Photo by Dimitri Caceaune

Women are watery creatures, it seems. In mythology we fuse with fish and seals to slide fin-first through open water. In medieval and early modern medicine, our humours are wet and cool. We leak: milk, blood, amniotic fluid – and yes, even that great modern taboo, piss. In medieval narratives we are cast to sea in boats riddled with holes, and yet we reach shore whole. We lie in lakes, waiting to hold aloft a sword – that a man will take to rule and then ruin a world. (No basis for a system of government!)

It has been a watery few weeks for me. I recently returned from Women at Sea at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, and as the name suggests we were able to glimpse water from our conference room. The symposium was one of the most joyful, thought-provoking and affirming academic events I have attended. The Storify is here, which gives you a good flavour of the day. We began the day with the painful poetry of contemporary refugee women, who having fled fear and violence overseas came to Swansea in search of sanctuary. We ended the day with Daisy Black‘s retelling of the Constance legend, where she skilfully drew out the painful feminist narrative of a woman tossed from shore to shore by the demands of patriarchy, but who survived, and survived, and survived. In between we had papers that showed the queer, transformative potential of the sea – and of the dangerous power of women’s watery bodies.

Torrential rains followed in the week after the conference, before I went to my next gig – Medieval Women Revisited, hosted by the University of York. Supported by the Department of History at the University of Palacky, this was one of the first events to host scholars from central Europe who are working on women’s history. That, too, was a weekend of boundary-crossing: of languages, nations and scholarly expectations. One of the papers that particularly resonated with me was Kim Phillips’ ” The Breasts of Virgins: Sexual reputation and female bodies in medieval culture and society”. She talked about how young medieval women used ointments and binding to attempt to restrict the growth of their breasts, because breast growth was associated with sexual experience. Menstrual blood moved to the breasts, swelling them, ready to be transformed into milk. We looked at images of flat-chested, white-skinned medieval virgins, who presumably in the male artists’ minds never did anything as uncouth as leak from any of their orifices.

Men as well as women in the middle ages must have been aware of the wet reality of women’s bodies, though. In an age before tampons, incontinence towels and breast pads, the homemade solutions used by women must have made their various discharges more visible – and smellable. Meanwhile, nowadays women are so anxious about their leaking parts that they are encouraged to mask them – with scented pantyliners, vaginal douches, and incontinence pads. Yet the same cultural taboos that make women desperate to cover up the signs of their bodies having undergone puberty and birth are still so strong that many women put up with pelvic pain and incontinence for years. We hide the evidence of our watery bodies, but many of us still don’t control them.

I was left with chronic cystitis symptoms after the birth of my daughter. Although I have thankfully never wet myself, even now I sometimes feel like I can’t empty my bladder. I pushed for a referral to a specialist; I also paid for treatment by a physiotherapist, a kind woman who manipulated the muscles of my pelvis and talked about all the women she’s seen who had lived with problems for months or years, who had used the TENA pads marketed at postpartum women and been given the impression that this was their lot now; their bodies couldn’t go back to where they were before.

They can’t, of course, and the Hollywoodisation of postpartum bodies, giving the impression you can have a flat stomach and shiny hair six weeks post-birth, is a dangerous thing, too. Women at sea may cross the ocean several times, but they never exactly return to where they started. But our bodies, watery as they may be, don’t have to be painful balloons, swollen and fragile. Like Constance, in crossing the sea we can become an ocean, mermaid-fierce and free.

Copyright Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame de Strasbourg