gender, pregnancy

Women and humour in history

Do men always get the best punch-lines?

I was once at a conference where one of the speakers illustrated his points about gender in ancient Rome by referring to a story about Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor. Quick-witted, the first woman Member of Parliament, Nancy Astor’s reputation has been tarnished by her support of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler. Both Winston and his wife Clementine made a number of scathing remarks about her which have been preserved: in 1942, after a highly unfortunate speech in which Nancy belittled the Russians at the very point when they were fighting the Battle of Stalingrad, Clementine commented to her husband that ‘Nancy Astor has made a clumsy & ungracious (I was about to write “ass of herself” – But I will not compare her to the animal which bore Christ in triumph) speech which has repelled everybody’.

Mythic Insults and Gender

The remark that was quoted at the conference was one of the greatest put-downs of modern times. Nancy allegedly said to Churchill, ‘Sir, you’re drunk!’ Churchill is supposed to have replied, ‘Yes, Madam, I am. But in the morning, I will be sober and you will still be ugly.’ This story has achieved mythical status, but it has ‘stuck’ to Nancy even though it may have been not her, but the Labour politician Bessie Braddock, who said this to him, perhaps in the House of Commons bar, or at a party. Another such story has it that, at Blenheim Palace, Nancy said to Churchill, ‘If I were your wife I would put poison in your coffee’. Winston responded with, ‘Nancy, if I were your husband, I would drink it.’ This one too has taken on legendary status, and is also linked to Lloyd George, who was supposed to have said it to a suffragette.

In these stories, the man gets the best lines: humour appears to be about putting down uppity women. But there are also lots of witty remarks attributed to Nancy; for example, ‘I married beneath me — all women do’,  ‘One reason I don’t drink is that I want to know when I am having a good time’ and ”I refuse to admit that I am more than 52, even if that makes my children illegitimate.’

Linking Women’s Humor Across Time

That last one in particular makes me think of the emperor Augustus and his daughter Julia. A sense of humour was one of the features of Augustus that the biographer Suetonius singled out: his idea of a joke was apparently to give out worthless presents wrapped up and labelled to look a lot more promising than they really were. Hmm! It’s Julia whose jokes really work today. She comes across in the sources as feisty, wayward, and always ready to answer back. After giving some more examples of Augustus’ jokes, Macrobius – who wrote around 400 AD – preserves a list of Julia’s comments. The best one, for me, is her answer when people who knew she had been sleeping around commented that they were surprised that her sons came out looking like Agrippa, her then-husband. She said, ‘I never take on a passenger unless the ship is full’ – so, she was using pregnancy as a form of contraception.

Until very recently, women weren’t stand-up comics, because they just weren’t seen as ‘funny’. Part of this must be about the confidence to speak in front of an audience. Part of it concerns the lack of role models. And there are still many jokes around that assume that women lack a sense of humour – like the lightbulb joke, ‘Q: How many feminists does it take to change a light-bulb? A: ‘That’s NOT FUNNY!’ But recent books, like Yael Cohen’s We Killed, usefully trace the rise of the female comic; the daughters of Julia are alive and well today!


To find out more: J.P. Wearing (ed.), Bernard Shaw and Nancy Astor (2005)

Y. Cohen, We Killed. The Rise of Women in American Comedy (2012)

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