Partnerships, progress and pragmatism: rethinking feminist politics in the interwar period

Session Abstract : Traditionally, historians have seen the inter-war period as a rather stagnant time for feminist activism. It was argued that without the unifying campaign for the vote, the women’s movement became fractured and fragmented, making little tangible progress. More recently, however, scholars including Pat Thane, Maria DiCenzo, Caitriona Beaumont, June Hannam, Karen Hunt, and Julie Gottleib have demonstrated the diversity and vibrancy of the women’s movement in this period, showing that women channelled their energies into a variety of outlets and organisations which greatly enriched their lives. This panel builds on this innovative scholarship by analysing how women sought to capitalise on and develop new opportunities in the public sphere across this period. Taken together, the papers demonstrate the variety of ways in which women expanded the meaning of full citizenship and the nature of feminist politics, even in an increasingly difficult political context. Through dialogue and debate, collaboration and organisation, women sought to advance their individual and collective interests, at a local, national and international level. At a time when the contemporary women’s movement is facing a series of extraordinary challenges – from the impact of austerity on women, to the rise of populist movements hostile to women’s rights – these papers represent a salient reminder of the way that women have confronted and addressed equally pressing challenges in the past. Without glossing over the very real tensions and disagreements between feminist activists, these papers nevertheless demonstrate that there can be real optimism about the possibilities for co-operation and change, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Session Chair: Caitriona Beaumont, London South Bank University

Paper 1 Abstract : Conversations about married women’s right to work: national and international discourses about the marriage bar in interwar Britain.

Helen Glew, University of Westminster

The question of married women’s undertaking paid work was one which was particularly class- bound. For many working-class women, there was often no choice but to continue paid work after marriage; for others, the ability to cease paid employment after marriage was as a status symbol of skilled working-class comfort. Furthermore, women of all social classes could be reluctant to retreat from the workplace and adopt full-time domesticity. At the start of the interwar period, in particular, there was a growing set of discussions – in direct reaction to the creation of marriage bars in many public and private sector jobs – about married women’s right to determine for themselves whether they worked outside the home after becoming a wife. This paper examines the predominantly middle-class women’s organisations involved in these discussions, the public debate in the interwar press and feminist periodicals, and the rhetoric developed around the issue as one of equal rights and individual choice. It will also consider the ways in which international women’s organisations worked together to campaign on the issue against the backdrop of the worldwide economic depression and the rise of fascist regimes in Europe in the 1930s.

Paper 2 Abstract : Equal Pay, Public Housing and Infant Health: Rose Lamartine Yates, London County Councillor for North Lambeth.

Alexandra Hughes-Johnson, Royal Holloway, University of London

While there has been a great deal of scholarly attention on the first generation of women MPs, with historians focusing on women’s contribution to politics and extending knowledge of women’s participation in government, there has been rather less research on the ways in which newly enfranchised women entered local politics during the same period. Women had an established tradition of involvement in municipal politics, which stretched back to their involvement in Poor Law guardianship and school boards, yet the extension of the franchise in February 1918 seemed to open up new possibilities at a local as well as a national level. This paper seeks to begin to breech this research gap by focusing on the election of enfranchised women to county councils in March 1919, specifically the election of Rose Lamartine Yates, the county councillor for North Lambeth from 1919-1922 and former organising secretary of the Wimbledon branch of the WSPU. Through the examination of the local press, the minutes of the London County Council (L.C.C) and Annual Reports from the London Unit of the National Federation of Women Teachers, this paper will explore Rose Lamartine Yates’ LCC campaign and her role and achievements whist serving as a London County Councillor for North Lambeth. The paper will focus particularly on Rose’s campaign for ‘equal pay for equal work,’ better housing in poorer districts and the establishment of a minor aliment clinic for children in 1921: suggesting, perhaps, that municipal politics not only offered newly enfranchised women a more accessible method of gaining political power but influence as well.

Paper 3 Abstract : ‘Our interest in the development of your characters is as deep as our interest in your acquisition of knowledge’: the feminist politics, careers and networks of Caroline and Jane Kenney, c.1910 – c.1930

Lyndsey Jenkins, Wolfson College, Oxford

This paper uses the lives of Jane Kenney (1884 – 1961) and Caroline Kenney (1880 – 1952) to examine the connections between the international movements for women’s suffrage and progressive education. The sisters of the well-known militant suffragettes Annie and Jessie Kenney, Jane and Caroline Kenney were also deeply committed to women’s rights in general and to the Women’s Social and Political Union in particular. Rather than becoming full-time militants, they combined their feminist activism with professionally rewarding careers as teachers pioneering new pedagogical methods. They profoundly believed in the transformative power of education, and in the need for education reform. They saw both as crucial to realising fundamental social change which could not be achieved simply through acquiring the vote. They pursued these goals in a series of collaborations with pioneering thinkers pushing at the boundaries of acceptable education for women, including Maria Montessori, Alexander Graham Bell, the socialist feminist Jessica Garretson Finch and the innovative teacher Abby Sutherland. Though there is a well-developed literature on the contribution of teachers to suffrage, this has often been focused on Britain in general and England in particular. This paper therefore situates these women in an international context. It reiterates the importance of feminist networks in this period, showing that the friendships and alliances which underpinned progressive transatlantic networks were crucial in helping these women pursue their interests and ambitions. It demonstrates how these women drew on these networks to advance both their careers and their ideals, combining pragmatic career decisions with an expansive vision of political and social reform.