The Ascent of Woman
pounds 18.99, 370pp
pounds 16.99 (plus pounds 1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122
AT FIRST sight, there is something rather incongruous about this book. The ascent of woman? Surely we already have enough substantive accounts of one of the most-chronicled popular movements in history: the struggle for the vote for women? Even the cover, with its picture of a demure Edwardian woman holding a copy of the suffragette newspaper Votes for Women, has a delicously old- fashioned look. It could easily have adorned one of those first Virago paperbacks, published back in the Seventies when older feminist movements were first being disinterred.
But this historical account of a key feminist campaign has not been penned by an eager utopian scholar but by Melanie Phillips, one of the most renowned socially conservative columnists of our time. For one awful moment, I feared she might be about to declare votes for women a terrible mistake.
Thankfully, not. Instead, Phillips has written a thorough account of both the political campaign to secure women the vote and the vast canvas of ideas and campaigns that formed the backdrop to this momentous struggle. While it may take some digging out, she has written it with a typically clear agenda: to trace back through the past what is, in her view, feminism's continuing confusion, indeed hypocrisy, about the roles of women and men.
Phillips begins her story with the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the seminal Vindication of the Rights of Woman. As one might have anticipated, she is dismissive of the radical and experimental Wollstonecraft, dwelling, in a spirit somewhere between gloom and glee, on her apparent moral hypocrisies and personal tragedies.
There is a much more respectful account of the daughters of the educated and well-resourced middle class who became female pioneers in their fields, or more moderate campaign leaders. These include the sisters Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and the suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Florence Nightingale (who as a rather bitter single woman gets suprisingly kind treatment from Phillips) and the glamorous Josephine Butler, who fought hard for the repeal of the brutal Contagious Diseases Act.
By the second part of the 19th century, much feminist discontent had become focused on the struggle for the vote. From here onwards, the book is a long, sustained attack on what Phillips calls feminism's own double standard. By this she means that many Victorian and Edwardian feminists argued for political equality on the grounds of an assumed feminine superiority, a distinct set of qualities which, it was suggested, women could then bring to the public sphere. In the later period of militancy, some of these ideas intensified, with some feminists associated with campaigns to "banish the beast" of rampant male sexuality and promote chastity for all.
But trawling through the bewildering array of arguments used to justify women's claim to the vote, one is struck not so much by their hypocrisy as by their helplessness. It is hard for modern readers to understand the context in which these debates took place and the degree to which campaigners of the 19th century emphasised, or felt they had to emphasise, either women's domestic and moral capacities or their sexual continence. …