Post 6 in our series of blogs celebrating Gender, Place and Culture turning 25 is by Dr Francesca Moore. She is a Lecturer and Director of Studies in Geography at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. She is an historical-political geographer and her research focuses on reproductive politics and women’s political activism. In today’s post, Francesca explores how feminist geographies have enriched understandings of the social and spatial
changes that the 1918 Representation of the People Act created.
To find out more about how the journal is marking it’s 25th year, you can read Editor Pamela Moss’s post here. Please also follow us on Twitter and Facebook and include the hashtag #GPC@25. If you’d like to contribute to the series, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2018 is an exciting year. As Gender, Place and Culture celebrates its 25th birthday, we also mark the one hundred year anniversary of some women in the UK being granted voting rights. This was an important moment in women’s history and is being widely celebrated across the UK in 2018. In this blog, I think through the sexual politics of women’s campaign for suffrage and sketch continuities into the present. I also explore how important the work of feminist geographers is in helping us to understand the political, historical and spatial contexts of women’s citizenship and the new sexual politics of our time.
In 1994, Louise Johnson, writing in GPC, defined feminist geography as a discourse on the oppression of women in space (Johnson, 1994). The process of gendered geographical disadvantage has a very long history. For instance, the Victorians had an elaborate cultural imagination about what women should be and how they should behave. Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem, The Angel in the House described the virtues of woman as a private, innocent and asexual being confined to the home. Such imaginaries indicate that women were thought to be too fragile and delicate for life beyond the home. Elaine Showalter recalls the significance of Virginia Woolf’s sardonic take on the Angel of the House. She observes that Woolf noted Angels should ‘never let anybody guess you have a mind of your own’ (Showalter, 1972). This would, then, rule out entertaining any thoughts of votes for women. All of this amounts to what scholars call the ‘separate spheres’ ideology, a male ideal of how women should behave. This is the notion that women reside in the private sphere of home, family and childrearing and that men belong in the public sphere of politics and commerce. This pervasive norm is a form of cultural discipline and was part of the reason it was difficult for women to get the vote.
Of course, such a designation was hugely problematic not least since the separate spheres ideology simply did not reflect the reality of women’s lives. Scholars have documented that in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vast numbers of working-class women were employed outside the home, thus working a double shift of childrearing and paid employment (Rosenman and Klaver, 2008). Furthermore, Amanda Vickery discovered that the separate spheres did not fit the reality of middle-class women’s lives either (Vickery, 1998). Indeed, one of the most important tenets of feminist geography has been exactly this recuperation of the voices and experiences of women that are so often at odds with patriarchal visions of power. Yet, the separate spheres doctrine has impressive longevity and we still see evidence of it today.
It was not actually until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that women achieved the same voting rights as men. The 1918 Act meant only partial enfranchisement for women. Those over 30 years of age who met certain conditions such as property ownership became eligible to vote. In reality, only around 40% of women in the UK were now able to vote and this was heavily skewed in favour of middle-class women. There were many objections to women being given citizenship rights and the road to enfranchisement was long and difficult. In a speech made in Parliament in April 1906, Samuel Evans, Liberal MP for Mid-Glamorgan, noted that women should not be granted the vote, because they ‘had their own honourable position in life, that that position had been accorded to them by nature and that their proper sphere was the home.’ This bio-determinist argument naturalises the patriarchal division of space and placed women squarely in the home. Evans also had some practical concerns about women’s enfranchisement. He was worried about who would do the household chores if women entered politics, arguing that women would be neglecting their homes if they were involved in public life!
Feminist geographers have been at the forefront of revealing the ways in which exactly these kinds of gender inequalities have actually persisted long beyond the granting of formal voting rights to women. For example, looking across the GPC archives, we can see that feminist geographers have used the urban as lens to contest the separation between public and private and patriarchal logics of space (McDowell, 1983; Little, Peake and Richardson, 1988; Madigan, Munro and Smith, 1990).
Arguably, the some of the most important work in feminist geography has explored gender and power at the scale of the body. Feminist geographers have challenged essentialist assumptions – like those of Samuel Evans, MP- through materialist readings of the body. We now see the body as both material and discursive, given and enacted (Jacobs and Nash, 2003: 275). Prokkola and Fidanpaa (2015) explored the relationship between the state and the body in the Finnish Border Guard Service. Here they find yet more bio-determinist arguments. They conclude that emotionally-laden ideas about national territory as female body that must be protected by a masculinist guard are based on essentialist and heavily spatial constructions of gender. Women are relegated to domestic roles and the sphere of reproduction, while men occupy the public sphere, for the sake of women (Prokkola and Fidanpaa, 2015: 1377). These essentialised arguments, just like in the nineteenth century, justify the different roles for men and women. These findings are echoed by Basham (2016) in her investigation of the poppy as an act of remembrance. She finds that the poppy can reinstitute war as an activity in which masculinised protectors defend feminised bodies who are in need of protection. Similarly, Herbert (2010)’s investigation of policing in Los Angeles revealed the masculinist culture of law enforcement and the actions of the state, thus once again relegating women to a more private realm. Disturbingly, Herbert (2010) shows how this culture has worked to uphold patriarchy and suppress democracy. What is so important about these analyses is the way in which space, right down to the micro-scale of the body, is read as an active participant in power struggles. Furthermore, when set alongside Victorian and Edwardian logics of gender, and arguments against the enfranchisement of women, these accounts raise questions about what, if anything, has changed in the politics of gender.
So, what challenges do women face in the present that can be seen as analogous to the campaign for women’s suffrage? And how will we study them? To name but a few, in recent times we have seen the continuation of the gender pay gap, the gendered impact of austerity and the post-2017, post-Harvey Weinstein sexual revolution. Sexuality is normatively private thanks in large part to the Victorians, but the #metoo campaign brought previously hidden cultures of sexual misconduct into the public domain. The unprecedented discussion of sexual assault and sexual mores facilitated by social media and the internet has served to highlight questions of sexual citizenship and re-ignite debates about consent and patriarchy. For example, the entrepreneur Cindy Gallop has argued for a revolution in sexual citizenship. Gallop has observed that ‘nobody ever brings us up to behave well in bed.’ She suggests that more openness around sex and what constitutes good sexual values can empower women, protecting them against sexual assault. In January 2017, millions of women took part in marches around the world, using public space as a platform to campaign for abortion rights, equal pay and against harassment. This new vision of women exercising sexual and political power in both public and private spaces is a long way from the Angel in the House.
How can feminist geographers respond to and engage with these new forms of female power and the sexual politics of the next 25 years? The answer lies, I think, in mobilising our historical and political knowledge to critique the present. From Victorian Britain to Finnish border patrol in the present, it is clear that essentialised and largely Victorian representations of womanhood as fragile and powerless have had a depressingly long lifespan. It is also clear that women have been silenced and oppressed sexually, politically and otherwise by ideas that identify them with the private realm. Scholarship across the first 25 years of GPC has also shown us not to oversimplify the category woman and that, importantly, it is fractured by class, race and, sexuality and geography. Given the empirically rich and theoretically-informed nature of work published in GPC in its first 25 years, there is much to look forward to. I foresee the ongoing critique of Victorian power structures that have yet to be fully dismantled. In so doing, we can continue to recover the agency of all women in different social, spatial and historical contexts and break the conceptual stranglehold of Victorian mores about gender, sex and female power.
 Parliamentary Debates (Hansard) 4th Series, Vol.155, March 30 to April 25, 1906 , cols 1582-1587
 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/work/cindy-gallop-want-to-get-ahead-at-work-its-all-about-sex/ last accessed 04/03/2018
Basham, V. (2016) Gender, race, militarism and remembrance: the everyday geopolitics of the poppy, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 23(6): 883-896
Herbert, S. (2001) ‘Hard Charger’ or ‘Station Queen’? Policing and the Masculinist State, Gender, Place and Culture 8 (1): 55-71
Jacobs, J. and C. Nash (2003) Too little, too much: Cultural feminist geographies, Gender, Place and Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 10:3 265-279
Johnson, L. (1994) ‘What future for feminist geography?’ Gender, Place and Culture 1(1): 103-113.
Little, J., Peake, L. and Richardson, P. (1988) Women in Cities: Gender and the Urban Environment (London: Macmillan).
Madigan, R., Munro, M and Smith, S. (1990) Gender and the meaning of home, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 14, 625-64.
McDowell, L. (1983) Towards an understanding of the gender division of urban space, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 16, 59-7.
Prokkola, E. and Rudanpaa, J. (2015) Border guarding and the politics of the body: an examination of the Finnish Border Guard service, Gender, Place and Culture 22 (10): 1374-1390.
Rosenman, E. and Klaver, C. (2008) Other Mothers: Beyond the Maternal Ideal (Ohio: Ohio State University Press)
Showalter, E. (1972) Killing the angel in the house: the autonomy of women writers, The Antioch Review 50 (1): 207-220.
Vickery, A. (1998) The Gentleman’s Daughter (Yale: Yale University Press)