Feminism: A Very Short Introduction

Ealasaid Gilfillan recommends 'Feminism: A Very Short Introduction' by Margaret Walters as a clear, useful introduction to the history of English feminism.

, 9 January 2006

Feminism: A Very Short Introduction by Margaret Walters is a new title from Oxford University Press in their “Very Short Introduction” series. This is an extremely good survey of feminism, concise, readable, and full of useful information about the history of feminism in England and the state of feminism across the world today. It comes in paperback for £6.99, giving a timely and affordable introduction to the subject.

The “Very Short Introduction” series claims to provide an introduction to almost everything, with titles on Shakespeare, the Cold War and atheism, so OUP’s inclusion of feminism shows that they are taking it seriously. Maybe some people would argue that by keeping company with books on Kant and Augustine, feminism has been tamed and subsumed into the academy. However, it is hard to see how the approach of this book is in any way safe or distant. The author, Margaret Walters, has had a long involvement with feminism through activism and writing. She keeps the book focussed on the practicalities of why feminist-minded women and occasionally men spoke out, how they did it, and what the consequences were. Best of all, although the book covers a lot of ground, and it is a jargon-free zone: the prose is excellently clear.

The author has had a long involvement with feminism

The book provides a history rather than arguing a case. Most of the book concentrates on the development of feminism in England from mediaeval times to the present, with an occasional look to the European or American context. The final chapters move out to discuss twentieth century feminism across the world.

It is worth mentioning that the book does differ a bit from the description OUP give on their website. They suggest the book will focus on how much women’s lives in the west have really changed, covering issues like the “glass ceiling” and male rights, for example. In fact, the book does not go into detail about present day western women; there is no analysis of the pay gap or the proportion of women in influential positions. It is very much a straight history of English feminism with an attempt to internationalise the subject at the end. You also get more book for your money than the website shows – ten chapters instead of six.

It is very much a straight history of English feminism

Walters provides a very coherent account of English feminism. She begins by discussing the religious roots of feminism. Mediaeval and early modern women like Julian of Norwich and Jane Anger would not have called themselves feminists (the English word only appeared in the 1890s); but they used scriptural imagery and arguments to create positive images of women in contrast to the commonplaces of clerical misogynist thought. Speaking your mind in seventeenth century England could be a dangerous business. When Lady Eleanor Davis ‘ ‘took upon her (which much unbeseemed her sex) not only to interpret the Scriptures…but also to be a prophetess’, she was fined and imprisoned in Bedlam. Davis had also had the audacity to publish, and whether they were secular or religious, this proved a source of criticism for writers from Aphra Behn to Mary Wollstonecraft and beyond.

Walters includes lots of lesser known figures like Lady Mary Wroth (Sir Philip Sidney’s niece and fellow writer), and Catherine Macaulay who urged the improvement of women’s education shortly before Wollstonecraft wrote her famous Vindication. This places in context reformers like Wollstonecraft who may sometimes seem like isolated voices or mavericks. Similarly, Walters highlights the role played by the “ladies of Langham Place” who had become a campaigning force for Victorian women’s educational and employment rights, and who were pressing for female suffrage long before the Pankhursts took to the streets with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

The visual tactics of the suffragettes themselves are especially well-illustrated with black and white photos. Walters also explains how women’s publications grew more programmatic, and women themselves grew more organised in their lobbying. This is not a simplified narrative of lone individuals eventually coming together in highly co-ordinated campaign groups. She points out that there were always women who did not want to identify themselves with any sort of movement. However, there is a good sense of how over the centuries, feminists have identified key issues like education or legal equality, linking them together in an increasingly self-aware and organised way.

the visual tactics of the suffragettes are especially well-illustrated

Walters’ history of English feminism goes up to World War II. For the final two chapters, she moves into a wider context to look at the development of second wave feminism, and at women’s movements all over the world. This is where I felt there was a slight problem with the book. The material is just as useful and interesting, but it has the feeling of being tagged on. Admittedly I should say that Walters tries hard not to be tokenistic. For example, there is an in-depth look at the different currents of feminism in the US, and at the influence of Simone de Beauvoir. She also gives potted histories of twentieth century feminism in certain areas like Latin America and Russia. Equally she points out the importance of local complicating factors of class and culture, with modern feminism in Iran naturally being different from that in Brazil or Africa or the West.

However, after the coherent narrative of English feminism is over, the structure and focus of the book become less clear. It is not a history of feminism all over the world; only England has got sustained treatment. This is fair enough, as that is what Walters said would be her focus. After all, she could have written a history of British feminism, missing out Scottish or Welsh material. But the final chapters are a bit less satisfying. They only give a patchy history of twentieth century feminism internationally, so that there is not very much on Africa and nothing about Italy or Germany. Nor do they give a proper survey of women across the world today; there is little about the present day in the West and only a brief mention of China. Walters raises plenty of important issues to be aware of when thinking about feminism abroad, but does not integrate them into a clear, overall scheme. She certainly never says that feminism had its home in England from where it was exported, though perhaps the structure of the book could accidentally give that impression.

Minor grumbles apart, “Feminism: A Very Short Introduction” is a well-researched, well-written book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is encouraging to see the subject getting such decent, serious treatment. The book gives an extremely useful introduction to the development of feminism in England, and provides ways of seeing that in its wider context, and ways of thinking about feminism internationally today.

Published by Oxford University Press in paperback.

Ealasaid Gilfillan is a Scottish feminist, interested in books and literature.

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