SDG 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Browse books and journal articles relating to this SDG below and find out more on the UN Sustainable Development Goals website.
Goal 5: Gender Equality
In 1897, Charlotte Payne-Townshend, an unmarried 40-year-old Irish heiress with radical ideas, wrote to an American friend she had met in Rome. Charlotte’s financial wealth was matched by a rich resource of ideas about what she might do with her life, but she couldn’t see any clear direction through these. She told her friend about her dilemma, which was typical of many middle-class women possessed of a social conscience at the time: ‘Now it has occurred to me,’ she wrote, ‘that those who try to remedy the terrible evils we see round us by healing individual wounds and patching individual sores, by philanthropy in fact, are like the doctor who tries to cure his patients by rule of thumb … the social evil has gone too deep for mere surface palliation. We must have something else … Is what is wanted a new science? Something like the science of medicine applied collectively, and which will consist of the study of these social horrors we are talking of from the point of view of recent discovery; the study, in fact, of sociology … It is a study which has barely been attempted yet … and what I hope to do is this: with all my power, physical, financial and intellectual to study sociology as I describe it and to help and encourage others cleverer than myself to study it.’
In Charlotte’s diagnosis of what was wrong, and what mere philanthropy couldn’t cure, was the whole social system: vast inequalities in the ownership of property; the dehumanising commercial system; the struggle between capital and labour; marriage and the impoverished status of women.
‘Why be a wife?’ was the byline of a vigorous 1975 women’s liberation campaign in Britain against the institution of marriage. Pamphlets were produced, and we wore YBAW badges. Some of us took the message to heart and undid our own marriages. The argument was that neither the Equal Pay Act of 1970 nor the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 improved the situation of women that much, because they failed to tackle the root of the problem: women’s ‘wedlocked’ position in marriage. Tax and social security systems still treated wives as dependants. Public services, as well as husbands, counted on women’s unpaid labour at home. Therefore, ‘The question “why be a wife?” needs to be asked by us all.’1
This focus on the condition of wifehood is a dimension that is mostly missing from accounts of the first 20th-century feminist movement, which have concentrated overwhelmingly on media-worthy images of angry women in picture hats throwing bricks in their pursuit of the vote. Yet the legal, economic, social and political treatment of wives has historically occupied far more of feminist activists’ attention than the missing right to vote. Wives were traditionally the property of men and allowed no property of their own, and property ownership was for a long time a necessary criterion for voting. The oppressions of married women have generally been worse and more extensive than those of single women (which is not to say that single women, especially unmarried mothers, haven’t been subject to awful oppressions of their own).
Throughout history, records of women’s lives and work have been lost through the pervasive assumption of male dominance. Wives, especially, disappear as supporters of their husbands’ work, as unpaid and often unacknowledged secretaries and research assistants, and as managers of men’s domestic domains; even intellectual collaboration tends to be portrayed as normative wifely behaviour rather than as joint work.
Forgotten Wives examines the ways in which the institution and status of marriage has contributed to the active ‘disremembering’ of women’s achievements. Drawing on archives, biographies, autobiographies and historical accounts, best-selling author and academic Ann Oakley interrogates conventions of history and biography-writing using the case studies of four women married to well-known men – Charlotte Shaw, Mary Booth, Jeannette Tawney and Janet Beveridge.
Asking critical questions about the mechanisms that maintain gender inequality, despite thriving feminist and other equal rights movements, she contributes a fresh vision of how the welfare state developed in the early 20th century.
Janet Beveridge’s career as a wife is the most complex of the four that form the focus of this book. It raises particular questions about the function of gender stereotyping in the description of wifely careers, and confronts any biographical historian with a jungle of plots and conspiracies that are hard to untangle. She was married twice: first to a taciturn civil servant and mathematician called David Beveridge Mair; and, second, to his cousin and Jeannette Tawney’s brother, William Henry Beveridge, the man who is credited with founding the British welfare state. In the first capacity she was known as Mrs Jessy Mair; in the second as Lady Beveridge, with an accompanying change of forename to Janet. (William Beveridge in his writings about his wife solved the problem about which forename to use by simply calling her ‘J.’)
These changes in nomenclature signal a life divided into very different stages. As Mrs Jessy Mair, Janet Beveridge lived the life of a housewife in a small village in Surrey in the early 1900s. Her and David Mair’s four children were born there, but raising them and cooking a three-course meal every night failed to absorb her abundant energy. Her engagement with the local Women’s Institute was not a success; she railed against the role of ‘professional hausfrau’; and she hated Banstead, which was still a village rather than the suburban conurbation it is now, although ‘suburban’ as a negative epithet probably did describe it. In her book about William Beveridge – unlike Mary Booth’s, Janet’s was written when her husband was still alive – she describes the moment she first met the man who would eventually become her second husband: ‘One Sunday morning in the spring of 1904 he came down to Banstead, where we were living and raising our family.
Annette Jeanie Beveridge, known as Jeannette, spent 49 of her 78 years married to the socialist historian Richard Henry Tawney. It’s this marital persona that is remembered in the history and biography of the period; indeed, as the Labour MP Lena Jeger observed, Jeannette suffered from being taken as either Tawney’s wife or William Beveridge’s sister, or both. One historian even confuses the two, making her Tawney’s sister and Beveridge’s wife.1 Such a mistake is perhaps to be expected in an oeuvre that pays so little attention to women’s individual identity and agency.
Of the four women in this book, Jeannette Tawney is the one with whom I have had the closest personal connection. Although she died when I was 14, and I don’t remember meeting her, her husband was a regular visitor to my childhood home. He and my father, Richard Titmuss, belonged to the same tradition of ethical socialism, and they shared the same post-mortem insignia of being seen as ‘saints’ who contributed much to Labour Party policy. Harry Tawney, as he was known, was old when I knew him, and immensely shabby – a more or less permanent characteristic, for which his wife never forgave him – and surrounded by a cloud of coltsfoot tobacco, another cause of marital disharmony. On the occasion of Tawney’s 80th birthday, my father was enlisted to help write a celebratory pamphlet: ‘We have said nothing about his wife. I do not think we should,’ he noted in the correspondence with the editor.2 Richard Titmuss transmitted his dismissive opinion of Jeannette Tawney to the more uniformly negative of the two existing full-length R.H. Tawney biographies: Ross Terrill’s R.H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship (1974).
Wives, like everybody else, are individuals with lives of their own. But history and ideology can conspire to strip them of this identity. In the process something essential about the social condition of being a woman is revealed. Of course it isn’t a conspiracy; if it were, the story would be simple, with none of the devious tricks and turns that beset the real narratives. It’s the complexity of the story – the layers of stories – that gives the story-teller such a headache, and puts the reader in such a position of agnosticism about where the truth lies, or may be hiding, or may actively have been hidden. Was Janet Beveridge a shrew with no academic intelligence of her own, and William Beveridge simply too besotted with her? Did Jeannette Tawney really obstruct Harry Tawney’s scholarship with her frivolous and untidy ways? What was Mary Booth really doing in that damp mansion apart from having babies and minding the servants while her husband journeyed abroad? Are we allowed any truthful glimpse of Charlotte Shaw behind the thick veil of her labours helping two men write their own mixtures of fact and fiction?
Digging around in the archives of these four lives was for me a kind of revelatory archaeology. The remains produced didn’t always match the catalogue description. I was surprised, for example, to learn about the immense networks Mary Booth orchestrated to facilitate her husband’s work, and without which it undoubtedly wouldn’t have been what it was. I was amazed to find Charlotte Shaw playing such a key role in the establishment of LSE – whose origins I thought I already knew – and to discover her roles as a translator of radical French literature and as Lawrence of Arabia’s muse, editor and friend.
On 26 June 1878, 30-year-old Mary Booth composed one of her regular letters to her husband, Charles, who was on one of his frequent forays to look after the family shipping and leather business in New York. She was at home in their London house, 6 Grenville Place, South Kensington, a generous stuccoed mansion, though sunless and prone to draughts. Mary’s cousin Beatrice Potter, the future Beatrice Webb, dubbed it ‘dark, dull and stuffy and somewhat smelly’ – the Victorians had a lot of problems with drains. In the summer of 1878 Mary Booth was in Grenville Place, with her five-year-old daughter Antonia, and two sons, Thomas, aged four, and baby George, who was nine months old. Her husband Charles had been worried about her. She had been having palpitations and complaining of stress, some clearly caused by the death two years earlier of their little girl, Polly, whose birth and death from croup had occurred between the births of the two boys. So there was Mary, in her comfortable house, with a considerable number of servants,1 in constant communication with her liberal intellectual parents and a wide circle of relatives, friends and acquaintances who together made up ‘the intellectual aristocracy of London’,2 a husband much occupied with business affairs, and a great deal of house- and child- and servant-management work to do. There were gnawing subterranean questions about the singular purpose of her own life, but in her letter to Charles she reflected on what the two of them had already achieved together, and what might await them in the future: ‘At present there are only beginnings,’ she wrote, ‘a fair and promising opening of such a serious life of effort as we may hope to carry on to some perhaps not wholly satisfying; but still worthy and intelligent conclusion.’
This concluding chapter summarises the exploration of the relationship between women, political discourse, and political representation in the previous chapters. It argues that there are of course successful women public intellectuals in Europe, the UK, and other parts of the world. However, very few countries show the same profile of success in gender politics that the US does, and the public intellectuals outlined here have profiles that stand independently of the administrations they served. Many of these women could easily have stood for election as president in the US; Hillary Clinton, of course, did stand. Many wanted Condoleezza Rice to run as president; Elizabeth Warren may yet run in the 2020 election. In other cases, Susan Rice may stand for the Senate. Ultimately, the contemporary women public intellectuals profiled in this book offer outstanding models of women public intellectuals, but there is still much more to achieve.
This chapter assesses three high-profile women public intellectuals in the US: Condoleezza Rice, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice. All of these three women public intellectuals are significant role models for women wanting to move from academic positions into different administrations. While the contribution and legacy of Condoleezza Rice is a mixed one, no one can detract from her contribution and achievements as an African-American academic woman and public intellectual. Condoleezza Rice can take credit for a number of policy successes, including the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Libya and progress in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, one of the most interesting aspects of Power’s career is the contrast between her ardour as an activist and her duties as an adviser. Finally, Susan Rice was highly effective in her role as national security adviser and oversaw the coordination of intelligence and military efforts during a period that was marked by an escalation of the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East, the crisis in Syria, and increased aggression from Russia.