Meet the Victorian women who fought back

Once, Queen Victoria was the only woman in the realm with no legal impediment because of her sex. She reigned over a society that was full of intelligent women going mad with frustration - and then they began to do something about it.

So effective were the suffragettes that we think of them as the founding mothers of women’s emancipation. Their cause was just and their achievement considerable: but Edwardian women, in pursuing equality, picked up the baton from an earlier generation – a generation that achieved what it did in the face of even greater odds, and partly with the help of men.

When in 1837 the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland acquired its first queen regnant in 123 years, Victoria was the only woman in the realm with no legal impediment because of her sex. As queen, she enjoyed the same rights as her predecessor as monarch, her uncle William IV. For all other women existence was strictly controlled by men. Until married – unless heiresses of independent means – women were subject to their fathers. Most men from the middle and upper classes regarded the education of their daughters as an unnecessary expense. Most fathers from the working class wanted their daughters in a mill or a factory as swiftly as possible to make a contribution to the household’s income. In the 1830s there were few girls’ schools worthy of the name, as opposed to establishments that taught deportment, dancing, French and how to manage servants. Until the late 1840s there was nothing for women that resembled higher education.

Once a woman married she became the de facto property of her husband. Her goods became his. He could beat her and rape her without fearing the law, provided he did not kill her. Divorce required an act of parliament; and men who violated the rules of marriage were regarded as a tiresome inevitability while women who did so were regarded as harlots. Women could not vote, let alone stand for parliament. They were barred from the law and medicine. Some were considered such a danger to soldiers and sailors that the Contagious Diseases Act was passed to allow the forcible medical examination of any woman in certain dockyard and garrison towns who was thought to be a prostitute, to see whether she might be carrying venereal disease; and, if she was, the act allowed for her confinement on secure premises until such time as she was better.

At the start of Victoria’s reign, workingclass women still worked down coal mines, doing heavy work, often half naked, and frequently when pregnant or within days of having given birth. No wonder John Stuart Mill, one of the great feminists of the 19th century, described in his essay The Subjection of Women the condition of females in Britain in that era as akin to slavery.

To most of the men who ruled Britain in the 19th century what Mill called “slavery” was simply the natural order. And, because they saw it as such, they saw no imperative to change things, and saw equality as an absurdity. Not all were so blinkered. Lord Ashley – later the Earl of Shaftesbury – led the campaign to get women out of coal mines, to restrict their heavy manual labour, and to limit the hours they could work in factories. When the writer Caroline Norton, who wished to divorce her cruel husband in the 1830s, began a national campaign on the question, several MPs and peers tried to further her cause by seeking legal reforms that would allow a woman to be rid of a cruel, adulterous or neglectful husband.

Norton’s first battle was to secure the passage of the Infant Custody Act in 1839. This was a landmark in women’s rights. If a woman had not had adultery proven against her in a court of law, she could have custody of any child under seven – hitherto they had been the husband’s property, irrespective of his character. Only one of her three sons was sufficiently young, and her husband, whose vindictiveness knew no bounds, moved them to Scotland, where the act did not apply. It was not until her youngest son died of lockjaw in 1842 that she was allowed custody of the other two boys – then aged 13 and 11 – for half the year.

There were several attempts in the 1840s and early 1850s to bring in a divorce law that would treat women compassionately. A wider campaign was already under way for property rights for women, led by Barbara Bodichon, the leading feminist of the 1850s. Lord Cranworth, the lord chancellor, laid a bill in the House of Lords in 1854 to make divorce more widely available. It was sidelined over the next year. Only when Palmerston, the prime minister and a legendary womaniser, adopted the idea – in the teeth of attritional opposition from Gladstone, citing religious objections – that the measure finally passed into law in the summer of 1857.

By then, however, 10,000 clergy had signed a petition against divorce. It demanded: “Remembering also, that it is declared in the Word of God, that marriage with a divorced woman is adulterous, we fervently pray that the Clergy of this realm may never be reduced to the painful necessity of either withholding the obedience which they must always desire to pay to the law of the land, or else of sinning against their own consciences, and violating the law of God by solemnising such marriages as are condemned as adulterous in His Holy Word.” Such objections were to no avail. There were three divorce cases in 1857, but 300 in 1858, the act coming into force on 1 January that year.

The first stirrings of the feminist movement came in the field of education. Some radical families allowed their daughters to cultivate minds of their own and it was the products of such families who sought, in the 1840s, to found a college for women to provide a higher education such as men of the upper classes could take for granted. Victorian literature – as with Victorian reality – abounds with intelligent women going mad with frustration, denied the means to sate their intellectual curiosity and the opportunity to pursue a career. The embittered Mrs Transome, in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical, is virtually imprisoned in her gloomy Midlands mansion. Florence Nightingale, by force of character, ensured her parents could not stop her training as a nurse; her elder sister Parthenope was so frustrated by her own lack of opportunity, and so envious of Florence’s success, that she became, for a time, a chronic hysteric.

Ladies’ colleges began in London with support from the Christian Socialist Frederick Denison Maurice and his disciple Charles Kingsley, the author of The Water Babies. In 1849 Elizabeth Jesser Reid, a Unitarian philanthropist, founded what came to be known as Bedford College, the first institution for the higher education of women in Great Britain. By the 1870s, colleges offering something like a university education were at last available to women at the ancient universities, even if Cambridge – the first of the old institutions to agree to allow women to attend lectures – still refused to award them degrees (and, to its shame, continued to refuse until 1948).

Emily Davies was a pioneer of the movement that stormed Oxbridge and she brought with her feminist views that followed the idea of education of women to a logical conclusion: women should also have the vote, and should find none of the professions barred to them. Davies was born in 1830, the daughter of a clergyman, John Davies, who consigned her to a life of assisting with the family needlework and, when old enough, doing good works in Gateshead, his parish. Davies resented this; in her twenties, she met two women who inspired her to campaign for women’s education and suffrage. One was Elizabeth Garrett, six years her junior, who would become the first female doctor in Britain; the other Barbara Bodichon, three years her senior.

Bodichon was known for her campaign to reform women’s property rights, which succeeded in the early 1870s. She was also one of the most prominent members of the Langham Place circle of feminists and a first cousin of Florence Nightingale: but Barbara was illegitimate and much of the family refused to know her. She was educated by private tutors and at various schools; and when she came of age in 1848 her father gave her shares and property to provide a private income, allowing her the independence to pursue her main career interest (which was to become an artist) and to engage in political campaigning. That led her into close associations with Mill, through his stepdaughter Helen Taylor, and George Eliot. She regarded her money as “a power to do good . . . a responsibility we must accept”.

Visiting London in 1859, Davies and Garrett attended lectures given by Elizabeth Blackwell, an Englishwoman who had become the first female doctor in the United States, and who inspired Garrett’s campaign in Britain. Blackwell had been urged to come to Britain by Bodichon, to help Garrett’s campaign. Davies also joined the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, and joined Garrett’s movement to persuade London University to award degrees to women. She edited the English Woman’s Journal, which Bodichon and others had founded in 1858 as an organ of feminism. One of her campaigns was to allow girls to take the Cambridge local examinations, in which she had the support of Matthew Arnold, who wanted female teachers to have a recognised qualification. When it succeeded, Davies found 83 girls in just six weeks to take the exams, 25 of them from Frances Buss’s North London Collegiate School. It was also thanks to one of Davies’s campaigns that the Taunton commission of inquiry into endowed schools considered the education of middle-class girls as well as that of middle-class boys. When she gave evidence to it in 1865 it was the first time a woman had ever appeared in person as an expert witness before a royal commission.

Davies was determined to found a women’s college at Cambridge that would award degrees: Oxford was deemed too hostile. A committee including eminent dons met in December 1867, under Davies’s direction, to set about raising the £30,000 needed. Bodichon, who had financed a secular coeducational school in London from 1854 to 1863, gave much of her time, and some of her money. What Davies sought for her college was subtly, but radically, different from what another group with similar ambitions hoped to achieve at Cambridge. Henry Sidgwick and Anne Clough had obtained the university’s agreement to establish special examinations for female students: these would not lead to a Cambridge degree, not least because of Sidgwick and Clough’s belief that the inadequacies of girls’ education made such an aspiration unrealistic. Davies despaired of this outlook, describing the proposed diluted examination as “devised to suit struggling governesses”. She wanted her students to follow the same courses, attend the same lectures, and take the same degrees as men.

She took out newspaper advertisements to promote the scheme and ask for money. The shock to the unthinking man was profound. “Our age has been so prolific of absurdities, that we cannot well be expected to feel any very great surprise at the incubation of one foolish project more,” steamed the Imperial Review. It went on to condemn “this preposterous proposal of a University career for the potential wives of Englishmen”, which was “calculated to unfit women for the performance of the very duties to which . . . women only are intended and adapted”. Davies and her supporters were, inevitably, hardened to their task by such bigotry. Girton was founded in 1869; Newnham soon followed, under Clough.

With the extension of the franchise to working men in 1867, it was natural that the more reform-minded should turn their attention to the franchise for women. John Stuart Mill had tried unsuccessfully to push the point by organising petitions to be presented to parliament in 1866, 1867 and 1868. A bill to effect this was introduced in May 1870 by Jacob Bright, younger brother of John and of Priscilla Bright McLaren, an early campaigner for women’s suffrage. Bright argued “on the grounds of public justice and of practical necessity”. The householder franchise had led to men in an astonishing degree of ignorance being allowed to vote. Yet women who paid taxes, and who rendered valuable service to the nation – he invoked the name of Florence Nightingale – were not. The men who had demanded the vote before 1867 had argued that to be denied it was “tantamount to a declaration of our moral and intellectual inferiority”. He emphasised what he felt should be the link between taxation and representation and, even more boldly than demanding votes for women, highlighted the unfairness of their pay: “There is not a male and female rate of taxation, but there is a male and female rate of wages and earnings. Women everywhere, with a few remarkable exceptions, are getting far less money than men; they have to work much longer for the same money; and they are even paid much less when they are doing precisely the same work. Taxation must, therefore, fall somewhat more heavily upon women than on men.” There were, he protested, “inferior men in every rank of life” who “have no objection to degrade women and keep them in degradation”.

The opposition to Bright was led by John Scourfield, the Tory MP for Pembrokeshire. He quoted Dr Johnson’s insulting line about a woman preaching being like a dog on its hind legs. He was clear about their purpose: “Their vocation is to make life endurable,” he said, and he simply wished them to continue being “admirable, amiable, and delightful”. William Fowler, the MP for Cambridge, said that if women were given the vote there was no logical reason why they should not sit in the Commons, and therefore he was profoundly opposed to the bill. Women had duties – of educating their children, of having “to adorn the sphere in which they live” – that would be impeded by allowing them to become involved in politics.

By the 1870s, having won rights to divorce and to own property, and having established places of education, women at last had the confidence to take on the men who would keep them down. None did it better than Elizabeth Garrett’s sister Millicent Fawcett, who shredded the arguments against feminism of one of the most reactionary political thinkers, James Fitzjames Stephen. She questioned his belief in the submission of women, as the weaker sex, to their husbands as a precept of the common law, asking:

“Is the wife to obey the husband when, in obeying him, she does something she believes to be wrong? If the answer is ‘yes’, the possession of a husband may become the screen of all kinds of iniquity, from murder and robbery downwards. If the answer is ‘no’, everything is conceded that the advocates of equality in marriage demand, for many wives may and do think it wrong to encourage a spirit of despotism in their husbands by invariably allowing the husband’s authority to be supreme.”

Fawcett ridiculed Stephen’s premise that, in return for submission, women received protection. “That is to say, in return for submission married women get the protection of losing all control over their own property; they also have the inestimable advantage of possessing no legal right to the guardianship of their own children even after the death of their husbands.” Twisting the knife, she pointed out that “in return for the submissiveness of women, little girls of twelve years old are, for the purposes of seduction, legally regarded as women – a most noteworthy instance, this, of the kind of protection the present state of the law affords”.

She quoted an article in the Times from April 1872: “Every day the reports of our police courts and of our criminal tribunals still repeat the tale of savage and cowardly outrages upon women: and every day we have reason to marvel, not without a mixture of indignation, at the leniency with which some of our judges treat offences of this kind.” The article had concluded, with deep disapproval, that an Englishman, “within certain limits, may beat his wife as much as he pleases”. Fawcett quoted the same newspaper, four months later, observing that “recent trials have revealed a prevalent indifference to the maltreatment of women, which is a heinous disgrace to English nature”.

She noted that, among the better classes, women had small favours shown them – “being ‘seen home’ from evening parties, being helped first at dinner, having chairs offered, doors opened, umbrellas carried and the like” – but that they more than returned the compliment “by sewing on buttons, working slippers, and making puddings for the mankind of their domestic circles”. However, she said, “It is a small consolation for Nancy Jones, in Whitechapel, who is kicked and beaten at discretion by her husband, to know that Lady Jones, in Belgravia, is always assisted in and out of her carriage as if she were a cripple.” The tide of history was with Fawcett; the era of women as ornaments, appendages or full-time mothers was, thanks to her and others like her, nearing extinction.

Simon Heffer’s book “High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain” is published by Random House (£30)

Daughters of the revolution: early feminists struck a blow for freedom by taking to their bicycles. Their motor-riding successors won women the vote. Image: Underwood & Underwood/Corbis/Colour Manipulated Image

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.