There is no commentary in the book, it is simply a collection of quotations from women from the eighteenth century to the present day. It is beautifully illustrated and the quotations are roughly grouped by theme. I have to admit that my first impression was that it was pretty corny, like all those so-called 'inspirational' gift books, usually sold on railway stations and in garden centres. In fact, it depicts the very real struggle that women had to obtain justice, to be treated with respect and fairness and for their gifts and talents for anything other than domestic chores to be recognised.
The book isn't a series of whinges. It is the modern feminist who whinges, belittling the efforts of her great grandmother. The words of Sojourner Truth refer to real slavery; Elizabeth Stanton, Julia Ward Howe and Lucretia Mott were abolitionists and also worked for basic social rights for women. Natalya Baranskaya speaks as a woman struggling to balance her role as a scientist with her domestic duties in Soviet Russia.
Women of the middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not experience the physical privations of their less fortunate sisters, their struggle was against inequalities in education and opportunities to express themselves in art and literature. Francoise Gilot, whom I quoted in yesterday's post, was born in 1921 into a wealthy French family. She had excellent educational opportunities, gaining a degree in Philosophy from the Sorbonne and one in English Literature from Oxford, but she had to keep her ambition to be an artist secret from her family. Sophie Tolstoy, a poet in her own right and mother to 13 of Leo's children, felt that she was regarded by the great man as "... a source of satisfaction to him, a nurse, a piece of furniture, a woman - nothing more."
Quotations from these women and others such as Lucy Stone, Rebecca West and Virginia Woolf show the frustration of artists and thinkers who were subject to restrictions imposed by a male-dominated society. It is difficult for us to imagine living in a society in which women were laughed at or even condemned for wanting to 'do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.' (Charlotte Bronte) And yet it was not really so long ago: my own mother, born in 1920, was not allowed to take up a scholarship to the Liverpool College of Art because her parents couldn't see the point of higher education for a girl.
It is interesting to note the change in tone from earnest to humorous as more freedoms were won and different goals set:
- "In education, in marriage, in religion, in everything, disappointment is the lot of women. It shall be the business of my life to deepen this disappointment in every woman's heart until she bows to it no longer." (Lucy Stone 1818-1893)
- "If civilisation is to advance at all in the future, it must be through the help of women, women freed of their political shackles, women with full power to work their will in society." (Emmaline Pankhurst 1857-1928)
- "I'm furious about the Women's Liberationists. They keep getting up on soapboxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men. That's true, but it should be kept very quiet or it ruins the whole racket." (Anita Loos 1888-1981)
- "It occurred to me when I was thirteen and wearing white gloves and Mary Janes and going to dancing school, that no one should have to dance backward all their lives." (Jill Ruckelshaus, b. 1937)
Reading these quotations, finding out about their authors and the times in which they lived(aren't search engines wonderful!) has made me realise how much we owe to their courage and determination. They are not to be confused with modern feminists, about whom I will keep quiet since I cannot think of anything kind to say. They were not anti-men, they just wanted to be considered as fully human. That is our heritage: we have equality in law, employment, education and most areas of social life.
I'm going back to my shelf of discards to see what other little gems I might find.