Man-hating lesbian precursors of the Nazis and their struggle for a higher morality

The Ascent of Woman
October 10, 2003

Melanie Phillips is a rightwing columnist for the Daily Mail , a regular panellist on the radio and a polemical writer for conservative thinktanks.

She claims that Britain is suffering from societal disintegration, especially family breakdown, due to the influence of the liberal left and of feminists who have insisted that marriage is oppressive and unnecessary.

Unfortunately, Phillips does not make her contemporary standpoint explicit in The Ascent of Woman , yet it is evident in the narrow range of sources consulted and in the selection and interpretation of evidence. In particular, she makes little reference to that vast bulk of work by feminist historians who, over the past decade or so, have made a substantial contribution to the study of women's suffrage in Britain.

Phillips' main theme is that the women's suffrage movement was about more than the parliamentary vote, namely an attempt to curb male lust and to elevate humanity to a higher moral plane. This claim is explored through a discussion of the 19th-century ideas that lay behind the movement.

The early chapters discuss the challenges mounted against that influential 19th-century domestic ideology that upheld that women should become full-time wives and mothers. Phillips focuses in particular on the double standard whereby sexual licence was seen as an understandable lapse for men, who were at the mercy of their instincts, but regarded as unpardonable for women. Since wives were expected to be virgins on their wedding night and their husbands sexually experienced, prostitution was widespread, as were venereal diseases. Such issues were forced into the limelight when Josephine Butler successfully led a campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s that provided for the compulsory medical examination of women believed to be prostitutes. As Butler pointed out, these acts singled out the woman for condemnation, while excusing and even protecting the man. The Butler crusade, insists Phillips, wrenched the whole agenda for social reform away from the problem of women, and reconceived it instead as the need to deal with the problem of men. Thus, moral purity became the real drive of the women's suffrage campaign in the 19th century, and especially in the suffragette movement in Edwardian Britain.

It is in the chapters on the suffragettes that Phillips' fury is at full blast. In particular she aims her guns at Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter, Christabel. Pankhurst founded the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), on October 10 1903, as a single-sex organisation that would demand female enfranchisement on the same terms as the vote was granted to men. Tired of all the years of failure, she injected new life into the campaign with the slogan: "Deeds, not words."

Christabel, the organising secretary of the WSPU, was its brilliant strategist who made votes for women headline news. Contrary to Phillips'

assertion, both women wanted the vote for a wider range of reforms than just moral purity. Pankhurst passionately believed that the lack of the parliamentary franchise lay at the heart of women's secondary and subordinate status. The vote, she argued, would bring equal rights in law for her own sex as well as the abolition of the sexual and economic exploitation of women and children. Christabel wanted women to be assertive about their citizenship rights rather than accept the false dignity earned by being submissive. From 1912 in particular, she emphasised the moral crusade aspect of the women's cause with the slogans "votes for women" and "chastity for men", thus linking the political equality of women with a questioning of men's supposedly overpowering sexual drive. For Christabel, women were not to be reduced to a sexual function, as wives and mothers, but to be empowered with control over their own bodies.

Phillips will have none of this. Rather than seeing the suffragette movement as exploring a wider range of choices for women, she argues that it was based on an irrational hatred of men. Sexual separatism, she insists, was "man-hating", a "sex war" that celebrated "celibacy, chastity and lesbianism". She even goes so far as to suggest that references to "improving the race" made the suffragettes the precursors of Nazis actions during the Holocaust some 30 years later.

Phillips' hysterical tone is not helped by the fact that, as she admits, her book does not offer "ground-breaking scholarship" but draws on the work of others. But her text reveals that her heavy reliance on secondary sources is selective, frequently excluding reference to relevant feminist research. She thus repeats the errors of outdated accounts, stating that Christabel turned the WSPU "into an upper-class and bourgeois organisation" and that from 1907 the WSPU "finally severed its link with the Labour movement". The resignation of Pankhurst and Christabel from the Independent Labour Party in 1907 did not lead to a severance from socialism, especially at the branch level where a considerable degree of auton-omy was enjoyed.

Nor were suffragettes solidly middle class. The working-class Jessie Stephen, a domestic servant who joined the WSPU in Scotland, recollected that there was a "tremendous number" of working-class activists working alongside wealthy women. Many of these working-class suffragettes felt strongly enough about the women's cause to endure the hardships of prison, even from 1912 when the WSPU adopted more extreme forms of militancy, such as setting fire to empty buildings and pillar boxes.

In her diatribe against the WSPU leaders, Phillips relies heavily on David Mitchell's sexist and misogynist biography of Christabel, Queen Christabel , published in 1977 when second-wave feminism was making its impact. Mitchell writes ina masculinist tone, mocking and ridiculing the suffragettes. His book is notorious for its final chapter, "Bitch power", where he sees an affinity between Christabel's views and the "wilder rantings" of second-wave feminists, such as Kate Millet, Ti-Grace Atkinson and Germaine Greer.

Phillips cites Mitchell's book frequently and uncritically, accepting the spin he gave, even repeating the assertion that Pankhurst nagged and dominated her husband during their 19 years of marriage. She also reiterates a common myth, that WSPU members were puppets of a manipulative, autocratic leadership. Such an approach denies the suffragette agency for her own actions and ignores the fact that many WSPU tactics - disparagingly termed by Phillips as "upper-class histrionics" - were initiated by the rank and file. In particular, Phillips fails to ask and answer a key question - if Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were the feminist tyrants that she portrays, why was it that thousands of women, eager for social and political change, joined a mass movement that has been unparalleled in British history?

Although The Ascent of Woman is a provocative book, the hostility expressed towards the suffragettes will offend many of its potential readers - the general public, A-level pupils and students in further and higher education. But more importantly, the lack of engagement with recent historiography on women's suffrage gives the book a smell of mothballs that makes it of limited value to the inquiring mind. Phillips does not do justice to her subject.

June Purvis is professor of women's and gender history, University of Portsmouth.

The Ascent of Woman: A History of the Suffragette Movement and the Ideas behind It

Author - Melanie Phillips
Publisher - Little, Brown
Pages - 370
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 316 72533 1

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