Feminism and History: Rethinking Women’s Movements Since 1800
Organizers: History of Feminism Network
Sponsors: Bishopsgate Institute, Raphael Samuel Centre (UEL), Department of Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London, Department of History at Goldsmiths, University of London, Graduate School, Goldsmiths, University of London
Set up and Registration
Professor Barbara Taylor’s Keynote Speech: Woman over Time
Panel 1: Rethinking the Historiography of Feminism
Joan Haran and Niamh Moore, Joanna de Groot, Eve-Marie Lampron
Panel 2: The Historian as Feminist
Feminist Activist Forum, Sarah Browne, Lesley Orr
Panel 3: Rethinking the Feminist 70s
Rachel Cohen, Agatha Beins, Stephanie Miller
Panel 4: Rethinking the First Wave
Caroline Bressey, Natascha Vittorelli
Panel 5: Rethinking Feminism and Religion
Laura Schwartz, Naomi Hetherington, Rebecca Styler
Panel 6: Problematic Feminisms?
Marc Calvini-Lefebvre, Daniel Grey, Helen Glew
Roundtable: ‘Is there a future for feminist history?’
Lucy Bland, Lucy Delap, Katheryn Gleadle, Margaretta Jolly
Panel 1: Rethinking the Historiography of Feminism
Chair: Clare Hemmings
Joan Haran and Niamh Moore
The Future of Feminist Historiography
This joint paper focuses on narratives of the recent feminist past. Specifically we are interested in tracing nature/culture dualism as a key trope in feminist genealogies. We examine the work this trope is used to do, its effects on our understanding of feminist histories and on the possibilities of imagining feminist futures.
In recent feminist genealogies the 1980s and 1990s are recounted as a period of intense crisis for feminism. This period led to some crucial reformulations of feminist projects, but also to the exclusion and disavowal of other possibilities. Certain feminisms have been relegated to the feminist past in these narratives. Some of the subsequent personal and political rifts have yet to be healed or adequately examined. The label ‘essentialism’ has been central to these processes and is symbolic of the need for feminists to develop strategies for narrating feminist histories, including conflicts, that go beyond splitting and abjection.
The central focus of the paper is the challenge of writing about the persistence of two very different feminist cultural interventions at a time when hegemonic academic feminism insisted that their moment had passed. Feminist science fiction of the 1980s and 1990s continued to be useful to feminists who valued the genre for imagining socially transformed futures. Likewise, an eco/feminist peace camp persevered in practicing non-violent direct action in the 1990s despite claims of the end of feminist activism.
In both the novels and the direct action, linked dominations of nature, women, and other marked categories were critiqued and contested in ways that recognised the non-essential – indeed socially constructed and historically contingent – character of these categories. Nonetheless, in certain feminisms, these nuanced critiques have been caricatured as making naïve claims about women’s natural affinity with nature and capacity for peaceful interaction, and so have been disavowed or relegated to the feminist past.
The paper will point to the implications of such reductive claims in the narrating of the recent feminist past and suggest the importance of a critical feminist historiography as a creative future-oriented practice.
Joanna de Groot
Feminism in Another Language: Learning from ‘Feminist’ Histories of Iran and/or Histories of Iranian ‘Feminisms’ Since 1800
This paper draws on the experience of investigating and interpreting histories of ‘women’, ‘feminists’ and ‘feminism’ in Iran during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to reflect on some of the questions flagged up in the call for papers. In particular it will consider the possibilities and limitations of cross-cultural uses of the category ‘feminist’ by historians in relation to the ‘fracturing’, or, as I would argue, ‘complexification’ of that category, and of the category ‘woman/women’ within recent scholarship. At a time when ‘Islamophobic ’and racialised analyses of Middle Eastern cultures, or world-views influenced by Islam intersect with creative, if contentious, debates about the nature, value, or even possibility of something called ‘Islamic feminism’, a historicised discussion of this question is timely and relevant.
The paper will offer an accessible analytical account of shifting trends in the historiography on women and women’s movements in nineteenth and twentieth century Iran as a basis for critical reflection on the use of particular universalising ideas and discourses about women, history, and politics. I will argue that by considering histories of Iranian ‘women’ and/or ‘feminists’ those interested in the possibilities and problems of ‘feminist history’ can enrich their discussions of its conceptual underpinnings and actual practices. I will show how commonly used notions, such as ‘protest’, ‘gender’ ‘modernity’, and ‘femininity’, can be refined and enhanced by critical cross-cultural comparison, and will suggest some possible routes through the minefields of ethnocentric universalism and cultural relativism.
“Wave zero”: A challenge to Historiography and Feminist Theory Posited by the Contribution of Women of Letters (1770-1840) to the Development of the “First Wave” Feminist Movement
This paper argues that we need to develop a wider approach to the study of the contribution of women of letters to the development of feminist movements and ideology. Indeed, a collective study of French and Italian women of letters leads us to question the two important yet conflicting approaches in the historiography of the few available accounts of the life and accomplishments of French and Italian women of letters (1770-1840): 1) a traditional narrative highlighting the so-called “female competition” between them (e.g.: between Mme de Staël and Mme de Genlis, between Teresa Bandettini and Fortunata Sulgher Fantastici), whether as writers, salonnières or lovers both trying to win the heart of a particular man; 2) a trend to quickly label “feminists” women who acted on an individual basis as “free-women” but who did not necessarily theorise other women’s liberation. Both approaches reveal a highly individual conception of feminism, which can be partly understandable due to the biographical mode that dominates historiography. Yet, an inherent component of feminism and its rise as a social movement lies in a collective vision of women’s liberation. Hence, a collective prosopography of French and Italian women of letters might lead us elsewhere. Drawing on my doctoral research, this paper focuses on the geographical extension and social/political significance of the networking of Italian and French women of letters with other women of letters in the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century (1770-1840). Within this context, this paper is trying to insert the networking between women of letters into the wider history of feminism, by highlighting gender-based connections among them and their contributions to the development of the first wave feminist movement, which has been greatly understudied, with a few exceptions (e.g. Olympe de Gouges and George Sand).
Panel 2: The Historian as Feminist
Chair: Isobel Armstrong
Feminist Activist Forum
Doing Feminist Activist History in the Third Wave
One of the main catalysts for the Feminist Activist Forum in April 2007 was confronting the myths propagated in academia and the media that third wave feminism doesn’t exist: Lipgloss and memory loss was how the wave was being framed, with young feminists either being youth-focused and pleasure-driven or not activist at all. FAF arose to build necessary coalitions between different generations of feminists, to map and critique the so-called ‘third-wave’, and to trace some ‘queer’ and ‘unruly’ histories of grassroots feminism which link past actions to present agendas.
So, what kind of strategies, mischief and inspiration can be learnt from previous generations of feminist action? Through a necessary 're-visioning' of historical culture, which moves away from stereotypes and media-generated histrionics, FAF will discuss the need to reclaim activist feminist histories and to re-align a feminism today which draws upon the strengths, and challenges, of the past.
To disseminate feminist historical knowledge, FAF organises training and study days, has launched a digital timeline project to pick up where FAN left in 1979, and engages in guerrilla feminist history stunts.
‘How Feminist Are You?’: The Role of the Interviewer in the Recording of an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement in Scotland, c. 1967-1979
This paper analyses the impact of my role as interviewer during extensive oral history interviews that have been conducted for current research on the impact of the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Scotland c. 1967-1979. For this research twenty-nine interviews have so far been collected, marking the first full-scale oral history project to have been conducted on this topic in Scottish history. This paper will, therefore, be presenting new and original research in this area.
The role of the interviewer was called into question when during one interview a respondent asked me ‘how feminist are you?’ The strength of my feminist identity became an important point of consideration in how it was helping to shape interviews. Clearly the assumption that I was a feminist gained me access to members of the WLM. Women who might ordinarily have been suspicious of sharing records and reminiscences have opened their doors, shared their memories and in many cases let me borrow source material. This paper will, therefore, explore the advantages and disadvantages of a feminist identity within this oral history process. Areas for consideration during this paper will be generational differences, the role of academic feminism and feminist sponsorship. Questions will focus on how did my identity as a young feminist interact with women who had been active in the WLM during the 1970s? Was there a tendency amongst these women to glorify the past because it so readily contrasted with the experience of women today? Also, how did my involvement in a university impact on the interview? This paper will analyse whether women tended to distrust someone associated with a university and how current academic feminism can relate to the history of the WLM? This paper will conclude by exploring how a feminist identity today can interact with research on the history of feminism.
Women’s Aid in Scotland: Recording Feminism and Social Change
The origins of the Women’s Aid movement in Scotland lie in the 2nd wave feminist women’s liberation movement of the early 1970s. The desire among some activists for practical engagement found a focus in the newly recognised social problem of domestic violence. They also expounded a gendered analysis of domestic violence as an intentional pattern of coercive controlling behaviour which both reflected and served to consolidate male privilege and power: a socially structured reality in the ‘private’ realm of intimacy, marriage and family, and also in public institutions. The development of Women’s Aid as a pioneering network of local service providers is inseparable from the movement’s distinctive ethos, organisational structure and governance, with an explicit commitment to radical social change. Since the 1970s SWA has contributed in significant ways to the shaping of social policy and to changes in the wider political and cultural environment of Scotland.
These years have also brought many challenges and changes to Women’s Aid activities, organisation and engagement with political structures. In the international context of increasing recognition of violence against women and a proliferation of research and policy from contested perspectives (much of which disputes feminist theorising), the issue has become part of the mainstream political agenda in the UK. Devolution and the advent of the Scottish Government have created new opportunities for Women’s Aid. But these interactions have also been seen to challenge or compromise its feminist ideals, methods and collective working practices. Pressures to conform to bureaucratic or professional norms have given rise to tensions and changes within Women’s Aid. It has been characterised as struggling between ‘purity and pragmatism’. (Cuthbert and Irving 2000)
In 2006, SWA initiated a collaborative project to document and archive its history, initially by recording interviews with pioneers involved in the early years of the movement (1973-80), and collecting text-based sources and other ephemera. The immediate context for the project has been the commemoration of SWA’s 30th anniversary, and a desire - influenced by the late 20th century development of ‘women’s history’- to record and celebrate the struggles and achievements of feminism. Indeed, in the Scottish context, there is significant overlap between those with a personal history of WA activism, and the small but flourishing community of academic feminist historians. As the coordinator of the project, I occupy this liminal space, and the purpose of this paper is threefold:
To outline some of the key research questions and findings of the SWA history project, especially those around the constructions, perceptions, tensions and changes in feminist discourse and practice in Scotland from the 1970s
To reflect critically on the aims, methods and processes of the history project as a model for ‘doing’ women’s history with integrity and credibility
To consider the opportunities and challenges of engaging in feminist history of a contemporary women’s movement, from a subject position of critical commitment to collective struggle for change
Panel 3: Rethinking the Feminist 70s
Chair: Margaretta Jolly
American Jewish Women and the Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1985: Activism, Identity and History
This paper explores the motivations, activities and identities of American women from a variety of Jewish backgrounds active in the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in the United States. Jewish women took an active role in many radical social movements of the twentieth century such as the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left and the Anti-Vietnam war movement but the focus of this paper is their involvement in the Women’s Liberation Movement and feminist politics. They participated actively in all the campaigns feminists organised for women’s equality and liberation and were able to take advantages of the opportunities for women that feminist activism was creating. However despite their militant presence in the movement in numbers beyond their proportion in the population they did not, until the 1980s and 1990s discuss their Jewishness in the context of feminism.
Thus the paper investigates the tensions and conflicts American Jewish feminists faced over the questions of gender and ethnicity during this period. It demonstrates that Jewish women were disproportionately active in the Women’s Liberation Movement and that generational memory and familial political legacy influenced the political choices of second and third generation Jewish feminists. Further, it illustrates how second and third generation Jewish feminists negotiated their multiple identities as feminists and Jews within the WLM and diverse American Jewish communities.
Throughout the paper I investigate the heterogeneity of American Jewish feminists and their differing concepts of selfhood but also their commonalities, for example their desire to contribute to, and build the feminist movement in many forms from marching to writing. Through the use of oral history research as well as memoir, fiction, feminist history and theory the paper analyses how second wave American Jewish feminists have constructed their own personal and political narratives. Their narratives and memories contribute to a shared history of women who came of age as feminists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
Textual Solidarity: The Production of Feminism and the Production of Feminist Periodicals
Despite the number of feminist newsletters and newspapers that circulated in the 1970s little scholarship has asked about the roles publications played in generating and sustaining the U.S. women’s liberation movement. This relationship—between a social movement and the texts its members produce—can offer insight into the dynamics of social movements generally and the U.S. women’s liberation movement specifically. It also foregrounds the voices of social movement participants as well as the mundane practices that often provide the foundation of a social movement.
In my paper I use the publications and internal records of the Valley Women’s Center (VWC), a resource center based in Northampton, Massachusetts, that existed between 1971 and 1977. Tracking discourses of sisterhood, I am able to consider how women themselves were writing the movement, through what narratives and discourses the movement was being made intelligible. Taking into account the important critiques of sisterhood as an ideology and as a practice, I nonetheless maintain that sisterhood was not only an oversimplifying, essentialist, and falsely inclusionary concept. The VWC’s records show that it also facilitated affective and political relationships and networks that enabled feminism to spread rapidly in the 1970s.
To make this argument I develop a theoretical framework shaped by the history of the book, which accounts for the various roles (e.g., writer, publisher, distributor, reader) and processes shaping a text’s life cycle, and the social, economic, and political forces affecting those roles and processes. I also draw from new social movement theories and theories of power, agency, and affect. Importantly though, the late-twentieth century women’s liberation movement is not unique in its reliance on publications; therefore, this method may be invoked productively to analyze feminist activism at other times and in other places.
Feminism and History in Lizzie Borden Fiction
The way in which the history of feminism is represented often reveals as much about the context of the representation as about the historical events themselves. The act of representation can function to neutralize anxieties about female empowerment, essentializing the past to depoliticize the present. Nowhere are such anxieties more evident than in representations of violent women. In examining the abundant fiction inspired by alleged parricidal axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, of late 19th-century Massachusetts, one finds within each rendering of the story a unique and often telling relationship between the moment of text-production (and its relationship to feminist contexts) and the historical moment depicted (and contemporaneous feminist movements).
Second-wave feminism inspired new consideration of women’s histories, while increased self-reflexivity and wariness of essentialism in the mid-1970s rendered the task of expressing such histories inevitably problematic. This paper will explore the complex and conflicting ways in which one pop-culture text from this era, made-for-TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), negotiates the relationship between the first-wave feminist moment it depicts and the second-wave popular feminism contemporaneous to its release. Within this negotiation, the film creates deeply conflicted impressions of Lizzie’s control over herself and her surroundings, and of her generalizability as a character. This tension combines with an absurd overdetermination of motivations and plotlines to yield a problematic gender message evidencing an unsure perception of feminist pasts and progress. Ultimately, I will argue that while an examination of Lizzie Borden fiction reveals any representation of feminist history to be necessarily conflicted, from within that very conflict emerges the possibility for new readings of women’s changing roles and changing attitudes towards feminism over time.
Panel 4: Rethinking the First Wave
Chair: June Purvis
Rethinking Race, Victorian Anti-Racism and Feminism
In March 1888 Catherine Impey launched a new journal called Anti-Caste. It was concerned with racial prejudice across the British empire and the United States. The journal was eventually transformed into a movement that sought the ‘universal brotherhood of man’. It was, however, a movement that faced two crippling splits, all of which were forced by women in the movement. The first split in 1894-5 reflected a link between women, the new labour movement and early feminism. It is this division, that appears to have occurred because of Catherine’s desire to marry a friend of another prominent leader of the ‘brotherhood’ Isabella Mayo, which will be the focus of this paper.
On one side of the split stood Anti-Caste’s founder Catherine Impey. There is no evidence that Catherine was directly involved with the women’s movement herself, but she was supported by a number of women who could be considered early feminists, including Isabella Ormston Ford and the African-American journalist and civil rights worker, Ida B Wells. On the other side of the divide was a Scottish focused collective led by the writer Isabella Mayo. After the split Mayo led a movement that became increasingly close to the labour movement, with at least one the female editors of the movement’s paper Fraternity an active member of the emerging labour party.
This paper will explore a number of questions raised by the split in this early anti-racist movement. For example, what connections can be made between an early anti-racist movement and the women’s movement in Britain? What connections did women make between race and gender? And, did a failure to continually and successfully connect the women’s movement with broader racial politics in the nineteenth century result in the failure of feminism to properly take on board the concerns of black women in the 1970s and 1980s?
What Would Writing a History of Women’s Movements in the Habsburg Monarchy Mean? Rethinking National Frameworks
Typically, the history of women’s movements is – explicitly or not – conceptualised within national frameworks. This approach resulted in manifold histories of national women’s movements, mostly without reflecting the underlying assumptions of an unquestioned correlation between women’s movements and the category of nation. This is especially true for histories and historiographies of women’s movements in the Habsburg Monarchy, where – among others – histories of Hungarian, Slovene, Ukrainian or Polish women’s movements have been written so far. The writing of these histories could mainly only be accomplished by backward projection of present state frameworks into the past.
Therefore, I am suggesting a shift from a national to a state framework. This change of perspective on the history of women’s movements in the Habsburg Monarchy raises new questions, leads to new insights, and poses new problems as well. To start from a state framework is not better or worse than coming from national frameworks: The history of ‘Habsburg women’s movements’ will still continue to be a construct as the histories of women’s movements of Habsburg’s nations and nationalities are. A Habsburg perspective allows comparisons and challenges, but is imposed to restrictions likewise.
In my paper I would like to thematise as well as problematise the shift I am – yet –suggesting.
Panel 5: Rethinking Feminism and Religion
Chair: Anne Summers
The Bible and the Cause: Freethinking Feminists vs. Christianity
This paper examines the debates on the role ascribed to women in Scripture that took place between Freethinking feminists, Christian feminists and conservative Christian commentators in England in the second half of the nineteenth-century. It argues that these formed an extensive and important part of wider discussions of women’s rights during this period, and that biblical exegesis remained central to feminist thought at least up until the end of the century. One’s particular theological perspective determined the approach taken to Biblical teachings on women and what modern-day lessons should be drawn from them. Wider ideas about women’s emancipation- such as the origins of women’s oppression, whether religion was compatible with women’s rights and which authority women should look to to legitimise such rights- were thus shaped by theological positions.
Freethought- the term used to describe a questioning of religious assumptions about the ordering of the world and a desire to cleanse society of superstition- emerged as an organised and popular movement from the 1850s onwards, consisting of local branches, a periodical press, and national institutional structures such as the National Secular Society. Although both feminist and Freethought historiography have neglected them, the Secularist movement also gave rise to a small but prominent group of female activists who were vocal in advocating both Freethought and women’s rights. The Secularist movement as a whole was strongly committed to ending the oppression of women, which it, unsurprisingly, attributed to the historical role of Christianity and the subordinate position ascribed to women in Scripture. Central to Freethinking feminist propaganda were detailed critiques of Scripture, founded upon an extensive knowledge of the Bible and modes of historicised exegesis. These mirrored, engaged with and attacked both Christian writings on ‘women in Scripture’ (which today might be conceived variously as proto-feminist and/or conservative), and explicitly feminist interpretations of the Bible which sought to reconcile Christianity with women’s rights. Freethinking feminists therefore complicate our understanding of the origins of liberal secular feminism, suggesting that a early feminist opposition to religion was nevertheless closely bound up with highly religious understandings of womanhood.
In Support of Women’s Rights: Reading the Bible in the Women’s Advocacy Press
From its outset, the Women’s Penny Paper (1888-90) emphasised the importance to women of ‘their intelligence and their conscience’ in seeking for the ‘spiritual truth’ that the Bible contains (‘Our Policy’, 1.1, p. 1). The opening number launched a series of ‘Bible readings’, intended to show that women’s emancipation was in harmony with biblical teaching. The editor Henrietta Müller invited contributions from women readers, especially those with a knowledge of biblical languages. It was Müller’s policy to encourage readers’ letters on topics raised by the paper and the Bible readings proved a particularly fertile ground for debate.
Using the ‘Bible readings’ column in the Penny Paper as a case study, this paper argues that biblical exegesis provided an interpretative framework in the women’s advocacy press of the 1880s and 90s for debating the civic and sexual emancipation of women. These debates are of wider interest to feminist historians in pointing up both the open and discursive nature of the feminist press at this period in history and the importance of scriptural interpretation for reconfiguring women’s status, not only for leading luminaries in the nineteenth-century women’s movement, but by the end of the century for a broader audience of middle-class women.
The open format of the periodical provides a crucial insight into the religious allegiances which governed women’s networks in the late-Victorian period. Particularly notable is the juxtaposition of politically motivated interpretations of the Bible with other more conventional ways of reading scripture, for instance, notices of Evangelical-run Bible classes and advertisements of engraved family Bibles. The co-existence of these forms of copy in the Penny Paper challenges a dominant division of the fin-de-siècle feminist scene in critical scholarship into a radical and a moderate social purity camp along religious lines.
More than Feminism: Josephine Butler’s Liberation Theology
Josephine Butler has been interpreted almost universally as a feminist in the last two decades, but the term is deeply problematic. In the 1980s, she was reclaimed by secular feminists as a role model for political analysis of, and campaigns against, the oppression of women during her crusade to abolish the state regulation of prostitution. Such readings of her ignored entirely her religious motivation, a situation which has been redressed from the 1990s onwards by critics who have recast her as a feminist theologian, whose primary religious theme is the fundamental equality of the sexes (e.g. Ann Loades, Janet Larson, Lucretia Flammang, Helen Mathers).
My argument is that 'feminist' does not do justice to Butler's theology or her politics (inseparable in her view). To understand better her work, we must turn to a different critical framework, that of 'Liberation Theology', a school of theology which has developed in the poorer countries of the world, is influenced by Marxism, and reads Christianity from the point of view of the marginalised and oppressed.This is what Butler does, and like recent liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez and Jose Miguez Bonino, she interprets the Bible's messages of salvation in holistic ways, to include freedom from all forms of oppression - spiritual, material, emotional, political. She interprets sin as the internalised fragmentation caused by collective, institutional oppression, much like Marx's concept of alienation. Patrarchal oppression forms part of Butler's critique, but other manifestations of injustice are just as important, in her conviction that this world is to be redeemed by restoration of the commonwealth of humanity in people's minds as well as in social policy. Finally, Butler's call for women in politics and preaching is not 'feminist' in the liberal sense of permitting women self-fulfilment. Her notion is more like Kristeva's analysis of the 'feminine' as a marginalised position which provides an externalised standpoint from which to critique mainstream ideology. This is Butler's notion of the prophet, and she models herself on this old testament model.
Panel 6: Problematic Feminisms?
Chair: Sally Alexander
Piercing the Fog: Identifying ‘Feminism’ in the context of total war
The fog of the Great War has proven particularly difficult to pierce for historians of British feminism. Did feminism survive the outbreak of war? And if so, which of the many pro and anti-war positions to emanate from the women’s movement can be legitimately identified as ‘feminist’? These questions have received widely divergent answers, with one historian’s feminists inevitably morphing into another’s traitors.
I will argue in this paper that the principal source of these divergent assessments lies less in the turmoil and confusion that the war brought to the women’s movement – although this surely has not helped – but in the problematic ways in which scholars have used the term ‘feminism’ itself. Drawing on the work of ‘Cambridge school’ intellectual historians, I will then suggest that a properly historical use of the term ‘feminism’ must pay close attention not simply to the arguments made by women’s advocates but to what they were attempting to do in making them. To illustrate the value of such an approach, three contested cases will be discussed in turn: the essentialist pacifism of Helena Swanwick, the liberal nationalism of Millicent Fawcett, and the xenophobic patriotism of Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.
‘Ladies Who Have No Experience of Such Matters’: Religion, Feminism and the Prison Work of Adeline, Duchess of Bedford
In 1910 Adeline, Duchess of Bedford, published an article in Nineteenth Century and After reviewing fifteen year’s work with women offenders. Bedford was a key figure in women’s philanthropic networks around the turn of the century and her opinions carried a great deal of weight with the Prison Service and the Home Office. As Anne Summers has noted, Bedford was one of several well-connected women active in social work who encouraged interfaith collaboration, bestowing upon women of different faiths the mantle of ‘honorary Protestantism’. Her devout Anglican views drove her to set up a series of rescue homes in the 1890s, and to work as a visitor at Ayelesbury Prison from its opening as a women’s convict prison in 1896. She also contributed to several other charities with a focus on the welfare of women and girls.
However, despite this special interest in women offenders- an interest shared by militant suffragette organisation the Women’s Freedom League- Bedford’s relationship with the women’s movement was, at best, edgy. While encouraging middle-class women to perform philanthropic work in prison as head of the Lady Visitors’ Association from 1901, Bedford simultaneously condemned militant suffragism. Nor was she sympathetic to feminist critiques of the criminal justice system, dismissing them as ‘well-intentioned but ill-judged efforts of ladies who have no experience in such matters’. Yet her belief that women held a special role in penal work was shared with a number of feminist campaigners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This paper explores Bedford’s contradictory responses to feminist thought and activism, arguing that there was a greater degree of overlap between this and her own life than she would have liked to admit.
‘We Are Stronger Together As Women Alone’: Women, Feminist Organisations and the General Post Office, c. 1911-1939
This paper examines the interwar feminist movement through the prism of single sex associations for women employed by the General Post Office. The earliest of these was the Association of Post Office Women Clerks (APOWC), which was formed in 1901 and was the first women-only association in the Civil Service. The Association later became a member of the Federation of Women Civil Servants as GPO women clerks were transferred to other Civil Service departments, and eventually became part of the National Association of Women Civil Servants, formed in 1931.
Though the Association and its successors often shied away from the label “feminist” so as to make their arguments more palatable to wider audiences and potential detractors, there can be no doubt about the feminist nature of the organisations. They were established on, and maintained, feminist principles, arguing consistently on an equality of opportunity platform and for ‘a fair field and no favour’. Campaigning against each of the issues contributing to women’s subordination in the GPO, they worked alongside other feminist groups such as the London and National Society for Women’s Service and the Six Point Group to further these campaigns and those for a range of other feminist issues with which they identified.
The paper argues that the APOWC and its successors were, along with a handful of other women’s groups, an integral part of the feminist movement in the interwar period. It thus builds on work by historians such as Alison Oram and Cheryl Law who have depicted the nature of the interwar feminist movement. At the same time, the paper attempts to address the problem of determining the depth and breadth of feminist commitment amongst membership of organisations such as the APOWC: whilst records reveal that those who were executive committee members were by and large committed feminists, the non-executive women may have had a myriad of reasons for joining the association. The paper thus outlines the appeal of such associations for women who may not have had feminist convictions and attempts to suggest how the historian of feminism might handle such groups.