Hannah Dawson surveys the history of feminist movements around the world in the introduction to her brilliant anthology
To try and make people see what is right in front of their eyes: this is core to the history of feminism, as it has been to the history of all human rights struggles. It ran through the anti-slavery movement. ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’ was the very basic question stamped on the halfpenny manufactured by Abolitionists in c. 1790. There is ‘no truth more self- evident’, wrote Frederick Douglass, than ‘that every man is, and of right ought to be, the owner of his own body; and that no man can rightfully claim another man as his property’ – but white people would not see it. Douglass identified the same problem with women’s suffrage, for which he also campaigned. ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see’, he consoled in 1870, wondering at those who would not admit the truth of ‘the right of woman . . . to have a voice in the Government under which she lives’.
As Douglass knew in relation to American ‘liberty’, the most blinkered are the most proud of their panoramic vision. When the so-called enlightenment dawned over Europe at the end of the seventeenth century, the philosopher John Locke announced that men were not born subject to kings but, rather, were born equal and free. Mary Astell, also a philosopher, pointed out that Locke had a blind spot. ‘If all men are born free’, she asked, ‘how is it that all women are born slaves?’ How could this be so blatant a fallacy to her, yet so perfect a syllogism to the person who was being lauded as the greatest thinker of the age? Under the system of coverture in English common law, a wife’s identity and will were subsumed by her husband’s. Her property became his, even the gifts he gave her. He was permitted to beat her, within reason, if she would not bend voluntarily to his command. Astell had her own blind spot in brandishing the status of a slave on behalf of aristocratic white women when there were black women and men being bought and sold in London. As for Locke, he actively participated in the administration of the transatlantic slave trade, and had a hand in composing The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina which declared in 1669 that ‘every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves’.
More than a hundred years later, Mary Wollstonecraft gazed at the French Revolution, thrilled by its promise of liberty. Blithely assuming that she was one of the guys – like Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man – she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, arguing that mankind should be free from tyranny. It turned out, however, that women were not recognised as part of mankind when they were excluded from the Revolution, and Wollstonecraft realized that she would have to write a follow-up: her masterpiece, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792.
When these ripples rolled into the eponymous waves of modern feminism, Emmeline Pankhurst was still trying to bring women into view. In her Freedom or death speech, delivered in Hartford, Connecticut in 1913, she took it that her task was to get people to see her for what she was – human. If, she thought, they could see – really see – this truth, then surely they would then see the legitimacy of suffragette violence? If she were a man, she said, a male taxpayer, standing in front of them, it would be obvious to them that he was entitled take up arms. No taxation without representation: the maxim is clear. But in the upside-down of gender politics, truisms do not extend to the shadowlands of women. Pankhurst gave voice to the baffling difficulty of convincing men of her humanity. ‘We women,’ she said, ‘in trying to make our case clear, always have to make as part of our argument, and urge upon men in our audience the fact – a very simple fact – that women are human beings. It is quite evident you do not all realize we are human beings or it would not be necessary to argue with you that women may, suffering from intolerable injustice, be driven to adopt revolutionary methods’.
The story of the four waves of feminism is deeply flawed. It belies the vast differences between feminisms – and between women. It suggests progress on a succession of discrete fronts – from political equality at the beginning of the twentieth century, to personal liberation after the Second World War, to girl power in the 1990s, to . . . wherever we are now – without interrogating who ‘we’ are, nor ongoing oppression, nor the oppressions that feminism itself has inflicted. Looking at feminism through the white, western tunnel of the four- waves narrative occludes the manifold global resistance to the injustices of gender that go back hundreds of years. In 42 BCE, a Roman woman, Hortensia, forced her way through the men in the forum to speak publicly against the taxation of women: ‘Why should we pay taxes when we have no part in the honours, the commands, the state-craft, for which you contend against each other with such harmful results?’ In c. 1200, in Japan, Shunzei kyō no musume wrote that ‘there is nothing more deplorable than the fate of being a woman’.15 In 1691, in what is now Mexico, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz had had enough of men criticising women, of the double bind that punishes a woman for saying yes and for saying no: ‘if not willing, she offends, but willing, she infuriates’.
Extract from The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing, edited by Hannah Dawson (Penguin Classics). Buy a copy here.
Hannah Dawson is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 1 July. Register here.