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Feminism and men



Next year, the British Library is staging an exhibition called Dreams and Demands: Women’s Rights, Women’s Lives. It will be a major national exploration of women’s fight for equality over the last 150 years.  It tells the story of a women’s fight for legal rights in the UK as well as the right to pleasure, self-expression and a fully realised life. The exhibition will also highlight contemporary campaigns for equality.

There will also be an accompanying illustrated exhibition book to be published in spring 2020. I have been asked to write the chapter on men’s relationship to, and sometimes support of, women’s rights. The exhibition book will appear in April 2020, when the exhibition opens.


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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 Armistead carefully preserved his letters to and from Françoise, along with an unpublished autobiography, and, late in her own life, Phyllis contacted François to tell him about his father.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.


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The film above is the earliest surviving footage of a suffragette demonstration, in Newcastle in 1909. I have been researching this demonstration recently because it provides the background for a remarkable human drama, based on a recent discovery I have made in the National Archives.

It occurred among the Nation group of New Liberals – the journalists, MPs grouped around H.A.Massingham’s The Nation, the most prominent weekly periodical of the New Liberal period. Once a week, the Nation group met for lunch at the National Liberal Club in London.

Although united in their New Liberalism, they were divided on the issue of women’s suffrage. The divisions were not only political – whether the Liberal Government should introduce a women’s suffrage bill – but also personal. Many of the women close to the Nation Liberals were involved in the women’s suffrage organisations, and some of them in the most militant part of the movement, the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.).

The W.S.P.U had sent one of these women, Jane Malloch, the wife of the Liberal journalist, H.N.Brailsford, to Newcastle with instructions to disrupt the speaking tour of the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George. Jane Malloch did so, was arrested and convicted with several other women, and began a hunger-strike in Newcastle Prison.  Her husband and close friends among the Nation group were distraught. And with the Home Secretary away in Scotland, the minister in charge of the government response was Charles Masterman, junior minister at the Home Office, opponent of women’s suffrage, another member of the Nation group, and personal friend of the Brailsfords …

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The women in the photograph above are Christabel Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union (on the right); and Rebecca West, journalist and suffragette (on the left). West wrote for a newspaper edited by Dora Marsden called The Freewoman, an avant-garde feminist journal which had a brief but influential existence before the First World War.

Much has been written about The Freewoman, but one aspect which is sometimes noted but never explored is that a lot of the contributors to it were men. This makes it an excellent source for my research project on the participation of outsiders in social movements: Other People’s Struggles. I am therefore analysing the men’s and women’s contributions to see what points they have in common, and what divides them.


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Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier

Men’s support for feminism is not just a matter of expressing the same ideas, or, indeed, taking up positions or poses in lively periodical debate. It is also a matter of lived practice in the conduct of personal relationships. This piece of research, part of my research project on the personal and the political in Britain before 1914, and the ways that men and women could and couldn’t combine in feminism. examines such a relationship, between two anarchist revolutionaries in London on the eve of the First World War, Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier.

The trouble with researching intimate relationships is that they do not often leave written traces, their very intimacy often making correspondence unnecessary. This is one reason why we know more about engagements than marriages. It is also rare to find accounts by both sides to a relationship; and as anyone privy to only one partner’s story of a relationship will know, over-reliance on one side can heavily distort the story. When relationships fail, the paper record often consists only of a trail of torn letters as split and scattered as the relationship itself, and accounts written after the event may be too conflicting, partisan and bitter to be convincing.

The relationship I examine here is therefore unusual, and potentially more revealing, for three reasons. First, it did leave such traces. Secondly, and unusually, both sides of the correspondence were preserved. Thirdly, it was a self-consciously politically aware relationship, carrying the weight of a prefigurative arrangement which might test and prove the validity of the partners’ ideals.

Like some of the other case studies, it is partly the consequence of a fortunate archival discovery I made in the papers of an American social worker in the labour history archive of a university in Detroit.

The papers concerned are the letters between Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier. In 1912, in London, they met, fell in love, and entered an unmarried ‘free union’. Each believed that they had found their ‘soul-mate’ with whom their anarchist ideals for could be fulfilled. They lived together, and there was a child. But within a year, they had parted angrily and finally. They never spoke again, or corresponded for the rest of their lives. Because much of their short relationship was spent apart – she went to France to persuade her family to accept Armistead, and he went to America to make money to support the child – there is plenty of original correspondence. Late in life, Armistead also started to write an autobiography, which is unfinished, unpublished and unused.

Late in life, Françoise did write an autobiography, which was published but it provides only a brief and distorted account of her affair with Armistead. By the time she wrote it in the 1940s, she had become the ‘literary widow’ of the sex psychologist Havelock Ellis, with whom she had lived for the last decade of his life. Her depiction of Armistead was clearly intended to contrast him with Ellis.

Françoise Lafitte

She was Françoise Lafitte, aged 26 when she met Armistead, and the daughter of a struggling architect with six other children in Maubeuge, on the Franco-Belgian border. In 1906, she had therefore trained as a teacher and had supported herself in England. She had returned briefly to France, only to escape again to England to avoid marriage to a man she disliked. London had proved hard work for a single woman seeking an independent livelihood. But its opportunities for unchaperoned sociability with men, widened intellectual horizons, and bohemian modes of living had also been liberating.

Françoise was a suffragist, though not a militant, but took what Lucy Delap terms the ‘introspective turn’ in feminism – away from the achievement of the external goals of the vote towards concerns with issues of how women thought and formed their desires. She wrote for The Freewoman and participated in its discussion circles. She objected to the restriction of women’s potential by their families’ determination to push them straight out of the nest into marriage and motherhood. This entailed a seamless dependence on men. She also held that men and women complemented each others’ partial contributions to social progress. ‘Freewomen’ should not therefore merely imitate men – that is, seek to enter their world – but also secure proper recognition of women’s distinct needs.

What women wanted, Françoise told the Freewoman circle at a meeting in November 1912, which Armistead attended (‘I spoke as if for him alone’) was freedom from ‘her economic bondage as lover and mother’. Women could only realise themselves if these essential aspects of their lives – sex and motherhood – could be pursued without having to rely on a man. What women wanted, she later argued, was to ‘claim children without a man, in spite of man, apart from his so-called chivalry, which feeds her and her little children only to keep her enslaved’.

Armistead Collier

Armistead was 38, and the son of a rich newspaper proprietor and lawyer in Memphis, Tennessee. Attracted to socialist and anarchist ideas, he lived in the Helicon Home Colony in New Jersey founded by the American writer and socialist Upton Sinclair until it burned down in 1907. In 1908, Armistead’s father and brother had tried to have him committed for insanity. This led to a cause celebre public trial in Memphis in December 1908, at which the prosecution cited his anarchism and socialism as evidence of madness, and in which Armistead was successfully defended by expert witnesses, including Sinclair. From 1910-12, he lived in the Single Tax Colony in Fairhope, Alabama, and later the Arden Colony in Delaware. He worked sporadically as a journalist, a poet and a social critic. Armistead came to England in 1912 in search of journalistic work and also to learn more of the syndicalist movement.

Both in New York and in the utopian communes, Armistead came into close contact with the world of the socialist ‘sex radicals’ of the Progressive era. He shared their belief that radical men could be advocates of feminist claims. Armistead himself was a self-described Fourierist, especially in his belief that the marriage was the ‘curse of the age’ and the emancipation of women was the pivot around which all social progress turned. As well as widened opportunities for women to work to achieve independence, and proper support for maternity, the sex radicals favoured better access to birth control and even abortion, on the grounds that this would separate sex and reproduction, allow couples greater reproductive choice, and women greater control over their bodies. They lived as couples, but also within communes, not only out of a socialist desire to minimise propertied relationships, but also to relieve women of drudgery and the social isolation of marriage. And they believed in free love: the freedom of men and women to choose or re-ject sexual partners as they wished. They expected that this would lead to more erotically, sexually and spiritually satisfied women and men, freed from outmoded codes of self-denial and self-restraint.

In love

Armistead and Françoise met, then, at an unusually fluid moment in the history of sexual relationships, in which an attempt was being made to locate the hitherto most personal aspects of life at the heart of radical politics.

Their first meeting was in October 1912, at an anti-war meeting in the Farringdon Street Memorial Hall. They rapidly moved in with each other, but neither wished to marry. For Armistead, the property laws and other requirements of marriage, he believed, appropriated a woman’s soul and a child’s future. Françoise too, with her experiences of the bourgeois family, saw marriage as a matter of ‘barter and money-bargains’, which sacrificed a woman’s love and happiness to familial expediency. Françoise’s family were frequent visitors to London. It was likely that before long they would discover she was living unmarried with Armistead. She therefore went home to tell them that she was living unmarried with him. At more or less the same time, she also began to suspect that she was pregnant with his child.

Françoise’s brothers were prepared to accept their sister’s free union, provided Armistead took legal and financial responsibility for her maintenance. This he agreed to do, though he was unimpressed with their businesslike attitude. ‘I have been dealing with people who give no consideration to the ideals involved’, he wrote, ‘but only to material conditions’. Françoise shared Armistead’s ideals, firmly signing herself in her letters ‘your little anarchist revolutionary’. She refused to seek marriage, despite pressure from her brothers to treat the question as a matter of business. The letters between the two were deeply affectionate. He swore on his life to take care of her and the child, and she wrote happily in reply expressing her unshakeable faith in him. ‘I assure you we shall be most happy’. she wrote to him. ‘Do I not trust you, did I not all through trust you, shall I not always trust you, you big dear?’. ‘All with you, dear little man, all with you to the end and in the spirit; do not misunderstand this spirit, it is a true revolutionary one … I can’t leave you. I love you so’.


Yet within a matter of weeks, the relationship was over. After pledging herself to stay with him, married or unmarried, through ‘fire and hell’, she left him, as he wrote, ‘finally and without hope … that she will ever come to me again’. She had told him that she would ‘find her own support and friends, and will never permit me to see her child, and that if she should die in childbirth, she will find others to act as parent and guardian’.

Out of love

What had gone wrong? In her autobiography, Françoise suggests that there were problems from the start. But this seems implausible: the correspondence between them was optimistic and reassuring. It is full of deep expressions of love and commitment to each other. Yet the relationship had collapsed suddenly, catastrophically and irretrievably. The explanation, we can surmise, must therefore be both easy to miss, but also devastating in its effect. If the difficulties had merely been small, the relationship might have sought to address them rather than ending so abruptly. If they had been visibly large from the start, it is hard to see why the couple would have made the strong mutual pledges they initially did.


The first possibility to consider is sexual infidelity. This remains a possibility, but two things count against it here. The first is that he denied it. That would, of course, not always count for much. But that is because infidelity is, by conventional standards, shameworthy. Armistead’s view of sexual fidelity was different, and both simple and consistent. He was not a varietist – that is, he did not think promiscuity was desirable in itself – nor a Hintonist – a believer in absolute sexual freedom to do as one wished. But he did believe – ‘my only original contribution to human thought’ – that sexual relationships that imposed exclusiveness were repressive because they implied property claims over others. He held this view openly, as many attest, and therefore saw no reason to conceal affairs. The second, perhaps stronger, evidence is that Françoise neither accused Armistead of infidelity to her nor admitted sexual jealousy on her part, either in the many reproaches in her letters to him, or in her autobiography. Indeed, she shared his view of free love, throughout her life.

Nor did the relationship collapse because of his unwillingness to provide for a child. On the contrary, he was fully prepared to work in order to support both her and their child, even after she had rejected him.


Françoise’s reasons for rejecting Armistead were different, subtle, and revealing. It is evident, first of all, that friction had arisen over the diminished standard of living involved in the free union. Armistead thought that she had been unwilling to make economies. But that cannot be quite right, because she was used to making do on very little. What irked was not making ends meet, but economizing within a structurally unequal situation, made all the harder because the free union was meant to transcend dependency. He was the breadwinner, and she, no longer maintaining herself as she had been as a teacher, now relied on him. Without the endowment of motherhood, for which she had argued to the Freewomen, the pregnant, unmarried mother’s only course was a forced compromise of her person and self-development.

The question of the family was also a source of difference. Both of them deeply disliked the demands that families made on the free individual. She needed family, and resented his attempts to deprive her of its conflicted, emotionally freighted support. Her desire to remain close to her family, especially when she had no other resources of her own, conflicted with his desire to break with the family altogether.

Indeed, closer study of Armistead’s earlier relationships suggests that this was his habitual practice. He invariably put the woman at odds with her relatives. He thought that only by abandoning the family could women break with the old world. But the consequence was an even greater dependency on him, and nowhere to turn if things went wrong. By contrast, his breach with his family, however, had been made possible by his greater capacity to survive alone, through casual work and living rough.


A further source of Françoise’s unhappiness was sexual. In her autobiography, she claimed that she and Armistead were never sexually compatible and that he was an inconsiderate lover. Whether that is so or not, there certainly seems to have been a difference between him, for whom sexual freedom meant more frequent, less inhibited physical sex, and her own desire for sex and emotional intimacy to be linked in a much deeper way than before. This, in her later life with Havelock Ellis, became Françoise’s mission. There is, by contrast, no sign in Armistead’s anarchist writings or lived practice that he thought that sex itself would change after the revolution. He had strong views concerning the repression of women’s sexual responsiveness by monogamy and marriage, but little to say about what might happen once these had been cast off. He assumed that, once freed, sex and love would readily harmonise.

Another tricky area of dispute was the balance of power within the relationship. Armistead thought of himself as the teacher and Françoise as the pupil, ready for instruction in revolutionary ideals. Much the same occurred when Upton Sinclair courted his wives with reading-lists and tutorials on socialism. The men did not think the women innately less capable, but intellectual equals who had been deprived of educational opportunities and dulled by domesticity and social convention. They positioned themselves as educators who would bring out their potential.

Armistead was better-read, more sure what he thought, and more confident in the world. Part of the attraction of such men was that they opened doors that women did not know were there. But the completeness of the men’s utopias left something out. ‘[H]e somehow gave me the sensation that we were living in Morris’ News from Nowhere’, wrote Françoise. ‘He acted as if it were already there in this relation of the sexes’. It took time to see what exactly was missing.

Armistead was a difficult human being – disturbing, self-righteous, intense, brutally honest and inflexible. It is impossible to see him as the ‘new man’ for whom feminists hoped. But it is equally wrong to see him as merely an unreconstructed philanderer seeking to take advantage of liberated women. ‘As a moral lunatic I should shut you up or have you castrated like an animal so that you could do no more mischief in the search of your Ideal’, one of Françoise’s older women friends wrote angrily (and ungrammatically) to him, on learning that Françoise was pregnant and unmarried. She was horrified that an unmarried woman had become pregnant, something she could only understand to be consequence of seduction, not of Françoise’s choice to enter a free union. But her codes were not those of Françoise and Armistead. That seducers existed need not be doubted. But intelligent, new women like Françoise were doubly prepared for them: by respectable upbringing, with its repeated warnings against falling for unreliable men; and by their feminism, with its new understandings of the world the ‘old’ men had made for themselves.

Armistead was something more complicated and unfamiliar, yet also a type very frequently thrown up by periods of rapid change in ideas: the ambiguous prophet. Far from being casual about sexual relationships, he was deep, mystical and serious. Had he been merely an ‘old’ seducer, his success with ‘new’ women would be inexplicable. They would have found him easy to avoid and easier still to condemn. As ‘John the Baptist’ – his nickname, owing to his wild appearance and preacher-like habits – he was harder to place. His ideas spoke to something that was elusive and missing in their lives. This last element was, however, all-important. Armistead brought conflicting emotions to the surface, and forced women to choose, but he could not resolve the contradictions of their lives.

This case study forms part of my research project on the personal and the political, and the ways that men and women could and couldn’t combine in feminism. The purpose of shining such a strong light on this single relationship was to illuminate aspects of this question that remain invisible when we confine ourselves to theoretical statements of belief. The conventional finding of almost all such exercises is that practice does not live up to theory, something usually put down to hypocrisy (the beliefs are not sincerely held) or weakness of will (the beliefs are not practised when inconvenient). Several people in this story have said as much. Hypocrisy was Françoise’s charge against Armistead in her autobiography, though significantly not at the time. Likewise, Armistead blamed Françoise (and other lovers) of being too socially conventional to take the plunge that their beliefs implied.

But when we look more closely, theory and practice, though in tension, did not tug on each other so crudely. For them all, practice was not the acid test of theory. Theories had to be modified, or perhaps even rejected, if practice revealed flaws. But revolutionaries, even ‘revolutionaries asunder’, as Françoise termed them, could not accept that practice carried final authority. Practice did not defeat theory: it was theory lived. It was too hard, too early, too complicated, for the practitioner to be sure what was right, living just one lifetime, among the residue of what she knew to be wrong.

This is what almost all those in this story did, which is why neither hypocrisy nor lack of effort are fair explanations. Armistead and Françoise were not poles apart. Had they been so, they would never have attracted each other in the way in which they did. They shared a basic set of commitments to personal freedom, and to the free union as its expression. But only living together revealed the difference between the value they placed on it: for him, the absence of constraint; for her, the reduction of a woman’s dependence on a man. The harder truth was that they began with the sincere commitment to what seemed a single magnetic pole of freedom in love, to which men and women were in their different ways attracted. Their failure is to be explained by the realisation that there were – not forever, but in this time and place – two magnetic poles, close enough that the men and women they attracted could share part of the journey; but also distinct, so that to reach them meant diverging and not converging.



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Beyond the Vote: Men and Feminism before 1914

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.


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.


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.


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Like some other chapters in my project on men and feminism, this chapter begins with a remarkable and unknown story.

On 5 October 1909, a group of men assembled for their weekly lunch and editorial meeting at the National Liberal Club. They were the writers and staff of H. W. Massingham’s periodical The Nation, and their lunch had already acquired its reputation as the most important New Liberal salon of its day. Massingham himself was abroad, so the chair was taken by the economist J. A. Hobson. Others present included the historian Lawrence Hammond, the journalist Henry Nevinson, the prison reformer and Anglican priest W. D. Morrison, the Liberal MP Arthur Ponsonby, and the Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, Charles Masterman.

Absent on this occasion, but usually present, were another prominent Liberal journalist, H. N. Brailsford, the New Liberal thinker L. T. Hobhouse, and the editor of The Economist, F. W. Hirst. On the edges of the group were the sociologist Graham Wallas and the Liberal philosopher Gilbert Murray, as well as C.P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian for whom most of the Nation journalists had at some point worked. New Liberal politicians, including Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, were also close to the group at this time, and sometimes attended the lunch.

A few days earlier, news had emerged of the forcible feeding of the suffragettes Mary Leigh and Charlotte Marsh in Winson Green Prison. In Parliament, to cheers of support, Masterman, as the responsible Minister, had defended the practice as ‘ordinary hospital treatment’. Nevinson and Brailsford had resigned as leader-writers on the leading Liberal daily newspaper, the Daily News, when its editor, A. G. Gardiner appeared reluctant to condemn it. Their letter denouncing the ‘loathsome expedient of the stomach-tube’ as a form of ‘torture’ designed to break the women’s spirits had appeared in The Times that morning. Forcible feeding, Brailsford told Masterman, was ‘an outrage to human dignity hardly less shameful than a sexual assault’. ‘Masterman came in & sat down by me, saying “It’s all right, is it?”’, Nevinson wrote in his diary after returning from the National Liberal Club. ‘I said “No, it isn’t all right” & spoke no further word to him.’

Three days later, Nevinson was at King’s Cross railway station, with Brailsford and his wife, Jane Malloch. A new recruit to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), Malloch had been asked to go to Newcastle, where Lloyd George was due to speak. Her task, with twelve other women, was to provoke arrest and imprisonment and test the Liberal Government’s determination over forcible feeding. Among the others were Constance Lytton, who was a friend of Ponsonby, and Emily Wilding Davison. Jane ‘was quiet & cheerful, but said she knew how serious it was’, wrote Nevinson. ‘She gave me her hand often. She had a purple cloak & green dress, with the [WSPU] colours on a cord. We all knew how terrible the parting was. She spoke to me last at the window & then they went. I hung about the streets bewildered with fear and misery’.

In Newcastle the following day, Jane Malloch waited outside Lloyd George’s meeting, with an axe concealed under some chrysanthemums. She then produced the axe and began to chop up the police barricade.

By chance, the Newcastle demonstration was one of the WSPU demonstrations to be filmed for the cinema newsreels. Indeed, this footage is the oldest surviving newsreel of a suffragette demonstration.

Men took part in the Newcastle march in significant numbers, as you can see. However, Jane Malloch’s own action was not captured by the cameras, nor were those of the other twelve militant suffragettes, who were arrested for throwing stones at public buildings, including the Palace Theatre, the location of Lloyd George’s meeting, to which no women audience members were admitted.

Jane Malloch’s intentions with the axe were not clear: Hammond’s wife Barbara, who had received an ambiguous letter from her, feared she intended to do ‘something desperate’ to injure Lloyd George and was only prevented by being unable to reach him. Arrested and charged with a breach of the peace, Malloch was sentenced to a month in the second division; that is, without special privileges. Like the other suffragette detainees, she immediately went on hunger-strike. She told the prison doctors, ‘If you feed me, I shall either die or kill myself’. According to one source, she had gone prepared with poison for this purpose.

‘We are now all of us within measurable distance of a tragedy over this prison business’, Brailsford had warned Masterman. If Jane Malloch or any of the WSPU women died in prison, ‘other deaths would follow’. Frantic with worry, he wrote to Sarah Byles, wife of the Liberal politician and newspaper owner William Byles. He asked her to approach the Home Office to save his wife from forcible feeding. ‘[I]t is hard for me to be calm and fair’, he told her. ‘[T]he pain simply does not matter. It is the outrage, the violation, the idea of something being thrust by force into one’s body, which matters. I, a man, should feel this as an almost unforgivable outrage. I should expect women to feel it much more.’ When Mrs Byles suggested that Brailsford should himself appeal to Masterman, he refused. ‘I won’t go to him about my wife’, he wrote. ‘He knows her. I think he admires her. He must act for himself.’

However, Brailsford’s nerves did not hold for long. The next day, he arrived at the Home Office for an interview with the senior civil servant, Sir Charles Troup. Befor long he was in tears, Troup reported to Masterman, and wishing the women militants ‘at the bottom of the sea’ if only he could save his wife. The other men were affected too. Nevinson tried to write an article for The English Review, but found it impossible to think. He himself had a long romantic obsession, partly reciprocated, with Jane Malloch. Now he ‘could only think of that beautiful woman starving’. At the next Nation lunch, he urged his colleagues to ‘[l]et them out, break the law, anything rather than allow this abomination in our country to continue’. Masterman, ‘coming in late, gave me one appealing look & sat on my other side’, he recorded. ‘I did not speak to him’.

The all-male setting of the Nation lunch provides a remarkable depiction in miniature of what women’s suffrage militancy meant for Liberal men. Every force and pressure was represented and focussed there. Its members, a group of long-established friends and professional colleagues, included a man responsible for the Liberal Government’s policing and imprisonment of the Suffragettes, now including the bodily violation of forcible feeding; another man whose wife was imprisoned awaiting such treatment and another who was in love with her; the leading academic interpreters of the liberal ideals that this practice had called into question; and liberalism’s most influential publicists.

However, little sense of these conditions can be derived from the pages of the Nation itself. Its editorials were calm and impersonal, regretting but refusing to condemn forcible feeding. How, we might wonder, was such imperturbability abstracted from the emotional, human situation that underlay it?


This chapter, which forms part of my research project on the personal and the political, examines New Liberal imperturbability and the pressures the suffragettes tried to bring to bear upon it. I argue that suffragette militancy, whatever else it was, was also an attempt to deal with two emotional responses among Liberal men to the demand for the vote: humour, and imperturbability. It did so by producing a spectacle – the forcible feeding of women – at which they could not laugh. And since some of the women were women they loved – as was the case with Jane Malloch, and numerous other examples I give in the chapter – they could not regard it without emotion, in the imperturbable way they liked to make decisions. Suffragette militancy was brought to bear personally on the men. It not only pursued them into domestic homes, private clubs and and places of recreation. It also invaded their personal relationships.

The Nation approach to political problems was to diminish emotion so far as possible, to enable them to treat them with detachment. Imperturbability, it believed, was a cultivated disposition, gendered in that men were believed to be better at it, and the only proper way to address questions which made other people emotional and excited. In fact, as I show using diary evidence, the New Liberals did not approach the question of women’s suffrage in quite this way, and the more honest among them, such as J.A.Hobson, were willing to admit it. Privately, and emotionally, he argued, Liberal men were disturbed by the spectacle of prefiguratively free women, even when publicly and rationally, they supported women’s suffrage.

These feelings also had a quite specific application for the men concerned: the guilt they felt about the limited opportunities that existed for the the clever women they loved, and married, and would exist in the future for their female children. The women and men were linked by a quite astonishing network of connections. Existing accounts have traced the men’s intellectual networks, but no one has explored the way that university education, journalism and campaigns – suffrage, pro-Boer, over free trade, Ireland and many other questions, made connections between men and women, let alone how family, marriage, and indeed extra-marital affairs, also did so.

The lack of opportunities for women after university – and especially the painful choice between career and conventional marriages and motherhood – was felt forcefully by the women. It was felt indirectly by the men too. In many cases, the woman was considered to be the cleverer or more talented partner, but university never led where it did for the New Liberal men, to seats in Parliament, chairs in the universities or the editor’s chair. For this reason, I also look – for the first time – at what the wives and partners of the New Liberal men themselves wrote. Their writings, unlike those of the men, form a sort of ‘minor literature’ of short stories, plays, children’s books, unpublished novels, – indeed, the unpublished semi-autobiographical novel of frustration is almost a sub-genre – and the themes are often precisely these frustrations.

The women’s emotional strategy also – intentionally and usefully – set the men against each other because it ruled out the usual ways in which men helped women in their campaigns. Their strategy ruled out being rescued, or their battles being fought for them by chivalrous men. Brailsford, for example, was haunted by the fear that in tearfully seeking his wife’s release, he had been weak and unmanly, where the women had been strong. Yet his Nation colleagues also attacked him for remaining in safety while urging on ‘hysterical girls’ to reckless acts, or implied that he had been unmanly in being so swayed by women’s opinions. In attacking the men’s imperturbability, therefore, the militant women had also attacked their masculinity.

As well as the usual sources for the women’s suffrage movement, my chapter makes use of Nevinson’s diary, kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and two hitherto unused sources. The first are the Masterman Papers, which include Lucy Masterman’s diaries but also an extraordinary unknown letter from Brailsford to Masterman, written at the height of the storm over Jane Malloch, which clearly reveals the stress that the crisis had placed on male interactions. The photograph below shows the first page, and the text of the whole letter is appended.

Dear Masterman,

I have just read in the D[aily] N[ews] the statement that two hunger-striking suffragettes at Birmingham have been fed by force in prison. This means I suppose the use of the nose-pump or some similar abomination, & is, I take it, the sequel to your reply in the House the other day that the best way of dealing with hunger-strikers was “under consideration”.

You have imagination. What prevents you from understanding the real loathsomeness of this thing, is, I suppose, your public school training. It is part of the many degradations of English public school life that it crushes out all physical self-respect. To every woman & to any man who had not been through that mill, the idea of being forcibly fed like a Strassburg goose, would be so revolting that no one of average humanity w[oul]d dream of inflicting it on any fellow-creature. It is literally a form of torture. It is also an outrage to human dignity hardly less shameful than a sexual assault.

The women took to the hunger strike as a protest against the indignities of prison clothes etc which your Gladstone rejoices to inflict. I need not remind you what the other Gladstone said in protesting against the treatment meted out by Balfour to W[illia]m O’Brien. And now because the women protest against the relatively slight indignity of prison clothes, you & your Gladstone have invented this fresh outrage. The official mind moves always I suppose in this curve.

I am writing you a letter which you will doubtless resent, in the hope of forcing you to stop for a moment amid all the interests and intoxicants of a very exciting career, to realise what our responsibility in this matter involves. We are now all of us within measurable distance of a tragedy over this prison business.

I have heard one woman, a member of the W.S.P.U., who usually does what she says she will do, declare that if she were fed by force in prison she would commit suicide. If that happened other deaths would follow.

Your Gladstone is, I believe, fool enough to imagine that he can crush this movement by heaping indignities on his prisoners. You, if you will stop to think, are not of his mental calibre. Yet with all your fine endowments & all your love of liberty you are allowing yourself to become a mere wheel in this brainless machine – vicariously outraging better people than yourself as any clever young Russian bureaucrat would do in the cause of making his career.

Do you ever ask yourself how all this is going to end, and while your Department totals up its hundreds of political prisoners, do you ever move a finger or speak a word to bring nearer a solution? Perhaps you do. I can only judge your public form.

I think it fair in conclusion to tell you that if this outrage on your women prisoners is repeated by your Department, while you are connected with it, I shall not consent to meet you socially.

Yours frankly,

H. N. Brailsford

This latter remark is not a threat, for I do not suppose it would move you at all, but merely that you may gauge my indignation.

The second source is the Home Office file, which I recently discovered at the National Archives – it was missing or lost until 2015 – covering the arrest and prison treatment of Jane Malloch. The document to the left comes from that file, and is a note to officials by Charles Masterman, and a letter from him to the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone, recommending Jane Malloch’s release.

My dear G

This is a real danger and I think should be guarded against. The men who have signed it are approvers of our policy of feeding: so that it is no criticism of general affairs. But Mrs Brailsford is known to them as a woman of great physical delicacy and with a heart affection [sic]. She is known also as a woman who has deliberately determined to die in prison: she has taken a final farewell of her husband !! I don’t want such a catastrophe to be used against us. Indeed, if there is any risk of death we ought to be on the safe side – in the present strained situation.

I suggest that she might be let out via the Hospital and discharged as being in such condition of health and heart as to render if impossible to feed her. There is the other reason also – perhaps a lesser one – that she is only a ‘surety’ prisoner and that the Magistrate did not consider her fault to be sufficient to render it necessary to sentence her for violence.

She went in on Monday and I suppose compulsory feeding would begin on Wednesday. That is when you receive this letter. So if you do decide to act it is rather important that you should act quickly.

You might of course – I think you talked it over with me – you might make it a general rule not to feed the ‘surety’ Suffragettes – but to let them out after their ‘hunger strike’ – only feeding those actually convicted of violence. That is a rather larger question. I think Mrs Brailsford might be got out on a doctor’s certificate. Beyond remains the further question of Lady Constance Lytton who is also delicate, I believe. But my chief concern is with Mrs B[rails]f[or]d who has quite determined to make herself a martyr for the cause. Her last reading ‘The rape of Lucrece !!!!’

Ever yours,

C.F.G. Masterman

If she died in prison or if she committed suicide after being fed (on the “rape of Lucrece” lines) the popular support that we have hitherto received would immediately (in its stupid, unthinking way) turn from us. I doubt if we could continue feeding on those conditions. She knows all that. That is why she is determined if she can (I think) to kill herself: under the wild and frantic idea that be so doing she will save “her sisters” from these “outrages”.


Standard histories of the New Liberalism are remarkably silent on the question of women’s suffrage. They note that the New Liberals were mostly in favour, and that they opposed the impatient demands of the militants for electoral and narrowly party political reasons. It is true also that the New Liberals said little about women’s suffrage in their published work, but that might be regarded as an intriguing silence, rather than as a sign that the issue was philosophically straightforward for them. At the Nation lunch, women’s suffrage was the most divisive and emotive subject. Several marriages and relationship among the group broke up over the issue. So that it was emotive and unproductive of writing is itself intriguing, and inevitably directs attention to the gendered identities of the New Liberals themselves.

The chapter is also an attempt to make the language in which emotions are discussed more sophisticated. Historians often work with quite simple notions of ‘sympathy’ and ‘hostility’. They note that militant tactics made Liberal men hostile – which is true – and conclude that they therefore failed. But recent work in social psychology and the philosophy of the emotions permits us to be more sophisticated vocabulary of emotional states – not just sympathy and hostility, but pride, shame, guilt, pity, indignation and many others.

It also introduces the useful concept of the ‘action tendency’ of an emotion – its capacity to provoke impulses to act. The trouble with imperturbability was that its action tendency was to put off their demand, or at best to weigh it judiciously against other considerations. The trouble with humour was that it diminished its object and dissipated action. Stronger action tendencies could be expected from arousing pity, respect, indignation and frustration. Not all these were useful action tendencies for the suffragettes. Pity was a particular trap. But rather than unite Liberal men in cool ‘sympathy’, with its weak action tendency, militant tactics were, I argue, designed to split them using hot emotions with strong action tendencies. Angering men, therefore, should not be regarded as a failure. Militancy was a divisive, overheated emotional strategy which accepted its alienating effect on some supporters as the price to be paid for motivating others.


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Men and Purity Campaigns

These two chapters form part of a project on the unacknowledgment of the personal in politics. They concern men’s support for movements for male sexual purity in the decade before the First World War.

Whenever personal questions supplement the political, I argue, the personal of the political becomes significant. I explain the the personal of the political more fully elsewhere, but in short it refers to the person of the political activist – i.e. who she is: her identity, emotions, embodiedness, close relationships, etc – considered independently of the views she campaigns for. ‘Supplementation’ means the attempt to ‘add in’ a question to political consideration without otherwise altering anything else, such as political processes and structures.

The more intimate the question, the harder it is for this supplementation to be done without full acknowledgment of the personal of the political. Sexual desire is both the most intimate and idiosyncratic aspect of human personality. It deeply affects people, how they feel, and what they believe, often for reasons that they do not fully understand. Even more work therefore has to be done to render it impersonal again, when that is what people wish to do. The effort needed to keep the personal and the political apart will therefore be more visible. And, for the same reason, the work will also to be more likely to fail, and thus more visible when it does so. Despite the difficulties in researching it, it is therefore a good case to consider.

The male purity campaigns were directed primarily against fornication (sex before marriage or adultery within it) although they also found other targets, such as prostitution, sexual deviance, and artistic indecency. They arose in the late nineteenth century from a number of different sources: evangelical religion, public health concerns about the extent and effects of venereal disease, public order concerns about the prevalence of prostitution in cities and ports, but above all the sharper critique of male sexuality made by articulate, middle class women, seen first in the campaigns against the Contagious Diseases Act in the 1880s and later in parts of the women’s suffrage movement.

In Other People’s Struggles, I contrasted three different types of work that can go on in social movements:

(1) disjoint work (what we do to or for others),

(2) conjoint work (what we do to or for each other), and

(3) reflexive work (what we each do to or for ourselves).

I suggested that each type of work has distinct implications concerning questions of solidarity and belonging: how far the work can be shared, and with whom.

My claim here is that this set of distinctions helps to explain the pattern of alliances and coalitions that formed over male purity, especially between men and women. The issue required the personal of the political to be acknowledged, and this was done in quite different ways in each type of work.


My example of disjoint campaigning is the ‘white slave’ legislation of 1912. This aimed to tighten up the law against sex trafficking, by targeting ‘white slavers’ who, it was claimed, were abducting unsuspecting women and taking them out of the country to foreign brothels. Its other targets included procurers (who recruited women into prostitution) and ‘bullies’ (who lived off their earnings, directed, and ‘protected’ them). The 1912 legislation made it easier to arrest suspects without a warrant and to evict prostitutes from rented flats, and obliged suspected procurers and bullies to show that they were not ‘living on immoral earnings’. It also increasing the penalties on conviction, reinstituting flogging, which had more or less died out as a punishment.

Legislation of this sort had long been favoured by a small number of Conservative backbencher MPs, but was usually blocked by the Home Office. So the first thing that is intriguing is the unexpectedly vehement campaign that, in 1912, obliged the New Liberals to take it up as a government measure. I explore the campaigning organisations – especially the ‘Pass the Bill’ committee, the Men’s Society for Women’s Rights – and their newspapers, The Awakener and The Eye Opener.

It is also important to note that the campaign enjoyed support from both men and women. The ‘Pass the Bill’ Committee had both sexes on it. And despite its name, the Men’s Society for Women’s Rights received at least as many donations from women as from men, and established its own league of supporters, the Order of the White Rose, which was open to men and women alike. It was also unfailingly pro-suffrage, and continued to endorse suffragette militancy long after other supportive newspapers had abandoned it. Somehow then, on this issue, men and women worked together in ways they often struggled to do concerning other questions.

The disjointness of the campaigning – the degree to which it targeted others – is also very striking. It is visible both at the points at which it is challenged, and in the reactions to those challenges. These, I argue, were four in number. The first concerned the motivations for men to pay for sex. The campaigners were determined to keep the focus tightly on the deviancy of the demand for ‘white slaves’. Normal sexual behaviour, which might include prostitution at certain stages of a man’s life, was not the issue. The second concerned the identities of the clients. In the campaign, the client was an elusive, unnamed figure. But this was disputed by those who pointed out that the clients were men everyone knew, often otherwise respectable figures. The third challenge concerned the motivations of the women. For the campaigners, the women were sexually innocent victims of evil men, who needed to be protected in their own interests. Other motivations and identities were obscured. The fourth question concerned the failure to acknowledge the complicity of the campaigners themselves in the vice they denounced, which was the subject of a typically contrarian contribution by George Bernard Shaw.

The disjointness, and the accompanying unacknowledging – the work of not acknowledging more complex or personal complicities – was what permitted the coalition of men and women. Unacknowledgment was essential to the survival of the coalition of support. Men were able to work alongside – rather than in parallel with – women in the white slave campaign because it was understood not to be addressing any general problem with male sexuality, but only with its deviant forms. Whether in denying complicity, or obscuring the male client and the nature of his sexual demands, or in refusing to allow its issue to broaden to address prostitution as a whole, the white slave campaigners sought to maintain a tight focus upon a small number of offenders. Indeed, they narrowed the target so much that it proved impossible to find one. Once the legislation was passed, and a special branch of the Metropolitan Police established to find and arrest the white slavers, it failed to do so.


Men who campaigned for sexual purity, however, were not always unwilling to engage personally. Some made personal pledges of purity and joined men’s purity leagues to help other men to do the same. This was conjoint work (‘on or for each other’), although there was also a partial disjointness in the work, when older men took it upon themselves to guide younger ones. My examples are the unstudied Alliance of Honour, a league of young men who pledged to respect the ‘sacredness of womanhood’, and the purity efforts made at an earlier stage in the public (i.e. private) schools, as they ceased to try and distract boys from impurity with discipline and hearty games, in favour of modern, engaged personal guidance.

The Alliance was founded in 1904 as an inter-denominational organization. Its membership was only open to boys over 15 and men over 18, and all its affairs were conducted by men alone. Its motto was ‘Man to man – each just where he is’ and it engaged in ‘ambulance work’ for ‘fallen’ men who had ‘lost themselves’ to vice, and preventative ‘fencing work’, to advise schoolboys, schoolmasters and youth workers before it was too late. Another Alliance motto was that ‘a fence round the precipice at the top is better than an ambulance at the bottom’.

The Alliance had some success in recruiting men and boys to its cause. By 1914, 43,000 young men in over a thousand branches had made the pledge, almost a quarter of a million had attended its meetings, and over a million booklets had been issued. In 1911, its congress – the ‘largest purity meeting in the world’ – received a message of support from the King.

In certain ways, the Alliance of Honour modernised Victorian purity work. It deployed scientific evidence in support of its beliefs, and it accepted that sex was not a ‘beast’ to be tamed, but a healthy ‘race-enhancing’ instinct, which should be guided rather than condemned. In a similar way, the work in the public schools also altered in the Edwardian period. Rather than threaten and warn, or simply refuse to discuss sex at all, the modern approach was softer in tone, and was concerned to establish an understanding between men and boys, through one-to-one discussion. Although the confession was overwhelmingly one-way, it had become possible, and sometimes desirable, to acknowledge that everyone had felt temptation. Rather than preaching from a position of distant authority, the modern guide came to the edge of the precipice. One would not be a man if one were not tempted, but one would not become a man if one gave in. Conjoint male purity was becoming less a matter of distraction and discipline, as of good manly example. This had a number of consequences, principally that the exemplars had themselves to be beyond temptation themselves.

They also still had to be men, for none of this work involved any greater role for women. The patron saint of the Alliance was Sir Galahad, the virgin knight of the grail, who kept his distance from women in order to keep himself pure. Indeed, the chivalrous hero was still the dominant motif of conjoint male purity. Its variant of manliness demanded internal self-restraint, but also accepted fewer external constraints upon its will. Its principal characteristic was a moral and physical toughness, purified in youth among other men, and then imposed with authority on the outside world. Such a purified man had obvious weaknesses as an ally of women concerned about the forcefulness of male power.

The depiction of women in Alliance literature was almost entirely unchanged from the Victorian period. Mothers and, especially, the unmarried sister were repeatedly invoked. The mother, her own sexuality extinguished as procreation and childbearing ended, was the imagined as a figure of absolute, incorruptible purity. The sister was a sweet, passive and innocent creature, who needed men’s protection for her own good. The stated purpose of the Alliance, indeed, was to promote among young men ‘brotherly concern and jealousy for the welfare of all young women which they cherish on behalf of their own sisters’. ‘You would not allow your own sister to be dishonoured’, one contributor wrote, ‘so why another man’s sister?’

Whether pushing women away as dangerous sexual temptresses, pitying the ‘fallen women’ from above, honouring the ‘sacredness of womanhood’ from below, or protecting them as sweet virgin sisters, the men placed women firmly apart. There was no sense that women might be allies to men in the fight. The dates of the Alliance (1904 – 1914) coincide almost exactly with the years of militant suffragism. Yet there was no mention whatsoever of the suffragettes, not even when, after 1911, they developed their own campaign against male sexual aggression.

When the women suffrage campaigners addressed assemblies of men on male purity, they stepped outside the restricted roles that male purity allotted to them. The resulting tensions were acutely painful, sometimes reducing the men to tears. Judgment in such matters is hard, but the speech of a woman seems to have left the men feeling smaller and less heroic than they did when fighting for purity on their own. For conjoint purity work to function well, this could not be allowed to happen often. Campaigning had to be done separately, by men, for men, enabling them to maintain identities of which they could be proud, acknowledging their sexuality and its problems in their own way.

Conjoint purity politics was hard for men and women to share. It was not that purity could only be pursued disjointly: rather that if pursued conjointly it had to be pursued separately. Conjoint work only worked well either where men targeted each other with the obligation to honour women, or when women bound themselves together to abjure men.


Reflexive purity work is work that individuals do to and for themselves. No matter how much external discipline was applied, or how much mutual support men gave to each other, the battle against impurity was ultimately a solitary one. It was a struggle within the individual but involving two elements, whether these were defined in religious terms as moral conscience and fleshly desire fighting over the human soul, between Mill’s ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ instincts, between Darwinian evolution and animal nature, or between civilizational advance and degeneration. To struggle for personal purity was not to seek a single undivided state, but the dominance of the lower element by the higher one.

I have chosen to examine the case of an individual who was also engaged in conjoint and disjoint work. He was Charles Masterman, a New Liberal writer and government minister whom I have also studied in other work. Masterman’s life intersected, personally and politically, with purity work of each type so far described. He was at the Home Office at its first consideration of the white slave trafficking legislation, which he helped to encourage, and was also involved in the work of the department on prostitution and the reform of delinquent youth.

He also spent a good deal of his own time involved in welfare work with boys and young men, guiding boys through the difficult years of adolescence. As a university graduate ‘slumming’ in the settlement houses and tenement blocks of south London, he helped working-class boys. But his deeper involvement was with boys of his own class, to whom he became a friend, correspondent and guide. He befriended younger boys from his own boarding school, with whom he remained in close contact long after he had himself left. Later they included the boys at Horsmonden, a failing school which he took over and ran himself, and later still holidays and camps at Bembridge, a progressive boarding school on the Isle of Wight run by his close friend J. Howard Whitehouse, where he spent many weeks of each year, living apart from his family, trying to recapture the physical and emotional closeness of boarding school life.

In many ways, Masterman never left boarding school. He told his wife that it had been the only happy time in his life, and he was a lifelong reader of boys’ stories, in which the boys never grow up. Some of Masterman’s correspondence with the boys he guided survives. The largest collection of letters is with a boy, Frank Du Wilson (known to Masterman as ‘Peter’). They met in 1918 at the Bembridge school camp, the summer before Peter, aged 14, was about to go away to boarding school for the first time. Masterman was in his forties, and over the next three years he wrote over seventy letters to Peter.

To a contemporary reader, the correspondence seems startlingly intimate. Masterman signed his letters ‘much love’ and used pet names for Peter. He frequently gave him presents, trips and treats. They met alone, at Masterman’s repeated urging, during the school holidays, and Peter frequently slept over at Masterman’s house in London, at his lodgings at Bembridge, and a beachside cabin at Selsey. There were trips to the beach, naked bathing and rough games, recorded in correspondence and photographs. Masterman also applied his own devised ‘system of kindness and ferocity’, alternately rewarding Peter with ‘tips’ and physically punishing him. There were similar ‘contracts’ with other teenage boys.

Masterman also advised Peter on sexual purity. In several letters, often confused in tone, he urged him to resist the ruinous sexual temptations and dangers of boarding-school life, and especially the unexpected threat of ‘a quite nice elder fellow … you will sort of not like to offend’, someone ‘of who you could never have expected anything wrong’ until it is ‘too late’ and you find out how ‘utterly rotten it all was’. Interpretation of this sort of evidence is not straightforward. But consciously or unconsciously, Masterman seemed almost to be warning Peter against himself.

By the end of his life – he died at the early age of 54 – Masterman was living alone near Bembridge School, isolated from his family. Due to this isolation, we have a remarkably full account of his symptoms in letters to his wife. They seem to indicate a deep somatization of his unhappiness. He had become over-weight and unkempt, drug- and alcohol-dependent, sleepless, but when sleeping tormented by unbearable dreams, unable to work, and gaining what happiness he could from the life of the camp with his favoured boys. Despite severe money problems, Masterman travelled to Freiburg to seek advice from Dr Karl-Bernhard Marten, a psychoanalyst who claimed to be able to cure homosexuality.

There is almost no other evidence that Masterman thought of himself as homosexual or sexually ‘inverted’, nor that his relationships with his boys were sexually exploitative. It is, for familiar reasons, misleading to apply ahistorical labels. It is probably better to think of him as being thrown into uncertainty by the sharp turn of opinion in and after the late Victorian period regarding the purity of intimate relationships between men and boys.

Modern conjoint guidance rested on two presumptions: first, that the older man had himself conquered his temptations, and secondly that he felt no sexual desire – only affectionate concern – for the boys he was guiding. The example of Masterman suggests that matters were more complicated. The homosocial settings in which Masterman worked all his life – the boarding school, the youth camp, the church boys’ club – were meant to keep the boys pure through the exclusion of female temptation. But they were haunted by the anxiety that unacknowledged impurity – the ‘rottenness’ – lay within the men and not the boys. They illustrate how the campaign for purity is not merely a campaign over the body (with the body as its object – to be disciplined, distracted, or purified by one means or another), but one in which the body (with its unacknowledged demands, needs and desires) is the means by which the campaign (the politics) is carried out.

Masterman’s example also suggests there were limits to acknowledgment in reflexive work. In theory, reflexive work, done properly, obliged acknowledgment. Since we know ourselves better than anyone else does, we cannot easily deceive ourselves. We can therefore excavate our true desires, and hold them up to the light. But unconscious desire raises deep problems for this approach. What we desire is at least partly unconscious, because it is unbearable to acknowledge it. It has been repressed deep beyond excavation. The self therefore does not know where to dig in order to purify itself.

Moreover, effortful will – the injunction of the purity campaigners – is part of the problem, since the more valuable the find, the harder we work to bury it again, or throw it away. The more we try to purify ourselves, the more guilty we feel, and the more we repress. Thus far from excavating, Freud advised, the patient must stay ‘on the surface of his consciousness’, free-associating, so that a trained analyst can listen and help open up the blockages that prevent us from speaking our unconscious desires.


It is, of course, possible to explain the seemingly contradictory elements in Masterman’s work in terms of separation (public and private worlds kept apart), or hypocrisy (conscious deceit). However, in my view, the better description is neither of these, but inhibition. Masterman was an inhibited man. His regression to school, his acting out of the part of the protector, were, like the sublimation of impure desire into purifying work – ways of retaining a desire which could neither be accepted nor rejected, as an illicit source of pleasure or excitement. They were ways to refrain from acting on the desire, but keep its intensity.

Masterman’s inhibitions were a consequence of the breakdown of these ways (regression, sublimation, acting-out) he had found to cope with forbidden desire. They were, in other words, forms of acknowledgment and unacknowledgment of the personal. They were the equivalent (in reflexive work) of sublimation or projection (in the work of purifying others). Such terms provide a way to reconnect the three areas of purity work I have described. All are different ways of acknowledging (or unacknowledging) questions which can no longer be addressed impersonally, (the women will not allow it) nor confronted directly, because it is too painful to do so. Disjoint work, put in these terms, a matter of expelling, or projecting the unacknowledged feelings on to others (the white slavers, the ‘rotten’ boys at Peter’s school). Conjoint work is a means of sublimating what is difficult to acknowledge, by redescribing it in an acceptable way, as a campaign of chivalrous inter-generational purification. Reflexive work can be either of these too, but also includes many other methods of working around what is otherwise hard to bear.

To explain purity work only in terms of ego defences would be simplistic. But it explain some aspects which are otherwise hard to see, notably what work can be shared and what cannot. An impersonal politics can be chosen freely and uncomplicatedly, in the way imagined by liberals, on the basis of interest and opinion. But when it comes to the personal, we do entirely not have a free choice, and we do not choose from an open set of possible desires. The motivations, the participation, and the choices of stances and alliances are not just a consequence of rational, reflective choice, but are inflected by the personal of the political.

The main effect of this pattern of acknowledgment and unacknowledgment was on the possibilities for men and women to work together, and hence the nature of the coalitions and alliance that were possible. When campaigning could be separated from the personal, it could be conducted by both sexes, even though only one would be the principal beneficiary. This was broadly true, for example, of campaigns for women’s suffrage. When a personal question – men’s sexual purity – was pursued with little acknowledgment, it was possible for men to share the pursuit with women (it was the pursuit of stigmatised third parties). When it was necessary to make greater acknowledgment, men and women had to work apart, or alone.

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I discussed men’s groups of the 1970s briefly in my article on men’s involvement or non-involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, an article which appeared in Historical Journal.  But there is a lot more to be said about them, especially concerning their failure to achieve the same success as the women’s consciousness-raising groups on which they were at least partly modelled.  They were less popular, and the techniques that the women developed in their groups seem not to have translated very easily.  They also form a useful test case for my claims about the participation of adherents in ‘other people’s struggles’.  There were difficulties in establishing the right relationship between the men’s groups and the women’s movement.  Were they ancillary organisations, there to provide support to the women in their struggle?  Or was there a distinct struggle for men to conduct on their own account, for men’s liberation?    If so, was it complementary to the women’s struggle, or did the struggles at some point diverge?

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the new woman and the new man

This paper concerns feminism’s production of the New Man.

I begin with the quotation from Olive Schreiner and its puzzle that ‘new women’ were haunted by the possibility and necessity of the New Man. Like most idealists, Olive Schreiner believed that the sexes were like ‘two oxen tethered to one yoke’. ‘[F]or a moment one may move slightly forward and the other remain stationary’, she wrote, ‘but they can never move farther from each other than the length of the yoke that binds them; and they must ultimately remain stationary or move forward together.’ However, she combined this view with a deep hatred of how men had treated women in social and personal relationships, and their indifference to the demands that women had made for freedom. If this were not to lead to despair, she, like other ‘new women’, therefore had also to believe in the possibility of the New Man.

By 1911, when her book Woman and Labour appeared, she heralded the emergence of the new man, though with the significant reservation that his emergence was slow and hard to spot. ‘Side by side with the “New Woman,” corresponding to her, as the two sides of a coin cast in one mould, though differing from each other in superficial detail, are yet of one metal, one size, and one value; old in the sense in which she is old, being merely the reincarnation under the pressure of new conditions of the ancient forms of his race; new in the sense in which she is new, in that he is an adaptation to material and social conditions which have no exact counterpart in the past; more diverse from his immediate progenitors than even the woman is from hers, side by side with her today in every society and in every class in which she is found, stands—the New Man!’. His emergence was ‘quite as important, as radical, and if possible more far-reaching in its effects on the present and future’ than that of the New Woman. His aspirations for companionate marriage, for a full share of parenting, and were all the same as hers. Indeed, his ideal partner was not the dependent, parasitic, feeble woman of the past, but the New Woman. ‘If anywhere on earth exists the perfect ideal of that which the modern woman desires to be—of a labouring and virile womanhood, free, strong, fearless and tender—it will probably be found imaged in the heart of the New Man; engendered there by his own highest needs and aspirations’.

Olive Schreiner was not the only feminist who believed in the New Man. ‘The new man … stands by us already’, Coralie Boord wrote to the Freewoman. ‘A little young, a little weak-kneed, but … women were ever motherly. We will nurse him until he attain his full stature!’. There was also Beatrice Robertson-Hale, who hailed ‘the advent of the new man, with his sincere and unforced respect for women, his friendliness, and his lack of either condescension or flattery, with inexpressible relief’. Wilma Meikle thought that younger feminists, bruised by encounters with free love but reluctant to enter either ‘battered marriages’ or the ‘cowardly spinsterhood’ of the purity feminists, were now wanted men to be their allies. In doing so, [t]hey regarded men as fellow-discoverers, equally blundering, equally uninstructed, equally suffering’. ‘Man, the subjector’, she wrote, was to be ‘regarded more amiably as man the bungler’.

Indeed, there was a paradoxical sense in which – at least for those feminists who had not entirely given up on men – the more intense their dissatisfaction with the present state of relations between the sexes, the more intense their hope for a New Man had to be. The New Man was often seen as a valuable adjunct to the emergence of the New Woman, even as a necessary companion for her emergence. The best example is perhaps the militant feminist Lucy Re-Bartlett. Re-Bartlett supported violent militancy in the suffrage movement, and endorsed the Lysistratan tactic of refusing men sex until the vote was won. However, she also exhibited a strong optimism and faith that new men were emerging. ‘Useless would be all the struggle of the new Eve, if the new Adam had not risen too, she wrote. ‘But he has risen, and well the new Eve knows this.’ He was ‘the natural comrade for the strenuous woman which our age is bringing forth, a man sufficiently evolved to know the rightness of her new demands in sexual matters, and grant them, not as a concession to her, but in obedience to a higher law whose workings he also has learnt, and of which she comes to him at most as the enunciator’. The new man and new woman would marry and live together, dedicated to chastity except for the purposes of procreation, in a spirit of love, mutual service and self-control, subordinating sensuality to the ‘sacrificial spirit of the cloister’.

Even in the heat of the suffrage struggle, Re-Bartlett’s advocacy of Lysistratan methods was tactical, and explicitly distinguished from sex antagonism. [A]ll that is needed is that man should understand, and should build the new conditions in which this higher love and higher woman will have room to breathe’. ‘[T]his form of protest may be the only thing in many cases which can call out the “new man” as well as give birth to the “new woman”. It was, after all, ‘the most restive girl who will make the completest wife’. Her novel, Transitions (1914) told much the same story in fictional form. Its ‘new man’, Hugh Pelham, undergoes a kind of sentimental education through conversations with feminists and reflection on his sorry past as an exploiter of women, and is rewarded by the ‘consummation’ of marriage to a ‘new woman’.

The early ‘New Woman’ fiction of the 1890s had presented women’s dilemma as a choice of whether to ‘comply or perish’: whether, in other words, to accept a conventional marriage or face social exile or even death. But later ‘New Woman’ fiction proposed other solutions. One was the possibility of female autonomy through the refusal of men on any terms. But another, visible in Re-Bartlett’s Transitions, was a new beginning with a New Man. New Women were not themselves saved by the love of a good man, as in more conventional fictions. Rather, they saved men who had gone wrong in youth, often under the bad influence of an older and more old-fashioned man, through feminism. The female protagonist, in other words, was architect of a new world, but one made with New Men.

However, such New Men were first and foremost works of the imagination. Just as the literature of ‘free love’, such as that of H. G. Wells, had creatively summoned up sexually adventurous young women such as Ann Veronica to pursue its experimental vision of conjointness, so the idealist New Women produced its own fictional and utopian creations, works of the imagination designed to fill a gap in the real world. Even Re-Bartlett’s hero is never actually seen in marriage: the tensions are postponed beyond the novel’s end, just as they were by the previous generation of novelists. Moreover, while Olive Schreiner hailed the birth of the New Man in her non-fiction, she found it impossible to make him live in her fiction. Her most realized ‘new man’, Mr Drummond, appears in From Man to Man, a book never finished and which was only posthumously published. Tellingly, Mr Drummond’s reformed masculinity refused to take shape and the novel accordingly focused on the heroine’s feelings for unsatisfactory men, sexually philanderers and ‘double standard’ hypocrites, rather than the ‘new man’.

The idealists’ adventist faith in the imminence of the New Man also stood in sharp contrast to the more pessimistic views of other feminists, such as Christabel Pankhurst and Cicely Hamilton. For them, men were not emerging gratefully from the prison-house of their sexuality, but were quite happy where they were.

My paper considers this strange requirement of feminism, first in the pre-1914 period, and then in the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Here too, as the quotation from Sheila Rowbotham at the top of this page suggests, feminists felt compelled to invent the new man. Just as it was before the First World War, the attempt was contested by feminists who denied this necessity, and who found it impossible to persuade themselves that men would change. By the 1970s, there was both greater pessimism that the New Man could be found, and greater reluctance on the part of women to ‘nurse’ him to ‘full stature’.


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