Significant Sister: The Grassroots of Active Feminism 1839-1939 By Margaret Forster Alfred A. Knopf, 1985 $19.95
IN THE EARLY 19th century, a woman who married gave up all has property rights, and if she separated from her husband, she had no right to see her children again. It's a truism to say that steady, dramatic improvement in women's opportunities has occurred since, at least in the Western democracies. But we have discovered that complete legal equality, even in contemporary America, is hard to come by and, moreover, that legal equality does not always mean equality of economic opportunity, as the recent history of Blacks painfully shown. The history of what women have gained, and how, takes on a special significance in light of this ongoing struggle. By looking at the past, we can understand some of the forces that still work against women and perhaps decide where to go next.
Margaret Forster's Significant Sisters: The Grassroots of Active Feminian, 1839-1939 is an important contribution to this endeavor. Forster chronicles the lives and accomplishments of eight women, each of whom helped bring about a significant change in the status of British or American women. Forster begins by disclaiming any intent to write a comprehensive history of the beginnings of the feminist movement. Instead, she has chosen to write about the women whose struggles have affected her directly: "In many ways, I myself am the product of everything the eight women in this book fought for--much more so than the average women."
Forster sees feminist history as the removal of a series of traps, which nonetheless leaves unanswered some of the same questions it started with. What keeps women from striking out in the same way as men do? Why do women seem to have to sacrifice more for the same accomplishments? Should women adopt male codes of behavior entering professions that have traditionally been closed to them? Should they make the same mistakes as men have?
The first and most obvious trap for 19th-century women was the institution of marriage. Forster's book begins with an essay on Carohne Norton, an English woman who was separated from her husband after he had beaten her several times Upon being separated Norton discovered to her horror that her husband had the legal right to keep her from secing her children and that he was the owner of any money she inherited of earned These two discoveries led her to crisade against the offending laws.
In 1839 Parliament passed the Infants Custody Bill, which declared that children under seven were allowed to reside with their mother but only of the Lord Chancellor agreed to it and if the mother was of "good character" Lorster points out that it took until 1973 for the child custody laws to be completely reformed And finaly in 1882 the Married Woman's Property Not gave married women the same property rights as single women.
According to Forster, Caroline Norton did not have the idea that the interion social status of women should be radically altered just that women should be accorded the same protection as other socially vulnerable groups But Norton was in fact asking For an in stitutional reform a marriage into an arrangement mutually benetial to both women and men Even after separating from her husbad Norton was careful not ot consort with men lest her reputation, an theirs be harmend.
The feminist struggle seems one which makes gains little by little: Forster says that it requires a steady stream of women who are willing to serve as the "example on which a particular law shall be reformed." To play this role, for Norton as for other women, entails, a tremendous personal sacrifice.
FORSTER TURNS NEXT to Elizabeth Blackwell, the world's first trained, registered women doctor, Black well gave up any ideas of marriage or motherhood in order to pursue her aim of being a doctor--and she insisted on undergoing the same training and receiving the same certification as her male colleagues. Without this, Blackwell realized that women could never gain true equality in the professions--differences in training or background would always be singled out as inferiorities.
Blackwell's brand of feminists, however, demanded a greater sacrifice than most women are willing to make, and a greater sacrifice than most men have to make. Blackwell wanted women doctors to embark on a crusade for greater humaneness in the profession, particularly in obstetrics and gynecology. Norton herself wrote, "Women, in fact, have not been attracted to those areas which Elizabeth Blackwell thought cried out for them..." The 20th century has shown as that although it is now legally possible for women to become doctors, other obstacles still stand in the way. Medical training requires a time commitment that is extremely difficult to combine with marriage and motherhood--but women are still reluctant to postpone child-bearing. In fact, Forster criticizes female doctors for having successfully assimilated themselves into the ranks of male doctors without making a serious collective effort to reform the profession.
florence Nightingale opened up another form of employment that eventually became accessible to larger numbers of women--nursing Nightingale wanted women to open up a sphere of employment historically reserved exclusively for men and she also wanted to reform the nursing profession, whose standards were extremely low in the early 19th century Insisting that women were entirely responsible for their inferior position in society. Nightingale set up a training school for women nurses and enforced rigorous standards. Graduates of the Nightingale School soon built up a reputation for extreme competence This, along with the story of Nightingale's successes in the Crimean War, made nursing a much more respectable occupation that it had been before and helped clear the way for the large scale entry of women into jobs.
Women could not very well enter the professions or seck sckilled employment without a good education. According to some observers in the early part of the 19th century the already abysmally low standard of education of girs schools was continuing to decline It took Entity Davies to halt this slide She was in spired to take action when she found her own education wanting and was bored with the life she was expected to lead when she came of age Davies founded the Gorton School and began the reform of girls' education Davies insisted on educating her students in exactly the same way as boys something that caused not a little annoyance among those who felt that the Corton School was an opportunity for a new more creative approach to education Bin Davies left, like Blackwell, that women would not be taken seriously unfess they were tranined in exactly the same, was as men Forsict credits Davies with having made education available on a large scale to girls and women, but she still puzzles over what she calls a lack of ambition among fugh school graduates.
Even after some of the burriers to social mobility had been removed, women were still confined by severe standards of moral behavior--standards to which men were not expected to adhere. Particularly odious were England's Contagious Diseases Acts, passed in the 1860s. These laws stipulated that any woman suspected of prostitution would be inspected for venereal diseases: if she was diseased, she was forced to enter a hospital until she was free of desease. The enforcement of these acts, particularly the brutal medical inspection which many women were forced to undergo, horrified the repeal of the acts, she visited prisons and workhouses and came to understand prostitutes as victims both of their socio-economic circumstances and of a moral code which made them criminals but placed no blame on the men they consorted with. The acts were eventually repeated, but not before Butler had endured a good deal of public scorn.
Forster turns next to the wanted suffrage, movement and the life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Deciding to campaign for the right to vote represented a new stage in feminism--it meant a radical alteration in the legal status of women Forster says that the suffragettes had hoped for too much at the outset--they had hoped that women voting would make the world a better place and in particular improve their own position. Today, women represent only a small proportion of the elected government representatives in the Western world Either women are simply rejecting one of their options of there is something else standing in their way Forster wonders uneasily what this new obstacle might be.
Margaret Sanger defined liberation in a different way--as the struggle to have freedom from constant childbeating With a choice between abstention from sex and complete dedication to motherhood, women could never be truly free Sanger, having seen the proliberation of unwanted babies and the horrendous effects of sloppy abortions on New York's East Side, began the fight for the availability of female contraception Sanger brought the diaphragm to the United States and opened a clinic in New York an offense for which she spent 30 days in fall. Throught her efforts knowledge about birth control became widespread and research began while eventually led to development of the D and the Pill Sanger was one of the first people to assert that women had the fight to be concrned with the quality of their several intercourse.
Women, of course, did not always want to be faced with the new choices which Sanger's activities created. And Forster says that winning the vote produced complaceney. The feminist movement then needed an ideology to propel it Forster credits Emma Goldman, a Lithuanian immigrant to the United States who was active in the anarchist movement with providing this ideology According to Goldman real emancipition begins in the soul after all the outer traps have been removed, internal tyrannies still keep women in subjection.
It is the quest for this "emancipaton of the soul" which pushes women to confront the same questions they always have Forster's book has pointed out clearly what those questions are and highlighted some of the difficult choices that women today must make The struggles of the women she portrays have increased the choices available to modern women and have made her circumstances much easter to bear, but they have not necessarily made the choosing any order.