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.

The title of Sheila Fletcher’s book might lead one to think that she, too, is a historian of ideas. In reality, her approach is institutional, for she narrows her focus down to what is in effect a history of Bedford Physical Training College. Yet this is perhaps the best way to advance the study of so important and neglected an area of women’s history, especially as she is alert to the wider significance of her subject – feminist, professional and educational. Launched in the 1880s by the formidable Madame Bergman-Osterberg, the movement for women’s physical education simultaneously promoted women’s health and created a new profession for women: ‘my girls are destined to become pioneers in all that relates to hygiene and a more rational method of life for the sex,’ she told an international congress in 1899. ‘I need women with brains and character. None other will do.’

by no means unequivocally on the side of the angels, for its life, ‘indoors as well as out, combined the values of the gymnasium with those of the drawing-room’, and aimed to prolong the childhood of its middle-class students. Generations of middle-class schoolgirls fell for Miss Latimer, Angela Brazil’s games mistress – doubtless a Bedford product. ‘If there was a New Woman, this was she,’ Fletcher writes: ‘with beautiful carriage and an air of confidence not bestowed by any university’. Inter-war intellectual changes introduced spontaneity and creativeness, and scaled down the hygienic priorities of the early movement, and by the 1950s social change made dependence on public funding inevitable. But when seen from the feminist point of view, a high price has been paid in recent decades for better equipment and expanded recruitment: formal examinations, theoretical approaches and outside scrutiny brought increased influence for men. So whereas Bedford’s honours degree in Sports Studies, approved in 1980, in some ways marks a culmination, from the feminist point of view it represents a decline.

By looking at her subject through the eyes of a particular organisation, Fletcher is able to paint a revealing picture of how an institution evolves and adapts to its changing environment: we see it resisting stagnation while at the same time retaining the loyalty of old members. Her approach also enables her to draw fruitfully on interview material. Her fourth chapter, for example, transcends the limited perspectives imposed by minute-books and formal documents and ably re-creates the college’s mood and impact.

Oral evidence lies at the heart of Elizabeth Roberts’s rich and careful study of early 20th-century women in their family context. ‘Often, at the beginning of a series of interviews,’ she writes, her informants ‘expressed surprise that anyone should be interested in their “uneventful” lives.’ The book rests on interviews with about 160 people of both sexes in Barrow, Lancaster and Preston. Roberts does not tell us how her interviewees were contacted or selected, but she is ‘confident that they are a representative sample of the working class in all three areas.’ She also fails to explain how the interviews were conducted. Was there a standardised questionnaire, or was the discussion open-ended? Were the transcripts complete, and can they now be consulted by others? But she prints long extracts from her discussions, and although (as so often happens with books based on oral evidence) this slows down the pace of the argument, the book undoubtedly gains in colour and atmosphere. It combines the authentic flavour of Robert Roberts’s The Classic Slum with the vigour and directness of Stephen Humphries’s Hooligans or Rebels? – yet at the same time shows greater objectivity and receptiveness to informants. It is a study well worth replicating elsewhere.

There are few surprises – but no matter, for the book hits the reader between the eyes with the realities of early 20th-century working-class family life. It is a world of strong discipline for children – not greatly resented in retrospect – both at home and at school. Reticence makes mothers coy about enlightening their daughters even on menstruation, let alone on birth control. Within their firmly separated sphere, working-class women wield much power. They hold the extended family together with their correspondence and contacts, firmly uphold conventional moral standards, take a special interest in education, and resolutely pursue respectability and the middle-class ideal of the home-as-retreat – controlling the family budget, whitening their front-door steps, endlessly pursuing vermin, polishing, scrubbing, and at all costs keeping up appearances. ‘Keep the front doorstep clean,’ a Lancaster woman used to say; ‘there’s more passes by than comes inside.’ Coal fires, large families and lack of piped water make it a lifelong grind when there are no modern household gadgets: these did not really make an impact till after 1940. Sceptical anti-suffragist politicians (however self-interested) understood this situation when they doubted suffragist claims about what the vote would do for women.

All four books are properly documented, and only Garner is sometimes inaccurate on details: The Vote was not a ‘WSPU paper’, but the organ of the Women’s Freedom League; the Cat and Mouse and Dickinson Bills date from 1913, not 1912; Ramsay MacDonald and Kathleen Courtney and Willoughby Dickinson are mis-spelt; Andrew Rosen gets the wrong Christian name on page 29; and the misleading term ‘radical suffragist’ is used to denote Lancashire working-class non-militants – a term not used at the time, if only because these women did not constitute a distinctive group and were no more radical than many suffragists elsewhere. How successfully do the four authors negotiate the twin perils of women’s history: tunnel vision and whiggishness?

Fletcher’s emphasis on the special importance for women of physical education is fully justified, but her analysis (ultimately pessimistic from the feminist point of view) would gain both conviction and force if it were clearer and fuller on the role played by men. Although she credits two men – Per Ling and Rudolf Laban – with major breakthroughs, she does not fully explain the nature of their innovations. And in other respects she allows men only to play somewhat sinister walk-on parts. At the beginning of the period they are drill sergeants awaiting supersession by women whose purposes are more humane and therapeutic. ‘Let us send the drill sergeant right-about-face to his awkward squad,’ Madame Bergman-Osterberg declared: ‘this work we women do better.’ Yet the drill sergeants were at least concerning themselves with the physique of the poor, whereas Bergman-Osterberg turned her back on them.

At the end of her period, Fletcher shows men as advancing their own careers and appropriating the female inheritance by exploiting local authority takeovers and the need of the women’s colleges for academic respectability. Yet although segregation of the sexes may – in physical education – have been a necessary phase, there is surely much to be said here, as elsewhere, for collaboration as an ultimate objective. In Roberts’s analysis, too, the distinctive situation of women would be clearer if she more frequently compared the situations of the sexes.

Tunnel vision affects Garner in a rather different way. Broadly speaking, there were two Edwardian routes to votes for women: equal franchise and adult suffrage. The first involved removing the sex discrimination from the existing property franchise, and so making the system less democratic; the second involved attaching the vote to the person rather than to property, and so involved enfranchising more men as well as women. As predominantly feminist bodies, both militant and non-militant women’s suffrage organisations were understandably (though mistakenly) lukewarm about the adult suffrage mode of enfranchising women, but no such standpoint could be expected from the Labour movement or from progressive Liberal politicians eager to retain the initiative on the left. Garner’s preoccupation with feminism causes him to neglect the adult suffrage option, even when adopted by Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation: he therefore underplays suffragist conservatism on the franchise question.

He also exaggerates the influence of suffragist organisations. He produces no evidence to support his assertion that the non-militants’ loose electoral alliance with the Labour Party after 1912 ‘was crucial in moving Asquith along the road towards women’s suffrage’ and ‘enabled Asquith to see the problem in terms of class rather than of sex’. Asquith needed no such reminder, if only because Churchill and Lloyd George had done quite enough reminding when they explained their reasons for opposing the Conciliation Bill (an attempted all-party-compromise, property-franchise measure) in 1910. Nor is Garner right to endorse Sylvia Pankhurst’s claim that her deputation of June 1914 led Asquith into making an important concession to suffragism when he said that women’s suffrage, if introduced, should be ‘thoroughgoing and democratic in its basis’. Garner thinks this marks ‘a significant change’, whereas in reality it reflects no more than a public acknowledgment of the situation implicit in his government’s Manhood Suffrage Bill of 1912 and anticipated by Churchill and Lloyd George in 1910 – that for progressive Liberals women could get the vote only as part of a more ambitious and democratic franchise reform.

As for the hazard of whiggishness, Garner is forearmed. He knows that many Edwardian suffragists were incomplete in their feminism, and that many of them endorsed the separation of spheres; even when arguing that house-work should be paid, they still envisaged women as doing it. He also knows that Edwardian feminism was distracted by conflicts over tactics and strategy, and sets out to contest the belief ‘still widely held’ (really?) that the Pankhursts were ‘political revolutionaries’. His argument downgrades the feminist achievement of Mrs Pankhurst’s WSPU and elevates the significance of its rivals, the Women’s Freedom League and National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

Perhaps he goes too far along this road. He is too ready to dismiss the role of personal ambition in producing the League’s secession from the WSPU in 1907. And in condemning Pankhurstian autocracy, he does not emphasise sufficiently how inevitably this flowed from Pankhurstian militancy. ‘Stunt’, as distinct from mass, violence requires speed and secrecy of direction, and the League’s attempt at combining democracy with militancy was doomed to failure. Garner is somewhat unfair to the WSPU in other ways. He is too ready to condemn its ‘élitism’, and to imply that other suffragist bodies suffered less from this defect. They were more democratic in structure, of course, but no less middle-class in their membership. Furthermore it does not seem to me to be ‘élitist’ – only a statement of fact – for Mrs Pankhurst to say that suffragette leadership came from women who had ‘drawn prizes in the lucky bag of life’.

Garner also too readily assumes that by supporting the First World War the WSPU allowed ‘the interests of women’ to be ‘submerged beneath the interests’ of the nation. A Kaiser-dominated Britain would have given feminism short shrift, whereas Mrs Pankhurst and Christabel made many British suffragist converts by working energetically for victory: partly as a result, the vote was conceded in 1917-18. Garner sees Mrs Fawcett’s fierce and successful defence of the NUWSS against pacifist takeover in 1915 as evidence of her power, and of her skill at mobilising the smaller rural branches against the larger urban ones. In reality, her triumph suggests that the larger urban branches had been unrepresentative of suffragist opinion – not only on the war, but also on the Union’s labour affiliation of 1912 which so many of the pacifist non-militants had enthusiastically endorsed.

Forster’s dust-jacket leads the reader to expect whiggishness at its worst: ‘the story she tells bears irrefutable testimony to the extremes of ignorance and prejudice on the one hand, and vision and courage on the other.’ Her book is more subtle than this, for it repeatedly emphasises the incompleteness of the feminism espoused by the feminist pioneers. Each of Forster’s feminists opens up a new dimension of feminism and so renders incomplete the feminism of her predecessors. Forster also frequently notes the hostility they encountered from women, and the precarious nature of feminist progress. ‘Feminism,’ she says, ‘seems to progress only by a method of two steps forward, one step backwards.’ Caroline Norton, for instance, in campaigning to extend a mother’s rights over her children, moved into feminism only by way of personal grievance: campaigning for law reform was, for her, a sort of therapy or outlet for anger against her husband, and hers is a campaign for justice rather than for feminism. She once said she believed ‘sincerely as part of my religion’ that women were naturally inferior to men. And although ‘feminist’ is a more accurate label for Elizabeth Blackwell and Emily Davies, they, too, retain many of the conventional attitudes to women. As for Florence Nightingale’s feminism, it ‘was the most contorted variety available in the 19th century’, and ‘solved no problems for other women and created many new ones’. Florence privately rated the pioneer woman doctor Elizabeth Blackwell little higher than ‘a third-rate apothecary of thirty years ago’, and sneered at her because she ‘only tried to be a man’. Forster also knows as well as Fletcher how easily feminists, once successful, find themselves digested, absorbed and neutralised by the surrounding society – the early woman doctors are a good example.

Still, Forster’s would have been an even better book if she had been more inquisitive about anti-feminist strength, motives and aims. For her they are merely conventional and selfish (if male) or gossiping and mindless (if female). For example, she leaves us to assume that Josephine Butler’s opponents held illiberal views and were malign in intent – whereas the doctors who backed state-regulated prostitution were horrified at the nature and incidence of venereal disease, and were ready to abandon many conventional contemporary laissez faire notions in trying to contain it. Nor does Forster bring out the arrogant, sanctimonious side of Butler’s personality, or her simplistic attitudes to politics.

One might also have expected Forster to find it interesting that her heroines often encounter female opponents. To the end of her days, Caroline Norton remembered their mutterings against her; shortly before her death she took pleasure in the thought that she would ‘be remembered and dreamed of when the gossiping women of my day have ceased to talk and are but a handful of dust’. Such women were no doubt conventional, and perhaps bridled at the implied reproach that is shed by any altruistic initiative upon those who did not think of it first. But they were also often women who recognised the fulfilment that women could attain within traditional roles: who were impressed with the less attractive features of the personalities who advocated the new ideas (no doubt frequently justified where Davies, Nightingale, Norton and Goldman were involved), and who recognised the sheer difficulty, given 19th-century domestic conditions, of venturing more boldly beyond ‘woman’s sphere’.

Most successful of the four authors in avoiding whiggish approaches is Elizabeth Roberts. Whereas some ‘oral historians’ of the 1970s saw themselves, in Paul Thompson’s words, as working ‘not simply to celebrate the working class as it is, but to raise its consciousness’, Roberts rightly aims to learn from her informants. ‘As a feminist,’ she writes in her Introduction, ‘in the face of the empirical evidence, I have been forced to conclude that it is not sufficient to indict the injustices of the past, nor to allow one’s concern for women’s causes of today to obstruct the understanding of women’s roles and status yesterday.’ Rather against her expectations, ‘as the research progressed, it became evident that there was little feeling among the majority of women interviewed that they or their mothers had been particularly exploited by men, at least not by working-class men.’ If the women suffered deprivation, so did the men; and, like the men, the women explained their sufferings, when conscious of them, in terms of class conflict. ‘Women did not seek self-fulfilment at the expense of the family,’ Roberts writes, ‘because they saw little distinction between their own good and that of their families.’ With more practitioners like this, women’s history will indeed make strides-even in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain.