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" 

Modern, Maternal, Bossy, Charming, Diplomatic and Angry

In the United States, the pattern of white middle-class women’s involvement was likely to be participation in the powerful women’s clubs, or in organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the National Congress of Mothers, which emphasized the maternal aspects of social reform. Temperance was an extremely powerful movement in the US, and the leader of the WCTU, Frances Willard, sought to connect moral reform with social change. Several innovative organizations around domestic activity were also set up. The home economics teacher Ellen Swallow Richards and the anti-poverty campaigner Helen Campbell worked in the National Household Economics Association, which arose out of the 1893 Women’s Congress of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both women campaigned for public kitchens. Richards battled against bacteria with Borax, sunlight and pure water and Campbell for homes designed for children’s needs. Campbell was also active in the movement for ethical consumption, the National Consumers’ League. From the early 1890s the Consumers’ Leagues organized consumer power to improve the circumstances in which goods were produced, with a more radical wing emphasizing women’s working conditions. They combined a strong ethic of personal responsibility with a commitment to social change. Similar values infused the American Women’s Trade Union League. Founded in 1903 and influenced by its British namesake, the League brought together an impressive network of working-class and middleclass women. In the US, women’s organizations played an important role in gaining welfare and employment reforms from the state; some pioneer reformers battled on to influence the policies of the New Deal in the 1930s.

Women ‘bestired’ themselves: living the new day in aesthetic clothing or tailored jackets, joined in unions and picket lines. They sat on local government committees, dared the night in bohemian cafés, defied racially segregated train carriages, devised cheap and healthy recipes for the poor, gave birth to children without being married, fell in love with women as well as men, wrote economic tomes, and cut off their hair.

Though African-American women worked in organizations like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, white women’s organizations did not automatically express their needs. What is more, white reformers were divided over whether to work with black women; in some cases they refused to admit them into groups. Black women struggled to bring the politics of racial violence onto the agendas of white women’s movements, while at the same time setting up the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. Their activism was steeled by the mounting racism which was part of the experience of African-American women of all classes; one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women, Mary Church Terrell, highly educated and married to a judge, had a close friend murdered by a lynch mob. From the late nineteenth century, black women like Terrell and the journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett campaigned against racist violence and for the vote. Alongside the movements of protest, African-American women also created their own mutual self-help projects which developed economic skills and provided welfare services. From the experience of black American oppression came broader visions of emancipation: at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893, Frances Ellen Harper not only called on women to oppose lynching and defend the right of black children to education, but urged them to help create a society which was not dominated by ‘the greed of gold and the lust for power’. A veteran by the 1890s, Harper had been part of both the anti-slavery and women’s suffrage movements and had then participated in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, her vision of a moral, non-acquisitive society echoing the utopianism of the Populists.

The social and cultural turmoil of the late nineteenth century was marked by an imaginative fluidity in which fictional allegories and utopias could have practical consequences. Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel Looking Backward (1888) presented a future of nationalized industry and collectivized domestic life. So great was the impact of the book that ‘Nationalist’ clubs were formed in many American towns. Not everyone was happy with Bellamy’s ideal future; horrified by its authoritarian collectivism, William Morris, the British libertarian socialist, was provoked to pick up his pen and counter with an anti-state alternative, News from Nowhere. Appearing in instalments in Morris’s Socialist League paper, Commonweal, in 1890, it portrayed a society in which the state had withered entirely, giving way to communal daily life and individual creative expression. This early contest of utopias presaged a deep division amid women as well as men over the role of the state in reshaping the everyday. In Britain, statist solutions were prevalent among both reformers and sections of the Left; American Progressives also aimed to increase the power of the state. However, individualist anarchists as well as the anarcho-syndicalist Left in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were fiercely anti-state.

The American socialist feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman was one of the many progressive middle-class Americans inspired by Bellamy’s critique of market capitalism and by his emphasis on women’s equality. Participation in the Nationalist clubs would lead her into an adventurous and influential life of public commitment. Breaking painfully from an unhappy marriage, she earned her own living, new woman-like, by lecturing and writing. From the 1890s she produced weighty books on the economic and social organization of daily life, along with a stream of short stories and novels which depicted new relations of gender and new modes of living. Cleverly, Gilman contrived to appeal to pragmatic reformers as well as to radicals dreaming of utopian transformation; her skill lay in elaborating the ordinary annoyances of women’s lives into topics of intellectual debate, while making utopia seem like a new common sense. She was able to reach a wide readership by writing in popular magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar or Woman’s Home Companion, as well as in the Woman’s Journal, which she edited. In 1909 she started her own magazine, the Forerunner, which was read in Britain as well as in the United States. Gilman used to refer her readers to articles in British publications like the Englishwoman which, from 1909, provided a forum for articles on women and the economy.

Journals acted like hives around which rebels and trouble-makers buzzed away with their dreams and schemes. Among them was Ezra Heywood’s The Word; launched in 1872, it resolutely defended the right to free speech and free love. From the 1880s the American free thought journal Lucifer: The Light Bearer, edited by Moses Harman and his daughter Lillian, also acted as a clearing house for ‘advanced’ views, including changing relations between the sexes. The free lovers’ emphasis upon owning or possessing oneself struck a specifically gendered chord, attracting an intrepid group of women influenced by the heady utopian movements which had proliferated before the Civil War. They included Ezra Heywood’s wife Angela, whose mother Lucy Tilton had been an abolitionist and free-love advocate, along with Elmina Drake Slenker, the daughter of a Shaker preacher expelled for his liberal views. Slenker had advertised for an egalitarian husband in the Water-Cure Journal; a proponent of theories of ‘male continence’ whereby men delayed or withheld orgasm, she envisaged love-making as ‘magnetic exchange’. Her friend Lois Waisbrooker, born in 1826 into a working-class background, had worked as a domestic servant and then as a teacher in black schools. A melange of women’s rights, free love and spiritualism attracted Waisbrooker to the individualist anarchism which flourished in America. She possessed a mystical faith in women’s purifying mission which was also characteristic of social purity reformers and some socialists and feminists.

Small groups around journals could exert an influence in campaigns. In Britain The Adult, a journal produced by British sex radicals in the Legitimation League, with links to American individualist anarchism, led a struggle in 1895 to release a socialist, Edith Lanchester, from the mental asylum in which she had been put by her family after choosing to live in a free union with her working-class lover. Journals and magazines were not only produced by political groupings, they became a means of expressing the voices of subordinated groups challenging mainstream culture. At the turn of the century, several African American publications were beginning to express a newly confident race awareness. Writer Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins was a founding member of the Colored American Magazine, established in 1899 to assert black culture. Hopkins’s articles on famous men and women of the ‘Negro Race’ helped stimulate interest in black history.

From the 1890s a bohemian culture developed in New York’s Greenwich Village, attracting rebels of both sexes. Villagers combined the free lovers’ assertion of individual autonomy with a Romantic commitment to self-expression, but they were also engaged in many radical social causes. In the1900s the anarchist defender of women’s right to sexual freedom, Emma Goldman, produced a journal called Mother Earth. Like the Woman Rebel, edited by the birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger, it linked personal freedom with social action. In Britain, two small magazines called the New Age and the Freewoman became seedbeds for avant-garde theories of philosophic egoism and vitalism as well as rebellious ideas about sexual freedom and communal living. ‘Beatrice Hastings’ (the pseudonym of Emily Alice Haigh), who later moved to Paris and became involved in the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, was one of the women writers associated with the New Age, as were the future novelists Katherine Mansfield and Storm Jameson. The Freewoman was similarly situated on the iconoclastic fault-line which became evident in the 1910s. Started in 1911 by dissident feminists from the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, the journal rejected Christabel Pankhurst’s concentration on the vote as a single issue and explored many personal and social aspects of emancipation. Like the New Age, it attracted several Northern, socially ‘in-between’ women. The editor, Dora Marsden, came from a middle-class Yorkshire family which had sunk into poverty when her father deserted them. She had won a scholarship to Owen’s College in Manchester, taught in Leeds and then returned to Manchester in 1905. Another teacher, the working-class, upwardly mobile socialist and feminist Mary Gawthorpe, from Leeds, was briefly involved with the journal, along with a lower-middle-class rebel intellectual, Teresa Billington-Greig, who had left her Blackburn home for Manchester at the age of seventeen and worked in the Ancoats settlement.

These arriviste intellectuals in Britain and America were energetically reinventing both themselves and the scope of politics, debating trade union organizing, eugenics, reform of the divorce laws, celibacy and masturbation, in clubs as well as in their writing. The Freewoman’s London Discussion Circle marked out a new female-defined space in which women could break taboos. Men might be invited to participate, but the women set the terms. Similarly its American twin, the Heterodoxy Club in Greenwich Village, brought together ‘advanced’ women who were involved in art, intellectual work and radical politics. It included Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose salon was a focus for Greenwich Village socializing; and Elsie Clews Parsons, who wrote on sex and birth control and was to become an anthropologist, along with the anarchosyndicalist and IWW member Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Early twentieth-century radical dreamers aimed at root and branch transformation with no stones unturned. In 1912, Storm Jameson, the daughter of a Whitby sea captain, won a research scholarship to University College, London, where she lived in lodgings with two young men from Yorkshire. In her autobiography she describes the irreverent mood of left-wing provincials like herself and her companions. Detesting past dogmas, they were self-consciously breaking with the past and believed themselves to be ‘at the frontier of a new age’. The American anarchist Adeline Champney was similarly uncompromising in 1903, insisting that reproduction and culture as well as production would have to be altered: ‘It must be made clear that every institution or custom which is founded upon the present economic system must fall.’ She believed this required revision of ‘our manners and our morals’. Along with ‘the socialization of the economic necessities of life’ must go changes in ‘the production and distribution of the men and women of the new day.’ There were to be no couch potatoes. ‘You and I and all of us must bestir ourselves,’ Champney admonished her readers.

They did indeed ‘bestir’ themselves: living the new day in aesthetic clothing or tailored jackets, or taking themselves off to live in social settlements or anarchist communes. They joined unions and stood on picket lines. They sat on local government committees, dared the night in bohemian cafés, defied racially segregated train carriages, devised cheap and healthy recipes for the poor, gave birth to children without being married, fell in love with women as well as men, wrote economic tomes, and cut off their hair. They were new, ‘advanced’ and modern, maternal, bossy, charming, diplomatic and angry.

Their optimism was to be tempered but not quenched by World War One. In 1918 the American social reformer Mary Parker Follett observed in The New State: Group Organization, The Solution of Popular Government:

We are now beginning to recognize more and more clearly that the work we do, the conditions of that work, the houses in which we live, the water we drink, the food we eat, the opportunities for bringing up our children, that in fact the whole area of our daily life should constitute politics. There is no line where the life of the home ends and the life of the city begins. There is no wall between my private life and my public life.

Such grand visions of changing the everyday were not to be, but many of the proposals and attitudes generated by the inchoate adventurers defined modern life, and, less tangibly, impinged on how everyday relationships were seen.

Sheila Rowbotham is an activist and historian. Her many books include the James Tait Black-shortlisted Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love. She has written for, among other newspapers, the Guardian, The Times, the Independent, the , and the New York Times. She is Simon Professor at the University of Manchester and a Fellow at the Royal Society for the Arts.

© Verso Books, 2010

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