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The New Feminism and the Decline of the Women’s Movement in the 1930s

  • Martin Pugh
Chapter

Abstract

‘Today the battle we thought won is going badly against us’, commented Cicely Hamilton in 1935, ‘we are retreating where once we advanced.’1 Her younger colleague on Time and Tide, Winifred Holtby, got closer to an explanation when she posed the question: ‘Why, in 1934, are women themselves often the first to repudiate the movements of the past hundred and fifty years, which gained for them at least the foundations of political, economic, educational and moral equality?’2 Such remarks by contemporary feminists are a valuable corrective to the claims made by Dale Spender that the inter-war decline of the women’s movement is no more than another male conspiracy to deny women their heritage!3 Indeed the theme of decline has exercised several scholars recently. Olive Banks has argued that the movement ‘trapped women in the cult of domesticity’ and failed to ‘survive the combined assault of both the Depression and the Second World War’. Susan Kingsley Kent has pointed to the impact of the Great War on perceptions of gender, suggesting that as early as the 1920s ‘feminism as a distinct political and social movement no longer existed’. And the most severe verdict comes from Sheila Jeffries, who has condemned the leading inter-war feminist Eleanor Rathbone for ‘defeatism’ and speaks of her ‘betrayal’ of the movement.4

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Cicely Hamilton, Life Errant (1935), p. 251.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Winifred Holtby, Women in a Changing Civilisation (1935), p. 6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Dale Spender, There’s Always Been A Women’s Movement This Century (1983), pp. 1–8.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Olive Banks, Faces of Feminism (1981), pp. 178, 203;Google Scholar
  5. S. K. Kent, ‘The Politics of Sexual Difference: World War I and the Demise of British Feminism’, Journal of British Studies, 27, 3 (1988), 232;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Sheila Jefferies, The Spinster and Her Enemies (1985), pp. 151–4.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    Victor Gollancz (ed.), The Making of Women: Oxford Essays in Feminism (1918), p. 132.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    See E. Rathbone, The Disinherited Family (1924);Google Scholar
  9. Mary Stocks, Eleanor Rathbone (1950).Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Eleanor Rathbone, Milestones (1929), p. 28; see also ‘The Old Feminism and the New’, The Woman’s Leader, 13 Mar. 1925, and M. Stocks, ‘What is Equality?’ The Woman’s Leader, 25 Feb. 1927. For the rival view see Elizabeth Abbott ‘What is Equality?’ The Woman’s Leader, 11 Feb. 1927.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    Mary Stott, Organisation Woman: the Story of the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds (1978), pp. 23–4, 44.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Mary Stocks, My Commonplace Book (1970), p. 143.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    Quoted in Brian Harrison, Prudent Revolutionaries (1987), pp. 79–80.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    Margery Spring Rice (ed.), Working-Class Wives (1981 edn.), p. 28.Google Scholar
  15. 23.
    F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society (1988), p. 55.Google Scholar
  16. 25.
    Naomi Mitchison, You May Well Ask (1979), pp. 69–70.Google Scholar
  17. 26.
    Annette Kulm, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909–1925 (1988), pp. 78–83.Google Scholar
  18. 28.
    R. A. Soloway, Birth Control and the Population Question in England 1877–1930 (1982), pp. 256–7.Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    Constance Rover, Love, Morals and the Feminists (1970);Google Scholar
  20. Susan K. Kent, Sex and Suffrage in Britain 1860–1914 (1987);Google Scholar
  21. Carol Dyhouse, Feminism and the Family in England 1880–1939 (1989).Google Scholar
  22. 30.
    Dora Russell, Hypatia or Woman and Knowledge (1925), pp. 24–5.Google Scholar
  23. 32.
    Victoria Glendinning, Rebecca West (1987), p. 125.Google Scholar
  24. 33.
    Quoted in Johanna Alberti, Beyond Suffrage (1989), p. 73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 36.
    H. M. Swanwick, I Have Been Young (1935), p. 169.Google Scholar
  26. 37.
    Viscountess Rhondda, Notes on the Way (1937), p. 19.Google Scholar
  27. 39.
    Cicely Hamilton, Life Errant (1935), pp. 273–4, 282.Google Scholar
  28. 41.
    Mary Stott, Forgetting’s No Excuse (1975), p. 11.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    Spender, Women’s Movement, p. 95; Dora Russell, The Tamarisk Tree, 1 (1977), p. 73.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    Vera Brittain to George Catlin, 8 Mar. 1929, quoted in Deborah Gorham, ‘Vera Brittain and inter-war feminism’, in Harold Smith (ed.), British Feminism in the Twentieth Century (1990), p. 103.Google Scholar

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© Martin Pugh 2000

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  • Martin Pugh

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