Nature’s Chastity

Jose Harris

  • Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the 19th Century by Barbara Taylor
    Virago, 402 pp, £9.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 86068 257 9
  • Virgins and Viragos: A History of Women in Scotland from 1080 to 1980 by Rosalind Marshall
    Collins, 365 pp, £13.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 00 216039 0

‘Tame’, ‘peaceable’, ‘dogmatic and utterly hopeless’ were the adjectives used by Engels to describe English socialists in his Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. By ‘English socialists’ Engels meant, not the wide range of heterogeneous sects whom the term would have embraced at any later period, but one specific group – the followers of Robert Owen. Like Engels himself, Robert Owen was an unusual figure among the founding fathers of socialism in that he was also a successful capitalist entrepreneur. Born in 1771, the son of a humble Welsh saddler, Owen soared to success on the industrial boom of the Napoleonic wars. He became the owner of a highly profitable cotton factory at New Lanark; and it was here that he first became convinced of the need to replace competitive individualism by a communitarian ethic of brotherly love. His vision of socialism combined an exaggerated form of Post-Enlightenment rationalism with a mystic hope of social metamorphosis inherited from William Blake. Over the next fifty years Owen sought to realise his vision in a variety of ways – as a model factory employer, as the founder of socialist communities, as a patron of trade-unionism and workers’ co-operatives, and as the sponsor of a wide range of ‘progressive’ causes from legalisation of divorce to abolition of punishment for crime. His schemes attracted a wide following, particularly among industrial workers and self-taught intellectuals of the lower middle class. The Owenite socialist movement in the 1830s and 1840s constituted what was probably the most extensive radical counter-culture that had existed in England since the time of the Civil War. Yet few historians have seen Owenism as more than a momentary aberration in the march toward industrial capitalism. To historians of collective bargaining the Owenites are mainly significant as early exponents of ‘general’ as opposed to ‘craft’ trade-unionism. By historians of popular religion Owenism has been seen as one among many millenarian sects which sprang up in the 1820s, generated by the trauma of the Industrial Revolution. To Marx and Engels Owenism was merely a moralistic utopian cul-de-sac in the pre-history of scientific socialism. Whigs, Marxists and Fabians have generally concurred in consigning the Owenites to History’s old curiosity shop. Robert Owen, wrote the Webbs, was a political ‘simpleton’ who had ‘inflated’ the working class with a ‘premature conception’ of their revolutionary significance. The verdict of Engels was equally severe: ‘the Owenites were too abstract, too metaphysical and accomplish little.’

Barbara Taylor’s study, mainly concerned with the Owenites in spite of its misleadingly ambitious title, challenges these views in a number of different ways. She queries the Owenites’ reputation for utopianism, arguing that ‘what has counted as utopian answers has depended on who has been raising the questions.’ She rejects the common identification of Owenism as a chiliastic religious sect, claiming that Owenites merely borrowed the language of religious ecstasy to describe a vision that was essentially social, secular and atheistic. And, most important, she claims that the Owenites contained within their ranks a group of ‘socialist feminists’ (strictly a late rather than early 19th-century phrase), whose presence has been largely invisible to previous historians of the Owenite movement. This group of feminists put forward a critique of existing male-female relationships, and of the interlocking of these relationships with the socio-economic structure, more radical than that of any comparable body before the present day. Unlike their 18th-century Jacobin predecessors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, or their Victorian successors such as Harriet Taylor and Josephine Butler, the Owenite feminists ascribed sexual repression and exploitation, not merely to the imbalance of power between the sexes, but to the whole structure of private property ownership in competitive societies. Only the destruction of private property and a healing of the social fragmentation that property entailed, so they believed, could bring about a free and equal partnership between men and women based on mutual respect and love.

Barbara Taylor develops her analysis at a number of different levels – economic, ideological, political, personal and religious. Underlying all early 19th-century debates on the role and status of women was the economic transformation wrought by the Industrial Revolution. In the pre-industrial period women had played a dual role in the socio-economic structure: they had presided over hearth and home, and at the same time assisted their menfolk in the processes of production (spinning, weaving, cultivation and the like). Industrialisation, however, profoundly affected these dual roles in two ways: successful men increasingly sought to confine their wives to the domestic scene and to use them merely as ‘display cases for their affluence’; less successful men found themselves increasingly threatened and displaced by cut-price female factory labour. The result was a period of acute uncertainty and turmoil about male and female functions – a crisis that Taylor portrays as eventually resolving itself in the confinement of women to domesticity and the emergence of men as exclusive family breadwinners. This erosion and reconstruction of clearly defined sex-roles was accompanied by a conflict in competing sexual ideologies. Since the 17th century various branches of radical puritanism had idealised the relationship of ‘true love’ – an ideology contradicted and undermined by the 18th-century hardening of marriage as a cash and property relationship. Towards the end of the 18th century stereotyped sex-roles had been questioned by Romantic poets and theorists such as Godwin and Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Coleridge: but radical views of women’s potential had been torpedoed by the twin impact of the Evangelical revival and the French Revolution. Evangelicalism idealised the angel on the hearth: women were simultaneously elevated as superior moral beings and demoted to the purely domestic sphere. Wesleyan Methodism, earlier a major outlet for religious-minded women, in the 1790s clamped down on women preachers and women evangelists. The French Revolution frightened public opinion by equating feminism with Jacobinism and led to a sharp contraction in female roles and female rights. It was within this context of economic change and ideological reaction that Owenism emerged as a philosophy of sexual as well as political subversion. According to Taylor, Robert Owen himself was ‘not much of a feminist’, but his writings nevertheless launched a sustained attack on priestly marriage codes, ceremonial promises of eternal fidelity, conventional domesticity and ‘single family Arrangements’. Sexual relationships were to be based on free and spontaneous affection – ‘nature’s chastity’ – which was deemed to be outside the control of the individual human will. Housework was to be collectivised and transformed by (characteristically masculine) ‘labour-saving devices’ such as chains for picking up dishes and cutlery-transporting trains. Above all, the nuclear family, as the microcosm of personal and institutionalised selfishness, was to be replaced by communistic communities in which everyone’s children would be reared together and trained for citizenship of the New Moral World.

Such themes were taken up and developed in a variety of ways by Owen’s disciples both male and female during the troubled second quarter of the 19th century. Anthropology, psychology, phrenology and Lamarckian theories of evolution were invoked to support the view that the physical weakness and emotional subjection of women were socially-constructed phenomena. William Thompson, the Ricardian socialist, collaborated with the Irish feminist Anna Wheeler to produce an Appeal to One Half of the Human Race, calling for the abolition of the sexual division of labour, free sexual liaisons for young people, the end of ‘one pillow’ marriages and the widespread practice of rational contraception (the latter to be achieved by the ‘gentle motion of mere walking after intercourse’). Wheeler herself, daughter of an archbishop and the embittered victim of a drunken husband, railed against the banalities of women’s education, their exclusion from the franchise and their mystical enslavement to ‘that eastern philosopher’ Jesus Christ. Fanny Wright, a bold and glamorous Owenite intellectual, preached the total abolition of marriage and founded an ideal colony at Nashoba, Tennessee, based on ‘free and voluntary affection’ – an experiment that came to an abrupt end when the female colonists were ‘coerced and intimidated’ by the males. Some among the Owenite feminists turned to feminism as a direct response to their own unhappy experience of marriage – among them Emma Martin, an ex-Baptist turned militant rationalist and free-thinker, who founded the Anti-Persecution Union. Others by contrast joined together with sympathetic husbands in socialist and feminist causes. Frances Morrison, for example, supported her house-painter husband in trade-union organisation, in the publication of a socialist newspaper, and in promoting equal pay and the personal practice of egalitarian marriage. Such women toured the country to address ‘large audiences’ in feminist, suffragist and secularist debates. They elicited much enthusiasm from the ‘most skilled, industrious, steady and moral portion of the working class’, and formed what almost amounted to a national secularist counter-culture among certain sections of the labour aristocracy. On an average Sunday, according to Owenite sources, Owenite orators addressed audiences totalling fifty thousand people: in an average year they distributed over half a million tracts. The culmination of this activity, for Owenite feminism as for Owenites generally, was the foundation of self-supporting communities, each of them committed, in theory at least, to equality between the sexes and a new code of sexual life.

The wider story of the spread and ultimate failure of Owenism has been told many times. What is of interest here is the blossoming and dwindling of its vision of feminism. One important factor, as Barbara Taylor shows, was that throughout the history of the movement feminist socialists felt themselves to be trapped in a series of dilemmas which were ultimately unresolvable without a global reconstruction of reality. One of these dilemmas concerned the issue of ‘free love’. Some socialist feminists practised, or at least preached, free love as the essential core of sexual liberation. ‘Why should the sexual connection be more fettered than hunger or thirst?’ wrote one, whilst others denounced marriage as a ‘traffic in human flesh’. But such views proved less popular among Owenite women than among Owenite men; and when expressed on public platforms ‘they drove the wives and mothers of the toiling masses to absolute frenzy.’ Most socialist feminists concluded that, until the existing social order was done away with, some form of legal marriage tie would still be essential for women’s protection, even if not in the form currently prescribed by church and state. ‘Let not the change be attempted at the expense of women’s tears, of women’s sorrow,’ warned the feminist writer Concordia in The New Moral World in 1833. A similar difficulty arose over attempts to invest women with peculiar qualities of gentleness and virtue (a vision which sympathetic male socialists often shared with contemporary Evangelicals). The temptation to accept such an image of womanhood as enhancing women’s status was very great, yet Owenite feminists were only too well aware that the price of a moral pedestal might be forfeiture of full membership of the human race. A rather different kind of dilemma concerned the issue of work and wages. Owenite women had three different types of grievance relating to work: that women were being expelled from the labour force into domesticity, that they were being sucked into the labour force at starvation wages, and that their traditional domestic duties (carried out whether they were in the labour force or not) consisted so often of back-breaking and soulless drudgery. All these grievances created divisions, not so much between women and their employers, as between women and their own menfolk. Such divisions bedevilled feminist involvement in Chartism, which all too often degenerated from a political crusade into a protection racket for the rights of male workers – led by the arch anti-feminist Feargus O’Connor. Even in Owenite communes women found that the housework if done at all was done by themselves; and ‘the wives, disillusioned by the disorder, wanted to march out.’ Time and again, feminist aspirations, forged amid the hopes of Owen’s Association of All Classes and All Nations (set up in 1835), were pruned and thwarted by the harsh male realities of the Old Immoral World.

It was dilemmas such as these that drove some Owenites and many of their contemporaries into the search for more apocalyptic solutions. If the world could not be set to rights then a new earth and a new heaven must be sought. Within this search, Barbara Taylor suggests, eschatology and sexuality were often closely intermingled; and she describes in fascinating detail the overlapping of ideas and personnel between the Owenites, the disciples of Joanna Southcote, and the acolytes of ‘the white, the pure, the true, the only Catholic Communist Church’. The dividing line between the concrete and the transcendental in these different movements clearly varied. (Taylor herself tends to underrate the extent to which all millenarian prophecy from the Old Testament onwards has always fused elements of the two.) But in each of these movements there was a central emphasis on the prophetic mission and redemptive power of women; and there is no mistaking the common echo that sounds through such apparently dissonant themes as the ecstatic anticlericalism of Emma Martin, the Messiah-bearing fantasies of Southcote, and the quest for androgynous pre-lapsarian wholeness pursued by the Catholic Communist Church. ‘To be a true Communist, or Socialist,’ wrote the founder of Catholic Communism, Goodwyn Barmby, ‘the man must possess the woman-power as well as the manpower, and the woman must possess the manpower as well as the woman-power. Both must be equilibrated beings,’ possessing the ‘gentleness’ and the ‘force’ which ‘we wish to behold united in every human individual, without relation to sex’.

This was not an ignoble vision, nor was it new: in fact, its central insights go back through the history of Christianity to the unlikely figure of St Paul writing his letter to the Galatians (‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female ... for ye are all one in Christ’). Why then did it make so little lasting impact on that whirlpool of contingencies that was Early Victorian history? (So little indeed that before 1983 very few readers will have been aware that Owenite socialism even had a feminist dimension.) Why did English feminism get channelled away from social reconstruction into the tributaries of suffragism, careers for middle-class girls, contagious diseases, birth control and a room of one’s own? One important reason was that there was always a profound ambiguity in Owenite feminist aspirations. Faced with the rapid advance of industry, the collapse of the communal experiments, and the notorious profligacy of a small handful of male Owenites, most women probably concluded ‘that it was respectable well-paid husbands which they needed, rather than visionary schemes for collectivised conjugal arrangements’. Preference for such an option was confirmed by the rising living standards of the mid-century and the structural intensification of the division of labour – which Taylor sees as much more important than the aping of middle-class values in persuading working-class women to settle for hearth and home. One might add to this the profound psychological barriers to communitarianism present in a society whose roots in individualism went back to the 12th century: it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the woman expelled from the Catholic Communist Church because ‘she ... proved irretrievably wedded to the habits of individualised selfish life’. At a more mundane level, many women must have been genuinely puzzled as to why total reconstruction of society was necessary in order to achieve such commendable but modest Owenite reforms as liberalisation of the marriage laws or abolition of the cooked Sunday lunch.

Does Barbara Taylor succeed in rescuing the Owenite feminists from the indifference of historians and restoring them to the map of historical consciousness? One thing that she does triumphantly, if perhaps inadvertently, is to show just how much the Marxian and Whig traditions have in common, in their flashing of blinding searchlights along the motorways of history. Another thing that she has done is to tell an absorbing story: this is quite simply the most readable work of ‘academic’ feminist history I have read. Some of her vignettes are irresistible: my own favourites are Mrs Martin indignantly defending herself against the charge of ‘corpulence’ (‘she wants lungs for use not a waist for admiration’), and Coleridge in his Pantisocratic phase dreaming up the all-purpose housework machine on the banks of the Susquehanna. Her imaginative decoding, much of it necessarily speculative, of the interrelationship between the labour market, sexual mores and feminist ideology is extremely skilled. Where she is less assured is in her critical evaluation of sources and in her handling of subjects that go beyond the feminist scene. Much of her account of Owenism is taken rather uncritically from uncorroborated Owenite publications – an objection which doesn’t invalidate her account of Owenite ideas and experience, but does call in question her account of the movement’s wider impact and popular support. There is a very strange exegesis of documents on pages 131-2, where Emma Martin is quoted as saying, ‘the passions [of religion] ... possessed charms for me’: a passage in which she in fact refers to the limits which religion placed on ‘the passions, for it possessed charms for me on that account’. The change of meaning, though total, is not very important, but the tinkering with the original document seems unnecessary.

More problematic is Taylor’s treatment of themes, such as class, religion and political thought, which go beyond the boundaries of feminism. It is hard to accept her view of patriarchalism as quintessentially ‘bourgeois’, partly because in a political sense many bourgeois societies are notoriously anti-patriarchal and partly because, even in a familial sense, there are numerous bourgeois societies (parts of modern California, for example) in which patriarchalism has totally broken down. Used in so vague a way, ‘bourgeois’ is merely a portmanteau term of abuse. Similarly, the statement that ‘mainstream middle-class opinion was all for the God of strict convention and swift retribution’ tells us nothing about a period in which the nature of God and the inferences to be drawn from His existence (if any) were being more hotly debated than at any time since the 16th century. Maybe the time has come for Early Victorian Christians to be rescued from the condescension of posterity along with women and the Working class: until that is done, the reality behind Taylor’s stereotype of ‘conventional middle-class churchgoers’ will remain obscure. My other complaints are that Eve and the New Jerusalem appears to be printed on old French lavatory-paper, scarcely worthy of a book which its publishers herald as a ‘classic’; and that Barbara Taylor’s splendid and fascinating footnotes, many of them central to the development of her argument, are inconveniently crowded to the back of the book. With these reservations, this is a magnificent attempt to recover a lost atoll of human experience from the historical tunnel-vision of the past hundred and fifty years.

Rosalind Marshall’s Virgins and Viragos and Eve and the New Jerusalem express polar opposites in contemporary historical style. For all its prurient title, Virgins and Viragos is a work of serious and densely-packed scholarship, slightly antiquarian in method, cautiously atheoretical in its overall approach. Apart from a rather shallow and breathless section on the past hundred and fifty years, it is based on extensive original research into personal and family archives – most of it being necessarily confined to evidence about the upper and middle classes.

A pivotal theme down to the late 19th century is the pain, grief and terror of childbirth, and the even greater grief of lack of childbirth. (It is interesting to note that women sorrowed more over infertility than pregnancy, even when the latter entailed the likelihood or even certainty of death). The best chapters in the book cover the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries, where Dr Marshall is most at home among the primary sources. Here we find a detailed exposition of Scottish matrimonial law, child-rearing customs and relations between the sexes, during a period in which marriage as a form of finely-calculated property-exchange was at its height. Throughout this period, within the Scots property-owning classes, marriage without ‘tocher’ (dowry) and ‘conjunct-fee’ (jointure) was almost unthinkable. Yet the documentary evidence cited by Dr Marshall indicates that such a strait jacket was in no way incompatible with passionate conjugal love (‘my dearest kind obliging comfort’, ‘your humble and faithful bedfellow till death’ are typical phrases from the matrimonial correspondence of the 17th century). Nor did property-based marriages preclude women from taking an active part in the management of their own and their husbands’ business affairs (‘actrix, factrix, and special errand bearer and plenipotentiary’ was how one husband described his ‘beloved spouse’ in 1684). Moreover, 17th-century Scotland yields numerous examples of women active in a public sphere – postmistresses, booksellers, printers, as well as Covenanters and organisers of illegal conventicles (the latter often in defiance of their husbands’ express commands). It was not so much property-ownership as the rise of leisure and pleasure and the lure of the London season that diminished the role of upper-class women and turned them, often only too willingly, into the ornamental puppets of the mid-19th century. Nevertheless, the life-histories uncovered by Rosalind Marshall suggest that in all periods personal experience defied sociological generalisation. It is in the reconstruction of unique personal details that the interest and merit of this book lie.