E. Brown, the executive director of the Conference, criss-crossed Africa from Accra to Lagos to Addis Ababa, building diplomatic support for the mission. In the United States, the four co-chairmen met with Nigerian and Biafran officials as well as senior figures in the U.S. State Department to coordinate their efforts. The ANLCA was backed by a call committee of over seventy-five organizations, including African-American business, educational, fraternal and sorority, labor, professional, religious, and social organizations and with significant support in the black press, particularly the New York Amsterdam News.

While the mission itself was unprecedented in the annals of African-American engagement with Africa, it also represented a shift in the ANLCA understanding of black internationalism. The civil war in Nigeria broke out at a time when three converging elements were pushing the ANLCA in a more “activist” direction: the political situation in the Third World, particularly in Southern Africa; the advent of “Black Power” in the United States; the growing appeal of radical regimes and groups in the Third World to some African American activists; and the need for mainline civil rights leaders to remain relevant domestically.

In a speech in December 1962 at the founding of the ANLCA, Dr. King evoked the black intellectual W.E B DuBois in the need for the African American community to overcome “racial provincialism” that did not look beyond “125th Street in New York or Beale Street in Memphis.” King noted that “the emergent African nations and the American Negro are intertwined. As long as segregation and discrimination exist in our nation the longer the chances of survival are for colonization and vice-versa.”  The ANLCA’s black internationalism focused on developing greater understanding of Africa among African Americans and broader American society and influence U.S. foreign policy towards the continent by arguing that the U.S. throw its full weight behind decolonization. Through its unparalleled access to diplomats in the State Department as well as officials in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, the Conference hoped to push its agenda forward.

However, by 1965 the Conference’s leadership became increasingly disillusioned with U.S. policy towards Africa. The Johnson’s Administration’s anemic handling of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in November 1965 and stalling of the decolonization process throughout Southern Africa pushed in the ANLCA to adopt a more activist approach to the continent. In a memorandum to the call committee of the Conference in June 1966, Executive Director Theodore Brown stated that:

Our efforts must be accelerated if we are to have a meanful [sic] impact on the problem of racism in Africa generally, apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Angola and Mozambique and the ‘after thought’ approach of our own government in the formulation of United States-African policy.

The Nigerian peace mission, which occurred in the aftermath of this activist turn, reflected the sense that the gains of African self-determination and Pan-Africanism needed to be protected at all costs. The disintegration of Nigeria, a country that since its independence in 1960 had been lauded by the black press and by black community leaders in the United States as a model for African development sparked serious concern. The mission, according to the New York Amsterdam News, offered “a unique but extremely vital opportunity for Negro American leaders (ANLCA)” to assert themselves in contemporary African diplomacy. While provoked by the fear that the collapse of Nigeria into civil war would lead to untold human misery and a backward step for postcolonial Africa, the mission also reflected the domestic context of the battle for black liberation in the United States. By 1967, the civil rights leaders that made up the ANLCA, who had been the predominant voices in the movement since the mid-1950s, were being challenged by the Black Power activists.

Black Power emerged out of growing frustration with the lack of further progress on racial equality, particularly in terms of tackling persistent poverty and economic inequality in African-American communities. Black Power activists critiqued the viability of capitalism to provide economic justice for African-Americans. They were equally dubious about the effectiveness of Gandhian non-violent direct action employed by leaders such as Dr King in the face of continued violent resistance by U.S. segregationists. In search of inspiration, key Black Power activists looked abroad for inspiration. As historian Fanon Che Wilkins noted, Black Power was “internationalist from its inception.” Leaders of the Black Power movement such as Stokely Carmichael, James Forman, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton saw in the guerrilla organizations and radical nationalist and Marxist regimes of the Third World from Havana to Hanoi as models to be emulated in the United States. This re-engagement with anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism as part of the African-American freedom struggle marked a return to programmatic positions adopted by black activists such as W.E.B DuBois, Paul Robeson, George Padmore, and the Council of African Affairs prior to the onset of the Cold War.

As historian Brenda Plummer has noted: “[T]he ANLCA interests after 1966 reflected pressures by domestic nationalist organizations and civil rights activists committed to that immediatism [sic] of ‘Freedom Now’.” This meant that the ANLCA needed to maintain its credibility in the face of Black Power critiques by continuing to firmly advocate for Pan-Africanism, self-determination and decolonization. While the Conference offer to help mediate the conflict was provoked by shocking accounts of violence and political disintegration reported widely in the mainstream and African-American press, the mission was viewed as a way for integrationist civil rights leaders to reassert themselves both at home and abroad. By taking on the role as peacemakers in Nigeria, the ANLCA sought to burnish its credibility as an organization that stood for black internationalism and Pan-Africanism. In seeking to bring both the Nigerian government and the Biafran leadership together to peacefully resolve the conflict, the ANLCA hoped to show that political change could be achieved through compromise and diplomacy, a notion increasingly challenged at home.

By March 1968, after a year of planning and consultations, the ANLCA leadership were able to gain a major breakthrough. Both sides in the war agreed to have the four co-chairmen travel to Nigeria to act as intermediaries in resolving the conflict. Dr King, according to the New York Amsterdam News, was willing to postpone his Poor People’s march on Washington to enable him to make the trip. However, an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel not only ended King’s life but the mission to Nigeria. It is impossible to know whether the ANLCA peace effort would have succeeded. Growing domestic turmoil in the United States certainly acted to distract civil rights leaders from their internationalist platforms. Moreover, even after almost a year of bloodshed, neither Nigerian nor Biafran leaders seemed particularly likely to reach a compromise.

Nevertheless, the ANCLA mission itself represented an under-appreciated aspect of black internationalism during the 1960s. Rather than being an organization destined to wither away, the ANLCA adapted to the shifting domestic and international context of the mid-1960s, a period when the ideas associated with black internationalism were in flux. In wading into the maelstrom of the Nigerian Civil War, the ANLCA were attempting to show that the future of black internationalism was not destined to be armed struggle and revolution. Rather, diplomacy and mediations offer another pathway to achieving peace and justice for the black diaspora.

James Farquharson is a PhD candidate on an Australian Postgraduate Award at the Australian Catholic University. He holds a Master’s degree in American diplomatic history from the University of Sydney. He has a chapter forthcoming on the response of African-Americans to the Nigerian Civil War in Postcolonial Conflict and the Question of Genocide: The Nigeria-Biafra War, 1967-1970 (Routledge). He will be presenting on this topic at the Organization of American Historians meeting in New Orleans in April.