- CURRENT WORK
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- The Soft Heart of the British Empire
- Men and the Women’s Liberation Movement
- Facts are Sacred: the Manchester Guardian and India
- Anti-imperialism in 1960
- The British Left and India
- The Labour Party and the Aristocratic Embrace
- Civil Society and British Progressives in India
- The Conservative Party and Indian Independence
- The Cripps Mission: A Reinterpretation
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In the archives of Wayne State University, Detroit, I have recently located the papers of John Armistead Collier (1874-1947), poet, anarchist and political activist. They were deposited there by his last wife, Phyllis Feningston (1896-1981), an American labour organizer and social worker. In 1912, long before his marriage to Phyllis, Armistead Collier was living in London, where he formed a ‘free union’ – an unlegalised marriage – with a French anarchist and suffragette, Françoise Lafitte. Their child, named François Lafitte (1913-2002) became a well-known British sociologist and professor and – ironically in view of a personal history unknown to him – chair of the British Family Planning Association. Armistead carefully preserved his letters to and from Françoise, along with an unpublished autobiography, and, late in her own life, Phyllis contacted François to tell him about his father. The papers she sent him are archived with his own in Birmingham University, where he worked until the 1980s. There are also some of Armistead’s papers in other American archives, although, as I am discovering, they are sometimes mis-catalogued as a result of his many pseudonyms. These include the papers of his friend Upton Sinclair and Sinclair’s wives Meta Fuller and Mary Craig Kimbrough, to whom Armistead was close.
Unused by researchers until now, the papers are a valuable resource for the recovery of the unacknowledged personal. We know quite a lot about the views of advanced couples concerning ‘free love’ and ‘free unions’, because they wrote about them extensively in the radical journals of the time, such as the The Freewoman. What is hardly ever available is reliable evidence of lived practice. This matters because those who advocated ‘free love’ and ‘free unions’ believed that their ideas could only be tested and developed through lived experience.
IMAGE CREDIT: JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE, MA COUSINE SIMONE, CHATEAU DE ROUZAT (1913).
I’ve finished writing a chapter for my research project on the personal and political. It concerns the ‘free union’ of Armistead Collier and Françoise Lafitte. It’s based on two archives of letters I have recently discovered: the first in Detroit (the papers of Phyllis Feningston, who was Armistead’s last wife) and the second in Birmingham University (the papers of the child of the ‘free union’, François Lafitte, who was Professor of Social Policy there until the 1980s, but never met his father, or even knew his identity until his last few years).
Since Françoise and Armistead spent much of their short relationship apart, while she returned to France to persuade her family to accept him, and he to America to earn money, their correspondence is a frank and revealing account of the attractions and difficulties of the ‘free union’, and especially how it came to mean slightly different things for men and for women.
Other parts of my research project concern the way that the personal is, consciously or unconsciously, kept separate from the political. The personal is, to use the term from the project, unacknowledged by the political, and vice versa. What is interesting about Armistead and Françoise’s relationship is that, far from wanting the political and the personal to be kept apart, they wanted their politics – anarchist, liberationist, perhaps feminist – to define their relationship. They wanted to live their politics. So their relationship is an excellent case for examining what happens to personal relationships when every aspect of them – sharing time, sharing space, socialising, everyday conversations, domestic arrangements, sex, every interaction indeed – is sensitized and weighed for its political significance. For Françoise and Armistead, perhaps, the personal and the political were over-acknowledged.
This is characteristic of periods – like the years immediately before the First World War, and also the 1970s (which also provides case studies for the project) – when both personal relationships and gender politics are fluid and disturbed.
IMAGE CREDIT: JACQUES-HENRI LARTIGUE, BOUBOUTTE AND LOUIS (1910) (DETAIL).
charles masterman (1873-1927) was a New Liberal radical intellectual and politician who served in the Asquith Government, as junior minister to Herbert Gladstone and Winston Churchill at the Home Office, and Financial Secretary under Lloyd George at the Treasury, before joining the Cabinet in 1914. He is perhaps best known for his New Liberal writings, which included The Heart of the Empire (1901) and The Condition of England (1909). I have been researching him as part of my research project on the personal in politics. He was at the Home Office when violent methods were adopted by the Women’s Social and Political Union. I have explored here how the government response – arrests and forcible feeding – created a serious but unacknowledged disruption in the friendships and intimate personal relationships of Masterman and his fellow New Liberals.
But Masterman was also involved in another personal question: campaigns for purity among boys and young men. He engaged with this in three distinct ways. The first was as a government minister, in developing New Liberal policies on juvenile deliquency, policing, welfare, and urban overcrowding. Secondly, as a practising High Churchman and Christian Socialist, Masterman was also much involved in church schemes for youth purity, addressing the Anglican Church Congress on the subject in 1910. Finally, he was also involved personally, as a guide to boys and young men, first as a social worker with boys in the slums of south London, and later as an organiser of annual camps for schoolboys at Bembridge, a progressive boarding school on the Isle of Wight founded and run by his friend and political ally, the Liberal MP and educator, J. Howard Whitehouse. [···]
I’ve been studying the campaign for the so-called white slave legislation of 1912 as part of my research into why, at the time of the movement for women’s suffrage, men and women could work together on some causes, but not on others. The ‘White Slave’ legislation – formally titled the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1912) – was a much-rejected private bill which was unexpectedly taken up by the Liberal Government when there was a sudden swell of public support for it. Its primary target was the supposed trafficking of English women and girls to foreign brothels. This was, it was alleged, a growing problem which was proving hard to police. The ‘White Slave’ legislation also tightened the laws concerning prostitution by making it easier to prosecute and punish procurers, ‘bullies’ and pimps. [···]
Part of my project on men in feminism considers when men and women can work together on political campaigns, and when they can’t. edwardian purity campaigns provide an interesting case study, because they offer examples of both. Purity campaigning was concerned, among other things, with male sexual behaviour, and the problems it created, such as prostitution, sexually transmitted disease, fornication (sex outside marriage), indecent publications, public immorality, the feebleness of the police and the courts in handling cases of sexual violence and exploitation. Shortly before the First World War, some militant women suffragists made denunication of men’s sexual irresponsibility part of their campaign for the vote. ‘Votes for women’ and ‘chastity for men’ became linked demands.
It’s intriguing therefore that, alongside the women’s campaigns, there were also men’s campaigns for chastity; and more intriguing still that the men’s and women’s campaigns hardly ever mentioned each other. Why did movements of men and women, aimed ostensibly at the same goal of male chastity, feel obliged to work apart? And why, in contrast, did men and women manage to work together on other campaigns, such as the agitation in 1912 to induce Parliament and Government to pass a new bill concerning sexual offences? [···]
As part of my research project on the personal and the political, I am researching an unstudied Edwardian organzation called the alliance of honour. The Alliance was a male purity organization established in 1904. It encouraged young men to make personal pledges to remain celibate before marriage, organizing meetings and issuing pamphlets to guide boys and young men through the sexual temptations of adolescence and early adulthood. It attracted significant support, especially from Christian religious leaders and the public schools. By 1914, 43,000 young men had made the pledge, almost a quarter of a million had attended its meetings, and over a million pamphlets had been issued. In these pamphlets, and its newsletter – the Alliance of Honour Record – it preached a severe message, especially concerning the terrible consequences of ‘falling into vice’ at this early stage of life, for the individual man, for women and the family, and for the health of the nation and empire. [···]