THE PERSONAL AND THE POLITICAL
IN AND BEYOND EDWARDIAN LIBERALISM
This is one of my current research projects. It starts from two historical questions, which I do not think have fully satisfactory answers. The questions concern two ‘failures’.
(1) Why did the Liberal Government after 1906 fail to pass a women’s suffrage bill? This is the political failure. It is usually explained in terms of some Liberal opposition (that of the Liberal leader Asquith in particular) and the significant obstacle that the sort of suffrage bill demanded would have added to the weight of ‘property’ in the electorate, and hence strengthened the Liberals’ opponents.
(2) Why did the New Liberals do so little to address women’s demands, both the demand for the vote, and the demands ‘beyond the vote’? This was the intellectual failure. The issues in question included marriage, motherhood, women’s work and careers, child-rearing, the domestic, and relations between the sexes. There are exceptions to New Liberal neglect, but they are not many, and the New Liberals later acknowledged they had been slow to understand what (at least some) women had been demanding.
In answering these questions – and I do not think the answers are simple – two further observations are worth making:
(3) The New Liberals were personally much touched by the women’s suffrage campaign. The issue split them politically, which is well-known, but also personally, which is not. The New Liberal men were touched by women’s suffrage militancy closely and personally, in their marriages, their families and in their intimate friendships and their sexual lives. There were semi-stifled resentments, arguments and family upsets. Marriages and relationships came under strain, and even broke up under the pressure. Yet they barely acknowledged this personal aspect in their own writings.
(4) The New Liberals were also both touched personally and divided by the new perspectives that women were taking on questions ‘beyond the vote’. Yet this too is barely acknowledged in the classical scholarly writing about the New Liberals.
These two failures were also consequential. They – arguably – go some distance in explaining why the Liberals failed to obtain the democratic ‘Fourth Reform Act’ they needed to stay in power. Such an Act would have needed to enfranchise women.
I am therefore writing an account of the New Liberals’ engagement with women’s demands which begins with this personal dimension, and the peculiar failure of the New Liberals to acknowledge it in their own writings. This last is a third failure: the failure of acknowledgment, specifically a failure to acknowledge the personal. I have given the question of acknowledgment separate treatment here.
THE IMPERTURBABILITY OF NEW LIBERAL MEN
This chapter is concerned with the Nation group of New Liberals and their attitudes to women’s suffrage. It is based on an original archival discovery I have made in the National Archives. In 1909, the Nation men were thrown into disarray in the most personal way imaginable, when Jane Malloch, the wife of one member of the group (the journalist H.N.Brailsford) and a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union (W.S.P.U.), courted arrest on the orders of the Pankhursts, and was imprisoned and threatened with forcible feeding. This practice was not only publicly defended but instigated by another member of the Nation group, Charles Masterman, who was a government minister at the Home Office, and responsible for the policing of the suffragettes.
It proved impossible for the New Liberal men to consider this situation with the imperturbability they habitually adopted when debating political questions such as women’s suffrage. The personal aspects of the situation got in the way. The chapter argues that such emotional, personal pressure was consciously deployed by the militant suffragettes, in order to break the men’s imperturbability, and the barrier they had placed between the personal and the political. The women had brought the ‘wrong’ dispositions (personal ones) into the public sphere, and the ‘wrong’ concerns (political ones) into the home.
WHAT THE MEN WROTE
This chapter explores the writing of the New Liberals on the questions raised by women’s suffrage and women’s demands beyond the vote. The New Liberals prided themselves on the dynamism of their liberalism. They thought – as L. T. Hobhouse put it – that it was their duty ‘to restate political principles in terms of the living needs of each generation’. This was, he wrote, the duty of ‘an apostolic succession of thinking men’. Yet here was a ‘living need’ which went largely unaddressed. The chapter examines Hobhouse’s own writing on the question of women, and almost unstudied writings by J. A. Hobson and others.
Here too the personal has been unacknowledged. Marriage, families, women’s limited opportunities and their implications were not merely external objects of concern for New Liberal men, like urban poverty. Poverty, which they also wrote about, could be studied in a detached, scientific, dispassionate way, since the New Liberals were not poor themselves. But the New Liberal men did have marriages and families themselves. The personal, however, was occluded in the New Liberals’ own writing, and also in much writing about them. To read their own writings, and writing about them, indeed, it is almost as though none of the New Liberal men had any personal relationships at all, other than intellectual ones with each other.
WHAT THE WOMEN WROTE
Even where the New Liberals’ personal relationships are mentioned, the most distinctive feature of them goes unmentioned. The New Liberal men, in very many cases, had married women from a tiny pool, numbering only a few hundred women. This was the first generation of women to go to university. The men and women’s female relations (e.g. sisters and daughters) were also often part of this tiny pool. The university-educated women, however, faced a dilemma which was both new and acutely felt, and almost wholly unshared with the men: the hard choice between marriage and career.
The men’s writings on this question were convoluted. They believed, as had John Stuart Mill in the 1860s, that educated women, even once politically free, would go on choosing the ‘career’ of marriage, household and motherhood. Mill had acknowledged that since women were as yet unfree this was bound to be guesswork. But since Mill’s time, the cloud of adaptive preferences was beginning to clear. It was becoming apparent to New Liberal men that many educated women were unhappy about this choice. It was, indeed, also apparent to them personally because their wives, sisters and daughters were the most affected by it.
Furthermore, the men could not easily ignore it because the women expressed their unhappiness in their own writing: in short stories, poems, plays, private correspondence, diaries, and novels (some published and some not). The women wrote a great deal about unbalanced educational opportunities, about the ‘destiny’ of marriage, and the expectations that even educated women would spend much of their lives attending primarily to domesticity and child-rearing rather than pursuing their own careers. Moreover, the genres the women chose for their writing – quite unlike the men’s impersonal treatises and journalism – were precisely those in which personal and political material could be treated alongside each other. But what they wrote has not (much) been read at all, let alone read alongside the men’s writings. It too is a lost literature.
This chapter therefore explores the lives and ‘minor’ careers of the wives and female relations of New Liberal men, their relatively unknown writings, their often difficult marriages, and the effects that these personal concerns had on the possibilities for men and women to co-operate politically.
The next section of the book takes us ‘beyond liberalism’. The New Liberals’ separation of the personal and political made it hard for men and women to think and write together. Even when the issues beyond the vote were acknowledged and discussed, men and women wrote about them separately. Their literatures existed in parallel. So to understand more about how the personal and the political were negotiated, we need to move beyond liberalism.
The next link in the chain is therefore to examine a forum in which men and women did write together on such questions, answering each other’s points directly. That cannot be a New Liberal forum. It is, instead, the remarkable series of feminist debates that appeared in the almost unclassifiable periodical The Freewoman (1910-11).
The Freewoman has been much studied for its insights into women’s demands ‘beyond the vote’. New Liberals (and their wives) certainly made contributions to it, but so did writers from a wider variety of perspectives: radical, anarchist, socialist, eugenicist, feminist.
But it has seldom been remarked that a large number of contributions to The Freewoman came from men. In this chapter, I explore this angle to Edwardian feminism. For a set of issues, therefore – including all the questions that arose from the women’s predicament: marriage, motherhood, family, and also issues of prostitution, health, and sex – I try to identify areas of convergence and divergence, overlaps, and gaps, between the male and female contributors. I pay particular attention to the way that the question of the ‘higher educated woman’ was addressed by men and by women contributors. I also consider how far the personal was acknowledged in their writings.
LOVE AMONG THE ANARCHISTS
One of the ‘Freewomen’ was a French teacher living in London, named Françoise Lafitte. In 1912, she met, fell in love, and formed an unmarried ‘free union’ with an American anarchist, Armistead Collier. Each believed that they had found their ‘soul-mate’ with whom their political ideals for could be fulfilled. They lived together, and there was a child. But within a year, they had parted, angrily and finally. They never spoke again, or corresponded for the rest of their lives.
Their relationship was unusual in several respects. First, it was an attempt to live political ideals personally. For Armistead and Françoise, their relationship was not merely personal, but also self-consciously political, carrying the weight of a prefigurative arrangement which might test and prove the validity of their ideals. This is useful. While The Freewoman tells us a great deal about the views of advanced women and men concerning ‘free love’, it cannot provide us with reliable evidence of lived practice. Armistead and Françoise believed that their ideas about relationships could only be tested and developed through lived experience. They wanted to prove their claims about how best to live for the benefit of future generations, and for such proof theory could never be enough. The political, in other words, was necessarily personal in the sense that it had to be lived and practised personally. Only by such means could it be shown that the political claims were sincerely held. The political, for such experimenters, was necessarily personal, because the personal is the only test that would tell if their politics were true.
Also, very unusually, Françoise and Armistead’s relationship left a paper trail. Because they were apart for much of the time – she in France, he in the U.S.A. – they wrote to each other, and their letters have survived, hitherto unexamined, in the labour history archive of an American university, along with Armistead’s autobiography, which is unfinished, unpublished and unused.
If the first part of the book deals with an attempt to contain the personal, and to restrict its sway over political decision-making, this chapter therefore deals with the reverse: the attempt to make, or allow, the political and the personal to flow together. Here the personal, far from being unacknowledged, was being fully acknowledged. The consequence of living one’s politics personally was that there was no escape from politics. Politics pervaded the personal. The consequence was that every aspect of ordinary, personal life for a couple – domesticity, family life, conversation, sexual relationships, sharing space and money – became a political question.
Both in chapter 5 and chapter 6, it has been apparent that the greatest differences between men and women concerned sex, and especially heterosexual men’s sexuality. For Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier, there was a difference between he, for whom sexual freedom meant more frequent, less inhibited physical sex; and she, for whom sexual freedom meant linking sex and emotional intimacy in a deeper way than before. This, indeed, in her long, subsequent relationship with the psychologist Havelock Ellis after the First World War, became Françoise’s life’s mission. There was, by contrast, little sign in Armistead’s anarchism that he thought that sex itself would change after the revolution. He assumed that, once freed, sex and love would readily harmonise. In The Freewoman, differences over the nature of men’s sexuality had also been the cause of the greatest differences between male and female contributors, most visible over men and prostitution.
In this chapter, I therefore examine campaigns before the First World War for male sexual purity. The New Liberals’ approach was to address the personal (sex, in this case) politically without making the political itself personal. It therefore admitted personal questions as matters of political concern only insofar as they touched public ones, which had already been acknowledged as such. Thus, for example, it only considered prostitution when it touched something already and uncontroversially public, such as soliciting or pestering on the street (‘public nuisance’); street-crime or the surplus of unruly and under-employed young men too old for school and too young for adult work (‘public order’); or infectious disease or the emerging science of population demographics and ‘race fitness’ (‘public health’). The nature of male sexuality itself was not addressed publicly.
This was what I have termed elsewhere a disjoint approach. The New Liberal response, which was also shared with other campaigners such as those who lobbied for legislation against ‘white slavers’ and against sexual ‘deviants’, was directed outwards, to address the problem in others. Disjoint approaches can be contrasted with conjoint ones. Conjoint work meant men addressing the problem in each other. This was the work of another organization I study in this chapter: the Alliance of Honour. The third way – the subject of the next chapter – was a reflexive one, in which individuals addressed the problem as individuals, each in themselves.
All three approaches are distinct attempts to resolve the problem of acknowledging the personal. Disjoint approaches acknowledge through a sort of displacement – the problem (of male sexuality) is acknowledged, but only in others, not people like oneself. Conjoint approaches such as those of the Alliance of Honour acknowledged personal failure, but did so by making male sexuality an enemy to be conquered by a heroic man, following the guidance of a patriarchal father figure. This was acknowledgment by sublimation – that is, the elevation and transformation of a base impulse into a form which is not shameful. Such work could not be shared with women, and it is notable that the work of the Alliance barely intersected with women’s criticisms such as the W.S.P.U. campaigns of 1912 -13. When men were forced by women to acknowledge their complicity, considerable distress resulted.
THE PERSONAL STRUGGLE OF CHARLES MASTERMAN
Both disjoint and conjoint approaches can also be contrasted with a third approach: reflexive work (work for or to oneself). Charles Masterman appeared in chapter 1, as member of the New Liberal Nation group, opponent of women’s suffrage, and also the minister in the Home Office responsible for taking the decisions concerning forcible feeding in the case of Jane Malloch. But Masterman also has a further significance. He was involved in all three approaches to the problems of male purity. At the Home Office (1909-12), he was one of the instigators of the disjoint ‘white slave’ legislation. He took a ‘public morals’ approach to questions of urban over-crowding, juvenile crime, prisons, and enabling people to be morally upright through state welfare provision. But Masterman also believed that the state could not make people moral, which was the work of the churches – he was a prominent High Church Anglican – and also newer youth organisations such as the British Boy Scouts. He participated himself in conjoint, inter-generational work with working-class boys both in the slums of Camberwell and with middle-class boys at boarding schools and youth camps.
Making people moral was also a matter of good personal example and advice. Masterman believed strongly in individual guidance, and maintained lengthy and intimate correspondences with many of the boys he met at the camps. In the unexamined surviving correspondence with these boys, we find a complex engagement with the problems of growing up, becoming a man, keeping sexually pure, and also – perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not – Masterman’s own desire to return to school and be a boy again.
in this chapter I provide – for the first time – an account of Masterman’s personal , indeed tragic, struggle against impurity, which ended in his early death. His life, with the reservations appropriate in a single case, is a good example of what one might call the attempt to acknowledge and unacknowledge through repression and inhibition.
The concluding chapter summarises what I think we can learn from considering the acknowledged and unacknowledged personal. I suggest that:
1. It enlarges our understanding of the New Liberalism, by offering a new explanation of what was arguably its greatest failure.
2. It enlarges our understanding of the women’s suffrage movement, by providing a new account of its tactical choices, which goes beyond ‘persuasion’ and ‘alienation’.
3. It also enlarges our understanding of responses to women’s suffrage, by offering an account that goes beyond simple ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ responses, to a more nuanced understanding of male support.
4. It proposes the importance of unacknowledged personal aspects to Edwardian New Liberal politics. It shows the great difficulty of depersonalising political campaigning when it comes to address personal concerns. The personal was not simply and naturally missing from public, acknowledged politics. It was placed there and kept there by conscious and unconscious work – the complex work of unacknowledgment. At moments of stress, this work fails.
The research project has also turned up a significant quantity of unstudied, original source material, including the official and private records which enable me to reconstruct the disputes among New Liberals over the arrest and forcible feeding of Jane Malloch in 1909 (chapter 2); New Liberal men’s journalism concerning women’s suffrage and other feminist demands (chapter 3); the almost unknown writings of the wives and other female relations of New Liberal men (chapter 4); men’s contributions to The Freewoman (chapter 5); the correspondence and other writings of Françoise Lafitte and Armistead Collier (chapter 6); the campaigning activities of Edwardian men’s purity organizations such as the unknown Alliance of Honour (chapter 7); and the personal papers and records of Charles Masterman (chapter 8).
IMAGE CREDIT: CHRISTINA BROOM, MEMBERS OF THE WOMEN WRITERS’ SUFFRAGE LEAGUE PREPARING TO MARCH IN THE N.U.W.S.S. PROCESSION, JUNE 1908 (GLASS PLATE, CAT. NO. IN1285, MUSEUM OF LONDON).