As we go to the Polls it is worth reflecting that women over thirty were only given the vote in 1918 – providing they were either householders or married to a householder. Suffrage on equal terms with men didn’t happen until 1928.
We have had only one female Prime Minister, and the majority of MPs are men, even though women are now 52% of the population.
For a woman, the work/life balance remains impossible or exhausting, and this is nowhere more true than in politics, where the entire system is predicated on late nights, absences, mileage, and the assumption that ‘somebody’ will be home to look after the family while the MP is looking after his constituency.
In all the recent talk of electoral reform and proportional representation, the structure of our politics and our parliament remains largely unchallenged. If it were unworkable for men, it would be changed. Women, in politics, as in business, are expected to accept the status quo. Feminism has achieved great things for women, but it has not achieved its early original dream – that society could become a place where women and children – their needs, their realities – shape the daily agenda.
Now, as a hundred years ago, we hear endless talk about the importance of family life, and now, as then, this is rhetoric not reality. Our vision of family life, and extending from it, a stable society, still works on the assumption of ‘someone’, holding it all together. This sleight of hand was questioned back in 1911 by American feminist Charlotte Perkins Gillman, ‘family unity that is only bound together with a tablecloth is of questionable value.’
Bring back the tablecloth is pretty much a summing up of the right-wing position on the destabilisation of modern family life – and behind it, blame is still on the woman who wants a career and some leisure time, just like her man.
Reading Sheila Rowbotham’s study of the first fifty years of feminism in Britain and the United States – 1880’s to the outbreak of the Second World War – we realise how much women have still to do – and the to-do list is about more than equality.
Early feminists such as the Pankhursts, Dora Russell, (wife of Bertram Russell), and Emma Goldman in the States, were influenced by Communism and Socialism, and imagined a revolution ‘from baby clothes to global trade.’ While we generally think of feminism as a movement for the vote, for education, for sexual liberation, Rowbotham shows how wide-ranging and Utopian feminism was.
Bizarre as the connection seems, Bolton and Manchester had a lot in common with New York’s Greenwich Village as the twentieth century unfolded. In the Village, Emma Goldman was encouraging non-monogamous family units and women’s co-operatives – and many groups of women began sharing houses and pooling resources. In Bolton, women mill-workers organised a co-operative to build a hundred and fifty houses with plumbing, at affordable rents. In Manchester, the British Women’s Trade Unions League were campaigning for a minimum wage and shorter hours, but also for public laundries and full representation on housing committees. Women were idealised in the home, but homes were often squalid. For a working-class woman, a full days factory labour was joined with the task of rising in the dark to light a coal fire, and using her one day off to do the laundry and clean the house.
Early feminists welcomed the introduction of labour-saving devices for the home, but many understood, presciently as it has turned out, that unless women became genuinely equal members of society, technological freedom would become a new kind of cosh. Witness the 1950’s housewives imprisoned by their fridges and dishwashers. Witness the modern housewife quieting the kids with a DVD, slinging a pizza in the microwave, and rushing off in the second car to buy things she hardly wants. What she wants is time…
The clock-driven world of industrialisation that turned men and woman alike into machines was a key concern for Marx and Engels. For women, whose free time is family time, the pressures are immense, and neither Communism nor Socialism addressed women’s problems. By advocating and experimenting with co-operative living, and radical solutions such as open kitchens, where women could feed themselves and their families, sharing the domestic burdens with other women, early feminists were pushing far beyond the class struggle.
Inevitably, notions of co-operative or communal living opened the sex question. While Labour Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald in the 1920’s argued that birth control must be a private matter, sex pioneer Marie Stopes was turning the personal into the political. In 1921 she opened the first birth control clinic in England.
Dora Russell ran the statistics and discovered that it was four times as dangerous to bear a child as to work down a mine; death in childbirth affected 4-5 women per thousand, while death through a mining accident was limited to 1.1 per thousand.
Women who talked about sex were deemed indecent. Women who talked about unwanted babies were called unnatural. Sylvia Pankhurst was so disgusted by government apathy towards women and children that she raised money to buy a pub, and called it The Mother’s Arms. No liquor was served, rather babies were weighed and given medical care, and mothers were advised, supported, and fed. Eventually, the Pankhurst style of flamboyant public pressure and private can-do, forced through the 1918 Maternity and Infant Welfare Act. At last mothers and children were seen to have needs and rights.
There is so much in this book that is fascinating, but I found the endless lists of unknown names on every page a bit difficult, and there is no chronological structure to help us follow the genuine progress that feminism made. The wealth of material is sometimes too dense, losing the push of a compelling story of radicalism that has been buried under our headline view of the vote and equal pay.
As the twenty first century falters forward with faith wars and economic collapse, women need to be at the forefront of re-imagining our world. Dreamers is a timely reminder that we have been here before.
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