Oct 20, 2010

Victorian Feminists by Barbara Caine

Victorian Feminists by Barbara Caine

Barbara Caine’s Victorian Feminists is perhaps best described as an intellectual group biography. The Victorian feminists the title refers to are Emily Davies, the founder of Girton college; Frances Power Cobbe, a suffragette, animal rights advocate and activist, who particularly called attention to domestic violence; Josephine Butler, who fought for the welfare of prostitutes and for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act; and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.

More than in these women’s work itself, Barbara Caine is interested in how they became feminists – specifically in how their personal experience of being Victorian women and facing all the limitations that society imposed on female behaviour at the time impacted their thinking in general and their views on gender in particular. That does mean that there’s some room in the book for conjecture, but worry not: it’s all sensible, plausible, and well-grounded on the known facts of these women’s lives.

I could tell by the introduction alone that I was going to really enjoy this book. You see, Barbara Caine is interested in the Victorians for the exact same reasons as I am. She says:
…it does seem to me that Victorian feminists faced dilemmas which continue to trouble contemporary feminists – and that their articulation and discussion of these dilemmas have a continuing relevance and importance.
EXACTLY. Furthermore, she says that one of her goals in writing Victorian Feminists was to show the “range and complexity of feminist activities and the diversity of approach and political commitment even amongst the leading figures of the English women’s movement.” I love how she emphasises the diversity of these women’s ideals and beliefs - Caine is always careful to point out that the term “feminism” was not and continues not to be a monolith. She also problematize its retrospective use; however, she differs from the historians who refuse to apply it to the past altogether in that she does find it useful to trace the history of similar ideas and common goals regarding gender equality.

This is a view very similar to my own: the more I read about the history of feminism, the more aware I become that, as with everything else, things are rarely a matter of either/or. People from previous centuries weren’t either feminists in a contemporary sense or complete misogynists, which is why I have a slight tendency to roll my eyes when people go, “but Mary Wollstonecraft wasn’t really a feminist! She never said blah blah blah….” Yes, I do know that there’s a lot that she never said, and I completely respect those who disagree with me or with Caine when it comes to the retrospective use of the term. What I’m less fond of is a dismissal of how radical she and other women truly were for their time; of just what they had to surpass to voice ideas that seem completely obvious to us today.

The four women Barbara Caine writes about were women who did a lot to begin to correct the gigantic gender power imbalance of their time. At the same time, they held beliefs that were complex, nuanced, and not always fair when viewed through the eyes of contemporary readers. These should by all means be discussed, of course, but the fact that they don’t necessarily fit the modern definition of a feminist (whichever one you decide to use) doesn’t lessen the importance of their role.

One of the things Caine writes about in some detail is how these women reconciled their feminism with either liberal or conservative political beliefs – a subject that is definitely still relevant today. Davies and Cobbe were vehement conservatives; Fawcett and Butler were liberals. On the other hand, Davies was what we would today call an equality feminist (she believed that women and men’s common humanity largely surpassed their socially acquired gender differences), whereas the others, and particularly Butler, were adepts of the dominant Victorian equivalent of the Men-are-from-Mars-and-Women-are-from-Venus philosophy.

I could certainly identify with Davies’ equality feminism, but not so much with her social conservatism and her strict adherence to class privilege. And if Butler’s defiance of the silence surrounding female sexuality and her dismissal of class boundaries earned my admiration, her belief that men and women were practically members of different species was harder to swallow. But this was actually part of the reason why I so appreciated Victorian Feminists: the wide range of these women’s ideas was a much needed reminder that people who believe very different things can work together to achieve common goals (and I say this as someone who admittedly has some trouble seeing difference feminism as anything other than harmful).

Victorian Feminists provides a context for all those Victorian novels I so enjoy, and also does a great job of contextualising the commonly pointed out pitfalls of early feminism – namely, most of its adherents’ stance on class and on sexuality. By “contextualise” I of course don’t mean “make excuses for”; I mean that Caine makes an effort to understand why these women’s ideas were revolutionary up to a certain point but did not go further, and why many of them remained blind to other forms of injustice while being so aware of sexism.

Victorian Feminists is an excellent read: passionate, informative and detailed, scholarly but never dry, and a good reminder of just how much we owe to those who first began to break the mould of what a woman was allowed to be.

Have I mentioned how happy it makes me to have access to an academic library again? SO MANY BOOKS, all at my disposal. Whee.

Interesting bits:
Had these mid-Victorian feminists not accepted and addressed the ideal of womanhood articulated in Victorian domestic ideology, they would not have been able to speak to their contemporaries at all. Once they addressed it, it was inevitable that the moral overtones of this ideal would become centrally involved in their feminist discourse. Their example should serve not to warn us against the Victorians, but rather to sensitize us to the extent to which twentieth-century feminism has accepted and been organised around the agendas which have dominated the societies or the circles from which feminists have come – rather than one which feminists created for themselves. It is these shifts in agenda which allow us to explore and to understand the history of feminism and its relationship to the various societies in which it has developed.

Davies’ insistence on the similarities between men and women ensured that one of her major targets was prevailing Victorian views on sexual difference. (…) Davies was at one with most other feminists in stressing the ignorance and prejudice and irrationality that went into many accepted beliefs about the intellectual differences between the sexes. But she stood almost alone in her refusal to enter into any kind of adulation of conventional notions of femininity or of motherhood, and in her attempt to bypass or to play down the whole question of the ways in which women differed from men. Accurate knowledge on these questions was unavailable, in her view, and until such time as it was available the matter should be allowed to rest.

Class was the only basis women like Cobbe had for asserting their superiority over particular groups of men whose claim to authority was based on knowledge and professions from which women were excluded. Emily Davies refrained from replying to the medical attacks made on higher education for women, much though they angered her, because she knew that all she had at her disposal was her own beliefs. Her strategy was to have Elizabeth Garrett Anderson reply, thus inserting into the debate a contrary medical opinion. Cobbe, by contrast, entered the debate herself, making use of her experiences and the knowledge she gained from the antivivisection campaign, but framing all of this with the assumption of an authority gained through her privileged social position.
(Have you posted about this book too? If so, let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)


  1. Great find, Nymeth. I do agree with you regarding your stance on feminism and how it is portrayed. To me, any woman who thinks about what it means to be a woman in society and fights for her rights is a feminist. I think when we look back historically at women, we can't really ignore the historical context so of course women in different periods will be fighting within different social paradigms (it's the same when you examine anything historically). So of course superficially their feminism seems different to ours in the 20th century, but the fundamental issues are the same. But then feminism in the 20th century also went through many changes:) Which reminds me that I really need to get back into reading my books on feminism!

  2. I'm surprised that there isn't a subtitle on the cover that says "Written for Ana". You couldn't have found a more perfect book to suit your interests. Fantastic review!

  3. This sounds fascinating Ana! I'm with you on calling women like Mary Wollstonecraft feminists. Maybe they didn't say or think exactly what we did, but nor do we think or say exactly what feminists one or two generations back said. Feminism is constantly evolving, it doesn't stay static, as we learn more, we change our ideas and views to match current knowledge and statistics. If we say to be a feminist you have to agree with my view of feminism NOW, that even cuts out so many people who currently identify as feminist. (Though, that might be good in some cases, say... Sarah Palin? LOL)

  4. This sounds so so so so so soooo good!!! You know the more I think about it, the more I think non-fiction may be the gateway I need into Victorian times. It doesn't scare me nearly so much. And then when I feel more comfortable with the era, perhaps all those incredible Victorian classics will cease to bring me to panic. ;) Worth a try anyway, right?

    Sandy's comment made me laugh out loud--so very true!!!

  5. A-freaking-men. Since I deal primarily with fiction, I'm always put off when I encounter a character in a historical novel who is a modern feminist (unless, of course, she caught a ride with a Time Lord)–feminism has evolved historically and continues to evolve today. Contextualizing it is important. This book sounds wonderful.

  6. You are so right - as long as these women were breaking barriers, their roles were important - they made modern feminism possible.

  7. Great review, Ana! I am sure a lot of the material in this book would venture beyond my limited understanding of the topic, but reading your review still makes me want to give it a try. That's one of the reasons I love coming here. You make every book you read seem so accessible and interesting! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one!

  8. I have missed you and your smarts.

  9. The reason why we have the term proto-feminist is to describe women who expressed feminist ideas before the specific word was around (and isn't there the idea that earlier in time there are women who can't even be called proto feminists because what they did seems feminist now, but wasn't done with an active 'improve things for women' intent - which seems an iffy division to me)and a movement was gathered under that explicit term. It's probably not appropriate to use feminist as a term to describe women like that in academic papers that have to be marked, but I do think some people use this as an excuse to gleefully write some women off as misguided idiots who just happened to indicate feminist ideas accidentally(I mean Mary Wollenstonecraft - really, she was was not working to improve women's rights? REALLY?). Maybe there's something behind a reoccuring scholarly instistance that feminist thought is so obviously confined to modern times, but not sure what (discrediting academics who widen their field of study, making feminist courses less prestigious?).

    I'm looking forward to seeing what else you dig out of the library. I hope they're all great books like this one. And that last paragraph you quote is so interesting, as I'd never thought about women using class to gain authority against men before.

  10. I am forever adding books to my wishlist from your blog. This one's going on my list now too.

  11. Ana, you sound like you have found your little bit of heaven. I am glad you enjoyed this as I know how passionate you are on this subject.

  12. This sounds fascinating. Early feminist history is always so helpful in stepping outside one's assumptions about which opinions/perspectives are bound to correspond with which others. Modern "attitude packets" were not always distributed as they are at present, and it's so interesting to learn about that.

  13. Sounds like a really interesting book. I read about all these women during my studies and want to take a look at this book, too. Luckily our National Library has this one. Also Caine's other books seem interesting.


  14. Sakura: I'd go even further and say that we're limited by social paradigms even today - I so wish I could get a glimpse of what people will say about our time 100 years from now! But yes, even with all our limitations the core issues are the same, then and now. You should read more books on feminism, as I'd love to read your reviews of them!

    Sandy: lol! There should have been one, shouldn't there? :P I might have jumped up and down when I spotted this book *cough*.

    Amy: lol - in some cases it IS tempting :P But you can never fully control who claims a term for themselves, and at the end of the day that's probably as it should be.

    Debi: Non-fiction it is, then! I won't rest until your Victorian fear is gone for good ;)

    Clare: I know just the type of character you mean.

    Kathy: Exactly!

    Zibilee: I think the book is actually pretty accessible even if you hadn't done much reading on the period beforehand - Caine makes an effort to make it so!

    Raych: Aww <3 And I've missed your smarts AND funnies.

    Jodie: I like the term proto-feminism, but I never see it used outside very specific contexts for whatever reason. I guess it *is* more accurate than feminism when discussing the past, but I don't mind which people use as long as it's not accompanied by that attitude you describe. Arrrgh. Anyway, I can't wait to see what else I find in there! Sadly the library's borrowing limit is surprisingly low for post-grads, so at the moment I'm at my limit with real school books. Boooo. (Not that I don't love those too :P).

    Katy: I really hope you'll enjoy it when you get around to it :)

    Vivienne: Like Sandy said, it seemed written especially for me :D

    Emily: I find that extremely interesting as well. I wonder if the tendency will be for viewpoints to become ever more divided/distributed in "packets" in the future - and if so, what will surprise people about current beliefs and worldviews a hundred years from now?

    Tiina: I'll have to check if mine has more of Caine's work, as they do sound very interesting as well!

  15. How do you find such great titles to read?! I love reading books set in Victorian times but I admit when it comes to non-fiction I've really not read a good, informative book about the Victorians. This sounds like it would be a perfect companion.

    And, isn't that cover fantastic?

  16. So many books, so little time. :)

    Mary Wollstonecraft was pretty damn radical (and awesome) for her time period. Obviously she wasn't a card carrying feminist, since feminism didn't exist then, but judging her against modern standards seems a pretty idiotic exercise.

  17. This sounds wonderful! I am a sucker for group biographies and will have to see if I can get my hands on a copy of this one.

  18. You bring up some really excellent points about our current thought processes and our failure to understand those who came before us (of course you know “our” is a generalization).  We take for granted our current mindsets and sometimes have troubles seeing the shortsightedness of those in past generations, but we must remind ourselves that these people were pushing boundaries in their time!  They shouldn’t be discounted for what they didn’t do but rather recognized for what they did do—even if it’s simply opening the door for someone else to make a greater stride.  I love this: “understand why these women’s ideas were revolutionary up to a certain point but did not go further, and why many of them remained blind to other forms of injustice while being so aware of sexism.”  I think we see everything that is done now and compare with the past—but we fail to see our own shortsightedness and how much further we have to go!  Hmmm—again apologies for the broadstrokes in this comment…

  19. I think your point about context, in this case, is really interesting, and very frustrating. Reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for instance, has the same sort of problem - on the one hand, she was a brave and deep thinking feminist, and on the other, she believed strongly in eugenics, and this even works itself into some of her feminist writing (Florence Nightingale's very complex relationship with women's rights is another fascinating example). The problem, I think, in some ways is that the feminism itself was so forbidden and off the map of popular thought, that to get there, sometimes people seemed to travel very difficult routes - when you open your mind far enough to have a big idea, it's easy to have people put cruft in alongside it. It's sort of the same winnowing process that happened with, say, Democracy through the American and French revolutions - and the reign of terror shows what happens when, unfortunatley, radical thining is put in charge unalloyed. Which is of course a very painful place to look at history from, to sort of have to be that cold, you know? But the problem is that the real changes that needed to be made were social changes. It's easy to look at the legislative changes, for instance, like suffrage, and say 'this is what mattered', and these are important, but to really liberate a class of people, it's the people who have to change, and radicalism is sort of the first step, before liberalism, and then slowly into mainstreaming. So, at some level, sure these first thinkers could never see it clearly, and they would mix it up with other, sometimes kind of ugly, ideas, or the idea woould come out half-formed, or hampered by the environment of the past. But that's what's BEAUTIFUL about radicalism, is it SHOULDN'T be dogmatic, it shouldn't be the 'read the words of your originators and follow them to the letter.' I don't know if that makes sense, or if I'm just clogging up your comment section. :D

  20. For me, the cover illustration sums it up--choosing their targets and hitting their marks with as much accuracy as humanly possible in full stays!

    I would love to read this book, but I already have so many written down from your blog, it will probably be a while. Would you recommend reading Victorian Feminists first, or Victorian London?

  21. This book looks excellent, and reminds me of another that's in my tbr pile that I'm sure you'd be interested as well-- Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920. I haven't read it yet, but I will let you know how it is once I get to it!

  22. Iliana, just serendipitous browsing in this case! And yes, I love that cover!

    Heidenkind: Yes, exactly!

    Litlove, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did! The book is divided into section that each cover one of the four women, but she does focus on the ties between them, so I think it still counts as a "proper" group biography :P

    Trish: No apologies! You know I love your long comments (and your short ones too, of course.) Anyway, yes, they should definitely not be discounted even though they said a lot of things that are disappointing by modern standards. But they were breaking barriers, and that's certainly something.

    Jason: Yes, Gilman is certainly a good example, and that made reading The Man-Made World earlier this year very uncomfortable at times. But it's like you said - I wasn't reading it because I wanted to follow everything she said to the letter, and the only alternative to THAT was to reject her completely. There were beautiful ideas there mixed in with the ugly ones, and things I found relevant even today, and I was grateful for that despite the passages that made me cringe.

    Trapunto: You always see so much more into covers than I do! I love that you pointed out that it works as a metaphor doe Victorian feminist, because it's so true and I'd never have thought of it at all :D As for the two books, hmm, it really depends on what you're in the mood for. If you want something more humorous and filled with fascinating trivia, then Victorian London; if you feel like something more scholarly and earnest, the feminists it is :P

    Emily Jane: Oooh, I definitely like the sound of that one! Looking forward to your review :)

  23. This sounds so great! I'm reading a book called The Sealed Letter whose main character takes part in the Victorian women's movement, and there's all this excellent internal dispute about publication of magazines on women's issues. The book's not my most favorite ever, but the Victorian women's movement stuff is great.

  24. Jenny, is that by Emma Donoghue? If so, it's on my wishlist, and her other historical novel (Slammerskin) is on my TBR pile here. Both sound worth it for the historical setting alone!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.