MONTHLY BLOG 124, BATTERSEA’S FEMALE PIONEERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Battersea's Female Pioneers

In mid-February 2021, Battersea’s Labour MP Marsha de Cordova set a good challenge to me and to my friend and fellow historian of Battersea, Jeanne Rathbone.1 We were asked to nominate 31 pioneering women with a connection to the area. No problem. And then to write Twitter-length summaries of their achievements, especially in the local context, Trickier, as many of these women had richly multi-faceted lives. Plus, trickiest of all, to find authenticated photos of them all.

One case was extreme. The philanthropist Mrs Theodore Russell Monroe followed the reticent Victorian custom of using in public not only her husband’s surname but his given name as well. A quick search on Google for ‘Russell Monroe’ provided lots of information about the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. But absolutely nothing about the laudable woman who in 1896 funded Battersea Hospital as a headquarters of the Anti-Vivisection movement.2 As a result, we cite Mrs Theodore Russell Monroe in the Victorian style to which she was accustomed. And, without dates or photo, she remains a monument of self-effacement.

Having (largely) met the good challenge, the 31 names and short citations were published, day by day throughout March 2021, on Marsha de Cordova’s web platform.3 It constituted her salutation, on behalf of Battersea, to National Women’s History Month.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, very few of these women were actually born within the area itself. But Battersea, like the surrounding greater London, has always attracted incomers to share its jostling mix of wealth and poverty. One who not only made that move but wrote eloquently about it was the author Nell Dunn. In 1959 she moved from ‘posh’ Chelsea to ‘plebeian’ north Battersea; and her prize-winning Up the Junction (1963; filmed 1968) won applause for its mix of gritty realism with warm cross-class sympathy.

As a further celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March, Marsha de Cordova also hosted a well-attended (virtual) public meeting. It provided an excellent chance to take stock of what has changed – and to highlight what changes are still needed. It takes collective as well as individual action to improve the lot of women. And – needless to say – we cannot assume that all changes will automatically be progressive ones. History does reveal the existence of some world-wide and long-term trends (such as the spread of mass literacy). Yet, on the way, there are always fluctuations and sometimes outright backlashes and reversals. So women need continually to work together – and with men – to keep momentum for the right sort of changes.

By way of introducing the 8 March meeting, I organised presentations of five individual Battersea women’s lives.4 They were specifically chosen to show the range of fields open to female endeavour: politics and protest; aviation and technology; sports; literature; entertainment. Some of these areas were more traditional to women. Others, such as aviation and marathon-running, less so. The point for these women, all associated with Battersea, was either to open new doors – or to push further through doors that were already opened. It’s not career novelty per se which was required – but confidence and staying power.

So who were the five exemplary women, emerging in successive generations? One was the long-lived and remarkable Charlotte Despard (1844-1939).5 She was a leading socialist reformer, suffragette campaigner, pacifist, supporter of Irish independence, and (in her later years) advocate of Russian communism. Never elected to parliament, she began her public career funding and personally running welfare projects in the industrial slums of Battersea’s Nine Elms. Gradually, she became a notable public figure, unworried as to whether she was in or out of political fashion. Among other things, she became a powerful stump orator, regularly addressing large outdoor meetings in an era when it was still rare for women to make public speeches.6 Above all, Despard developed her own philosophy of non-violent protest. And she influenced the young Mahatma Gandhi, who met Despard on his first visit to London in summer 1914 and was highly impressed. ‘She is a wonderful woman’, he wrote.

In the following generation, Hilda Hewlett (1864-1943) took women into the skies.7 She became fascinated by flight. She rejected the view, held by many men, that ‘the fair sex;’ did not have ‘the right kind of nerve’ for aviation. Hewlett was the first British woman to get a pilot’s license; the first to open (with a partner) a flying school; and the first to open (with the same partner) a factory to manufacture aircraft. (Many were used in the First World War).  This venture was initially located in north Battersea, where there was a large skilled industrial workforce on hand. Hewlett was not only a force for change in her own right, but she opened doors for others too. Thus she trained not only young men but also young women in the skills of aviation and engineering. She was clear that new technology should empower all.

Overcoming obstacles by direct action was also the modus operandi of Violet Piercy (1889-1972).8 She proved to be a natural athlete. Yet she was constrained by traditional taboos about women in competitive sport. So Piercy began to run unofficial marathons, in a very public style. In 1926, she ran from Windsor Castle to Battersea Town Hall, close to her home. Eventually, in 1936 she was allowed to run an official marathon route but not as part of the male racing pack. Her ‘record’ stood for decades, until women were allowed freely into all competitive sports. Piercy’s aim was simple: ‘I did it to prove that a woman’s stamina can be just as remarkable as a man’s’. And through the efforts of pioneers like her, the barriers to women in sport were one by one overthrown.

Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000)9 wrote lovely, lyrical, downbeat novels. She had an often hand-to-mouth downbeat life, far from what she might have initially expected from her affluent, well-educated family background. And her novels’ themes were often downbeat too. Her experiences showed that adversity could strike anyone. Her family, in straitened circumstances, moved frequently, living in cheap lodgings in Battersea and for a while on a houseboat, moored in the Thames. (It sank, twice). Her most famous novel Offshore (1979) offered a wry literary evocation of the riverside community. Yet Fitzgerald found in writing a means of escaping – or transcending – her own woes; and her ultimate message was that people must hold on firmly to life, whatever happens.

Another exceptional woman was Elsa Lanchester (1902-86), who became a star of stage, TV and film.10 She rose from an unusual Bohemian left-wing childhood in south London, including Battersea, to have an international career. And she died in Hollywood. However, while she was praised for her humour and her versatility, she never had a break-through to film greatness. Instead, she was best known for her marriage to an undeniable star actor, Charles Laughton. They were a ‘celebrity couple’, in the public eye. But Lanchester firmly refused to answer any intimate enquiries. Their private life remained private. Laughton’s experiences as a gay or bisexual man were part of the coming world of gender/sexual flexibility. Amidst the glitz and speculation, Lanchester was staunch and dignified. She was a working woman and made her own way.

If these Battersea pioneers were to translate their experiences into mottoes for the early twenty-first century, what would they say? The following suggestions are improvised from their lives and recorded words.

Charlotte Despard would urge: ‘Fight – peacefully – against life’s injustices – and just don’t stop!’ [Note the adverb: ‘peacefully’]. Hilda Hewlett would add practical encouragement: ‘Plan well before you start your projects – but, after that, the sky’s the limit’. Violet Piercy would agree. ‘Women: just get out there and show the world what we can do’. And she too would add: ‘Don’t ever give up! Keep right on to the end of the road’. Meanwhile, Penelope Fitzgerald might well think: ‘It’s not always that easy’. But if pressed, she’d state firmly: ‘Even in adversity, find courage!’ And Elsa Lanchester would advise women to find both a public face and an inner self-confidence: ‘Chin up! … Smile for the cameras … And be proud to be yourself’. Confident individuals and groups then make confident movements.

ENDNOTES:

1 See J. Rathbone, Twenty Inspiring Battersea Women (in preparation 2021); with warm thanks to Jeanne for generously sharing her research.

2 There is scope for a good history of the Battersea General Hospital (closed 1972) and a skilled researcher should be able to find more details about the Hospital’s first funder.

3 In a late reshuffle of which I was unaware, a change was made to the list to insert ‘Penny Corfield, historian’. I remain shell-shocked. Most names on the list are historical figures, since time allows scope for proper critical distance. However, I thank Marsha de Cordova and her team for the huge compliment.

4 These were: Charlotte Despard, presented by Penelope Corfield; Hilda Hewlett, presented by Jeanne Rathbone; Violet Piercy, presented by Sonya Davis; Penelope Fitzgerald, presented by Carole Maddern; and Elsa Lanchester, presented by Su Elliott.

5 For Charlotte Despard, née French (1844-1939), see M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989); and PJC, ‘Why is the Remarkable Charlotte Despard Not Better Known?’, BLOG/97 (Jan. 2019); also available in PJC website https://www.penelopejcorfield.com/global-themes/gender-history/4.3.5.

6 PJC, Women and Public Speaking: And Why It Has Taken So Long to Get There. Monthly BLOG/47 (Nov. 2014); also in PJC website, as above 4.3.2.

7 For Hilda Hewlett, née Herbert (1864-1943), see G. Hewlett, The Old Bird: The Irrepressible Mrs Hewlett (Leicester, 2010).

8 For Violet Piercy (1889-1972), see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Violet_Piercy; and context in J. Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues in the History and Sociology of Women’s Sports (1993).

9 For Penelope Fitzgerald, née Knox (1916-2000), see H. Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013); and C.J. Knight, Penelope Fitzgerald and the Consolations of Fiction (2016).

10 Two indispensable sources are E. Lanchester, Charles Laughton and I (San Diego, 1938); and idem, Elsa Lanchester Herself (New York, 1984), while there remains scope for a thoughtful biography. See also C. Higham, Charles Laughton: An Intimate Biography (1976), with introduction by E. Lanchester.

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MONTHLY BLOG 121, BEING ASSESSED AS A WHOLE PERSON – A CRITIQUE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)
[PJC Pdf/58]

One of series of Dissected Photographs by New York artist
© Michael Mapes

Friends: I want to be taken seriously as a whole person, assessed in the round. It’s positively good to feel part of a universalist personhood.1 Something that is experienced in common with all fellow humans. But how is that attitude to be encouraged, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the benefits that separatist identity politics can bring?

Social groups who have been marginalised – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth.

One among the many challenges of identity politics, however, is the question of definition. Who decides who is or is not aligned with which particular identity? What happens when others persistently allocate you (for example, because of your looks) with a group with whom you personally feel little or no affinity? People of mixed ethnic heritage sometimes feel doubly excluded: their skins perhaps not dark enough for a ‘real’ Black identity, but not pale enough for a ‘real’ White one. Or perhaps children of mixed marriages may physically resemble one parent, whilst emotionally identifying with the other. What chance do such individuals have of asserting their inner sense of identity, when society instantly classifies them with the parent they physically resemble?

That point highlights another related problem of definition. An individual may have – indeed most do have – multiple identities. In my case, I could be described (variously) as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, childless woman, living in a stable partnership; as well as a Yorkshire-born Londoner, with English, British and/or European affiliations; as well as: an older person; as tolerably well-off; as a home-owner with a pension; as a coeliac (with a chronic gluten-allergy); as someone with short sight; as a professor; as an academic historian; as a bibliophile; as a left-winger; as an agnostic, reared in a cultural tradition of secularised Protestant Dissent; as a keen swimmer; as a music fan; as an amateur gardener; as a cat-lover; as someone with a sense of humour; … as an optimist …  Any of those characteristics might be used to ascribe to me a cultural identity. Some of them I would warmly endorse. Others would leave me cold, as being true (childlessness) but not being at all central to my self-definition. And yet another of those terminologies would fill me with horror. I am (or so the calendar tells me) an old woman; but I emphatically don’t self-identify as such.

There are clearly differences between what one might term ‘objective’ personal identifiers and ‘subjective’ ones. There are also different experiences in a person’s lifetime when some affiliations might assume more importance than others. For example, a sense of patriotic resistance is likely to be strongly aroused if one’s own country suddenly comes under unprovoked attack from a hostile overseas tyranny. And a sense of internationalism is conversely likely to be strengthened if one’s own country is engaged in aggressive and bloody militarism against a harmless and defenceless overseas people, whose sole act of provocation lies in their happening to inhabit strategically important or resource-rich territory.

In other words, people have multiple identities. Some of these are more important at some points in a lifetime than are others. And, indeed, some identities might seem to clash with others. For example, it is sometimes assumed that all people with capital assets should always strive to gain the maximum from their investments and to pay as little tax as possible. (Tax advisers often assert that explicitly).

Yet it can equally be argued that property-owners with a civic conscience – and also acting out of enlightened self-interest – should want to pay more taxes in order to reduce inequalities, relieve poverty, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a more harmonious and just society. These are matters of judgment, clearly. Not simply a reflex response to owning property. (One complaint about so-called ‘identity politics’ is that the concept may encourage electors to vote purely for their own immediate personal benefit rather than for wider civic considerations.2 But, in practice, voters have a multitude of concerns in play at any given point).

Identities are actually so intricate and simultaneously so personal that any cultural politics based upon stereotypical assumptions is offensive to the individuals involved. It’s annoying to be told what one is likely to think ‘as a woman’. It’s infuriating to be told that one is intrinsically and automatically a racist oppressor because of one’s light skin colour. That assertion leaves no scope for moral growth and change. White people in many societies may, for example, be initially unaware of their ethnic privileges and may share inherited prejudices about their fellow humans. Yet such views can be overturned, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. As the former slave-trader John Newton wrote movingly from personal experience, in Amazing Grace: ‘My eyes were blind, yet now I see…’3

Furthermore, before getting back to the universalist concept of personhood, let’s also acknowledge that identity politics are not just invoked these days for the purpose of warm, affirmative rectifications of historic injustice. Separating people by group classification may well provoke a serious backlash. Black Lives Matter is currently opposed by a number of far-right white supremacist groups. Interestingly (on the theme of complex identities), the all-male Proud Boys in the USA include members of mixed heritage, including the current leader who identifies as Afro-Cuban, while their collective ethos is one of aggressive pro-Western, anti-feminist and anti-socialist masculinity.4

Underlying these divisions, however, there remains the universalist concept of common personhood. There are communal human characteristics and communal interests. It is thus not always relevant to enquire about the detailed personal circumstances of each individual. Being a person is enough.

Such a view was expressed with clarion force in 1849 by the young author Charlotte Brontë. She first published as Currer Bell, deliberately choosing a name which concealed her gender identity. Writing to her male publisher, she urged him to forget the conventional courtesies between the sexes.5 Those niceties too often implied condescension from the ‘superior’ male to an ‘inferior’ female. She wanted to be judged on fair terms. So Brontë urged upon him that:

to you, I am neither Man nor Woman – I come before you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

It was a spirited invention from a budding novelist to an established figure in the world of publishing. Charlotte Brontë’s claim thus falls within the history of personhood, and within the history of meritocracy too. And these are themes of great relevance and topicality today. Interest in individual personhood (or self) is coming up on the ropes, alongside the huge publishing boom in studies of ‘identity’. Evidence can be found in debates within philosophy,6 ethics,7 animal rights,8 theology,9 politics,10 psychology,11 law,12 anthropology,13 social welfare,14 economics,15 electoral history,16 literary studies,17 even contemporary poetry18

Becoming vividly aware of past and present injustices – and the need for systematic redress – is certainly a necessary stage in today’s identity politics. It’s understandable that people who have been stigmatised for their gender; sexuality; religion; nationality; ethnic identity; class position; personal disability; or any other quality need to express solidarity with others in like circumstances – and to get respect and contrition from the wider society, It’s also true that sometimes a counter-vailing mantle of universalism can be used as a smoke screen to hide sectional interests. Yet it is to be hoped that, in the long run, a celebration of truly shared and egalitarian human personhood will prevail. In the meantime, dear friends, please judge this communication as coming not from someone representing any one of the separate descriptive categories listed in paragraph four (above); but from a whole person.

ENDNOTES:

1 A slightly shorter version of this text appears online in Academia Letters (Jan. 2021): ; and it also constitutes PJC Pdf/58 within personal website as item 4.3.9. [Items 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 have earlier meditations on the same theme].

2 M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, London, Hurst & Co., 2018; A. Stoker, Taking Back Control: Restoring Universalism in the Age of Identity Politics, Sydney, NSW, Centre for Independent Studies, 2019; T.B. Dyrberg, Radical Identity Politics: Beyond Right and Left, Newcastle upon Tyue, Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

3 Words from the hymn Amazing Grace (written 1772; published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807), reflecting the personal experience of this former slave-trader turned evangelical Christian clergyman and abolitionist.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys.

5 C. Brontë, Letter dated 16 August 1849, in M. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Vol. 2: 1848-51, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 235.

6 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984; E. Sprague, Persons and their Minds: A Philosophical Investigation, London, Routledge, 2018.

7 G. Stanghellini and R. Rosfort, Emotions and Personhood: Exploring Fragility – Making Sense of Vulnerability, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

8 C. Hutton, Integrationism and the Self: Reflections on the Legal Personhood of Animals, Hong Kong, Routledge, 2019.

9 E.L Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

10 F. Brugère, La politique de l’individu, Paris, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2013; A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.

11 R. Jones, Personhood and Social Robotics: A Psychological Consideration, London, Routledge, 2015.

12 J. Richardson, Freedom, Autonomy and Privacy: Legal Personhood, London, Routledge, 2015; W.A.J. Kurki, A Theory of Legal Personhood, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019; L.M. Kingston, Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship and Rights, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019.

13 L.P. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

14 P. Higgs and C. Gilleard, Personhood, Identity and Care in Advanced Old Age, Cambridge, Polity, 2016.

15 N. Makovicky, Neoliberalism, Personhood and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; reissued London, Routledge, 2016.

16 M. Lodge and C.B. Taber, The Rationalising Voter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013; L. Mechtenberg and J-R. Tyran, Voter Motivation and the Quality of Democratic Choice, London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015.

17 J.L. Gittinger, Personhood in Science Fiction: Religious and Philosophical Considerations, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

18 Z. Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015.

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