During the 1990s, I spent a lot of time researching the world of ‘first wave feminism’ for a biography of a woman called Maria Rye. Maria was one of a number of middle class women who come together to campaign for women’s issues in the 1850s. They started a club at Langham Place in London, published the English Woman’s Journal, and lobbied for improvements in women’s conditions: better employment opportunities, property rights for married women, access to higher education, and the right to vote.
The Langham Place group were gradualists; they didn’t throw themselves in front of horses or go on hunger strike, but argued their case rationally through public forums, petitions and the press. There’s an essay on them on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website, for those with access to the site (outside the UK, it is only available to subscribers).
One of their leaders was Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925). Bessie’s father, Joseph Parkes, was the editor of the London Morning Chronicle and an ‘election agent’ for the Liberal Party – essentially a political fixer. Like most men, he loved his strong willed daughter – but he was not a feminist. His letters to her, now in the Bessie Rayner Parkes collection in Girton College, Cambridge, are wonderful: juicy with political gossip, lively accounts of a happy father-daughter relationship. He treated her as his intellectual equal, supported her in many of her campaigns – but he drew the line at political equality for women.
I can’t find my notes from nearly 20 years ago, so I can only summarise, but the gist of his concern was to warn Bessie not to go too far on the path to equality because, he said, ‘You don’t realise how much men hate women.’ Decent men protected and cherished women, he said, as long as they stayed outside the public sphere, but if they ventured into it, those constraints of decency would fall away, and men would make women the objects of their hatred.
In a week when the Taliban in Pakistan have shot a 14-year-old girl because she wanted an education, it’s important to calibrate levels of misogyny. But in terms of civil and legal status, the position of women in 1850s Britain was not greatly different from that of women in the Swat Valley today.
Married women had no independent legal existence, so could not sign contracts, recover debts or sue in a court of law; their property, earnings or inheritance belonged to their husbands; they had no say over how their children were raised, and no defence against domestic violence or marital rape. (And if I was forced, by convention or my male relatives, to choose between Victorian tight lacing and a loose burqa, I’d have real trouble making a decision.)
Bessie Parkes and her friends had some success promoting women’s employment (which also benefitted men, since they would no longer have to pay for the upkeep of their unmarried sisters) and publicising their legal disabilities, but no impact on women’s franchise. The UK finally gave women over 30 the vote in 1918. Bessie was then 89, and she voted for the first time in the General Election in 1920.
At it happens, it was the colonies that first introduced votes for women: New Zealand in 1893, South Australia in 1894, and by 1902, all adult (non-Aboriginal) women in Australia had the vote. So we have a proud history of recognising the political rights of women.
But it’s been kind of a weird week here in Australia.
It began with the release, as the result of a court case, of a series of private text messages from the Speaker of the House of Representatives. They were crude and sexist, but hardly unprecedented in any schoolyard – the words ‘vulva’ and ‘bivalve’ come from the same Latin root, so Peter Slipper is not the first to have drawn a connection.
Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, then tried to have the Speaker sacked – which would conveniently improve Abbott’s numbers in Parliament – arguing that Slipper’s misogyny made him unfit for the Speaker’s job. He probably is, for many other reasons, but there was certainly a good dose of hypocrisy in all this, and in reply, Julia Gillard let fly.
Her 15 minutes’ shredding of Tony Abbott is a wonder to behold. It was uploaded to YouTube, and overnight it went viral. There were opinion pieces in the New Yorker, Salon.com, The Spectator and beyond the Anglo-sphere, in Le Monde. Viewed from afar, Australian politics haven’t been this much fun since Kevin Rudd ate his own earwax.
Viewed from closer to home, it’s not nearly as much fun. I keep thinking of Joseph Parkes’s warning to his daughter, that women don’t know how much (some) men hate – or fear – them and their weird squashy bits. The historian Anne Summers forensically examines that sexualised hatred, as it applies to Julia Gillard, here.
If you haven’t done so, do watch the video. All those men in suits look discomforted, embarrassed and bemused. Nearly all of them are wearing a little pink ribbon on their lapel, which marks the fact that this is Breast Cancer Awareness week. More squashy bits to worry about.