The Woman Reader (2012) by Belinda Jack is a wide ranging account of women’s historical writing. In her review of the work, Bee Wilson focusses on the pertinent question it raises: ‘Why for millenniums did men try to control what women read?’ Other important questions are: what did women write to evade that control? What subversive methods did they use in their fiction to give it the appearance of suitability? What did women do to ensure that they and their feminist works were published? One response was producing overtly ‘suitable’ and covertly feminist fiction. If the men to whom Jack refers had known how women’s literature would progress they would have been even more concerned. In particular, historical fiction has developed in way that threatens traditional ways of looking at women’s role.
Philippa Gregory refers to herself as a feminist writer, and her historical and contemporary work give abundant clues to her feminism. Her recently published selection of three historical essays, non-fiction accounts of the women in her fictional accounts of the ‘wars of the cousins’ reveals her method, which is focussed on writing women back into history. Zoe Fairbairns is a feminist writer who, while not having made a name as an historical writer has written a feminist historical saga. Stand We at Last (1983) is a feminist approach to British women’s history from the 1850s to the 1970s. Benefits (1979), newly published as an ebook, presents a chilling account of women’s position in the political world of the 1970s, which still resonates with the 2000s. Katharine McMahon’s historical novels are rich feminist perspectives on women and medical practice in World War 1 in The Rose of San Sebastopol (2007) and past legal practice in The Crimson Rooms (2009).
Of the three, Gregory and McMahon are the identifiable writers of feminist historical novels. Gregory is also the most well-known, mostly through her historical work but also through contemporary novels such as The Little House (1998). Fairbairns’ work is predominantly contemporary. However, Stand We at Last provides a compelling and accessible introduction to the body of her feminist work. Each writer has used historical fiction in a way that undermines the control of women’s reading. They have produced work that, while ostensibly is safe because it is ‘women’s fiction’, questions women’s place in history. Historical novels have had a mixed reception, not all of it respectful. Again, such a reputation has added to the advantages a feminist writer can enjoy in her writing history. Each writer has written her history inspired by women’s role, actions, feelings and aspirations.
Gregory has rejected the traditional way of writing about historical events which either centres on men deemed to have made history or, if they focus on women, have seen them largely in a romantic role. Gregory writes about women as the makers of a history which exists in parallel with the history of men; links women on equal terms with men’s traditionally superior role; or highlights the disadvantages affecting women who, despite these, operate capably with intelligence and fortitude. The women are also often portrayed as manipulative, cruel, antagonistic to other women and veritable ‘lionesses’ on behalf of the men in their family – son, brother, husband or father. They also neglect, or are actively antagonistic, to daughters, sisters or mothers.
The lack of ‘sisterhood’ amongst the female protagonists raises the question: how feminist are Gregory’s historical novels? Firstly, Gregory places women at the centre of her work. In non-romantic work, this is an important feature of feminist fiction. Secondly, women are acting in as wide a community as the men with whom they are associated. The only activity in which they are not physically present is in battle. Admittedly this is a major portion of the lives of men: it was the work of kings, would-be kings and their supporters. However, while uninvolved directly in the wars to win land and crown women are also depicted in physical and life threatening battle. One of the most dangerous is their fight to bear a son. Gender controlled the means by which women and men fought for the crown or land. Gregory makes it abundantly clear that women’s dangerous role was to provide a male heir for either purpose. Women and men united in seeking advancement for their family. As individuals, women were pitted against each other, often as pawns of the male members of their family.
Gregory is writing historical fiction that is soundly researched and realistically charts the tempo of the times. However, by placing women at the centre of her work she provides a feminist account of that history. Most importantly, Gregory graphically illustrates the discrimination against women that is the foundation to the history she writes.
Fairbairns’ Stand We At Last has been described as ‘a family saga’ and an early paperback edition cover features a bonneted woman in 1800s dress, clearly defining the novel as historical fiction. However, the novel is a strong feminist account of women’s lives. The issues that are familiar in novels about women, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and death are seen through a feminist prism. Like Gregory, the discrimination that features in women’s ‘normal’ is shown in its sometimes brutal reality. Explicit feminist issues are also raised in Stand We At Last. Women’s suffrage; their right to land ownership; implementation of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which becomes a personal as well as public issue for some of the protagonists; middle class women’s move into paid work; women as colonists; sexual freedom and sexism in a university environment; abortion; and the 1970s women’s movement.
Women in this contemporary novel also deal with the consequences of war. A young wife dies as the result of syphilis her husband catches in the army. Another is an oysterseller at the army barracks in the 1860s. She bears a child to a man whose comfortable lifestyle dismisses marrying her. Although the consequences are not as severe, the First World War creates the environment in which a young woman loses her virginity to a man who is joining up. In the Second World War women are depicted working on the land; caring for injured male family members; and dying on the home front.
McMahon focuses on professions such as the law and medicine and depicts the irrationality of the discrimination women suffered, concentrating on the early years of each profession. In her blog she notes that her type of historical fiction is sometimes criticised because it does not ‘take real people… put[s] words into their mouths, and [try] to work out how the past would have been for them’. She says ‘My type of historical fiction takes real events…and tells a fictional story about fictional characters, but with an authentic (whatever that means) historical setting’. Significantly, in the context of writing about the way in which feminist writers use historical environments to project feminist arguments in an acceptable way, she goes on to argue: ‘But do not dismiss. One type of historical fiction is neither more nor less valuable and fun than the other.’
McMahon’s comment makes a salient point about the three types of historical novel covered here. They are ‘fun’ to read. At the same time the feminist authors are writing about topics which are clearly not ‘fun’: discrimination against women in their private and professional lives in the past. That the past resonates with the sexism women encounter in contemporary society makes the historical novel an excellent vehicle for making feminist arguments in a form in which thoroughly undermines the men who wanted to control women’s reading.
Robin Joyce (c) November 2012
Robin Joyce’s PhD thesis is entitled ‘The Troublesome Woman: A Study Barbara Pym’s Novel and Short Stories’. She began her academic life as an historian, covering the period in Australia’s history when women fought for the vote. In particular, Robin identified women’s early activism in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and trade unions, concentrating on women such as Cecilia Shelley and Jean Beadle – ‘the Grand Old Woman of Labor.’
 Bee Wilson, Review of The Woman Reader, “Culture” The Sunday Times, July 1 2012, p.36.
 Philippa Gregory, Interview, BBC Radio 4, September 2012.
 Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones The Women of the Cousins’ War (2011) Simon and Schuster: London.
Constance Maynard was the first Mistress of Westfield College and a pioneer of women’s education. She was a prolific writer, keeping multiple diaries and an autobiography, as well as self-publishing many books and articles on education and religion. Her ‘Green Book’ diaries and unpublished autobiography have been digitised by the Archives at Queen Mary, University of London and are available to view online: http://www.library.qmul.ac.uk/archives/digital/constance_maynard
Maynard’s ‘Green Book’ diaries detail her ‘inner life’, her emotional response to events in her life and date from 1866 to 1934. Her unpublished autobiography was written between 1915 and 1933, and covers her life from 1849-1927. It is written in the style of a reflective diary, and in it she explains her reactions to the events detailed in her diaries, and is open and candid about her private life.
Maynard’s personal writings provide a unique insight into the influence of religion, and attitudes towards women’s education and sexuality in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. The writings reveal her devout faith, her experiences of joining the first generation of women students at Girton College, her role in the formation and early years of Westfield College, and her ‘romantic friendships’ with women.
The impact of being brought up in a deeply religious household is reflected in Maynard’s diaries, which detail the sermons she attended, her favourite psalms and bible passages, and her constant quest to be ‘good enough’ for God’s love. Her religious conviction and reasoning continued throughout her life.
Maynard looked towards her faith to rationalise her decision to further herself through higher education at a time when only a handful of women had done so before, and noted in her diary:
‘… and it must be right to educate & use any powers God has given me to the very best I can.[i][i]
In her autobiography she recalled beginning her University studies, ‘Liberty, heresy, opposition, argument, new thought, new attraction, all had there been laid before me in sample, but now came “the real thing”, & I attacked the position with the courage of ignorance.’[ii][ii]
In leaving her sheltered domestic life to join the first wave of women entering higher education Maynard was taking a radical step[iii][iii]. She described in her autobiography the stir caused at Cambridge by the presence of women students.
‘We were determined to preserve sweet & genuine womanliness amid all our experiences, to be unobtrusive in dress, and scrupulously modest & polite in manner, & looking back I think it was all rather wonderful that a dozen energetic lively creatures should, without the least external guidance, have been so thoroughly aware that the whole of this vast experiment depended on their corporate conduct.’[iv][iv]
Reflecting upon the beginnings of women’s higher education, she noted passionately.
‘…[we] asked for nothing more but that women should be freed from the single disability of sex, & that English girls should be free, if they both could and would, to receive the same mental training as English lads had always had.’[v][v]
Constance Maynard was first woman to read Moral Sciences at Cambridge completing her studies in 1875. But she had to wait 53 years to formally receive her degree from Girton College, in 1933. In 1948 the University of Cambridge finally began to admit women to full university membership.
Faith was the driving force for Constance and inspired the Christian ethos of Westfield College. The College opened on 2nd October 1882 with just 5 students and 2 members of staff, including Constance Maynard as Mistress, and was founded upon ‘…a Scriptural basis, and conducted on distinctly religious principles…’.[vi][vi]
The first Annual Report for Westfield College proclaimed “Knowledge is power” and that the higher education of women would be a benefit to all society.[vii][vii]
One aspect of Constance Maynard’s life which still intrigues researchers and is the subject of on-going research today is her close relationships with women[viii][viii]. As female sexuality was not discussed or understood in the Victorian period, interpreting Maynard’s words requires an appreciation of the context and time in which they were written. Her diary entries detail intimate encounters with students and friends.
Recalling the prayer offered to her by ‘Lizzie’, a student at Westfield:
‘Dear, Dear Father, we must part- do make the parting easy – I thank Thee, oh so much, for this treasure. Thou hast let me love so that I think I never loved any one so much before, but Thou canst be still more to me, dear Saviour, Give her some fresh work to do; make her to others just what she has been to me – light and love & support & patience all, all pointing to Thee.’[ix][ix]
Maynard in 1926 writes candidly in her autobiography about her close relationships, showing her awareness of theories by psychoanalysts such as Freud:
‘And yet, yet, – I loathe to write it down, – the whole was spoilt and devastated by love, by what psychoanalysts call by highly disagreeable names, such as a “thwarted sex-instinct”. There was something within me which seemed to have a foremost & impervious claim, a hunger which must be satisfied, whatever food was on offer.’[x][x]
Highlights from the Constance Maynard archives are available in on online exhibition:
Full details of the content of Maynard’s archives can be found in the Archives Catalogue:
The Archives at Queen Mary also holds other significant collections relating to women’s education including the archives of WestfieldCollege, Caroline Skeel and Ellen Delf Smith. For further information can be found on the website: http://www.library.qmul.ac.uk/archives The Archives can be contacted by email: email@example.com
ByLorraine Screene, College Archivist, and Bryony Hooper, Project Archivist
The eighteenth century is generally characterised by a sense of improvement and need for politeness, both physically and mentally. Accordingly, major improvements to architecture and infrastructure marked eighteenth-century society. Local pride and an active sense of civic identity came to characterise many cities in eighteenth-century Scotland. The inhabitants of Aberdeen, among others, were proud of their metropolitan status: ‘In the 1790s, when Edinburgh was being graciously extended and rebuilt to much public admiration, the town council and citizens of Aberdeen determined also to give their city a new “modern”, and improved physical setting’, which included programmes of cleaning, water systems and lighting. Additionally, the council decided to lay out ten new straight streets and even ensured that farmers came in to town to remove the manure from the streets to keep them clean.
Along with improving the physical setting of Aberdeen, there was a desire to improve the behaviour of the inhabitants as they collectively influenced the city’s reputation. One of the council’s early attempts to improve the inhabitants’ manners is recorded in the Extracts from the Council Register in Aberdeen. On 16 March 1642,
the provost, baillies, and council considering that there are diverse Acts of Parliament made against blasphemies of Gods holy name, containing as well pequnial as bodily punishments to be inflicted upon those that shall be noted and herd banning and swearing … ordains that every master and mistress of any family within this burgh as often as any of them happens to be found banning or swearing any sort of oath, shall pay eight pence to the use of the poor, and every servant four pennies, … and a box to be in every family for this effect.
Interestingly, the council clearly had faith that the general population was in support of improving the language and behaviour in society, otherwise such an act, which was to be enforced within the privacy of households, would have had little effect.
Aberdeen town council was particularly concerned with controlling women’s public behaviour and, especially their sexuality, in order to create an orderly society. This attitude meant residents often complained to the Council about women whose dealings were considered unsavoury; the Council then took action. Take for example Fanny Hall, who on 5 September 1757, was ‘complained upon several times for haunting loose and disorderly company [and for] disturbing the neighbourhood where she resided at unreasonable hours in the night-time’. At the court session in the spring of 1758, she was whipped and then banished from the town. Due to the ideals of eighteenth-century society, moral or behavioural crimes were among the most common crimes. Proportionately, women appear more often in the court records for ‘keeping disorderly company’ or for ‘being persons of bad fame and character’ than for any other offence. For example, in 1758 alone, 18 out of the 29 women who are recorded in the Aberdeen enactment books were convicted of misdemeanours. The council tried to suppress misdemeanours, which were believed to be character flaws, by shaming and banishing women who displayed such behaviour.
In addition to ‘haunting’ the company of soldiers and behaving indecently, some women also took to drinking. Being drunk in public was punished with whipping, as was the case of one young woman, recorded in the Aberdeen Black Kalendar, who was ‘whipped for intoxication and bad behaviour in the streets’. It was inexcusable for a woman to haunt the company of soldiers and other bad company, but it was even worse if she allowed herself to become intoxicated and, in doing so, behave like a man.
Women were not permitted to encroach on masculinity. They were expected to recognise their proper place in submission to men. When women broke the unspoken rules of gender and acted mannishly or aggressively, which was completely opposed to the ideals for the fairer sex, they were shown no leniency. A case which demonstrates this very clearly is that of Isobel Mulligan. On 5 June 1763, she ‘had dressed herself in sailors clothes and gone to Captain Robert Bruce, then enlisting men for the navy, and offered herself for the service in order to obtain the bounty, having professed an enthusiastic desire to serve her King and country’. The imposter was detected. ‘When brought before the Baillie, the woman admitted that having drunk ‘some beer’ she had been induced by the persuasion of another woman to go and endeavour to play off this trick on Captain Bruce’. At the court session, she was banished from the Burgh for seven years as punishment.
The records unfortunately do not hold the answer as to why women were charged more often with moral offences. It may be linked to the gendered view of women being temptresses and therefore more culpable, or it could be that status played a part. Some men may have been able to bribe the baillies [bailiffs] to be exempt from appearing in court. The fact that many women were discovered only when an unwanted pregnancy became evident was also relevant. When these women appeared before the courts, they were encouraged to name the man they had had ‘immoral’ intercourse with, but often such charges could not be confirmed unless the man admitted to the sin. The woman could not deny her sin because of her obvious physical state, but the man was often excused based on lack of evidence. Whatever the reasons, control of morality and social order were central to the policing strategies of Aberdeen town officials. Thus women who acted outside the newer norms of a more polite society came under scrutiny for activities which might not have drawn the same sort of attention previously.
Theresa Irina Svane Jepsen studies Scottish women’s urban roles at the University of Southern Denmark. You can read the rest of her article above in the summer edition of the Women’s History Magazine!
The advent of the First World War forced Irish feminist groups to adjust to new social and political circumstances. Most suffrage organisations participated in the war effort while keeping up suffrage work as much as possible, and many individual members opposed the war on pacifist grounds but became actively involved in humanitarian war work. Only the militant Irish Women’s Franchise League actively opposed the war and refused to participate even in relief work on an institutional level. The war necessarily strained relations between some suffrage groups and placed further demands on all of them, no matter what their stand on the efficacy or otherwise of the conflict. But the war also provided an important context for collective campaigning. During the conflict, Irish feminists were able to unite on a number of social issues much more easily than they had on suffrage questions, especially where the welfare of women and children was concerned. Alcohol, a perennial concern of philanthropic and feminist Irish women, provided a particularly striking example of collective action. In 1915, for example, 29 Irish women’s societies signed a petition endorsing the view that drink was having a highly injurious effect on the nation and asking for its sale to be curbed. Further collective action on social questions included the establishment of a ‘watching the courts’ committee which arranged for suffragist volunteers to attend court as observers and to gather evidence about the position of Irish women within the legal system.
The abnormal social conditions created by the war allowed feminists to pursue other long-held aims, the most important being women’s participation in policing. The Irish Women Patrols (IWP) was launched and trained under a National Union of Women Workers voluntary scheme in late 1914, and this connection to a British body provided some critics within the broader feminist movement with their first reservations about the scheme. Other feminists despaired of the movement’s voluntary nature, arguing that this would allow for middle-class policing of working-class morality while diluting the strength of the demand for professional female police. Some critics were suspicious of its potential association with vigilance and rescue societies which targeted the products rather than causes of crime and deprivation; while still other, mainly Catholic commentators, worried that it would, like the vast majority of women’s philanthropic groups, be Protestant run and lead.
Despite these potential pitfalls, the IWP succeeded by the end of the war in silencing almost all its critics and earning the praise of once suspicious feminists. It managed to do this by being especially mindful of peculiarity Irish circumstances and developing very differently from its British counterpart which had fractured as a result of splits within and between various bodies. Only one service was established in Ireland, thus removing the potential for splits along institutional lines. More importantly, however, the IWP was exceptionally careful to avoid engaging in even the hint of rescue work and in alienating religious opinion. The scheme saw the establishment of a kind of voluntary civic police force composed entirely of women who patrolled the streets, ‘looking after the welfare of girls in the city’. Patrols went out nightly in two hour shifts between 8.30 and 11, each consisting of two women, crucially one a Protestant and one a Catholic. Non-sectarian and non-political, the organisation gained the support of the police and soon operated under the Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan police who issued each patrol with a signed card. Patrols were authorised to wear badges and to obtain the help of police if necessary, but their expenses were met entirely out of subscriptions until 1917 when two patrols were taken into paid employment with the Dublin Metropolitan Police. This represented a huge victory for the founders who had advocated the professionalization of women police from the outset.
The work of the IWP was not for the faint-hearted and gritty though it was, the kind of experience the Patrols gained through exposure to Dublin’s most dangerous streets lent their analysis of Ireland’s social and economic problems real authority and depth. The Patrols clearly played an important role in exposing the effect on women of prostitution, rape, poverty and even incest. Certainly the very blunt and non-judgmental account supplied by the patrollers of, for example, one ‘horrible’ Dublin street in particular, ‘more like a ditch’, where rooms could be had for 6d a night and of prostitutes in search of work prowling the docks with their babies in their arms’ must have reassured fellow feminists that the patrollers were not there to highlight ‘war time enthusiasm for the troops’, but were in fact attempting to throw light on the conditions in which Dublin’s most exploited women lived.
Naturally, given the social (and often religious) background of most patrollers, some critics maintained that they were puritanical vigilantes who aimed to interfere with what one described as ‘the love-making of every young couple in whose innocent spooning their evil minds chose to discern signs of immorality’. Some modern commentators have largely endorsed this view, describing the work of the IWP as sexual surveillance. This was likely true of some pious patrollers, but the existing evidence suggests that for most, the IWP followed in the long feminist tradition of exposing and condemning the sexual double standard while also allowing women to prove their ability to undertake traditionally male work in a professional capacity. The convictions secured by the IWP were mainly against men, who were also consistently singled out as the main culprits in cases of vice on the streets of Dublin and Belfast… The Irish Women Patrols in fact very decidedly became a force as much for working-class women as an opportunity for their middle-class sisters.
Senia Paseta is an Irish historian at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She is currently writing a history of women and politics in Ireland, 1900-1918.
Katie Barclay found this very amusing. She is avoiding doing the ’serious work’ of writing her book on this rainy morning.