WHAT THE MEN WROTE
(AND WHAT THEY DID NOT)
One part of my research project The Personal and the Political concerns the New Liberals in Britain before the First World War, and especially their views on women’s suffrage and the various other questions that women posed ‘beyond the vote’.
Their views were surprisingly diverse. I focus on the Nation group, the writers, journalists, MPs and academics who grouped themselves around H.W.Massingham’s New Liberal periodical, meeting each week in the National Liberal Club. The group was deeply divided over the principle of women’s suffrage and even those in favour were mostly opposed to militant women’s suffragists’ demands for immediate legislation.
The men were also divided over questions ‘beyond the vote’. There is quite a lot in The Nation concerning new feminist perspectives on marriage, parenting, domestic living and the family, especially a series of critical short articles written by the New Liberal political economist J.A.Hobson. There are also writings on the subject by L.T.Hobhouse, Gilbert Murray and others. Yet this body of work is almost wholly unknown.
Furthermore, and importantly, no acknowledgment is made in New Liberals’ writings about their own, personal experiences of marriage, parenting, domestic living and family. This is true not only in the articles they wrote, but even in their autobiographies.
The New Liberal men, in their writings, encountered an important and revealing crisis. It was, moreover, a crisis which derived in part from their own, personal experiences. For the most part – the writing is complicated – they believed that although it was right and proper that women should be free, they could not be equal, if that meant having the same opportunities as men. This was because ‘nature’ and the collective good of society set limits to women’s opportunities. As New Liberals, they believed that the good of society meant individuals had to sacrifice some of their personal freedoms. Women would have to accept that certain careers – even certain lives, such as the life of the mind, for example – were not to be open to them equally. Motherhood, especially when undertaken by the best individuals in society, mattered more for the good of the race.
The New Liberal men also thought that women, and especially educated women, would in the end accept this restriction on their freedom. This was not for the conservative reason that such restrictions were natural. New Liberals held that much of what was presented as natural had actually been socially or culturally constructed, and should be challenged. Women would accept limitations on their freedom, the men thought, because it followed from the direction modern thought was taking, away from individual selfishness towards the collective welfare of all.
For these reasons, the New Liberals were hopeful, as John Stuart Mill had been fifty years earlier, that although one could not be sure what women, once free, would choose, it was not likely to be very different from what they had been constrained to accept. The problem, however, was that while for Mill this had been necessary guesswork, for the New Liberals there was emerging evidence. This suggested that the most liberated and well-educated women, far from sharing the New Liberals’ hopes, were actually the most discontented with the limited opportunities they faced in their own lives. They were in revolt. In The Nation, the same bemused questions came up again and again: why was it the most educated women who were reluctant to marry, or to bear children? Since racial health – ‘eugenics’ – required the best and most able to breed, what would be the consequences for the race if this went on?
There was, moreover, a personal dimension to these anxieties. The New Liberal men had almost all come from families in which girls’ education was taken seriously, and in almost all cases they had themselves married well-educated women. Indeed, many of them had married women who had attended university – this was a tiny number in the late nineteenth century – and supported their own daughters if they wished to do the same. This meant, however, that the problem of equality came home with them. For, in the most acute way, the women faced a hard choice between career and marriage (and parenthood) that the men did not face.
It might be said, at this point in the argument, that the women did not much mind the lack of other opportunities; or, at any event, that we do not know if they did. But we do, because they wrote about it. It is just that what they wrote has not much been read. What the women wrote is therefore the subject of another part of the research.
IMAGE CREDIT: LEATHER SOFA IN THE NATIONAL LIBERAL CLUB.