22 julho 2010

The Women who invented the twentieth century

From the TLS:
Sheila Rowbotham’s adventurous dreamers had marvellous names: Voltairine de Cleyre, Elsie Clews Parsons, Storm Jameson, Maggie Lena Walker, and Clementina Black. More familiar to most readers and writers of feminist histories are Frances E. Willard, Jane Addams, Mary Church Terrell, Octavia Hill and Henrietta Barnett. Rowbotham’s contribution is to demonstrate how both prominent and obscure women in the United States and Britain created new ways of being women. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, they challenged prevailing expectations about sexuality, living arrangements, paid work and motherhood.
The American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, whose father named her after the Enlightenment philosopher, was an ardent proponent of free love. One should “never allow love to be vulgarized by the common indecencies of continuous close communication”, she maintained, nor was she keen on children, mocking the maternal instinct and defending the childless. Then there was the British author Margaret Storm Jameson who wrote forty-five novels before dying at the age of ninety-five. And Elsie Clews Parsons, an American, who wrote articles about sex before anyone discussed it in polite company. The British social reformer Clementina Black declared that the bicycle “was doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end”; noting that chaperones and maids could be left behind on cycling trips. Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), agreed. She was so thrilled with her bicycle that she named it Gladys and wrote a book entitled How I Learned To Ride the Bicycle. In fact, Willard took lessons because it gave her a sense of mastery over a machine, and because her friends thought she was too old to learn. She was fifty-three at the time. Like the other remarkable women in this story, Willard believed life could be better.
Rowbotham has mined periodicals, novels, association pamphlets and correspondence for evidence of the utopian vision shared by women from different political, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. United by their desire to put radical ideas about womanhood into practice, some took inspiration from the promise of an efficient industrialized future predicted by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). Others were committed to the creative expression and communal life promoted by William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement. Bellamy foresaw a strong role for State regulation, while Morris and his disciples wished away the state entirely. These women, though, were not a cohesive group. They differed and asserted their independence on a variety of issues: reform vs revolution; regulation vs liberation; and religious vs secular motivations. Rowbotham’s accomplishment is to have discovered the common thread that connected them.
Differences were often multidimensional. The African Americans Mary Church Terrell and Maggie Lena Walker, for example, came from opposite ends of the social class spectrum. Highly educated and married to a judge, Terrell was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1890). She used her extensive organizational skills to spotlight racial violence and to campaign for the vote. Walker, on the other hand, was a former washerwoman from Richmond, Virginia, who promoted economic empowerment for blacks. Her goal was to redirect black spending from white-owned establishments to black businesses. She formed a Penny Savings Bank in 1903 with the savings from poor black women; it eventually grew into the black-owned Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, of which she was president. Walker also founded a female insurance company and a department store to create jobs for African American women. Among the black elite W. E. B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth, Terrell occupied the national stage. Walker, practising the economic self-sufficiency promoted by Booker T. Washington, was a strong presence on the local scene. Richmond has honoured Walker by declaring her home a National Historic Site.
A few women travelled in both British and American radical circles. The Socialist feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman recommended the British publication Englishwoman to her readers, for example, and her magazine, the Forerunner, had a British audience. The famous American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, maintained close connections with progressive Fabian friends in Britain after returning to the United States. Following a trip to Toynbee Hall in London, Jane Addams established Hull House in Chicago, one of the first American settlement houses. Addams, in turn, hosted Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, the founders of Toynbee Hall, when they visited America.
Henrietta Barnett was also affiliated with a lesser-known settlement. She and the housing reformer Octavia Hill opened the Women’s University Settlement in 1887 to train women in methods of property management. Hill’s ideas on limited-dividend housing investments travelled to America, where the Octavia Hill Association in Philadelphia wholeheartedly adopted her techniques. Rowbotham’s careful attention to international influences makes this volume the ideal complement to Daniel T. Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings: Social politics in a progressive age (1998).
I am surprised that Rowbotham has outed Jane Addams, by referring to Ellen Gates Starr as her lover. Two recent biographies are ambiguous about Addams’s sexuality and identify Starr (and later Mary Roget Smith) as her companions or close friends. In Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (2002), Jean Bethke Elshtain implies that Addams lived a celibate life, but not a lonely one. The “saving grace” for Addams was the fellowship she found at Hull House. It was her home, providing comfort, but also a place from which to speak and act. Louise W. Knight, author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the struggle for democracy (2005), believes Addams shared an emotional and physical intimacy with Smith that was not explicitly sexual. I’ve never understood why it matters if Addams was a lesbian. Her private life was much less interesting than her significant public accomplishments.
Regardless of sexual orientation or how famous they might be, all women at the turn of the twentieth century who wanted to change the world usually started by loosening their clothes. Long skirts, constricting corsets, even hats and gloves limited women’s mobility. The Rational Dress Society (1881) encouraged comfortable and healthy clothing based on reason, usefulness and simplicity. The Healthy and Artistic Dress Union (1901), inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, favoured flowing Grecian robes to enhance creativity. Famously, the dancer Isadora Duncan adopted the style with dreadful consequences. In 1927 her long scarf caught in the rear axle of the car she was driving and broke her neck.
Less dramatically, dress style could help or hinder women’s pursuit of independence. Clothing that drew too much attention to their feminine figures made women publicly vulnerable. With the shirtwaist and tie that became popular at the end of the nineteenth century, women signalled they were sexually unavailable. Women who went even further by dressing as men and cutting their hair short were unlikely to be molested when they walked through the city. Masculine styles, according to Rowbotham, were “the badge of geographic mobility” that marked the arrival of adventurous women in “men’s zones”.
The book is organized primarily by subject (sex, motherhood, housework, consumption, and paid employment), and loosely chronologically within subject. Although women’s lives revolve around the same concerns today, one aspect has changed greatly. Women now have more control over the consequences of their sexual activity. The strongest inducement to chastity at the turn of the twentieth century was the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. One of Rowbotham’s dreamers who saw an alternative to women’s lack of reproductive rights was Margaret Sanger, the moving force behind the invention of oral contraceptives. (As long as I have been reading about birth control, this is the first time I learned that Sanger created the term “birth control” as a counterpart to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) slogan “workers’ control”). Sanger illegally dispensed information about birth control and as a result was to go on trial in 1914. Instead, she fled to Europe, where she joined up with the British sex psychologist Havelock Ellis. Sanger later returned to the United States to continue her campaign against unwanted pregnancies. Here the reader may encounter some confusion. Rowbotham reports that Sanger evaded trial, but the photograph on page 92 shows Sanger with her sister Ethel Bryne in court in 1916. Sanger and Bryne were arrested that year for opening a Brooklyn clinic to distribute birth control information. According to Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth control in America (1974), one of the women they saw was working undercover for the police. Sanger and her sister were sentenced to, and served, thirty days on Blackwell’s Island. The photograph on page 92 is most likely from that incident.
Rowbotham does an excellent job of reminding the reader of the historical context of these women’s lives. Clearly, the impetus for changing women’s everyday experiences came from unprecedented developments in technology and communications, momentous scientific discoveries, iconoclastic art, and growing urbanity. Pessimists undoubtedly bemoaned the changes and wished for the old order. Optimistic dreamers could see the promise of a new day. Although it is somewhat bold to conclude that the pioneers portrayed here invented the twentieth century, they certainly invented the twentieth-century woman. 

The author at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, a personal favourite of mine ;)

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