THE LAST issue of Vanguard featured an article entitled 'Feminism - Throwing Away the Key'. The writer began by reviewing a new feminist book by Andrea Dworkin called Intercourse. The contents of this book argued that men had used sex not to love but to tyrannise women. Quite correctly he compared the book to the rantings of Julius Streicher and the hysterical bleatings of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
However, he then left the subject of the new book and went on to describe the nature of 'women's liberation' as illusory and elusive and quoted Chesterton as exposing this “with characteristic wit” - "Twenty million young women rose to their feet with the cry 'We will not be dictated to'; and proceeded to become stenographers."
All very amusing no doubt! But we can read that sort of ridicule and distortion in most of the daily newspapers. As Nationalists though we aim for hard truths, facts and intelligent analysis of each issue of importance to the good working order of a future nationalist society.
So, jibes and humour aside, let's look at the early origins of the struggle for the emancipation of women so wrongly belittled in the use of Chesterton's 'characteristic wit'.
Life for working-class women in the nineteenth century was not easy. Factories, mills and workshops were filled with women who were 'naturally' paid less than men. After a long day's labour they went home not to rest but to other tasks of housework, cooking and childrearing. But at least employment gave them some nominal freedom; they were not entirely dependent on husbands or fathers and if necessary could earn their own livelihoods, even if it meant heavy physical labour in mines or metal works, or in domestic service.
The status of women of the middle and upper classes was different. Until 1882, a married woman was incapable of holding wealth or property – everything she owned became the property of her husband. She was a complete dependent, first on her father, then on her husband, a position believed to be ordained by nature and by God. All her domestic work was done by numerous low-paid servants, the children were brought up by 'nannies' and her life was idle and without responsibility. She could have no higher education and she was barred from the learned professions.
It was against this backdrop that the struggle for women's emancipation began. They looked towards political equality, education and the right to be the friend, not the humble dependent, of their husband.
Suffragette clinging to the railings of Buckingham Palace; 21st May 1914
Many women occupied themselves with charitable work. Florence Nightingale became famous for her organisation of the nursing service. Some worked for political reforms, like the Marriage and Divorce Act, which protected the earnings of a deserted wife from her absentee husband, who had hitherto been entitled to them. Steps were taken towards higher education. Girton College for women was opened in Cambridge in 1874. It was not part of the university and was received with scorn and hostility, but the students were entitled to sit for the university examinations and eventually to graduate with degrees. Girton was followed by other colleges, to the consternation of many. The educated woman was looked upon as a social misfit who had lost her femininity. But part of the battle had been won. The progressive University of London opened its doors to women in 1878.
The Reform Bill of 1867 had left only agricultural labourers, peers of the realm, convicts, the mentally handicapped and women who were still denied the vote.
The 'National Society for Women's Suffrage' was formed in 1866, through which women took the unprecedented action of addressing public meetings. For the rest of the century the suffragists carried on a discreet political campaign, held meetings, wrote and sold literature, marched in 'respectable processions', and had little to show for it. By 1900 the movement was almost dead. It was revived in 1903 by the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union, pledged to militant action 'to secure for women the parliamentary vote as it is or may be granted to men.' Membership was restricted to women and it was independent of all political parties. Its leading spirits were Mrs Emily Pankhurst and her daughters Cristobel and Sylvia, and Mrs Emmeline Pethwick-Lawrence, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
In 1904, after a debate in Parliament to include women in the right to vote had been jeered and 'talked-out' by a debate on rear lights for vehicles, a policy of provocation, nuisance and publicity was adopted by the Suffragettes.
Over the next few years they attended all public gatherings and occasions of state creating noisy, exciting disturbances, shouting, bell-ringing and giving away leaflets. The press was full of their activities. As the struggle continued more and more women found themselves in prison for refusing on principle to pay the fines they received due to their demonstrations.
At these stage they began to employ the tactics of chaining themselves to the railings of Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, Cabinet Ministers homes, etc, hiring balloons to drop leaflets on London, breaking through police cordons to thrust petitions into the hands of royalty and refusing to pay their taxes - 'no taxation without representation'. Political protest was also carried on by great meetings and processions, only now they used men as stewards to keep order and prevent the usual disturbances by rowdies or high-spirited youths out for a bit of fun. At one of these demonstrations in Hyde Park the Times estimated the attendance at over 500,000.
At the end of 1908, after two private members bills for women's suffrage had won majorities in the House but were dropped by the government, the Suffragettes went a step further in their methods of protest. Imprisoned militants began the then novel idea of the hunger strike and the authorities responded by ordering forcible feeding. This in turn caused a public outcry and gained the Suffragette cause greater public sympathy and support.
After an event which was seen by the Suffragettes as a betrayal by the Liberal government of the day (it decided that a majority of 110 on a bill supporting votes for women of the middle class on a property qualification was too small for such an 'important' measure) their activities and protestations took an extremist line and unfortunately began to develop towards outright terrorism.
Emily Pankhurst addressing a rally in Trafalgar Square in October 1908
The struggle for female suffrage and political equality seemed to be building up to a dramatic climax when it suddenly ended. The country found itself at war. On the declaration of hostilities, the British Government ordered the unconditional release of all imprisoned Suffragettes. The Women's Political and Social Union, suspended its activities and most of its members devoted themselves to the war effort.
Quietly in January 1918 Lloyd George's government gave the vote to all women on reaching the age of thirty. In November women were enabled to stand for election to the House of Commons.
The courage and determination shown by the women involved in the Suffragette movement and the fact that their struggles were eventually rewarded with the recognition of their right to vote, merits more than a sneering paragraph in our magazine.
It is, of course, very easy to fall into the trap of de-valuing the achievements and ideals of an organisation because of its latter-day advocates. Nationalists despise the present-day Labour Party yet we carry in our publications articles examining the early Labour Movement and its ideals, and indeed include most of their early principles in our ideological doctrine.
Without any doubt most present-day female advocates of 'equality' posing under the new and much-hated title of feminists are confused and misled. They are fighting for an absolute equality which Nationalists know to be illusory because human nature itself is inherently unequal. That, however, is another issue!
Let us not allow this to cloud our judgement though and lead us to minimise and dismiss contemptuously a very important movement in our history which resulted In half of the British population lifting itself from wrongly accredited second-class citizenship and overcoming a grave travesty of justice.