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    Feminism and men

    Aug 20


    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.


    Read More
    Aug 01

    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.

    As ever, if you would like to read these chapters in draft, please click on the message icon to the right and send me a message.


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    Jan 28


    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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    Jan 19

    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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    Jan 14

    men in groups

    ‘The new woman inevitably demands a new man.’

    (Sheila Rowbotham, ‘Problems of organization and strategy’, 1972).

    The slogan on the badge in the photograph above has (at least) three meanings. Better than whom? Better than unliberated men? Better than men used to be? Or better than women, liberated or otherwise? And better at what? Better at ‘it’, quite possibly, for slogans of sexual boasting were not uncommon on T shirts, car-stickers and badges in the 1970s. For ‘liberated’, perhaps, read ‘uninhibited’.

    The ambiguity is probably not accidental. It is also revealing about the ambiguities of men’s support for feminism in the 1970s, which I have also explored elsewhere. In this investigation, which forms part of an ongoing research project on the acknowledgment of the personal in politics, I examine men’s groups, to try and explain why they formed, and why they worked so differently to the women’s groups on which they were partly modelled. The research has three parts.

    in_the_groupThe first part of the research looks at the men’s groups in Britain in the 1970s, using the newsletters and reports they produced, autobiographical writings and oral histories. The focus is on the internal working of the groups: their size, popularity, methods of recruitment, durability, organisation, and ways of working. Who joined them? Were they similar to the women’s groups, or different, and if so, why?

    One early line of division concerned the question of men’s liberation. Were the men’s groups supposed to help men to understand feminist criticism and change themselves in response to it? Or were they supposed to enable men to rediscover, in the light of feminist criticism, what it might be to be a man?

    beyond_the_groupThe second area of research concerns relations with the women’s liberation movement, and especially, the question of accountability. What were men required to do? How should the men relate to the women’s groups? Were they auxiliaries, that is, separate groupings fighting on the same side? Or did they have their own battles to fight? What should their relationship be to other men beyond the group, especially men who had not yet heard or understood what feminists were saying?

    coming_homeThe third research area concerns the men and their personal relationships, especially family, domestic and sexual relationships. What happened in the home? Did heterosexual ‘feminist couples’ find new ways of living together?

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    Jan 13

    the presence of men

    I have written about men’s involvement (and non-involvement) in women’s liberation in Other People’s Struggles and elsewhere. I have also examined the polling evidence to see whether, why and how men agreed with feminist demands. Here, however, I am concerned especially with the unacknowledgment of the personal in their activism. This paper, which focuses on the British left and its responses to the rise of the women’s liberation movement, is concerned less with the points of agreement and disagreement over feminist demands, than with the difficulties over the exclusion of the physical presence of men from the early conferences of the Women’s Liberation Movement, from marches and demonstrations, and from women’s centres and women-only spaces. male_feminist_cartoonIt involves treating politics as not just a matter of beliefs and commitments but also of embodied presence (and absence).

    The purpose is to examine what it is beyond disagreement over feminist goals that made it hard for men to be included, or include themselves, in the work of women’s liberation.

    The hypothesis I am exploring in the personal and political project is that the failure to acknowledge personal dimensions of political actions – indeed the conscious or unconscious work that is done to avoid such acknowledgment – is part of the answer.

    In this case, the focus is on the physical presence (and absence) of men, in four settings:

    1. Consciousness-raising groups.

    2. The women’s liberation national conferences.

    3. The protest march or demonstration.

    4. In women’s centres and women-only spaces.

    It is, I hypothesize, not accidental that these were the locations of disputes over the male presence between men and women, and also among women. The ‘problem of men’ was as much concerned with men’s presence as it was with their attitudes.

    The source material for this work is archival – especially the newsletters and journals of women’s liberation, and also those of the men’s groups and oral history.

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    Jan 10

    Men and the Women’s Liberation Movement

    This article examines the causes and consequences of the exclusion of men from the British Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. In common with many of the new social movements of the period, the Women’s Liberation Movement was strongly committed to organizational autonomy and self-reliance, in the belief that the demands of oppressed groups should be formulated and presented directly by the oppressed themselves rather than made on their behalf by others, however sympathetic.

    Using contemporary archival sources, especially newsletters, conference papers, reports, and correspondence, the article explores the debates that surrounded this commitment, and the differing perspectives offered by socialist, radical, revolutionary, and other feminists. It describes the problems created by the presence of men on the edges of the Women’s Liberation Movement in its early years, and the controversies that arose over their removal and the definition of women-only spaces. However, even absent men proved to be divisive, and the ‘problem of men’ persisted throughout the decade. The article also considers the responses of men to their exclusion, and their own self-organization in men’s groups.

    The article appeared in Historical Journal (Cambridge University Press) in 2013.


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    Jan 02

    Men and the Demands of Women’s Liberation

    In this research from my project Other People’s Struggles, I look at the absence of men from the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the 1970s. This absence can be contrasted with their presence – awkward though that sometimes was – in the Women’s Suffrage Movement before the First World War, which I have also written about in several other places.

    ‘Absence’ is a term which requires immediate qualification. Men were initially present in the WLM. In another article, published in Historical Journal, I provided an account of how and why they were excluded. In this chapter, however, I aim to test a hypothesis – indeed, the most commonly held hypothesis – that tries to explain this absence: that men did not support the demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement. This, after all, is the most immediately obvious explanation of why men were ‘absent’.

    I have gathered data from social attitudes surveys of the 1970s to test levels of support for the demands of the WLM among men and women. The WLM demands were quite formally defined at the conferences, and although there are some good reasons not to take them as definitive or comprehensive, they are a good starting point.

    There were seven of them. At the first conference in Oxford in 1971, and in the months that followed, four demands were agreed which were then adopted at the second national conference. They were for (1) Equal pay, (2) Equal educational and job opportunities, (3) Free contraception and abortion on demand, and (4) Free 24 hour nurseries. In 1974, in Edinburgh, two further demands were added: (5) Legal and financial independence for all women and (6) The right to a self defined sexuality. An end to discrimination against lesbians. Finally, in 1978 in Birmingham, ‘the right to a self defined sexuality’ was moved to precede the other demands, and a further demand was added: (7) Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.

    How can support for these demands be tested? In the 1970s, the major commercial polling organisations – Gallup, NOP, Harris, and others – conducted regular polls of public opinion on legislative proposals and social attitudes. These are frequently reported in the press. However, it was quite rare for them to report men and women’s responses separately. I have therefore obtained the original data from the UK data archive and several other repositories, and where necessary converted it from the binary data-files. These are mostly old files, and in some cases I had to recode them to make them amenable to modern statistical software. But once this was done, it was possible to split the original data and reanalyse it so as to differentiate between the views of male and female respondents. I have also found numerous unpublished polls in the British, European and North American data archives to which the same method can be applied.

    I also tried to find questions that come as close as possible to the seven ‘demands’, and, for reasons I explore at greater length in the chapter, this was possible in some cases, but not in all. In most, though again not all, cases, I identify the WLM response (e.g. ‘strongly in favour’ of equal pay) and compare the proportions of men and women who make that response, compared to those who make any other response (including don’t know). There are some interesting questions about ‘don’t knows’ which I explore in the chapter too. In some cases, where there are several opinions within the WLM (e.g. on pornography) I compare the responses of men and women across all the answers.

    Most of the summary data I use in the chapter is given in the tables below, although by no means all of it. The figures are the percentages of men and women who gave each answer. The ‘feminist’ answer – the response you would expect the women’s liberationists to give, in other words – is given in red. The figure in brackets after each question gives the result of a significance test (either a Kruskal-Wallis or a Mann-Whitney test). These have the following meanings: (-) means that there is no statistically significant difference between the opinions of men and the opinions of women. (*) indicates significant difference at the 5% level and (**) significant difference at the 1% level. For those unfamiliar with significance tests, that means, roughly, that there is a less than 5% chance (*) or less than 1% chance (**) that the variation is a chance result of sampling error.

    As you can see from the tables below, the results cast doubt on the hypothesis that the primary reason for the exclusion of men was that men did not agree with the demands. On some demands, women were significantly more in support of the demand than men, but quite high levels of men supported it. Equal pay is a good example. On other demands, such as equal opportunities, men seem to have been at least as supportive as women. On other demands still, such as birth control and abortion, men seem to have been more supportive than women. And on some demands, especially those made later in the 1970s, concerning pornography and sexual violence, women were more supportive than men.

    In the chapter, I provide a more detailed analysis of the data, and also provide data on some of the other demands feminist women made in the 1970s. I also explore the adequacy of the questions and answers as a measure of support for the demands. Finally, I offer some supplementary reasons for the absence of men despite, as it seems, their support for the demands. These are, to summarise them briefly, the articulation of desire and identity; the blending of experience, feeling and theory; the empowerment of the activist; and the prefigurative living of change.

    As elsewhere, if you would like to read the draft chapter, please scroll to the end of the tables, click the paper-dart icon, and send me a message.

    TABLE 1A: EQUAL PAY (1968 - 69)
    Do you approve or disapprove of paying women the same as men, if they are doing the same work?
    Sep 1968 (**)Feb 1969 (**)Oct 1969 (**)
    Don't know676635
    Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ594 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ619 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].NOP Market Research Limited, National Opinion Polls National Political Surveys; October 1969 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1981. SN: 69033.

    TABLE 1B: EQUAL PAY (1973)
    Feb 1973
    [Do you think the following is] an important problem or not an important problem…. equal wages for women? (**)
    Feb 1973
    [Of those thinking it important] [Do you agree or disagree that] women should be paid the same money for doing the same work as men? (**)
    Important4249Strongly agree3547
    Not important5649Agree5645
    Don't know12Neither66
    Strongly disagree11
    Worcester, R.M. and Gosschalk, B., MORI Labour Party Research Data, 1974; Panel [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1977. SN: 924.

    July 1970
    Do you think that if … women [became] entirely equal with men in the education they get, the jobs they do, and the pay they get for similar jobs … it would be a good thing or a bad thing on the whole and how good or bad? (-)
    Oct 1974
    Do you think Britain has gone too far or not far enough in attempts to give equal opportunities to women? (-)
    April 1976
    Do you agree or disagree with the Government’s attempt to make men and women equal through the Sex Discrimination Act? (-)
    Good (5)3843Not nearly far enough98Agree very strongly45
    (4)3227Not far enough2824Agree strongly108
    Don't know / no answer (3)911About right4646Agree4242
    (2)1112Too far1115No opinion / don't know711
    Bad (1)107Much too far67Disagree2424
    Disagree strongly98
    Disagree very strongly43
    Social Science Research Council. Survey Unit, Future in Britain Survey, 1970 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1974. SN: 60.Crewe, I.M., Robertson, D.R. and Sarlvik, B., British Election Study, October 1974; Cross-Section Survey [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1977. SN: 666.NOP Market Research Limited, Attitudes to Abortion and the Sex Discrimination Act, 1976 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1981. SN: 1639.

    TABLE 3A: BIRTH CONTROL (1970-71)
    March 1970
    [D]o you think that the pill should be available [for all women] under the National Health or not? (**)
    March 1970
    Do you think the women’s contraceptive pill should only be obtainable on doctor’s prescription or should it be available without a prescription? (**)
    May 1970
    Do you think the pill should or should not be available to unmarried girls? (**)
    Aug 1971
    Do you think the pill should or should not be available to single women? (**)
    Yes3523Doctor only6573Yes4838Yes6851
    No6577Without prescription2013No 4151No2339
    Not available at all57Don't know1111Don't know910
    Don't know107
    NOP, Special Research Report on Crime, Violence and the Permissive Society (March 1970). Don’t knows unreported.NOP, Political Bulletin, March 1970.Opinion Research Centre, May 1970, Evening Standard, 11 May 1970.Opinion Research Centre, May 1970, Evening Standard, 10 Aug 1971.

    TABLE 3B: BIRTH CONTROL (1972-75)
    Dec 1972
    Do you think the Government should provide [a] free birth control service? (-)
    April 1975
    How much [do] you agree or disagree that birth control should be provided free for all who ask for it? (-)
    Yes6664Agree very strongly99
    No2726Agree strongly1210
    Don't know610Agree4341
    No opinion / don't know1010
    Disagree strongly35
    Disagree very strongly24
    NOP Market Research Limited, National Opinion Polls National Political Surveys; 12-17 December 1972 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1981. SN: 70.NOP Market Research Limited and Gay News, Attitudes to Social Issues, April 1975 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], 1978. SN: 1105.

    Feb 1967
    Do you think abortion should … be legal …when the woman is unable to cope with more children? (-)
    …when there is a serious risk of deformity? (-)…when the pregnancy is a result of sexual crime? (-)
    Don't know 1211108109
    NOP, ‘Survey on Abortion’, Feb 1967, Wellcome Collection Archives, SA/ALR/A13/1/4. See also NOP, ‘Survey on Abortion’, Sep 1967, SA/ALR/A13/1/5.

    Do you think that the law should be left as it is, changed to make it easier to obtain legal abortion or changed to make it more difficult to obtain legal abortion?
    Jan 1970 (-)May 1972 (-)Sep 1973 (-)
    As it is413930303633
    More difficult354042453040
    ‘Survey on Abortion’, Jan 1970, Wellcome Collection Archives, SA/ALR/A13/1/6.New Humanist, May 1972, 30-3.New Humanist, Nov 1973, 221-5.

    Do you think that abortion ...
    Oct 1969 (*)Nov 1973 (-)Jan 1975 (-)
    ... should be available on demand?211620161915
    ... should be available in certain circumstances?626754615867
    ... should never be available?121111161313
    don't know55158105
    Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ654 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ876 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ945 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].

    Mar-April 1983
    [Do] you yourself agree completely, agree to some extent, disagree to some extent or disagree completely with [the following aims of] movements and associations concerned with the situation of women?
    Fight against prejudiced people who would like to keep women in a subordinate role to men both in the family and in society. (-)Obtain true equality between men and women in their work and careers. (-)Persuade the political parties to give women the same chances as men of reaching responsible positions in the parties and of becoming candidates for elections. (-)Manage things so that when a child is unwell it could be either the father or the mother who stay home to care for it. (-)Ensure that women who are not in paid employment and who are bringing up their children should receive payment for this. (-)Organize women into an independent movement to achieve a radical transformation of society. (-)
    Agree completely3435434149483232212144
    Agree to some extent293042443740363036301922
    Disagree to some extent1818101298192119252630
    Disagree completely19164354121724245144
    Eurobarometer 19 (Gender Roles in the European Community) (1983). Original data supplied by Leibniz-Institute for the Social Sciences (GESIS), ZA1318. Reported as European Women and Men in 1983: the situation of women, women and employment, their role in society (Brussels, 1983).

    Feb 1982
    Do you agree or disagree that ...
    There is no real difference between pictures in pornographic magazines and the painting with naked people we sometimes see in art galleries. (-)
    Sex is a private matter and should never be publicly displayed, filmed or staged for money or for entertainment. (**)
    The use of pornography is harmless and has no serious effect on those who have a taste for it. (**)The pornography trade degrades women because it makes them into “sex objects” for male use. (**)
    The use of pornography can help some marriages. (**)
    Strongly agree32172621142521
    Agree 19174047342145434430
    Neither 44129121114111712
    Strongly disagree252852152532915
    Making pornography available leads to a reduction in sex crimes. (*)The authorities should stop interfering and allow ordinary people to decide what is fit for them to see and read, and what is not. (*)The use of pornography can trigger off sexual assault. (*) There should be no censorship, on sexual grounds, of plays and films. (**)
    Strongly agree22139111742
    Strongly disagree141979221823
    Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ806, [computer file]. Data supplied by Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, GBSSLT1982, Feb 1982. The indicators of significance here are Mann Whitney tests of the whole range of opinion.

    % agreeing that rape was a 'very serious social problem in Britain'.
    Dec 1968 (-)Mar 1971(-)Sep 1972 (-)Jun 1973 (-)Jun 1973 (*)May 1975 (*)
    Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ610 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ739 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ812 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ854 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited, CQ855 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].Gallup Poll, May 1975 [computer file]. SN: 1330, Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor].

    If paperdartlogo750_coralyou could like to read the draft chapter, in which I analyse this data in more depth, and explain what I think it shows, please click the paper-dart icon and send me a message.

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    Dec 31

    sharing a joke

    This paper, which is part of both my research project on ‘outsiders’ in social movements and my project on the personal and the political, has its origins in several observations concerning laughter in social movements.

    1The first is the observation that humour is often a sticking-point in relationships between constituents – those who participate in a movement for the benefits it will bring them – and adherents – those who do not stand to benefit, but nonetheless participate for other reasons. Other things divide them too, of course, but it is striking that sometimes even people who feel they are on the same side find they do not – or cannot – laugh at the same things.

    2Another observation is that being laughed at is often the trigger for the constituents to mobilize. This was certainly so for many of the early women’s liberationists in Britain, who form the case study in this paper. Being the object of men’s humour was a much-cited source of resentment, and frequently the immediate trigger for women to organise and meet without men present. Ceasing to laugh prettily at men’s jokes was also itself a significant liberation. So was redirecting humour in order to laugh openly at men.

    3A further intriguing observation, therefore, is the frequent disparagement of feminism as ‘humourless’. Anyone who has read feminist newsletters and autobiographies, or heard the testimony of witnesses, knows that the internal emotional register included not only anger, but also mirth, joy, hilarity and even euphoria. But the outward face of feminism could often be unamused or severe. The ‘smile boycott’ – the ‘dream action’ of women’s liberation according to Shulamith Firestone – was intended to reconfigure the expectations by which women were supposed to serve as an appreciative audience for men’s jokes. Women were ‘trapped into laughter’ every day by teasing in the family, workplace banter, catcalls from building sites, the wit of party guests and the everyday chatter of any man who had made them temporarily captive. ‘Unlaughter’ was a consciously-deployed political weapon.

    4At the same time, however, to refuse to laugh according to social expectations risked being figured as socially incompetent, over-sensitive or unhappy. It is striking how many of the early campaigns of women’s liberation were caught between the fear they would be seen as ‘too serious’ and the fear that they would be seen as ‘too trivial’. These fears, indeed, were sometimes held by the same person. This oddly contradictory state of affairs, I think, arises whenever a social movement seeks to redefine the terrain of ‘serious’ politics, and where this terrain is dominated by the oppressing group. The women’s new concerns were simultaneously dismissed as ‘too trivial’ (for introducing the ‘personal’ into the ‘political’) and at the same time ‘too serious’ (for introducing the ‘political’ into the ‘personal’). Both dismissals could be accompanied by laughter and ridicule.

    5The final observation concerns the male allies of feminism. Feminist humour proved hard to share with such men, even when they shared the women’s feelings and beliefs about the oppression of women. Among the male allies we find a further contradiction: both extreme defensiveness concerning the freedom to laugh at whatsoever they liked, and also extreme guilt that somehow, despite their best efforts, the temptations of inappropriate laughter proved hard to extinguish. The men argued, somewhat inconsistently, that humour was both too sacred to regulate, and that it was too frivolous to be worth regulating. Some deep nerve must have been touched to provoke such reactions.

    Laughter, it seems, was not easily shared, even by those who shared the same cause. Just as some women (rightly) suspected the men were laughing at them behind their backs, so some men (rightly) suspected that, behind the closed door, in their women-only groups, the women’s laughter was at their expense. The guilty half-laughter and private disloyalty of the supportive men was often a shock to feminist women. To be laughed at by ‘unreconstructed’, older men who had not tried to understand feminism was one thing. To be the secret object of ridicule from men who claimed to sympathise with feminism was another. For the men too, the new complications regarding what women found funny – for some men the ‘good sense of humour’ had been their primary seductive technique – left them bewildered and angry.

    The tendentious joke

    How should we try to make sense of the complications of laughter in a social movement? One view is that humour changes in responses to changes in belief. As what we believe alters, we cease to find some jokes funny. This will be especially true of tendentious jokes: that is, those that target some other person or group. Tendentious jokes rely on an unstated but implied tendentious belief concerning the target – that women can’t drive, for example, or that men are insensitive lovers. In not quite saying all that he means, the joke-teller prompts the audience to think the tendentious thought for themselves; and, in laughing as they do so, draw themselves into complicity with him. He obtains the laugh by reminding the audience that it shares this belief. So when a tendentious joke is ‘politicized’ – that is, when this implied meaning is made explicit – those who find they do not share the belief can no longer laugh. This is one way that tendentious humour ‘dates’. The beliefs on which it relied are no longer shared, so it no longer seems funny.

    If this is true, of course, the tendentious joke is a very valuable source for understanding a period or a place. It tells us who is complicit with whom, and who dislikes whom. Better still, it is reliable evidence, because laughter is hard to disguise. It is spontaneous and hard to control. It can be impossible to suppress laughter even when the social costs of laughing are high. It is also difficult to fake laughter convincingly when you are not really amused. Laughter, in short, tells us what people really believe. This was certainly the view of one of the groups of British feminists I discuss in the paper: the Women and Language Group. Their report on sexist humour, written in the late 1970s, argued that for feminists humour was a ‘window on ideology’. You might, consciously or unconsciously, be able to disguise your views in ordinary conversation. But your laughter would reveal what you truly thought.

    The trouble is that this is not true. Jokes are not so easily interpreted. Freud, whose The Joke and its Relation to the Unconscious (1905) offers the most plausible account of tendentious jokes, is a useful guide. Freud suggests that such jokes provide a momentary escape from the restrictions we usually place on our own pleasure. We are impelled by instinctual sexual and aggressive drives which develop in early childhood, but which are repressed into unconsciousness by means of parenting, education, and civilizing expectations. We dedicate mental energy to keeping them there, and the tendentious joke provides a brief and pleasurable release from doing so. Joking, Freud wrote, ‘makes the satisfaction of a drive possible (be it lustful or hostile) in the face of an obstacle in its way’. It circumvents this obstacle and in doing so ‘draws pleasure from a source that the obstacle had made inaccessible.’

    However, Freud’s theory does not, as many suppose, show that jokes tell us what people ‘really think’. On the contrary, tendentious jokes mark the tendentious belief as one which is held, but normally censored. Jokes are a way of getting pleasure from thoughts that we already find unacceptable, and not just to others but to us. Laughter at a tendentious joke is therefore not an expression of belief, but of inner psychic conflict between separate parts of the mind. It indicates that we are split, or ambivalent. The joke exploits a gap between how we actually feel and (1) how we wish ourselves to feel (2) how we feel we ought to feel and (3) how we feel others expect us to feel. The last three of these correspond, very roughly, to the demands of the ego-ideal, the super-ego and the cultural ego. The joke both reveals this ambivalence, and is also a way of coping with ambivalence. Its meaning is therefore slippery and not straightforward. Jokes tell us several things, and not one.shutterstock_64281853_angry_woman_oval_cut

    This slipperiness offers a different way to think about the observations with which I began. Take, for example, women who laugh at a feminist joke against male insensitivity. They do so, according to the Freudian account, because the joke releases an obstacle to their pleasure: repressed hostility to men that they have not hitherto been able to express so easily. But for men – even men who share the feminists’ belief that men can be insensitive – the joke removes no such obstacle. They have never been so inhibited, and the joke therefore releases no such pleasure. Men, therefore, grimace and smile wryly. They do not laugh together with the women.

    Or consider such men’s continued, sometimes guilty, pleasure at sexist jokes. This was usually – and doubtless often accurately – understood as a consequence of their unacknowledged sexist beliefs. But the Freudian perspective provides us with another possible interpretation. Perhaps the men had adopted feminist beliefs, and in doing so had created new obstacles to their pleasure. What they felt they ought to be, what they aspired to be, and what others told them they ought to be, had changed. They now expected something different from themselves. Their laughter might then be understood as momentary release from these new obstacles to their pleasure, not (as with uncomplicatedly sexist men) release from repression of their unconscious ambivalence towards women.

    A further possibility, which, as Freud rightly says, only psychoanalysis could provide, is that this temptation to ‘inappropriate’ laughter is likely to be greatest among those who create such obstacles for themselves. The more we adopt civilising prohibitions, Freud argues, the more punitive the superego becomes to the rest of the psyche. Since the super-ego, unlike external critics, cannot be deceived about our true feelings, it is a harsher critic. The ‘virtuous’ who internalise feminist criticism will therefore be the more self-critical, and consequently face a greater intensity of conflict between unhappiness (conscience-stricken guilt) and ‘inappropriate’ laughter.

    In the paper, I offer several further examples of how this perspective can provide a different interpretation of the evidence. They include the surprising aggressiveness of ‘alternative’ comedy towards women as joke-tellers; the defences offered for sexist humour, both old and new; and the emergence of the ‘ironic’ and the ‘self-deprecatory’ tendentious joke. These all, in different ways, suggest that humour develops, at least in part, in unruly opposition both to our publicly-expressed and to our privately-held beliefs. This makes it hard to be sure both what beliefs someone holds when they joke or laugh. Because laughter tells us several things and not one, it creates uncertainty. The tendentious joke is elusive: it may confirm the tendentious belief. Or it may be – but does not have to be – a way of getting away with or even a way of getting away from the tendentious belief.

    what to do about jokes

    This slipperiness also explains why humour can be so hard for a social movement to handle. The outcome of joking is unpredictable. It might lead to critical self-reflection, or it might deflate seriousness and deflect criticism. Movements cannot be sure how, if at all, changing beliefs will produce corresponding changes in humour.

    There were, I argue in the paper, four main responses to the elusiveness of the joke. The first, which I call the ameliorist approach, was to ignore it and hope for improvement. As men’s beliefs changed through argument, persuasion, and reflection, some feminists hoped, their humour would change too. No longer believing what they once believed, men would no longer laugh as they once laughed. Jokes might be slow to adjust to changing beliefs, but eventually they would catch up. Then no one – except those who consciously wanted to harm others – would laugh at tendentious jokes.

    The second approach was a stoical one. Humour, it accepted, could not be changed easily, even when beliefs changed. The most that could be done was to live aware of the damage that it could do, and seek, so far as possible, to avoid it. It was pointless to try and alter jokes, especially if they were a means of briefly (and pleasurably) reducing the constitutive tensions that made people up. Jokes, according to the more psychoanalytically informed view, were defence mechanisms which allowed the day-to-day work of repressing unacceptable thoughts and feelings to go on. According to a less elevated view, they were just part of the way people were, and would not change easily.

    The third approach, however, was unable to resign itself to the hurt that jokes caused their victims. It tried to reduce the ambivalence of the joke by tightening the fit between what people felt, and what they ought to feel. Rather than ignore the slipperiness of humour, as ameliorists did, or surrender to it like the stoics, this approach tried to lift attitudes and behaviour up to the level of core political commitments. Through education and consciousness-raising, and censure of behaviour which fell short, the sense of humour might be raised and corrected, so that it coincided with the best of what people wanted of themselves and each other. This, although I acknowledge it is also a term much damaged by careless and pejorative usage, is the approach of political correctness.

    For reasons I explore in the paper, none of these three approaches proved satisfactory in addressing the slipperiness of tendentious humour. The outcome – the fourth approach – has been to set slippery questions of motivation and intention aside and focus instead on harmful consequences of jokes. At least in public spaces, tendentious humour is now prevented and penalised not only by informal criticism but by formalised codes of respect, which examine not the joke-teller’s intention but the offence caused to the victim.


    Social movements often make language a battlefield. They do so because so much of the world they wish to change is discursively constructed through language. But humour is an especially elusive target for reform because it is an inherently ambiguous form of language, whether in ‘saying it without saying it’ or allowing us momentary relief from what we usually believe, or wish to believe, about ourselves. What is most exasperating about tendentious joking is the difficulty in holding the joke-teller to the propositional content of their joke – the tendentious belief in this case. ‘Where an argument tries to draw the listener’s criticism on to its side’, Freud wrote, ‘a joke attempts to thrust it aside’. Jokes, infuriatingly, are not arguments.

    If the psychoanalytic perspective has explanatory power, then it seems that the more we try to civilize old behaviours out of ourselves, the more tempted we are to laugh. We laugh most, and most inappropriately, at these moments of transition, than we do when nothing much is changing. But at the same time, as we ‘civilize’ ourselves, the less we can afford such laughter. This explains two observations which would otherwise be puzzling: first that the tendentious joke is not smoothly eroded away even in the adjustment of beliefs; and secondly that, among those of whom we might least expect it, the temptation to inappropriate laughter is actually greatest. They laugh despite themselves.

    Social movements know how to influence and change beliefs, but if humour stands in a loose relationship with beliefs, it will not readily change in response. On the contrary, it will spring back against direct attempts to change it.

    To those who hold the stoic view, this may be acceptable or inevitable (these are, of course, more or less the same thing for the stoic). But stoics are rare figures in social movements, which seek to improve the world. Movements that want to change people’s selves for the better, that believe that the personal is political, will find it hard to resign themselves to deep, unchangeable truths about human character. Tendentious jokes, after all, are tragic. They hurt other people and they give us pleasure. And yet to laugh is to be momentarily liberated from something, so for a liberation movement to have a problem with laughter is for it to have a problem with liberation. But there are some things that liberation movements may hesitate to liberate.

    The evidence also suggests an important qualification of the general idea that the sharing of emotions helps to consolidate a movement. In considering the role of emotions in political behaviour, it has been tempting to treat them as merely adding an extra charge to beliefs. Political actors, it is suggested, feel happy and energised when their beliefs are shared, and sad or angry when they are thwarted. The example of humour, however, suggests that emotions can stand in more complex, even contradictory, relations with beliefs, and that they can even divide political actors who are otherwise united. Men and women in feminism did find odd coincidences of emotional register. But the picture is less one of people building collective strength through finding emotions in common, than it is people happening to find each other, amid a great deal of losing each other, even when they held beliefs in common. Movement solidarity, in other words, was built despite, not because of, emotions.

    Please contact me if you would like to read the full draft of this paper.

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    Jan 29


    My article on the presence and absence of men in the women’s liberation movement in britain in the late 1960s and 1970s has appeared in Historical Journal. It provides evidence that men were present at conferences and workshops at the start of the Movement, but were rapidly excluded, or excluded themselves. It explores the reasons for this decision, and the difficulties the ‘problem of men’ caused within the women’s movement, especially between socialist feminists, many of whom wanted to go on working with men, in certain ways and on certain conditions; and radical and revolutionary women, who did not. The ‘problem of men’, I argue, outlasted their departure from the movement in the early 1970s, and the issue remained divisive at least until the late 1970s.

    I am starting a research project on the question that this example suggests to me, which is why men’s participation differed so much from what it had been in the Women’s Suffrage Movement before the First World War.


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