by IZABELLA SCOTT
Glasgow-based artist Georgia Horgan (b1991) teases out the links between the history of female labour and forms of heresy. Her films, performative lectures and semi-functional sculptures (chairs embroidered with Stuart-era propaganda; cushions designed after heretics’ robes) open out the figures of the “witch”, the “whore”, and other gendered dissidents from across history. Using a Marxist-feminist lens and entering local history archives and graveyards alike, Horgan, through her research, reveals the way in which, across history, confident, independent women who found the means to earn their own income as midwives, weavers or sex workers were systematically shamed, condemned and sometimes burned.
I met Horgan at the opening of her solo show All Whores are Jacobites, at Public Exhibitions, London, earlier this year. Here, a film and other ephemera told the story of three women – Eleanor Rykener, Elizabeth Creswell and Sarah Wesker – who lived in the vicinity of Tower Hamlets in the East End of London, and whose lives were linked by themes of prostitution, textile work and protest.
IZABELLA SCOTT: How did you come across the lives of these women?
GEORGIA HORGAN: Sarah Wesker came first. I was researching the history of the area around Public Exhibitions, which is in Tower Hamlets. The tower block beside the gallery is called James Hammett House. James Hammett was one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a group of labourers who were arrested in Dorset in the 19th century for forming a trade union. I felt the naming of the towers was representative of a social history that was adult, male and organised, and I began to ask: what is the alternative women’s history of the area?
Through asking this question, I came across Sarah Wesker. Incidentally, her living great-nephew, Lindsay Wesker, was one of the founders of the radio station, Kiss FM. But it’s her nephew, the playwright Arnold Wesker, who is the most famous member of the family. Sarah was a trade union activist in the East End during the 1920s and 30s, but even her history is dominated by the male representatives of the family. The main character in Arnold’s play Chicken Soup with Barley is a thinly veiled dramatisation of her and, consequently, it has become one of the primary sources on her life. After her death, Sarah’s one-time partner, Mick Mindel, became the spokesperson on her life and was often interviewed about her activities. It’s Mick, not Sarah, who is in the public realm. I wanted to tell Sarah’s story, and put it in dialogue with other women from the area.
IS: One of the themes that runs through your film is the relationship between the textile industry and sex work, both of which gave women financial agency, and both of which were labels of shame or suppression.
GH: I’m interested in women’s labour histories and sexual histories, and looking at these in a trans-historical way, and seeing how they intertwine. Confident, working women were a threat to the social order, and there are constant, shifting threads between prostitution, weaving and protest. I came across the life of Eleanor Rykener in a book called Common Women, by Ruth Mazo Karras.
Karras is something of an authority on medieval sexuality and has done a great deal of research into the lives of women in the period. Eleanor, a trans-femme sex worker, is the best-documented medieval prostitute. Her case is very interesting because the word “whore” was so tied up with what it meant to be a woman. Whore was used to describe any sort of promiscuous woman, and a male prostitute was inconceivable – in fact, the word prostitute, meaning professional sex worker, was seldom (if ever) used. That Eleanor was considered a prostitute reveals something about medieval attitudes towards gender. In the sense that theorist Judith Butler describes in Gender Trouble, Eleanor’s gender was performative. And I’ve always been interested in the way that gender is a very new concept. This notion that men are men and women are women is very contemporary and yet it’s set up as a conservative origin myth. This is Garden of Eden storytelling, a kind of storytelling that attempts to consolidate the sexual division of labour.
IS: As your film describes, Eleanor was arrested on charges of sodomy in the 1390s, or what was called “that detestable, unmentionable, ignominious vice”. Her case confused the courts, which failed to charge her for prostitution as she had been born a man, and failed to charge her for sodomy as she had entered the sex act as a woman. What does the case tell us?
GH: The fact that the medieval courts never defined Eleanor’s “ignominious vice” is unusual. Other European courts did not shy away from the term “sodomy”. What it suggests is a confusion about the nature of her activity. What we learn from the lack of conviction is that Eleanor’s orifices were not gendered. The feminised male body was already feminine in the medieval psyche, so she did not commit a homosexual act. It’s important to see how different conceptions of sex and gender were, and it’s a strong argument for Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis”, where sexuality has been oppressed in recent (Victorian) times.
When I returned to Eleanor’s story in Karras’s text, I realised that she was an embroiderer, too. And it makes sense – the sex industry and the textile industry were interconnected. All three women in my film lived in Tower Hamlets at different moments in time. They are connected through textile work, sex work and protest. Elizabeth Creswell, the third woman of the film, is also mentioned in Karras’s Common Women. She was a brothel madam who also became a figure in Stuart-era pornographic satire. Creswell’s brothel was at the back of St Leonard’s church, on the border between Tower Hamlets and Shoreditch.
IS: The political pornography ties together the lives of Elizabeth and Sarah. In the Stuart era, Elizabeth became a three-headed figure of satire, a metaphor for the fragmented state; in the 1920s, Wesker’s community was subject to antisemitic political pornography that tried to stigmatise Jewish people.
GH: The prostitute was a common image in Stuart-era political pornography, largely as a metaphor for free-market liberalism and the threat this posed to familial bonds and ties of inheritance. The party line of the Tories [the predecessors of today’s Conservative party]was that Britain should keep the monarchy, that the nation or body politic needed a sole authority at the head of state to preserve the class system. There was this notion of the “amorous republic”, where the authoritarian patriarch had been replaced by an impulsive, desiring mob: like a body with more than one head, pulling it in different directions weakening the societal structure. So the three-headed prostitute is a manifestation of the monarchist critique of democracy, in which Creswell is a libertarian anti-hero. I should probably mention that she wasn’t a nice woman. She used force, blackmail and kidnapping to procure women for sex work.
I suppose what was key about these conservative pornographies was that they were totally excessive: they depicted their political opponents as utterly morally impoverished. This was much the same in pamphlets published by the Fascist party in the 1930s, which accused the Jewish community of being everything from thieves and sex workers to the evil masterminds behind money-lending schemes. The argument is so hysterical, so contradictory, that the narrative descends into farce – thus producing the excess that defines something as “pornography”, in my understanding of the term.
Although less controversial than Elizabeth, Sarah was equally far from politically two-dimensional. In the 1930s, she supported Soviet Russia, in a refusal to see what was really going on under Stalinist rule. I’ve also heard she was a Marxist Zionist, or believed in establishing a Jewish communist state in Israel.
IS: As your film shows the corridors of Tower Hamlets local history library and archives, and various manuscripts or engraved benches, it becomes clear that these women never speak for themselves. We don’t have a memoir, a monologue, a statement from within. It’s all secondhand. Is this a problem?
GH: All the women are highly mediated. Eleanor never speaks for herself; it is a court clerk who does so. Elizabeth is always a character in satire. Sarah survives through a character in her nephew’s play. So none of the women speaks for themselves. Something that becomes apparent in reading Common Women is that working-class female histories rarely do exist in first-hand documents. Working-class women had little independence, and the histories are hard to unearth. Most are highly mediated ones that you can stumble on via a male mouthpiece. I wanted to make this plain in the film, but also try to give them a voice.
IS: The title, All Whores are Jacobites, is a piece of 17th-century satire. Is it comparable to a tabloid headline of today?
GH: A Jacobite was a Catholic insurgent, and therefore a byword for terrorist. It’s interesting that the Tower Hamlets area that I’m looking at now has a large Islamic community, as Islam in contemporary mainstream media now carries similar connotations. The stigma sweeps from one group to another in a similar location, inevitably the economically deprived. The bywords mutate. In the Jacobean era, it was Irish, or Scottish, or Catholic; in the 1930s, it was Jewish; now, it’s Islamic.
All Whores are Jacobites was a way of saying “all sex workers are terrorists”: a threat to civil order. The liberalising of sex, or sex as recreation and not the accrual of property, was acutely feared. In early times, it was considered a necessary evil, but, by the 17th century, the threat to patrilineal inheritance was emphasised. There is a line from the political pornography The London-Bawd that says that the whore is “a great enemy to all enclosures, for whatever she has, she makes it common”. And we have to remember, prostitution was never classified as a profession; it was specifically feminine and signified a type of person. The idea that a prostitute could have become pregnant by a member of the landed gentry, and in theory her bastard child could inherit all the land, was threatening to the Tory establishment. Whores were terrorists. They could collapse society. If marriage could contain and civilise the populations, then sex outside marriage was the ultimate corrosive force. It’s one of those truisms that everything is about sex, except sex, which is about power – and so a prostitute was a political figure like the Jacobite.
IS: Political pornography is also a form of slander – like the famous pornographic slander against Marie Antoinette, aimed at eroding affection for the monarchy. It is fascinating and slightly disturbing the way the porn industry today picks up political themes. There is subverted Black Lives Matter porn, with white policewomen arresting young black men, and satirical Donald Trump porn with industry auditions for a Trump lookalike lead.
GH: Mainstream contemporary porn holds up a mirror to society – it’s about power. I’m not anti-porn at all, but so much of it is a product of its environment, ie a heteronormative white male supremacist expression. Loads of pornography is racist and misogynist – a black mirror to the world we live in. You have to ask: what would porn look like in a matriarchal world? Or what’s porn as opposed to erotics? That’s why I’m very interested in the definition of pornography as described by historian Melissa M Mowry, which refocuses the meaning away from sexuality and towards alienation. She writes: “For instance, pornography’s logic of social interaction presumes that anyone objecting to the appearance of its sexual representations in the workplace has a personal conflict with his or her co-workers, not that rules guaranteeing full and equal access to places of employment have been violated.”
IS: The labour history of the textile industry is endlessly fascinating in the way it connects to class, sex and economics. Weavers could make their own clothes and you touch on a conservative anxiety around “class drag”, the idea that women could shapeshift and look like aristocrats.
GH: Sex workers could become independently wealthy – or not necessarily rich, but they might have money they could call their own. The textile industry was cyclical and underpaid, so women often turned to sex work in the off-season. These “abominable queans”, as they were called, did have the means to dress up. They had their own income and they were in control of their money because they were unmarried, so they could buy clothes are jewellery or start to look glamorous, like wealthy woman. In response to the “class drag” anxiety, prostitutes were forced to wear shaming striped hoods tht made it known that they were prostitutes and not respectable women, that their wealth was ill gained. Nobody actually knows what these hoods looked like. It’s the same with the mustard-yellow robes that heretics were forced to wear during trial. There are no images of these shaming items. Nobody thought: “I must keep that for the annals.”
IS: Is that the role of the artist, then, to imagine?
GH: At my show at the Calton Burial Ground in Glasgow, I made custom seating decorated like samaras the heretics’ robes, and I would like to make more of the historic garments such as the striped hoods as a way to be more explicit about history as something mediated and constructed – in this case, mediated by me. That’s one of the reasons that I set All Whores are Jacobites up as a lecture: in front of the film, there are two lecture-hall chairs and a lectern, and on the opening night I performed the voiceover of the film as a fragmentary lecture. The school is a site of authority, and I want to set up the atmosphere of authority and teaching, only to deconstruct it. I’m talking about the performance of history, or the performance of teaching or the performance of authority – that’s how the film and performance diverge. While the film is more didactic and follows the conventions of teaching, the performance is non-linear, the stories are broken up and, like a piece of poetry, it’s harder to make sense of the history, of their stories.
IS: The white curtain gives the room the feel of a studio or stage, and thus the sense of what it means to restage history. There’s a sense of showing the film, and then showing it is a setup.
GH: The film is full of framings and I wanted to reflect this in the exhibition space, too. I also wanted to think about textile in a very material sense and curtain was a simple way to put it in the space. That’s where the embroidered chairs come into it. Tapestry-making had a particular role in medieval society. It was used to tell a story, often a religious story – and the Bayeux Tapestry comes to mind. Embroidery and tapestry were connected to storytelling, and particularly women’s stories – and so I wanted to bring that textile history into the room.
IS: There is a strange pull between the bare rooms you show in the film, the manuscripts handled with latex gloves, and the white hallways you pan down, and then parts of the footage that are sensual, sexual, and feel intimately autobiographical. Your fingers that creep in, there’s a part with your foot.
GH: My feet are the worst place in the world, and it made for a great cast member. I have horrible feet. Prostitutes were hotbeds for venereal decease, it was said, and one sign of syphilis was sores on your hands and feet. But the exhibition room is not meant to be alien. I wanted people to sit in the embroidered chairs, to be intimate in the space. There was a similar aspect to my show at the Calton Burial Ground with the cushion objects that related to the heretic robes. I always have a tendency to make functional objects, not just artwork, and the samara objects became furniture. I left them in the graveyard, like markers beside the gravestones and it was amazing to see how much they were enjoyed. People lay on them and there were little impressions on the cushions where people had been sunbathing in the graveyard. It was my attempt to change people’s relationship with the memorials to make it possible to sunbathe on somebody’s grave.
IS: In the same way that “whore” was a stigmatising label that related to any sort of female promiscuous behaviour, so, too, the label “witch” was used to condemn confident, independent women.
GH: As Silvia Federici shows in her book Caliban and the Witch, the witch-hunts were closely linked to industrialisation. She says the body for women has the same role as the factory for a man: a site of exploitation and resistance. In Europe, women’s bodies were disciplined in the 17th to 18th centuries. While men were compelled to work in the factory, women were forced to stay at home, their work made invisible and confined to reproductive labour. The housewife was invented in this era – it was a completely new phenomenon. And women who worked outside the home, who sought independent means of income, or resisted heteronormative marriage structures, were stigmatised – as whores and witches and shrews. I did research in Scotland, following Federici’s model, and the data was quite incredible. It showed the correlation between places of intense industrialisation, particularly the weaving industry – such as the Scottish borderlands – and high rates of witch burnings. The two go hand in hand. The Borders still has a famous textile school, called Heriot Watt. They have the old “witch’s engines”, which is a nickname for the dobby loom, the first mechanical loom. They were called witch’s engines because of the jobs losses they caused. The witch was blamed for everything – used to condemn the machine that ostracised workers, like an evil force, but also used to condemn women who tried to exit their corporeal “factory”, too – another evil force. Incidentally, what is now East Lothian in the Scottish Borders, was the most dangerous place to be a woman in this era, after Essex.
IS: Did you write to Federici and tell her of your findings?
GH: Yes. She wrote back to say she was not surprised in the least.