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    the political is personal

    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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    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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    Nov 16

    New Liberal Men and Women’s Suffrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

    Dear Masterman,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Yours frankly,

    H. N. Brailsford

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

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

    My dear G

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

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

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

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

    Ever yours,

    C.F.G. Masterman

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


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

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

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


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