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Response to Review no. 642

I appreciate this very fair and interesting review. I have comments on a few points, some of which are fairly minor. Although I find the summary of the book quite masterly, there are a few (perhaps inevitable) oversimplifications.

The reviewer is right that a broad franchise could not be predicted with any certainty before the war; indeed, I do not think I anywhere said that it could. What I suggested in this book and at the end of my earlier book, From Liberal to Labour with Women’s Suffrage: the story of Catherine Marshall, which brings the story down to August 1914, is that the skilled political work of the democratic suffrage leadership in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) had helped to make it almost certain that whoever triumphed in the next general election would be likely to introduce some measure of franchise. How wide that measure might be would depend on how the balance of parties worked out in Parliament; it was hoped that the hard-won and committed support of the Labour party might be crucial. But this commitment had evaporated by 1917, disappointingly, in light of Labour’s strong position at this time. It was the new circumstances of wartime, and the particular political conditions of the period (admirably summarised by the reviewer) that could now have given realistic hope for a broad franchise.

The reviewer’s point about the need to read action and rhetoric together is well taken; I may have underplayed the significance of the pacifist use of the motherhood concept. Rather my quarrel is with those who fail to understand the extent and strength of the demands that feminist pacifism built on that concept and who simply switch off as soon as the word ‘mother’ is heard. The discussion of the rhetoric of motherhood and the (comparatively) nurturing nature ascribed to women is muddied by the way it can be and was used; both by the peace women to support opposition to the use of violence, and by the government to support a picture (quite literally, in at least one well known poster) of mothers as properly encouraging sons to go forth to kill and to die if need be. I attempted a more theoretical analysis of this whole question in a previous paper.(1)

Another point well taken by the reviewer means that I would happily withdraw the epithet ‘docile’ in so far as it can applied to Emmeline Pankhurst (p. 48). I was thinking in general terms of recruiting and war support as being part of the approved role of women in war. Pankhurst continued to scare the government, especially under Asquith, but she served their purposes.

I am less able to meet the reviewer on his point about there possibly being a good philosophical basis for some of Fawcett’s arguments for the need to defeat Germany. Fawcett (and the reviewer) may have had a more grounded knowledge of German philosophy than I here give her credit for, or than I have; however, my sense is that no national philosophy is monolithic, nor do guns satisfactorily counter philosophical argument. In practice, Russia, on the Allied side, was no more democratic nor favourable to women’s rights than Germany. Overall, the arguments of the leaders of the pro-war faction, including Fawcett, tended to be simplistic, largely demanding that questions regarding the avoidance of war should not even be considered while the war was on. Fawcett would shortly be on record with public statements which equated any talk of peace with treason.

Furthermore, although the pacifists were careful to avoid criticism of British servicemen, they did not subscribe to the view that the statesmen, the soldiers, the policies and the practices on their side could remain uncontaminated by militarism in the climate of war. The peace women tried to keep communication open between women of different nations, supporting in this way both women’s rights and feminist opposition to accepting war as a viable solution whether it be waged by a male government in Germany or one in Britain. They applied the dictum that might does not prove right to their own side as well as to their opponents; their central focus was to urge that war should not be seen as a solution, and to work for better ways of handling international relations when the war was over.

Notes

  1. J. Vellacott, ‘A Place for Pacifism and Transnationalism in Feminist Theory’, Women’s History Review, 2 (1993) 23-56. Back to (1)