Suffragists and Virago Books and Rebecca West

It’s easy to forget what one has on ones library shelves, I realise.  I was reminded of this as I began to sort my bookshelves. What fun I’ve had thumbing my way through forgotten titles. I was particularly delighted to discover a number related to the UK suffrage movement. I noted inside A Guid Cause-The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, by Leah Leneman, that this book was purchased at the Women’s Berkshire Conference, held at Vassar College in 1993.

My most vivid memories from that Conference was being part of a group of women with like-minded interests, being presented with new ideas through some wonderful presentations, meeting historians that I had high regard for, and most of all sharing all this with my son and daughter-in-law. I do recall morning and afternoon tea baskets piled with large and tempting looking muffins only to be reminded that some baking in the US had a tendency to be drier than New Zealand commercial baking. Another memory that has remained with me is the hum of motorway traffic throughout the night and just how far sound can travel. I did get rather carried away with the bookstalls at the Conference and arrived home with a small suitcase filled with some great purchases. There were no excess weight charges, yet it was a heavy bag; maybe weight wasn’t such a problem then?

I stray a little, back to the Suffrage collection in my library. The majority of these books are Virago Press publications, which multiplied somewhat when I studied women’s history at University. The University Bookshop in Great King Street, Dunedin, had periodic sales where I gathered a good many of them. The Press, formed in 1977 as a feminist publishing company, not only brought to our attention women fiction authors that had long been forgotten, women authors popular in their time but out-of-print, but also the writings of feminists thinkers such as Shelia Rowbotham, Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter among others. A series, which covers early women travellers, is totally fascinating and the more recent modern novels of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters and others have since been included.

Biographies, some covering Victorian women as well as those well-known and not so well known Suffragettes dominate this collection of mine. Names such as May Sheepshanks, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst of course, Lady Constance Lytton, Alice Weldon, Hannah Mitchell, Rebecca West and Margaret Macpherson; most housed on a high shelf that I had rarely stretched up to retrieve. Sadly from the perspective of my current research, most of these biographies focus on women outside Scotland, reflecting very much the focus of previous decades. Militarism versus Feminism; Writings on Women and War, edited by Margaret Kamester and Jo Vellacott is proving significant however, highlighting  a non-militant and pacifist approach, which Molly Whitelaw and her parents supported.

It is Rebecca West’s (now Dame Rebecca) journalistic pieces and essays in The Young Rebecca; Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917, ed. by Jane Marcus, I am marvelling at. What an amazing young journalist who fearlessly expressed her opinions, generally in the radical and feminist press, The Freewoman and The Clarion, and later the Fleet Street, Daily News. [Coincidently, the newspaper where Alastair Shannon, Molly’s brother, began his career in journalism in 1918.] That Rebecca West could offer such frank opinions highlights the shift that had occurred in newspaper journalism towards mass readership during the first decades of the 20th century. News moved from direct reporting to one of journalistic interpretation, where it was heavily edited, rewritten and contextualised. This new approach helped to influence public opinion for or against any single issue.[1] Women’s pages also became a popular feature from the turn of the century. In fact the New Zealand Presbyterian Outlook, under the editorship of the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, introduced a column Women’s Outlook from 1893.

One hundred years on, West’s writing has a resonance that continues to parallel women’s issues even today. So much so, I feel as if we’ve not come as far as we would like to believe. She confronted issues on equal pay; she challenges writers’ narrow and conservative opinions on the issues of, marriage, divorce, education and capitalism. These journalist pieces are all very quotable. In an article on ‘Wages and Women: Black-legging and Timidity’ she takes to task a writer who suggests that the required wireless operators on American coastal shipping could be ‘,a self-reliant woman with cool nerves and efficient brain’.

This alluring argument she declares is ‘powder in the jam, the snake in the grass, the wolf in feminist’s clothing’. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘this sudden lyric outburst of feminist enthusiasm? Probably she is less expensive… The underpayment of women is one of those “nine-pence for four-pence“ tricks that capitalists have ever loved to play … They say to women “We deduct four-pence from your wages so that we can pay men larger wages, and then they can support you as their wives” … A woman, according to a capitalist, is an air-bubble blown between earth and sky, with no human ties of any sort.’

Her attack on the Labour Party of the day, when they broke their pledge to oppose the Government’s refusal to grant votes for women in 1912, has an altogether too familiar ring to the modern ear as political parties ‘flip-flop’ and backtrack. She considered the decision of the Labour Party a national disaster. She writes, ‘[t]he point lies not in the merits of Woman Suffrage at all, but in the fact that the Labour Party has refused to carry out a principle for which socialism has always stood; that it has made a promise and broken it; that it did it out of cowardice; and that it has sold itself to the Liberal Party body and soul.’

On the surprising recommendation of the Majority Report on changes to the divorce laws at the end of 1912 she expresses some pleasure. But she does consider it’s not the responsibility of the State to decide whether a marriage is unhappy or has become dangerous to the society and therefore should be dissolved. ‘Submission to unhappiness,’ she states, ‘is the unpardonable sin against the spirit just as submission to poverty is the unpardonable sin against the body.’

Although West was not supportive of the militant action of the Suffragettes she was somewhat bemused with the reaction to the burning down of the tea-house in Kew Gardens. She notes ‘it was only a little one’; the tea-house that is. What surprised her most however, was the public’s reaction. ‘I have no idea why the public should suddenly show a maudlin affection, such as they usually reserve for the royal family, for the late tea-house, but I can understand why all those who love the good, the true and the beautiful must unite in deploring the bomb outrage upon the house at Walton Heath’. A house owned by Sir George Riddell owner of the conservative imperialist The News of the World, a journalistic ‘fertiliser’ … that nourishes the imagination of a million and a quarter Englishmen every Sunday morning.’ Lloyd George, an ardent anti-suffragist was about to move into this now shattered home so in effect the suffragists ‘killed two birds with one stone’ to put it rather crudely. After dipping further into other militant acts and the resultant punishments, West begins her conclusion by considering the causes behind such militant acts and their programmes of hunger strikes and punishment of forced feeding. ‘Perhaps’, she wonders, ‘I over-rated the orchids. Perhaps, so long as the country tolerates a state of things which drives women of fire and honour to seek such torturing ways of death, it is right to destroy all the lies of beauty that pretend that the world is a fine and lovely place. Perhaps it is right to punish the gross for their destruction of the spiritual beauty of revolt by destroying the tangible beauty, which is all they [the Government and authorities] can understand’.

‘… We are paying the price for our toleration of a Government that upholds the cause of anti-suffragists and the will of the parasite women’.

Her articles ‘were serious and unsettling no less for radicals than the rest of the population’. Her comments at times especially regarding men could be ‘acid and cutting’. ‘English women are handicapped by the fact that men have passed laws encouraging female morons’. She was an outstanding critic whether through her book reviews, essays or her political commentary, especially if socialists were falling short of their values. Her journalist writing reflected her breadth of reading and her ability to get to the core of the issue being debated.

Rebecca West would continue to write fiction, biography, critical essays and reviews, even travel books until her death in 1983 at the age of 91. I found her reflection on the Nuremberg trials A Train of Powder, which I read twice, to be astonishing as she explored the ‘nature of crime and punishment, innocence and guilt, and retribution and forgiveness’; a truly evocative piece of journalism.

[1] Donald Matheson, Media Discourses, Open University Press, England 2005.

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