CLIO TALKS BACK: Should economic emancipation – the right to earn an independent living – be the most important priority for women today?

Clio recently attended a panel discussion at Stanford University. The topic was “Beyond the Stalled Revolution: Reinvigorating Gender Equality in the Twenty-First Century,” and the panelists included a number of leading feminist scholars. The focus was on the United States.

Achieving women’s equality in the marketplace emerged as an important focus of the discussion. The terms “equal pay” and “glass ceiling” blended with concerns about the politics of appearance and the dilemmas of old age. Resolving the conflict many women face between “work” (as paid employment) and “family” (parenthood, especially motherhood) emerged clearly as a priority for action: paid maternity leave, a national childcare policy are absent in the United States of America. For many women, this is a long-standing dilemma, born of our society’s still deeply-entrenched convictions that men should be the breadwinners and women should care for the children, even in an economic climate where, for many, two incomes are increasingly necessary to sustain families.

In thinking about what she had heard, Clio revisited a comparable period in the development of English feminism during the 1920s and 1930s, following attainment of the vote for all women in 1928. It was then, in planning for the future, that English feminists began to disagree sharply over how to reformulate their political agendas. Two distinct currents emerged, each of which had important economic implications for women. And in the struggle that ensued between them, the words “feminism” and “feminist” turned into “dangerous” words. Clio thinks that knowledge of what has happened in another culture can be helpful in reflecting on our own.

In 1925, an editorial appeared in The Woman's Leader and the Common Cause, entitled "What is Feminism?" The editorialist recounted Rose Macaulay's definition: "attempts of women to possess privileges (political, professional, economic, or other) which have previously been denied to them on account of their sex." But, the writer added, "this is not enough:" This editorialist asserted that:

The mere throwing open to women of all privileges, political, professional, industrial, social, religious, in a social system designed by men for men is not going to carry us all the way to our feminist ideal. And what that ideal is, becomes clear when we define feminism as "the demand of women that the whole structure and movement of society shall reflect in a proportionate degree their experiences, their needs, and their aspirations."

This included, in the writer's estimation, the social recognition of motherhood as having an equal claim "to be economically produced and legally protected."

Embedded in these lines was the thinking of Eleanor F. Rathbone, Member of Parliament, who had succeeded Millicent Garrett Fawcett as president of the now-renamed National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC; formerly the NUWSS). For nearly two decades Rathbone had been insisting that women's needs should be dealt with in women's terms. Her important book, The Disinherited Family (1924), had laid out her views on the woman question in the guise of an appeal to those in post-war England who, like their French colleagues, were concerned about the low birthrate and the shrinking power of the nation. Sylvia Pankhurst, in her small book Save the Mothers (1930), joined the campaign by calling on the government to supplement the voluntary provisions of the 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act with an effective nationally-funded maternity care system. In the wake of the Soviet Russian measures on behalf of maternity, however, even Rathbone's proposal for a family endowment act, with an allowance to be paid to the wife/mother rather than to a wage-earning husband, encountered serious resistance, though it was based on government allocations established during the war to support British soldiers' wives.

Significant opposition to family endowment came from within the English feminist movement itself, spearheaded initially by Fawcett, who cautioned that such payments to women would undermine men's sense of responsibility as husbands and fathers. By degrading men's roles as economic providers, endowment would thereby destroy, rather than stabilize the family, Fawcett affirmed.

Rathbone, in her rejoinder to Fawcett, "The Old and the New Feminism," castigated the strictly egalitarian approach that had for so long been the most visible feature of British feminism. Closer in her arguments to the Continental feminists of pre-war Germany and France, she insisted that:

At last we can stop looking at all our problems through men's eyes and discussing them in men's phraseology. We can demand what we want for women, not because it is what men have got, but because it is what women need to fulfil the potentialities of their own natures and to adjust themselves to the circumstances of their own lives. . . . The achievement of freedom is a much bigger thing than the breaking off of shackles.

In 1927, the English feminist movement fractured over these issues of work-related protective legislation and endowment of motherhood. Tensions that had long been building manifested themselves as schism. In a period when nearly half of the women in England were still without a political voice (though they did obtain it in 1928), Eleanor Rathbone's brand of "new" feminism and the pursuit of state support for mothers made the advocates of formal legal equality for women extremely uneasy.

Some English partisans of individual equality viewed all legal "protection" or privileges for mothers or for working women as a trap. This view characterized the feminists associated with the Six Points Group, and with the publication Time and Tide and its editor-benefactress, Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth, viscountess Rhondda. Following the franchise victory in 1928, Lady Rhondda wrote that "the real task of feminism" is to "wipe out the overemphasis on sex that is the fruit of the age-long subjection of women. The individual must stand out without trappings as a human being." To such advocates of pure equality in the law and in the workplace, it seemed reprehensible for other feminists to play the motherhood trump in the way it had been and would repeatedly be played, for instance, in France, Germany, and later in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

The schism between these two approaches to feminism, one highly relational and woman-centered and the other highly individualistic, subsequently became enshrined in the somewhat misleading formulation, "equality versus difference," which complicated finding solutions into the 1980s. Both factions desired equality, but each understood the term "equality" in a different manner. The split between them would be reinforced and reified by subsequent developments, in particular by the construction of an explicitly dependent motherhood and wifehood in the post-World-War II British welfare state.

Clio asks: if you had lived in England in the 1920s and 1930s, would you have been on the side of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Lady Rhondda? Or would you have agreed with Eleanor Rathbone? Which version of “equality” would you have supported? What version do you support today? Is economic equality the most important form of equality? Let’s have a discussion……

Source: adapted from Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History (Stanford University Press, 2000), chapter 10.