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Revolting Women: an introductory overview

2011 September 5

Last winter’s wave of student and youth protests held many points of interest, but one of the most amusing was the Daily Mail‘s pearl-clutching front page on what it chose to call Rage of the Girl Rioters, in which it claimed that ‘rioting girls’ had become ‘the disturbing new face of violent protest’. While the article betrayed predictable anxieties about social protest in general, the visible presence of female agency was an ingredient that occasioned a particularly salacious shock.

Silver dollar coin engraved with images of walking legs, most of which are in skirts, being led by army-booted feet. The coin says 'liberty - desegregation in education 2007'. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons licence

Comemmorative dollar for the Little Rock Nine, six of whom were women

What this highlighted, besides what we already know about the Daily Mail‘s peculiarities, was its historical ignorance of female involvement in popular protest. Contrary to the fears of Middle England, this is nothing new – we have, like John Sullivan’s comic creation, been revolting for years. Centuries, in fact, from the demonstrations by upper class Roman women in protest at state restrictions on their use of luxury goods, through the involvement of women of all classes in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the great civil rights struggles of the twentieth century (left), to female participation in the current unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Chile. We have marched, struck, rioted, occupied, petitioned, organised and agitated not only on behalf of our own interests as women, but also as part of broader social movements and collective actions, both peaceful and violent, carried out for social, political and economic reasons.

Often women’s involvement in protest has drawn on their gendered role within families and communities. Women played a significant part, for instance, in the riots over food supply, quality and price which swept Europe during its transition to a capitalist market economy from the 16th century to the 19th. Historians like Temma Kaplan, E P Thompson and Natalie Zemon Davis (and, er, me) have seen female participation in these protests as an extension of their role in the sexual division of labour, including food procurement and preparation, which lent legitimacy and authority to their involvement. The prominence of women in local networks of communication, and their presence in social centres like market squares as part of their daily routine, also allowed them to collectively mobilise and organise – the equivalent, under agrarian capitalism, of creating a Facebook Events page.

A large group of white women link arms in the mud and rain of the Greenham Common campThere is, however, a myriad of other movements and moments in which women have taken part as workers, students, trade union organisers, family members, and consumers, as well as on grounds of class, race, sexuality, and political principle. There’s even a Wikipedia list of female rebel leaders dating from the 9th century BC to this year’s uprising in Ivory Coast, which, even though this series is concerned less with individuals and more with women’s mass participation in protest, is still pretty cool.

Just as their presence is still being obscured in reports of current events in the Middle East, so women have historically been absent from many popular and academic accounts of protest. The advent of feminist-influenced social history from the mid-20th century sought to correct masculine bias within traditional narratives of labour history or liberal teleologies, both of which had marginalised or misrepresented the involvement of women. Conversely, strictly purist or doctrinaire feminist narratives of history have also tended to ignore popular movements which did not advance a specifically feminist programme, regardless of how heavily women may have been involved. Both of these approaches resulted in the omission, until recently, of women from the histories of protest movements like Chartism in which they played a significant part.

The place and properness of women in protest has long been a bone of contention, with discourse surrounding their involvement portraying them as hysterical, unwomanly, deviant, or deranged. Sheila Rowbotham, in her historical study of women and protest, notes that:

It is at the point where the revolution starts to move women out of their passivity into the conscious and active role of militants that the mockery, the caricatures, the laughter with strong sexual undertones begin.

The vicious alarmism and mockery drawn by female involvement in politics, with which suffragists and civil rights agitators found themselves contending, is already evident in several cartoons on female Jacobins and campaigners for constitutional reform. Political cartoons of the 18th and 19th century were rarely noted for their subtlety, and caricaturists tended to focus upon the disorderly nature of political females, as well as imputing to them an ‘unwomanly’ loose or aggressive sexuality. Cruikshanks depicted ‘The Female Reformers of Blackburn’ as vulgarly outspoken and blowsily dressed, distastefully dominating their political platform, and J L Marks’ ‘Much Wanted: A Reform Among Females!!!’ gives its female protagonists suggestively brandished rolled-up papers, poles clutched between their knees, and – oh yes – hands clasped in their laps to form a gaping dark hole, setting out their desire to usurp male power as well as their own wantonness. As, perhaps, does the presence of all those upthrust pikes, swords and cannons in depictions of the women’s march to Versailles. And of course Cath Elliot’s recent piece on online harassment, by which politically uppity women are impugned as frigid, or sluts, or lesbians, provides a piquant reminder of this glorious tradition.

Painted bust of Marianne from the French Revolution. She is pale with reddish hair and a red cap, and wears dark blue grecian-style drapes. Image via Wikipedia, shared under Creative Commons licenceWomen in protest don’t merely have attacks from the right to worry about. Their involvement does not take place in a vacuum – women protest not only as women but for multiple reasons of sectional interest, and the gender identification of protestors has historically generated conflict and tension with identities based on race, class, sexuality, and ideology. To take just one example, the involvement of women in 20th century industrial conflict, acting in support of or solidarity with male industrial workers, has been criticised by some feminists who view such conflict as manifestations of an unhelpfully macho patriarchal culture from which women should separate themselves.

Nor can it be assumed that female involvement in social protest will naturally result in an outcome which is cognisant of, sympathetic to, or even comfortable for women. After the Women’s March to Versailles, women as revolutionaries became a potent symbol of the power of the French Revolution, and the young Republic was eventually personified in the figure of Marianne. But, as Joan Landes has argued, Marianne’s visual prominence did not mean that women obtained significant political, social, or economic advantages during the French Revolution; the new Republic’s politics was one of laws and texts in which Marianne’s image bore no concrete significance. Similar tensions are apparent in the complex relationship of Iranian women with the after-effects of the 1979 revolution, and the contention that the presence of women in the current ‘Arab spring’ uprisings, when acknowledged at all, is being appropriated and used symbolically.

In addition to the examples given in links above, this series will look in greater detail at case-studies of women’s involvement in social, political, and economic protest, their motivations and methods, their successes and setbacks. It’s been a long, hot summer of discontent and it shouldn’t be any surprise to see women as well as men taking their place in the sun.


5 Responses leave one →
  1. Aisling permalink
    September 5, 2011

    That bit about Marianne reminds me of something my history teacher said about the movement for Irish independence in the early C20th:”Caitlín Ní Houlihán was a woman, meant to be Ireland; which tells you all you need to know about Pádraig Pearse’s views on women. They could be countries, but not people”. (Which is pretty bitchy, as Pearse deffo wasn’t the only misogynist in the movement, but wev. I’ll always be pro-bitching-about-Pearse.)

    Anyway, this looks like being a class series. Looking forward to further instalments. :)

  2. September 5, 2011

    I’m writing a journal paper on fan activism which touches upon the role women have historically played in charity/activism so this is a very timely (and useful) post for me. I may come back and say more when it’s less late and I’ve read more.

  3. Russell permalink
    September 7, 2011

    I came across a wonderful anecdote somewhere about how Dr Benjamin Spock (the real life paediatrician, not the Star Trek character) was persuaded to oppose the Vietnam War when, passing the White House one day, he saw a small group of mothers (around 20) who had lost children in the war protesting against it. He went on to become one of the most outspoken voices against the war.

    I have no idea how true this is, but regardless, it is a great illustration of the true power of protest; no matter how small or insignificant, you only have to persuade the right person at the right time to effect real change.

  4. Clare permalink
    September 11, 2011

    Will you include Mary MacArthur in your series at some point? I read the short book about her and the Chainmakers strike of 1910 and was very inspired, as well as surprised I’d never heard of her before.

    • Miranda permalink*
      September 11, 2011

      We’ve not had a submission on her as yet – but we are still taking them, if anyone is interested in doing one! :)

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