Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present

Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present

Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present

Women, Privilege, and Power: British Politics, 1750 to the Present

Synopsis

This book examines the many different ways in which women achieved public standing and exercised political power in England from the middle of the eighteenth century to the present. It shows how rank, property, and inheritance could confer de facto power on privileged women, and how across the centuries the arrogance of birth and title empowered aristocratic women to overawe enfranchised men of lower social standing.

The essays contribute to an ongoing "rethinking of the political", a consequence in part of the rediscovery of the work of Jurgen Habermas by political and social historians. For Habermas, the public sphere included print media and voluntary associations, and the contributors stress the extent of female engagement in political culture broadly conceived. However, they extend this definition of the public sphere further still to include the "private" world of family connections and friendship networks, within which political ideas were debated and new social practices played out.

Many of the essays are inspired by a related effort to reintegrate radical female activists within their political milieu. Although feminist hagiography has accustomed us to see female activists as heroic outsiders rising sui generis from a hostile environment, recent research restores them to their intellectual and familial contexts. Finally, the contributors explore the limits and possibilities of women's citizenship both before and after winning the right to vote. Together, the essays tell a continuous and complex story, redefining political activity and reassessing the turning points of British political history.

Excerpt

The startling and moving events that swept from China to Eastern Europe to Latin America and South Africa at the end of the 1980s, followed closely by similar events and the subsequent dissolution of what used to be the Soviet Union, formed one of those great historic occasions when calls for freedom, rights, and democracy echoed through political upheaval. A clear-eyed look at any of those conjunctions—in 1776 and 1789, in 1848 and 1918, as well as in 1989—reminds us that freedom, liberty, rights, and democracy are words into which many different and conflicting hopes have been read. The language of freedom—or liberty, which is interchangeable with freedom most of the time—is inherently difficult. It carried vastly different meanings in the classical world and in medieval Europe from those of modern understanding, though thinkers in later ages sometimes eagerly assimilated the older meanings to their own circumstances and purposes.

A new kind of freedom, which we have here called modern, gradually disentangles itself from old contexts in Europe, beginning first in England in the early seventeenth century and then, with many confusions, denials, reversals, and cross-purposes, elsewhere in Europe and the world. A large-scale history of this modern, conceptually distinct, idea of freedom is now beyond the ambition of any one scholar, however learned. This collaborative enterprise, tentative though it must be, is an effort to fill the gap.

We could not take into account all the varied meanings that freedom and liberty have carried in the modern world. We have, for example, ruled out extended attention to what some political philosophers have called “positive freedom,” in the sense of self-realization of the individual; nor could we, even in a series as large as this, cope with the enormous implications of the four freedoms invoked by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press will have their place in the narrative that follows, certainly, but not the boundless calls for freedom from want and freedom from fear.

We use freedom in the traditional and restricted sense of civil and political . . .

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