Tag Archives: feminism

Edna Ferber’s remarkable Chicago novel So Big

257443So Big, Edna Ferber’s 1924 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, is a wonderful book. I question why it was not listed and taught among the rest of those American classics. I imagine it would be if it weren’t written by a woman with a woman as its main subject, though it tries to fool you in the beginning that it is about Dirk De Jong. Really it’s all about his mother Selina, and not in the creepy oedipal way male authors would have done it.

She is amazing.

Selina grows up alone with her father–a small time poker player who reminds me strongly of one of the Maverick brothers (But is it Brett or is it Bart?). They lead a roaming, eventful, varied life of highs and lows. His death shatters all that, and she goes to become a small teacher among the farmers in that ‘incredibly Dutch district southwest of Chicago known first as New Holland and later as High Prairie.’ She falls for a handsome farmer, and her life follows a path very different from the one she dreamed of.

There are details about this new community that I love:

She did not then know that spotless window-panes were a mark of social standing in High Prarie. Yard and dwelling had a geometrical neatness like that of a toy house in a set of playthings. The effect was marred by a clothesline hung with a dado of miscellaneous wash…

Above all, the perspective of a woman on the effects of work, the terrible weight of rural farming life. Here Selina meets Maartje for the first time:

Selina suddenly saw that she, too, was young. The bad teeth, the thin hair, the careless dress, the littered kitchen, the harassed frown–above all these, standing out clearly, appeared the look of a girl.

Selina fears it. Swears it will not become her own fate. But you know that it is.

When the next ten years had done their worst to her, and Julie had suddenly come upon her stepping agilely our of a truck gardener’s wagon on Prairie Avenue, a tanned, and weather-beaten, toil-worn woman, her abundant hair skewered into a knob and held by a long grey hairpin, her full calico skirt grimed with the mud of the wagon wheel, a pair of men’s old side-boots on her slim feet, a grotesquely battered old felt hat (her husband’s) on her head, her arms full of ears of sweet corn…a woman with bad teeth, flat breasts, a sagging pocket in her capacious skirt–even then Julie, staring, had known her by her eyes…and had cried, “Oh, Selina! My dear! My dear!”–with a sob of horror and pity…

It is Selina who comforts her. Selina who no longer minds. Selina who is not bound by the need to be attractive and thus is found by many to be the one who is truly beautiful, outside of those conventions. Selina who has lived the fullest of lives. The lives of the ‘successful’, the sons and daughters born into wealth and position, fall far short. Her position at the death of her husband:

Youth was gone, but she had health, courage; a boy of nine; twenty-five acres of wornout farm land; dwelling and out-houses in a bad state of repair; and a gay adventuresome spirit that was never to die; though it led her into curious places and she often found, at the end, only a trackless waste from which she had to retrace her steps painfully. But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.

And the wine-red cashmere. She laughed aloud.

It is Selina that you love and admire and think it would have been all right to have ended up that way — in a battered hat and men’s shoes and a shapeless body and still extracting every ounce of deliciousness from life.

Her story raises all kinds of questions. This deals with the conflict between love and self-realisation in this period (and I don’t want to say of course it does, because a woman wrote it, but really I mostly feel that way). Selina loved her husband, but she is not able to fully flourish until after his death. Not able to put into practice her innovative ideas for the farm like the asparagus beds that shocked the whole community rigid, not able to rise out of poverty and live a fuller life. She carries guilt over this because a part of her knows it…this is never resolved in the novel just as it cannot be in life.

I also question the narrative’s assumptions that innovation and a sense of beauty come from outsiders, that anyone desiring more  than survival via the truck farming methods passed down through generations demands running away the way Roelf Pool does. That is unquestioned here, a resounding yes. But unlike the many realist novels I have been reading, this is hopeful of what will and intelligence and creativity can achieve.

She is curious about everything, and I love that this novel also deals with food, how it is grown and who grows it. Their life. The political economy of vegetables and the poverty it creates, the transport of vegetables, the world grown up in Chicago streets around the wagons arriving from the farms:

Food for Chicago’s millions. in and out of the wagons. Under horse’s hoofs. Bare-footed children, baskets on their arms, snatching bits of fallen vegetables from the cobbles. Gutter Annie, a shawl pinned across her pendulous breasts, scavengering a potato there, an onion fallen to the street, scraps of fruit and green stuff in the ditch.

Selina is able to escape this by innovating, reading books, trying new things. She is fascinated by the beauty of what she grows as much as its importance to the health and wellbeing of all those who eat it. She imagines mothers making sure their kids are eating all of the spinach and potatoes she has grown. This is a time when people ate what was grown locally, could buy it direct if they chose, where farmers knew wholesalers and shopkeepers, where everything was organic. This novel fit in so interestingly with Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution, and you wished Selina might have met him. She would have loved permaculture too, just as she loved any field of knowledge that built, created, made — and that relieved those working the land from the terrible burdens that aged them so quickly, that killed them so young. That celebrated growing food and healthy lives.

Her son Dirk asks Selina her idea of a Chicago House, and she has already given it much thought, brings her experience of land and weather and living well:

Well, it would need big porches for the hot days and nights so’s to catch the prevailing southwest winds from the prairies in the summer — a porch that would be swung clear around to the east, too–or a terrace or another porch east so that if the precious old lake breeze should come up just when you think you’re dying of the heat, as it sometimes does, you could catch that, too. It ought to be built–the house, I mean–rather squarish and tight and solid against our cold winters and northeasters. then sleeping porches of course. There’s a grand American institution for you!

In many ways, this is an alternative narrative of the American dream of success. Not too different of course — it does lionize the business men who rose from butchers to meat-packing millionaires, those who made fortunes in grain, railways, vegetables and those who planned and built the city. It recognises not all of their methods were legal or moral, but that seems to be just part of their force upwards towards progress. They are set far apart from their beautiful discontented children who live empty though comfortable lives. In that it is very much like The Cliff-Dwellers, but pushes it further and offers a very different counter-narrative of where a woman’s happiness lies. Its sympathies in describing Dirk’s college for example, are always with those who have scraped and saved to work hard in gaining learning from the bored gilded youth who have arrived there for a little polish and take way as little actual knowledge worked for and won as possible.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that Selina’s escape from desperate poverty into a life with some comfort and fullness is partially funded by the family she befriended through the higher class boarding school her father had scraped up the money for her to attend before his death. They help her son as well Ferber doesn’t quite know what to do with that, has Selina expressing it only to have her doubts relieved because strength of character and intelligence like hers will always come out on top. The novel lets you believe it, so in the end you have to give thanks to gloomy realism once again.

Here is Dirk’s success, bounded socially, racially and geographically:

There was always a neat little pile of invitations in the mail that lay on the correct little console in the correct little apartment ministered by the correct little Jap on the correct north-side street near (but not too near) the lake, and overlooking it.

Hi office was a great splendid office in a great splendid office building in LaSalle Street. He drove back and forth in a motor car along the boulevards. His social engagements lay north. LaSalle Street bounded him on the west, Lake Michigan on the east, Jackson Boulevard on the south, Lake Forest on the north. He might have lived a thousand miles away for all he knew of the rest of Chiacgo–the mighty, roaring, sweltering, pushing, screaming, magnificent hideous steel giant that was Chicago.

Selina is the opposite.

Her years of grinding work, with her face pressed down to the very soil itself, had failed to kill her zest for living. She prowled into the city’s foreign quarters–Italian, Greek, Chinese, Jewish. She penetrated the Black Belt, where Chicago’s vast and growing Negro population shifted and moved and stretched its great limbs ominously, reaching out and out in protest and overflowing the bounds that irked it…They thought her a social worker, perhaps one of the uplifters. She bought and read the Independent, the Negro newspaper in which herb doctors advertised magic roots.

If she had read more of the newspaper, she would have known it was also full of quality reporting on world events and racism and local politics — The Chicago Defender was one of the most legendary of African American papers for example. Edna Ferber occupies that strange ground of American liberal that can’t really seem to question fundamental injustices and inequalities, while still exposing some of the cruelty and racism’s unnecessary boundaries. At the same time, she takes for granted white supremacy:

Never mind, Selina assured him, happily. “It was all thrown up so hastily. Remember that just yesterday, or the day before, Chicago was an Indian fort, with tepees where towers are now, and mud wallows in place of asphalt. Beauty needs time to perfect it.”

Ferber wrote Showboat, of course, which I have seen rather than read. Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel steal and subvert some of the overt racism of it, but it remains a fascinating commentary on the one drop rule and rife with stereotypes. She wrote Giant as well, which I am now more curious to read.

I’ll end on reading, and the nice things women do for other women — there is in the beginning a casual list of classics that Selina has read. It includes Dickens but is mostly women — Austen and Bronte, but also Felicia Hemans, who I had not heard of but will now read. And then there is a list of popular women’s literature of which much is available on Project Gutenberg and looks quite interesting — Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, Bertha M. Clay and The Fireside Companion. Southworth wrote these amazing serialized stories about Capitola the cross-dressing madcap having fabulous adventures across the country. How have I never heard of those?

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Sylvia Pankhurst: The Suffragette

spSylvia Pankhurst is by far and away my favourite Pankhurst. She has all the fire and belief in her cause of her mother Emmeline Pankhurst and sister Cristobel, but is also so much more sensitive to issues of class and privilege, and much more self-aware along with it.

The site dedicated to her at sylviapankhurst.com,  shows that I am not alone in this…

25490513I’ve had this on my kindle for a long time when the new film coming out inspired me to read it. But sadly I hadn’t realised that this particular version of The Suffragette was written in 1911…I had meant to read the one written later, but there is still lots of good stuff in here. It overlaps heavily, however, with her mother’s account of the movement from 1914, and I hate to say it, but Emmeline Pankhurst’s account is both more infuriating and more interesting as tactics had shifted dramatically in these three intervening years as the Liberals continued steadfast in refusing the vote (she dramatically supports violence against property for example, and there are some brilliant stories of stone throwing and banner dropping). I also wanted more about the founding of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and the more community centred work Sylvia did in the East End. It’s not here.

Here is what is here. An overview of the purpose Sylvia had in writing the book, a piece of how-we-did-it and who-we-are campaign propaganda:

In writing this history of the Militant Women’s Suffrage Movement, I have endeavoured to give a just and accurate account of its progress and happenings, dealing fully with as many of its incidents as space will permit. I have tried to let my readers look behind the scenes in order that they may understand both the steps by which the movement has grown and the motives and ideas that have animated its promoters.

To many of our contemporaries perhaps the most remarkable feature of the militant movement has been the flinging aside by thousand of women of the conventional standards that hedge us so closely round in these days for a right that large numbers of men who possess it scarcely value.

A passionate love of freedom, a strong desire to do social service and an intense sympathy for the unfortunate, together made the movement possible in its present form.

These are some of the opening words by E. Sylvia Pankhurst, dated May 1911 and written from London. It covers the early history, the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union in the Pankhurst’s home at 62 Nelson Street Manchester on 10 October, 1903… she writes that almost all present were working women, ‘but it was decided from the first that the Union should be entirely independent of Class and Party.’

On class and Annie Kenney

As I say, I found Emmeline Pankhurst quite infuriating around issues of class, but Sylvia was already much more thoughtful about the meaning of struggle and victory for women in different stations. Much of this must be due to the wonderful Annie Kenney, such a pivotal figure in the Pankhurst’s lives. The relationship between Annie and both Christobel and Emmeline made me worry deeply for her after reading Emmeline’s book on the movement,  but she seems to have greatly inspired Sylvia with an honest respect for working women. She tells of how Annie went to work in the Oldham cotton factories at the age of ten, fitting bobbins into place full of cotton to be spun, and piecing the threads together when they broke. She lost a finger doing this work. She writes:

The premature launching forth into the world of wage earners had left its mark upon Annie Kenney. Her features had been sharpened by it, and her eager face that flushed so easily was far more deeply lined than are the faces of girls whose childhood has been prolonged. Those wide, wide eyes of hers, so wonderfully blue, though at rare moments they could dance and sparkle like a fountain in the sunshine, were more often filled with pain, anxiety and foreboding, or with a longing restless, searching, unsatisfied and far away.

And here, finally, Annie is also able to speak for herself (she wrote her own book, harder to find but it is now on its way to me). Sylvia quotes her speaking in 1908 to a conference of women in Germany:

I noticed the great difference made in the treatment of men and women in the factory, differences in conditions, differences in wages and differences in status. I realised this difference not in the factory alone but in the home. I saw men, women, boys and girls, all working hard during the day in the same hot, stifling factories. Then when work was over I noticed that it was the mothers who hurried home, who fetched the children that had been put out to nurse, prepared the tea for the husband , did the cleaning, baking, washing, sewing and nursing. I noticed that when the husband came home, his day’s work was over…Why was the mother the drudge of the family, and not the father’s companion and equal?

It is also clear from Sylvia’s account (as it was clear that this was important to Sylvia) that many working women had been part of the driving force of the movement from the beginning. She talks about a protest for the opening of Parliament, February 19th, 1906. A crowd of 300 to 400 women marched,  ‘a large proportion of whom were poor workers from the East End.’ They carried banners painted in Canning Town. It was only at the House of Commons that they were joined by women who were strangers to them, there to satisfy their curiosity — ‘amongst the rest were many ladies of wealth and position…’

Later in the year of a similar march as Parliament reassembled, she wrote:

the government had again given orders that only twenty women at a time were to be allowed in the Lobby. All women of the working class were rigorously excluded. My mother and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence were among those who succeeded in gaining an entrance.

Class would continue to be a lever the government would use to drive women apart — as would the lack of respect from the middle and upper classes towards the other. As the government increased its repression, handed out longer prison sentences and imposing larger fines, Sylvia is the one to recognise the way that such a tactics actually made it much harder for working women to play the same roles as middle class women who did not have anyone depending on their labour for survival. She doesn’t quite connect all the dots, about who then gets named, who then gets credit, but the insight is there to grow:

Had the movement for Women’s Enfranchisement been a movement solely of poor women with others dependent upon them, as might have been the case, the new Bill might have proved a serious menace to the movement, but, as it happened, there was fortunately no lack of women who were able and willing to risk imprisonment, therefore this Bill could make no difference to us.

The words and stories of these other women, both working class women and women of colour, are being brought to light but still more work needs to happen here — a good source of other places to begin to look is Sarah Jackson’s Guardian article ‘The suffragettes weren’t just white, middle-class women throwing stones‘. That’s what Sylvia’s book is mostly about, of course. There are, however plenty of interesting things to be drawn from it.

Violence in Politics

First, perhaps, is how this highlighted for me (as did her mother’s book) just how good our cultural and political system is at forgetting the levels of protest and violence that once attended relatively unimportant by elections, much less the whirlwinds of destruction that came before we ever won any serious and lasting political change.

So the contest went on — Liberals and Conservatives smashing up each other’s meetings, howling each other down, pelting each other with vegetables from the market and snowballing each other on Dartmoor.

At the most privileged level, there is this story from Lady Mary Montague’s “Memoirs”:

of the way in which the Peeresses of the eighteenth century had frequently disturbed the serenity of the House of Lords debates, and how they had triumphed over the Lord Chancellor Phillip Yorke, First Earl of Hardwicke, who had attempted to exclude them from the House of Lords. Lady Mary describes the “thumping,” “rapping” and “running kicks” at the door of the House of Lords, indulged in by the Duchess of Queensbury and her friends, the strategy by which they finally obtained an entry…

This fairly brilliant and sarcastic letter of support from Mr T.D. Benson, Treasurer of the independent Labour Party:

Of course, when men wanted the franchise, they did not behave in the unruly manner of our feminine friends. They were perfectly constitutional in their agitation. In Bristol I find they only burnt the Mansion House, the Custom House, the Bishop’s Palace, the Excise office, three prisons, four toll houses, and forty-two private dwellings and warehouses, and all in a perfectly constitutional and respectable manner. Numerous constitutional fires took place in the neighbourhood of Bedford, Cambridge, Canterbury, and Devizes. Four men were respectably hanged at Bristol, and three at Nottingham. The Bishop of Lichfield was nearly killed, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was insulted, spat upon, and with great difficulty rescued from amidst the yells and execrations of a violent and angry mob. In this and other ways the males set a splendid example of constitutional methods in agitating for the franchise. I think we are all well qualified to advise the suffragettes to follow our example, to be respectable and peaceful in their methods like we were, and then they will have our sympathy and support.

the suffragettes made it their strategy to raise the intensity of their actions, as Sylvia writes:

Votes for Women in those days was regarded by the majority of sober, level-headed men as a ladies fad which would never come to anything and the idea that it could ever be a question upon which governments would stand or fall, or be associated with persecution, rioting and imprisonment had been alike unthinkable to them.

They changed that.

Strategy and Tactics:

The Daily Mail first called the WSPU the suffragettes to

distinguish between us and the members of the older Suffrage Society who had always been called Suffragists, and who strongly objected to our tactics.

It was these tactics that I loved most in Emmeline Pankhurst’s autobiography, and there are more here (though given the year, Sylvia’s book is much more focused on the fighting of elections and boring lists of results. I still don’t know what I think of that strategy). My favourite?

The Pantechnicon Van Strategem

Which sounds amazing, though really it was just hiring a van to drive a load of suffragettes past police lines to the doors of the House of Commons. I also love how they set flying a great box kite over the Houses of Parliament, and a flag over Holloway Gaol to cheer the prisoners there. And what is lovelier and more supportive of solidarity than the tradition of free ‘public welcome breakfasts, which have since become an institution’,  held at Anderton’s Hotel to welcome each suffragette upon her release.

I think even today we’d find it hard to organise such a march to Hyde Park as they did — 7 different marches converging, 20 women to speak on 20 different platforms, they organised 30 special trains to run from different towns. London was divided into districts with an organiser assigned to each one — Sylvia was in charge of organising district of Chelsea, Fulham and Wandsworth. I am all admiration.

I admire too their celebration of the women who had come before, fought before as part of this movement. The march remembered history, celebrated Elizabeth Fry, Lydia Becker and Mary Wollstonecraft. Walking in procession came Miss Emily Davies, Dr Garrett Anderson, Mrs Fawcett, President of the National Union of Suffrage Societies. I love too that Sylvia highlights the international nature of the movement, notes contingents of suffragists from many different countries, all with their flags. The spectacle organised must have been wondrous, the flags of many countries were followed by graduates from universities in robes and colours, a contingent of writers — Beatrice Harraden, Elizabeth Robbins and Evelyn Sharpe. Artists and actresses, gardeners, pharmacists, physical trainers, typists and shorthand writers, shop assistants, factory workers, home makers.

For a brief and glorious moment the Royal Mail announced the ability to post “human” letters…crikey. So of course the WSPU posted two suffragettes to Asquith at 10 Downing Street.

It is nice to know that the movement was led by women, but men gave their support. One evening Lloyd George and Mr Sidney Buxton were to speak in Limehouse — twenty men entered into the meeting to champion women’s rights. One climbed up the pillars at the back of the hall and forming a swing for himself with rope, hung there displaying the flag of purple, white and green.

But there are more stories of women doing their own climbing, sneaking, banner dropping. They were awesome.

The role of the ladies…

One thing that is fascinating is the way that Sylvia mobilises gender here — first noting the change in women’s roles within a movement in quite stirring ways that I heartily approve of:

The time was gone when she must always play a minor part, applauding, ministering, comforting, performing useful functions if you will, incurring risks too, and making sacrifices, but always being treated and always thinking of herself as a mere incident of the struggle outside the wide main stream of life. Today this battle of theirs seemed to the women to be the greatest in the world…

But there are also long passages that ring quite strangely to my modern ear, but also represent I think a strategic claiming of the essential and the feminine (which bothers me, though sometimes it reads a bit like a lesbian romance novel, which might make it okay). Here is just one example describing Mrs Cobden Sanderson as she spoke before the magistrate:

You must not picture her to yourself as being either big boned, plain looking and aggressive and wearing “mannish” clothes, or as emotional and overstrung. On the contrary, she is just what Reynolds, Hoppner, Sir Henry Raeburn, or Romney with his softest and tenderest touch, would have loved to paint… She is always dressed in low toned greys and lilacs, and her clothes are gracefully and delicately wrought, with all sorts of tiny tuckings and finishings which give a suggestion of daintiest detail without any loss of sympathy or breadth. She has a shower of hair like spun silver…then she quoted in her defense the words of Mr John Burns…”I am a rebel because I am an outlaw. I am law breaker because I desire to become a law maker.”

There is more on soft and downy cheeks flushed like roses, and dainty dresses and such things — perhaps to set in stronger contrast suffragette actions and resolve. Their attempts to address meetings of Liberals, and their stands on street corners (like the corner of Peter St and South Street — I love this book’s concrete geographies), until arrested and dragged away. The detailed descriptions of prison life, the clothing and rations and cold, and the beginnings of the horrifying forcible feedings of those women on hunger strike.

That indeed required an immense and indomitable courage of the kind that I don’t know I possess.

There is another letter quoted from the Daily Mail that follows this pattern, though perhaps not in quite as troubling a manner:

Three happy girls, eyes laughter lit, breezy, buoyant, joyous, arm in arm, talking like three cascades, are making a royal progress down the lane that leads to Rye. Such is the head of the comet…

They were off to disrupt the elections there. A controversial strategy that caused splits in the radical wing of the women’s movement, trying to ensure the Liberals lost every seat until they fully supported women’s right to the vote.

Connected to both gender and class, I think, there is an interesting aside describing Mrs Pethick-Lawrence, and how she entered the movement as a recruit — what were her early inspirations that had led her to the suffragettes? The story of Hetty Sorrell in Adam Bede…I have just read that, found the treatment of Hetty Sorrell quite appalling so this fascinates (and oh, it definitely appalls) me. Other influences? Marguerite in her prison cell in Faust (I’ll give her that one maybe, I haven’t read it), Besant’s Children of Gideon. God, Sir Walter fucking Besant. I have vented some spleen on him and his horrific prejudices against poor people…but it troubles me sorely that these books helped her decide, like so many others, to go to the East End to spend her life in striving to alter these conditions.

I’m slowly reading more about these middle class women who moved to or served in the East End and all that has been written about them. I’m not quite sure what interests me about them, perhaps the clash of class and gendered oppression, or the glimpses they offer into the way some of the women of my family perhaps once lived. Sylvia was in fact one of them, though I find her one of the better ones, but there isn’t much of any of that in this text. And I’m almost done with this text, I promise.

A few key figures of the time as you have never seen them

Meeting with G.K. Chesterton! Sylvia attended a meeting addressed by him at Morriss Hall, Clapham. He was eulogizing the French revolution, and sketching people in the audience during the question and critique session that followed, he did not answer Sylvia’s point on the women’s movement — so he actually came up afterwards and apologised, and even signed her petition. He would later became an active anti-suffragist.

Mr Winston Churchill! After losing his parliamentary election because of the suffragettes, he bursting into tears apparently, and in his mother’s arms no less, and the suffragettes there felt so sorry for him they tried to comfort him.

It didn’t work.

There are also some choice insulting descriptions of Lloyd George, ‘a plain little man, with a pale face…’ His hair was most disappointing apparently.

Coming to an end, finally…

Given this is a text of propaganda, it has a good, if overly optimistic ending:

So the gallant struggle for a great reform draws to its close. Full of stern fighting and bitter hardship as it has been, it has brought much to the women of our time — a courage, a self-reliance, a comradeship, and above all a spiritual growth, a conscious dwelling in company with the ideal, which has tended to strip the littleness from life and to give to it the character of an heroic mission.

May we prize and cherish the great selfless spirit that has been engendered and, applying it to the purposes of our Government — the nation’s housekeeping — the management of our collective affairs, may we, men and women together, not in antagonism, but in comradeship, strive on till we have built up a better civilisation than any the world has known.

But I thought it best to end on this, a song I have yet to hear: the Women’s Marseillaise (by Miss F.E.M. Macaulay):

Arise! Though pain or loss betide
Grudge naught of Freedom’s toll,
For what they loved the martyrs died
Are we of meaner soul?
Are we of meaner soul?

Women as Tramps: Boarding Houses as Brothels (Pt 3 of 3)

I can hardly understand how they could be so clean, for when the women were undressed (and, of course, like all their class they slept in their day-garments, partially undressing), their under-garments were dirty and ragged in almost all cases, even when their outside appearance was respectable. Hardly one had a whole or clean garment, and among this class a nightgown is unknown, or unused. One woman kept on a black knitted jersey, though it was summer-time!

Thus the realities of poverty sink into the understanding of the middle class Mary Higgs in Glimpses Into the Abyss — and the corresponding desperate attempts to keep up outward appearances. She need only have remembered her own experience of how differently men treated her depending on her dress (as seen in the last post).

Boarding house
Dinner at a cheap lodging house, G. Sala, Twice round the clock, 1859, 12352.f22

One of the nights spent in boarding houses led to following insights into the lives of sex workers at the turn of the century, and almost in spite of herself, Mary Higgs describes the scene with a great deal of empathy though it comes with moralising. It seems to me she learns something here about the ways in which her Christian morals are not always required alongside her Christian virtues of kindness, generosity and charity — what I love about her ‘findings’ throughout the book is how often she is struck by the generosity of those who have almost nothing:

As a contrast to her there was a rather loud-spoken girl, whom the officer evidently knew. To judge by her face she knew sin and shame. She was, however, very good-natured. She nursed the baby with evident pleasure, and she shared her breakfast with others.

…not being hungry yet we decided to go to the common sitting-room. This we found in possession of several women, mostly young. It was now nearing 10 P.M., and they were all busy tidying themselves, rouging their faces, blacking their eyelids, and preparing to go on the streets. All this was done perfectly openly, and their hair was curled by the fireside. It was wonderful how speedily they emerged from slatterns into good-looking young women. Each then sallied forth…

On the economies of the boarding house itself and its owner — I wonder how much of a cut they took.

By this time we thoroughly understood the character of the house. It may be there were exceptions, but they would be but few. The inmates, probably about sixty, young and old, were living a life of sin, and we were told that the proprietor of this lodging-house owned fifteen others. We learnt that a house could be taken for £2 11s. a week, and 8s. for a servant. We learnt that most of the girls came home very late–many as late as two o’clock–and in such a state that they kept the others awake, singing and talking, drunk or maudlin. The house was open till two at any rate every night.

Breakfast over, we sat and watched the scene, being three times moved to make room at the tables. Round the fire was a group of girls far gone in dissipation; good-looking girls most of them, but shameless; smoking cigarettes, boasting of drinks, or drinking, using foul language, singing music-hall songs, or talking vileness. The room grew full, and breakfasts were about, onions, bacon, beefsteak, tea, etc., filling the air with mingled odours. A girl called “Dot” and another danced “the cake-walk” in the middle of the floor.

Fun, humour, camaraderie, despite a drear and poverty-stricken life.

On this scene entered the girl who had to go to the doctor. She was condemned to the Lock Hospital, and cried bitterly. An animated conversation took place about the whereabouts and merits of various lock wards or hospitals, and everyone tried to cheer her up. “Never mind, Ivy, you’ll soon be through with it!”

I imagine this is venereal disease, which Higgs would have been too polite to mention but probably take as understood.

One or two elderly women were apparently not prostitutes, but earned money by cleaning. It was, however, rather difficult to settle how they lived. One woman was very coarse and fat, with an ugly scar on her shoulder, which she exhibited in the morning when she indulged in the luxury of “a good wash,” but was not clean. She put on a ragged bodice, the silk of which was hanging in shreds, and which had a big hole under the arm showing a great patch of bare flesh; yet over all she put a most respectable cloak, and a bonnet that would have done credit to a Quaker. I was astonished to see her emerge as almost a lady! Evidently the “clothes philosophy” is well understood in Slumdom, for whatever purposes it is used. Indeed, it has given me somewhat of a shock to realise that many of these, even if dwellers in actual filth and disease, would not be distinguishable in any way from ordinary individuals.

I find this last sentence so extraordinary, as is the way Higgs has to struggle to maintain that boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ — the way that class and morality need markers to survive, the dangers that arise when such markers are deceiving. You see Higgs struggling with this. I like that all of her better instincts seem to be working to dissolve these distinctions, even if against her rationalisations.

There are also some hints on the aspects of petty crime embarked upon with humour by women to ensure their survival.

We did not feel able to eat breakfast under such conditions. I waited for my friend in the living-room, and an amusing incident occurred. One of my room-mates came down in a skirt–forgetting her top skirt. But she had not forgotten another adornment, namely, a huge pocket suspended round her waist behind, which proclaimed her as a “moucher”! She exclaimed:–

“Look what I’ve been and done! I’ve been over to the shop like this! Good job a ‘bobby’ didn’t see me!”

There was room enough in this capacious pocket to “pinch” any number of articles, but we will write her down “beggar” not “thief”!

By Higgs’ own admission, there are few choices available for women who are not supported by husbands or family — and increasingly they live in a world that has made it impossible for husbands and family to support women. She never does fully grapple with what industrialisation has meant in the lives of poor women, but there are remarkable scattered insights none the less. This is the primary one perhaps:

 The correlative of the male wanderer is the female prostitute. A woman must “get her living,” and she does it “on the streets.”

So what is causing the wandering? She sees that too:

The landscape has changed again, and there, the landmark of the Industrial Revolution, stands the giant mill; and now comes a rush of human life, clank, clank, clank, the stream of mill-hands in clattering wooden clogs is hastening to work. It is the daily migration of labour, the tide morning and night ebbs and flows. Yet no two days will the stream be alike. Accident, sickness, misfortune, or fault, will each day leave some units stranded, and others take their place, and if you look you see another feature in the landscape, a long line of railway stretches as a link for swift travel between town and town. Here is something altogether new. These human units, divorced from native communities, cannot be expected to be readily anchored, and accordingly you see around each ancient community and interspersed with it, crowds of workmen’s cottages, each a tent rather than a home, taken to-day, and left in a month or two. If you could uncover life and watch it as you do an anthill, you would find that it had attained a new and fresh activity. On every side Humanity is becoming organic. Huge conglomerations which we call cities blacken whole stretches of country, and the feature of the life of most men is daily migration. By train, tram, or road, tides of humanity move to toil; every holiday sees crowds covering green fields in pleasure parties, or transported by train. The whole of life has grown migratory. Is it not evident that we have here not the ancient problem of the Tramp, but the modern problem of the Fluidity of labour!

I wish she had jettisoned all that race and evolution rubbish and focused on this:

Examine any family you like and it will be the exception to find it whole. Individuals are scattered far and wide when up-grown, perhaps in England, perhaps over the world. Only the stagnating slum population is stationary. And this is not their virtue. If they had a little more initiative they would not stagnate; they form a pool of underfed and ill-paid labour, and constitute by far the largest part of the modern problem of the unemployed. The alert and well-trained workman is migratory–at the news of a “better shop” he will be off to another town, with or without wife and family.

‘Only the stagnating slum population is stationary.’ She is able to see that capitalism and industrialisation has uprooted everyone, forced them into motion for survival and any hope of improving their lives. She sees also that this is capital’s need and desire:

The Fluidity of Labour is a fact that has come to stay. Modern subdivided employment depends on the ready supply at particular places of necessary workmen. If a man is destitute through remaining too long where work is not to be had, he must travel, and we need to facilitate, not to hinder, his rapid transit to the right place, and to furnish him with all information as to whither he should go.

She shows so much understanding of what this means for women in particular, especially those who wish to make their own way. The hardships they face, and the tragedy. Though still she judges.

For the other career of womanhood is hard, and as yet a path not for the many, and therefore all the harder. A woman may attain economic independence; but she is sadly handicapped. Her wage is low, often lowered by dress expense; and her woman nature, especially under modern pressure of sentimental literature, demands satisfaction in husband and child. What wonder if she gives up the hard struggle and strays from this path. Society owes much to the women who toil on, cutting by degrees the stairs of progress. If they succeed in self-support, how often age overtakes them as toilers; women’s physical disabilities (created or complicated by a false civilisation) leave them stranded.

The middle-aged unemployed female is a most serious national problem at present. It calls loudly for universal sisterhood. Drink too often claims the unloved and unlovable spinster. She can no longer spin; she must work under conditions in which she ages fast. Independence is hardly to be won. Our workhouses are full of derelict womanhood. Nor is the married woman always more fortunate. Industries often kill husbands when still young. Widows abound. It is extremely difficult to make a woman self-supporting with more than one, or at most with two children, in such a way as to secure sufficient food and clothes for these children. Into married destitution, if the husband lives, I need not enter; it is part of the unemployed problem, and a serious one.

This is still couched in moralising terms and discussed in terms of ‘national problems’ to raise awareness that something must be done, but I think there is a very real sense of compassion and concern here to improve the lives of women whatever their choices. In spite of the framework by which she makes sense of the world this compassion shines through, making this a valuable document for glimpses not into the abyss, but into the courage, humour and fighting spirit of the women facing a poverty and set of limited opportunities that we can barely imagine today. My own happy, full, intellectual and most unorthodox life made possible because women like Higgs fought to change the world and succeeded.

Part 1 | Part 2

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The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.

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Virginia Woolf, Women, and Writing

3371792Virginia Woolf’s essays are delightful. Even better, perhaps, after reading The Years, because they resonated so much with the thoughts that the novel provoked in me about that struggle for certainty and voice, the feeling of being unable to feel or think clearly, to communicate. Most fascinating of all, is that in this struggle over what the novel should do, how a novel should be written and read, the role of the author — Virginia Woolf, it turns out, has most decided opinions and a great clarity about the necessary uncertainty of modern writing.

It’s such a strange juxtaposition of security and insecurity.

There is this lovely passage on writing the stream of consciousness, capturing thus the feel and experience of our moments as they shift and change and vanish:

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being ‘like this’. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all side they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that, if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (9, ‘Modern Fiction’).

This is certainly the most pure expression of what prose can do but more importantly, what life itself is. How it is lived. What she is trying for in her writing as an expression of that life. It is as luminous as she believes our lives to be.

Most of the essays are less personal, removed from literature as she directs her gaze at it.  She writes of how literature has changed, with much firmness:

And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910, human character changed. …
In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat. (39, ‘Character in Fiction’)

It of course bothers me that she is clearly writing for those who have cooks, not those who are cooks (coming from a family of at least one cook, I’m glad to see life was finally looking up for them), but I have more thoughts on the class issues in another post. Back to her descriptions on this change in 1910 (and surely this must be written before the war, my only fault with this book is that there is no short introduction for each essay giving the time and place published nor is that in the contents — perhaps it is buried in the extensive timeline of Woolf’s life). She writes that Samuel Butler is characteristic of it (and oh the tone of this comment!):

No sooner had the Victorians departed than Samuel Butler, who had lived below-stairs, came out, like an observant bootboy, with the family secrets in The Way of All Flesh. It appeared that the basement was really in an appalling state. Though the saloons were splendid ad the dining-rooms portentous, the drains were of the most primitive description. (33, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’)

she includes in this change the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Could it be that they have recognised their own privilege, the limitations of their own experiences and perspectives? A realisation that there is a wonder of other worlds out there beyond their own, and they have value? I wonder, it is food for thought.

In another essay she unpicks further the differences between the novels of an earlier age and her own:

Only believe, we find ourselves saying, and all the rest will come of itself…if you believe it implicitly and unquestioningly, you will not only make people a hundred years later feel the same thing, but you will make them it as literature. For certainty of that kind is the condition which makes it possible to write. To believe that your impressions hold good for other is to be released from the cramp and confinement of personality…
So then our contemporaries afflict us because they have ceased to believe…They cannot make a world, because they are not free of other human beings. They cannot tell stories because they do not believe that stories are true. They cannot generalise. They depend on their sense and emotions, whose testimony is trustworthy, rather than on their intellects whose message is obscure…Set down at a fresh angle of the eternal prosper they can only whip out their notebooks and record with agonised intensity the flying gleams, which light on what? and the transitory splendours, which may, perhaps, compose nothing whatever. (29, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’)

Here is another passage in which she ponders the modern in relation to what has come before:

And it is true of the Elizabethan dramatists that though they may bore us–and they do–they never make us feel that they are afraid or self-conscious, or that there is anything hindering, hampering, inhibiting the full current of their minds.
Yet our first thought when we open a modern poetic play–and this applies to much modern poetry–is that the writer is not at his ease. He is afraid, he is forced, he is self-conscious. (77, ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’)

These articulate so well the struggles faced by the characters in The Years, afraid of speaking, unable to grasp clarity in their thoughts, awash with a patter of internal dialogue and finding refuge only in feelings.It is the character of an age we experience through them, and through contemporary fiction and poetry.

Like Joyce. She has some quite wonderful digs at Joyce:

Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe–immense in daring, terrific in disaster. (26, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’)

Mr Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is  not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spririted act of a man who needs fresh air! (52, ‘Character in Fiction’)

I enjoyed those too much really.

The essays on women and writing held two of my favourite passages — where she is not forced to waste time demolishing idiotic and patriarchal ideas about what and how women should be writing — if they should be writing at all.

The Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her. You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her–you may not know what I mean by the Angel of the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it–she was pure. (141, ‘Professions for Women’)

I am not nearly grateful enough to all of the women who have fought and made possible the freedom I feel today, but this is still true for us I think:

Indeed it will be a long time still, I think, before a woman can sit down to write a book without finding a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against. (144, ‘Professions for Women’)

There are a few additional insights, overcome to a greater or lesser extent by women writers over the years:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth-century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience (134, ‘Women and Fiction’).

This, her vision for the future:

So, if we may prophecy, women in time to come will write fewer novels, but better novels; and not novels only, but poetry and cirticism and history. But in this, to be sure, one is looking ahead to that golden, that perhaps fabulous, age when women will have what has so long been denied them–leisure, and money, and a room to themselves. (139, ‘Women and Fiction’)

I don’t know about fewer and better novels, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing either that much of women’s writing still centres on the home and her emotions — it is only when that becomes normative, right? But ah, leisure, money and a room to themselves? That is as elusive as ever.

Two other quotes I liked, this one on genre (and why we should stop being so uptight about putting things into just one box):

Books have a great deal in common; they are always overflowing their boundaries; they are always breeding new species from unexpected matches among themselves. (64, ‘How Should One Read a Book?)

And this:

Thus in order to read poetry rightly, one must be in a rash, an extreme, a generous state of mind in which many of the supports and comforts of literature are done without. (70, How Should One Read a Book?)

Just reading this sentence makes me feel a little rash and extreme…bring on the poetry!

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Flora Tristan’s London Journal

1305530Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.

When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:

The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal.

I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:

I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).

A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.

She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:

However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).

I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:

England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).

What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)

This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:

In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).

There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:

Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).

Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):

In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).

Old_House_of_Commons_chamber,_F._G._O._Stuart
House of Commons; A. D. White Collection of Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library (Accession Number: 15/5/3090.01024)

 

Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:

I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).

We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:

Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).

A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark
A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark

But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):

Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).

Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.

Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:

So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)

Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.

Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.

([1842] 1982) Virago Press

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Round About a Pound a Week

3368334Maud Pember Reeves ([1913] 1979]
Virago Press

A classic book in many ways, primarily as emblematic of turn-of-the-century Fabian feminism, and at the same time one of the first serious studies of working class women.It is heartbreaking.

I read a large chunk of it in a most horrific yet insanely trendy and expensive hotel we had been put up in last minute as a result of an error in arrangements for a panel. The Mondrian. God. People there dripped money and it heaved with staff anxious to help them and extremely expensive art in terribly bad taste and the ‘prow’ of beaten copper pieces individually soldered had taken two and a half years to create and I sat there in the lobby waiting for my partner without the wherewithal to buy a drink reading about life in cellars and dead babies with tears literally dripping from my nose and the desire to smash all of it. Because we’re heading back there. Back to 1913 — this reads like Dickens but these conditions shamefully lasted well into the 20th Century. Where they should have been abolished forever.

So many babies died. The rest slowly starved, along with their parents. This book contains tables and tables of menus, hard choices, the relationships between housing and illness and death. I love Virago Press,  bless them for republishing it with Sally Alexander to deliver the splendid introduction.

The Fabian Women’s Group was actually founded in the home of Maud Pember Reeves in 1908, by Charlotte Wilson, anarchist and early member of the Fabian society. They followed in a long tradition of philanthropy, but brought together women from multiple radical (to reformist perhaps) traditions who still believed in the move from individual solutions to social ones.

Their goals were not small and have yet to be obtained: ‘The two immediate aims … were equality in citizenship and women’s economic independence’ (xiv).

I’m going to delve more into the Fabian Women’s Group (bookmarked for example, is the understanding of class differences in the struggle for gender equality laid out by Mabel Atkinson in The Economic Foundation of the Women’s Movement (Fabian Tract No. 175)), but I so much loved this wonderful reminiscence about the shifting sands of feminism and the generation gap between older Fabians and younger:

There are also faint residues of Victorian standards of propriety about some of the older women. When I asked Amber Blanco White for a description of her mother’s friends in the FWG, she replied that there “was never any time to meet any of them–they were just a lot of women talking about very serious things.” Her mother thought it was important for girls to study their lessons most of the time: having been well educated herself, and her mother before her, she wanted her daughters to grow up in the same way….Femininity tended to be identified with frivolity–they kept a vigilant watch on this side of their character. In the 1909 annual report of the Group, women were urged to “cast aside feminine slackness and negligence with regard to their own affairs”, and get on with the work of preparing for citizenship (xviii-xix).

The scheme behind this study, the “Mother Allowance Scheme” which attempted to make a measurable impact in infant well-being and survival started within a year of the group’s founding. I think Alexander nails what is important about both the nature of the study and the book that was produced, as this was ‘unique in investigating the daily circumstances of women’s lives, how they coped with continual damp, vermin, inadequate food… (x). I liked this as well:

the conclusions were inescapable–the cause of infant mortality was not that mothers were ignorant or degenerate, but that they had too little money to provide for their own and their families’ essential needs…(xi)

The book is quite full of fantastic descriptions of the area. There are a number of longer quotes courtesy of forgottenbooks.com, I could never have typed them from my vintage hardcopy, but they are worth looking at in full:

TAKE a tram from Victoria to Vauxhall Station. Get out under the railway arch which faces Vauxhall Bridge, and there you will find Ken nington Lane. The railway arch roofs in a din which reduces the roar of trains continually passing overhead to a vibrating, muffled rumble. From either end of the arch comes a close procession of trams, motor-buses, brewers’ drays, coal-lorries, carts filled with unspeakable material for glue factory and tannery, motor-cars, coster barrows, and people. It is a stopping-place for tramcars and motor-buses; therefore little knots of agitated persons continually collect on both pathways, and dive between the vehicles and descending passengers in order to board the particular bus or tram they desire. At rhythmic intervals all traffic through the arch is suspended to allow a flood of trams, buses, drays, and vans, to surge and rattle and bang across the opening of the archway which faces the river.

At the opposite end there is no cross-current. The trams slide away to the right towards the Oval. In front is Kennington Lane, and to the left, at right angles, a narrow street connects with Vauxhall Walk, leading farther on into Lambeth Walk, both locally better known as The Walk. Such is the western gateway to the district stretching north to Lambeth Road, south to Lansdowne Road, and east to Walworth Road, where live the people whose lives form the subject of this book.

They are not the poorest people of the district. Far from it! They are, putting aside the tradesmen whose shops line the big thoroughfares such as Kennington Road or Kennington Park Road, some of the more enviable and settled inhabitants of this part of the world. The poorest people” the river-side casual, the workhouse in-and-out, the bar-room loafer ” are anxiously ignored by these respectable persons whose work is permanent, as permanency goes in Lambeth, and whose wages range from i8s. to 305. a week. They generally are somebody’s labourer, mate, or handyman. Painters’ labourers, plumbers’ labourers, builders’ handymen, dustmen’s mates, printers’ labourers, potters’ labourers, trouncers for carmen, are common amongst them. Or they may be fish-fryers, tailors’ pressers, feather cleaners’ assistants, railway-carriage washers, employees of dust contractors, carmen for Borough Council contractors, or packers of various descriptions (2-3).

The streets they live in are monotonously and drearily decent, lying back from the main arteries, and with little traffic other than a stray barrel organ, a coal-lorry selling by the hundredweight sack, or a taxi-cab going to or from its driver’s dinner at home. At certain hours in the day ” before morning school, at midday, and after four o’clock ” these narrow streets become full of screaming, running, shouting children. Early in the morning men come from every door and pass out of sight. At different times during the evening the same men straggle home again. At all other hours the street is quiet and desperately dull. Less ultra-respectable neighbourhoods may have a certain picturesqueness, or give a sense of community of interest or of careless comradeship, with their untidy women chatting in the doorways and their unoccupied men lounging at the street corners; but in these superior streets a kind of dull aloofness seems to be the order of the day (3).

The houses are outwardly decent–two stories of grimy brick. The roadway is narrow, but on the whole well kept, and on the pavement outside many doors there is to be noticed, in a greater or less condition of freshness, a semicircle of hearthstone, which has for its radius the length of the housewife’s arm as she kneels on the step. In some streets little paved alleyways lead behind the front row of houses, and twist and turn among still smaller dwellings at the back ” dwellings where the front door leads downwards into a room instead of upwards into a passage. Districts of this kind cover dreary acres–the same little two-story house, with or without an inconceivably drearier basement, with the same kind of baker’s shop at the corner faced by the same kind of greengrocer’s shop opposite. The ugly, constantly-recurring school buildings are a relief to the spirit oppressed by the awful monotony (4-5).

The description of the study, and social experiment,  is fairly astonishing in its matter-of-fact summation of widespread desperate poverty that hopefully we will never return to:

A sum of money was placed at the disposal of this committee in order to enable them to study the effect on mother and child of sufficient nourishment before and after birth. Access was obtained to the list of out-patients of a well-known lying in hospital; names and addresses of expectant mothers were taken from the list, and a couple of visitors were instructed to undertake the weekly task of seeing each woman in her own home, supplying the nourishment, and noting the effects. From as long as three months before birth, if possible, till the child was a year old, the visits were to continue. The committee decided that the wives of men receiving over 26s. a week were likely to have already sufficient nourishment, while the wives of men out of work or receiving less than i8s. a week were likely to be living in a state of such misery that the temptation to let the rest of the family share in the mother’s and baby’s nourishment would be too great (8).

As if that weren’t bad enough, they were in for another unexpected surprise when actually faced with the realities of people’s lives:

It was at first proposed to rule out disease, but pulmonary and respiratory disease were found to be so common that to rule them out would be to refuse about half the cases. It was therefore decided to regard such a condition of health as normal, and to refuse only such cases of active or malignant disease in the parents as might, in the doctor’s opinion, completely wreck the child’s chance of a healthy life (9).

And to me unsurprisingly, but to them, busy checking and rechecking the honesty of their subjects (because so much of this book is about middle-class prejudices, though I give them credit for overcoming them to an impressive extent in understanding at least the objective conditions faced by working families):

the budgets have borne out each other in the most striking manner. There seems to be so little choice in the manner of keeping a family on 2os. a week (12).

There are some great little sections of immense detail — hinting at the riches held in the actual archives:

Emma, aged eleven, began as follows: “Mr G’s wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man. The rent was six and Mrs G payed fower an six because Bobby’s boots was off is feet and his knew ones was one an six witch makes six and that leaves 12 an 9 and out of that,” etc. It took four pages of painstaking manuscript in a school exercise-book to complete one week (14).

And even these judgmental and haughty women could be humbled — and acknowledged it:

The women who kept their accounts for themselves were found to be better arithmeticians than they were writers. Their addition had a disconcerting way of being correct, even when the visitor seemed to get a different total (14).

There is also some level of self-awareness here, of the intrusion such a study represents and the cost born by the working women involved:

At the beginning of each case the woman seemed to steel herself to sit patiently and bear it while the expected questions or teaching of something should follow (16).

It doesn’t stop Maud Pember Reeves from being a little judgmental, but still she is wise enough to realise that even a serious, well-organised and collective fight would not be enough to materially change very much:

The tenants might do more for themselves if they understood and could use their rights ” if they expected to be more comfortable than they are. They put up with broken and defective grates which burn twice the coal for half the heat; they accept plagues of rats or of vermin as acts of God; they deplore a stopped-up drain without making an effective complaint, because they are afraid of being told to find new quarters if they make too much fuss. If they could or would take concerted action, they could right a great many of the smaller grievances. But, when all is said and done, these reforms could do very little as long as most of the present buildings exist at all, or as long as a family of eight persons can only afford two, or at most three, small rooms (38).

I loved this as well, having done so much tenant organising — and lost my own home as a teenager — it amazes me that anyone could assume that people are happy just to leave their homes, poor as they may be. I have never found that to be true, and possibly has never been true, which is why the fight needs to be to make places better for the people who live there:

strange as it may seem to those whose bi-weekly visit to Lambeth is like a bi-weekly plunge into Hades–the people to whom Lambeth is home want to stay in Lambeth (39).

That fight is on again I think. Give Pember Reeves her due, she was able to recognise it. Just as there is a brilliant section where she patiently explains how they slowly unravelled the reason working class women weren’t feeding their families porridge as recommended by every philanthropic visitor and doctor ever — there was little time to cook it the morning it was to be eaten, cooked the day before it was terrible without milk or sugar — and not one of these families could afford milk or sugar, it was quick to burn in the one old decrepit pot each family used for cooking, and when that pot had been in use the night before for fish stew — well, you can imagine. All this was a major discovery for philanthropy.

I think the gap in understanding between classes is most visible in her descriptions of attitudes and bearing — and clearly this is what the presence of one of these formidable and never-frivolous socialists would most impact. They describe a class without life or humour to any degree, which I cannot believe at all. Possibly because the humour was hidden, or because they could not understand it, or because it was not convenient for a book urging the world to action like this was meant to be. Still, perhaps the below was true for some, and I’m the last person to say a life of such want and misery doesn’t cost:

Want of joy of life was the most salient feature of the children as they grew older. They to readily accepted limitations and qualifications imposed upon them, without that irrational hoping against impossibility and belief in favourable miracles which carry more fortunate children through many disappointments (93).

The outstanding fact about the children was not their stupidity nor their lack of beauty–they were neither stupid nor ugly–it was their puny size and damaged health (193).

I quite loved this:

If the poor were not improvident, they would hardly dare to live their lives at all (146).

I also loved her defense of men, and understanding of their position after children come along:

if he be at all tender-hearted towards his family…he must never smoke, he must never take a glass of ale; he must walk to and from his work in all weathers; he must have no recreations but the continual mending of his children’s boots; he must neither read nor go to picture palaces nor take holidays, if he is to do all that social reformers expect of him when they theoretically parcel out his tiny income (152).

There’s a fascinating little section about someone who was a tenant on the Duchy of Cornwall estate, and early slum clearance schemes which seemed to have made life worse for many (as they still do today as well):

She solved her problem by becoming a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall estate. She got four tiny rooms for 8s., and kept them spotless. Her husband, who was a painter’s labourer and a devoted gardener, kept the tiny strip of yard gay with flowers, and kept the interior of the damp, ill-contrived little house fresh with “licks of paint” of motley colours and patches and odds and ends of a medley of papers. When work was slack, Mrs. C. simply did not pay the rent at all. As she said: “The Prince er Wales, ‘e won’t sell us up if we keeps the place a credit to ‘im.” She seemed to be right, for they owed a great deal of rent, and were never threatened with ejection. She explained the principle on which she worked as follows: “Me and my young man we keeps the place nice, and wen ‘e’s out er work in the winter I gets twenty loaves and 2 lbs. er sixpenny fer the children, and a snack er meat fer ‘im, and then I begins ter think about payin’ th’ agent out er anythink I ‘as left. I’d be tellin’ a lie if I said I didn’t owe a bit in the rent-book, and now and agen th’ agent gets a shillin’ er two extra fer back money, but ‘e carn’t ‘elp seeing’ ‘ow creditable the place is. That piece er blue paper looks a fair treat through the winder, so ‘e don’t make no fuss.” The house they lived in, and many like it, have been demolished, and a number of well-built houses are appearing in their stead. The Lambeth people declare that the rents have gone up, however, and that the displaced tenants will not be able to return, but this rumour has not been inquired into. What happened to the C.’s overdraft when they were oblidged to turn out is not know. The children of this family were short and stumpy, but of solid build, and certainly had more vigour and staying-power than those of the two other families already mentioned…(183-185)

It ends with a look at the bigger picture and recommendations for change. I quite appreciated her skewering of the men running the country:

Instead, however, of co-operating with parents and seeing to it that its wards are supplied with such primary necessaries, this masculine State, representing only male voters, and, until lately, chiefly those of the richer classes, has been crude and unwise in its relations with all parents guilty of the crime of poverty (215).

It doesn’t really depart from the Fabian philosophy at all, but is surprisingly modern in some ways with its push for a minimum wage to raise the bottom wages, and its talk of the state as guardian. There is much here to critique, but for its time it is a splendid study, and in its subject matter unique as it rescues to some extent a world of experience that might otherwise have been completely lost. These are women who often could not write, whose voices were never heard. Again, something we have fought hard and changed, but I am so afraid it is something that once more we could lose.

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Stone Butch Blues

139569Leslie Feinberg ([1993] 2003)

This was beautiful and brave and I so loved it. It wasn’t easy to read though, if only because we live in a society that reacts with horrifying fear and violence to difference — something that thankfully is changing, and all because of women like Leslie Feinberg. I moved this to the top of my to-read list after seeing the outpouring of love and grief after her recent death from among so many of my friends, and now I too can mourn her properly. I wish I had read it long ago.

It opened up a whole new world to me, one that must have taken such immense courage to share with strangers. I know it’s fiction, but it contains the same searing honesty that the best autobiography offers up. In that sense Feinberg embodies what I most value about writing, activism and intellectual thought and she writes it here, sharing what I too most love about writing:

I discovered Norton’s anthology of poetry in the patients’ library–it changed my life. I read the poems over and over again before I could grasp their meanings. It wasn’t just that the words were musical notes my eyes could sing. It was the discovery that women and men, long dead, had left me messages about their feelings, emotions I could compare to my own. I had finally found others who were as lonely and I was. In an odd way, that knowledge comforted me (22).

This is what is universal, what will touch all of us who have struggled with difference and exclusion and found comfort in the words of others fighting through this in our respective ways. But really it is in its courageous particularity that this book shines brightest. This set of experiences transformed my understanding of this struggle, even though I thought I had well-developed empathy and a fairly good grasp on such things. Instead this ripped my heart wide open in ways I was not expecting, especially as it had none of the cushioning layers of privilege that have always stood between me and other narratives of non-hetero experience. It’s all union all the way, but working-class Buffalo, damn. I hadn’t fully owned the fact that there were others with even more reason than myself to fear public toilets growing up, and for whom those spaces never ever became safe. For whom public spaces themselves were (are) never safe, and the cops always the greatest predators.

Stone Butch Blues lays out all the pain of difference, the limited places and communities of safety and the intensity of loneliness separating them in time and space. How so many others are forced for their physical and mental safety to navigate workplaces, cities, domestic spaces. How they have been forced always to fight, change, flee, or give up and die. There is none of the simple being in the world that I take too much for granted.

Above all it points to the broader social changes that Stonewall began to make possible, as well as a map of how social relationships and loving relationships could and should be. For all of its pain it has something of wish-fulfillment to it. But I appreciated that it never allowed itself to fall into despair and violent oblivion in spite of the fact that it keeps you always terrified — one wrong step, one unlucky chance could send Jess  to the abyss, taking you with her. It is written with purpose, its words of fire calling to a better way of being, of doing, of living. One that can only be created collectively. The last lines:

I heard the beating of wings nearby. I opened my eyes. A young man on a nearby rooftop released his pigeons, like dreams, into the dawn (301).

As a writer and activist, the afterword (written 10 years after) contained individual words to cherish,  just as I do the whole of the story and struggle of Jess’s life that the novel offers like a gift. I loved the following passages about the relationship between fiction and life, the relationship of the author to both:

Now, a decade later, I am surprised. Astonished to be reintroduced to characters I birthed, who like anyone’s grown children developed fictional lives of their own, independant from mine. I discover a journey not identical to my life’s path and yet blazed with the intimate familiarity of my own life experience. I locate theory–the way it is lived in motion and in interconnection. Not hard to understand; hard to live (303).

This is amazing:

“Is it fiction?” I am frequently asked. Is it true? Is it real? Oh, it’s real all right. So real it bleeds. And yet it is a remembrance: Never underestimate the power of fiction to tell the truth (304)

And this, rescuing authorship from the vaguely megalomanic ‘high art’ definitions so often pinned upon, and embraced by, writers:

But with this novel I planted a flag: Here I am–does anyone else want to discuss these important issues? I wrote it not as an expression of individual “high” art but as a working-class organizer mimeographs a leaflet–a call to action. When, at my first public bookstore reading, someone asked me to sign a copy of the book for a friend who was too shy to speak to a published author, it broke my heart. My life’s work is about elevating collective organizing, not elevating individuals (305-306)

And this about how words and struggle relate:

Recovering collective memory is itself an act of struggle. It allows the generational currents of the white-capped river of our movement to flow together–the awesome roar of our many waters. And the course of our movement is not fixed in its banks like the Hudson River–it is ours to determine. From Selma to Stonewall to Seattle, we who believe in freedom will not rest until every battle is won (307).

Like songs and marches and struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, this made me cry. It explored the intersections of our oppressions in ways so many fail to do, it worked to build a broader movement of all us to create a world we can live in. I am so glad I share the world and the struggle with such women:

I can say this with certainty: If your life is being ground up in economic machinery and the burden of oppression is heavy on your back, you hunger for liberation, and so do those around you. Look for our brightly colored banners coming up over the hill of the past and into your present. Listen for our voices–our protest chants drawing nearer. join us in the front ranks. We are marching toward liberation.

That’s what the characters in Stone Butch Blues fought for. The last chapter of this saga of struggle has not yet been written (308).

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Angela Davis: Women, Race, Class

Angela DavisAn important work marking the intersections of class, race and gender…and all the history behind people you’ve vaguely looked up to because no one ever talks about the way they really felt about Black people. So you can respect some of what they’ve done, but Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Sanger are forever debarred from my cannon of heroes.

In criticising the 14th and 15th amendments, Stanton and Anthony descended into a horrifying racism, and I believe Davis is right when she writes

Granted they felt they had as powerful a case for suffrage as Black men. Yet in articulating their opposition with arguments invoking the privileges of white supremacy, they revealed how defenceless they remained–even after years of involvement in progressive causes–to the pernicious ideological influence of racism.[76]

Anthony confessed to having capitulated to racism ”on the ground of expediency”, and remained chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association through 1900. Despite knowing people like Frederick Douglass (whose incredible grasp of movement and the importance of fighting on fronts of race, class and gender simultaneously is so incredibly inspiring)and Ida B. Wells.

Davis writes

In the eyes of the suffragists, “woman was the ultimate test — if the cause of woman could be furthered, it was not wrong for women to function as scabs when male workers in their trade were on strike [139-140]

With Davis I would agree this was a deeply damaging viewpoint, but one that must be critiqued and should never be forgotten–like Sangar’s flirtation with eugenics.

What I love is how this book rescues the real heroes, the people who should also never be forgotten. The working class women that joined the privileged group at Seneca Falls like Charlotte Woodward, who said:

We women work secretly in the seclusion of our bed chambers because all society was built on the theory that men, not women, earned money and that men alone supported the family … I do not believe that there was any community in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion. For my own obscure self, I can say that every fibre of my being rebelled, although silently, all the hours that I sat and sewed gloves for a miserable pittance which, as it was earned, could never be mine. I wanted to work, but I wanted to choose my task and I wanted to collect my wages. That was my form of rebellion against the life into which I was born.

I had never known the extent of Ida B. Wells’ work. Her first pamphlet against lynching was published in 1895. Called A Red Record, she calculated over 10,000 lynchings had taken place between 1865 and 1895, she writes:

Not all nor nearly all of the murders done by white men during the past thirty years have come to light, but the statistics as gathered and preserved by white men, and which have not been questioned, show that during these years more than ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution. And yet, as evidence of the absolute impunity with which the white man dares to kill a Negro, the same record shows that during all these years, and for all these murders, only three white men have been tried, convicted and executed. As no white man has been lynched for the murder of coloured people, these three executions are the only instances of the death penalty being visited upon white men for murdering Negroes. [184]

The way she was treated in the mainstream press is almost unthinkable today, the New York Times editorializing in 1904:

Immediately following the day of Miss Wells’ return to the United States, a Negro man assaulted a white woman in New York City ‘for the purposes of lust and plunder.’ … The circumstances of his fiendish crime may serve to convince the mulatress missionary that the promulgation in New York just now of her theory of Negro outrages is, to sya the least, inopportune.’ [192]

Davis deals with some of the ways that this connects to gender construction through the characterization of black men as rapists, and to class as ‘white workers who assented to lynching necessarily assumed a posture of racial solidarity with the white men who were really their oppressors. This was a critical moment in the popularization of racist ideology’ [190]. These are issues that definitely needed — and have received — much more attention since this was published, but as a summation of all that we knew, a rescuing and restating of feminist and anti-racist and marxist histories, and a call to future scholarship, this book is brilliant.

For more on intersections of race, class and gender…

 

Black Feminist Thought: Patricia Hill Collins

I loved Black Feminist Thought, the way it battles to discover what is unique to black women’s voices and experiences, and how they can empower, aid in resistance, and form part of the larger coalition that is needed to create a more just world.

I’ve pulled out her own basic summary of what she wants this book to do and be, because it highlights what is missing from much other work, and because it is ambitious and beautiful and she almost does it all:

First, I was committed to making this book intellectually rigorous, well researched, and accessible to more than the select few fortunate enough to receive elite educations.

Second, I place Black women’s experiences and ideas at the center of analysis…I take a similar stance regarding Marxist social theory and Afrocentric thought. In order to capture the interconnections of race, gender, and social class in Black women’s lives and their effect on Black feminist thought, I explicitly rejected grounding my analysis in any single theoretical tradition.

Third, I deliberately include numerous quotations from a range of African-American women thinkers, some well known and others rarely heard from. Explicitly grounding my analysis in multiple voices highlights the diversity, richness, and power of Black women’s ideas as part of a long-standing African-American women’s intellectual community. Moreover, this approach counteracts the tendency of mainstream scholarship to canonize a few Black women as spokespersons for the group and then refuse to listen to any but these select few.

Fourth, I used a distinctive methodology in preparing this manuscript which illustrates how thought and action can work together in generating theory. Much of my formal academic training has been designed to show me that I must alienate myself from my communities, my family, and even my own self in order to produce credible intellectual work. Instead of viewing the everyday as a negative influence on my theorizing, I tried to see how the everyday actions and ideas of the Black women in my life reflected the theoretical issues I claimed were so important to them. Lacking grants, fellowships, release time, or other benefits that allow scholars to remove themselves from everyday life and contemplate its contours and meaning, I wrote this book while fully immersed in ordinary activities [xiii]

Fifth, in order to demonstrate the existence and authenticity of Black feminist thought, I present it as being coherent and basically complete. This portrayal is in contrast to my actual view that theory is rarely this smoothly constructed. Most theories are characterized by internal instability, are contested, and are divided by competing emphases and interests. When I considered that Black feminist thought is currently embedded in a larger political and intellectual context that challenges its very right to exist, I decided not to stress the contradictions, frictions, and inconsistencies of Black feminist thought. Instead I present Black feminist thought as overly coherent, but I do so because I suspect that this approach is most appropriate for this historical moment. I hope to see other volumes emerge which will be more willing to present Black feminist thought as a shifting mosaic of competing ideas and interests.

Finally, writing this book has convinced me of the need to reconcile subjectivity and objectivity in producing scholarship. Initially I found the movement between my training as an “objective” social scientist and my daily experiences as an African-American woman jarring. But reconciling what we have been trained to see as opposites, a reconciliation signaled by my inserting myself in the text by using “I,” “we,” and “our” instead of the more distancing terms “they” and “one,” was freeing for me. [xiv]

It is a key for the theorisation of movement I think, the ways in which different struggles come together. I find that I quite hate the words ‘identity politics’, they carry with them a negativity now, as though women, African-Americans, queer folks did not need to find their voice and power and address the terrible things that they faced unique to other groups. Class politics are not seen as identity politics, though class is an identity as much as anything else. She begins to work through the differences between autonomy and separatism, though I think more needs to be done

In her introduction to Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, Barbara Smith describes this difference: “Autonomy and separatism are fundamentally different. Whereas autonomy comes from a position of strength, separatism comes from a position of fear. When we’re truly autonomous we can deal with other kinds of people, a multiplicity of issues, and with difference, because we have formed a solid base of strength” (1983, xl). [35]

… the full actualization of Black feminist thought requires a collaborative enterprise with Black women at the center of a community based on coalitions among autonomous groups. [36]

How this will actually work in practice is what is absent from this book, but helping to form a position of wholeness and strength from which to work and struggle in solidarity is its strength. It also opens up a greater analytical depth in analysis of oppression, she writes

Replacing additive models of oppression with interlocking ones creates possibilities for new paradigms. The significance of seeing race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression is that such an approach fosters a paradigmatic shift of thinking inclusively about other oppressions, such as age, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity. Race, class, and gender represent the three systems of oppression that most heavily affect African-American women. But these systems and the economic, political, and ideological conditions that support them may not be the most fundamental oppressions, and they certainly affect many more groups than Black women.
Placing African-American women and other excluded groups in the center of analysis opens up possibilities for a both/and conceptual stance, one in which all groups possess varying amounts of penalty and privilege in one historically created system. In this system, for example, white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race. Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed. [225]

This, to me, summarises how we all need to be looking at the world and our place in it. She draws from bell hooks to look at how the ‘matrix of domination’ works along axes of class, race, and gender, and how these are experienced and resisted at three different levels: the personal, the group or community, and systemic level of societal institutions. All three must be studied, challenged. I particularly liked the examination of ‘the objectification of the black woman as other’, as much of this was more new to me (my own fault I know) and I had never really thought through how black and white identity are so intertwined through the ways in which those with power have posited them in opposition and in destructive binaries that made me physically nauseous. The ways in which such awfulness has infected everything, particularly sex and self-valuation I found so important, so obvious when pointed out but something like an unknown source of pain until it was.

I also loved that it ended with a way forward, I always love books that do such a wonderful thing, and they are so rare. But Collins outlines an afrocentric feminist epistemology that I find quite useful, especially in highlighting what is absent from academia today. The main headings are:

1. Concrete experience as a criterion of meaning. This puts a huge crack in academic expertise, which perhaps explains why I still find experience, even professional experience, not valued in academic institutions.

2. The use of dialogue in assessing knowledge. Sitting down together to talk through an issue to discover deeper truths? My favourite thing, and more effective than debate in my opinion.

3. The ethic of caring. A respect for individual uniqueness, for the emotions attached to our words, a development of our capacity for empathy. How better to theorise the making of a better world?

4. The ethic of personal accountability. What we do impacts others, and we can disempower, empower, or best of all? Co-create.

I feel like this should be a manifesto that people sign on to.

I know that this is early work, and in a later essay I’ve read Collins offers some critique and talks about the ways in which her thinking has moved forward, particularly around her thinking on autonomy and etc, I so look forward to moving with her! And until I read this I had never heard of June Jordan, but there are a couple of quotes in here that gave me a huge writer crush. The way that Collins draws on such a wide array of authors makes this also an amazing resource for voices rarely heard but very wise…

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