Votes for Women, Chastity for Men

Brian Harrison

  • Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-1986 by Caroline Moorehead
    Hamish Hamilton, 344 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 241 12105 1
  • Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914 by Susan Kingsley Kent
    Princeton, 295 pp, £22.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 691 05497 5
  • Women, Marriage and Politics, 1860-1914 by Pat Jalland
    Oxford, 366 pp, £19.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 19 822668 3
  • An Edwardian Mixed Doubles: The Bosanquets versus the Webbs. A Study in British Social Policy, 1890-1929 by A.M. McBriar
    Oxford, 407 pp, £35.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 19 820111 7

Social movements have been in vogue among British historians since the 1950s. This is partly because Labour’s agenda, strangely combining statist welfare and libertarian protest, has dominated the political and intellectual climate. But there is also a professional reason for these historiographical priorities. The reaction against the narrowness of the old political and constitutional history has never been complete: by choosing social movements as their theme, historians could simultaneously ride the old and respectable horse of political history and the new and fashionable one of sociology. Political history provided a secure chronological framework while they ventured forth into the vast unknowns of social class, religious denomination and regional culture. Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) was a landmark here, and we now possess histories of feminism, pacifism, of the movements against slavery and cruelty to animals, and for free trade, family allowances, factory-hours and public health, to name only a few.

Yet almost at once there came rumblings from Cambridge. Maurice Cowling, John Vincent, Andrew Jones and others rightly emphasised the Victorian politician’s relative autonomy from popular pressure, and cleverly unveiled the feebleness of provincial and popular reformers when they tried to operate at Westminster or Whitehall. Since 1979 Thatcherite Conservatism has shown how politicians still retain this autonomy in a democratic society. Provided they are cautious and courageous, they can readily call the bluff of the over-mighty agitator whose perspectives are narrowed by moving only among his own kind. Time and again, the demonstrations and processions have turned out to be less representative of the rank and file (let alone of public opinion) than had earlier been thought. The publication of these four books – all concerned, directly or indirectly, with social movements – enables us to survey the opportunities and hazards of the genre.

Caroline Moorehead aims to portray ‘what modern pacifists are actually like’, and to bring out ‘their style, their diversity, their origins and their eloquence’. With much sympathy she emphasises the range of their reforming interests and their loneliness. Above all, she reminds us that moral courage is less common, because more difficult to sustain, than physical courage. She describes the terrible persecutions that conscientious objectors often had to face on their own. Their sufferings become all the more vivid when recollected in tranquillity by mild, ageing and patently humane people in their pebble-dashed, trimly-gardened terrace house in Sea-ford, or in their bow-fronted sitting-room in Croydon. She presents her informants with all the skills of the journalist and we see from her book how interviews can lend impact and immediacy to studies of recent social movements. Moorehead has also taken the trouble to visit many of the places she discusses – in Britain, Japan, West Germany and the United States – and her comparative approach often clarifies what is distinctive about the peace movement in particular national cultures: millenarian tendencies in America, for instance, or anti-Nazi complications in Germany. Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s victims played a unique role in a Japanese peace movement which encountered extraordinary governmental secrecy about the bomb’s effects.

All this should have made Troublesome People an outstanding success. Unfortunately the book illustrates the disintegrating tendency of ‘oral history’ when unaccompanied by a clear analytical framework. In its later chapters, Moorehead’s comparative analysis degenerates into a sort of travel diary, and her grasp of international relations and political sociology is not clear enough to set the experience of the individual pacifist firmly into context. There is a further difficulty. While sympathy is essential to effective historical writing, it can all too easily sacrifice proportion. Given the book’s stress on the awfulness of the weapons and on the reasoned independent-mindedness of their critics, the non-joining, by standing general public is implicitly presented as blankly hostile, stupid, uncomprehending, callous and even (through its agents) brutal. Take Moorehead’s approach to A.J.P Taylor’s breathtakingly naive rhetorical question at a CND meeting in 1958: ‘ “Is there anyone here who would do this to another human being?” Silence. “Then why are we making the damned thing?” Thunderous applause.’ Whatever happened at the meeting, the question begs for a rejoinder, yet Taylor gets off scot-free.

Moorehead’s epigraph from Bernard Shaw is also provoking: ‘After all, we have to admit that it is always the troublesome people who force us to remedy the abuses that we lazily let slide.’ By failing to comment, she prevents herself from bringing out the full pathos of the pacifist’s situation. Troublesome people do make an impact, but not necessarily in ways that they intend. For as Eleanor Rathbone pointed out in 1938, ‘ghastly pictures of the horrors of the last war and of the greater horrors of wars present and to come’ can cloud the brain and paralyse the will. War is there by accelerated for two reasons. An aggressive enemy thinks (wrongly) that it will meet no resistance; and, still more unfairly, the dwelling upon war horrors corrupts public manners. Moorehead’s belief that pacifism is making progress can hardly survive contact with the public’s apparently insatiable taste for war novels and films that ever more realistically evoke the horrors of Vietnam. Orwell was more penetrating: ‘it is safe to let a paper like Peace News be sold,’ he wrote, ‘because it is certain that 95 per cent of the population will never want to read it.’

One serious but incidental error in Moorehead is amply corrected by Susan Kingsley Kent, for no attentive reader of Sex and Suffrage will swallow Moorehead’s assertion that ‘by the time war broke out’ – in 1914 – ‘the battle for the female vote in Britain was just nine years old.’ By linking the campaigns for sexual and political emancipation, Kent brings out the length and breadth of the British feminist pedigree. British feminist effort between 1860 and 1914 may sometimes seem fragmented, she says, but in reality it concentrated fire from several directions on the same target – male exploitation of the female sex – and gained force from the many-sidedness of its approach. This aspect of Kent’s argument is less original than she thinks. It does no more than repair some of the damage done to the historical understanding of women’s suffrage by historians who succumbed after 1918 to the propaganda of the militant suffragettes. The non-militant Edwardian suffragists had always been fully conscious of their movement’s long and many-sided pedigree. They knew that apparent setbacks in one area of women’s Late Victorian advance were often accompanied by – or even necessary to – advances elsewhere.

The main thrust of Kent’s argument, however, is that historians, unduly influenced by a Victorian separation of sexual spheres, have arbitrarily segregated the private sphere of sexual emancipation from the public sphere of getting the vote. In reality, says Kent, ‘the “sex war” formed the crux of the suffrage campaign and provides one of the keys to comprehending the true nature of the women’s movement;’ ‘masculinity, especially as manifested in sexual behaviour, constituted for feminists a selfish, destructive, uncontrolled, brutalising force.’ Suffragism, she argues, was closely intertwined between 1860 and 1914 with the campaigns for family law reform and women doctors, and with the crusade against state-regulated prostitution. The anti-male aspects of Edwardian suffragism can then move centre-stage, and the dust-jacket appropriately display the suffragette Helen Ogston horsewhipping male stewards at a public meeting in 1908. And Christabel Pankhurst’s notorious articles of 1913 on venereal disease, which urged votes for women and chastity for men, can move from the feminist periphery into the British feminist mainstream.

Many Late Victorian suffragists were of course alarmed at women’s sexual exploitation and at the anti-feminism of doctors, and (apart from episodes, mercifully brief, of Foucault) Kent’s argument is well-documented and straightforward. But it propagates some surprising errors: Newnham College is located in Oxford, the Government (rather than the Speaker) blocks feminist amendments to the suffrage Bill in 1913, and Mrs Snowden is misspelt throughout. Further more Kent’s argument is misleading in several respects. First, it claims for present-day feminist historians credit that should really go to pioneering historians such as Ray Strachey, J.A. and O. Banks and Constance Rover, who publicised the link between suffragism and sexuality well before the advent of women’s liberation. And neither Kent nor Walkowitz (much advertised here) breaks new ground in recognising the feminist significance of Josephine Butler’s attack on the Contagious Diseases Acts. It was the Hammonds, together with the several biographers of Josephine Butler before 1971, who did the pioneering work in chronicling this attempt to combat venereal disease in garrison towns through the compulsory inspection and (if necessary) hospitalisation of prostitutes.

Kent explains that her book ‘is not a social history of feminism but an intellectual/cultural history’, concerned primarily with the ideas and arguments used by feminist leaders and writers. She therefore draws heavily on feminist autobiography and biography, and (very selectively) on the feminist press. But this risks a second hazard: that of assuming that what the leaders think determines the nature of the movement. In reality, there is a two-way traffic between leaders and led. Suffragists, like all reforming leaders, needed to foster a coalition of supporters whose ideas were less advanced and motives more diverse than their own. Many suffragists were liberal humanitarians and democrats rather than feminists. Their feminism went no further than extending the franchise to every adult human being – one reason why votes for women was not immediately followed by substantial sexual emancipation.

Were the suffragist leaders as forceful on the matter of women’s sexual emancipation as Kent suggests? Insofar as sexuality was their prime concern, their impact was muted by their disagreement on how to attain the desired objective. Some – curiously neglected in a book preoccupied with sexuality – favoured birth control. For them, the feminist insistence on male chastity was a mere interlude before the arrival of an equal moral standard, which would allow women to follow the male lead in throwing off restraint. But most (including Mrs Pankhurst, Mrs Fawcett and Mrs Butler) favoured raising the male standard of sexual conduct to equal the female. Such an approach was at least as welcome to the respectable artisan (much cultivated by feminists) as to anyone else. Virginia Woolf records the shock that ran through a Women’s Co-operative Guild branch meeting when Mrs Bessie Ward ventured to discuss venereal disease in 1917.

If only because of their need for a following, British suffragist leaders were far more conciliatory to men than Kent allows. Her militantly anti-male variant of British feminism could never have hoped to win Parliamentary or popular support. Parliament, cynosure of the Victorian feminist eye, was exclusively male. Nor was there much hope of coercing politicians without a substantial) rank and file, and this could hardly be recruited in such a way. Lord Hugh Cecil once pointed out that’a class is in its very idea a separate thing with common interests,’ whereas ‘sex is just the opposite. Sex is a body whose members are essentially interested in the members of the other sex.’ British feminist leaders have welcomed collaboration with men throughout their history. Josephine Butler and Millicent Fawcett would have been horrified at Helen Ogston’s conduct, if only because their partnership with men had been so happy at both personal and political levels. The anti suffragist Almroth Wright might claim that ‘the happy wife and mother is never passionately concerned about the suffrage,’ but the marriages of Pankhurst, Fawcett, Butler and the Pethick-Lawrences bear contrary witness.

Nor could British feminists have taken up any other position when their suffragism owed so much to J.S. Mill, and when James Stansfeld (wholly ignored here) contributed so much to their Parliamentary attack on the Contagious Diseases Acts. Feminist men and women were pursuing a ‘common cause’ – hence the title of the leading suffragist periodical. Indeed, it is difficult to see by what other route feminists can ever succeed. The women’s movement, wrote Olive Schreiner, whose influence on British feminism was considerable, in 1911, is ‘not a movement on the part of woman leading to severance and separation between the woman and the man ... it is essentially a movement of the woman towards the man, of the sexes towards closer union.’

For all these reasons, then, however hostile to men British feminist leaders might be in private (not very, I suspect), they knew that harmony between the sexes in both the short and longer terms must be pursued in public. Only for a politically disastrous Pankhurstian moment was there any attempt to validate feminist diagnoses by inflaming male anti-feminism. Only because Christabel Pankhurst was indifferent to political success by 1913 did she feel free to flout the customary suffragist reticence with her articles on venereal disease. Her indiscretions, like her militancy, pursued the headlines at all costs. They won condemnation not only from the British Medical Journal, but also from Rebecca West, who rightly deplored an ‘old-fashioned and uncharitable’ strategy whose ‘scolding attitude’ lacked compassion towards men and discouraged that open and rational public discussion of sexuality promoted by earlier feminists.

One final point: Kent, even more than Moorehead, depreciates the reformers she admires by ignoring the strength of their enemy’s case. Given the strength of present-day orthodoxies on feminism and peace – in intellectual circles, at least – the historian’s customary even-handedness is a special duty. Take Josephine Butler’s agitation. The doctors who promoted the CD Acts may have been arrogant and insensitive, but Kent’s narrative does not even hint at the fact that they were struggling to carry the public health movement forward into new areas. True, they singled out for inspection a small number of prostitutes, rather than the much larger number of their male clients. But feminists were quite wrong to see this as motivated by a desire to discriminate against or punish women. The doctors simply saw this as the most efficient way to eliminate a rampant disease affecting both sexes. Nor does Kent anywhere acknowledge that Butler’s feminism was accompanied by attitudes we now find less congenial. These include acceptance of a divine vengeance remarkably random in its impact, the notion that the children must suffer for the sins of their parents, and a repudiation of science and all its works. The last of these is difficult to reconcile with Kent’s misleading claim that the Victorian mentality was permeated by ‘confidence in science’ as ‘the basis for virtually all knowledge’. Nor does she anywhere comment upon the likely impact of Butler’s sole alternative remedy – male sexual abstinence. It is not a remedy widely peddled today in the analogous situation presented by Aids. As for our own palliative, the condom, Butler would have been horrified.

The fair-mindedness of the last two books under discussion shines out by comparison. Rightly dismissing the cliché that women are necessarily ‘hidden from history’, Pat Jalland shows that the abundant correspondence of Late Victorian middle and upper-class women is a treasure-house for anyone imaginative enough to seek it out and sufficiently energetic to make sense of it. She quarries the manuscript collections of around fifty political families. Historians have often combed these archives for other purposes, but Jalland’s book strikingly illustrates the way breakthroughs in research can result from suddenly perceiving significance in material that others have lightly discarded. Her sources, reinforced by neglected etiquette and advice manuals, enable her painstakingly to build up a vivid picture of courtship, marriage and childbirth among the well-to-do, and to outline the situations of the political wife and the spinster. The outcome is a historical sociology without jargon and its lumps of undigested statistics, a social anthropology without vague speculation, and a women’s history that rests secure on a close and sensitive study of the interaction between the sexes.

This is one of the best books on women’s history to be published for years, and shows what a flood of light can be shed on reforming movements by studying their opponents. In the quietness of her understatement, Jalland provides a reminder, if anyone needs it, of the major advances in women’s freedom and opportunity that 20th-century Britain has seen. Here can be found all the tedium, futility, injustice, cynicism and waste entailed by the Late Victorian marriage-market. Slowly before the mind’s eye there passes a distant procession of intelligent sisters begging their brothers to share the knowledge their relatively expensive education has bestowed; of awkward or unattractive daughters paraded in front of their mothers at hunt balls in the vain hope of attracting a dancing partner during their brief two or three years of opportunity; of financially and personally insecure spinsters loyally carrying out their short-term duty only to find themselves without any long-term role. Of the book’s many vignettes of silent deprivation, Molly Trevelyan’s magnificent tapestry, now displayed over the chimney-piece in Lady Trevelyan’s parlour at Wallington, can stand for the rest. It commemorates the failure of her strenuous attempt between 1903 and 1910 to build up a genuine political partnership with her husband Charles, despite her years of self-education for the purpose. Brushed aside by this progressive Liberal politician, she needed an outlet, and embarked in July 1910 on a life’s work in embroidery, estimating in her diary that ‘it is going to take me 30 years to finish it.’

The wastefulness of it all stands out so clearly because Jalland’s book is by no means stuffed with grumbles and grievances. On the contrary, her sources enable her, if anything, to play down the agonies of childbirth and the prevalence of sexual repression and invalidism that are so often labelled ‘Victorian’. Instead, she portrays a world of close companionship between women (mothers and daughters, sisters and sisters-in-law) and between spouses. ‘Most of these political wives seem to have been strongly supportive and protective,’ she writes, ‘their loving care strengthened by their total faith in the value of their husbands’ services to the nation.’

Only one criticism of this admirable book presents itself: Jalland has not quite succeeded in shaping a set of brilliant essays into a rounded study. Marriage, childbirth and political partnership were indeed integral to the role of her subjects, but so also were ‘good works’, education, widowhood and household management – comparable, in a large house, she admits in passing, ‘to running a substantial business’. Also central was what might be called ‘family strategy’, whereby liaisons were planned, relationships preserved, disputes prevented, standards upheld. ‘Over our community,’ wrote Robert Roberts of the Edwardian Salford slum, ‘the matriarchs stood guardians, but not creators, of the group conscience and as such possessed a sense of social propriety as developed and unerring as any clique of Edwardian dowagers.’ It was the same at the other end of society. If Jalland had advanced more firmly into these areas, her sections on spinsters and political wives would have merged more smoothly with the rest. Yet her limited aim in this book brings with it an important compensation: we can hope for another book on related themes from her in the near future. Together, the two books would constitute a classic.

Fair-mindedness, and the imaginative recreation of lost attitudes, are also A.M. McBriar’s hallmark. Or perhaps the attitudes are less distant than seemed to be the case ten years ago, for Britain’s political transformation since 1979 has uncovered arguments about poverty that were submerged for half a century. McBriar’s analysis of the Poor Law Commission’s gestation, operation and outcome has been long awaited by historians. His Fabian Socialism and English Politics (1962) was a masterpiece of subtle political analysis, and this is a worthy successor. Scholarly, elegantly arranged and informed by a quiet, rather dry humour, his new book at last puts into context a Royal Commission which conducted a classic debate on the causes and cure of poverty between 1905 and 1909.

A detailed history of the Commission has long been needed. It represented a memorable controversy in a major area of social policy, served as an arena for fierce conflict between formidable individuals, and marked a major stage in the history of social investigation. McBriar is strongest on the first two. Particularly valuable is his full and clear exposition of the Bosanquets’ standpoint. In the longer term, this diligent, serious-minded and intelligent couple were pushed into a historical backwater by the socialistic Webbs. But not without difficulty The Webbs’ famed skill at political tactics is less frequently in evidence here than one might expect. Beatrice came near to breakdown in the course of the inquiry, and had to be rescued by Sidney from more than one blunder. Nor did the Bosanquets consign themselves to the backwaters of history by challenging socialism head-on. Instead, they espoused a moral collectivism which they saw as integral to the success of collectivism in any more materialistic guise. At several points, hindsight enables McBriar to detect more common ground between the combatants than they themselves perceived.