Unheard stories of breaking taboos

Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers
September 6, 2002

This splendid book covers nearly 500 entries on pioneering women in many spheres of social reform, including political activism, welfare and philanthropy. As Helen Rappaport explains in her introduction, she has had to exclude some of the "usual suspects" so that her focus is not solely on white, middle-class women from Britain and the US. Thus some well-known British and American suffragists are not included, to make way for others in less well-known fields such as antivivisectionism, conservation, prison reform, religious reform and third-world human rights. A wide interpretation of "social reformer" has been adopted to include women from some countries where religious and political controls, as well as social conventions, limit reform to modest charitable work or writing. So what do we find in this book?

Particularly welcome is the number of entries on women who are unfamiliar to western eyes, such as Ramabai Ranade (1862-1922). She lived an orthodox Hindu life and was active in promoting the education of girls in India, organising a women's relief committee to provide aid during times of famine and epidemics, and acting, later in life, as a "chaplain" to women prisoners. Married at the age of ten to a judge and social reformer, Ranade wrote her autobiography, which was published in 1938. But other stories of women unfamiliar to western ears are often difficult to tell since such documentary sources do not exist.

The entry titled "Afghan women social reformers" is particularly poignant since the women who campaigned in Afghanistan against abuse of human rights under the Taliban regime had, by necessity, to remain largely anonymous, shadowy figures. In contrast, much more information is available about those women social reformers who form the bulk of the entries in the book, namely American and British women.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme (1833-1918), British suffragist and advocate of sexual equality for women, lived out her feminism in her daily life. She decided not to marry and become a "wife", a being whose legal personhood, under the law of coverture, became subsumed under that of her husband. Instead, she lived in a free union with Ben Elmy - and became pregnant. Her horrified suffrage friends exerted pressure on the errant woman to conform. Elizabeth capitulated, but on her terms, adding her own surname to her husband's after her wedding.

Wolstenholme Elmy once remarked that it was the male fear that women would cease to be any longer "their sexual slaves" that was at the root of the opposition to female enfranchisement. And this theme, of women having control over their own sexuality, was a key concern for many British women social reformers once the parliamentary vote was granted in 1918 to women over 30 years old who were local government electors or the wives of local-government electors. In that year, the fearless Marie Stopes published her pioneering book, Married Love . It was an instant success, breaking the taboos surrounding open discussion about birth control and sexual satisfaction in marriage. That sexuality is still a theme of key importance for women social reformers today is evident in the entries on present-day feminists, such as Andrea Dworkin and Germaine Greer.

Written in clear prose, this book will be of interest to the student and general reader alike. Informative and wide ranging, it is a text to dip into and enjoy.

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

Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers

Author - Helen Rappaport
ISBN - 1 57607 101 4
Publisher - ABC Clio
Price - £129.95
Pages - 888

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