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Conversations about Eleanor Marx: Sheila Rowbotham


Sheila Rowbotham is a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and was, until recently, Professor of Gender and Labour History at Manchester University. She has written many books including Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism, Edward Carpenter: A Life of Love and Liberty and Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century, about which I interviewed her in 2011. She also wrote the Introduction to The Daughters of Karl Marx: Family Correspondence, 1866-1898.

When did you first hear of Eleanor Marx?

SR:      I certainly came across her when I was doing Women, Resistance and Revolution which I began in 1979. What I think is relevant to people now is the fact that she connected the emancipation of women to really significant economic changes. She was always arguing that women’s emancipation was connected to the redistribution of wealth, access to resources and the importance of ending low pay and challenging values that were based on competition and profit. She connected the emancipation of women to changes which, to her, were connected to socialism. These are still important issues, whether people use the term socialism or not, the inequalities and problems that women face globally are still there. I think often global movements of women in poor countries have not been presented in feminist terms, they’ve been presented in terms of access to resources like water, forests and land. Eleanor would have completely understood these struggles if she’d have been conscious of them, but she was thinking more of the inequalities in Britain.

This seems to link to what today is called intersectional feminism.

SR:      But that’s exactly what the left version of feminism in the ‘Seventies was saying. We didn’t use the term intersectionality, we just took it for granted that you had to see those connections. Women’s liberation, in its inception, was very much influenced by the American New Left, which was also about making those connections. The American movement sprang from people who went down to the South who were concerned about issues of race and inequality there. It was later reframed in terms of a getting-women-up-through-the system-approach to feminism. But the early people initiating women’s liberation groups came from those activists in the New Left around civil rights.

It got entangled in the concerns of middle class women, something which Engels was concerned about from early on.

SR:      Yes. Marx and Engels and Eleanor following from them, were I think far too dismissive about what they called bourgeois feminism. They dismissed the different aspects of that kind of feminism. One of the things that was important about that kind of feminism was that it asserted individual expression, which was quite denied in the Marxist tradition that Eleanor was part of. The feeling was that your personal desire for expression was less important than dedication to a cause – and that was pretty understandable given the circumstances that people had to struggle with in those times, and also, later on in Russia, because it seemed terribly indulgent to talk about personal expression. But that element, which had also been part of socialism, got suppressed. The point about Eleanor is that she raised issues through her own life about how you would live as a woman with sexual freedom but also with respect as a human being. That dilemma is there for women still, regardless of class or wealth.

The division between the public and the private life is so important.

SR:      What I’m saying is that in the Marxist tradition of the 1880s, the personal was not seen as so important as loyalty to a wider cause, to building a party or organization. One of the significant things that came from 1960s feminism was that they did assert individualism. What has transpired, in matter of fact, is that this individualism is the only thing that’s left: the much more associative, collective connection to other human beings has been pushed aside. In the present context, I think probably that the things Eleanor talked about – how you combine economic and social justice with individual freedom – have got a new life today, explaining why people are reacting with interest to the new book. That’s good.

This follows from renewed interest in Marxist economics after the Crash of 2008?

SR:      Whether it’s Marxist ideas or not, it’s the awareness that emphasis simply on individual competition can have very destructive consequences for so many people and the environment. This awareness has been forced on people through all these decades since the 1980s.

Kapp wrote: “She went her own way, without fuss, feminism or false constraint.” While Holmes has her as the matriarch of socialist feminism, and regards her feminism as key to her development of her father’s ideas. Can you say something about these two different points of view?

SR:      Kapp’s coming from an older communist woman’s suspicion of feminism. I think it’s always a dilemma, whether you say people in the past were feminists who wouldn’t consider themselves to be feminist because they saw feminism as something different. In the late nineteenth century, the women’s movement had a different meaning from feminism. Feminism was seen as women who were hostile to men, who thought women were superior to men, because of their superior inner moral values. This kind of feminism would have been something Eleanor wouldn’t have liked because she wanted men and women in the working class to be combined in union struggles. She wouldn’t have had the idea that you needed separate structures. In fact the Gas Workers were very advanced in accepting women because a lot of unions didn’t allow women to join. Men were worried about competition from lower paid women. The Gas Workers Union innovated by not only having women members, but by having male workers who were often higher paid subsidizing lower paid women in the union struggles. They were also pioneering of equality and the struggle for equal pay for women. I’m sure that comes from the influence of Eleanor Marx.

You’re saying that the socialist distaste for feminists in the late nineteenth century was a reaction to their essentialist ideas about the superiority of women – ideas that came from the Victorian bourgeois belief in the virtue of women?

SR:      It’s only in the late 1890s that they start to call themselves feminists. The meaning of feminism came to be women who distinguished themselves from the main women’s movement of the time in suffrage campaigns and so on, and they were arguing that women were a superior breed and sometimes used eugenic arguments. Socialist feminism in the recognizably modern form developed in the 1920s with somebody like Dora Russell. For that reason, the question of who the mothers of socialist feminism are, is very loose. You could claim somebody like Alexandra Kollantai, who certainly wouldn’t consider herself a feminist, but was very similar to Eleanor Marx in looking at sexual freedom and also at class inequality and social and economic changes. There’s a tradition of women within a Marxist tradition who did really face a lot issues not only about class inequality but also sexuality. In Germany, particularly, there were some women, not so much the Clara Zetkin lot, but the women who were within the more revisionist wing of the German party who were very much aware of the personal forms of oppression of women and they talked about them as well. They get dismissed by the Bolsheviks because they were seen as reformists.


You’re talking about socialists and feminists at different historical moments which makes it seem like an encompassing movement, but one of the striking things about Eleanor’s story is that although she was a fantastically well-connected woman, and met thousands of people in her lifetime, she also seems to have felt isolated.

SR:      Most of her friends inclined toward the more Fabian reformist approach to change. One of the people that Yvonne Kapp really loathed was her friend Olive Schreiner. That was one of the reasons that made Ruth First write a biography of Olive Schreiner, because, as a South African woman, she was interested in Schreiner and wondered why Kapp was so hostile. Schreiner is very mystical, her writing is quite emotional, she expressed things in an almost psychological way. And of course she did have a relationship with Havelock Ellis. It’s interesting that there’s an aspect of Eleanor that related to that. But it didn’t come out in what she wrote.

It surfaced perhaps in her acting and creativity. Part of the problem with Eleanor is that she didn’t leave a large written legacy. Maybe this is one reason she’s been so ‘hidden from history’. If she’d published more she would have had a surer historical footing. Clearly, though, her Ibsenism and her interest in the theatre and creativity is one of the reasons people are responding to the book now. This all seems very modern. She appears in the Rachel Holmes book as a pioneering modernist.

SR:      Yes and John Stokes’ book (2002) emphasized her interest in the art and in the theatre. Lynn Pickett calls her a socialist feminist intellectual and quite a few of the writers use this phrase.

There’s an idealising in the communist movement of men and women working together in intellectual comradeship. This was at the heart of what Eleanor believed and went against the bourgeois, separatist feminism you’ve talked about. It was a key factor in her relationship with Aveling – that they worked so collaboratively is perhaps one of the clues as to why it endured.

SR:      In bourgeois feminism there are the women who are interested in suffrage and social reform and in America did work after the 1900s with working class women. There aims were to try to improve capitalism. The Marxists were opposed to that, thinking it too reformist. Then there’s this other strand which goes into the WSPU which is more like what we would define as separatism.

Then it becomes imperialist too. At the point of the First World War they abandon the suffragette claim to wave the flags of war.

SR:      Yes, many suffrage organizations divide on that. The people who are arguing for reform and change in the 1890s were the Fabians, so she was isolated from those women. Ordinary women never had enough money so it was difficult to organize them and to sustain regular union payments. Yet there were advantages to women being in their own union because it enabled them to talk and take a more leading role. In a mixed union there was a tendency for the men to take a dominant role in the leadership, even where there was a commitment to equality. Therefore, often, women’s issues and complaints were pushed under the carpet.

But in Eleanor’s own life, this question of working together and loyalty to men, meant that she became ensnared in the sexual hypocrisy of the men she loved most. She said repeatedly that greater frankness and truth were what was wanted in relations between men and women. This seems to me one of the central tragedies of her life: the thing she wanted most, openness and frankness between men and women, perhaps being influenced very much by Ibsen in this, was the thing she was lest able to attain in her own life.

SR:      But frankness is a theme that runs right through all of the radical free-love arguments. Wollstonecraft really wanted frankness, as did many of the  eighteenth century women novelists. The thing that came from the free-love tradition of the late nineteenth century was that they wanted relationships to be such that you could actually have friendships with men. The struggle that not all relationships between men and women should be seen as sexual was really important. Among the Marx group they did have the idea that men and women could have friendship. It may seem normal now but in some societies still it’s actually very difficult for men and women to have friendships and for it not to be seen as sexual. They got to that because they were advanced intellectuals, but, at the same time, there were problems: if Marx had admitted openly his relationship with Helene Demuth that would have been really humiliating for Jenny. And Jenny, he knew had been already indescribably humiliated by living with a revolutionary who was so poor, having to go and beg for money to give to Marx – that must have been a terrible thing for both of them. His desire to protect and conceal her, is not that he suddenly becomes a bourgeois hypocrite, it’s recognizing the reality of how society views things, how unsympathetic they would be to the life of a Jewish revolutionary exile. If you read the biography of Jenny, Marx is concerned. He puts his cause before everything and everybody, including his own physical health.

Equally important for Eleanor is the concern for the legacy of her father’s work, not wanting this to be destroyed by the idea that people would then say Marx was an adulterer and a liar, and so attempt to invalidate what he’d written. That’s what I meant about the hypocrisy that she’s ensnared in.

SR:     There’s a strong belief on the left that you don’t wash your dirty linen in public. People who’d lived through McCarthy, for instance, knew what it was like to be attacked.  I would sum it up in the fact that Eleanor Marx connects feminism to wider economic and social change, in terms of changing the distribution of wealth and inequality in society as a whole. And she raises through her own life the dilemma of women who want to act in the world and who also want to live free personal lives. This is still so relevant because the contradictions are still very much with us if in a different context but the questions remain the same: how women balance having children and living a free sexual life, while also working for broader social change.

Ah, I’ve just found that quote from Engels talking about bourgeois women: “The drivel of the swell-mob ladies”.

SR:      Both Marx and Engels used this awfully blokey language in their letters, they attack men in the same way. Engels was pretty hopeless about trying to understand that kind of feminism as a political movement. He just didn’t see it as a political movement.

In terms of Eleanor’s article, ‘The Woman Question’, how far do you think she departs from Engels and [August] Bebel?

SR:      It is very different from her later 1890s stuff. The real argument that comes up between the left and feminists in America and Britain is over protective legislation. The feminists believed in individual equality, and hated the idea of regulation – partly because their politics are liberal-radical which hates any intervention from the state; whereas Marxist, socialists and some liberals by the 1890s, were arguing for some kind of state intervention. So there’s a hidden division going on which is about a borader politics and not just about your attitude to feminism. The American and British women feel that if you have protective legislation it will be used against women to justify not having equal pay. That is a really difficult question. Some women tried to resolve it by arguing that you had to look at every specific situation to see whether it was in the interests of women, rather than having a blanket thing. The problem is that policy tends to be a blanket thing, covering everybody.

The idea that Eleanor, or anyone else, could solve these more intractable and specific dilemmas about what positions to take, is ridiculous.

SR:      Yes. I think the way to approach it is not that anybody is totally right or wrong on those issues, but that we need to look at the warnings they made.

And to look at the way different people pushed their interest in the debate and the different attempts to work out solutions.

SR:      I do think it’s interesting to see how questions that are often seen to be about women are about wider politics, that’s why you always need to look at the wider politics in the context of the specific time. It wasn’t that the middle class women ignored the working class, although they were probably quite condescending towards them, it was that often these radical liberal women, were often also personally linked into the social milieu of their liberal employers, some of whom felt they were philanthropic and advanced. But the question of protection or intervention on behalf of women remains complicated: recently it is also true that there was a revolutionary movement of women in Afghanistan demanding intervention.

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