This year I am teaching on a module titled ‘English Literature and Feminisms 1790-1899’ in the English department at the University of Warwick. One thing that I hadn’t expected was the warning I received from several people, that a module with the word ‘feminism’ in the title would attract very few male students. This proved true, and in my seminar group of 15 students, only one is male. Even given the disparity between male and female students in other seminars I have taught (an issue for a different blog post, perhaps) I found this surprising. I wonder why it should be that men feel less compelled by a study of historical feminism, if, perhaps, this difference has something to do with a sense of ownership over the material – although the course includes work by John Stuart Mill, Grant Allen, George Gissing, and Bram Stoker. Another issue that affects all of the students, regardless of gender, who take – or indeed, choose not to take – the course is one that seems to be everywhere at the moment, and that is a reluctance to identify with the word ‘feminism’. Asking my students whether they identify themselves as ‘feminist’, produces a mixture of responses from firm yeses to wavering not reallys, and I think in a course on feminism these responses are likely more skewed in the direction of positive association with the term. In my experience those who refuse to describe themselves as feminists usually are feminists, but they associate the word with something else, something that means unfeminine or man-hating. This word has become so burdened, so loaded that people become afraid to use it. This seems to be a conversation I have with people a lot – fellow teachers, students, friends, even the media has recently been full of the controversial Elle ‘rebrand’ of feminism.
At its heart the module I am teaching on addresses these concerns from an historical perspective. Students are sometimes surprised by the seemingly conservative nature of what I will suggest is a text with feminist elements. I think the most important thing to realise about the texts we study is that they are not clear cut, or easily and neatly categorized. This is a burgeoning idea of feminism, one that exists pre-suffrage, and one that is potentially very different to notions of feminism today. In a way I think students respond well to this precisely because it is much less radical. It allows them a bit of breathing room, and they are able to identify the faults in the texts they are reading, the areas where such texts fall short, and to more accurately get a sense of where they stand on their own, personal notion of feminism. What I am interested in is embracing and exploring the conflicting, contradictory parts of these texts – not dismissing anything to create a smooth and even- toned reading, but getting into this grey area and trying to untangle what lies at the heart of it. In the first seminar that I taught I gave my students two extracts from Ruskin’s ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’, published in 1865. The first hand out contained the following:
“Now their separate characters are briefly these. The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle,—and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise; she enters into no contest, but infallibly adjudges the crown of contest […]
And wherever a true wife comes, this home is always round her. The stars only may be over her head; the glowworm in the night-cold grass may be the only fire at her foot; but home is yet wherever she is; and for a noble woman it stretches far round her, better than ceiled with cedar, or painted with vermilion, shedding its quiet light far, for those who else were homeless.
This, then, I believe to be,—will you not admit it to be,—the woman’s true place and power? But do not you see that, to fulfil this, she must—as far as one can use such terms of a human creature—be incapable of error? So far as she rules, all must be right, or nothing is. She must be enduringly, incorruptibly good; instinctively, infallibly wise—wise, not for self-development, but for self-renunciation: wise, not that she may set herself above her husband, but that she may never fail from his side: wise, not with the narrowness of insolent and loveless pride, but with the passionate gentleness of an infinitely variable, because infinitely applicable, modesty of service—the true changefulness of woman.” (Ruskin: 146)
I think it is safe to say that the group did not respond well to this. It fell into every trap they expected a nineteenth century chauvinist to fall into. This passage (and there is much more like it in the full text) speaks to a hopelessly outdated Victorian ideal of femininity that is perhaps best known – problematically, I would argue – under the guise of the ‘Angel in the House’. However, our reading of Ruskin’s text is much more complicated if we do not edit and suppress. This second extract comes from the same text:
“And not only in the material and in the course, but yet more earnestly in the spirit of it, let a girl’s education be as serious as a boy’s. You bring up your girls as if they were meant for sideboard ornaments, and then complain of their frivolity. Give them the same advantages that you give their brothers—appeal to the same grand instincts of virtue in them; teach THEM, also, that courage and truth are the pillars of their being:- do you think that they would not answer that appeal, brave and true as they are even now, when you know that there is hardly a girls’ school in this Christian kingdom where the children’s courage or sincerity would be thought of half so much importance as their way of coming in at a door; and when the whole system of society, as respects the mode of establishing them in life, is one rotten plague of cowardice and imposture—cowardice, in not daring to let them live, or love, except as their neighbours choose; and imposture, in bringing, for the purposes of our own pride, the full glow of the world’s worst vanity upon a girl’s eyes, at the very period when the whole happiness of her future existence depends upon her remaining undazzled?
And give them, lastly, not only noble teachings, but noble teachers. You consider somewhat before you send your boy to school, what kind of a man the master is;—whatsoever kind of a man he is, you at least give him full authority over your son, and show some respect to him yourself […]But what teachers do you give your girls, and what reverence do you show to the teachers you have chosen? Is a girl likely to think her own conduct, or her own intellect, of much importance, when you trust the entire formation of her character, moral and intellectual, to a person whom you let your servants treat with less respect than they do your housekeeper (as if the soul of your child were a less charge than jams and groceries), and whom you yourself think you confer an honour upon by letting her sometimes sit in the drawing- room in the evening?” (Ruskin: 168)
The difference in these two extracts is startling. It is difficult, I think, for us to come to terms with their co-existence in one text. It seems easier for us to read the text one way or the other, to quote only from the sections that support our argument and to dismiss the rest. But it is all there, and we should not ignore that. Exploring nineteenth century feminisms means letting go, at least in part, of your preconceptions of what feminism means and being more forgiving about the time and place of a text. Is Ruskin’s text perfect? Absolutely, unequivocally not. But at the time it was heralded as a progressive and liberal text. What does this tell us about the state of women’s rights then? And what does our response tell us about the state of feminism now? I think, in the same way, that feminism does not so much need rebranding as reinvestigating with an open mind. It is surely of interest and significance to us that the feminism of 150 years ago was struggling with reconciling progressive thought with ideas of femininity and domestic life. I would suggest that these concerns are very present today. One friend asked me if liking to bake and wear make-up made her a ‘bad feminist’. I think this kind of idea is at the heart of fears over identifying with feminism. Feminism is important. No, actually, feminism is crucial. The fact that we are still struggling with these issues makes that clear. I would love all my students to jump to their feet, claiming to be feminists, but I understand their reticence, that it stems from an increasingly complicated relationship with the history of such a word. In a way, I hope that this course – that looking back upon a fierce and uphill struggle – not only inspires them, but helps them to feel more connected to the issue, to understand its nuances and minor complications, as well as the arguments as old as time, and that it demonstrates to them that as long as they believe in equality between the sexes they already are feminists.
Laura Wood is a final year PhD student in the English department at the University of Warwick. Her thesis focuses on representations of women and child readers in nineteenth century literature, and the wider social, cultural, and political implications of these representations. She is fascinated by all things Victorian, and by the act of reading – how and why we read, the physical and emotional experience of reading, and why reading has the potential to be such an inflammatory act.
Ruskin, J, ‘Of Queens Gardens’ in Sesame and Lilies London: Smith, Elder & co (1865) 119-196