The Men's Share? Masculinities, Male Support and Women's Suffrage in Britain, 1890-1920Angela V John and Claire Eustance (eds.), Routledge, London, 1997, ISBN 0-415-14001-3 (hbk) [no price given]
'When the hated cause [women's suffrage] had enlisted the support of a famous cricketer, matters were becoming serious' (p. 114). Sincere and committed as the men discussed by the contributors to this volume were, few had the critical stance towards entrenched gender attitudes expressed by Laurence Housman in this comment on Jack Hobbs's joining a suffrage procession. A central theme of The Men's Share? is male suffragists' failure, though attempting to redefine 'manliness' to incorporate support for women's rights, to take the further step towards querying the whole notion. While more on sex radicals such as Housman, Edward Carpenter, and lesser known figures such as George Ives and E. Bertram Lloyd, whose views on women's suffrage were rooted in distaste for existing gender categories, would have been nice, this might have given disproportionate prominence to a minority of a minority.
A significant number of influential upper-middle-class professional men--writers, artists, lawyers, academics, scientists, clergymen, medical men and politicians--gave active support to the struggle for women's suffrage, as did a number of socialists and other less privileged males. The editors of this volume have identified over 1000 men involved in male suffrage societies. This does not seem very many, but must largely represent only those who had the time, resources and commitment to become organised activists. Some men were in mixed organisations or honorary members of women's franchise societies. Others, perhaps, while not in any organised body, provided support to suffragist wives, female family members, friends, colleagues and associates: the editors point out the significance of existing social and familial networks, some of which had generations of devotion to the cause.
The essays mainly concentrate on the public and visible pronouncements and actions of the men discussed. The private dimension is less easy to elucidate: June Balshaw comments that even with the Pethick Lawrence partnership, assessing the relationship between 'the way they portrayed themselves publicly and the way they functioned as a couple privately' is very difficult (p.154). With a lesser-known couple such as Elizabeth and Mark Wilks, she a doctor, he a humble London County Council schoolteacher imprisoned for her tax resistance, it is even harder to guess the connexions between public rhetoric and private life.
How did men fit in to a women's fight? Some made themselves available for the auxiliary role women had played for so long in male political organisations. Others used their privilege and authority, and their involvement in male networks, to present the case for women's suffrage. Others took the more dubious path of themselves engaging in violent militant action,which purveyed very different messages to women's often purely symbolic manifestations. Only male sympathisers of the Women's Social and Political Union essayed physical violence against individuals rather than property: asserting a male value system, yet laying the perpetrator open to imprisonment and the symbolic rape of force-feeding.
As Sandra Holton points out, there was often a desire to 'act as knights of old, championing and defending' (p. 125) and several contributors reveal the continuing resonance of the rhetoric of chivalry among male supporters of women's rights. While the cult of 'manliness' as inculcated in the late nineteenth century public schools might, as John Tosh persuasively argues in his chapter 'The making of masculinities', have been a narrow code regulating the conduct of men of a similar background towards one another, the ideal was always open to reworking by presenting competing models of 'real' manliness. In her article on literary men and women's suffrage, for example, Angela John identifies a vision of 'progressive' manhood among intellectuals, 'naturally opposed to those who were not modern' (p. 104). The pervasive ideals of chivalry were, however, deeply imbued with assumptions about men as champions and protectors of womanhood.
As Carolyn Spring points out in her nuanced analysis of the language of support for women's suffrage, even supporters subscribed to assumptions about 'manhood' and 'womanhood', only claiming the right to redefine what these 'truly' were. While gender-free 'equal rights' arguments were advanced, there was strong emphasis on women's both actual and symbolic role as mothers of the nation. Arguments around imperial motherhood were sometimes explicitly ethnocentric, positioning the enlightened western male in opposition to an inferior and primitive eastern male tyrannizing over degraded and victimized women.
The Man's Share? is not only informative on a previously understudied aspect of the suffrage struggle, it is an essential contribution to ongoing debates about historical changes in the definitions of masculinity. My only quibble would be with the suggestion that male interest in women's rights issues had substantially dissipated by the time the vote was won. I suspect that, as with former female suffragists, the massive torrent of the campaign for the vote dispersed into narrower but no less important channels such as the fight for birth control.
Lesley A. Hall