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MONTHLY BLOG 65, HOW DID WOMEN FIRST MANAGE TO BREAK THE GRIP OF TRADITIONAL PATRIARCHY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Talking of taking a long time, it took centuries for women to break the grip of traditional patriarchies. How did women manage it? In a nutshell, the historical answer was (is) that literacy was the key, education the long-term provider, and the power of persuasion by both men and women which slowly turned the key.

But let’s step back for a moment to consider why the campaign was a slow one. The answer was that it was combating profound cultural traditions. There was not one single model for the rule of men. Instead, there were countless variants of male predominance which were taken absolutely for granted. The relative subordination of women seemed to be firmly established by history, economics, family relationships, biology, theology, and state power. How to break through such a combination?

The first answer, historically, was not by attacking men. That was both bad tactics and bad ideology. It raised men’s hackles, lost support for the women’s cause, and drove a wedge between fellow-humans. Thus, while there has been (is still) much male misogyny or entrenched prejudice against women, any rival strand of female misandry or systematic hostility to men has always been much weaker as a cultural tradition. It lacks the force of affronted majesty which is still expressed in contemporary misogyny, as in anonymous comments on social media.

Certainly, for many ‘lords of creation’, who espoused traditional views, the first counter-claims on behalf of women came as a deep shock. The immediate reaction was incredulous laughter. Women who spoke out on behalf of women’s rights were caricatured as bitter, frustrated old maids. A further male response was to conjure up images of the ‘vagina dentata’ – the toothed vagina of mythology. It hinted at fear of sex and/or castration anxiety. And it certainly dashed women from any maternal pedestal: their nurturing breasts being negatived by the biting fanny.
2016-05 No1 Picasso Femme (1930)

Pablo Picasso, Femme (1930).

Accordingly, one hostile male counter-attack was to denounce feminists as no more than envious man-haters. If feminists then resisted that identification, they were pushed onto the defensive. And any denials were taken as further proof of their cunningly hidden hostility.

Historically, however, the campaigns for women’s rights were rarely presented as anti-men in intention or actuality. After all, a considerable number of men were feminists from the start, just as a certain proportion of women, as well as men, were opposed. Such complications can be seen in the suffrage campaigns in the later Victorian period. Active alongside leading suffragettes were men like George Lansbury, who in 1912 resigned as Labour MP for Bow & Bromley, to stand in a by-election on a platform of votes for women. (He lost to an opponent whose slogan was ‘No Petticoat Government’.)

Meanwhile, prominent among the opponents of the suffragettes were ladies like the educational reformer Mary Augusta Ward, who wrote novels under her married name as Mrs Humphry Ward.1 She chaired the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (1908-10), before it amalgamated with the Men’s National League. Yet Ward did at least consider that local government was not beyond the scope of female participation.

Such intricate cross-currents explain why the process of change was historically slow and uneven. Women in fact glided into public view, initially under the radar, through the mechanism of female literacy and then through women’s writings. In the late sixteenth century, English girls first began to take up their pens in some numbers. In well-to-do households, they learned from their brothers’ tutors or from their fathers. Protestant teachings particularly favoured the spread of basic literacy, so that true Christians could read and study the Bible, which had just been translated into the vernacular Indeed, as Eales notes, the wives and daughters of clergymen were amongst England’s first cohorts of literary ladies.2 Their achievements were not seen as revolutionary (except in the eyes of a few nervous conservatives). Education, it was believed, would make these women better wives and mothers, as well as better Christians. They were not campaigning for the vote. But they were exercising their God-given brainpower.
2016-05 No2 Eighteenth-century women's literacy

Young ladies in an eighteenth-century library, being instructed by a demure governess, under a bust of Sappho – a legendary symbol of female literary creativity.

As time elapsed, however, the diffusion of female literacy proved to be the thin end of a large wedge. Girls did indeed have brainpower – in some cases exceeding that of their brothers. Why therefore should they not have access to regular education? Given that the value of Reason was becoming ever more culturally and philosophically stressed, it seemed wise for society to utilise all its resources. That indeed was the punchiest argument later used by the feminist John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay on The Subjection of Women (1869). Fully educating the female half of the population would have the effect, he explained, of ‘doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity’. Not only society collectively but also women and men individually would gain immeasurably by accessing fresh intellectual capital.3

Practical reasoning had already become appreciated at the level of the household. Throughout the eighteenth century, more and more young women were being instructed in basic literacy skills.4 These were useful as well as polite accomplishments. One anonymous text in 1739, in the name of ‘Sophia’ [the spirit of Reason], coolly drew some logical conclusions. In an urbanising and commercialising society, work was decreasingly dependent upon brute force – and increasingly reliant upon brainpower. Hence there was/is no reason why women, with the power of Reason, should not contribute alongside men. Why should there not be female lawyers, judges, doctors, scientists, University teachers, Mayors, magistrates, politicians – or even army generals and admirals?5 After all, physical strength had long ceased to be the prime qualification for military leadership. Indeed, mere force conferred no basis for either moral or political superiority. ‘Otherwise brutes would deserve pre-eminence’.6

2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage
There was no inevitable chain of historical progression. But, once women took up the pen, there slowly followed successive campaigns for female education, female access to the professions, female access to the franchise, female access to boardrooms, as well as (still continuing) full female participation in government, and (on the horizon) access the highest echelons of the churches and armed forces. In the very long run, the thin wedge is working. Nonetheless, it remains wise for feminists of all stripes to argue their case with sweet reason, as there are still dark fears to allay.

1 B. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1978; 2013); J. Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian (Oxford, 1990).

2 J. Eales, ‘Female Literacy and the Social Identity of the Clergy Family in the Seventeenth Century’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 133 (2013), pp. 67-81.

3 J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869; in Everyman edn, 1929), pp. 298-9.

4 By 1801, all women in Britain’s upper and middle classes were literate, and literacy was also spreading amongst lower-class women, especially in the growing towns.

5 Anon., Woman not Inferior to Man, by Sophia, a Person of Quality (1739), pp. 36, 38, 48.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

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MONTHLY BLOG 64, WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG TO NORMALISE THE ROLE OF WOMEN AT THE TOP IN POLITICS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Women can certainly make it to the top of the political greasy pole. Indira Gandhi (India), Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) are just four among several eminent examples, in very different political systems. Nonetheless, such women are still comparatively rare. Their political pre-eminence, past or present, is not ‘normal’ and taken for granted. But … why ever not? In liberal democracies it’s now a fairly long time since women got the vote and became able to stand for office. So what factors have slowed down the transition from electoral rights to political eminence?

Put like that, one fundamental answer replies that ‘these things take time’. Getting the vote is not the same as getting power. It was/is quicker and easier to change the franchise (and that took some doing) than it was/is to change the day-to-day practice of politics, which paves the way for individual participation and advancement. Over the long term, it can be argued that democracies have become relatively ‘feminised’ in the sense that issues concerning women are now routinely part of the agenda. Yet that is not the same as female participation.

Between them, women usually carry out a range of customary tasks within the household, such as childcare, dependent-adult care, home-provisioning, and housework. All of these are time-consuming and preoccupying chores, often round-the-clock. Hence, to accommodate the political participation of women, the timetables and practices of political life need to be adjusted, as does the habitual allocation of tasks within the household – and/or the delegation of some tasks to other bodies outside the household.

A very long history lies behind the assumption of an ingrained specialisation, originating in biology and sustained by cultural expectations. Women were and often still are expected to focus upon the domestic and the familial. Men take care of the ‘outside world’. A traditional phrase pronounced that: ‘Ladies have nothing to do with politics’. Such attitudes were early challenged by feminist writers. In 1834, the feisty Maria Edgeworth denounced that attitude as ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘little missy’, in her novel entitled Helen. The heroine of the story was admonished: ‘You can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance.’1

Nonetheless, great numbers of women traditionally did and do leave such things to ‘the men’. And in Edgeworth’s novel, disappointingly, her staunchly self-denying heroine does not rise to the challenge, whether by campaigning for the female franchise or for anything as halfway radical. It was very difficult, in that era, for women to propose proto-feminist views without being satirised or pilloried; and the convention against women speaking on public platforms was almost universally upheld, by women as well as by men.2

One of the central arguments against giving the vote to women was that they were ‘virtually’ represented by their menfolk. Civic activities by husbands were taken to articulate the views of the entire household. It was specialisation in practice. Man and wife were one. She had tasks at home; he spoke for both in the wider world. On such grounds, many Victorian conservatives opposed giving the vote to women, on the grounds that such a move would give married men two votes and thus be unfair to bachelors, who were left with just one. (Spinsters, meanwhile, were supposed to be ‘virtually’ represented by their fathers).

Such views depended upon an ideal-type of ‘the household’. However, in nineteenth-century Britain (as long before), there were plenty of women who either lived alone or who lived in female-headed households. And, of course, many married couples held divergent views – or followed the lead of the wife, not the husband. (Such men were unmanly and known as ‘hen-pecked’).

Yet the ideal type was precisely that, an ideal whose power did not depend upon individual case histories. Instead, it appeared founded upon biology, tradition, culture, and, for those with committed religious views, divine will. One term for this set of attitudes is ‘patriarchy’, although this concept is not a timeless verity which stands outside history, as some argue. Yet the concept and its supporting social structures certainly had enough continuing plausibility for the idea of specialist roles and separate spheres to become convincing for many, including for those women who campaigned against the female franchise.

Eventually, however, the anti-suffragists – constituting both men and women who opposed ending the traditional male monopoly – lost the argument. At a guess, most of the female vote-deniers did in time hold their noses and exercise their new electoral rights. But such attitudes showed that ‘women’ were not and are not a single social category, speaking with one voice. They may be divided by age, wealth, social class, religion, ethnicity, politics, gender orientation, marital status, maternity or childlessness, and/or their attitudes towards feminism and to men. However, the case for women’s rights does not depend upon any need for unity or homogeneity. They participate as citizens, no more or less, sharing the range of concord and disagreements that are found within any body politic.

Today, the old arguments of the anti-suffragists are being repeated and updated by a very similar mixture of venom and ridicule on the part of the anti-feminists (both male and female), who flourish with vigour, especially on social media. They express themselves sometimes ironically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with violent misogyny.

Detail from Thomas Rowlandson’s partly affectionate, partly brutal satire of an all-woman Bluestocking Club (1815) as an unbridled cat-fight.

The mix of backlash, uncertainty, and a confused sense of upheaval, indicates how fundamental are these long-unfolding changes in the respective roles of men and women – but also how ultimately flexible are social organisations. There are some crucial biological constants, like the fact that it is women (though not all women) who give birth to children. Yet the social arrangements for child rearing are not immutable over time. Things are not set in stone – but they don’t get transformed overnight either.

So, given that, any changes designed to help women to participate fully in political life should be matched by changes to relationships and the distribution of tasks within the household. The two ‘spheres’ are not separate, but integrally linked. If one variable is to be adapted, then the others have to adapt too. And the same applies to all areas of public and private life.
2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League

Battersea’s Charlotte Despard, leading a march of the Women’s Freedom League (1907), campaigning for the vote with her fellow sisters, in company with a representative of the next generation, in the form of a decorously dressed young boy in the front row.

Lastly, it’s important for women to press for structural changes to help women. History needs a helping hand. And female solidarity is a good antidote to anti-feminism. At the same time, however, it’s best not to be too dogmatic about the merits of all women, simply because they are women. I’m sure that there’s no female consensus on the respective political ratings of Indira Gandhi; Margaret Thatcher; Angela Merkel; and Aung San Suu Kyi. Onwards; not always upwards; but still, yes, onwards.

1 M. Edgeworth, Helen (1834; in 1890 edn), p. 260.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Women and Public Speaking’, Monthly BLOG/47 (Nov. 2014).

3 For rival perspectives, see G. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford, 1986); J. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester 2006); and S. Goldberg, Male Dominance: The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1979).

4 B.H. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (2013); A.M. Benjamin, A History of the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States, from 1895 to 1920: Women against Equality (Lewiston, 1991).

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