I am deeply apologetic for my inexcusably long radio silence: deadlines, personal priorities and springtime in London have combined to go to my head.
I will endeavour to make up for this by tackling a thorny topic I have been wanting to address, in various ways, for quite a while – and the most effective approach seems to me to be through my work. So here goes, another instalment in the rubric ‘spotting insidious Victorian patriarchy in modern-day society’: feminism in politics.
As part of my dissertation research, I have been looking into the political writings of Annie Besant. For a substantial part of her adult life, Besant was a committed member of both the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation, and she wrote prolifically in defence of socialism both in theory and practice. She is best remembered for the part she played in supporting the Match Girls’ Strike of 1888, when female workers at the Bryant and May match factory ceased work to fight for better working conditions. Even before this point, however, Besant was already famous – and notorious, for her work in spreading pamphlets advising women of all classes on the correct use of birth control. These pamphlets stand out through their solid and unembarrassed reasoning: the bearing and care of too many children, she argues, are clearly a drain on the physical and financial resources of people who can ill spare them, and the argument of morality is of no use to people made desperate by it. By framing her argument in these straightforward economic terms, Besant makes it clear that, so far from being a ‘women’s issue’ only, the matter of birth control affects the entire population.
Yet, despite her well-reasoned and well-expressed writings, many readers and critics, then as now, are disinclined to take Besant seriously. This is linked to the frequent and rapid changes in her political and religious attitudes. While these certainly happened (by the end of her life, she had given up socialism and politics for theosophy), it is an oversimplification to trace them, as many historians and critics have, directly to the views of the man she was, at that point in her life, in a relationship with.
Similar problems beset contemporary and historical readings of other politically engaged women of the nineteenth century. For example, in her comment on my post on Margaret Harkness, L.C. Robertson pointed out that,
‘…scholars who have been eager to point out her [Harkness’s] inconsistent commitment to political and religious ideologies attribute this to idle feminine capriciousness (for instance Seth Koven in Slumming the metaphor ‘forever trying on and taking off’ which, to me, smacks of serious sexism!) rather than to serious opposition to the principles of these movements’.
The case of Besant, arguably, is worse, because neither her contemporaries nor subsequent researchers were able to look past her sexual life. Even Engels ‘would accuse Besant of being influenced more by the men she loved than her own convictions’ (Louise Raw, 2009: 112). Interestingly, even Charles Bradlaugh, the man with whom she printed her infamous birth control pamphlets and many subsequent political publications, goes out of his way in Socialism: For and Against to emphasise the fact that ‘Mrs Besant’ is a woman and motivated by womanly sympathy and emotion rather than the solid reasoning that pervades her political writing.
Her case was further complicated by the fact that, however well she made the point that social issues affecting women affected everyone and that the violation of women’s rights was a violation of human rights, the ‘Woman Question’ and all matters relating to it were generally not given the attention they merited by the socialist movement in the late nineteenth century. In Striking a Light, her excellent analysis of the Match Girls’ Strike, Louise Raw addresses ‘the difficulty of getting feminist ideas to penetrate “socialist parties, where men rarely saw women as equals”’ (112).
And although we have come a long way since the 1880s, it is sad to say that, more often than any of us would like to see, ‘women’s issues’ are still not as high on the socialist agenda as they should be. (For a somewhat crude but amusing meme-ification of this concept, see the ‘Brocialists’ page on Facebook.) Even now, the question is still
‘often reduced to one of “sex versus class”, female socialists being frequently dismissed with an instruction to wait until the overthrow of capitalism, which should automatically end sex oppression, rather than risk derailing the socialist project with “side issues”’ (Raw, 112).
But if a movement for the people and by the people begins by marginalising within itself those groups that have already suffered doubly under capitalism, how can it possibly guarantee that this marginalisation will end with the revolution? The struggle of the entirety of the proletariat under capitalism is a legitimate struggle, and no one’s experience should be dismissed as a ‘side issue’. It is true that, to my mind, socialist ideas should include feminism by definition, but, while feminist ideas remain imperfectly represented as a specific part of the class struggle, it is important that a distinct feminist strand is maintained within the movement to ensure that these issues are addressed.
Fortunately, even at the time there were plenty who recognised the problems inherent in a theory based on equality which refused to take even its own members seriously based on something as trivial as their sex. Even in her theosophist period, Besant herself was still shrewd and witty enough to remark, ‘The moment a man uses a woman’s sex to discredit her … the thoughtful reader knows that he is unable to answer the arguments themselves’ (Raw, 115).