Thursday, January 14, 2010

Arianne Chernock's "Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism"

Arianne Chernock is an Assistant Professor in Boston University's Department of History specializing in modern Britain and Europe. Her work focuses on 18th- and 19th-century cultural, political, imperial, and gender history.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism, and reported the following:
Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism tells the story of a group of men in late-eighteenth-century Britain who courageously insisted that women’s rights mattered. That is, in a world in which reformers daily clamored for the “rights of man” but refused to extend these same “rights” to women, these men – progressive educators, attorneys, writers, officers, physicians, and clerics – asserted that their nation would not be truly “enlightened” until women’s grievances were also addressed. Law, custom, and tradition may have jointly conspired to keep women subjected, but they maintained that reason required them to emancipate “half the human race.” There were no logical grounds on which to bar women from fuller participation in the life of the nation, given the preponderance of evidence in favor of women’s capabilities.

These men were not necessarily the first to make such claims, nor were their statements the most extensive or eloquent – for the most impassioned and sustained defense of women’s rights during this period, see Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. What was novel about their approach was their emphasis on the fact that men had a significant stake in female emancipation. As they repeatedly stressed, “women’s rights” were not just a women’s issue, to be dealt with by the other sex. Rather, they believed that how a people treated its women was a crucial metric for measuring the overall health of a nation, as well as of the civility and virility of the men within that polity. As such, women’s rights were a human problem.

A lofty formulation, indeed. How these men actually went about enacting this vision, though, led them into some thorny situations. While they put forward some remarkably bold recommendations – several, for example, recommended that women have the right to vote and sit in parliament – and used their professional networks and social status to help women secure employment and equal education, they also at times struggled to present female emancipation in a way that pleased, and catered to the real needs of, women. This brings me to p. 99 of my book, which falls in my fourth chapter titled “Revising the Sexual Contract.” This chapter traces men’s efforts to reform women’s legal standing, and focuses in particular on women’s problematic status within marriage. While some men believed that modifying existing laws would produce more equitable marriage arrangements, others strongly contended that the institution of marriage itself would have to be abandoned if anything approaching equality could be claimed between men and women. This is the debate that I take up on p. 99, where I describe how this latter position was best articulated by the author Thomas Holcroft:
This was the platform adopted by the Jacobin novelist and playwright Thomas Holcroft, an intimate member of the Godwin circle and vigorous contributor to the dissident republic of letters, who assumed an antimarriage stance in his controversial 1792 novel Anna St. Ives, which explored the possibilities for creating a more ‘benevolent’ culture. (It was ‘the welfare and happiness of mankind, Mary Wollstonecraft explained in her largely positive review of the novel, which Holcroft tirelessly promoted.) For Holcroft, the abolition of marriage was central to this forging of a more selfless race of people. In the novel, Holcroft’s hero, the tireless reformer Frank Henley, decries marriage as an institution encouraging jealousy and covetousness.

Anticipating a world in which there might be true parity, Holcroft insisted that the family, like Engels’s state, would eventually wither away: ‘I doubt whether in that better state of human society, to which I look forward with such ardent aspiration, the intercourse of the sexes will be altogether promiscuous and unrestrained; or whether they will admit of something that may be denominated marriage. The former may perhaps be the truth: but it is at least certain that in the sense in which we understand marriage and the affirmation—This is my wife—neither the institution nor the claim can in such a state, or indeed in justice exist.’ Holcroft viewed marriage as a dangerous obstacle to humanitarianism, a means of confining passion to particular rather than general causes. As William Hazlitt explained, in his 1816 Memoirs of the Late Thomas Holcroft, Holcroft had longed for a world marked by ‘mutual philanthropy, and generous, undivided sympathy with all men,’ a world in which ‘every man would be a brother’ and ‘[e]xclusive friendships could no longer be formed, because they would interfere with the true claims of justice and humanity.’
Holcroft’s sentiments certainly were noble, but in his rush to abandon marriage he forgot to take into account the children. Who would be responsible for child-rearing in his new “humanitarian” system, with its emphasis on “brotherly love”? For Holcroft, as for several of the other men who endorsed alternative familial arrangements, this responsibility de facto fell to women. It was for this reason in particular that so many female women’s rights advocates of this period were at times wary of their male collaborators. They by no means construed “champions of the fair sex” as interlopers, but they did call into question their judgment. As is always the case, tensions emerged when one group tried to define and defend the best interests of another.
Read more about Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue