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Shame and the Anti-Feminist Backlash

Britain, Ireland and Australia, 1890-1920


Sharon Crozier-De Rosa


Routledge Research in Gender and History, vol. 29

Abingdon: Routledge 2018

Hardcover. ix+259 pages. ISBN 978-0415635868. £125


Reviewed by Pat Thane

Birkbeck College London





This is a study of anti-feminist movements at the height of campaigns for votes for women and women’s political roles in three very different countries of the British Empire: Britain (in reality the book refers mainly to England), Ireland and Australia. Britain was of course the Metropole, the Imperial power. It experienced, in parallel with feminist movements in the early years of the 20th century, the strong and ultimately successful, though deeply divided, movement for Irish independence. Australia was far distant, much smaller than Britain in population, not formally a single nation but composed of six colonies until Federation in 1901. It then became anxious for recognition on the international stage and to protect itself from much-feared invasion from nearby Asia.

The book also aims to contribute to the history of the emotions by examining how anti-feminist women deployed emotions in order to regulate and change the behaviour of politically-minded women, especially the emotion of shame which, the author argues, was persistently wielded in all three countries in order to arouse feminists’ fear of condemnation by their communities for transgressing powerful norms.

The norms upheld by ‘antis’ in all three countries assumed that ideas about nationhood and citizenship as developed through the 19th century were profoundly integrated with sexual difference. The rights of citizenship were exclusively masculine, while women inhabited a separate, domestic and reproductive, sphere. By demanding the vote women unacceptably challenged this fundamental gender boundary. British antis strongly opposed women’s enfranchisement, arguing that they should not presume to contribute to national policies including those concerning war, in which only men could be engaged.

The Australian situation was different because, to the horror of British antis, it was among the first countries in the world to enfranchise women. Women in South Australia gained the vote in 1894, the same year as New Zealand became the first nation to enfranchise women (the state of Wyoming did so in 1869, the whole USA not until 1920), in Western Australia in 1899, New South Wales in 1902, the same year that all adult women in Australia gained the right to vote and to stand for the new Federal parliament. They had to wait until 1903 to vote in the still significant state legislatures in Tasmania, until 1905 in Queensland and 1908 in Victoria. Nowhere in Australia did women gain the vote through militancy.

They were well ahead of the metropole, which was thought-provoking on both sides, providing one of the spurs to the increasingly militant women’s suffrage campaign in Britain, which continued until the ‘Great’ war in 1914. Prominent Australian feminists supported the British militants. Australian anti-feminists tried to persuade women to use the vote they regrettably possessed in an appropriately ‘womanly’ manner, well aware that the eyes of the world were upon these new women voters who could influence Australia’s international reputation. Antis presented themselves as Australian patriots, keen to promote loyalty to the Empire, while arguing that Australia could bring new ideas to the Empire, including about women’s proper role in politics. They insisted that women should not seek to ‘usurp’ male positions in politics or elsewhere. Indeed very few women were elected at any level in Australia for many years, though this was open to them, but this is not discussed in this book. Rather, they argued that women should influence politics through the special female skills and values of sympathy, kindness and caring for others, especially focussing upon social policies, without abandoning their domestic duties. But to the great regret of anti-feminists and feminists about 50% of women failed to vote. Male turn-out was similarly low, for reasons the book does not explore. Low turn-outs led to Australia in 1922 becoming one of the first countries in the world to introduce compulsory voting.

When Australia’s first Labor government was elected in 1910, antis sought to shame women by blaming their failure to vote for this shocking socialist victory, which, they argued, undermined their mission to show Britain and the world that women’s enfranchisement could strengthen conservative values in the Empire and the nation. Many women were clearly unimpressed for they were attacked again for failing to vote, or voting on the wrong side, in two wartime referenda which rejected male conscription. Conservative Australian women believed this shamed Australia, weakening its reputation in the Empire and the world, presenting it as an ‘unmanly’ nation, uncommitted to mobilising all men for war, undermined by female enfranchisement. British anti-suffragists used this as evidence of the harm caused by women voters. Australian and British anti-feminists campaigned to shame ‘unmanly’ men who failed to enlist, also their wives and mothers who failed to use their womanly influence to persuade them to fight. In contrast, Irish nationalist feminists shamed men who did fight, for joining the army of colonial Britain rather fighting at home for Irish independence. Meanwhile, nationalist sentiment grew among Australian men, based on the ANZAC legend following the devastation of Australian and New Zealand men in the Dardanelles campaign, for which they rightly blamed the failure of British tactics. This new nationalism marginalised women, reinforcing conservative values, though many women continued to see themselves as equal citizens.

In Britain, conservative resistance to women demanding the vote was intensified by the unwomanly violence to which the suffragettes resorted when peaceable means were unsuccessful. Antis believed that the violence shamed Britain internationally. They argued that the Australian experience was irrelevant to Britain since women’s vote mattered less in relatively insignificant countries like Australia and New Zealand than in Britain, where it could dangerously influence Imperial and international policy. The militants, led by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst, gave up when war was declared, believing that the campaign had more to gain from supporting the war. The antis accused them of withdrawing unpatriotically to support their cause rather than because they supported the war, wrongly in the case of the Pankhursts who were pro-war.

They also attacked the non-militant, constitutional suffragists, led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett, for pursuing voluntary action in wartime, including medical and nursing care for wounded soldiers, again, they claimed, primarily to promote the suffrage cause, though it could have been seen as women carrying out the caring duties expected of them. The caring was real, while the suffragists were indeed waiting to resume campaigning when the opportunity arose, as it did in 1916, when the government began to consider extending the franchise for men and women. The book says too little about the suffragists’ important role in achieving women’s partial enfranchisement in 1918, tending rather to blame them for conniving in the failure to win the equal franchise. In reality they recognised that compromise was the best that could be achieved at this stage and they vowed to fight on, as they did until equality was achieved in 1928. Meanwhile they worked hard to help women use their votes to influence parliament, achieving some significant legislative reforms advancing gender equality, including in divorce and child custody rights. That 8.5m women became almost 40% of the electorate in 1918 was a bitter disappointment to the antis, indicating that their shaming tactics were not a great success. They turned towards seeking to educate women, as the Australian antis did, to use their vote to preserve conventional gender norms. Again, they had less success than the suffragists in influencing voters.

In contrast to Britain and Australia, Irish politics was dominated by independence movements. Irish nationalism had two dominant, antagonistic, strands and feminists were active in both. One faction was prepared to accept the British government’s offer to divide the island of Ireland into an independent, predominantly Catholic, state in the south, within the Empire, and a Northern state, remaining within the United Kingdom, dominated by Protestants who opposed Catholic nationalism. The other group would accept nothing short of an independent united Ireland. Feminists in the former faction supported the British suffrage campaign, not necessarily as militants, in order to vote for the Irish Nationalist party which sat in the British parliament and supported the British proposal. Feminists in the other faction refused to campaign to vote for a parliament whose authority they would not recognise, while aiming for equal voting rights for women in independent Ireland; and they sought to shame men for giving in to the British rather than fighting for real independence.

These nationalist feminists believed that women had a duty to define and revive the distinctive characteristics of Irish culture They promoted representations of a pre-colonial culture which had espoused gender equality including the right and capability of women to fight for their country alongside men and to shape its consciousness. These values, they argued, had been deformed by the imposition of colonial British norms of gender inequality. Women played a significant role in the independence movement, which became increasingly violent and bitter during the war, though their contribution was not seriously appreciated by the men who dominated the movement. Even that of Constance Markiewicz, who trained young men to fight and fought herself, notably in the 1916 Dublin Rising, for which she was imprisoned in London, though, unlike her male colleagues, spared execution because she was a woman. She notably shamed the British and their Irish supporters when, still imprisoned, she stood in the first election in which British women could vote and stand, in 1918, and was the only woman in the UK elected. She refused to take her seat in the British parliament, later becoming the first woman Cabinet Minister in Europe in the first independent Irish government in 1922.

This book explores some previously underexplored dimensions of conservative anti-feminism at a significant historical moment for campaigns for gender equality, gaining from comparisons and contrasts across three related but diverse countries. It focusses upon the deployment in all three of the emotion of shame to defeat those whom women patriotic conservatives believed were betraying their nations. The author concludes that shame was ‘a highly versatile emotion’ part of a large family of related emotions, including humiliation, disgrace, embarrassment, which are evident throughout the book, alongside others such as anger and disappointment, as evident among the feminists as among the antis. She also concludes, correctly, that shame and related emotions, proved ‘limited as a form of social control’ since the values of those who challenged conservative norms steadily, if slowly, grew in influence. She presents a complex and fascinating set of stories. They are not always clearly told and the book is often repetitious, but it opens up important questions.



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