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Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Bee Rowlatt


Bee Rowlatt (@BeeRowlatt) is a writer and journalist. With May Witwit she wrote Talking about Jane Austen In Baghdad, which was published by Penguin in 2010. 

Had you encountered Eleanor Marx before you heard of her from Rachel Holmes?

BR:      I didn’t know about her before, and it comes as no surprise because there are so many great women in history whose lives have yet to be told. So I’m appalled that I didn’t know before, but I only came to her via Rachel.

Do you think of yourself as a feminist?

BR:      Absolutely.

It’s remarkable that even among feminists she’s not well-known. Given what you’ve read of Rachel’s biography, do you have some idea of what Eleanor Marx might mean to you? Is there a particular part of her story that you find moving or instructive?

BR:      There absolutely is. I find myself bewitched by her as a figure. Her story has got its claws deep into my mind. There’s a part I found profoundly moving. I think it speaks to women now very persuasively. It’s when she striking out as an independent young woman, shortly after she runs away to Brighton to be an independent creature, her dad gets very ill. Karl Marx gets extremely ill and she has this episode where she feels the tug of being the carer, of someone who will be good and gentle and patient, be supportive and enabling of others, when really she just wants to rush off and live her own life. I find this absolutely moving. She says, “We must each of us, after all, live our own lives. And much and hard as I try I could not shut out my desire to try something”. She’s like these incredible visionary women, such as Mary Wollstoncraft or Emily Bronte, that were haunted by the possibilities of life, that thought there were things out there that they could do, that they must do, and yet she feels herself fighting to resist the trap into which women can slip in a traditional mothering role, caring and supporting your husband or partner. In this case she’s alarmed by the possibility of having to look after her dad, and there are problems with the children of her sisters, who themselves are ill. It’s a crux in her life – and she’s still very young – when she has to choose which path to take. But she doesn’t want to accept that caring role.

Yes, it’s a key moment in her life. And it’s interesting that you’re saying this still relates to women today. When Eleanor Marx set off so boldly to Brighton, there was very little that women of her class and time could do, just teaching and governessing.

BR:      Exactly. The other moment in the book that I felt was important is when Rachel says: “She knew exactly the female feat of acting in a supporting role in family and personal life.” It’s about how the New Woman is trying to forge a new way of living without being the Victorian idea of the angelic, eternally good and dutiful daughter. That really struck home with me and very much resonates today.

You think it still resonates when so many of the barriers that were in Eleanor Marx’s way no longer exist. There are so many more possibilities for women, so the fear of striking out should be much less. Yet you think that the emotional ties of family are still as restraining as they were then. Is that right?

BR:      They can be. It’s an important point. Women still sacrifice themselves more than men in an emotional sense. Eleanor Marx addresses this self-sacrificial tendency of women which can still be the case.

It’s easier to understand this figure of the self-sacrificer, with all the female pathology she displays – anorexia, hysteria, isolation, depression, entrapment, attempts at suicide – in a Victorian context. Yet you’re saying the idea of the self-sacrificing women still grips our imagination. Why does it loom so large for us given that we have so much more freedom?

BR:      Well people still have to pay the rent. There are still financial imperatives [that trap us]. I think it’s an age-old question. The old multi-tasking that women do. I’ve got four kids and I work as well, so I feel that I’m constantly striving and failing in many areas. I can’t answer why, I don’t know why.

When you say that you’re failing in many areas, that is a line we hear often. I don’t mean to doubt you, but do you not also exult in your achievements?

BR:      Occasionally, I suppose. But there is a constant sense of just about getting away with it, and only just. We’re ranging from the book and I don’t want to carp on about myself, I’ve got no complaints. But there is this sense that if I wasn’t divided and carved in this way, how much more incredible focus I’d be able to bring to bear. The way that Eleanor Marx goes out and campaigns with the laser-like focus she dedicates to her activism and to her literary efforts is something that I really envy, even though she had all the privations and terrible physical suffering, I found her focus absolutely inspirational.

I agree. Eleanor Marx’s focus seems to be something largely inherited from her family background – her absolute conviction and certainty in what she’s doing that enables her to move forward in such a powerful way. Yet today the idea of female leadership is still something we struggle with. We had a woman in male drag as Prime Minister for a while, but we’ve never come to terms with women and power.

BR:      We are still having to be told by that lean-in woman [Faceobook’s Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg] that it’s ok to be in charge, ok to be bossy – though we’re also told we shouldn’t say bossy – that we should be leading, we should  be confident. Eleanor Marx would have just gone, “What? You’re kidding! Really? Is this still happening in 2014?” I’m sure she would have been disappointed.

And there’s the ever-accumulating meta-narrative on all this. A discussion of the way we do things too often displaces the fundamental questions of inequality Eleanor Marx was addressing.

BR:      I found so much of Rachel’s book incredibly relevant, very refreshing, sharp and poignant. Utterly important to today in terms of social inequality, social exclusion – all of these things persist. And in the personal domain, the politics of the couple, the politics of the family, these are all enthralling. I’m finding it heartbreaking because I know Eleanor Marx is going to die and I feel so emotionally invested.

bee rowlatt

I believe you’re working on a book about Mary Wollstonecraft.

BR:      Yes. So I identify strongly with spending time in the towering company of a great woman who is dead.

Can you say a little about the relationship between the two women?

BR:      What I love and find particularly compelling about Mary Wollstonecraft, which is also true of Eleanor Marx, is that there are contradictions between her politics and her personal life. Arguing for equality between the sexes, why on earth would she shack up with such a disgraceful man [Edward Aveling]? Mary Wollstonecraft, similarly, had a really dodgy boyfriend, another absolute cad [the American journalist and adventurer, Gilbert Imlay]. I think that introduces a level of complexity and vulnerability that humanizes the subject. I don’t think it in any way detracts from her political legacy. It makes these figures so much more humanly approachable.

They both lived unconventional lives, both lived with men out of wedlock and both, at certain moments, tried to kill themselves.

BR:      I really struggle with this, it makes me deeply, deeply uncomfortable writing about Wollstonecraft’s suicide attempts , more than any other of what could be deemed the mistakes that she makes. Rachel says that it was a logical and rational reaction to the limited opportunities they faced in life, that there was no other way out. But I dispute that. I find it really problematic.

It’s one of the difficulties of historical research – our lack of knowledge about what happened and why. But we’re not being called to judge, are we? We’re being called to try to understand.

BR:      No. I wouldn’t want to be called to judge or to comment on the rights or wrongs of her attempted suicide. But I find it problematic.

I don’t find it problemmatic, I find it tragic.

BR:      To lose someone so great, who could have gone on to do so much. Wollstonecraft was only 38 when she died, admittedly not by suicide [as a result of childbirth]. But had both these women lived until they were 72, what might they have achieved?

It tells you so much about their isolation. Even though Eleanor Marx and Mary Wollstonecraft were very well-connected figures – a suicide attempt is surely the greatest act of loneliness and despair.

BR:      The other thing that they share is self-education. Wollstonecraft taught herself and Marx was home-educated by the greatest thinker of the nineteenth century. Like the truly original thinkers – William Shakespeare, William Blake – they developed outside of the mainstream, and outside traditional educational methods. It’s part of their genius (though I hesitate to use the word because it can so rarely can it be applied). They developed their own minds out of the mainstream.

That’s surely right. Their autodidacticism accounts for some of their genius, and for their particular fierceness.

BR:      A fierceness and a visionary sense, meaning you can then look from a different perspective. But there’s also perhaps loneliness, which feeds into what you’ve observed about their feelings of isolation.

You wrote in your contribution to Fifty Shades of Feminism that Wollstonecraft was ahead of her time, “We’re still lagging in her dust trail”, you said. Rachel says something similar about Marx in her biography. Do you have any thoughts about why we’ve been so slow in forging ahead with their project of liberation?

BR:      It’s no coincidence that both women, despite their limited finance, were very well-travelled for their time and their gender. They both travelled widely, taking it upon themselves to learn other languages. They were committed internationalists, committed to humanity, to men and women on a global scale, which is quite rare. Most people don’t poke their nose out of their own metaphorical village. Yet they were thinking globally, at a time before that was fashionable.

But why, since these two “world-class trouble-makers” – and given that there is greater information about the world – have we made so little progress?

BR:      Oh my God! Now you’re asking! To be honest I don’t know. It makes me sad. If you think of Eleanor Marx’s struggle for an 8 hour day, people today little realize we only have a weekend and bank holidays because of an organized labour rights movement. There has been progress. There is such a thing as maternity leave, to a greater or lesser extent, but it exists as a concept which it didn’t then. We have to also admire what progress there’s been.

Yes of course you’re right. On contraception, on the 8 hour day. But I suppose I was wondering why we don’t have more of these brilliant, flashing daggers of womanhood, given that so much of what they fought for has come into being.

BR:      It’s an interesting question, and an adjunct to it concerns Caroline Criado-Perez, I don’t know if you follow her on Twitter? But social media, with all its wonderful enabling and access and interconnectivity, has also brought around a new threat to women. I think it was Germaine Greer who said in Kirsty Walk’s show about sexism [‘Blurred Lines’], that there’s been a renewed anti-feminist backlash, a new silencing of women. So you say, where are the sassy, upstanding women? Well I give you the campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and when she stands up, people abuse her, threaten to rape her on a daily, almost hourly basis. That’s one thing that Mary Wollstonecraft and Eleanor Marx did not have to put up with.

Not in such a publicly defaming way.

BR:      It’s not just defaming, it’s like terrorism, it’s violence. And I’m sure many other women will not speak out because they’d prefer not to have rape threats. That’s how online silencing works.

I was just looking at her Twitter page and was appalled to see how much time she was hiving to spend knocking down these idiots.

BR:      Yes. It’s horrifying that she has to waste so much of her time on them. Time she could be using in much more productive ways.

In Rachel’s book she comments that we’ve lost a lot of men from the feminist movement. Where are the equivalents today of Eleanor Marx’s friends, men like Havelock Ellis and George Bernard Shaw, or male writers like Ibsen who spent so much time thinking about the nature and ramifications of sexual inequality. Do you agree with this or have any thoughts on why men are not more involved?

BR:      I don’t think that men aren’t involved, to be honest.

Do you, then, think men have become more feminist since Eleanor Marx’s time?

BR:      I know a lot of men who are good-thinking feminists. This current fourth wave, as they call it, has inspired a lot of men to think about women’s position in society, about the difficulties women face balancing family and work, for example, or the more terrifying things like online rape threats, rape jokes. I feel there are men who are just as horrified by these things as I am.

Perhaps what Rachel was thinking about was those men of Eleanor’s time were also looking at their own position in society. So feminism became, as Eleanor argues it should, not just the women’s, but the gender question. There was a period in the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies when there was a revival of men’s groups, much mocked for their non-aggression and open-toed sandals. Of course I agree with you, and I’m sure Rachel would say that there are many men who are feminists, but there doesn’t seem to be a wave of men…

BR:      …analyzing their own situation. Perhaps not. But then movements are always very split. Even today’s has its own internal divisions. There may not be a movement of men as such, but that’s not the same as saying men aren’t feminist. I wouldn’t slag men off to be honest. I wouldn’t say, “Come on men, be more feminist!” as a blanket statement, because everyone should be, regardless of gender.

When I was a young woman in the late ‘Seventies and early ‘Eighties, there was so much anger towards men and quite a lot of anti-male attitudes and behavior. I look at my nephews now, who are in their twenties, and they are gorgeous and feminist and I feel so proud. They have a completely different attitude to the men I knew as a young woman – even those in the socialist movement who were supposed to be concerned with equality. A lot has changed certainly for younger men, many of whom have been brought up by working, feminist mothers.

BR:      Yes. I would hope that this generation of feminism is more inclusive, that it doesn’t alienate men, with those, “All men are rapists” slogans. I hope that it just doesn’t set up those boundaries between us.

For Eleanor Marx the idea of men and women working together was at the heart of what she believed. Yet she herself was ensnared in the sexual hypocrisy of the men she loved most, in the lies told by Marx, Engels and Aveling about their own sex lives. Today, should women be liberating themselves, as Eleanor Marx once also suggested, or should we be working together with men?

BR:      I think women should absolutely be working together with men. I think that as a cohesive movement, the best possible way is to be as inclusive as possible. That’s only my personal take and not proscriptive in any way.

And anyway, it’s a false dichotomy, because clearly women can do things together at one time and with men at another.

BR:      Yes. But as a political movement concerned with socio-economic problems, you want men on board. You want everyone on board if you’re trying to deal with economic inequality. I’m sure that’s what Eleanor meant.

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