Feminist Media History: Suffrage, Periodicals and the Public Sphere

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Considering how important independently-made media can be for feminist movements – it can be argued that grassroots publications are the lifeblood of any mobilisation, allowing women and their allies to speak in their own words and to connect supporters together – it seems rather curious that little critical work has been done on analysing such sources as part of feminist history. Thankfully, a new book by Maria DiCenzo with Lucy Delap and Leila Ryan, Feminist Media History: Suffrage, Periodicals and the Public Sphere, seeks to reclaim women’s radical publishing histories and to place activist media back on the map.

Focusing on periodicals from Edwardian society, when the first-wave of suffrage agitation hit new heights, this fascinating book combines original research into publications such as Votes for Women, The Common Cause, the Englishwoman and the Freewoman, with a sturdy look at social movement theory, press history and contemporary media studies.

Foregrounding ideas of collective identities, framing, protest cycles and collective action, this is an original and potentially very rich way of approaching suffrage history

Feminist Media History isn’t just a straightforward history of early feminist publishing. It does much more than that. An interventional and academic text, this book aims to chart an emerging field of scholarship: the meshing of feminist media studies and feminist history. It considers feminist media editors, contributors, readers and communities – and offers a rich analysis of suffrage-related media production at the time.

In two parts, the first deals with theoretical frameworks. Ideas of the ‘public sphere’ as a site where democracy is thought to happen are supplemented by the concept of a “multi-organisational field”. This concept suggests that feminist periodicals should be considered from a range of agendas and placed within broader social contexts. Foregrounding ideas of collective identities, framing, protest cycles and collective action, this is an original and potentially very rich way of approaching suffrage history.

However, many suffrage organisations adopted a strategy of avoiding criticising each other in the media sphere and to rally instead against their opponents. This was to maintain a united front in the public eye

The second half of the book is devoted to three case studies. In her chapter ‘Unity and Dissent: Official Organs of the Suffrage Campaign’, Maria DiCenzo examines how different groups used their publications to frame debates and to deal with their detractors, including other feminists. A lot of internal dissent existed within the movement as women’s groups competed for financial support and public recognition. As DiCenzo points out: “Sources of conflict ranged from radical vs. moderate positions to democratic vs. hierarchical modes of organisation.” These weren’t just female rivalries, but serious political differences.

As campaigner Millicent Fawcett wrote in 1912: “[There was] a most anxious time… when there seemed a danger that the suffrage cause might degenerate into futile quarrelling among suffragists about the respective merits of their different methods, rather than develop into a larger, broader and more widespread movement.” However, many suffrage organisations avoided criticising each other in the media, to rally instead against their opponents. This was to maintain a united front in the public eye.

For some feminists, such a strategy amounted to censorship. DiCenzo draws on Helena Swanwick, for example, who resigned from her position as editor of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies’ paper, Common Cause, for being unable to publicly criticise the militant Women’s Social and Political Union. Writing in 1912, Swanwick said: “I see no beauty in sentimentalising away our differences. They are great and vital and I will be no party to making light of them.”

One notorious magazine had a working class editor who goaded her readership for ‘not being free enough’ and featured taboo topics such as female sexual pleasure, birth control, abortion and minority sexual and gender issues

Moving beyond explicitly suffrage organs, Leila Ryan and Maria DiCenzo’s ‘The Englishwoman: ‘Twelve Years of Brilliant Life” considers a periodical which was both a ‘suffrage magazine’ and a general cultural and political review. Focusing on close readings from The Englishwoman, Ryan and DiCenzo probe arguments concerning war, pacifism, the state and women’s work.

Lucy Delap’s witty chapter ‘Individualism and Introspection: The Framing of Feminism in the Freewoman‘ constitutes the final, and perhaps most fruitful, case study of the book. Delap looks at a notorious magazine where the working class editor goaded her readership for “not being free enough” and which featured taboo topics such as female sexual pleasure, birth control, abortion and minority sexual and gender issues. For example, following discussions in the magazine about homosexuality and ‘Uranians’ (a 20th century term used to refer to people of a ‘third sex’), transgender lawyer Thomas Baty wrote to the Freewoman in 1912 advertising a society he had set up against the “gigantic superstructure of artificial convention” and the “insistent differentiation” into two genders. Delap’s choice of examples are fascinating and seem to call out for a fuller historical analysis; especially as feminist transgender recognition is usually presumed to be the preserve of third-wavers.

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Speaking of the third-wave – that hotly contested period in the West from the 1990s onwards – Delap takes an unfortunately predictable route in joining what she calls the “individualism and introspection” of the Freewoman onto contemporary feminist discourse: while it’s very interesting to make cross-generational links, it’s the characterisation of the ‘third wave’ here that I take issue with. In newspapers, the academy and mainstream feminist tracts, much is made of the supposed “pleasure-oriented, individualised, power-hungry” direction of young women’s contemporary feminism. Yet few of these accounts draw on grassroots feminist voices. What we have instead is a ‘star system’ of professional feminists, often historically amnesiac or reactionary, standing in for a more diverse collectivity of feminist opinion and practice on the ground. It seems ironic that a collection devoted to feminist media history fails to engage with discussions of the third wave as they take place in grassroots publications today.

Above all though, this is a cracking book for budding feminist history and media geeks and for anyone interested in how social movements work (though those not fascinated by the definitional disputes of “what media history is” may wish to skip the introduction). The down side of the book is that it’s only published in hard-back and will set you back £50 (but go check it out in a library, or get your library to order it). As DiCenzo writes: “The WSPU rallying cry may have been ‘Deeds, not words,’ but this underestimates the power of ‘Words as Deeds’ – the publication of periodicals as political acts.” Long may feminist grassroots publishing – and its academic study – continue if we are to have a better understanding of the tactics, strategies, disputes and successes of feminist movements on the ground.

Image of suffragettes with Votes for Women posters shared by psd on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Red Chidgey is a fan of independent publishing and is currently researching a PhD on feminist cultural memory. She blogs about feminist media and history at feministmemory.wordpress.com