The Edwardian women’s movement was several campaigns against the multiple subordinations of women, gathered up and concentrated on the winning of the vote. In this paper, part of my research project on Other People’s Struggles, I argue that the problem of men varied among these campaigns. It was least problematic where it has been most studied: in the demand for the vote itself. Here the demand was about as crystallized as a demand could be. Whatever their differences over methods and strategy, the women’s suffrage societies agreed that their goal was to remove the sex disability in the franchise, and to secure the same voting rights for women as men presently enjoyed, or might enjoy in the future. The demand for the vote was also a demand for something which many men, though not all, already had. It was justified through the denial that women were disqualified by difference from equal citizenship with men. There was therefore no principled reason why men should not advocate such a reform themselves. Women’s suffrage could be the ‘common cause’ of women and men. This, indeed, was how the demand was phrased by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) formed in 1897, an organisation which admitted men as members and even as officers.
However, with respect to work in other orientations, the presence of men could be more complicated. One set of difficulties arose with respect to those forms of work which I describe in Other People’s Struggles as concerned not so much with the pursuit of interests, as with the empowerment of constituents as autonomous political actors. The women’s suffrage movement also wanted to define women as makers of their own fate. Campaigns in which men fought chivalrously on behalf of the ‘weaker sex’ were therefore bound to be problematic. As militancy came to define differences between women campaigning for the vote, these considerations expressed themselves in splits. In 1907, the men close to the NUWSS separated themselves out into an auxiliary support group: the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage (MLWS). The militant suffrage organisations – both the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) and the breakaway Women’s Freedom League (1907) – were women-only organisations.
Such choices resulted, however, not from militancy per se, where men’s physical assistance was arguably potentially useful, but from the feminist need for women to act alone and on their own behalf. The binding solidarities of the militant movements were created in women-only spaces, such as the demonstrations, where the sexes marched under separate banners, and in the women’s prisons, rather than in joint meetings with men. Men who supported militancy organised themselves into the Men’s Political Union (MPU). They sometimes undertook militant actions themselves, but their doing so was appreciated but also awkward. Indeed, I have suggested elsewhere that women militants employed an emotional strategy designed not only to draw women together, but also to upset and ‘unman’ those male supporters who put off women’s demands with imperturbability, by denying them the opportunity to make a chivalrous response to the suffering of women.
My subject in this paper is work in another orientation: that which I defined in chapter 1 as the expressive orientation. Women suffragists did not only demand what the men had, only for the reasons for which they had it. As Sandra Stanley Holton has suggested, suffragists also ‘emphasised women’s right to vote in terms of their specific social mission arising from their innate and distinct natures’. They ‘did not present feminist goals in terms of equivalence with men but in terms of an autonomously created system of values derived from women’s experience’. Men might endorse such arguments, but they could only do so on the basis of values and identities which belonged to others. Many suffragists also held that the vote alone would be insufficient to secure women’s freedom. Other things needed to change too. New feminist perspectives were needed on questions such as marriage, motherhood, the family, educational and working opportunities, sexuality and intimate relationships between men and women. This re-envisioning of women’s desires and identities has also been much studied, but there is little discussion over the question of whether there was any place for men in it.
SANDRA STANLEY HOLTON, FEMINISM AND DEMOCRACY: WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE AND REFORM POLITICS IN BRITAIN, 1900-1918 (CAMBRIDGE, 1986), 18
In this paper, I therefore explore the variety of Edwardian male responses to this new feminism in more detail. In his account of crises of masculinity in the post-bellum USA, Michael Kimmel argues that male responses to the new assertiveness of women took three forms: an ‘anti-feminist’ backlash against the ‘new women’, movements for ‘male supremacy’, and male support for feminism. A similar pattern can be discerned in Britain, but reads a little differently. The difference between the first two responses – the misogyny and the affirmative masculinism – was often little more than a difference of emphasis and audience. The same individuals might offer each response in different settings, which is perhaps unsurprising if gender identities are formed relationally. These first two responses have also been well studied already, whether their political expression in ‘anti-suffragism’ or their social and cultural expressions in the retreat from women and domesticity to the safer homosocial settings of the gentlemen’s clubs, the army, the boys’ public schools and the imperial hinterlands. Literary scholars and cultural critics have also examined the reaffirmation of sexual difference and hardening of borders and masculine identities, seen above all in the exclusion of male homosexuality.
MICHAEL KIMMEL, ‘THE CONTEMPORARY CRISIS OF MASCULINITY IN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE’, IN HARRY BROD (ED.), THE MAKING OF MASCULINITIES, (WINCHESTER, MA, 1987).
The subject in this paper is the third, neglected category of response – ‘male support for feminism’ – a response neither of hostility nor retreat, but of engaged support. The male suffragists have been studied, but rather as heroic exceptions, more thoughtful, more advanced, or somehow exempted from the crises of masculinity that the women’s movement provoked in its male opponents. Little has been said about the relational fracture within their support: the consequence of the way that the affirmation of women’s changing identities had potentially disturbing implications for male identities too. Here I aim to examine how such ‘male feminists’ responded to the wider set of issues beyond the vote.
The primary source material I use here is a remarkable series of Edwardian feminist debates that took place in the journal THE FREEWOMAN (1911-12), which explored many of the questions beyond the vote. The journal is quite familiar to historians of Edwardian feminism. But it has seldom been remarked that a large number of contributions came from men. For a set of issues, therefore – including marriage, motherhood, family, prostitution, health, and sex – I try to identify areas of convergence and divergence, overlaps, and gaps between the male and female contributors. I then examine how these patterns expressed themselves in alliances and movements, focusing on one area in detail: men’s sexuality.
As ever, if you would like to read this paper in draft, please click on the message icon to the right and send me a message. The chapter is one of several case studies for my current research project Other People’s Struggles which examines whether, why, when and how problems arise when ‘outsiders’ or ‘non-beneficiaries’ participate in social movements.
IMAGE CREDITS: REBECCA WEST (CICILY ISABEL ANDREWS), (c. 1912) PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE C. BERESFORD, NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, LONDON / CHRISTABEL PANKHURST (DETAIL) UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER (DECEMBER 1918) FROM GEORGE GRANTHAM BAIN COLLECTION, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, WASHINGTON DC.