Category Archives: Feminism

Books Feminism History

The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Early modern women healers – a further blow to traditional views

First published on Blogcritics

The traditional view of women healers of the medieval and early modern period has been that they were marginal, distrusted figures, at risk always of being cast as witches, enjoying little or no respect, if some fear. It’s a view that modern scholarship is gradually overturning. I was fascinated when I was reading about early modern England to learn of the respect with which midwives were held, and how, particularly in London, they were subjected to rigorous training and a strict licensing system that involved testimony from women they had attended in childbirth.

Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany by Alisha Rankin is a further piece of the story, showing how a wide cast of noblewomen enjoyed considerable respect for their medical knowledge, not just from their peers but also professional physicians, with whom they operated in general in concert, rather than competition.

Indeed the final chapter in this book, focused on Elizabeth of Rochlitz, who had a modest reputation as a healer, but here is studied most as a patient, provides a fascinating Insight into the actual experience of being treated for illness in early modern times.

Physicians – classically trained in book learning dating back to classical times, and with a traditional contempt for empirical evidence (although Rankin suggests that was fading) – tended to prescribe regimens, particularly diets, to match what they saw as the underlying problems of the patient, rather than treat particular symptoms. Barber- surgeons dealt with wounds and at least some of the time dressings. pharmacists, including the gentlewomen described here, were the true scientists of the time, testing and trying herbal and chemical treatments, sharing and comparing them.

Elisabeth – it is a sad story, suffered more than a decade of illness, which she resolutely refused to allow to be diagnosed as “the French disease” (syphilis). Rankin maintains her professional uncertainty in saying we can’t be sure, but given her father and brother died of it, this seems highly likely. There was of course stigma attached, which Rankin says may have been one reason for refusing to accept the diagnosis, but another may also have been her dislike of regimens- one suggested to her involved giving up garlic, onions, mustard, horseradish, spices, smoked protein, all food fried in butter, beans, lentils and sauerkraut, and wine. Quite a lot to ask of an aristocrat, even a minor one.

Instead, she put her faith in herbal remedies, aqua vitae (distilled strong liquor – which certainly must have made the patients feel better) and a barber surgeon’s plasters of egg white, honey, saffron and flour. (Which might actually have done her some good.)
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Sex, love, marriage, a complicated story…

First published on Blogcritics

Reading The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, which covers relationships, courtship and marriage from 1920 to 1970, with a particular focus on the period around the Second World War, is a powerful reminder that marriage has never been a fixed and stable structure, but has changed regularly, certainly with each 20th-century generation.

Author Claire Langhammer relies chiefly on individual accounts, often painfully frank and honest, looks into the guidance of “agony aunts” and other media reports, and occasionally official reports and studies, to conclude that over the total period of her study there was a significant shift from marriage as primarily an economic relationship – breadwinner support traded for the creation of a comfortable home –  towards a more “emotional”, demanding relationship even during the Fifties, which she suggests relationships were much less stable than we commonly suppose, meaning that the freewheeling Sixties were not marked by more demand for continuing love, but rather the transition of marriage into the late teens and early twenties, a reflection both of increasing wealth and less need to save for marriage, but that also that this was seen as an essential, normal step into adulthood.

Langhammer quotes a 1959 survey showing that a quarter of working class brides were teenagers on their wedding day; more than three-quarters were under 25. A telling item in the initial Boyfriend magazine in the same year tells the story of a young woman determined to do something with her life – transform and modernise her aunt’s cafe, which interferes with her love life. But eventually she finds a man who also wants to run a cafe, so they settled down together.

And particularly as the ideology of love and marriage going together, indeed being essential, spread, many of the same tensions and concerns we recognise in relationships today emerge.

One painfully honest ‘case history’ from the Mass Observation Survey from 1949 tells of a 19-year-old woman who has sex with a 24-year-old merchant seaman – although only after he reassures her he’s using a condom. “I agreed then. I didn’t want to but I liked him and he wanted to. He said: ‘You can’t be in love with me unless you will do it.”
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Feminism Politics

What I See when I look in the mirror…

I was delighted to be asked to participate in a project in which I was asked to answer this question.

You can find the video here.

Lots of great women have taken part and it’s regarded as a chain, so the next participant is Kat Molesworth at Housewife Confidential.

All women are invited to participate – you can contribute your own video… It’s an interesting question to contemplate.

And if you’d like to know more about the Green Party part of my life you can find snippets on my leader’s blog.

Books Feminism Politics

Matchwomen – founders of New Unionism…

First published on Blogcritics

Even if you have never studied history, you probably have some vague awareness of the Matchgirls’ Strike of 1888 in London – and think of poor waifs, frail girls and young women, victims of vile Victorian exploitation. If you have studied history, you were probably taught that the strike was led by middle-class Fabian, Annie Besant, who provided the leadership that the uneducated East End women simply could not have found from their own ranks.

In either case, what you should do is read Louise Raw’s Striking A Light: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their Place in History , a spectacular but very readable account of epic original research that has uncovered a very different story from the traditional tale.

It is astonishing that so long after this iconic event no one before Raw had seriously tried to research it, and very sad that no one recorded the participants’ own views before it was too late – as Raw found had been for the Melbourne tailoresses’ strike of 1882-3 (which has considerable parallels with the later strike).

In fact to find out very much at all, Raw had to engage in some serious detective work, and find creative ways to recover knowledge apparently lost in the mists of time. A lot of her information came from the grandchildren of three of the matchwomen – two of the probably strike leaders, Mary Driscoll and Eliza Martin, and Martha Robertson. Raw combines this with census data and a close examination of contemporary accounts of the strike, to paint a picture of a spontaneous, but well-planned and executed, walkout by the women – their own choice, their own action.

Besant played a role, before the action, in attacking the management, which led them to try to force the women to sign letters attesting good treatment – which when the women resisted led to the sacking that precipitated the strike, and afterwards, in helping to collect strike pay (although the workers also found some of their own from their own community), but she was in no way a leader of the strike, and in fact, Raw shows convincingly, was actually opposed to the whole idea of a strike.

There’s much more to this book too than rewriting a colourful fragment of history – Raw says that New Unionism, a major part of British political history, should be dated back to the matchwomen, rather than the dockers’ strike the following year, as is traditional. The two were closely linked by more than geography – Raw makes a detailed case for the ties of marriage and community (both groups having large Irish continents) between matchwomen and dockers. And Raw quotes from a contemporary account of the dockers strike which has John Burns telling a mass meeting: “The matchgirls had formed a union and had got what they wanted, and so had the gas stokers at Beckton, and surely the Dock Labourers could do the same” to cries of “hear hear”. (p. 166)
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Books Feminism Politics Women's history

Victorian (and later) citizenship – inclusion and exclusion

Notes from Defining the Victorian Nation: Class, Race, Gender and the Reform Act of 1867 by Catherine Hall, Keith McClelland and Jane Rendall (2000)

From the Introduction, pp. 1-70
Quoting Margaret Mylne, writing in the Westminster Review 1941: “In my younger days it was considered rude to talk politics to the ladies. To introduce [the topic’ at a dinner party was a hint for us to retire and leave the gentlemen to such conversation and their bottle. But the excitement that prevailed all over the country at the prospect of the Reform Bill of 1832 broke down these distinctions, while the new, and it seemed to us, splendid idea of a ‘hustings at the Cross of Edinburgh’ drove its inhabitants, both male and female, half frantic with delight.” (p. 29)

From “The citizenship of women and the Reform Act of 1867” (Rendall, pp. 119-178)

p. 121 – “The reform crisis of 1830-2 prompted some consideration of women’s claim to the franchise. The Tory landowner from Halifax, Anne Lister, regretted in her diary that women of property were unable to exercise the vote, though they might, as she herself did, strive to influence the electoral process. In August 1832 a petition to the House of Commons from Mary Smith of Stanmore asked for the vote for ‘every unmarried woman having that pecuniary qualification whereby the other sex is entitled to the said franchise’. Matthew Davenport Hill, a radical Unitarian, endorsed women’s suffrage in his election campaign in 1832 in Hull. BUt the Reform Act for the first time defined the voter as ‘male'”

“In October 1865 the death of Lord Palmerston signalled the possibility of a renewal of interest in parliamentary reform, as Lord Russell, who was strongly committed to moderate reform, formed a new ministry. In November 1865 the Kensington Ladies Debating Society put on their agenda for discussion: Is the extension of the parliamentary suffrage to women desirable, and if so under what conditions?”

“p. 158 “The Education ACt of 1870 for England and Wales provided that women who were municipal and parish voters could also vote in school board elections. Any woman, married or not, could stand as a candidate… as Elizabeth Garrett and Emily Davies in London and Lydia Becker in Manchester did successfully in 1870, setting important precedents for the holding of public office. In Wales, Rose Mary Crawshay, wife of the Merthyr ironmaster, Robert Thompson Crawshay, and an active supporter of the women’s suffrage campaign, was elected a member of the Merthyr School Board in Match 1871…. In England and Wales, single or widowed women ratepayers were qualified to vote for and to become Poor Law Guardians, though none stood for office until 1875, when Martha Merrington was elected … in Kensington… But a high property qualification meant only the affluent were able to serve.”
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