English Feminism, 1780-1980

English Feminism, 1780-1980

English Feminism, 1780-1980

English Feminism, 1780-1980

Synopsis

Barbara Caine offers the first complete overview of the history of `modern' English feminism, from the French Revolution through to the advent of Women's Liberation. Her analysis of feminist organizations, debates, and campaigns shows a keen sense of the relationship between feminist thought and actions, and wider social and cultural change. The result is a fascinating study with a new perspective on feminists and feminist traditions, which can be used both as an introductory text and as an interpretative work. Professor Caine examines the complex questions surrounding the concept of a feminist 'tradition', and shows how much the feminism of any particular period related to the years preceding or following it. Though feminism may have lacked the kind of legitimating tradition evident in other forms of political thought, the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft is seen here as something which all nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminists had to come to terms with. Her story was a constant reminder of the connection between the demand for political and legal rights, and its conflation with the issues of personal and sexual rebellion. Like Mary Wollstonecraft, every woman pioneer into the public arena was faced with assaults on her honour as well as on her intellectual position. Professor Caine also addresses the language of feminism: the introduction and changing meanings of the term `feminist' the importance of literary representations of women; and the question of how one defines feminism, and establishes boundaries between feminism and the `woman question'. She ends with a discussion of the new emphasis, post-1980s, on the need to think about `feminisms' in the plural, rather than any single kind of feminism.

Excerpt

I first became interested in the history of feminism in the early 1970s when, as a postgraduate student in Britain, the advent of the women's liberation movement made me aware of the complete neglect of women in my own historical training and research. As an Australian spending a relatively brief period at a provincial university, however, it was not so much the activities of the British women's liberation movement -- about which I only became aware when they made media headlines -- as the books that accompanied it which were of direct importance to me. And from the start, American and Australian work was perhaps more important. Kate Millett's Sexual Politics in particular challenged the conventional understanding of Victorian life and letters which was my particular field of interest and led me into a variety of projects dealing with the lives and the dilemmas of nineteenth-century women. Hence the book is very much a product of the women's liberation movement and its aftermath with which it ends -- but it is a product not so much of the British women's movement as of its Australian counterpart, because it was there that I lived and taught and worked out how to integrate feminism into my study of history, making regular forays back to Britain in search of research materials.

It was the teaching of women's history which led to this work: while my previous research has concentrated on a relatively small chronological period, teaching undergraduate courses on the history of feminism made me venture outside my accustomed boundaries, moving backwards into the eighteenth century and forwards to the present. These courses made me aware that while there are ever-increasing numbers of wonderful, specific, and detailed studies dealing with particular periods or problems or issues in the history of feminism, there are few works which explore this history over an extended period, or which discuss the questions about continuity and change or the connections between different periods in feminist thought that fascinated my own students.

The absence of such long-term or extended histories of feminism is not particularly surprising. In a period when historical scholarship is becoming more and more specialized and in which discontinuities are of more interest than continuity, general histories and long narratives seem almost to be a relic from the past. And feminism offers particular . . .

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