This week’s guest post is by Emma McCabe, a SGSAH-funded researcher at the University of Stirling, who was awarded a Holstein Dissertation Fellowship from the University of California, Riverside for the academic year 2021-2022. In this article, she details some of her adventures duringher visit.
Having applied to The University of California, Riverside, for a Holstein Dissertation Fellowship, I was beyond surprised when I received my acceptance. The Fellowship, coordinated by Prof. Melissa Wilcox, aims to support PhD candidates in the field of Religion whose work specifically concentrates on Trans and Queer Studies. As part of the Fellowship, Fellows are flown out three weekends a year to Southern California and partnered with chosen academic mentors. My own PhD focuses on early modern medical and theatrical portrayals of female bodies, arguing, through an apophatic methodology, for an understanding of early modern sex as fluid and queer. I was therefore elated to be mentored by Prof. Arthur Little, a Shakespearean scholar at UCLA, who specializes in critical race and queer theory. I was also excited by the prospect of networking with other queer scholars, and of course enamoured by the promise of flying to California.
The most recent retreat in February coincided with UCR’s annual Queer and Transgender Studies in Religion conference, which included a Holstein Fellows panel. As moderator of the panel, I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of work produced by my cohort. Siobhan Kelly presented their theory of Trans Antagonism, while Molly Greening discussed The Ethics of Queering Comparative Theologies. Other personal highlights of the weekend included Prof. Jane Grovijahn’s ‘Deep Incarnation’ Amongst Us: A Misgendering of God and Our Failure to See Transgender+ Revelation, and Dr Shanon Shah’s international keynote on The Search for Queer Muslim Allies: Navigating the Intersections of Scholarship, Activism and Lived Experience. The conference was a thoroughly rewarding experience and widened my horizons as a scholar. It also enriched my own thinking around my thesis—in particular, a discussion with Prof. Erin Runions led to an epiphany regarding the structure of my dissertation.
But more than being just a locus for academic thought, the conference also became a space of intense healing. As a bisexual woman with hyperandrogenism, I often find myself subconsciously supressing the queerer aspects of myself, surrounded as I am (as most of us are) by a cultural environment which not only favours cis-heterosexuality but structurally propagates it. For the first time in a long time, I found myself in an exclusively queer space—and it was liberating. Being surrounded by openly queer and trans researchers provided the inclusion and validation I didn’t realise I so desperately needed.
After my time at the UCR campus, I left, inspired, to pursue a SGSAH funded research trip at The Huntington Library. Perhaps one of the most amazing places ever, The Huntington is an oasis of natural beauty and home to historic collections in both art and literature. Enclosed in this enthralling 120 acres of spectacularly themed gardens is The Munger Research Institution, where I spent most days consulting rare books in the Ahmanson Reading Room. Having been deprived of libraries throughout Covid, I welcomed the routine of going to The Huntington and especially cherished being able to touch—and smell—the early modern texts I was consulting. There’s really nothing quite like sniffing old books.
The texts I looked at were mainly early modern medical compendiums, specifically those detailing sexual anatomy and conditions of the womb. Interestingly, I found that most of these texts put forth contradictory readings of sexual bodies. They couldn’t quite decide whether the female reproductive tract was an inversion of male anatomy or whether it was something entirely different. Even within the same text contradictions appeared, pointing to an uncertainty of interpretation—was a woman an inside out man? Did the womb really wander, and if so, how? Could women turn into men by jumping too hard? Could men inversely turn into women? These types of questions permeated the texts, often with incongruent or incoherent conclusions.
From a contemporary perspective, I did find some of the early modern theories of sexual anatomy and pregnancy amusing. It’s easy to look back in hindsight and laugh at the idea of a woman’s body being cold and moist, easy to scoff at breast milk being some form of white blood or to ridicule the notion that a mother’s imagination could determine whether or not their baby is born ugly and resembling a specific parent most. These medical theories seemed ridiculous, but underneath it all was a distinct misogynistic current which was often racialised. For instance, The Workes of That Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey (1634) details how the Queen of Aethiopia gave birth to a white child as a result of her strong imagination. The racialised subtext surrounding the mother’s imagination and its effects on the unborn child is not only reminiscent of the historic privileging of whiteness but speaks to a bias in medical discourse which discriminates—to this day—against bodies that do not conform to ideations of whiteness.
Although often dissenting on the specifics, the texts seemed to agree overall that women were colder and more moist than men, giving female bodies a more spongy and loose constitution. As such, women were generally understood as porous and susceptible to disease and physiological imbalances. The woman’s humours (melancholy, bile, phlegm, and blood) were always in flux and often comorbid with sicknesses of the womb. Physicians were often quick to diagnose hysteria or suffocation of the matrix. The pathologizing of these conditions were often deeply problematic and offered little to no remedy. In The Compleate Midwife’s Practice Enlarged (1680), blood-letting, fumigation, and induced vomiting are all prescribed to cure afflictions caused by distempered wombs. Unfortunately, this pales in comparison to other medical prescriptions which were much more harrowing, and which would be contemporaneously understood as physical and sexual abuse.
Given the heaviness of some of the readings, it was important that I take some time away from work to enjoy California and all the sunshine it has to offer. Days that I wasn’t at The Huntington I spent living my best life as a tourist. I was fortunate that my partner flew out to meet me, and so we ventured to some tourist hotspots like Warner Bros. Studios, The Griffin Observatory, and Santa Monica Pier. We also poked around a few flea markets and independent bookstores in Pasadena. Needless to say, I came back with a backpack full of books… and a little bit of sunburn.
By sharing my experience, I hope to encourage other PhD students to take advantage of the opportunities SGSAH has to offer and to apply for other fellowships and opportunities abroad. The Holstein Dissertation Fellowship enabled me to connect with other queer scholars in a way that was both personally and professionally meaningful, whilst The Huntington Library has given me access to primary sources that might otherwise be unattainable. My experience in California has enriched me both as a scholar and as a person, as well as repleting my Vitamin D levels. I would thoroughly encourage other PhD students to go further afield for their research—you never know where it might take you. But if you do go, remember to take time off and enjoy yourself. That and pack sunscreen.