Philobiblon: Feminist history, from the margins to the centre

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Feminist history, from the margins to the centre

I went to a fascinating talk at the Institute for Historical Research this evening by Kathryn Kish Sklar (State University of New York, Binghamton), its title "The Centrality of Feminism in American Political History, 1776-2000".

Her argument was that women's, labour and race politics and campaigns interacted, learnt from each other, and were forced by their members and social forces into a shifting array of alliances and oppositions, that all in turn interacted with "mainstream" politics, in ways that no one, or organisation, could always control. So separating out "women's history" in a ghetto makes little sense.

Some of her examples were lovely. (And bear in mind that I know almost nothing about American history, so this was all new to me.)

*There was Esther De Berdt Reed, who formed the Ladies' Association of Philadelphia. She was very much an elite woman, and ran a political salon that helped her husband be elected to office. The organisation was formed to raise funds for Washington's army in 1780 - although the subscription list had its smallest donation from a contributor recorded merely as "Phylis, a coloured woman".

Reed wanted to donate the money directly to the troops and had a very direct exchange with Washington on the issue, who thought they'd just drink and gamble it away. Reed was forced to yield, so she and her ladies started sewing shirts. But she died soon after from dysentry, which didn't normally kill healthy adults. Her obituary in the Pennsylvania Gazette concluded that the shirts had killed her. (Although bearing six children in ten years probably hadn't helped.)

She'd wanted to establish women's place as fundraisers, but this was publicly disparaged, since they were "just handing over their husband's money". But by artisan labour with those shirts, the group received much praise for its revolutionary efforts, and found a place for women in the struggle.

* The anti-slavery movement, at least the more radical wing of it, was so desperate for support that it was happy to enlist female support, and speakers, including the powerful Angelina Grimke. That provoked resistance from the clergy, which led Angelina and her sister Sarah to explicitly say: "whatever it is morally right for a man to do it is right for a woman to do".

* When Elizabeth Cady Stanton came to the conclusion that the "general portion" of life allowed to women was inadequate she called a convention (Seneca Falls), a natural thing to do since that was both what happened in state politics, and in the Negro Convention Movement. Many more women's conventions followed. There was often an attempt by the organisers to avoid issues of married women's property rights and divorce, but they almost alwyas emerged anyway.

* The extension of virtually full white male suffrage from the 1830s to 1860s effectively prevented the formation of a Labour party, as in Britain. The issue of married women's property rights was seen in association with this - part of the growing hegemony of the white middle class that wanted to protect their daughter's property and ease its sale and exchange by removing old common law rights.

* The struggle for women's suffrage involved black and white women mixing in ways that their male compatriots could not - the women had often been educated as teachers - needed during the great westward expansion. (At the 1888 convention of the Women's Christian Temperance Union a number of black women represented racially mixed groups.)

The black women, because of this role, were sometimes about to achieve more results for their communities than were the black male leaders such as ministers. The campaigner Frances Harper, who denounced lynching in ways male leaders sometimes did not, or could not, said that women's suffrage would effectively end it, by getting rid of men with blood on their hands.

* Florence Kelly, founder and long-time president of the National Consumers League, fought for protective labour legislation for women and children, some of which was then extended to male workers in a alliance of an essential middle class movement with working class men.

NOTE: These are my impressions of the talk, not necessarily a detailed exposition of
what Professor Kish Sklar said.

Afterwards in discussion, I asked about the central question with which I keep wrestling - why do the women keep disappearing from history? The professor made a very interesting response I'm going to have to think a lot more about.

She noted that masculinity is a very useful rallying call in American politics, a way that Bush can transcend class politics by playing the all-male cowboy model. I commented how important I think sport is in that - in creating a collective model that is not, by and large, available to women.

And even when I look back to my 16th and 17th-century writers, because they were always a minority, and the next generations thought, as we do, that the past was a strange place, the following, male-dominated groups could at least identify in one way with the males who've come down to us as the canon.

More unformed thoughts at the moment than a developed thesis ...

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