Dreamers of a New Day

Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century

by Sheila Rowbotham

3 June 2010

Image (partial) from vintage medical poster, "Dr. John Butler's Electro-Massage Machine" 

Crossing Class (and Other) Lines

Contemporary white middle-class observers watched in alarm as wave upon wave of new arrivals poured into America’s big cities. Black migrants fleeing the rise of segregation and persecution in the South found themselves competing for survival with the great hosts of immigrants from Europe, Syria, Japan, and Puerto Rico, who were arriving clutching battered bags, boxes and dreams of the good life in the land of plenty. In the North, African Americans encountered prejudice in an insidious form as evolutionary theories of racial stages and biological arguments of inherent racial characteristics became increasingly popular. Intellectual leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois tried to counter these arguments, though they differed over the strategies to be adopted by African Americans. While the former cautiously sought to improve the skills of black people, Du Bois advocated a broad liberal education and the creation of a black elite of talent to challenge white intellectual hegemony. At the grass-roots, African Americans formed their own movements and devised ingenious self-help projects.

In both Britain and America, social settlements cleared a space for a new public role for women, while stimulating ideas for social policy and legislation around welfare and employment… women also established their own cross-class organizations for reforming working conditions.

The structure and course of the organizations and movements for change in the two countries developed in somewhat different ways. In Britain, the socialist and anarchist groupings of the 1880s and 1890s were complemented in the early twentieth century by the creation of a Labour Party which crucially entered into an alliance with the trade unions. This combination did not occur in America, though the Socialist Party gained support in the polls between 1901 and 1912. In America it was the Populist Movement rather than explicitly socialist groupings that advocated co-operative alternatives in the late nineteenth century, while from the 1890s dynamic coalitions of ‘Progressives’ were demanding state regulation of work and living conditions. While the social meanings of the Progressive impulse are much contested, broadly speaking its adherents attempted to reform the harsher manifestations of competition, believing that in the long term a regulated capitalism would prove more efficient. Women played an important part in this pressure for moderate change and, despite not being enfranchised, influenced both municipal and state policies from the sidelines.

In Britain comparable ideas were to be found in the radical wing of the Liberal Party, or among the Fabian socialists who believed in gradual reform through the state. As well as campaigning for state legislation, Liberals, radicals, socialists, trade unionists were all lobbying for change locally. Consequently it was possible for women to form broad alliances. Radical middle-class women and working-class men joined forces on the school boards and, from the 1890s, Liberal Party and labour movement women combined on Poor Law reform. From 1907, women served on county and borough councils. Local government provided an entry into practical politics and a means of gaining access to state resources for projects. The Women’s Local Government Society, established in 1888 to encourage the selection of women candidates in local government, disseminated information about demands women were making for municipal reform. Working-class labour women were able to secure public amenities such as baths and wash houses through local councils. By the 1920s women were aspiring to pleasure on the rates as well as services for basic needs: in 1926 Mrs. Grundy in Shipley, Yorkshire, secured an assurance from the chairman of the local baths committee that women would get Turkish baths at the same price as men.

Despite the differing institutional forms, in both countries women participated in various types of self-help action in communities. Outside the scope of formal politics, the voluntary sector they helped to create enabled many women to gain an understanding of social problems. Most important were the social settlements which sprang up in many towns and cities from the late 1880s onwards. Growing numbers of middle-class reformers of both sexes were coming round to the view that the stress placed by evangelists and philanthropists on individual moral responsibility alone was unrealistic. Influenced by an emphasis within the Anglican Church on practical social action, and philosophically nurtured by the neo-Hegelian idealism of T. H. Green, they insisted instead on the structural causes of poverty such as low pay and urban slums. Though their goals were secular, they did not abandon the mentality of Christianity. Metaphors of social ‘missionaries’ colonizing poor neighbourhoods were prevalent in Britain when the first settlement of educated middle-class investigators and reformers was built in East London in 1888. Called Toynbee Hall after the reformer Arnold Toynbee, it was partly inspired by the example of American utopian communities. Toynbee Hall had a direct influence on the settlement movement in America, leading the reformer Jane Addams to set up a women’s settlement in Chicago, Hull House, in 1889. More democratic than its British forerunner, Hull
House became the nerve centre for a range of causes, from women’s trade unions to communal kitchens. In both countries social settlements cleared a space for a new public role for women, while stimulating ideas for social policy and legislation around welfare and employment.

Connections grew up between settlements and university social science departments. While women social investigators were marked by the same intellectual influences as their male counterparts, and troubled by the same urban problems, they were also guided by their experiences as women. The University of Chicago produced a formidable network of women who concentrated on sociology, economics and civics and worked closely with Hull House; the group included Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton and Sophonisba Breckinridge. These women researchers produced innovative studies of working conditions, child labour, immigration and motherhood. Not only did they relate their findings to proposals for practical action, they also shared the perspective of a social economy which put human needs before profits, a heterodoxy that hung on into the 1920s in some American women’s colleges. In Britain similar links developed between some universities and working-class communities. In Liverpool the reformer Eleanor Rathbone was active both in the suffrage movement and in settlement work. Rathbone later fused political and social reform when she became president of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) after World War One, spearheading the campaign for family allowances.

The practical issues women encountered through social action inspired not simply policies but new kinds of cultural enquiry. In 1908 the social investigator Maud Pember Reeves established the Fabian Women’s Group to study women’s economic independence and equality in relation to socialism. It included several pioneering economic and social historians associated with the London School of Economics: Barbara Drake, Mabel Atkinson, Bessie Leigh Hutchins and Alice Clark wrote on both the present and the past of women’s work and were among the first to assert professional women’s right to combine work and marriage. Because the range of their interests extended over social existence as a whole, they broke through the prevailing divisions of knowledge and their work spanned a range of disciplines. They began to take on not simply the way women lived their actual lives, but the cultural ramifications their challenge raised. By regarding everyday life through a gendered lens, they foregrounded what was distinct in women’s circumstances, interrogating the assumption that men’s experiences were necessarily universal.

Women can also be seen devising visionary alternatives marked by their experiences as a sex. Hence women in the American Populist movement, who formed the National Woman’s Alliance in 1891, declared that the goal of a ‘Co-operative Commonwealth’ required the ‘full political equality of the sexes’, and resolved ‘To study all questions relating to the structure of human society, in the full light of modern invention, discovery and thought’. As well as claiming political and social citizenship, Populist women thought in terms of sisterhood and discussed how to change values and daily life through temperance and co-operative households, along with anti-militarism and labour organizing. Though Populism disintegrated as a movement, this gendered ethical radicalism resurfaced in the American Socialist Party in the 1900s.

In Britain, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Labour Party’s Women’s Labour League sought to combine an awareness of class and gender in campaigns that spanned work and community. The United States did not have equivalent political organizations on a national basis, but a similar perspective appears in local labour women’s groups. In both countries women also established their own cross-class organizations for reforming working conditions. In Britain the Women’s Trade Union League was started in 1874 by a middle-class woman, Emma Paterson, who had been inspired by women’s trade union societies in the United States. In a situation where women workers were excluded from many unions, it sought to organize and change laws relating to women’s employment. An activist in the Women’s Trade Union League, the social investigator Clementina Black helped to found the Women’s Industrial Council in 1894. The Council set out to conduct ‘systematic inquiry into the conditions of working women, to provide accurate information concerning those interests, and to promote such action as may seem conducive to their improvement’. Christian organizations such as the Mother’s Union combined locally with secular philanthropic projects; in Birmingham, one such coalition – the Birmingham Ladies’ Union of Workers among Women and Children – supported women’s trade unions, recreation clubs, education and temperance. Further to the Left, in the early twentieth century Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Suffrage (later Socialist) Federation created self-help services, while campaigning for policies and laws to improve women’s lives in the community and at work, during and immediately after World War One.

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