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Sunday, 15 January 2012

Lucy Delap, The Feminist Avant-Garde: Transatlantic Encounters of the Early Twentieth Century (2007)

This is a very useful study of a neglected strand within and around feminism before World War I. It's particularly strong at looking at the controversial and short-lived yet influential journal The Freewoman and going beyond the perhaps overmuch rehearsed account of the debates on sexuality for which it provided a forum, important as those were - they were far from the whole story. It also points up the surprising (with the perspective of a century between) fuzziness of the suffrage/anti-suffrage distinction: a number of scholars have pointed out that anti-suffragists managed to combine a belief that women should not have the vote with a commitment to various causes within the public sphere and indeed aimed at the advancement of women (such as Mrs Humphrey Ward's work for women's higher education), but Delap also shows that a number of self-declared feminists, whether active in the suffrage movement, sympathetic, or disillusioned with the way the struggle was being taken, had attitudes towards other women which were far from sisterly and supportive.

It is valuable to have a nuanced account of how the movements in the UK and the USA influenced one another or produced local mutations of transatlantic developments, and also the influence of certain significant European figures. A whole book could perhaps be written about the place of Swedish feminist reformer Ellen Key's work in different national contexts.

Delap also looks at the extraordinarily heterogenous, not to mention counter-intuitive, sources upon which women were drawing to articulate their discontents with society, the position of women, etc and to advance solutions. The focus tends to be on the more individualistic, rather than collectivist, trend within feminism at the period, though  in many cases the commitment to the development of the individual sat next to involvement in various forms of collective activism and programmes aimed at producing an impact on society as a whole.

This study reveals long-standing fracture lines between different feminisms, and also depicts certain phenomena which are perhaps reflected in other periods: for example, reading Delap's account of the turn to interiority, contemplation of the psyche, and the importance of the individual liberating herself from mind-forged manacles I was strongly reminded of directions taken following the renaissance of feminism as 'Women's Lib' in the late 1960s. During the 1970s there was a similar commitment to personal change, which took individuals down many different paths, including the teachings of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

1 comment:

  1. A very nice post indeed. I live across the pond and have a long-standing interest in the suffrage movement, particularly but not exclusively in the States.


    Nate Levin