Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

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Should economic emancipation – the right to earn an independent living – be the most important priority for women today?

Clio recently attended a panel discussion at Stanford University. The topic was “Beyond the Stalled Revolution: Reinvigorating Gender Equality in the Twenty-First Century,” and the panelists included a number of leading feminist scholars. The focus was on the United States.

Achieving women’s equality in the marketplace emerged as an important focus of the discussion. The terms “equal pay” and “glass ceiling” blended with concerns about the politics of appearance and the dilemmas of old age. Resolving the conflict many women face between “work” (as paid employment) and “family” (parenthood, especially motherhood) emerged clearly as a priority for action: paid maternity leave, a national childcare policy are absent in the United States of America. For many women, this is a long-standing dilemma, born of our society’s still deeply-entrenched convictions that men should be the breadwinners and women should care for the children, even in an economic climate where, for many, two incomes are increasingly necessary to sustain families.

In thinking about what she had heard, Clio revisited a comparable period in the development of English feminism during the 1920s and 1930s, following attainment of the vote for all women in 1928. It was then, in planning for the future, that English feminists began to disagree sharply over how to reformulate their political agendas. Two distinct currents emerged, each of which had important economic implications for women. And in the struggle that ensued between them, the words “feminism” and “feminist” turned into “dangerous” words. Clio thinks that knowledge of what has happened in another culture can be helpful in reflecting on our own.

In 1925, an editorial appeared in The Woman's Leader and the Common Cause, entitled "What is Feminism?" The editorialist recounted Rose Macaulay's definition: "attempts of women to possess privileges (political, professional, economic, or other) which have previously been denied to them on account of their sex." But, the writer added, "this is not enough:" This editorialist asserted that:

The mere throwing open to women of all privileges, political, professional, industrial, social, religious, in a social system designed by men for men is not going to carry us all the way to our feminist ideal. And what that ideal is, becomes clear when we define feminism as "the demand of women that the whole structure and movement of society shall reflect in a proportionate degree their experiences, their needs, and their aspirations."

This included, in the writer's estimation, the social recognition of motherhood as having an equal claim "to be economically produced and legally protected."

Embedded in these lines was the thinking of Eleanor F. Rathbone, Member of Parliament, who had succeeded Millicent Garrett Fawcett as president of the now-renamed National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC; formerly the NUWSS). For nearly two decades Rathbone had been insisting that women's needs should be dealt with in women's terms. Her important book, The Disinherited Family (1924), had laid out her views on the woman question in the guise of an appeal to those in post-war England who, like their French colleagues, were concerned about the low birthrate and the shrinking power of the nation. Sylvia Pankhurst, in her small book Save the Mothers (1930), joined the campaign by calling on the government to supplement the voluntary provisions of the 1918 Maternity and Child Welfare Act with an effective nationally-funded maternity care system. In the wake of the Soviet Russian measures on behalf of maternity, however, even Rathbone's proposal for a family endowment act, with an allowance to be paid to the wife/mother rather than to a wage-earning husband, encountered serious resistance, though it was based on government allocations established during the war to support British soldiers' wives.

Significant opposition to family endowment came from within the English feminist movement itself, spearheaded initially by Fawcett, who cautioned that such payments to women would undermine men's sense of responsibility as husbands and fathers. By degrading men's roles as economic providers, endowment would thereby destroy, rather than stabilize the family, Fawcett affirmed.

Rathbone, in her rejoinder to Fawcett, "The Old and the New Feminism," castigated the strictly egalitarian approach that had for so long been the most visible feature of British feminism. Closer in her arguments to the Continental feminists of pre-war Germany and France, she insisted that:

At last we can stop looking at all our problems through men's eyes and discussing them in men's phraseology. We can demand what we want for women, not because it is what men have got, but because it is what women need to fulfil the potentialities of their own natures and to adjust themselves to the circumstances of their own lives. . . . The achievement of freedom is a much bigger thing than the breaking off of shackles.

In 1927, the English feminist movement fractured over these issues of work-related protective legislation and endowment of motherhood. Tensions that had long been building manifested themselves as schism. In a period when nearly half of the women in England were still without a political voice (though they did obtain it in 1928), Eleanor Rathbone's brand of "new" feminism and the pursuit of state support for mothers made the advocates of formal legal equality for women extremely uneasy.

Some English partisans of individual equality viewed all legal "protection" or privileges for mothers or for working women as a trap. This view characterized the feminists associated with the Six Points Group, and with the publication Time and Tide and its editor-benefactress, Margaret Haig Thomas Mackworth, viscountess Rhondda. Following the franchise victory in 1928, Lady Rhondda wrote that "the real task of feminism" is to "wipe out the overemphasis on sex that is the fruit of the age-long subjection of women. The individual must stand out without trappings as a human being." To such advocates of pure equality in the law and in the workplace, it seemed reprehensible for other feminists to play the motherhood trump in the way it had been and would repeatedly be played, for instance, in France, Germany, and later in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries.

The schism between these two approaches to feminism, one highly relational and woman-centered and the other highly individualistic, subsequently became enshrined in the somewhat misleading formulation, "equality versus difference," which complicated finding solutions into the 1980s. Both factions desired equality, but each understood the term "equality" in a different manner. The split between them would be reinforced and reified by subsequent developments, in particular by the construction of an explicitly dependent motherhood and wifehood in the post-World-War II British welfare state.

Clio asks: if you had lived in England in the 1920s and 1930s, would you have been on the side of Millicent Garrett Fawcett and Lady Rhondda? Or would you have agreed with Eleanor Rathbone? Which version of “equality” would you have supported? What version do you support today? Is economic equality the most important form of equality? Let’s have a discussion……

Source: adapted from Karen Offen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History (Stanford University Press, 2000), chapter 10.

Reconciling Women’s Employment with Motherhood in Sweden, 1930s: Alva Myrdal

Women in many countries today think that the problem of reconciling motherhood with employment is a new problem. Unfortunately, it is an old problem, one that has been debated repeatedly throughout the previous century in many countries.

Among the first to address this issue and come up with workable solutions was the Swedish social reformer and political activist Alva Reimer Myrdal (1902-1986).

Sociologist, author, politician, diplomat, and Nobel laureate (Nobel Peace Prize - 1982), Myrdal first entered public life with her plans for reconciling women’s employment with motherhood in the 1930s. Myrdal was educated at the universities of Stockholm and Uppsala. She married the economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1924, the year she graduated, and working together (while raising three children of their own) they revolutionized the ideas of both Swedish socialists and the Swedish women’s movement.

Why Sweden? For a variety of reasons, including extensive emigration and a falling birthrate, Sweden in the 1930s had been experiencing severe problems with lack of population growth and replacement. Social Democrats in Sweden, who controlled the government then and since, had advocated the spread of birth control information in order to improve the living standard of the poor – but this approach was opposed by those who feared further population decline.

Alva Myrdal succeeded in reframing the view commonly held not only in the socialist movement but in many other sectors of society, including the religious right-wing – that married women should not be permitted to remain in the labor force. On the contrary, she insisted that women workers should be aided, not penalized, if they married and bore children. As Myrdal described her accomplishment, “The old debate on married women’s right to work was turned into a fight for the working woman’s right to marry and have children.” In order to implement such a policy, a support system for women including family planning, child care, sex education, and modification of domestic labor and even of domestic architecture would, she believed, have to be instituted by the government.

The Swedish government set up a Population Commission and appointed Alva Myrdal secretary of the Government Committee on Women’s Work. In that capacity, from 1935 to 1938, Alva Myrdal was able to realize enactment of many of her ideas, with help from her husband, who was a guiding member of the Population Commission. In her book Nation and Family, Alva Myrdal documented both the evolving ideology and the Swedish government’s implementation of her plan to facilitate a dual role for women – as participants in the labor force and as mothers of families. Among her proposals were several radical ideas – to attack the then-prevailing notions of sex-role socialization and to promote the participation of fathers as well as mothers in household and childrearing tasks. She extended her analysis in a subsequent book with Viola Klein, Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work, published in 1956 and most recently reprinted in 2003.

Clio recommends that everyone interested in this question of reconciling motherhood and employment revisit Myrdal’s writings and the subsequent solutions implemented by the Swedes which made their country one of the most prosperous and peaceful nations in the world.

Further suggested reading:

Alva Myrdal, Nation and Family: The Swedish Experiment in Democratic Family and Population Policy (London, 1945; reprinted 1968 by MIT Press; originally published in Swedish, 1940)

Yvonne Hirdman, Alva Myrdal: The Passionate Mind (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008; originally published in Swedish).

Google images; Wikipedia; reproduction of a painting published in 1863
Madame Cliquot and her great-granddaughter Anne de Mortemart-Rochechouart, future Duchesse d'Uzes, painted by Leon Coignet شاهدي شاشة أكبر >

Taking risks with Veuve Clicquot

Here is the story of a audacious woman entrepreneur, who took over the business of her late husband and grew it into an extraordinary financial empire. Barbe-Nicole Clicquot-Ponsardin (1777-1866) offers a remarkable example of a business woman who made astute and often risky decisions in the early nineteenth century. She had taken over the family wine business after her husband’s death and had made experiments with production techniques, especially for removing sediment. She was not the type to let someone else run things, and worked closely with her agents and employees. And she took the business from an artisanal manufacture to an industrial level. “She was uniquely positioned to invent a new model,” claims her biographer historian Tilar J. Mazzeo.

The Napoleonic wars were not kind to businesses of any kind (except armaments) and least of all the wine business, which was, then as now, a luxury product. As Napoleon’s defeat loomed, followed by his abdication, Veuve Cliquot began to plot ways of sending a huge shipment of her prize 1811 vintage champagne to Russia by sea. She knew there would be a huge market for it there. Running the naval blockade without proper papers or any kind of official permission was a huge gamble, but she wanted to be first to arrive with the coveted French bubbly and to sell it for extravagant prices (which her agents succeeded in doing) in Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) and then in St. Petersburg. Wealthy clients fell all over themselves to acquire this effervescent, strong, sweet wine. First she shipped and sold 10,500 bottles, then 12,780. None of her well-packed bottles broke on these extraordinary voyages, which required land as well as sea transport, nor did the champagne spoil enroute, despite the weather. “These two daring shipments,” records Mazzeo, “were to make her one of the most famous women in Europe and her wine one of the most highly prozed commodities of the nineteenth century.” (pp. 117-118). They also made her one of the richest women in Europe.

Other champagne producers also introduced brands labeled “Widow,” but as historian Kolleen Guy remarks, these were “fantasy widows” and not the real thing. Still, there was Veuve Laurent-Perrier and Veuve Pommery to contend with. Not to mention the other champagne producing firms: Moet, Chanton, Mumm, Roederer, and Heidsieck.

The enforcement of separate-spheres ideology in the post-revolutionary period made it more difficult for women to become entrepreneurs, but did not shut them down completely. Widows, who were no longer subject to male control in marriage, had a way of sneaking through.

The Veuve Clicquot had a great-granddaughter, Anne, to whom she wrote: “I am going to tell you a secret. . . . You more than anyone resemble me, you who have such audacity. It is a precious quality that has been very useful to me in the course of my long life . . . to dare things before others. . . . I am called today the Grand Lady of Champagne! Look around you, this chateau, these unfaltering hills, I can be bolder than you realize. The world is in perpetual motion and we must invent the things of tomorrow. One must go before others, be determined and exacting, and let your intelligence direct your life. Act with audacity. Perhaps you too will be famous. . . !!”

This great-granddaughter, heir to the immense fortune assembled by Veuve Clicquot, married a peer of France, and became the Duchesse d’Uzes. In 1888-89, a widow like her great-grandmother, she bankrolled the campaign (which was ultimately unsuccessful) to restore the Orleans monarchy, and then in the 1890s became an important supporter of the French feminist campaign to restore the property rights of wives.

Suggested further reading:

Kolleen M. Guy, “Drowning Her Sorrows: Widowhood and Entrepreneurship in the Champagne Industry,”Business and Economic History, 26:2 (Winter 1997), 505-514.

Kolleen M. Guy, When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of National Identity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Tilar J. Mazzeo, The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). The translation of Veuve Clicquot’s letter to her great-granddaughter is by Mazzeo, p. 181.

Book cover: portrait by Sir John Laverty.
Alma de Bretteville Spreckels ("Big Alma") شاهدي شاشة أكبر > Wikipedia
National Museum of Women in the Arts شاهدي شاشة أكبر >

Women as “Patrons” of the Arts

Clio has just finished reading a biography of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (1881-1968), a wealthy San Francisco widow and fervent Francophile who founded the magnificent museum of art and culture known as the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. This museum, which she built to honor American soldiers who had died in France in World War One, perches on a windswept hill high above the Pacific Ocean and is filled with artistic treasures such as sculptures by Rodin.

Alma’s longtime rivals, the de Young sisters, were likewise patrons of the arts. To honor their father, they founded the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, which has recently been rebuilt. Today these two distinguished museums partner in the fine arts museum network of the city of San Francisco.

“Big Alma” and the De Youngs are twentieth-century participants in a long chain of women of means who distinguished themselves as secular “patrons” of the arts. Not all of them founded entire museums, or built mansions or palaces to showcase their art, but most of them supported artists (mostly men), whether by acquiring their paintings, sculptures, and other artistic creations or securing their livelihoods by inviting the artists to live at their expense.

Centuries earlier, in the early Italian Renaissance, secular women patrons commissioned alterpieces, burial chapels, elegant furniture, and even tapestries and illuminated manuscripts. Yet for many centuries historians of art ignored these women patrons, even though many of the works they commissioned became famous. The best-known exception to this oversight was Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), called the “first lady of the Renaissance,” who presided over the court of Mantua with her husband Francesco Gonzaga and was painted by Titian.

In other city-states of Renaissance Italy, other aristocratic women also patronized the arts. Victoria Colonna, for example, commissioned Titian to produce a painting of Mary Magdalen. Queens and princesses in other realms also got into the act of commissioning works of art, while other women of wealth became collectors. They also commissioned architectural works, as had women religious who had long been patrons of architecture as well as the arts, primarily for Christian convents and churches.

In the mid-fifteenth century, one aspiring laywoman in Siena, the widow Caterina Piccolomini, commissioned and directed the construction of a palace, the Palazzo delle Papesse, which was conveniently paid for by her brother, Pope Pius II. According to A. Lawrence Jenkens, who has studied this case (see his article in Reiss & Wilkins), the records attest that Caterina seems to have controlled the whole project: “she bought the property, she employed Federighi and others to build her residence, and it was to her that the monies from the papal purse were disbursed.”

Sometimes these “women’s actions sustained the political and economic interests of their male relatives” (see Prologue to Reiss & Wilkins, p. 7), but in other cases (particularly as widows) they acted on their own interests and occasionally even against the expressed wishes of male kin, including their deceased husbands.

Historians continue to dig out and publish the stories of these remarkable women, who lavished their resources on the promotion of the arts. Yet only rarely did they patronize or highlight the arts produced by their own sex. Such initiatives had to wait until the late twentieth century with the foundation by Wilhelmina Cole Holladay of the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Would it then be appropriate to refer to Holladay and Sackler as “matrons” of the arts?

Since works of art are created by women as well as by men (and we now know that such has long been the case), and women are now bankrolling women’s art and fostering its display, surely we should no longer use the term “patronage” (derived from the Greek word for father, or pater) to describe women’s participation in promoting and underwriting the arts. What do you think?

Can you think of other examples of women patronizing the arts, especially women’s art, in other parts of the world? What suggestions do you have for women’s promotion of the arts of women today?

Further suggested reading:

Bernice Scharlach. Big Alma: San Francisco’s Alma Spreckels. San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1999.

Sheryl E. Reiss & David G. Wilkins. Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy. Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. LIV. Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2001.

Cynthia Lawrence, ed. Women and Art in Early Modern Europe: Patrons, Collectors, and Connoisseurs. University Park: Pennsulvania State University Press, 1997.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay. A Museum of Their Own: National Museum for Women in the Arts. New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 2008.