A couple of interesting “events” in relation to gender history have caught my attention in the last week or so.
The first of these was the publication of Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men: And the Rise of Women (11 Oct 2012). Rosin argues that women in the twenty first century are displacing men and moving from being the “Second Sex” to the “First”. As the recession hits, Rosin asserts, men have had to come to terms with increasing unemployment, while women have seized new economic opportunities and are forging ahead in education, wealth, and power. The process will be gradual, Rosin writes – admitting that there is still a “glass ceiling” for women -, but a matriarchy is being established, inverting the hierarchy of the past 40,000 years.
The second “event” which caught my interest was the appearance of Dr Helen Pankhurst on BBC News this morning. Great granddaughter of Emmeline and grandaughter of Sylvia, Helen is the descendant of the famous suffragists and advances a view which runs contrary to that of Rosin. Pankhurst asserts that the period of austerity is damaging women’s economic independence and right to live without violence – with reductions in childcare and services provided by Sure-Start, and Women’s Aid turning away women seeking refuge due to lack of space. Pankhurst also called attention to the “glass ceiling”, going so far as to support the idea of a quota system for the election of female MPs – an issue which raises problems around the concept of democracy.
These two sets of views raise a number of important questions from the historical point of view. Rosin’s assertion that the past 40,000 years have been dominated by patriarchy demands to be qualified. There is an extensive literature on the significant role that women have played in politics, from the scandals surrounding the influence of Georgiana Cavendish the Duchess of Devonshire, to plebeian women’s involvement in bread riots in the eighteenth century, through to a series of important changes in the nineteenth century: the granting of the Municipal Franchise to women (1869); the election of women to newly created school boards (1870); the appointment of the first female Poor Law Guardian – Martha Merrington (1870); and the admission of women to the Independent Labour Party and the Conservative’s Primrose League (1883). Again, in terms of access to education, improvements have been far more gradual than Rosin would have us believe. In the period 1860-1900 38 girls’ schools were established by the Feminist Girls’ Public Day School company, in addition to 33 Anglican girls schools and 90 girls grammar schools. Women also have a long tradition of attending Universities, with the University of London being the first institution to award degrees to women in 1878 while Sophia Jex Blake established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874.
This brings me to my second point. Not only is it the case that the history of women’s rights is being presented in a reductionist way but the feminist movement itself is in danger of being misrepresented. While it is essential that we acknowledge and study the Suffragette movement, this needs to be contextualised. Earlier figures in the foundation of the feminist movement, such as Mary Wollstonecroft and Josephine Butler are missing here. Of more direct relevance, the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) was never the most significant women’s suffrage party, having around 2000 members, while Millicent Fawcett’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage (founded 1897) had 100,000. It is important to remember that not all activists for women’s rights wanted suffrage, and that there was also an Anti-Suffrage League.
Whether the twenty-first century is witnessing the ‘End of Men’ or not, it did not mark the beginning of the ‘Rise of women’.
Whether significant improvements to female equality are needed in the twenty-first century or not, the history of women’s rights did not begin with the Suffragettes.