on 6 September 2009
This was a very interesting book to read and it is a shame that there aren't more books on this subject. Like the other review I would agree that it does leave you wanting to know more. There are so many questions: some of them are answered but, like other questions in history, some are not. The only qualm I had with this book was the fact that it wasn't long enough in my opinion and I found myself having too look up some of the less well-known people as the author didn't explain who they were. However this just may be my lack of knowledge on the time period and it shouldn't put you off reading the book. So it definitely gets five stars for me considering there aren't many other books like this to compare with.
Electoral equality for women was the aim and achievment of first wave feminism. Feminists have tended to regard it as a battle won and downgraded its importance in terms of the emancipation of women. Historical studies have tended to become a pastiche rather than an accurate representation of the process which secured votes for women. The association of votes for women with the Suffragettes and Mrs Pankhurst is too narrow an interpretation. In this excellent volume Melanie Phillips has placed franchise reform in its nineteenth century context, showing how it was one many movements for social change based on the moral supremacy of female virtue set against the uncivilised manners of men, especially in the public sphere.
At the end of the eighteenth century there was a vast change in manners. Romanticism " viewed sexuality as gross and materialistic" and evangelicalism sought "to banish hedonism in general and sexuality in particular from respectable consciousness and public life." These strands produced the idealised middle class values associated with Victorian England. Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman provided a starting point for the English adoption of the ideals of the French Revolution to England. Wollstonecraft's message was that the perfection of human virtue could only be attained with reason and knowledge and these should be made available for women to rescue them from the drudgery of being a toy of mankind. She regarded marriage as legal prostitution, although she married when she discovered she was pregnant. Significantly, her message was directed towards middle class women who had the capacity to make things happen. Her reputation was shot to pieces after her death when her husband William Godwin revealed her attempted suicide and promiscuity.
The legal position of married women was the same as that of "under-age children, wards, lunatics, idiots and outlaws." George Norton treated his wife, Caroline, with disdain, cruelty and jealousy which she fought by successfully campaigning to have the law changed, although the underlying culture of the double standard remained whereby men's sexual misbehaviour was excused while that of women was condemned. The ladies of Langham Place, led by Barbara Bodichon, agitated for educational opportunities for women to realise their full potential instead of being confined to the role of wife. Opposition was not confined to the male sex. Florence Nightingale thought women would make excellent nurses but poor doctors. In time she changed her mind. The passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts in the 1860s, under which common prostitutes could be held in lock hospitals and forcibly examined, became a cause celebre. The sexual nature of the subject made for uncomfortable reading in Victorian households and it required "an ultra-respectable person whose claim to virtue was unassailable." That person was Josephine Butler.
Butler considered her main obligation was to her husband and children. She was "charismatic, strong-minded and beautiful" and married to George Butler an Anglican clergyman. Having lost a daughter in tragic circumstances Butler set out to save other people's daughters by taking religion to the underclass, especially prostitutes. She quickly discovered the girls were more sinned against than sinning, victims of men who had used then abandoned them. The Contagious Diseases Acts, with their invasion of the female body by male doctors, were anathema to her. Butler agonised over whether she should lead the campaign asking her husband for his support. George Butler gave it, knowing his own church career would be stunted as a result. His commitment to her matched her commitment to righting a social wrong. In doing so she "audaciously wrenched the whole agenda for social reform away from the problem of women and reconceived it...as the need to deal with the problem of men." Butler did this without falling into the trap of becoming a man hater. The repeal campaign took sixteen years to complete and included the raising of the age of consent to sixteen.
The formation of the Kensington Ladies' Discussion Society in 1865 brought together a number of suffrage supporters who went beyond the principle of votes for women to its practical application. They were assisted by John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women, published in 1869, which claimed women should have equal rights based on the quality of the sexes. In 1871 women gained the right to sit on school boards while females were permitted to enter examinations for Oxford, Cambridge and London Universities, the latter admitting women as medical students in 1875. The Liberal Party was favourable to reform but its leadership was not. Millicent Fawcett argued that the militancy associated with Votes for Women arose out of such opposition. Possibly, but it was also created by the intolerant Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel who saw Votes for Women as a sex-war.
Pankhurst was a control freak and meglomaniac whose campaign of "civil war" split the suffragette movement. Christabel, regarded by her siblings as Emmeline's favourite, was of similar ilk supporting the Suffragettes' arson campaign from Paris. The pair ruthlessly removed all opposition to their campaign of violence from within the Women's Political and Social Union (WPSU). The revolt ran out of steam. Syliva and Adela went their own way, Sylvia into the British communist movement and Adela into its Australian counterpart (before becoming an ardent nationalist). Emmeline moved to the Right, joining the Conservatives after the collapse of her Women's Party. Christabel became socially conservative, emigrated to America and joined the Seventh Day Adventists. Acts of Parliament in 1918 and 1928 finally granted the vote to women, Winston Churchill insisting his dissent from the 1928 measure be recorded in the Cabinet minutes.
Many of the issues addressed during first wave feminism have become common practice. Some issues still remain unresolved. As Phillips notes. "women have still not settled the great questions and dilemmas about their place in the world." Will they ever? Excellent read. Five stars.
on 11 July 2014
I loved this book, so much so that when I lost it I ordered another straight away. It recounts the gripping history of the suffragette movement in all its glory and repugnance. Melanie Phillips' authorial voice is erudite and authoratative and on occasion opinionated, which gave it an edge. The author manages the complex timeline and interweaving of women's stories adeptly. Definitely worth reading.