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26 June 2024

The vexed history of British feminism

A century ago women activists worked together despite their political differences. Can they do so again?

By Hannah Barnes

W hen Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1791, she recognised that women “ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed”. To escape their subordinate position in society, women needed an education, and to be seen as human beings. It would take more than a century for (some) females to finally win the right to vote, in 1918.

Since then, feminists have achieved extraordinary things for women in the UK: equal access to education, birth control, legalised abortion and custody rights over our children. Yet, as Susanna Rustin writes, the situation currently facing women and girls is “particularly bleak”. Progress appears to have halted, if not reversed. “Rising misogyny, including sexual violence, is part of the zeitgeist.” There has been an explosion in violent pornography, and many women no longer have faith in the police, whose job it is to protect them.

Rustin certainly achieves her goal of creating a book which is “useful”. Perhaps to spare the blushes of her readers, she suggests the reason many of the names she mentions are unfamiliar is the “general neglect of women’s political history”. While at times the narrative rattles through too many names too quickly, it covers enormous – and important – ground in its 286 pages.

It is particularly striking how some things appear not to have changed at all. In the late 1800s, for example, feminists campaigned against women being judged more harshly than men for violence against their spouses. In the same week a woman was “sentenced to death for killing her husband in a drunken fight”, a man who had murdered his wife was given just seven days in prison. In May 2024, a man who had strangled his wife to death was given a sentence of only six years. On the day of the killing, said the judge, “clearly something provoked” him.

Rustin’s purpose in Sexed: A History of British Feminism is to link the present with the past. She sees in today’s Britain “the resurgence of grass-roots women’s activism”, a movement broadly referred to as gender-critical feminism, or sex-based rights. Or, perhaps, just feminism. It contends that biology matters. Women’s “lower wealth and status, and their vulnerability to specific kinds of harm, cannot be tackled without taking sex into account”. Although the issue is global, Britain is at the forefront of this type of feminism. The reason, Rustin suggests, is because of our feminist history, as well as legal protections unique to the UK.

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Many who oppose gender-critical feminism would also describe themselves as feminists. They advocate for biological sex to be replaced by gender identity, and trans women to be seen no differently – in all situations – to those who were born female. And they justifiably point out that authoritarian leaders such as Putin, Trump and Orbán oppose trans rights.

But these men do so for very different reasons to gender-critical feminists. The majority of those who believe in sex-based rights in the UK, Rustin argues, also believe in trans rights. They welcome that the UK, unlike the US or Russia or Turkey, is a place where neither gay rights nor women’s reproductive rights are under threat, and where trans people are protected in law by the Equality Act. These women do not have a “hidden or unwitting right-wing agenda”.

British feminism is now fragmented, Rustin writes. While feminism has always meant different things to different women, since 1990 it has been “difficult to argue that anything that could be described as a women’s movement still existed”. But history provides a lesson for how to return some unity to the women’s movement.

Founded in 1895, the Practical Moral Union of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, Britain’s first feminist organisation, aimed to “combine all classes of women” – asserting that all women shared a sex, whatever their education or class status. There wasn’t the purity-spiral politics that we see today, where if someone who is not a member of our tribe shares a belief with us, we cannot join forces. Elizabeth Fry, for example, one of Britain’s leading campaigners for penal reform, was not a radical thinker, like Wollstonecraft, who “attacked the philosophical basis of male domination”. Fry was privileged, by her own admission, and motivated by religious beliefs. She sought “practical remedies” for the injustices she identified. But her achievements were no less significant.

Rustin is clear that different methods of protest can be equally effective and can complement each other. The arts can be as impactful as activism (violent or not). No one can question the success and determination of the educationalist Barbara Bodichon who in 1869 co-founded Girton College at Cambridge University – the first to admit women. Yet her biographer, Hester Burton, argued that the fiction of Bodichon’s friend George Eliot surpassed anything that her more practically minded peers achieved. “Eliot’s contribution to the emancipation of women lay in her own career, and in the creation of characters like Dinah Morris, Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Casaubon – heroines utterly unlike the vapid young ladies of the average Victorian novel,” Burton wrote. “They had minds; they had ambitions; they had souls.” These three girls, she argued, had a more lasting effect on the minds of a generation than any feminist pamphlet.

In the 19th and early 20th century there were, as now, disagreements between women on tactics and beliefs, but the cause was deemed bigger than the individuals. The suffragist movement, for example, was split: most obviously on whether to use violence to achieve its ends, but also on whether the movement should include men and whether sexual politics should trump class politics. Nevertheless, it secured the most significant feminist achievement of modern times: the right to vote.

Just as the suffrage movement defied easy categorisation as right or left, conservative or liberal, so too does the gender-critical movement. In Britain it has been the Conservative Party that has been more vocal in support of sex-based rights: feminists who consider themselves on the left have, Rustin writes, found themselves in “uneasy agreement” with the Tories.

If, in the suffrage movement, Rustin writes, “writers, lecturers and lobbyists worked alongside vandals and arsonists”, can’t women today find common ground too? Advocates of sex-based rights and gender-focused feminists share concerns around online misogyny and attacks on women’s reproductive rights, for example. Rustin is “certain” there can be a more overarching accommodation. How this is to be achieved, however, is “something that a historical book cannot tell us”.

Taking the summer of 2024 as the starting point, this admirable optimism is difficult to share. But while there is currently no sign of a meaningful rapprochement, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. “The political lesson from the women’s movement was that you work with many different people,” the historian and feminist activist Sally Alexander wrote. “You work with women who do not agree with you.” Perhaps it can happen again.

Sexed: A History of British Feminism
Susanna Rustin
Polity Press, 286pp, £20

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[See also: The death of the levelling-up dream]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine