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‘The heart of the house’: Knole House through the lens of Woolf’s Orlando

1. Knole House

Vita and Virginia

In the summer of 1940, as the German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Vita Sackville-West sent her most treasured possessions to safety.  Vita was living at Sissinghurst, a grand but now ruined Elizabethan house, in the heart of the Kent countryside. The county was exposed to regular air raids and British soldiers were stationed in Sissinghurst Tower on the lookout for German parachutists. With the fear of invasion hanging over her, Vita sent away her jewels, her will, and a book manuscript. 

While Vita was a celebrated author, the manuscript was not her own. The pages of purple ink were the manuscript of Orlando, given to her in October 1928 by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. Vita’s son Nigel would later describe the novel as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’.

Vita and Virginia first met in December 1922, with the latter noting afterwards that she had felt ‘shy and schoolgirlish’ in the presence of the ‘lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West’. After this meeting their relationship grew, as the two women continued to dine together and write to one another. Vita later noted that whilst they did occasionally ‘sleep’ together, their relationship was more ‘a spiritual thing… an intellectual thing’. 

Virginia was invited to Knole House, Vita’s Elizabethan ancestral home, in the summer of 1924. Virginia was both in awe of Knole and Vita, writing that ‘all those ancestors and centuries, and silver and gold, have bred a perfect body’. The visit inspired Virginia’s Orlando which embodied her love for history, for Knole, and for Vita. 

Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann

Orlando

Virginia first started to write Orlando, a novel about a 16th century nobleman who lives for over 400 years and changes biological sex along the way, in March 1927. Virginia’s progressive attitude towards gender is clear in Orlando, as she views gender as a social construct and takes care with Orlando’s pronouns. After his transition she states that ‘for convention’s sake, say “her” for “his”, and “she” for “he”’. It is ‘simple fact’ that ‘Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; [then] he became a woman.’

The character of Orlando was based on Vita, ‘the lusts of [her] flesh and the lure of [her] mind’, her portrait became Orlando’s likeness. Vita, like Orlando, flouted the rules of gender and had many lovers. Her husband Harold Nicolson once commented that ‘I don’t mind who you sleep with, so long as I may keep your heart’. Harold also had his fair share of same-sex lovers. 

Virginia explores same-sex ‘Sapphist’ attraction in Orlando, with the protagonist noting that ‘being of the same sex… [did] quicken and deepen those feelings’ which she felt towards women. 

However, her tone is also wary. Virginia notes that Orlando’s poetry about ‘Egyptian girls’, a verse taken from Vita’s The Land, was risky when she has ‘a husband’ at home. Virginia’s message to Vita is clear, she ‘had only escaped by the skin of her teeth’ as she had put on a wedding ‘ring’ and found ‘a man’.  Homosexual acts between men were illegal, but queer women would be outcast by society and Vita had much to lose. 

The main setting of Orlando is the ‘great’ Elizabethan house, ‘more like a town than a house’, with its ‘halls… galleries… courts… bedrooms’. This house was clearly based on Knole with both houses—the real one and the fictional one—being said to have 365 rooms and 52 staircases. In Orlando, Sackville-West’s ancestral ‘leopards’ appear on the stained-glass windows and Orlando brushes her hair with ‘King James’ silver brush’ which is kept in The King’s Room at Knole. 

King James’ silver at Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann

While Orlando preserved Vita’s character, it also preserved the essence of Knole for Vita. This was Virginia’s greatest gift to her lover, saving Knole’s soul within the pages of her book. On 28 January 1928 Vita’s father died and the ancestral home passed to Vita’s uncle. Vita couldn’t inherit because she was a woman. The 1000-acre deer park and four-acre house had been Vita’s childhood home. She had ‘loved it; and took it for granted that Knole loved’ her. After her father died, she only had a few days to rule Knole. After that she lost Knole ‘forever’ and faced a ‘turning point in [her] life’. 

The deer at Knole. Photographer: Hannah McCann

One cannot fully comprehend Vita’s loss without visiting Knole in person. Once you enter the gates it takes a few minutes to drive up the winding road to the house. You pass through fields and woodland, all dotted with herds of deer. The house itself is imposing and expansive, with hundreds of grand rooms all furnished with expensive furniture. 

Most significantly the house is packed with Sackville-West heirlooms and portraits. Their wealth and their history bleeds through the walls. The power that Knole holds is palpable. Vita could have lived like a Queen if being a man had not been the key to unlocking Knole. 

The Sackville-West leopards at Knole. Photographer: Hannah McCann

Sissinghurst 

In 1930, following her loss of Knole, Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst. This was a cluster of derelict Elizabethan farm buildings, two cottages and a tower. When they moved in ‘not a single room was habitable’ but over the years they transformed Sissinghurst into a world-famous English garden and a romantic castle. 

Vita filled Sissinghurst with items from Knole, her bed, her amber flasks from her childhood windowsill, her mirror. Yet, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Sissinghurst simply became a copy of Knole. While both were Elizabethan mansions with a connection to the Sackville-Wests, Sissinghurst became its own entity shaped by Harold and Vita. 

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens. Photographer: Hannah McCann

Perhaps in response to Orlando Vita wrote the poem Sissinghurst, dedicating it to Virginia. She wrote of ‘a tired swimmer in the waves of time’ who finds the ‘castle… buried in time and sleep’. Vita painted Sissinghurst in a rose-tinted light, as Virginia had done for Knole. Both used their words to preserve these houses and their love for one another.

Eventually, both Knole and Sissinghurst would meet the same fate and were handed over to the National Trust. At the time Vita was reluctant to hand over her ‘darlings’ but as Orlando notes ‘the house… belonged to time now; to history’. Yet, the combination of the National Trust’s vital conservation and Vita and Virginia’s writing has prevented these houses from slipping under the ‘waves of time’. 

Hannah McCann is a history undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to research an area of special interest. In her project she chose to look at how Vita and Virginia’s Queer relationship manifests itself in their literature and at their National Trust Properties. 

Cover Image: Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann

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Girls’ Culture and the Girl’s Own Paper during the fin de siècle

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In an increasingly interconnected world, the mass media has impacted how many of us perceive ourselves. Growing up in the 2000s, aspects of my own identity have been shaped by my engagement with popular culture as a young girl. Reading magazines such as Girl Talk and Mizz, I developed a gender-based identity defined by popular representations of what it means to be a girl. 

Featuring fashion advice, celebrity gossip, and real-life stories of readers, girls’ magazines of the 21st century are loaded with gender assumptions that mark them as quite different from boys’ reading material. As a historian interested in gender issues, I am drawn to explore how understandings of gender roles have shaped ‘modern’ society and, in particular, how the media has defined gender-based identities in Britain.

It was in the final decades of the 19th century that girlhood began to be regarded as an important stage in life, one with its own distinct culture, located in between, but separated from both childhood and adulthood.[1] This point of view formed part of a reaction to popular anxieties about ‘modernity’ and its potential to create social and moral disorder, with gender considered a category through which this disorder could manifest itself. The image of the ‘New Woman’, associated with growing independence and new opportunities for women in the 1890s, challenged the accepted ideal that the primary responsibilities of women and girls were in the home. Importance was therefore placed on girlhood, a time during which young women were taught the acceptable boundaries of their gender.

Starting out as a penny weekly in 1880, the Girl’s Own Paper is just one example of the numerous periodicals of the fin de siècle which stressed gender dichotomies to its readers.[2] As the most popular and longest running periodical of its kind, the Girl’s Own is an important historical source for understanding how modern girls’ culture has evolved.

Containing nonfiction articles, stories, and a regular correspondence section, in its pages the Girl’s Own crafted its own vision of acceptable girlhood. Between 1880 and 1900, several articles in the paper expressed the need for girls to follow the traditional obligations of their sex. Readers were encouraged to live by traditional feminine values and were exposed to advertisements for household products, soaps, sewing materials, and other domestic necessities.[3]Stories also explicitly warned girls that to follow in the footsteps of the ‘New Woman’ would inevitably lead to unhappy spinsterhood.[4]

In an ever-growing market of gendered periodicals, however, the Girl’s Own also accepted the need to discuss more progressive ideas on girlhood in order to remain popular with readers. By the turn of the century, an increasing number of informative articles appeared on matters such as higher education and work opportunities. The justification given for such articles was that these were a response to the large number of girls requesting advice on ‘new departures, new training, and new careers’.[5]

Advertisements for leisure pursuits also allowed for a more ‘modern’ vision of girlhood to be represented. Products were marketed as being suitable for ‘lawn tennis, badminton, and croquet wear’, activities associated with modern representations of girlhood which distinguished fin de siècle girls from older generations.[6]

In 1890, however, readers were reminded to ‘enjoy your lawn tennis; but remember the obligations of your sex and your self respect’.[7] This phrasing summarises well the tone used in the Girl’s Own between 1880 and 1900, as traditional ideas on girlhood and femininity were renegotiated alongside the opportunities of modern life. The author cautioning readers to ‘remember [their] obligations’ demonstrated both tolerance for the new opportunities available to girls, such as new leisure pursuits like lawn tennis, and an awareness of the simultaneous opening-up of new educational and professional fields. Nevertheless, it was also stressed that these new opportunities should be enjoyed in moderation. An image of the ideal reader was thus created within the magazine which embodied the Christian, and traditionally feminine values of the magazine’s publisher but which also considered the demands of its readership. 

Many girls engaged in the correspondence of the magazine, and anticipated a reply from their ‘dear, faithful friend’, the editor.[8] This was yet another way in which the magazine acted as a tool with which its consumers formed understandings of their own lives and of the world around them. Experiences and understandings at such a fundamental life stage—girlhood—shaped the readers’ worldview on their way to adulthood. 

In today’s society, the mass media still acts as a vehicle with which individual identities are shaped and connected. More than a hundred years on, possibilities have increased exponentially, not only through the printed word but also because of the endless opportunities which the internet provides. The rise of social media is reflective of an increasingly globalised society, in which individuals can connect on deeper and more meaningful levels than earlier printed periodicals could provide. Yet, these older forms of communication remain important and relevant sources. They can teach us much about how our society has evolved, and how gender ideals which still exist today have been negotiated and understood in the past.

Laura Neilson is a recent graduate of the University of Sheffield, holding an MA in Modern History. She is particularly interested in gender history, and in making history accessible to the public.

Cover image: Masthead illustration for the Girl’s Own Paper in an 1886 edition. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] K. Moruzi, Constructing Girlhood through the periodical press, 1850-1918 (Ashgate, 2012), p.9; S. Mitchell, The New Girl: Girls’ Culture in England, 1880-1915 (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp.1-3.

[2] D. Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Routledge, 2013), p.18.

[3] “Multiple Classified Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd September 1881, p.3.

[4] “Varieties”, Girl’s Own Paper, 6th October 1894.

[5] Lily Watson, “What is the London County Council doing for Girls?”, Girl’s Own Paper, 27th February 1897, p.4.

[6] “Multiple Display Advertisements”, Girl’s Own Paper, 3rd January 1880, p.4.

[7] S.F.A Caulfield, “Some Types of Girlhood; or, Our Juvenile Spinsters”, Girl’s Own Paper, 4th October 1890, p.5.

[8] “A Dip Into the Editor’s Correspondence”, Girl’s Own Paper, 16th June 1883, p.6.

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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ Website Launch

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‘Journalism is the first draft of history’ is a maxim amongst journalists. But as networking, campaigning, and training organisation Women in Journalism points out on its website, that draft of history too often excludes female points of view.

Evidence shows that while some women are working at senior levels in broadcast journalism, newspapers are lagging behind, with just 25% of news stories on front pages of national newspapers in Britain written by women, and only eight national newspapers employing female editors.

Run from Nottingham Trent University by Dr Catherine Clay and Dr Eleanor Reed, ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ is a year-long project, publicising the ‘draft of history’ laid down by the influential and long-running feminist magazine Time and Tide. Founded in 1920 by Welsh businesswoman and feminist Lady Rhondda, this weekly review of politics and the arts was the only woman-controlled publication of its kind, competitive with the New Statesman. Time and Tide hosted contributions from many of the period’s leading political and literary figures, among them Vera Brittain, E. M. Delafield, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, Rose Macaulay, George Bernard Shaw, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, Ellen Wilkinson, and Virginia Woolf. During the interwar decades it was a beacon for feminism, a platform for women’s writing (both ‘high’ and ‘middlebrow’) and – as a leading ‘journal of opinion’ – offered perspectives on international as well as national politics from many of the most significant feminist thinkers and public intellectuals of the day.

Central to ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ is a dedicated website, timeandtidemagazine.org. Alongside information about the magazine’s history, this website’s star attraction is a free, downloadable Souvenir Edition of Time and Tide, edited by Dr Clay and produced by Nottingham-based publishers Five Leaves Publications. Showcasing selected articles from interwar issues of Time and Tide and replicating as closely as possible the layout and fonts used by the original magazine, the Souvenir Edition gives contemporary readers a taste of its interwar content. This includes a discussion of ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism by Winifred Holtby, observations on Nazism by Cicely Hamilton, short stories by E. M. Delafield and Marghanita Laski, poetry by Naomi Mitchison and Eleanor Farjeon, reviews of books, theatre, music and film by some of Time and Tide’s regular staff writers (among them Christopher St. John, Sylvia Lynd, Mary Agnes Hamilton and Theodora Bosanquet)  and ‘Our Men’s Page’ – a glorious send-up of the ‘women’s pages’ that appeared in popular publications at the time.

This content sits alongside advertisements for corsets, dressmaking silk, and magazines targeting professional women and feminists, which together invoke the complex, multifaceted identities represented by what was (during its early years) the magazine’s predominantly female readership. In her brilliant Foreword to the Souvenir Edition, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee draws out the connections between past and present: ‘A hundred years ago might seem an age away, and yet here women’s writings leap fresh from these pages, their causes all too familiar today.’

Giving context to the Souvenir Edition, the website hosts a timeline charting Time and Tide’s interwar history, and biographies of some of the key figures who directed and/or edited the magazine: Lady Rhondda, Helen Archdale, Rebecca West, Cicely Hamilton, Winifred Holtby, E. M. Delafield, Theodora Bosanquet, and Professor Winifred Cullis. Both timeline and biographies are illustrated with artwork and other visual material from the period, including a wonderful photograph of Lady Rhondda marching alongside Emmeline Pankhurst at the Equal Rights Political Demonstration of 1926, and a Time and Tide Christmas card from the 1930s, showing the magazine’s offices in Bloomsbury. This visual content brings the magazine and its female producers vividly to life, and enriches our sense of the era in which it was produced.

Throughout 2020, the website will be updated regularly. New biographies will introduce more of Time and Tide’s key figures, and we will be inviting blog posts from trainee women journalists in response to the Souvenir Edition. These posts will offer fresh insights into the magazine from diverse perspectives, and explore its relevance today. The website will also host resources for teaching and research: these will include film footage, of speakers and panellists at a Festival of Women Writers and Journalists, to be held in London and/or online in November 2020. Other exciting content will include highlights from an Exhibition of Interwar Women’s Magazines, to be hosted by The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics between January and April 2021. Details of the Festival and Exhibition, and future planned events, will be available on the website.

Today, in a media industry that continues to value women’s appearance more highly than their opinions, Time and Tide’s marketing slogan – ‘Time and Tide tells us what women think and not what they wear’ – still resonates strongly. To discover what this fascinating magazine can teach us about our present as well as our past, visit timeandtidemagazine.org.

You can also follow ‘Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies’ on Twitter: @timeandtidemag1

Dr Eleanor Reed is Project Officer for Time and Tide: Connections and Legacies. She is an early career researcher, specialising in early-mid twentieth-century domestic magazines. If you would like to find out about her research, you can read her chapter about ‘Lower-middle-class domestic leisure in Woman’s Weekly 1930’ in British Women’s Writing, 1930-1960: Between the Waves (edited by Jane Thomas and Sue Kennedy, Liverpool University Press). You can also find her on Twitter @ViolaChasm.

Cover image: Page from the Souvenir Edition of Time and Tide. Reproduced by kind permission of Five Leaves Publications.

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Nancy Astor: feminist by default rather than by design

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This ‘diablog’ between Dr Jacqui Turner from the University of Reading and Dr Julie V. Gottlieb from the University of Sheffield is a discussion about the life, legacy and varied political career of Lady Nancy Astor. It is published as part of a collaboration between the University of Reading (@uniRdg_history @uniRdg_research) and the University of Sheffield (@UniShefHistory).

A week ago we marked the 100th anniversary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act on 1918, and since its passage 491 women have served as MPs.

Today is the 99th anniversary of Astor’s election to Parliament in a by-election in Plymouth, becoming the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. This milestone is being marked with an ambitious series of public events, learning resources, and the erection of a statue of Astor in her Plymouth constituency, and all part of #Astor100.

As the curator of #Astor100, Jacqui is working closely with the archivists at the University of Reading where Astor’s papers are housed, and with a wide network of politicians, students, scholars, the Astor family and the public to preserve the legacy of the women pioneers in Parliamentary politics.

Nancy Astor has also figured prominently in Julie’s research on women’s politicization in the aftermath of suffrage, and, in particular, on how women politicians engaged with international relations and peace movements. As the hostess of the so-called Cliveden Set, Nancy Astor is one of the key protagonists in Julie’s recent book ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Inter-war Britain (Palgrave, 2015).

In discussion, Jacqui and Julie wanted to tackle these questions: How should Astor be remembered and memorialised? How can historians make sure that Astor is represented in the round, and in all her complexity and with all her contradictions? How can the Astor100 project be about so much more than the glorification of one woman’s political career?

Jacqui:  Astor100 is not only about Nancy Astor, it a celebration of the achievement of an individual that will facilitate a wider celebration of what she represented and the avenues she pioneered for women who followed. It also amplifies the demand for continued progress towards political equality – we are not there yet!

The election of Nancy Astor changed British democracy forever. The importance of her election is that, for the first time, a woman was able to directly influence the parliamentary debate and the writing of the laws of her own land – a responsibility she willingly shouldered for all women. Her arrival in Parliament ushered in a new type of politician, a public woman, a new perspective and a reminder that there was a female electorate who increasingly demanded to be satisfied.

The biggest challenges have been in setting the terms of the project, making sure that Astor100 has the right voice and that we engage with a C21st audience. Evaluations of Astor are inevitably androcentric; Astor is a mercurial character most often only understood in reference to her gender, in regard to her husband Waldorf, her deficiencies as a mother and in relation to her intervention into a masculine parliament. Her legacy has inevitably been evaluated and interpreted by male biographers, Astor100 is an opportunity dispel some of the myths and attributions made to her and look at her afresh.

We also need to be conscious of the fact that Nancy Astor herself did not ask to be memorialised; her own views were expressed at her memorial service ‘When I die I don’t want any monuments but I want litter bins, scattered all over the city marked ‘in memory of Lady Astor’’[1]. We need to respect her views and ensure there is a legacy, maybe not litter bins but a strong message to women and girls that whoever they are and whatever their beliefs they can engage in the decisions that shape all of our lives.

What do you find most problematic about Astor?

Julie: It is inevitable that when we search through history for exemplary figures, for figures who will be made to represent their era or a major milestone, that we will be struck by the often huge gulf between their attitudes on a range of things –  especially to do with race, sex, and class – and our present-day sensibilities.

This is certainly the case with Nancy Astor. Even in her own time she was highly controversial and often self-contradictory. At once she considered herself a representative of working women and mothers, while she was one of the richest women in the land. Astor aligned herself with women’s peace organizations and regarded women as natural pacifists, while pursuing the aims of Anglo-German understanding by entertaining the Nazi top brass at her Cliveden seat. The American-born Astor was xenophobic and anti-Semitic, and yet she could not imagine a fascist Britain as the Blackshirts were just too ridiculous and laughable.

Jacqui: Today in the 21st century I find many of her opinions problematic but particularly her anti-Semitic statements. To put her into the context of the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the interwar period and within the society in which Nancy lived is not to condone such views. Nancy Astor has almost become more synonymous with the prejudices of her time than the many men who held similar views but escaped similar censure. They have not been subject to the same level of scrutiny. One of our biggest challenges is in representing Astor’s personal paradoxes – her unguarded public statements that rarely reflected private actions and kindnesses to both Jewish people and Catholics. There is much less comment on the appalling misogyny of male contemporaries who are understood in relation to ‘it was just the times’. Many prominent men had a few good years for which they are remembered, whereas Astor’s unpalatable statements were made in the heightened political climate in the run up to World War II.  It also strikes me that Nancy Astor is the single most pilloried person in the appeasement and anti-Semitic debate yet she was a back bench female MP with little or no power. She was surrounded by senior, influential men who escape similar scrutiny. It is her gender that belies so much of this comment and is why we judge her by a higher standard.

Julie: It is important too to understand Astor as a feminist by default rather than by design. Her entry into politics had nothing to do with feminism or with the suffrage movement—indeed, of the 36 women who became MPs between the wars, not one had a suffragette pedigree.  Nonetheless, Astor quickly grew into her role as first the only and always the first woman MP. Especially during the 1920s, she made many efforts to work with her fellow women, regardless of party affiliation. She could well have steered clear of women’s issues. Some of the other women MPs did among that first generation of women MPs did just that, especially some of her Tory colleagues. It is instructive in this respect to compare her causes and campaigns with that of the Conservative Katherine Duchess of Atholl—and they would find themselves on diametrically opposite sides of the debate about appeasing Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

Jacqui: When reflecting on her career Astor always claimed that she had been ‘as good a feminist as anyone’. She had never had any longstanding ambition to be a politician and openly expressed that her ‘husband put the idea in my head… and I should get out of it if he got rid of his peerage’ (BBC 1945).  Astor was a ‘difference feminist’. She was determined to prove that women were as physically capable of being full participants in the rigours of political life as men. She often expressed that in many ways women were more suited to public life as women had ‘moral courage’ and were ‘not so easily flattered’. The concept of female moral courage was a constant theme throughout her speeches and in the many reflective interviews she gave after she stood down.

Cliveden Visitor Book 1915 (Image from Reading University Special Collections)

However, even before 1919 Astor was not without feminist sympathies. In spring 1915 she had a sustained correspondence with Emmeline Pankhurst who considered Astor a sympathetic route to the press.  She was also instrumental in pushing though the 1928 franchise.  She held her party and Baldwin’s government to account for promises made regarding the equal franchise.  She worked with suffrage organisations facilitating meetings with senior politicians and acting as a conduit between them and the Conservative Party.  She was a pioneer of women in the professions lending her support to legislation surrounding women in the workplace and the safety of women when out on the streets.

How then does Astor serve as a fitting representative of women’s political achievements? Is she worthy of being one of the most prominent personifications of the long struggle for women’s emancipation?

Julie: It is in fact despite or rather because of her complexity that I do think that Astor’s story should be given prominence. Astor100 is a very timely project for many reasons, nor should we forget to make the obvious but important point that it is being launched when Britain has its second woman and Conservative woman Prime Minister, Theresa May.

But why Astor, and how can she be made to tell a much more nuanced story about women’s political participation? Let us recall that we don’t talk about men’s political history. Of course not. It is taken for granted that in politics men are divided in myriad ways. There are no “men’s issues” as such, and men would almost never think to group together as men to represent the interests of their own beleaguered sex.

Placing Astor at the centre of the memorialisation of 100 years of women in Parliament is an important reminder that women too do not and should not be assumed to band together as one, or to confine their interest to “women’s issues”. Not all women who enter the political sphere are motivated by feminism, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is evidence of this point. Astor’s story reminds us that the story of women in politics is distinct from the story of the feminist movement as such, even when there are intersections.

What you are trying to achieve with Astor100?

Jacqui:   With Astor100 we are trying to facilitate an informed, nuanced and constructive narrative that includes the debates and criticism surrounding Nancy Astor.  As an individual her courage and resilience in standing alone for almost 2 years in a hostile House established a platform on which women continue to build today.  In many ways, our discussion is still as relevant today as it was for Astor. To be first is important, some people can do it and others cannot. Astor rose to the challenge and she was necessary. She was pioneer and women in politics today continue to need similar qualities to withstand highly gendered and hate-filled criticism especially on social media. By 2019 we will also have an opportunity to reflect on both Vote100 and Astor100.

Christmas Card 1945. Image from Reading University’s Special Collections

Today, Astor100 kicks off with our digital exhibition ‘An Unconventional MP’ The political life of Nancy Astor in 50 documents, showcasing some of the documents from Nancy Astor’s Papers at the University of Reading.  The exhibition will be supported by a series of blogs and downloadable leaflets for schools; all written by historians (including Julie), Nancy’s family, politicians and the people she represented. You can find us at https://research.reading.ac.uk/astor100/  where you can keep up with news, explore the work of our partners and up to date events.

Jacqui Turner is Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Reading and Curator of #Astor100.

Julie V Gottlieb is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield.

[1] Lady Astor Memorial Service 12th May 1964 delivered by the Rt Reverend Norman Clarke, Anglican Bishop of Plymouth

 

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