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You're an Eee Aye Dee Ot Babe…. thumb

You're an Eee Aye Dee Ot Babe….

IMG_3694[1]I went to the kind of school where you could give up history early on to concentrate on your sewing. My conceptualisation of history is roughly ‘Vikings, the Bayeux Tapestry, Henry VIII and WW2’. The near complete absence of women in the world, not to mention the absence of most of the world according to the history I was taught left me distrustful of it at an early age. Ironically, sewing features disproportionately in my fragmented history although the gender of the Bayeux sewers is unknown now that the theory that the tapestry was embroidered by nuns has been disputed. In fact, a 70 metre long collage of grudgingly sewn aprons and needlebooks is probably called for as testimony to the insidious lack of ambition that has plagued the education of women.
If I scoot around the permanent collection of the National Galleries of either Scotland or England with my eyes half closed I can convince myself that women of the past ran around naked or semi clad for the large part. In the National Portrait Gallery however, half closed eyes generalise the view into a great deal of serious looking men who have achieved something. I couldn’t see a single woman in the main foyer populated by enlightenment  heads on sticks. I should really do a head count to give you the actual proportional representation of the genders in the museum as a whole but the thing runs deeper than that anyway. More recent work such as the truly amazing photographs of women working the land recently on display at the SNPG do something  to suggest that future women will not feel so alienated.
I do have a wee friend at the SNPG though, and I visit her regularly. She doesn’t have a name now, it may never have been recorded, or if it was it was quickly deemed irrelevant.
She is known now as Female Idiot and her death mask is on display in the library next to Voltaire and other luminaries as part of a huge number of death masks collected by the Edinburgh Phrenological Society.
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Edinburgh was a centre for phrenology  in the nineteenth century, in a building not too far from the current portrait gallery.  Although quickly outed as a pseudo science, phrenology did play a part in broaching the idea that our minds are not controlled by God and was instrumental in the development of neuroscience however obliquely. By feeling the bumps on one’s skull (having first by I know not what process having allocated incredibly quirky and delightful functions to each part of the brain) it was supposedly possible for the phrenologist to identify the personality and traits of the sitter. One of the many criticisms of the practice was that wealthy and distinguished sitters seemed always to be ‘felt’ to be wonderful, amazing people. Although the society disbanded in 1870 having been discredited, its book was a best seller – outselling the Origin of the Species at the outset.
Human history is so fantastically brief compared to material or geological history. I am not as amazed as others when it turns out people 600 years ago were just as jealous, brave, cunning and loving as we are today. Much of the history I have been exposed to has been political or military history and I suspect a kind of forensic sociology might have been more attractive. I also can’t help thinking when I look up at paintings of Lord and Lady whomever swathed in  Singer Sergeant loveliness  that at my age, gender and class if I had been alive then, I would probably be dead. There is little for me in the permanent collection save this little shrunken head.  It is the fact that I know so little about this tiny person and that she has somehow snuck through, stuck to the bottom of the shoe of history, that makes me feel so close to her and so protective of her. Female idiot – you and me both.
(Blog title is a fragment of a Bob Dylan Lyric – Idiot Wind (1974))

Posted by author: Emma Drye
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7 thoughts on “You're an Eee Aye Dee Ot Babe….

  • Emma, what a delightful post.
    (I’m focusing on the ‘tiny person stuck to the bottom of the shoe of history’, not the maleness of the pre-21st century world).
    I like the idea that even the slightest of people leave a legacy. Like my own wee gran who worked in a boot factory in Glasgow, died in her 80’s with £20 to her name, but was generous to a fault, always had a song for any occasion, and left a lot of Fair Isle sweaters in the world. Hundreds came to her funeral, showing that a cheery disposition is just as fine a gift to the world as being a rich philanthropist.
    Although women didn’t make it into the portrait galleries of the rich and famous, they still left their mark on the world.
    I feel the need to stop by and meet Female Idot myself when I’m in Edinburgh tomorrow. I’ll give her your regards 🙂

  • great reflection – love your images – like the person stuck to the bottom of the shoe of history – her position next to Voltaire may add a different perception of her position in history, though!

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