A welcome note from our Academic Editor, Professor Ann Heilmann, Cardiff University:
Hello. I’m Ann Heilmann, I’m Professor of English Literature in the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University and I’m the advisor and Academic Editor of Routledge Historical Resources: History of Feminism — a resource that combines primary and secondary materials from the periods of the late 18th century to the early 20th century.
With the centenary of the introduction of women’s suffrage in the UK in 2018, it is important to consider the complex and multi-faceted historical development of feminism, and the very considerable social transformations that feminist campaigns achieved over the two and a half centuries preceding our own time. And feminism of course cuts across and intersects with many other cultural, social and political categories and movements, such as, for instance, class and the labour movement; race, empire and anti-imperialism; sexuality and the rise of sexology.
When we think of historical feminism, it is often the suffragettes that come to mind. We remember them for their daring and imaginative acts of militancy, for example the famous Trojan Horse incident in which suffragettes smuggled themselves into the Houses of Parliament in a furniture van. We will also be mindful of their sacrifices — Emily Wilding Davison’s death under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. And we will think of the forcible feeding they were subjected to in prison.
Feminism as an intellectual and political movement of course started much earlier than the suffragettes of the early 20th century. The non-militant suffrage movement had been in existence since the 1860s, and the first demands for women’s political emancipation were made a century earlier. The emergence of the first organized women’s movement in the UK in the 1850s was itself predicated on earlier individual and collective campaigns by women – and by men – for political representation and for equality under the law. And political feminism was born in the age of Revolution, inspiring Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. The 18th century was a period in which a woman’s right to education came to be conceptualized by prominent women intellectuals like the Bluestockings.
In the 18th century, and thus the period the resource starts with, women were governed by the law of coverture. Once married, women had no legal existence; they were subsumed into their husband’s existence. By the second decade of the 20th century, the time period the resource stops, women had gained substantial rights, such as equal custody rights. Married women from 1880 onward were in exclusive possession of their property and earnings, which before had automatically passed on to their husbands. Single women were entitled to vote in local elections from 1868 and in parliamentary elections from 1918 — and all women from 1928. Women had achieved access to university education and had started entering professional careers. In the Victorian period, women began to dominate literary production: sensation fiction and the New Woman novel were largely feminized. In the late 19th century, legislation like the Contagious Diseases Acts, that equated working-class women with prostitutes and carriers of syphilis and had been introduced to protect middle and upper-class men, were abolished. After the turn of the century, working-class women’s interests were at least nominally represented by trade unions which had initially seen women as competition for men. In the First World War, women took the place of men in almost all industries. In the course of over half a century of reforms, marriage and divorce law had become more attuned to the rights of women. But while a series of acts in the 1920s established women as equal under the law, many issues were left unaddressed by this legislation: equal pay, for example, or rape in marriage — relevant legislation here was delayed by another half-century or more.
Women today still face lower salary levels, conviction rates for rape are marginal, and the incidence of child sexual abuse is very high. Feminism is as important in our own time as it was in the past, and the legacy of earlier feminist movements continues to reverberate with us. And so does the need to recognize the intersectionality of feminism with other liberation, equality and diversity discourses. Many social and political causes today — for example, animal rights — have their roots in historical debates around feminism. The close interconnection between women’s rights, human rights, class and race was sometimes overlooked in the heat of battle for legal reform. And one case of contention, for example, was late-19th century factory legislation, which excluded working class women from some areas of work, ostensibly to protect them, but in actual fact depriving them of an income, while at the same time removing cheap labour, and thus competition, from male-dominated sectors. Another example is the often problematic relationship between feminism and black liberation.
Was feminism predominantly a white middle class movement? 19th century feminism in Britain, Europe and especially North America emerged in response to abolitionism and feminists co-opted slavery as a metaphor for the wrongs of woman. In what ways did feminists themselves become implicated in discourses of oppression? This question raised issues that feminists like the South African-British New Woman writer Olive Schreiner addressed head-on when she resigned from the vice-presidency of the Cape’s Women’s Enfranchisement League, that she had helped found, when the organization decided to exclude black women from its campaign for women’s suffrage.
Details of these and many other contexts are brought together in this interdisciplinary online resource. Routledge Historical Resources: History of Feminism provides access to a comprehensive range and scope of primary and critical materials, covering a period of 150 years. Many of the primary source texts are available in electronic format for the first time. The resource includes full books, selected chapters and journal articles on British, European, North American and broader international aspects and perspectives. Users can search by subject, region, period, notable figures or contributors. The material covers culture and literature, history, the history of thought, and the social and political sciences, and is organized into broad themes which are introduced by short subject introductions that put the historical sources in context. New essays written by experts are available on topics including Literature, Education, Work, Science, Race and Empire, Male Feminism, Marriage, and Spiritualism. The illustrations in the Image Gallery can be used for teaching or as discussion material. The resource is intended for lecturers, scholars, researchers and students across different disciplines. We hope that you find it helpful and an illuminating tool in your work, thank you very much.