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).