Socialism and Superior Brains: The Political Thought of Bernard Shaw

By Gareth Griffith | Go to book overview

3

SEXUAL EQUALITY

A COMPLEX LEGACY

Shaw’s reflections on sexual equality are inherently controversial, inviting conflicting interpretations as to their meaning and worth. There are those who favour the ideas he formulated as a political thinker, while others find in these all the pitfalls and limitations of his Fabian socialism. Some disparage the portrayals of women in his plays, while others see them as model statements on the theme of female emancipation. Some find much to praise in a few plays and much to criticize in many more.

The confusion is not new. In his own day, activists struggling for the vote for women, for example, often canvassed his support, seeking to enlist the prestige of the great man of letters to their cause. Sometimes Shaw pleased them. Just as often his responses disappointed or perplexed these earnest women.

Traditionally, Shaw’s contribution has been cast mainly in a positive light. The strong, dynamic women of the plays were said to have inspired many women to break the bonds of their Victorian upbringing. By the 1890s Shaw’s name was connected intimately with the propaganda on behalf of ‘the new woman’. As the arch-progressive he was eager to argue the case for radical feminism, to preach the rebel’s gospel of liberation. Responding to these overtures, many women, young women especially, were enthusiastic in their support for Shaw, often treating him as a mentor from whom they could learn what to think, feel and do. F.C. Burnaud, writing of the audience at the Court Theatre during the Barker-Vedrenne regime, which Shaw so dominated, observed: ‘The female element predominates over the inferior sex as something like twelve to one. The audience had not a theatre-going, but rather, a lecture-going, sermon loving appearance’ (Ford 1983:275).

Woman’s cause and Shaw’s were intertwined, it seems, held together by mutual need and admiration. As Wilma Meikle wrote in 1915, ‘young women at the universities’ around this time ‘poured over’ the works of Shaw and Wells, earnestly convinced that these were the true guides to emancipation (Meikle 1916:87). In a less generous spirit, writing in Time and Tide in 1930, Lady Rhondda said Shaw’s ‘generalisations on these matters want watching’

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Socialism and Superior Brains: The Political Thought of Bernard Shaw
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I 21
  • 1 - Shaw’s Fabianism 23
  • 2 - Shavian Socialism 101
  • Part II 155
  • 3 - Sexual Equality 157
  • 4 - The Irish Question 191
  • 5 - War and Peace 216
  • 6 - Fascism and Sovietism 241
  • Part III 275
  • 7 - Conclusion 277
  • Notes 286
  • Bibliography 291
  • Index 300
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