Sisterhoods

Brian Harrison

  • Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939 by Margaret Forster
    Secker, 353 pp, £12.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 436 16113 3
  • Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Movement 1900-1918 by Les Garner
    Gower, 142 pp, £15.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 435 32357 1
  • Women First: The Female Tradition in English Physical Education 1880-1980 by Sheila Fletcher
    Athlone, 194 pp, £18.00, July 1984, ISBN 0 485 11248 5
  • A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940 by Elizabeth Roberts
    Blackwell, 246 pp, £14.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13572 3

It is already beginning to look as though 1979 marked a political and intellectual shift in Britain comparable with 1886, 1906, 1922, 1945 and 1964. For Mrs Thatcher’s electoral victory consolidated an intellectual shift towards conservatism that has penetrated into almost every corner of British society since the mid-1970s. Feminism, always linked to the fortunes of the Left and always vulnerable in the face of unemployment, has not been exempt, and we now seem to be living through one of the movement’s periodic pauses for breath during its long history. Historians and their publishers are sensitive to fashions of this type, and if fashion and ‘relevance’ alone had produced the boom in women’s history since the 1960s, these four books might well have lacked a publisher in 1984.

Women’s history in Britain has stronger and deeper roots than this. It was growing healthily in the 1950s, partly because British inter-war feminists so assiduously wrote up its history and preserved its records, partly because women were in the end bound to profit from the steady broadening in history’s scope in the course of the 20th century. Women’s history was almost inevitably neglected when history was primarily concerned with national politics, for even now politics at that level is a predominantly male profession. Yet women have always exercised political skill at other levels, and when historians take this fully into account, women will perhaps feature more prominently even within political history.

The four books under review suggest the many approaches historians of women can appropriate from other areas of history. Margaret Forster’s is the most conventional of the four. Her subtitle is misleading: her thoughtful and interesting book is not a sociological analysis of rank-and-file provincial feminists, but collects together short biographies of eight well-known women who pioneered feminism in its various dimensions between 1839 and 1939. She outlines and evaluates the contribution of Caroline Norton to law reform, Elizabeth Blackwell to the medical profession, Florence Nightingale to nursing, Emily Davies to education, Josephine Butler to the attack on the double standard of morality, Margaret Sanger to birth control, and Emma Goldman to causes that anticipate the feminism of the 1970s. Forster offers no major reinterpretation, nor do all her biographies draw on the most recent secondary sources (the memoir of Josephine Butler ignores the important work of McHugh and Walkowitz, for example), but the book illuminates the width of feminist preoccupation during these years despite the fact that its structure makes it difficult to appreciate relationships between the various feminist departments. Forster also illuminates the feminist pioneers’ independence and determination – though she would have been even more effective at this if she had at the same time stressed the contemporary strength, plausibility and tenacity of anti-feminist ideas.

As a historian of ideas, Les Garner’s approach is very different: he aims to give Edwardian suffragism in 1984 what Aileen Kraditor gave American suffragism in 1965 – an exposition and analysis of the movement’s more theoretical statements. This is not fertile territory; in 1912 the Freewoman thought British suffragism would come to be thought of as ‘the “Idealess” movement’, because ‘in their official capacity Suffragists are devoid of all social, political or religious philosophy.’ Nor is the material made attractive when the publisher punctuates Garner’s prose with bracketed references to the footnotes printed at the back of the book. Yet enough thinking was going on in Edwardian feminist and suffragist periodicals – particularly in the lesser-known ones – to make such a study well worth while. Readers should not be deterred by the book’s rather whiggish title: Garner draws on a wide range of sources, and although he covers familiar territory, he writes refreshingly and fair-mindedly about it.

As one might expect, the richest material does not come from Mrs Pankhurst’s well-known and autocratic Women’s Social and Political Union, but from a freelance periodical like the short-lived weekly Freewoman, with its radical ideas on sexuality, and from the more democratic suffragist bodies – the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Garner’s method – collating and analysing published discussions of feminist ideas – has two drawbacks. First, political prudence often prevented feminist spokesmen from publishing their true thoughts: as Garner himself points out, general reflections on feminism would have been a distraction from the suffragist campaign – and, he might have added, a source of internal friction. In her Disinherited Family, published long after the vote was won, Eleanor Rathbone was able to speak more freely about her support for birth control: ‘now that these irrevocable gifts have been given,’ she wrote, referring to the vote, ‘we can afford to speak our minds.’ This type of distortion can be averted only by juxtaposing published ideas with unpublished, but Garner rarely operates on this level. Second, the historian of ideas needs help when trying to estimate how representative these published ideas were; his analysis of intellectual developments needs to be dovetailed into complementary studies of institutions and organisations. These Garner leaves to others.

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