Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Year in Books: May

Yet again I have left it until the very end of the month to write this, procrastinating and not getting around to things as usual.  Anyhow, here goes: this month's book is The New Woman: An Anthology of Writing by Women, 1880-1918, edited by Juliet Gardiner.  The anthology begins by defining how, “the 'New Woman'... with her demands for education, economic independence and sexual equality – and soon for the vote – offered a challenge and a threat to the established order” and outlining the debate surrounding the term.

Next the anthology turns to a discussion of education, which was (and is) a vital building block of progress for women and what the purpose of women's education should be: would it make her discontented with a married life of domesticity? This question of education also impinged on marriage and the expectations brought to marriage.  As Sarah Grand wrote in her 1888 novel Ideala:
“The girl has been taught to expect to find a guide, philosopher and friend in her husband. He is to be head of the house and lord of her life and liberty, sole arbiter on all occasions.”
But many women found that this was not so, how could it be? The same piece goes on to discuss the need for an equality in marriage and makes the wonderful comment that once women have secured higher education for themselves they should work to secure it for men! Many of the writers condemn the economic dependence in which marriage placed women and the problems faced by those who did not or could not marry. In order to pay men a “family wage”, women's wages were generally half that of men's wages, meaning that “the wages paid to women were barely sufficient to sustain independent life”.  The Women's Dreadnought records in October 1924 that qualified women typists and bookkeepers could be expected to work for as little as 4 shillings a week, meanwhile other women engaged in war work could earn as little 6 shillings a week working ten hours a day, six days a week plus overtime.

Students in a lecture at the Royal Free Hospital in London

Naturally there is a long section on the fight for the vote, but what this book illuminated for me was that what the women of this period were fighting for was much more than just the vote. I studied women's rights in history lessons at school but the late Victorian and Edwardian period was viewed solely in terms of “Votes for Women”. This book demonstrates that these women were fighting for rights in every field of life, true the vote was crucial, so that women could no longer be “safely neglected” by the male Parliament and have a say in the laws being passed, but the suffrage movement was part of a wider movement to bring women education, equality, respect and freedom. This anthology does what any good anthology does, introducing the reader to a wide range of voices, some familiar, some new, around a subject, providing insights and debate; I most highly recommend it.  It is not all serious, there are some moments of levity, such as Ethel Smyth's account of learning to bicycle on the gravel sweep outside Lambeth Palace and teaching the Dean of Windsor how to ride.  I exhort the publishers to re-issue this book, because it is an excellent read and because the issues discussed within it are sadly still relevant, as is shown by websites such as Everyday Sexism.  It is still available second hand mercifully, I came across it in our local library, the place I have discovered so many of my favourite authors.

Edwardian lady with her bike

I leave you with this forceful argument about the very nature of woman and an interesting counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling's famous poem.

If, after four or five generations of freer choice and wider life, woman still persists in confining her steps to the narrow grooves where they have hitherto been compelled to walk; if she claims no life of her own, if she has no interests outside her home, if love, marriage and maternity is still her all in all; if she is still in spite of equal education, of emulation and respect, the inferior of man in brain capacity and mental independence; if she still evinces a marked preference for disagreeable and monotonous forms of labour, for which she is paid at the lowest possible rate; if she still attaches higher value to the lifting of a top hat than to the liberty to direct her own life; if she is still untouched by public spirit, still unable to produce an art and a literature that is individual and sincere; if she is still servile, imitative, pliant – then, when those four or five generations have passed, the male half of humanity will have a perfect right to declare that woman is what he has always believed and desired her to be, that she is the chattel, the domestic animal, the matron or the mistress, that her subjection is a subjection enjoined by natural law, that her inferiority to himself is an ordained and inevitable inferiority. Then he will have that right, but not till then.
From Marriage as a Trade (1909) by Cicely Hamilton

As an after note, knitters may find the following poem interesting, although I do not entirely agree with the sentiment, it reminded me of Kate Davies' posts about images of knitting.
Oh it's you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck:
    You were born beneath a kindly star;
All we dreamt, I and you, you can really go and do,
    And I can't, the way things are.
In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
    A hopeless sock that never gets done.
Well, here's luck, my dear – and you've got it, no fear;
    But for me... a war is poor fun.
Rose Macaulay, 1915


  1. What an interesting book! I have read Cicely Hamilton's autobiography a few times - very interesting especially the ghost stories - and also read her novel William, an Englishman (Persephone). When I taught Women's Studies (ca. 1990-2003), my young students were perplexed by why women would have gotten so upset about the vote. Many of them were far more concerned with how they would spend all the money their parents gave them, and assumed that they would have well-paying careers. For many - not all - of them, politics was just very boring and nothing to do with their lives as they saw it. These same students were also convinced that equality had already been achieved between men and women. The mature women students had very different views on life, for the most part!

    It's amazing to me how much has changed - and how much hasn't.

    Thanks for a very interesting book review.

  2. I will admit that when I was younger I tried to reject feminism and didn't see what the problem was, partly because my school had rammed feminism down our throats and I was (am!) a natural rebel and partly because I simply didn't know enough of the world. I would not be surprised if some of those students have since changed their minds. But the more I see and read, the more I find that I am a natural feminist, as is my mother (though she might not use the label) and her mother. I must read some more of Cicely Hamilton and many of the other women featured in the book, I'll have to make a list. I don't know if you find this, but one book leads to many others, which lead to many others and so on...
    Thank you

  3. As I plan on doing a course in gender studies later this year, this book will be invaluable I think, so thank you for the recommendation.

    1. You are welcome, hope you enjoy it :)