The fight for sexual and social equality

21st March 2003 at 00:00
THE ASCENT OF WOMAN: a history of the suffragette movement and the ideas behind it. By Melanie Phillips. Little, Brown pound;18.99

What is the real story of women and votes? Is it all glamour and bricks through windows, ... la Pankhurst, or slow, solid work by Millicent Fawcett and millions of women war workers, rewarded by a "grateful nation"? Melanie Phillips's capacious history tries to boil half a century (roughly 1870-1920) of the struggle for women's suffrage down to two big ideas. It's interesting reading, particularly when it escapes her organising theme, which is sex.

"The sexual purity campaign was not the same as the campaign for women's suffrage. But the two were nevertheless intimately connected," she writes.

Suffragist moralists felt that women, as the purer sex, needed a public voice to reform vice; anti-suffragist moralists felt that women, the purer sex, should be elevated away from the scrum of politics. Post-Darwin, ever-increasing public anxiety about evolution and man's relationship to beasts (or identification with beasts) fuelled debate about woman's "true nature": surely it was less licentious than the slavering male, riddled with VD. In short, worry about sex drove suffrage and anti-suffrage - drove the Pankhursts, in fact - nuts.

Whether such stridencies were as dominant as Ms Phillips makes out is open to question. Certainly, historians with other perspectives have pointed to other factors: the changing economic situation and nature of work, with its need for a more homogeneous workforce, the struggle for male suffrage and electoral reform, the need of nation states for a more politicised population. In a book focusing so closely on personalities, hot social issues such as poverty, family life and changing ideas of childhood, social welfare, transport and the servant question receive short shrift, yet they were woven tightly through the lives of feminists. Bicycles, for example, probably freed more women than the vote.

Sexual purity was one obsession among several, as Ms Phillips's own relentless chronicle makes clear. From Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) to Emily Davies at Girton College and the fight to admit women to universities through the 1870s and on to Mrs Pankhurst's founding of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 on a platform of "deeds not words", education and what girls were taught was at least as important.

If sex was not the only motor, suffrage was not the only aim. Equal pay, equal education, equal work, rights over children and property, even clothing (suffragettes were derided for wearing bloomers), sparked off passionate arguments. What should women's place in society be? How far can they rise? Ms Phillips asks, can women have it all?

What is the "all" in dispute? John Stuart Mill's stepdaughter, Harriet Taylor, declared a woman's "right to belong to herself", oddly coinciding with reactionary doctors who believed women should be kept in their biological and social "sphere" and colliding with those who, like Engels or Mill, believed that all adults should be equal. Josephine Butler, who campaigned against the forcible medical examination of prostitutes, or those suspected of being prostitutes, and fired up a whole generation of women crusaders, refused to agitate for the abolition of prostitution; Emmeline Pankhurst, having denounced the brutal warlike instincts of men, taunted conscientious objectors with white feathers once the First World War had broken out.

History refuses to be consistent. Olive Schreiner, apostle of free love, never achieved the intellectual and sexual union she promoted; Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor, looked with horror on contraception as wilfully opening up a woman's "internal structure" to unwonted repeat visits; Christabel Pankhurst, calling for all women to be freed, was a tyrant in her private life.

In 1918, the Representation of the People Act enfranchised women over 30.

The war ended. Feminism, for a while, was silent. Was the battle of the sexes won? Melanie Phillips seems ambivalent. So were some of the feminists. The vote symbolised so much; gaining it could only disappoint.

Adela Pankhurst (the least glamorous daughter) wrote to a friend: "The real reason (for women's emancipation) was that the war really crushed the old faith in voting and Parliaments among the men who had votes, and the political parties were therefore only too anxious to give votes to women who really wanted themI at least until the second war came. After which neither women nor men cared tuppence about them. They'd had Liberals, Tories and Labour, and since wars and the aftermath of wars kept on coming whichever party was the government - they lost faith in the whole business."

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