Lift up your voices: The century-long battle for women's freedom

The <em>NS</em> of 1913 may have been in the vanguard for women’s rights yet its tone was hectoring, even patronising. But today’s popular feminists should not forget that the pioneers’ concerns still have weight.

Cindy Sherman's Untitled (2010/2011). Image: Metro Pictures.

A hundred years old, the paper feels worn under my fingers but the voice of the elderly New Statesman is still distinctive. I am sitting in the basement of a library, turning the pages of the first issues of the magazine, and it is almost overwhelming just how masculine this voice is.

The only woman who appears regularly in the New Statesman in the early months is its co-founder Beatrice Webb. She is represented in her partnership with Sidney Webb and their solid 22-part series “What is Socialism?”, which dominates the first months of the magazine. Just one instalment of this series is devoted to, as they call it, “freedom for the woman”. In its dogged lines, I find both what must have been most attractive and what may have been most alienating about feminism 100 years ago.

What is attractive is the insistence on material emancipation. After centuries of mystification of the angel of the house, the Webbs are fiercely sure that there is, quite simply, a “loss of personal dignity and personal freedom . . . inherent in dependence on the caprice of another . . . The childbearing woman, like the wage earner, must be set free from economic subjection.” Fifty years before Betty Frie­dan told American housewives the same thing, Beatrice Webb suggested to British housewives that economic dependence was not romantic.

Elsewhere in her life and writing, Webb was often conflicted about feminism and the woman’s role beyond the home. Yet this is a straightforward message of material independence. Even now, we often see Daily Mail columnists bridling at the idea that being financially dependent involves any loss of personal freedom. What a call to arms this must have been 100 years ago.

The argument, however, develops in rather less liberating ways. Economic independence, we learn, will gain for women “the personal dignity and consciousness of freedom on which perfect motherhood, no less than perfect citizenship, really depends”. Perfect motherhood and perfect citizenship? This feels rather too utopian to be fully emancipatory.

Gradually, I start to notice the glowering puritanism underpinning some of their views. The Webbs are scathing about the thought that one might confuse the “freedom of the woman” with “sexual licentiousness”, and they reserve their greatest bile not for the men who oppress women, but for those women who are complicit in their oppression by being lazy: the “unoccupied women, married or unmarried, who are a drag on the civilisation of the race”.

Too often, the Webbs’ work falls into this kind of high-minded hectoring. Reading this article and flicking through the copies of the magazine in which their essays appeared, I feel that I understand more about why feminism sometimes struggled to occupy the central place that it should have had in British society over those years. Not only were women almost excluded from serious debate for most of this time but those women who were allowed into the room, to sit at the table with the men, may not always have been the most welcoming of figures.

I take this exclusion and exclusiveness personally – not just because, as a feminist, I want to hear the full range of voices of those women who were working and agitating over the past century but also because, among all the male voices in the New Statesman in its 100-year history, I hear those of my forefathers.

Just a few pages into this bound volume of the first year of the magazine, for instance, I come across one of my great-grandfathers, S K Ratcliffe. It is part of my family lore that Ratcliffe, a liberal journalist, gave the magazine its title. Having just returned from editing the English- language newspaper the Statesman in India, he apparently suggested the moniker to the founders of the New Statesman.

If my great-grandfather was responsible, even partly, for this masculine title, my father made his own contributions to a tone that could be almost hostile to women’s voices. In an issue of the magazine from 1983, I stumble across one of the many pieces that Nicolas Walter wrote, in which he decries the suggestion that the Greenham Common women might have a point. “Women have been involved in the nuclear disarmament movement on a free and equal basis throughout its existence,” he writes – no matter that women were, at that time, arguing that they needed their own space to organise in the peace movement.

The magazine, then, is a mirror to British society over the past century: male-dominated to the core, even its socialist and progressive core. Yet that is not the only story about the New Statesman and feminism over these 100 years of change. All the time, women’s voices would break in, bringing news of a changing feminism and a changing world. These voices remind us just how diverse, how urgent, how revolutionary feminism has always been, despite all the attempts to marginalise it or fit it into a box.

Next to the Webbs’ high-minded rhe­toric in those early years, for instance, are occasional despatches from one of my favourite feminist writers of the first half of the 20th century, Maud Pember Reeves. What is wonderful about Reeves is her ability to capture not just her views on any issue but the voices of the women who needed change more urgently than anyone. In August 1913, she brings us right into the heart of these women’s lives. This is a short article, simply called “The weighing room”. “It was a cold day,” it begins. “The gas fire was lit . . . The door opened and, one after another, several dismally dressed, silent women carrying babies straggled in.” And there I am in the cold room, with the women and their babies and the weighing scales, watching the determined jollity of the health visitor and the doctor in the face of the malnutrition of the children they are seeing and the poverty of their mothers.

In direct, unrhetorical prose, Reeves brings this scene into sharp light. She may have a cloth ear for how patronising she sometimes sounds when she renders the women’s voices for the New Statesman reader: “An’ wot would I feed ’im on?” one woman asks furiously when the doctor tells her that it’s time to wean her son. “I’m owin’ six shillin’ to a lender, an’ Glover an’ the other five children ter do on 20 bob.”

Yet these stories are urgent and important. If one had been reading the magazine 100 years ago, surely it would have been Reeves’s reportage that would have stirred you to action rather than Webb’s rhetoric. And the legacy of the work of Reeves and others in the socialist movement of the first half of the 20th century was the introduction of maternity and child benefit, vital legislation that directed money from the wallet towards the purse.

As I turn the pages of the magazine, I am also reminded of even greater changes that were afoot, and that these feminists who were stoutly arguing for economic independence and family allowances did not yet even have the vote. Just how heroic the struggle for the vote was is often forgotten. We remember caricatures – even if they are well-meaning caricatures – of women in bonnets and petticoats struggling with blundering bobbies; we remember splits in the movement and flawed leaders. But it takes only a few letters from the pages of the New Statesman to show me that there was a time when there was everything to play for and when political representation really was a matter of life and death, because, as one letter writer notes, the full force of the state was still falling on the protesters and “Mrs Pankhurst’s next re-arrest would probably mean her death”.

That salutary reminder of the urgency of the struggle stresses why we should be so grateful to the feminists of 100 years ago. It is extraordinary to think how much of what feminists in 1913 were dreaming of has come to pass: the then elusive vote and so many of those other aspects of society that we now take for granted – women in government, the Equal Pay Act, child benefit, state support for unwaged mothers, free contraception and abortion, women going to university and into the professions in equal numbers to men, and so on. It is true that women did not speak with a unified voice for all of these steps forward; indeed, at one point Webb was notably opposed to women’s suffrage and she disliked talk of contraception and abortion.

Yet we owe the transformation of our lives to all of them, from the high-minded socialist writers and the brave activists willing to risk their lives to the dogged workers on the front line of poverty. They all did so much to shape the world we see today and to show us that, whatever hurdles lie in front of us, we can be hopeful that change is always possible.

Given its successes, feminism today looks very different from the feminism of 1913. There is, wonderfully and rightly, something much less embattled, much more inclusive and much more relaxed about feminists now. Rather than chasing the chimera of the “perfect mother” and the “perfect citizen”, we can accept one another in our flawed variety. The humourlessness that sometimes characterised women’s politics in the early 20th century has disappeared and many leading voices in contemporary feminism, from Caitlin Moran to the Vagenda magazine, use humour as their main weapon. The new tone of feminism suggests that instead of being furious and earnest all the time, we can begin to enjoy how far we have come.

This humour is hugely attractive to younger women and effective in divesting the enemy of much of his power simply by giggling at him. It rests very much on the progress that has already been made and the ability of the funny feminists to build their audiences through social media and the internet, rather than having to rely exclusively on editors who may not be in on the jokes. Yet I hope that, however much we love the funny feminists, we do not forget to love some of the other aspects of feminism – aspects that may be harder to find on one’s iPhone and harder to laugh about.

The unifying force of the movement for suffrage is not going to be seen again in our generation. But I can still see the power of activism and it is heartening to see women still coming together to dem­onstrate this power through action in everyday life, not just over the internet or through the published word. Over the past 12 months, I have taken part in a lobby of parliament organised by UK Feminista; in One Billion Rising, an international day of activism against violence against women organised by V-Day; and in a number of conferences and public gatherings at which women are learning from one another face to face.

Such activity can sometimes feel time-consuming and frustratingly slow but it also leaves me with a renewed understanding of the process of creating change. And that is vital, because even though feminism has achieved so much, there is still so much to be done. While this government is making decisions on benefits, education and housing that are forcing more women and children into poverty, we have to protest. While women are still experiencing rape and sexual assault in their everyday lives and finding that the perpetrators walk free, we need to stand up for change. While women are still too often absent from public life, we need to make sure our voices are heard loudly, even angrily.

The other crucial aspect of feminism that should not be forgotten is the importance of listening to stories about what goes on beyond the comfort of our lives. There is always time to make jokes about thongs and pubic waxing or about women’s magazines and bad sex but funny feminism is not always great at bringing in other issues. After all, there is not much to laugh about in women having to queue at food banks, or being trafficked into forced prostitution or being killed in the name of honour.

My plea to British feminists to make sure that they do not forget about these other areas of inequality is not a plea to revive a well-meaning but clonking Victorian philanthropy. Feminists throughout the ages have sometimes displayed a misplaced desire to go out into the workhouses of the world to hold up other women’s misery for our edification – yet surely we can learn from the open eyes and open ears of Maud Pember Reeves. She found untold stories in the weighing rooms of London, stories that laid the foundations for the movement towards maternity and child benefit. There are still untold – or unheard – stories today: of the poverty in this country and how it is affecting a new generation of mothers and children. And there are still women who are rarely heard, even though they are not distant from us.

For instance, every week, I go to work at Women for Refugee Women. To this organisation’s building off City Road in London, women come from all over the world – from Afghanistan, from Iraq, from Congo, from Somalia – with their tales of trafficking and honour killing and violence. Their experiences are often horrific, but what is so extraordinary is not just the violence but the fact of their survival, and their determination to speak out and continue to build solidarity and a better world.

Recently I worked with some of the women in our network to record their views of what was holding women back in their home countries. They talked about the lack of female political representation in Afghanistan, honour crimes in Iraq and the legacy of war in South Sudan. However, they were also keen to talk about how to move forwards and they kept repeating words such as “sisterhood” and “action”. Although the odds against it may seem overwhelming, I cannot help but believe that women across the globe are working for a more equal and safer society.

Feminist history teaches us to be hopeful, however tempered and realistic our optimism must be. Looking back over the past 100 years, I can see clearly the change that has happened and is still happening, not just in this magazine but throughout public debate. Women are still under-represented, but they are represented much more frequently than they used to be. Their voices are now myriad: they are funny but also angry; they are middle class and also working class; they are western but also from a range of cultures; they are high-minded and also filthy-minded.

To be sure, the world is a more complicated place than some feminists thought it would be 100 years ago, but it is also a world with more reasons to be hopeful. The path to women’s freedom may be more fraught than many expected, but there are many more women walking it now.

Natasha Walter is the founder of Women for Refugee Women

Featured artwork: Cindy Sherman (born 1954) is one of the most influential artists of our time. Her exhibition “Untitled Horrors” opens at the Astrup Fearnley Museet in Oslo, Norway, on 4 May: afmuseet.no