Thinking Women

Jane Miller

I have been reading the Twentieth Century’s special number on women, which is pink with a palely gleaming Mona Lisa on its cover. It’s odd that I’ve not read it before, since it came out in August 1958 and contains what could be described as my first appearance in print. The actual copy I have belonged to Betty Miller, and it is in her article, which is called ‘Amazons and Afterwards’, that I appear, anonymously and representatively, as Afterwards. The journal’s editorial includes me too, as one of the pony-tailed generation of young women, clones of Francoise Sagan and Brigitte Bardot, who showed no interest in ‘women’s civic rights’.

When I first met Betty Miller in the early Fifties she was becoming quite famous as the author of a good biography of Robert Browning. I had read two of the seven novels she wrote during the Thirties and Forties. I did not know her well, but I liked her, and that was unusual for me. I was a late developer in this respect as in the matter of women’s civic rights, and I didn’t much like people who were older than me. I didn’t like their having done everything and known everything before me and I didn’t like their quite well thought-out plans for my future. Betty was different. She had no plans at all for my future, and when she talked to me it was about things like the sort of day she’d had, the absurd cavortings of a writer friend who lived down the road and a few of the irritating things her husband had said or done during the last week or so. She wrote her first novel when she was 21 and I was not quite one, so there is no doubt of her being of an older generation. Also, my younger sister was stepping out with her son, though they were still at school at that point. I remember her, though, as someone only a little older – and taller – than I was: similarly awkward, perverse, beady. She was also funny.

She rang me in January 1958. She’d been asked to write a piece about the younger generation of what the journal’s editor called ‘thinking women’, which meant women with degrees. We had a laugh at what we took to be the implications of ‘thinking women’ and at her plan to refer to ‘more than one young woman’ in offering me up as her data. I responded to her questions with all the pomposity and conviction of a very recent convert and told her exactly how I had found the secret of life. I had been married for nearly two years and had a six-month-old baby. Since his birth I had given up paid employment and was living off my husband, who had been temporarily out of work, but was now earning over £20 a week. In our tiny flat, with its views into the highest branches of huge plane trees on one side and over a row of white houses built for Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting on the other, I was suddenly happier than I had ever been. I played with my baby and read books while he slept. I learned to combine housework with his waking hours, so that he would kick and expostulate on one bit of the floor while I tackled the straw matting with a toothbrush and a safety pin on another. His sleeping time was too valuable to me to waste it on such tasks, so he experienced me chiefly, I suppose, as an interlocutor, a cleaner and a provider. I allowed myself £3 10s a week for food and cigarettes (Woodbines in those days), which was more than enough when mince was 2s 8d and small coxes apples 6d a pound. So there I was when Betty rang, jiggling my baby on a denimed knee and smug as hell.

The view of older literary persons (who were as likely to be men as women) was, she told me, that we were a lethargic and ungrateful lot, insensible of our advantages and of the struggles of our grandmothers and mothers on our behalf. I had, it is true, grown up knowing that my grandmother and her sisters had tied themselves to the railings of Holborn Post Office and that their mother had voluntarily joined them during their brief spell inside in order ‘to keep her eye on the girls’. I had aunts and great-aunts who had taught all their lives; others who had been civil servants; others still who had travelled and written and been taken seriously as anthropologists and doctors and connoisseurs of this and that. My mother had drawn or painted every day of her life, faithful to the exhortations of Henry Tonks at the Slade. Betty’s tone as she paraphrases and comments on my account of my position is initially approving:

Questioned as to her own private reaction at this giving up of her rights, one young woman most unexpectedly answered – ‘I love it! I actually enjoy the feeling of giving up my rights. Do you know – in some strange way, it’s a great relief?’ And she went on to say that in thus relinquishing an arid competition with the outer world, such as the conditions of her job had forced upon her, she had found in the domestic sphere, above all, in the single-handed care of her first child, a wholly unlooked-for release and fulfilment. Instead of envying the career woman, she now enjoys a novel life in which for the first time, she is, within her own sphere, supreme arbiter, and in which the tempo of that life, its duties as its pleasures, are largely dependent on no other will than her own. Moreover – an added bonus, this – free of the office and its imposed routine, she is able to find more time than ever before to read, and so to cultivate, unhindered, her own intellectual life.

Later in the article she becomes impatient with my complacency and with what seems to her a distinct retreat on my part. Read now, her article expresses something of the exasperation I feel myself at this self-indulgent young woman who knew better than her elders and cared so little about other people’s lives. But then I am now older than Betty Miller was when she wrote the piece. It also needs to be said that a very few weeks after that telephone call I was offered a part-time job with a publisher, which I accepted; and that for two and sometimes three days a week for the next three years I paid another woman £3 of the £7 I earned to look after my child.

I was reminded of my sluggish beginnings as a feminist because I’ve also been reading the essays collected by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley in What is feminism?[1] which refers back rather gloomily both to the Sixties – the earliest days of the women’s movement in this country – and to the anthology of essays they published exactly ten years ago called The Rights and Wrongs of Women. A central theme of both books and of the work of a writer like Sheila Rowbotham has been the need to keep track of feminism’s history and of the place of history within feminist analyses. There is certainly by now a long history to feminism, though it is usually charted in terms of its phases and moments, gaps and hiatuses.

Perhaps I simply feel ignored by most histories of feminism, but I am conscious that any history which sticks doggedly to the manifestations of its own exiguous definition of feminism is likely to miss other isolated, poorly articulated and even disgruntled beginnings of political understanding. At any time during the last one hundred and fifty years women who became involved in a politics on behalf of women must have started from (even where they operated consciously against) political formations organised by men and likely to be negligent of women’s interests. The kinds of resistance to mainstream politics and to cultural expectations enjoined on them by men (and, importantly, by older women) were always determined by the particular set of options open to them, as well as by the forms of economic dependence structuring their lives and perceptions and by the kinds of isolation which result from a whole range of pressures to keep women within the home and the family. History needs to address tensions between immediate moves and long-term strategies, without necessarily deciding against either the one or the other. Issues of generation, conflicting time-scales, arise within any movement set to challenge hegemonies from the margins. This may be peculiarly true for women, since their life-span can be made to seem fractured and discontinuous, measured as it is by their servicing role within a male economy. And then women’s needs differ so markedly at different ages.

I joined the Labour Party in my teens, and worked, chiefly at election time, for the party in my university town. By 1958 my involvement consisted of not much more than canvassing for a local party struggling with the largest Tory majority in the country. If my embarrassing speech to Betty Miller issued partly from a need to assert myself against my elders, I was also negotiating difficulties I had with the privileges of my upbringing. My grandparents and most of the older generation of my family also supported the Labour Party of those days. I was no sort of rebel in doing so too. The university I went to was the one to which virtually all the male members of my family and a good many of the female ones had gone. I had blown a solitary raspberry by announcing that I would not go university after all, but would be a gymnast or, later, a nurse. I fell into line shortly afterwards, however. My brief maternal idyll in the treetops was in part the product of my determination not to be one of the Twentieth Century’s ‘thinking women’ (which included Florence Nightingale, Simone Weil, Marghanita Laski and Mary Warnock), not to be special, creative, glorious or pampered, not to rely on servants or an unearned income, not to become dependent on expensive domestic aids, which I knew most working-class women survived without. If I now feel critical of those attitudes as romantic and unrealistic it is because they remind me of a politics envisaged almost entirely in terms of my own conscience and peace of mind, which failed to take me towards other people, let alone other women, who were working for political change. It should also be remembered that I did not stand to earn as much money or to reach the same levels of responsibility or power as my male contemporaries, and that though some options were available to me which had not been to an earlier generation, those ‘civic rights’ I was relinquishing were in point of fact pretty notional still.

During the Sixties and the early Seventies I read a good deal of feminist writing, but refused to join. I taught in a comprehensive school, reviewed novels and worked intermittently still for the Labour Party. By now I was huffily backing away from a younger generation of women rather than an older one. I had sons and a daughter and I was teaching working-class and black children. I found it as hard as most teachers did to focus helpfully on girls as a category which overlapped with those other ones, but was also distinct. When I finally approached feminism it was via bilingualism, immigration, cultural conflict and inequality, particularly as these things are experienced in schools and by children. Late as ever, hobbled by my own perversities, I believed by the Eighties that I was catching up. Here was a political movement which managed to attend to my dilemmas while actively and intellectually addressing the most important issues of a post-imperialist world. My life, my professional concerns within education and literature, could perhaps contribute to a politics which was no longer a mere idealistic grafting. Middle age, the menopause, redeemed for me now from old views of them as signalling the subsidence of a woman’s life, promised settlement, collaboration, the release of energy, a healing of generational differences. Action might, finally, be possible. I did not expect to be received with open arms. Pace-makers can’t after all, be expected to wait around for stragglers making their last-ditch spurt. I think I did expect to find rather more enthusiasm for – and even a collective pride in – the breadth of the feminist achievement and the sheer complexity and richness of the terrain opened up and debated by feminists.

Within a week of the publication of What is feminism?, for instance, and from the same publisher, comes Toril Moi’s The Kristeva Reader.[2] The books could be said to represent antithetical strands of current feminist work. At its worst, What is feminism? has too much honing of watertight definitions of feminism and too much reworking of old research topics which have already provided too many keynote addresses around the world. Many of the contributors are old hands at the academic paper and quite unembarrassed by that form’s tendency to put respectability before thought. Toril Moi’s merciless intellectualism and her utopian deconstructor’s refusal to truck with liberal humanism could be similarly parodied, as could her assurance that Julia Kristeva is easily intelligible for nearly all of the time. These are parodies, however, and neither fair nor wise to utter at a time when the press, which has been making a good deal of the phrase ‘post-feminism’, encourages the idea that feminism has either died of inanition or spontaneous combustion or, having achieved its paltry aims, need bother us no longer.

In fact, What is feminism? contains, besides some recent work on health, on social policy and on law, excellent theoretical discussions by Hilary Rose, Rosalind Delmar and Juliet Mitchell. Mitchell’s ‘Reflections on Twenty Years of Feminism’ exemplifies feminism’s maturity and its capacity for engaging with diversity and contradiction. Starting from the current phenomenon of increased female employment coinciding with increased male unemployment, she first shows why the conditions of the phenomenon need to be studied historically if we are to make any sense of them. Second, she raises questions about how far feminist claims to influence, or even produce, changes of that sort can stand in the face of government manipulation of economic forces. Third, she asks whether this was the outcome feminists either predicted or intended, and she demonstrates by asking that question just how inextricably women’s struggle must be part of a wider working-class struggle.

Rosalind Delmar argues well for our talking of ‘feminisms’ and for ‘an historical examination of the dynamics of persistence and change within feminism’. She also sees an active feminist politics as incompatible with those forms of psychoanalytic and critical theory associated with writers like Kristeva and, indeed, Toril Moi: ‘To deconstruct the subject “woman”, to question whether “woman” is a coherent identity, is also to imply the question of whether “woman” is a coherent political identity, and therefore whether women can unite politically, culturally and socially as “women” for other than very specific reasons.’ We do indeed need to listen to that cogently expressed doubt as to the usefulness of dissolving ‘women’ from a category of material experience to a construct of language. Yet the material experience of being a woman includes women’s acquiescence in forms of oppression, and that acquiescence has to be understood as a psychological and cultural process in order that women may in the end do more than insert themselves individually into the male order.

Toril Moi, with her usual exegetical lucidity, makes sense for us of the immensely difficult and varied aspects of Julia Kristeva’s intellectual project, characterised by Moi as an attempt ‘to think the unthinkable’. Kristeva recognises the mystical character of this attempt, but she is also a pragmatist and in her own way as revolutionary as Mitchell or Delmar. For instance, in her wonderful essay ‘Women’s Time’, she reminds us that ‘the assumption by women of executive, industrial and cultural power has not, up to the present time, radically changed the nature of this power.’ It is this power and its endlessly dispersed dislocations which she is out to undermine. A ‘unity’ of women is hard to achieve if the consequences of those dislocations are short-circuited for the purposes of getting something done. ‘Feminism’, for Kristeva, ‘has had the enormous merit of rendering painful’ the fundamental differences between the sexes. This is a more surprising remark than it may seem. There certainly has been a danger within feminism that that essential pain is being too quickly soothed and ‘cured’. There can be no straightforward alignments of women so long as women remain the creatures of an oppressiveness which prevents them from conceiving of their own existence outside the excluding inclusions of them within a diffuse and all too capacious patriarchy.

Virago have issued as a Modern Classic Betty Miller’s On the Side of the Angels,[3] which is a novel about war and hero worship. At the centre of it are two sisters. Honor is married and currently stupefied by young motherhood and by dependence on a husband looking for glamour through association with the CO of the military hospital where he works. Claudia is tougher, unmarried, a teacher of History. She often despairs of her sister: ‘Honor sitting back with a sort of complacency, accepting everything, uncritical audience to all this male pirouetting. One couldn’t seem to rouse her to any sort of consciousness of her real position.’ Yet Claudia risks everything to run away with the ‘hero’ of the Corps, who is in fact a pathetic impostor. It will be difficult for women to unite if they refuse to understand how and why they have been so divided.

The tensions within feminism and between feminists are strengths and a testament to many women’s willingness to confront contradiction and even to admit irreconcilables. Those tension are multi-dimensional: political, first and foremost, concerned with alliances, tactics and priorities, but also intellectual and generational. A movement which includes human beings from every part of the world is necessarily grounded in diversity. ‘Sisterhood’, rigid, monolithic, involved a dangerous denial of class, race and cultural difference. It produced cornered analysis, political paralysis and devastating vulnerabilities. There is no question that feminism has been traduced from within and outside by elision and simplification. It may, too, be crucial for any organisation of women to steel itself against the blandishments of reconciliation and singlemindedness. The hard questions will go on being hard. It may be that feminism will continue to be a place, a structure, a set of starting-points, even a movement, which allows a broad revolutionary politics to develop. It would be tragic if the exhaustion of its leaders, and dissension amongst them, returned feminism to preoccupations limitingly defined as ‘women’s issues’.

[1] edited by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley. Blackwell, 252 pp., £25 and £6.95. 25 September, 0 631 14841 6.

[2] Blackwell, 327 pp., £25 and £7.95. 18 September, 0 631 14929 5.

[3] Virago, reissue, 238 pp., £3.50, 18 November, 1985, 0 86068 509 8.