Glow in the dark: how history’s boldest women embraced vulnerability

Melissa Benn reviews two new books about remarkable 20th-century women – from Emmeline Pankhurst to Marilyn Monroe.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Head and Heart: a painting by the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon, who died in Auschwitz

Women in Dark Times 
Jacqueline Rose
Bloomsbury, 340pp, £20

Women and the Vote: a World History 
Jad Adams
Oxford University Press, 516pp, £30

About a third of the way in to Jacqueline Rose’s new book, I found myself specula­ting about how she might approach two recent, if very different, issues: the publication of Merci pour ce moment – the “kiss’n’tell” memoir of François Hollande’s former partner Valérie Trierweiler, a book condemned by all supposed right-thinking people (including that most right-thinking of French politicians, Marine Le Pen) – and the despair and determination of the hundreds of migrants who are living rough in Calais, fighting to get across the Channel.

It may not be immediately obvious but both seem relevant to the implied political and personal ambitions of Women in Dark Times, a plea for feminism to become “the place in our culture which asks everyone, women and men, to recognise the failure of the present dispensation – its stiff-backed control, its ruthless belief in its own mastery, its doomed attempt to bring the uncertainty of the world to heel”. At the end, Rose names the temper of our times “cold power” – a near-perfect term, I’d say, for what the migrants in Calais and the miserably outcast Trierweiler now find themselves up against.

For dark places, both personal and political, are Rose’s subject here. She does not make the mistake of denying or decrying the value of other forms of feminism, such as the kind of brisk campaigning for legal or political equality that is the subject of Jad Adams’s Women and the Vote. Instead, she pays rigorous attention to the shadow side of women’s experience and understanding, as well as the deep, myriad connections between the human conflicts of today and the traumas and waste of the 20th century – in particular, the two world wars and the Holocaust.

This is not an easy book but a lucid, deeply absorbing and strangely soothing one, in the way that a friend with boundless curiosity, unflinching in the face of difficult truths, always proves more comforting and interesting than the falsely cheerful, draw-up-a-list sort. Rose offers erudite, multiple readings of the lives and work of three very different sets of three women. The book’s acknowledged “presiding spirit” is Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times, a magisterial collection of essays on significant figures of the 20th century.

In direct homage to Arendt, who took Rosa Luxemburg as one of her honorary “men”, Rose begins with a consideration of the revolutionary socialist but here puts her alongside Marilyn Monroe and the painter Charlotte Salomon, three distinctive female (but not feminist) figures of the 20th century surely never linked before. Rose finds in them not just a particular brilliance but a shared sense of “unbelonging”, an almost reckless psychic bravery in the face of intense personal vulnerability that is not, as she constantly reminds us, the same as victimhood or an unhelpful kind of female goodness or innocence.

Rose argues that it was Luxemburg’s ability to gaze at the “bruises on her soul” – to embrace uncertainty and anxiety – that gave her political courage and vision. For Luxemburg, the Russian Revolution, or socialism in general, could not be laid out as a series of ready-made prescriptions; there was always something “radically unknowable at the core of political life”. Luxemburg is usually considered hostile on the “woman question”; yet Rose rescues her for contemporary feminism by recalling her belief that while women could “restore the moral authority of socialism”, they “cannot possibly emancipate themselves while ignoring the iniquities of a rampantly unequal world”. It’s a lesson, Rose wryly suggests, that “‘post-feminism’ might heed”.

She then turns to the painter Charlotte Salomon, whose life was seared by multiple suicides in her family (including that of her mother and her aunt), possible sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather and the horrors of Nazism. Salomon, like Luxemburg, was murdered. She died in Auschwitz and left only one major work, the extraordinary Life? or Theatre? – her personal reply to the “deadly wages of fascism”.

Marilyn Monroe may or may not have been murdered but here was the woman on whom the postwar world pinned its urgent need for shiny, sexualised surfaces and whose genius was “to distil suffering into a face and body meant to signify pleasure and nothing else”. Monroe emerges as an impressive autodidact, a woman of richer human and political understanding than most of the men who surrounded and even loved her. In her final interview, given in July 1962, she explained to Life magazine that fame means you “run into human nature in a raw kind of way . . . You’re always running into people’s unconscious.”

In a change of register, Rose turns to honour killings. She doesn’t play down the devastating extremity of fathers, brothers and even mothers colluding in the stabbing, poisoning and strangling of their daughters and sisters but peels back, with extreme care, the many layers of each story, not just to make sense of them but to tease out common elements. (It was Hitchcock, she reminds us, who said television brought murder back into the home, “where it belongs”.)

Fear of being gossiped about; fear of losing face; double standards about women’s sexuality; women living in fear of men; mothers not just accepting but almost urging their daughters to settle for personal unhappiness; public disdain for outspoken women – these anxieties and attitudes and more are found in all cultures and communities. Honour crimes comfort and confirm certain kinds of white Briton in their supposed difference and distance from such horror, while violence within migrant communities can easily be exploited as part of a mounting anti-immigration rhetoric and an intensifying racism.

In the book’s final section – a detailed examination of three relatively unknown contemporary artists, Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana and Thérèse Oulton – Rose spells out why the artwork of these women, with their focus on everything from overlooked working lives to the ravaging of the environment, shines a different light on the imperatives of today’s politics.

In general, I am persuaded by Rose’s argument that women remain best placed to tune in to the chronic insecurity and darkness of modern life, especially those who can immerse themselves in what Keats called “negative capability”. (Who, after all, do we turn to in order to understand the early 20th century but Virginia Woolf, a far less political figure, on the face of it, than her contemporaries Beatrice Webb and Rebecca West?) Such negative capability includes the ability to immerse ourselves in others’ experience, a toleration of negative states, an active acceptance of not knowing.

When Rose asks, “Why do we talk of conquering fear, as if there would be no price to pay for such brutal inner defacement?” she uses the example of Germany after the First World War as a nation “that will go to war once more and destroy the whole world rather than admit its own failures as a nation or face its own worst fears”. Whether considering possible responses to Zionism or the horrors of sexual abuse, Rose warns of the brittle inadequacy of caution – “painting over the dark” – when we need, instead, to face down what terrifies us and be more, not less, personal.

Jad Adams’s account of the global history of the fight for women’s suffrage tells the collective story of thousands of tenacious battlers, clamouring for a place in the seats of power. Women and the Vote is half encyclopaedia, half breathless adventure tale. One could spend hours comparing and contrasting the national stories on offer. Good old New Zealand is way ahead in the world league table, having given women the vote in 1893. Why did Ecuador, a tiny Latin American country, enfranchise its women as early as 1929, when the women’s vote didn’t come to Argentina or Chile until the late 1940s? What was it about Wyoming that put it far ahead of the rest of America’s disunited states? What nuances of nationhood or feminist tactics might explain the differing trajectories of Finland, Sweden and Norway? How come Switzerland didn’t grant women the vote until the 1970s?

This is a book for dipping in and out of but when read in one go, certain themes illuminate and unite the various stories. First, the entire enterprise of votes for women depended on a fundamental shift of thinking about nationhood and citizenship that began with the French and American Revolutions. Founding texts such as The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman recur. Mill’s work in particular provided direct inspiration to many campaigners across the world.

Every nation or state had its heroines, often flawed to a degree that Jacqueline Rose would recognise, from the charismatic Eva Perón in Argentina to the tough and inventive Nigerian feminist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. The eccentric, self-centred Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst do not emerge with much credit from Adams’s tale, pursuing a reckless militancy that, in his stern opinion, unhelpfully influenced other national struggles.

Individual men played an important part in winning women the vote, although not, perhaps, the two male leaders of major suffrage organisations in the United States who got embroiled in complex sexual shenanigans with each other’s wives. Adams is critical of some campaigns in the west that put undue emphasis on women’s purity, while others sold out on equally vital principles such as equal rights for black Americans (the abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth emerges as a prescient heroine) or got diverted by the fight for temperance.

For Adams, the “suffragists in their self-adulatory tomes have done women something of a disservice” by too often claiming that it was their organisational brilliance that won women the vote. He argues persuasively that there were usually several reasons for the ultimate success of any given campaign, with war proving just as important as lobbying in clinching it. In a chronology at the end of the book, we can see at a glance the large cluster of countries that granted women suffrage in the year or two after the end of any major conflict.

Perhaps the most striking and inescapable conclusion of Women and the Vote is just how little women’s suffrage has changed the character of politics. The lives of women have not been vastly improved by their gaining the vote and to this day women still enrol in political life in far fewer numbers than men. For the Japanese feminist Fusae Ichikawa, one of the few suffragists who went on to have a successful parliamentary career, getting the vote was “a waste”. Those on the radical left in Catholic Europe and Latin America who opposed women’s suffrage on the basis of women’s presumed conservatism were wrong on the principle but broadly accurate on the outcome.

Oddly enough, then, Adams’s chronicle leads us to a similar place to Rose’s dense, cultural and psychoanalytically infused account of the same broad sweep of global history. Both books imply that something else is required now of women and of public life. There is a need for more authentic voices – of the kind currently merely mimicked and possibly even mocked by popular male figures of the right, such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

If only, Rose implies, more women were brave enough to dig beneath safe certainties, to admit vulnerability and to refuse to be defined or confined by manifestos alone – who knows how we could change the world in these dark times? We should keep in mind the words of Luxemburg who, from prison in Warsaw in December 1916, wrote to her friend Mathilde Wurm: “See that you remain a human being. To be a human being is the main thing above all else.” 

Melissa Benn is the author of “What Should We Tell Our Daughters?” (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?