The Women's Movement

Martin Pugh charts the Women's Movement's origins and growth 1850-1939.

When did modern feminism begin? We usually see its origin in the political ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which regarded all human beings as rational creatures who enjoyed the same fundamental rights. This gave rise to what is usually called liberal feminism or equal-rights feminism. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789 thirty-three of the famous lists of grievances presented to the Estates General expressed female demands. The intellectual excitement generated in France soon provoked feminist tracts elsewhere. In England Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and the German Theodore Gottlieb von Hippel published On the Civil Improvement of Women (1794).

However, little came of this early flourish of feminist propaganda. The French constitution of 1792 actually banned women from public life and the Emperor Napoleon's Civil Code of 1804 was subsequently implemented in much of continental Europe. It effectively denied legal rights and access to divorce to married women, placed their properly and income in the control of their husbands, and generally confined them to a subordinate, domestic role.

Women in Public

This helps us to explain why an organised women's movement first emerged in certain parts of the western world and was slow to develop in others. It was associated with the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries. These societies shared certain key features - an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant culture combined with comparatively liberal, parliamentary political systems. Even here, however, women's route into the public arena was indirect at first. Women participated to an unusual extent in the activities of several Christian groups such as Quakers and Unitarians; this often led them into moral reform campaigns organised by men - for example, the abolition of the slave trade, temperance societies and international peace. In the hard-drinking frontier societies of Australia, New Zealand and the American West the women's movement was closely associated with the temperance cause. In Britain temperance was less central but it certainly gave many women practical experience of public work and influenced the tactics of the suffrage campaigns later in the century.

In the United States slavery proved to be an especially formative influence. At an anti-slavery convention in 1840 female delegates were prevented from taking their seats. This refusal to treat them equally led to a revolt and forced many women to ask how much difference there really was between the legal status of a slave and that of a woman. After the 1860s, when Americans fought a civil.war to establish political rights for blacks, the continued exclusion of white women from the electorate seemed intolerable.

An organised movement emerges

The appearance of the women's movement in the United States is usually dated to the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. In Britain a number of women's pressure groups appeared around. 1858-59 under the leadership of Barbara Leigh Smith and Bessie Rayner Parkes whose associates were known as 'the Ladies of Langham Place'. Denmark had a Women’s Association by 1871, Sweden an Association for Married Women by 1873, Norway an Association for the Promotion of Women's Interests by 1884 and Finland a Women's Association in the same year.

These organisations shared several features. First, they were largely drawn from middle-class women in the early period. Second, although they maintained women-only organisations, they co-operated closely with men to achieve their goals. In Britain the National Society for Women's Suffrage employed John Stuart Mill, Jacob Bright and other MPs to present petitions to parliament and introduce regular suffrage bills. Third, in most countries Radical Liberal and Socialist politicians provided the original allies for feminists; indeed, in Denmark and Norway the success of the campaign for the women's vote was closely bound up with the advance of Liberal and Labour parties.

On the other hand the fortunes of feminism were obviously affected, favourably and adversely, by factors peculiar to each country. In Finland and Norway, for example, female emancipation benefited enormously by association with a. broader struggle for self-determination. Finland was still under Russian rule in 1897 when the Tsarist government rejected women's suffrage, thereby neatly uniting the feminist and nationalist causes. In 1906 Finland gave women the vote shortly after breaking away from. Russia. Similarly, when Norway gained her independence from Sweden in 1905 this paved the way for women's enfranchisement in 1913.

In Britain, on the other hand, domestic politics complicated and delayed female enfranchisement. While the women enjoyed allies amongst Radical Liberals, they had to adjust to the unexpected dominance of Conservatism in the late Victorian era. In time the suffragists' arguments began to reflect a Conservative view, and a growing number of Conservative MPs supported them. Yet this advance only aroused suspicions amongst Liberal and Labour politicians as to whether women voters would favour the Conservatives and whether a limited measure designed to enfranchise property-owning women would damage their party interests. This antagonism between feminists and the left-wing parties eventually provoked die militant suffragette campaign which was a distinctive feature of the movement in Britain'. But militancy actually delayed enfranchisement in the sense that by repudiating and alienating the labour movement the Pankhursts deprived their campaign, of die working-class support which would have frightened the government.

Colonial successes for women

Finland and Norway were by no means the first states to give women the vote. Rather to the surprise of the Europeans, New Zealand achieved this honour in 1893. Close behind came Australia where the federal government enfranchised women in 1902. The pressure for this had been built up by the Australian states; enfranchisement began in South Australia in 1894 and Western Australia in 1899 but was riot complete until 1908 when Victoria finally extended the vote. A similar if more protracted process unfolded in the United States where Wyoming granted women's suffrage in 1869and Utah in 1870. By 1913 eleven western states had done so, though the national vote was not won until 1919.

There is a clear pattern in these developments. The thinly populated frontier societies proved to be more willing to enfranchise women than the longer-established, sophisticated states. In Australia it was Victoria that held out the longest, while in America the old British colonies along the eastern seaboard refused to follow the western states for many years. This was not because the frontier states were feminist. But they needed women, expected them to play a full part and hoped they would have an improving influence on society. They also prided themselves on their democratic spirit and enjoyed exposing the conservatism of the older states where the traditional male elite was so deeply established.

Catholicism and autocracy

However severe the obstacles to women's aims in north-west Europe may have been, they paled into insignificance, beside those in other parts of the continent. For example, wherever the Catholic Church exercised a dominant influence, as in Spain, Italy and to a lesser degree in France, it proved difficult to establish an, effective feminist movement. Italian women suffered from particularly severe legal discrimination; for example, while adultery was an offence for them, men could commit it without penalty. In 1898 and 1903 Italian feminists established pressure groups designed to reform the law for married women, open up the professions and win the vole, but they lacked popular support. The Church exercised its control over most of the population, and the political parties felt reluctant to become involved with women's issues.

Women faced even stronger resistance in the great imperial autocracies of central and eastern Europe - the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Tsarist Russia. Feminist organisations did appear in Austria and in Bohemia where Czech nationalists supported demands for the vote. However, the absence of a large middle class and the influence of the Catholic Church deprived them of influential support. In any ease in the absence of an effective parliament women had no obvious constitutional means of obtaining redress of their grievances.

In the repressive atmosphere of Russia all. political organisations struggled to survive. Such feminists as existed there came from Jewish or intelligentsia families in St Petersburg and Moscow. They focused on the relatively uncontentious demand for access to higher education. But before long the government decided that this was a subversive notion and simply closed down courses that were open to women. Feminists had to face the fact that their only real chance of success lay in revolution. An All-Russian Union of Equal Rights sprang up following the revolution of 1905, but within two years its members had been so intimidated by the police that it virtually ceased to exist. Only the revolution of 1917 would resuscitate the women's cause, and then only briefly.

French feminism

In between the liberal western states on the one hand and the autocracies on the other stood, two important exceptions -France and Germany. In both cases the fortunes of the women's movement were greatly complicated by cultural and political conditions. During the nineteenth century the French were very much to the fore in developing the idea of feminism; indeed we owe the word itself to them. Moreover, after 1871 they had a republican political system which, on the face of it, should have been conducive to the propagation of women's causes. Yet French feminists made far less progress than their colleagues in Britain or America. While the vote had been extended to women in all of north-west Europe and north America by the end of the first World War, in France women had to wait until 1945 to vote.

Although the French established a moderate suffrage movement, using similar tactics to the British, in the late-nineteenth century, it remained marginal and was largely confined to writers, journalists and academics. Much of the explanation for this lay in the reluctance of Republican politicians to support them, because they were primarily concerned about maintaining the stability of the Third Republic against its clerical and monarchical enemies. Like politicians in other western countries the Republicans believed that women were especially subject to Church influence and were inclined to hold right-wing opinions. ‘If they voted today, the Republic would not last six months', declared one French Republican. Consequently it was not until 1901 that a women's suffrage bill was even introduced into the chamber of deputies, and the first full debate took place as late as 1919. During the inter-war years support for enfranchisement grew - partly because the Catholic Church itself decided that its interests would he best served by a female electorate.

The German socialist-feminists

In Germany the situation was almost the opposite. While cultural factors favoured the women's movement, they were handicapped by a repressive political system. Most of Germany was Protestant and among the political parties the. Social Democrats gradually adopted women's causes, including the vote in 1891 and equal pay in 1896. They also recruited as many as 141,000 female members by 1913. However, the German Socialists were not really feminists; they simply used women as allies in their campaign to reform the Bismarckian political system. Middle class feminists realised this and therefore set up separate organisations, including the Association of German Women in 1894 and the German Union for Women's Suffrage in 1901. But the price of independence was marginalisation. For all its vigour German politics remained rather ineffectual; for a time the Socialists had been banned by Bismarck, and the voting rights possessed by men carried little real influence. Thus, like the Russians, German feminists really awaited the overthrow of the system in order to achieve equal rights with men. Defeat in the First World War accelerated this development by replacing the Kaiser's rule with the democratic Weimar Republic.

Women and international peace

It was not long before the isolated groups of feminists scattered across the western world began to draw together to find strength in their common grievances and achievements. For example, after New Zealand won the vote in 1893 a succession of suffragists and politicians from that country spoke on women’s platforms in Britain to emphasise that the dire predictions made by anti-suffragists had not materialised. Some of the key feminist tracts were widely distributed; for example J.S. Mill's The Subjection of Women (1869) was translated into French, German, Swedish, Danish, Polish and Italian. The famous play, A Doll's House, by the Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen, was first performed in Britain in 1889 where it helped to stimulate the debate over the institution of marriage daring the 1890s. International feminism look on an institutional form from 1888 onwards when the Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B, Anthony established the International Council of Women, which attracted representatives from almost all the European states by 1900. In 1904 a second organisation, the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, was set up in Berlin. A more radical organisation, it focused its efforts on winning the vote and extending women's employment. However, when war broke out in August 1914 many women felt the call of patriotism so strongly that they withdrew from women's campaigns to support the national war effort. Some left-wing feminists, took the view that the war and the pre-1914 arms race proved conclusively the folly of allowing men a monopoly of political power. Against the wishes of their governments they met at the Hague in 1915 to establish the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, whose aim was to seek a negotiated peace settlement rather than a complete military victory.

So long as the war lasted, this remained a hopeless cause; but it bore fruit after 1918 once the reaction against the arms race and the Treaty of Versailles set in. In this climate the W.I.L.R.F. and similar organisations began to flourish. In Britain, for example, women flocked into the League of Nations Union during the 1920s; they organised Women's Peace Crusades and Peacemakers Pilgrimages; and during Armistice Weeks they pointedly challenged the official commemoration ceremonies by selling white poppies and laying wreaths of them at war memorials throughout the country.

The vote and beyond

In this way the cause of peace and disarmament became, in effect, part of the agenda of feminism between the wars. By this time many western countries had granted women the vote, and so it became necessary to find a fresh focus or priority for the movement. Even in those countries where enfranchisement had occurred much earlier, the post-war era posed dilemmas for feminists. The underlying problem lay in the downturn in the world economy. Economic depression meant mass unemployment which, in turn, stimulated a reaction against the demands of women in most countries. It was taken for granted that women should withdraw from their wartime employment and vacate jobs for the soldiers now returning from the war in their millions. Indeed, during the 1920s and 1930s discrimination reached new levels in the labour force. Married women were frequently sacked on the grounds that they had husbands to. support them; and new 'protective legislation' was widely enacted, ostensibly to spare women from working unsocial hours or from using dangerous materials, but in reality to maximise male employment opportunities.

In the face of this, what tactics could feminists adopt? Especially in countries such as Britain where the vote had recently been won, some women chose to carry on their work through the existing political parties. Both Labour and the Conservatives built up a large female membership in the 1920s backed by women's conferences and professional organisers. However, many feminists felt suspicious, partly because of their earlier experience with the politicians. It rapidly emerged that the parties wanted, women's voluntary work, not to mention their votes, but continued to subordinate their interests, especially in matters of employment, to those of men. No party would take up equal pay for example. Women also found it difficult to become candidates and MPs because winnable seats were reserved for men. Although Australia had enfranchised women in 1902, no Australian woman was elected to the national parliament until 1943. By comparison the performance of women in Europe appears impressive. For example, in Germany 36 women were elected in 1919, the first election in which they were eligible. In Britain Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat after a by-election in 1919; by 1919 14 women MPs sat in the House of Commons out of a total of 615, and in that year Margaret Bondfield was appointed the first female cabinet minister. On the other hand, after the initial breakthrough in the 1920s women's representation stagnated for several decades.

A movement in decline

Against this background it is not surprising that many feminists considered it essential to maintain independent women's pressure groups and avoid being absorbed into male-dominated organisations where their interests were invariably sacrificed. Yet this proved to be an unrewarding strategy in the inter-war period. In the United States a National Women's Party appeared in 1916, but it dwindled rapidly after 1919. Once the vote had been secured, the National American Women's Suffrage Association changed its name to the League of Women Voters; but it, too, failed to retain more than a fraction of its previous membership. Many female activists found themselves drawn into the campaign for Prohibition, a traditional interest for moral-reform feminists. However, Prohibition was, in effect, another diversion from strictly feminist issues and organisations.

In Britain the old National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies became the National Union for Equal Citizenship after the war, and maintained traditional pressure on politicians and parties with considerable effect. The Pankhursts and the other suffragettes had completely abandoned militancy by this time, so there was link argument about tactics. However, new organisations began to spring up, including the Women's Citizen's Association (1917), the Six Point Group (1921), the Open Door Council (1926) and the Towns-women's Guilds (1929). This proliferation was an indication of some uncertainty as to the main objectives for women now that the achievement of the vote had removed the focus for the movement. In several European countries, including Britain and Scandinavia, many of the activists developed what became known as New Feminism. This reflected a desire to attract ordinary women, who, had never been involved in the suffrage campaigns, into the movement by giving priority to issues of immediate relevance to wives and mothers -such as maternity clinics, widows' pensions and birth control.

Pressure along these lines undoubtedly enjoyed some success. This was partly because politicians were anxious to appease wives and mothers precisely so that they would not be attracted into supporting an extreme feminist programme. Also, the war had forced diem to attend to the needs of mothers and children because of the immense casualties and because of the rapidly declining birth rate. All kinds of inducements were therefore offered to boost family size, including gold medals to Russian women who produced ten children. During the 1930s and 1940s child or family allowances were introduced in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Britain, Norway and Sweden. In this way women exercised some influence on the welfare states that were emerging in this period.

But was this feminism? Many equal-rights feminists thought nor. They believed that to pursue social and welfare reforms was simply to play into the hands of the male establishment by encouraging women to remain trapped in domesticity. The flaw in their approach was, that between the wars few women were prepared to participate in the equal-rights organisations; indeed, the very word feminism went oat of fashion and by 193 9 the whole movement had gone into a decline. By that stage many of the pre-1914 activists had died but had not been replaced by recruits from the younger generation.

But at least an organised feminist movement continued to exist in the western liberal democracies. In Russia the overthrow of the Tsar in the revolution of February 1917 led to the enfranchisement of women. But in October of that year the Bolshevik revolution resulted in the effective suppression of the women's movement. It was a similar story in those countries which fell to fascism between the wars. In Spain women briefly gained the vote as a result of the victory of the Republicans in 1932, only to lose it again as a result of the civil war which brought General Franco to power. In both Italy and Germany die fascist leaders destined the role of women solely in terms of motherhood and service to the state. In this respect Mussolini enjoyed the backing of the Pope who issued an encyclical in 1930 which declared that the true equality of the sexes could be found only within marriage. Hitler denounced feminism as the kind of decadent idea which had been promoted by the Weimar Republic. Nonetheless, both Hitler and Mussolini found it necessary to mobilise women to support their regimes and especially to promote the idea of motherhood. However, the effect of their control was that organised feminism ceased to exist until after the Second World War.

In some ways World War Two imparted a fresh impetus to feminism all across the western world. Even Hider desperately wanted women to leave the home and join the labour force. In Britain Ernest Bevin imposed industrial conscription on women in 1941 in order to boost the output of war equipment at a time when many workers had been lost. However, this proved to be a temporary breakthrough. Although several states extended the vote after the war, the movement generally had reached, the end of its first cycle by the 1950s. It awaited a new generation of women in the United States, Britain, France and Germany to emerge in the late 1960s and 1970s to restore its momentum and to redefine die aims of feminism. 

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