Male Voices on Women’s Rights
An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century British Texts
Edited by Martine Monacelli
Manchester: University Press, 2017
Paperback. ix+209 p. ISBN 978-1784992774. £19.99
Reviewed by Pat Thane
King’s College London
This collection is dedicated to reminding us that men as well as women supported women’s emancipation in the nineteenth century and after and that men and women collaborated in the struggle. I am not sure that this has been as wholly forgotten as the editor suggests, but it is useful to have evidence of the range of arguments put forward by men as well as women.
The short volume consists of extracts from the publications of 35 men between 1809 and 1912, with brief introductions to each extract and a general introduction. Some of the men and their commitment to women’s cause are well known, including J.S. Mill, Henry Fawcett, Henry Nevinson, others more obscure like R.J. Richardson the Chartist radical and William George the late nineteenth-century journalist and novelist; others are well-known for other reasons, including Robert Owen for his co-operative communities and Charles Kingsley as a novelist. They are divided into four groups. Firstly socialists, including Edward Aveling and Eleanor Marx Aveling, urging women like workers to unite to overthrow their oppression in order to create an equal, co-operative society. The volume emphasises how some male radicals saw women’s emancipation as an essential part of the wider cause of social and political reconstruction. Secondly, campaigners demanding that women receive an equal education with men at all levels, including university, including Cecil Grant the pioneer of co-education in Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. They urged that equal education for men and women would enable women to gain emotional and economic independence and maximise their talents and skills for the good of society as well as themselves, most assuming that women had the same potential as men. Supporters of civil rights for women, including Lord Brougham, Henry Fawcett and mathematician and moderate eugenicist Karl Pearson, like female feminists advocated not only votes for women, but equal rights to property and custody of their children, particularly challenging women’s subordination in marriage – equated with slavery by many of these critics – and the sexual double standard. Several of them rejected the assumption that all women, and men, should marry, recognising that fulfilled lives were possible without marriage or long-term partnership. They demanded divorce before it was legalised in England and Wales (in 1857), then easier divorce. Two of them with their partners, Victor Duval and Una Dugdale and the Rev. Frederick Spencer and Australian suffragist Gertrude Burke, refused to include the wife’s promise to ‘obey’ when they underwent the Anglican marriage ceremony. The supportive companionate marriage was the ideal of several writers quoted here, along with advocacy, by William Cobbett among others, of fathers sharing childcare and the education of their children, with other domestic tasks, for their own fulfilment as well as the benefit of their families. The final group supported sexual liberation, including the well-known Edward Carpenter, openly homosexual, supporter of a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle and of sexual freedom for women and men as essential if real personal fulfilment, democracy and equality were to be achieved. Also Havelock Ellis, the leading early twentieth-century analyst of sexuality who believed that sexual freedom and fulfilment was essential for a healthy, happy life for men and women.
The extracts are fascinating but short, rarely as much as three pages, intended, the editor tells us ‘to whet the reader’s appetite for the men’s oeuvre’. Since few readers will be able to read the often substantial outputs of 35 men, it is a pity that this slim volume is not larger (193 pages of text). The brevity of the extracts is often tantalising. The introductory essays on each man are helpful but also brief, as is the general introduction. It would be good to have more analysis of the influence of these men on the women’s movement and of their relations with it and of the influence of their ideas about women on the wider movement of ideas and action. There are occasional puzzling comments: for example we are told in the Introduction that the word ‘feminist’ was ‘originally coined by doctors to designate the presence of feminine characteristics in males’. This is news to me: a footnote reference to the source would have been helpful. The editor also implies, perhaps unintentionally, that the pre-1914 Labour Party did not support women’s suffrage. It is true that it did not support the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in advocating votes for women on the same terms as men, which would have restricted the vote to the minority of women who were independent property-holders (and unlikely to vote Labour), but they did campaign for full adult suffrage, for all men and women at age 21, the only political party officially to support votes for women. Nor is the introduction clear about why the vote was granted to most women at age 30 in 1918 – above all a desperate effort by orthodox politicians to balance the unavoidable need to grant the vote to all men at 21 after their sacrifices in the war by enfranchising hopefully more conservative older women. She also argues that the declining birth-rate from the 1870s-1930s was especially marked among the middle and upper classes though this has been convincingly challenged by demographic historians.(1) A further oddity is a reference in the discussion of Havelock Ellis to Stella Browne as ‘one of the few women who defended artificial birth control’. Several women’s organisations not only defended but promoted birth control techniques and appliances in inter-war Britain, especially to working class women.(2) The introduction to the book and the extracts are also awkward to read because much significant detail is consigned to lengthy footnotes which could have been more comfortably placed within the main text.
This volume raises stimulating and important issues but its brevity is quite frustrating.
(1) E. Garrett, A. Reid, K. Schurer & S. Szreter, Changing Family Size in England and Wales: Place. Class and Demography, 1891-1911. Cambridge: University Press, 2001.
(2) As described by e.g., Clare Debenham, Birth Control and the Rights of Women : Post-Suffrage Feminism in the Early Twentieth Century. London: IB Tauris, 2014.
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