John Moore sees much to laud in the reprint of Vron Ware’s history of organised feminism in Britain against a background of anti-slavery demonstrations from the 1780s to the end of the 1860s
Beyond The Pale: White Women, Racism and History by Vron Ware (Verso, £11.99)
IN BEYOND The Pale, Vron Ware sees political unity between women across race and class as a great force for change in the world and traces the connections in British 19th-century history between the struggle against masculine ideology and power and the fight against racist domination in the colonies.
It was in this context that the birth of organised feminism in Britain took place against a background of anti-slavery demonstrations from the 1780s to the end of the 1860s.
The fate of female slaves provoked the greatest outrage. Harriet Taylor, who married John Stuart Mill, compared their situation with the domination over women in Europe, achieved by “sedulous inculcation on the mind ” or “this modern relationship between the sexes in which women had become part of the furniture of the home.”
Propagandists from Mary Wollstonecraft to Stuart Mill inveighed against the status of married women as virtually the property of their husbands and linked it to slavery. However, when the inaugural anti-slavery convention was held in London in 1840, the first day was spent debating whether women should be admitted. They were excluded by a big majority but allowed to sit behind a curtain.
The development of feminism in Britain took place in the period of imperialism, with increased devotion to royalty and worship of national heroes, as well as patriotic fervour aroused by events in the empire.
Yet while prominent feminists such as Annie Besant and Olive Schreiner were critics of empire, but many images of white women’s vulnerability to black male aggression or white women missionaries tending black souls or colonial racist scenes in literature obscured the vision connecting the struggle against masculine ideology and power with the struggle against racist domination in the colonies.
It was not until the Suffragettes transformed feminism that women began to support colonial freedom.
Ware’s researches into the social and political dynamics of race, class and gender are thought-provoking, although their supporting evidence is often tentative. It is, though, a massive subject of study and her book is here reprinted after its first appearance over 20 years ago.
A new edition, firming up her survey and her conclusions, would be very welcome.