infidel feminism: secularism, religion and women’s emancipation, England 1830–1914
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In the context of ‘war on terror’, where women’s status is almost always brought to the centre of the discussion as a marker of civilisation, feminist scholarship on the historical link between secularism, religion and women’s movements becomes increasingly important. This is even more so as the literature on religion and feminism after the post-secular turn reduces the post-secular condition to the ‘Muslim issue’ (Braidotti, 2008). Laura Schwartz’s salient work on the Freethinking feminists of nineteenth-century England challenges this conflation, in that it suggests to rethink the secular/religious divide as a ‘Christian issue’.
Infidel Feminism aims at presenting a continuous story of women’s rights advocacy in England in the nineteenth century. To illuminate the conflicts and controversies that arose from the supposed opposition between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ perspectives, Schwartz focusses on the dialogue between Freethinking feminists and their Christian counterparts. The former are associated with the Secularist movement—also known as the Freethought movement—but are specifically dedicated to challenging oppressive constructions of womanhood in their critique of Christianity.
The book consists of six chapters based on Schwartz’s detailed archival study. She first gives the reader a detailed backdrop of the Freethought movement, its development and impact, materialist philosophy, and the popular debates in which Freethinkers in general were involved. The examples of women involved in the Freethought movement provide evidence for a strong female Freethinking tradition, explore their impact on the movement as a whole, and locate their discourse in the wider context of the Secularist movement. The second chapter, ‘Counter-conversions’, examines these activist women’s backgrounds further and explains how they initially came into the Freethought movement. These individual narratives of ‘counter-conversions’, the rejection of the religious worldview to embrace a new intellectual freedom as opposed to ‘loss of faith’, in a clever naming by the author, indicate a new way of relating to the world in the light of ‘truth and reason’ and reveal the indebtedness of Secularist perspectives to the religious viewpoints that they rejected.
Schwartz argues that the Secularist ideology of the Freethought movement posed some problems for its feminist members. While it provided women the chance to become independent agents within the public sphere, it also imposed an end point upon their stories by presenting their counter-conversion as the ultimate solution to their predicament. This foreclosed the possibility of Freethinking feminists expressing their problems within the Secularist movement. Accordingly, the third and fourth chapters trace the stories of female Freethinkers after they have joined the male-dominated Freethought movement, to disclose how they negotiated prominent roles in the movement and eventually generated a challenge to the gendered understandings of reason and faith. These chapters quite successfully demonstrate that Freethinking women’s participation in ‘the struggle for cultural authority over the right to proclaim upon questions of truth, morality and the regeneration of the society’ (p. 122) contributed to the formation of a feminist identity, but at the same time left them facing problems within the Secularist movement. Feminists in the Freethought movement renounced Christianity for being women’s greatest oppressor and considered ‘Secularism as the final stage in the development of humanity’ (p. 139). This anti-religious viewpoint allowed them to look at environmental factors, rather than God-given innate characteristics, as the cause of sexual difference.
In their writings and public debates, Freethinking feminists expressed concern over Christian orientalist assumptions about women in the East in a similar vein, and they challenged the notion of ‘imperial feminism’, which claimed the superiority of Protestantism. They argued that Christianity was hypocritical and accused the Christian proponents of Empire of not living up to a standard of enlightenment and civilisation that they claimed to bring to infidel nations. However, this did not completely set all Freethinkers apart from conventional thinking on gender, as their critique still slipped into misogynistic explanations of women as less rational, more ritualistic and emotional, and more susceptible to religious influence. Even when they challenged notions of race and empire, when it came to ideas of progress and civilisation, Secularists presented a linear understanding that conceptualised women’s liberation as a consequence of historical development rather than of their own feminist struggle or politics. This elaborate discussion of the extents and limits of feminism in the Freethought movement reveals significant intersections between religious and secular viewpoints in accordance with the book’s main premise.
The final two chapters discuss the contributions of Freethinking feminism to the women’s movement of the time in general, and specifically their influence on attitudes towards heterosexual love, marriage and birth control. Their support for a free discussion of ethical criteria in sexual matters was central to the renunciation of the moral authority of the Church. Here, Schwartz illustrates how their advocacy of birth control laid grounds for the discussions of sexual freedom at the end of the nineteenth century. However, this also put them at odds with the majority in the women’s movement, not only due to concerns over the exploitation of women’s bodies and sexuality, but also because of the neo-Malthusian implications of birth control aiming to limit the size of poor families.
Overall, the book successfully expands the territory of inquiry on secularism, religion and feminism to a Christian context. Schwartz’s diligent archival work lays bare a rich historical example of how a Secularist approach both benefited and contradicted women’s emancipation in a Christian setting. Rather than assuming a secularist basis to feminism in general, Schwartz shows that debates on women’s rights were an integral part of the formation of secularity and religion as modern concepts, and that the presumption of a secular feminism cannot be taken for granted. In this respect, the book is not only a great contribution to the history of nineteenth-century women’s movements, but also makes for an insightful and very accessible read for discussions on secularism, secularism and feminism, gender and religion, and transnational feminisms. If we can say that the study of history aims to develop a better understanding of the present, it is certain that Schwartz takes a very promising shot at doing just that.