women vote

Women denying women the vote!

You might find yourself scratching your head at this but in the early 20th century, not only were there women campaigning for the vote but some arguing AGAINST females joining the electoral register.

How could that be? Well, take for example the imposing intellectual figure of Mary Humphrey Ward. She had campaigned for an all-women’s college at Oxford university but when it came to votes for women – political equality with men – she wasn’t having it.

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Ward was the highest paid female novelist in Britain in the first decades of the 20th century. The J K Rowling, in financial and fame terms, of her day. Her nephew, Aldous Huxley, went on to write Brave New World – yes, the book that the recent TV series is based on.

Ward became a leading light in the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an organisation dominated by men – surprise! It commanded huge audiences at its rallies and exercised considerable influence in political circles. Ward’s opposition to women getting the vote was a combination of instincts, prejudices and some rational arguments.

It rested in part on the notion that women are ‘different’ and equality isn’t necessarily the best outcome. This is still a moot point among some feminists today.

It also underscores the hostility some feminists feel at the current time towards transsexuals. The whole ‘terfs’ versus ‘trans’ row you can witness every day on Twitter. Being a woman is a unique proposition in other words. It’s not just about having the same deal as men. And women are different – therefore equal treatment isn’t automatically progressive. The thinking runs.

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Ward disliked the methods of the ‘suffragettes’, who were viewed by polite society as verging on terrorists. There was also her squeamishness about lesbians – of which there were a few among the campaigners for women’s rights. As a Victorian lady, Ward wasn’t that open minded on the issue!

Many of those who campaigned alongside her supported the use of vicious and unpleasant postcards demeaning women as essentially thick or feckless – so undeserving of the vote. They also warned men that women’s suffrage would result in them doing all the housework. Oh horror!

Ward, however, was more sophisticated in her opinions. The idea of difference being paramount comes across strongly in her writing:

Women are not ‘undeveloped men’ but diverse, and the more complex the development of any state, the more diverse. Difference not inferiority – it is on that we take our stand.

She assigned to women the roles of mother and carer. And worried that involvement in national political affairs would corrupt their true nature. However, Ward didn’t oppose women being involved in running local schools, hospitals and charities because she thought that was an extension of their domestic housekeeping role.

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She did support the idea of a Ministry for Women, but operating alongside parliament – not in it. And Ward suggested reserved seats for women on local councils. But whatever the subtle nuances of her position, and the popularity she undoubtedly had, the first world war proved to be a dynamo for change, demolishing all opposition to universal suffrage.

Despite continuing opposition, votes for women were eventually conceded. And by the time of Ward’s death in 1920, her views were already looking incredibly reactionary. So much so that the novelist Virginia Woolf even mocked her in a very catty obituary.

Walking through Lockdown London with a visor!

On 3 June 2020 I left my home for the first time since mid-March. I live in the London borough of Southwark, just south of the river Thames, and we had distinguished ourselves early on as having one of the highest rates of Covid infection in the capital. So – I was very strict about lockdown and quarantine.

The only reason I left my home today was that back in February, I’d started root canal surgery and it was left with a gaping hole in my molar. That got infected and so I had to dash to the dentist and get the surgery finished off.

So what to say about Lockdown London on 3 June. Well, despite all the reports that quarantine has all but collapsed, I found a city that was eerily deserted still. Yes, there are more cars and construction workers – but no office staff.

I didn’t see a single person in a suit in the middle of town. Even though I walked down Fleet Street and Chancery Lane – centre of the legal community. Not a single arrogant, over-paid lawyer in sight! 🙂

DISCOVER: Coronavirus and panic in history

London is not a stranger to plague and lockdown as I’ve mentioned on the blog. In 1665, we had a Great Plague which involved King Charles II and his court fleeing the city for Oxford. Much to the annoyance of Londoners. They took the full force of the disease while their social betters were miles away.

Then there was the Black Death where the bodies piled up in huge pits – stricken with the bubonic plague. Incidentally, these plague pits are dug up every so often and others lie under your feet in the most unexpected places. Like a supermarket in Whitechapel I won’t mention, for example.

This virus hasn’t been on the scale of 1665 or the Black Death. Nor the many cholera and typhus outbreaks that hit the city over the centuries. And I suppose our response has been more sophisticated – though at present, most Londoners I know are not hugely enamoured of the politicians.

Anyway, I didn’t feel at enormous risk today with my visor. But the lockdown has forced many business sectors in London to rethink their models. Do we need so many offices? Do we need all these hotels? How will transport work with social distancing?

And it’s going to change the way we interact. A year ago, pre-lockdown London was booming. Previously derelict areas of the city were becoming terribly chic and crowded with hip young things. And now?

Corporate racism in the 1920s

Companies today are at great pains to show they have diversity strategies in place. But not so long ago – corporate racism was rife. Let’s look at a truly appalling example I came across recently.

Corporate racism in the Roaring Twenties

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. They may have thought they were benevolent to their staff but more often they were demeaning.

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. It’s a truly dreadful example of corporate racism.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations.

Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation, supremacist racist attitudes and corporate racism did not.

This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923