:: Article

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

By Max Dunbar.


Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century, Sheila Rowbotham, Verso 2010

Towards the end of the nineteenth century working class feminists would sit in New York cafes debating politics into the night. To avoid the wrong kind of attention they wore plain and shapeless clothing. An acerbic bystander coined the stereotype that has haunted Western feminists to this day: ‘pallid, tired, thin-lipped, flat-chested and angular’ women, living in an ‘atmosphere of tea-steam and cigarette smoke’; women for whom ‘[t]he time of night means nothing until way into the small hours.’

History is not a wheel but the debates of the intelligentsia in the twenty-first century mirror those at the beginning of the twentieth. The New York Working Women’s Society pioneered ethical consumption long before FairTrade. It set up a ‘White List’ of stores that ‘met fair standards on wages, hours, physical conditions, management-employee relations and child labour.’ The scientist and social reformer Alice Hamilton went to a Toledo brothel expecting to rescue an exploited penitent. Instead she encountered ‘a woman of mature years, handsome, dignified, entirely mistress of herself’ in a ‘luxurious’ home who told Hamilton that ‘I might make a good saleswoman… for I spend my time persuading men to spend money on what they don’t really want.’ The conflict surrounding prostitution and female choice would resurface in mainstream feminism’s scandalised reaction to the Belle de Jour diaries around a hundred years later.

Sex was a problem. The Comstock Law, named after the nineteenth-century puritan, meant that advocates of sexual freedom could be jailed. (‘Sexual freedom’ at this point including the freedom from marital rape.) More subtle and insidious was the Victorian convention that lust was a male trait, unknown to the fair and innocent sex. The radical feminist Dora Forster insisted to an 1897 London reformers’ meeting that women ‘suffer as much from enforced celibacy as men.’ Her co-thinker Elizabeth Johnson emphasised: ‘Stop setting woman on a pedestal, recognise her as an equal and half the problem would be solved.’ As a poet friend of mine wrote: ‘We too ache to fuck/We just don’t necessarily want to talk to you on the bus.’

Dreamers of a New Day combines rigorous scholarship with an engaging style and cast of characters: Dora Russell, Hannah Mitchell, Voltairine de Cleyre all dance and sparkle through its pages. Rowbotham is good on the gulf between bourgois and working class feminism. A pervasive condescension held that middle-class women were frightened of sex whereas their proletarian counterparts were more earthy and sensual. In fact, the aristocratic feminist Dora Russell found that working-class women ‘evaded sexual relations as far as they possibly could because they were terrified of having more children.’

For good reason. Even with the twenty-first century’s standards of healthcare and knowledge, childbirth remains a traumatic, potentially fatal and extraordinarily painful experience. In parts of Africa between 850 and 1000 women per 100,000 will die in childbirth; Professor James Dornan, director of foetal medicine at the Belfast Royal Maternity hospital, estimates that ‘Nature dictates that one in every 100 women will die while having a baby… Left to nature that is what nature will do.’

It does not make you a Malthusian to see the danger of idealising motherhood as a miracle and encouraging people to start families whether or not they have the resources or inclination to care for them. Twenty-first century conservatives pound the table over the social problems caused by large families on benefits without considering the counterproductivity of Daily Mail pro-family arguments. Similarly, liberals could think twice before advocating parenthood as an alternative to the jungle of the sexual free market.

Russell and her colleague Leah L’Estrange Malone examined the maternal death rates of the 1920s. They found that it was four times as dangerous to bear a child as it was to work in a mine – four to five per thousand births versus 1.1 fatal accidents per thousand active miners. The novelist Rosa Graul saw in enforced motherhood a cruel curse: ‘the chief cause of the degredation that gives birth to human woe.’ The freedom not to have children would become an ideal of female autonomy and a goal only realised with the advent of the contraceptive pill.

Work was no guaranteed escape. The suffragette Ada Nield Chew described an existence different only by degrees to that of today’s warehouse and call centre workers:

We eat, we sleep, we work, endlessly, ceaselessly work, from Monday morning till Saturday night without remission. Cultivation of the mind? How is it possible? Reading?… As for recreation and enjoying the beauties of nature, the seasons come and go and we have barely time to notice whether it is spring or summer… ‘A living wage!’ Ours is a lingering, dying wage…

For working-class women the only way out of the Detroit factories and Lancashire textile mills was to find a husband. Middle-class students looked down on this race to the altar, prompting the US trade union organiser Kate Ryrie to snarl: ‘Let them change places with her in reality and not as a few days’ slumming experience, and I’ll guarantee that they’ll be as anxious to get out of the factory by the marriage route as they were to shake off its dirt and get back to the shelter of their luxurious homes after their week’s experience.’

Rowbotham’s triumph is to illustrate that the feminist struggle was and is our struggle. Poverty, unemployment, racism, sickness, poor wages and working conditions did and do hit men as well as women. Working-class feminist Hannah Mitchell spent an afternoon in the 1880s listening to a ‘callow youth in a Methodist chapel debate hold forth on how Adam, St Paul and Milton had all agreed that women should not take part in politics.’ (You think of George Orwell’s complaint that the left seemed to attract ‘every teetotaller and Creeping Jesus’.)

Mitchell’s response was to hurl ‘at him and the meeting a chunk of my recently acquired Tennyson. ‘The women’s cause is man’s; they rise or fall together’.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 15th, 2010.