What did women really want? Writing a suppressed history of social reform

What did women really want? Writing a suppressed history of social reform

Ann Oakley

As we celebrate the centenary of British women’s (limited) admission to the franchise, it is easy to lose sight of other aspects of their struggles. Yes, women wanted the vote – it was outrageous that they had been denied the benefits of citizenship for so long. But this is only part of the story. Many women who took part in the spectacular events of the suffrage movements, and many others, too, were involved in creating and pursuing a vision of a different kind of social order. They wanted a society respectful of women and the principle of gender equality; one that took a democratic view of public policy, acting on evidence about the unequal and distressing treatment of human beings inflicted by industrial capitalism; and, above all, they wanted a peaceful society committed to the abolition of aggression, militarism, and warfare. In other words, they did not only campaign for the elimination of discrimination against women, but for a better world that would benefit everybody.

How have we managed to forget this? Who were these women?  How did they articulate and actively pursue their ideas about the good society? These questions evolved from very modest beginnings a few years ago, when I was investigating the evolution of academic social policy at the London School of Economics in the early 1950s. In the process I stumbled across the tail end of a transnational network of women reformers which stretched right back to the 1880s and before. This was clearly more than a series of local battles designed to persuade governments to let women onto the electoral register. I was hooked on a quest that took me to many libraries and archives, and which resulted in my book Women, Peace and Welfare: a suppressed history of social reform, 1880-1920. The list of women at the end of the book has 324 names in it, many unknown to me before I embarked on this research.

A pioneering social science: two examples
There was, for instance, Edith Abbott (1876-1957), an American economist who researched and wrote about the rights of women in industry; the trafficking of women; maternal health services; child labour; the benefits of immigration and cultural diversity; housing, crime and prison reform. Edith Abbott’s main concern was with the scientific study of social problems and with designing effective and caring welfare services. She came to Britain in 1906 and took courses at LSE, most notably a course on methods of social investigation taught by LSE’s founders, Beatrice and Sidney Webb. She took their approach back with her to the USA and adopted it her own university course – just one of countless examples of the international transfer of ideas. Edith was a member of an extensive group of women reformers and researchers who lived and worked in the famous social settlement called Hull-House in Chicago. In 1895 they published a ground-breaking collection of essays on the living and working conditions of Chicago’s poor: Hull-House Maps and Papers. Although this is increasingly being recognized today as establishing many of the key methods of an empirical social science, it was dismissed at the time by the (male) academic establishment in the USA as unscientific and concerned only with the ‘feelings of slum dwellers’. Edith Abbott herself had a direct role in the 1935 Social Security Act in the USA which introduced old age pensions and unemployment insurance for the first time. This was the beginning of what sadly did not turn out to be a welfare state, although it could have done, had anyone listened seriously to Edith Abbott and other women like her.

Women reformers in America worked closely with their counterparts in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. An important focus of activity in the UK was the Women’s Industrial Council, founded by Clementina Black (1853-1922), a social investigator (and novelist – many of these women turned their ideas into fiction as well). Clementina chaired the Women’s Industrial Council’s Social Investigations Committee, which did much research exposing the harsh social and economic conditions of women’s labour. Their research in the early 1900s used a wide range of methods – face-to-face interviews in homes and workplaces; quantitative surveys; case-reports; covert ethnography; documentary analysis; diaries, and so forth; and researchers tangled with what continues to be recognized today as the tricky issue of how to combine and interpret these various types of data.

A good example of trail-blazing methodology is Makers of Our Clothes, published in 1912, and co-written by Clementina Black and Adele Meyer, a wealthy social reformer who helped to fund the research described in the book. Makers of Our Clothes presents data on women’s work in the tailoring, dress-making and underclothing trades and is far ahead of its time in containing much detail about how the investigation was carried out: the importance of local community informants in identifying potential interviewees; the difficulty of tracking interviewees down; the importance of informed consent; the need for careful note-taking; the remarkable generosity people often demonstrate in their willingness to talk to researchers. In another demonstration of how ideas about research and reform crossed country borders, Black and Meyer acknowledged a significant debt to a German researcher, Elizabeth Landsberg of Breslau, Germany, who had undertaken a study of women clothing workers there.

One of Clementina Black’s other achievements was to establish the movement for consumer boycotting of unethically produced goods. She set up the British Consumers’ League in 1887, the first such organization anywhere, and the model for many later ones in the USA, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland. Clementina was also one of the first to put forward the argument for a minimum wage policy in 1896. This is developed in her book Sweated Industry and the Minimum Wage, published in 1907, and reporting the results of a WIC investigation of around 400 workers in the ‘sweated’ industries (where workers put in long hours in appalling conditions for low wages).

The importance of connections
Women, peace and welfare is, above all, about connections. It’s about the connections between women reformers in their different organizations and different countries. It’s about the connections they themselves made between their vision of a welfare society based on evidence – about social conditions and the most effective way to improve these – and broader issues about cultural ideology and power relations. They saw a direction relationship between collecting facts about how people live and informing policy-makers about the use of legislative and institutional change to make a better society (and they were very adept at exploiting social contacts to get at top politicians and other opinion-leaders). Many of these women saw a society organized around male citizenship and male-dominated institutions as contaminated with ideas about aggression and militarism in ways that were simply incompatible with public welfare reform. They opposed warfare and promoted negotiation rather than confrontation for resolving all kinds of disputes.

Women reformers and the peace movement
The cover of my book shows a photograph taken at an extraordinary meeting attended by 1,136 women reformers from 12 countries at The Hague in the Netherlands in the middle of the First World War in 1915. The object of the meeting was to try to prevent the escalation of the War and to discuss and implement strategies for turning people’s energies world-wide away from militarism and towards pacifism. The Hague meeting was the brainchild of a woman called Aletta Jacobs (1854-1929) from the Netherlands, another name that has been forgotten today. Aletta’s work lives on in the health care field as the inventor of the contraceptive device called the ‘Dutch cap’. She was one of the first woman doctors in the Netherlands (qualifying in 1878), and she opened what was probably the world’s first birth control clinic in 1882, about 30 years before the much better known Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger got round to it – they both, incidentally, went to the Netherlands to meet Aletta Jacobs and find out about her work.

The Hague meeting led to the founding of an organization called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which is still in existence today. It was followed by many brave and imaginative efforts made by some of the participants who personally travelled round war-torn Europe and tried to persuade political leaders to give up the project of war. It was also linked to many initiatives in Europe and the USA to reform educational curricula so as to celebrate ‘peace heroes’ rather than military ones, and to raise children without toy guns, soldiers etc. These observations about the damaging effects of cultural masculinity prefigured many later ones, but have again been lost to memory.

Why have we forgotten?
I ended my research for Women, Peace and Welfare with a sense of total amazement at how many of these extraordinary histories are no longer remembered today. An important reason for this is the assumption that everything women reformers do can be put in a box called ‘feminism’. Some of the women whose work I describe in my book did call themselves ‘feminist’ but many did not; in any case, most of what they all did was concerned with improving people’s lives in general and the general transformation of society, not simply with eradicating discrimination against women. A second device for writing women reformers out of mainstream history has been to call them ‘social workers’ – a deserving profession, but an appellation which is almost a term of abuse when considered in the light of women reformers’ intellectual appetites for major social change. They were powerful intellectuals with an incisive curiosity about social systems, and especially about how these operate in an exclusionary manner to omit women, children, Black and ethnic minority people, the poor and disadvantaged, and manual and domestic labourers from the rights and privileges assigned to advantaged white men. They analysed the nature of democracy and the meanings of citizenship; thought deeply about theories and methods of knowledge; took careful and systematic looks at the institutions of marriage and the family, education, criminal justice and health care; and they critiqued prevailing economic models and theories which failed to account for the relationship between production and reproduction. What they advocated was a radical approach to social knowledge, and a world order committed to the principles of equality, co-operation, altruism and peace. In the process they were also founders of social science and of welfare states. The accepted historical story in both these areas either sidelines the women’s contributions or stereotypes them, or both. And of course their original ambition of a humanist social science in the service of universal public welfare systems still remains very much a minority interest.

Further reading:
Addams, J., Balch, E. G. and Hamilton, A. (2003, first published 1915) Women at The Hague: The International Congress of Women and its results, Urbana and Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.
Black, C. (1907) Sweated Industry and the Minimum Wage, London: Duckworth.
Costin, L. B. (1983) Two Sisters for Social Justice: A biography of Grace and Edith Abbott, Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Deegan, M. J. (1990) Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892–1918, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books.
Lengermann, P. M. and Niebrugge, G. (1998) The Women Founders: Sociology and social theory, 1830–1930: A text/reader, Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
Meyer, A. L. and Black, C. (1909) Makers of Our Clothes: A case for trade boards, London: Duckworth and Co.
Oakley, A. (2018) Women, Peace and Welfare: a suppressed history of social reform, 1880-1920, Bristol: Policy Press.
Residents of Hull-House (1895, new edition Schultz, R. L. (ed) (2007)) Hull-House Maps and Papers, Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.


Ann Oakley is Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at the UCL Institute of Education. A social researcher for more than 50 years and author of many academic publications, she is also well known for her biography, autobiography and fiction. Her books include The Sociology of Housework, From Here to Maternity and The Men’s Room, which was serialised by the BBC in 1991.