Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century

[3 June 2010]

By Sheila Rowbotham

Excerpted from the Introduction from Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century by © Sheila Rowbotham (footnotes and images excluded) Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books.

In 1902, an American suffragist and novelist, Winifred Harper Cooley, dreamed of a twenty-first century without oil trusts, sweatshops or slums. This future was revealed by a ‘radiant’ woman ‘in flowing, graceful robes’, who explained that in a hundred years’ time, no one would be tramping the streets without a home, or be unemployed. By then the world’s labour would be shared equally, so that each individual only worked five hours a day. A few years later in Britain, a Crewe clothing worker turned socialist and feminist, Ada Nield Chew, declared, ‘Most difficulties are caused by our age-long habit of looking upon what is, and what has been, as utterly desirable.’

This capacity for optimistic imagining was characteristic among reformers and radicals in both America and Britain during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Running parallel with campaigns for women’s suffrage and involving both feminists and anti-feminists, a diffuse but resilient attempt to alter daily life and culture was underway. From the 1880s, thought interacted with action in a whirl of speculation, proposals, policies and utopian visions. Exploratory and adventurous aspirations were expressed not only in books and articles, but through movements, organizations, local groups and projects. Women, along with men, were swept up by the impetus for changing everyday life. The conviction that social circumstances could be altered and that ways of living, as well as looking, might be transformed, contributed to the ‘can-do’ ethos which was particularly potent in the USA.

The ferment was encouraged by startling technological developments, paradigm-changing discoveries in science and iconoclastic forms of art. These, along with an unprecedented level of global trade and investment, new ways of organizing production and consumption, changes in communications and the growing ascendancy of urban life, fostered a belief that a decisive rupture with the past was occurring. However, the rapid pace of change brought daunting problems in its wake. Increased competition and falling profits resulted in periods of depression through the 1870s and 1880s, which persisted into the mid-1890s; inflation followed from the late 1890s. Confronted by the unbridled power of large-scale corporations, mushrooming city slums, the destruction of rural life, workers responded with a new mood of militancy, while sections of the middle class, troubled by the conditions of the poor, also questioned class inequality. Women, as well as men, felt a moral compulsion to intervene, bringing their own experiences to bear on the dissident economic and social perspectives which were emerging. And when they encountered opposition to their engagement in the public arena, middle-class and working-class women invoked motherly care, moral cleansing and class loyalty to justify stepping beyond the prescribed ‘womanly’ sphere.

At the same time, women’s demands for access to employment and for political rights were pulling women outwards; calling into question their assumed dependence on and subordination to men. The suffrage movement inspired some women to resist other forms of injustice and inequality, and effect change in social and economic life more broadly. It also carried with it an internal promise of self-actualization and human dignity, encouraging efforts to alter personal ways of being. In moving towards a new role in the public sphere, feminists disturbed cultural assumptions about how women could be and what they could do in their own lives.

The bicycle became the symbol of this self-propelled female vanguard contesting physical and psychological spaces. ‘The bicycle is doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end’, declared the British social reformer Clementina Black in the Woman’s Signal in 1895. ‘Nobody expects a woman to go cycling escorted by a chaperon, a maid, or a footman’. Women’s rejection of the habitual meant that constraints of gender were being stretched, intensifying tension around the manner in which female/male and personal/public activities were divided. Those who sought to keep women from taking a wider social and political role were quick to attack below the belt, caricaturing rebel women as unsexed and absurd, or over-sexed and deranged. In 1894, Punch derided British new women for living on ‘nothing but foolscap and ink’, while in New York ‘Bohemian girls’ were morally suspect. Bicycle or no bicycle, women acting alone without men-folk to protect them were deemed liable to fall.

External demands for change were apt to boomerang back into the personal realm of being and relating, further breaching the demarcation between private and public life. Progress through education or access to employment revealed new unforeseen cultural and psychological barriers; radical movements, and the backlash these evoked, combined to relate resistance in one arena to rebellion in others. From the 1880s to the 1920s, three generations of women in both the United States and Britain can be seen challenging many different aspects of women’s subordination and questioning how aspects of human experience were zoned and defined. The American social reformer Mary Beard summed up this integrated vision in 1912: ‘Everything that counts in the common life is political’.

The women who tried to alter everyday life and culture along with their own destinies were both dreamers and adventurers, for they explored with only the sketchiest of maps and they headed towards the unknown, courageously interrogating assumed behaviour in personal relationships and in society. They challenged gender divisions, sexual attitudes, family arrangements, ways of doing housework and mothering, existing forms of consumption and paid working conditions. They proposed new approaches to the body, alternative kinds of clothing and food; they turned their attention to how space was used in cities, to the time needed for leisure, to the purposes of work. From their rejection of the familiar came iconoclastic projects, demands and concepts. En route they criticized existing methods of education, delineated new areas of knowledge and subverted existing assumptions about culture. The American writer Kate Chopin crystallized women’s extraordinary bid for new identities, new relationships and new mores in her ‘new woman’ novel of 1899, The Awakening.

The potpourri of rebels and reformers dreaming of a new day did not comprise a cohesive group or even a ‘tendency’. Their revolt arose from disparate sources: they were driven by fear of moral and social disintegration, by anger against injustice, by visions of utopia and by a resolve to improve everyday living and relating. Nor were they united in outlook or intent. Some aspired to alter existing culture, others to transform the world; some wished to regulate and improve, others to release and liberate. They were, moreover, shaped by dissimilar social backgrounds.
Some were upper middle class and keen to cast off privilege; others were members of the growing in-between strata, educated yet not quite ‘ladies’, uprooted, mobile, and liable to be iconoclastic. Among their ranks, working-class women striving for solidarity stood alongside
African-American women linking gender to their emancipation as a race.

The American and British dreamers of a new day came too from opposing political cultures. They might be women, but they were also free thinkers, anarchists, socialists, feminists, communists, moral and social reformers, liberals, progressives, labour movement women, bohemians, sexual radicals or eugenic enthusiasts. Their views ranged from extreme forms of individualism to advocacy of association and collectivism. Some were mystics searching for inner change, while others wanted to concentrate on external reforms. There were women who considered that their sex carried special values which could improve the male public sphere, and others who saw identity as always in flux. Some emphasized social change rather than the suffrage, while others believed that the suffrage would lead to wider reform. Some believed firmly in state planning, others in spontaneity and direct action. There were advocates of expanded productivity and consumption, and women who clung on to the nostrums of thrift and self-help. Some imagined technology taking over daily life, while others propounded the simplification of life.

Though the dreamers started from conflicting vantage points, headed off down contrary tracks and disagreed over solutions, many of their preoccupations overlapped and interacted. This convergence was most evident around the boundaries that marked personal and public identities. In both Britain and the United States, women who braved the public arena found themselves subverting gendered assumptions. The middle-class moral and social reformers, both black and white, who sought to tackle vice or poverty, inadvertently shifted a personal womanly role out into the new habitat of the urban slum. In the process they altered suppositions of what women could do. Along with more radical women who became involved in movements like anarchism, socialism or African-American liberation, they could discover that being active in public spheres raised many personal questions. Some began to wonder why gender issues were deferred into the indefinite future and why men in these movements often considered that the freedoms they sought for themselves were not suitable for women.

Misgivings about the cultural expectations of womanly behaviour in personal relations could also arise as part of a wider rebellion when external forces impinged upon daily life. These could be traumatic. The outer world of big business and modern industry drove through the customary lives of rural and urban women in the home, demolishing the familiar and the known; while violent attacks on African Americans led women from these communities to organize. Those who were provoked into resistance experienced the power of taking part in collective action; some went on to become active in the suffrage cause.

Changes in the position of women themselves created new spaces for heterodoxy. By the early twentieth century, women on the radical fringes of the feminist movement were exploring startling ideas about personal emancipation, and rebellious bohemian women were contesting the bounds of acceptable femininity and staking out alternative sexual identities. The ‘modern’ 1920s women who inherited the consequences of all these revolts along with the shock of World War One, struggled to connect a vision of equality with an affirmation of women’s differing needs, to articulate a new scope for personal feelings and desires, and to translate their experiences as women into a wider democratization of everyday life.

Divisions between groupings and generations were by no means hard and fast. A surprising degree of connection occurred even between women in apparently quite distinct camps, while the strong networks they developed from the late nineteenth century formed a series of remarkable criss-crossing webs that survived over several decades. Though many of the political proposals and social policies they devised were not to be realized during their lifetimes, fragments of their utopias would later percolate into the mainstream. Through their strenuous personal rebellions these dreamers of a new day helped to shift attitudes about how women could be and live. Their galvanizing conviction that things could be better created waves which rippled into every aspect of culture, even if the outcomes were not always what they had envisaged. From amidst their contradictory experiments came new ways of being women.

Though a similar impulse for change appears in both Britain and the United States, the contexts in which they operated differed markedly. In 1880 Britain was the great economic power in the world; but America was zooming rapidly ahead and by the 1920s would be supreme. The American capitalist system, being new and unhampered by aristocratic remnants, was both more innovative and more voracious than its European counterparts. Able to draw on an endless supply of new, young and desperate workers, the unprecedented economic development of the US reinforced values of competition and individual self-help. A degree of mobility of talent was possible which could never occur in Britain. The other side of the coin was that the power of big money was unfettered, labour conflicts more violent and American employers less willing to accommodate to trade unions, while workers in the US were divided by race and ethnicity to a much greater extent than in Britain.

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.

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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