I had been invited to give a talk at Winchester University on 1st March 2019 by the Professor of Masculinities there, Eric Anderson. I believe that proper permission had been obtained, but in the event there was a student-led petition against it. The result was that Eric was put under a lot of stress over the matter so that I and the other invited speaker (Mike Buchanan) volunteered to pull out from concern over Eric.
I am in the habit of scripting my talks. The script is the content of this post. Hence, this is verbatim what I was intending to deliver at Winchester; nothing has been omitted and nothing added. The embedded Figures would have been shown via Powerpoint. All sources are given at the end.
Gender in History: Myth and Reality
The subject of my talk is gender issues in history. I wish to explode a few myths that seem to have taken root in the popular perception. My apologies in advance if this is old news to you.
Clearly I cannot cover all of history in 40 minutes. So I’ll will address three topics: education, universal suffrage and the law of coverture.
So, education first.
Perhaps this audience is too sophisticated to believe this, but there is a widespread impression that, in history – say one hundred years ago or more – boys were educated but girls were not. Or, at least, boys were better educated than girls.
Here’s some data. Figure 1 (Ref.).
This is OECD data and refers to the average over OECD countries – so an average over developed countries only. (Incidentally, I can give you the references for all sources used in this talk should you want them). The graph shows the percentage of girls and boys whose highest level of education was only primary school level. Girls are the blue line and boys the black dashed line. In 1900, nearly 120 years ago, 81% of boys and 85% of girls were educated only to primary school level. But the dominant feature of the graph is hardly the difference between the sexes, which is relatively slight.
The dominant feature is that, 120 years ago, almost all of both sexes were educated only to primary school level. As the years progressed and more and more children were educated also at secondary school, this applied almost equally to both sexes. The difference between the sexes was always minor compared to the brute fact that, until after the World War 2, the majority of children of both sexes did not receive secondary education.
This is not really ancient history. My own parents, who were at school in the 20s and early 30s, were educated only to age 12 – and this applied to both of them, just 7 years of schooling. Figure 2 (Ref.).
That was typical for the time, as illustrated by this next graph, which shows the average years of schooling, again as an OECD average. In 1900, girls and boys received on average just five years and five-and-a-half years schooling respectively. This difference between the sexes was minimal. Both sexes first received education to age 16, that is for 11 years, only by the mid-1960s, which was when I started secondary school.
Turning now to tertiary education and confining attention to the UK, Figure 3 (Ref.)
This Figure shows the number of degrees awarded per year against year since 1919. Prior to the 1990s more men than women got degrees. But the salient fact is that very few people of either sex got degrees before WW2. In 1900 only an extremely small percentage of either sex obtained degrees.
In the UK in 1920, only 3,145 men and 1,212 women were awarded degrees – so two-and-a-half times more men than women, but with a participation rate of less than 1% the salient fact is that only a very small privileged few went to university, of either sex. Even by the early 1970s, when I went to university, the participation rate was still only 8%.
Figure 4 (Ref.).
Since the year 1900, which sex has been awarded more degrees in the UK? The answer is women. This next Figure shows the number of degrees awarded by sex in the UK against year since 1900. In 1993 the number of women undergraduates overtook the number of men undergraduates, for the first time. The number of women now exceeds the number of men by 36%, with a participation rate of around 33%.
The dominance of women over the last quarter of a century, and the hugely increased number of degrees awarded, has led to the total number of degrees awarded to women since 1900 exceeding that to men. Within the next two or three years, women will have been awarded more degrees than men over the whole of UK history.
And even historically, was the dominant feature of disadvantage in education really sexism? Christabel Pankhurst, ostensibly a doyen of equality, was already a graduate when she campaigned as a suffragette, at a time when 80% of men were not educated beyond primary school level. And whilst women were long denied access to the professions, the professions were de facto just as closed to those whose education finished at age 11. So, where exactly did the disadvantage lie in history?
The truth is that only a very few were privileged but the great majority were not; and the privileged few were of both sexes, and the disadvantaged many were of both sexes. Admittedly the privileged few generally consisted of more men than women. But this does not significantly affect the position of the disadvantaged many. In 1920, 99% of men did not go to university and 99% of women did not go to university if one does not split hairs over fractions of a percent. In the disadvantaged many, the two sexes were in the same boat. Why has this central fact become so distorted by a gender based narrative in the popular mind? Cui bono? Who benefits from this distortion of history?
Figure 5 (Malala):
Anyway, at least we can be sure that, in the present day, in underdeveloped countries, it truly is girls who are the educationally disadvantaged. We know this because all the great and the good have told us so. We know it because Boris Johnson and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have told us so (Ref.). We know it because William Hague and Malala have told us so (Ref.). We know it because that great sage, Bono, has told us so (Ref.). We know it because after Boko Haram kidnapped the girls from Chibok in Nigeria in 2014, Michelle Obama told us so. In May 2014, Barrack Obama yielded his weekly presidential address to his wife. She expressed her outrage and distress at the Chibok girls’ kidnappings, driving home a message that Boko Haram is specifically attacking the education and emancipation of girls. From this she widened her concern to the worldwide disadvantage suffered by girls in education generally (Ref.).
But, in truth, Boko Haram were, and are, against western education for anyone, not just girls, as they are against western values generally. Their approach to boys in these schools had been rather more robust than kidnapping for some years prior to the Chibok event. Shooting, beheading or being burnt alive proved an efficacious cure for boys’ tendencies towards seeking a western education. It might have been nice for Michelle Obama to recognise these facts. But perhaps she had a point. Kidnapping girls is news; killing boys is just business as usual. And there was little point, after all, in attempting to recommence the education of the boys in this picture, or this one Figure 7.
What is the factual position on world education? Here is some data for year 2015, Figure 8 (Ref.).
This is United Nations data. The x-axis refers to different countries, plotting 159 of the world’s 195 countries. The y-axis is the proportion of youths and young adults (ages 15 to 24) who are literate. The countries are ordered in descending percentage of male literacy. Hence the blue male line is a monotonically decreasing curve whilst the female line zig-zags around it. The key feature is that the female zig-zag pretty much follows the male curve. The correlation between male and female literacy rates is 0.96.
True, at the lowest levels of literacy the mean of the female zig-zag is a bit lower than the male line. However, the difference between male and female literacy rates is not the dominant feature of the data, is it? The dominant feature is that countries which educate their people to be literate do so for both sexes, whereas countries which educate only a proportion of their men to be literate also educate a comparable proportion of their women to be literate, the difference between the sexes being of second order of magnitude.
Figure 9 (Ref.)
This next Figure shows in a similar format the average number of years of education received by the two sexes against country. The data relates to around 2006 and 176 countries of the world’s 195 are plotted. The data is again in rank order of male years of schooling, so the blue male line is a descending staircase. The female data again zig-zags around the male line with the same overall trend. The correlation between years of schooling of males and females is 0.93. Whilst there might be a tendency for a slightly smaller number of years of schooling for girls at the lowest end of the data, this is again hardly the dominant feature of the graph. The dominant feature is that countries which educate their children only to primary school level do so for both sexes, and if they educate to age 16 or to age 18, they do so for both sexes.
Figure 10 (Ref.)
This next Figure shows the ratio of the numbers of women to men enrolling in higher education, that is in university and college education. There are more countries in which more women than men attend university than the reverse. The top two countries, with in excess of three times more women than men going to university are Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – who would have thunk it? In Malala’s Pakistan the ratio is 0.88, i.e., 0.88 women for every man going to university. In the UK the gender ratio is 1.37, with 1.37 women going to university for every man.
The issue in Pakistan, despite all the publicity and displays of Western concern over Malala, is not primarily the relative educational disadvantage of girls and young women, but the fact that both sexes are poorly educated in Pakistan. The average years of schooling in Pakistan are only 7 years for boys and 6 years for girls. Both sexes receive only primary level education on average, and only extremely small absolute numbers of either sex attend university.
The great and the good implicitly promulgate a false perspective by sins of omission. By never mentioning boys, they encourage the idea that, in underdeveloped countries, boys are being educated but girls are not. It’s a false picture. But it is analogous to the same distorted picture of our own past in the UK. It’s almost as if there are virtue signalling Brownie points to be had in wringing one’s hands about girls’ education, but none to be had for boys’ education. It’s almost as if there were an empathy gap.
But I have become deflected from my purpose. I was discussing history and men’s supposedly wicked past of oppressing women. Any discussion of this will alight pretty quickly on women and the vote. The mythology is that men themselves had the vote from time immemorial – or at least for centuries – but that a male hegemony withheld the vote from women out of sheer misogyny. The popular story is one of brave suffragettes battling against burly policemen and brutal prison warders to eventual triumph. I had hoped that last year, being the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918, might see the emergence at long last of a balanced perspective on the attainment of a universal Parliamentary franchise – otherwise called the emergence of democracy. But no.
Figure 11 (Ref.)
Regrettably time is too short to do justice to the full, fascinating history of universal suffrage. The popular narrative is again woefully inaccurate. The sound bite version of the true history is the privileged few oppressing the many.
But remember: the many were of both sexes, and the few were of both sexes. Historically, not only was wealth and status in the hands of a small ruling elite, but the vast bulk of people, of both sexes, had no political power to institute a change to this state of affairs. For many centuries, the mass of ordinary men – and it was initially almost entirely men – struggled to obtain political representation. Many thousands of men were killed in violent struggles, or were executed or imprisoned or transported to penal colonies in their pursuit of political representation in order to better their lot and the lives of their families.
The peasant’s revolt in the 14th century; Jack Cade’s Kentish revolt in the 15th century and a rash of copycat uprisings in other counties; Robert Kett’s Norfolk rebellion in the 16th century and the resulting slaughter of 3000 peasants at the battle of Dussindale; the radical Levellers of the 17th century; and at the start of the 19th century, there were the Luddites, famous for their ‘unprogressive’ attitude towards factory machinery, and then the followers of Captain Swing – about 1400 of whom were ultimately executed, deported or imprisoned. And finally, of course, the Chartists.
But these centuries of struggle had no success until 1832.
Just a few years before the start of the Victorian era, only about 4% of adult men could vote. 96% of men still did not have the vote, even after all those centuries of struggle and loss of life.
Through the Victorian era, an increasing proportion of men were gradually granted the vote, as this graph shows.
But when John Stuart Mill produced his famous polemic arguing for female enfranchisement, in the years immediately before the second Reform Act of 1867, still only 12% of men had the vote. And even after that Act, only 32% of men had the vote.
Only in 1884 did the proportion of men over 21 with the vote exceed 50% – namely 56%. That remained the case throughout World War 1. The majority of men who were killed or maimed in WW1 did not have the vote.
Last year the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act was celebrated. But it was celebrated only for women’s acquisition of the vote. Well, it is perfectly valid and appropriate to celebrate women acquiring the vote. I have no difficultly with that.
But the women’s vote was neither the most important feature of that Act, nor its primary purpose – both of which were entirely ignored in the celebrations. Let me state this with absolute clarity: The primary purpose of the 1918 Act was men. Its primary purpose was to give the vote to the remaining half of disenfranchised working class men. Why? Because to withhold the vote from these men any longer had become insupportable in view of the carnage of the trenches.
There had been a majority of MPs in favour of female suffrage since 1884 – the year that the percentage of men with the vote reached 56%. This I have on the authority of both Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett. Between 1870 and 1914 there were some 18 Bills presented in Parliament attempting to introduce female suffrage. 8 of them passed their second reading. All failed. The reason was not the hegemony of chauvinistic male MPs – clearly not as there was a majority in favour. So why did all the Bills fail? The answer is election arithmetic – what I call the Big Snag.
Conservatives tended to be against female enfranchisement on principle, whilst Liberals and Labour tended to support it. But with half of working class men still disenfranchised, any Bill to promote female suffrage must be confined to the “more respectable” women, in the parlance of the time. But it was perceived that they would be predominantly Tory voters. By passing an Act which gave the vote to, say, a couple of million new Tory voters, the Liberals – who were in favour in principle – would be trashing their own electoral position. So, when it came to the crunch, Liberal MPs – and Asquith’s Government in particular – tended to vote Bills down or have them scuppered by Parliamentary manoeuvres. They gave priority to protecting their electoral chances.
The was the Big Snag, the resolution of which was simple enough in principle: give the vote to everyone – universal suffrage. But this ran up against a bigger barrier: that age old fear that the ruling class had of working class men. The working class had, after all, been suppressed by a genuine hegemony for the whole of history. Both Emmeline Pankhurst and Millicent Fawcett were well aware that achieving the vote for working class men was a far harder task than achieving the vote for even a limited number of women. What neither of them realised sufficiently clearly was that the former was the barrier to the latter and that the only way forward lay through universal suffrage. As late as 1909 Fawcett wrote, Ref.,
“I do not believe there is much genuine demand for universal suffrage. I certainly have not met with it when I have been about the country speaking….In any case our position is clear. We have nothing to do, and can have nothing to do, with a general alteration of the franchise as it affects men….Any change in the direction of adult manhood suffrage would make our task infinitely more difficult of attainment”
Indeed it would – but nevertheless it was the only way forward because of the Big Snag. The main thrust of the female suffragist movement, and the Labour Party, only converged on a policy of universal suffrage of both sexes as late as 1912. The WSPU – the suffragettes – never did.
The 1918 Act resulted from the war, because the new mood of egalitarianism stemming from the trenches overcame the age-old class antagonism which had for so long kept the vote from the working class. The war unsnagged the Big Snag. And that is why women received the vote in the same Act which gave the vote to all working class men. Because it was the lack of full enfranchisement of men which had been the barrier to women’s enfranchisement since 1884.
The 1918 Act was the final triumph of the democratic principle: that the vote was a citizen’s right, not the province of the propertied class. It is forgotten now that “democracy” had been, until this time, a dirty word, fit only for the mouths of dangerous radicals. I condemn the entirety of our political establishment, whatever political colours they sport. The triumph of democracy was arguably the most significant political achievement in our history – and it is deeply disturbing that its centenary was deemed by our moribund political establishment as unworthy of note.
And now my final topic: the law of coverture. Figure 12. As with the preceding topics, my theme will be how the popular narrative misrepresents the reality.
The gendered society expected the two sexes to fulfil different roles. One of the aspects of this was, undeniably, that women were constrained in what they were permitted to do in life – for example, they were excluded from the professions. But the gendered society also imposed limitations and obligations upon men. A grossly distorted picture is easy to conjure if one selects only the benefits to one sex and only the disbenefits to the other. Then one can then spin a tale of oppression out of straw.
A prime example is the law of coverture. Until around the mid-Victorian period, English Common Law had held that a married couple constituted a single legal entity. Under the system of coverture, the husband was the manifestation of that legal entity whilst the wife’s legal status became covert, i.e., hidden. The law of coverture is a favourite example of historic female oppression. Whilst an unmarried woman could own property and enter into legal contracts in her own right, this was – ostensibly – denied to a married woman under coverture because she was held to be legally subsidiary to her husband who must act for them both, as a couple, in legal matters. Let me emphasise, I am no apologist for the system of coverture, but you will not usually hear of the flip side of the arrangement.
Pause to consider for a moment the great boon that being legally non-existent might be to the unscrupulous or the criminal.
Since the man was the manifest legal entity he became responsible for crimes – or torts – committed by his wife. The most common example of this were the Victorian debtors’ prisons. Some 10,000 people were imprisoned yearly for debt in the Victorian era (Ref.). 98% of them were men. The debt would most likely have been run up by the household – perhaps by the wife’s profligacy or carelessness, or perhaps not, but in either case it was the husband who went to prison.
Another aspect of the law of coverture which is not usually mentioned was known as the principle of “necessaries”. A man was obliged to provide financially for his wife. The principle of “necessaries” under coverture meant that the wife herself could enter a ‘contract’ for goods, or purchase any goods, on credit if they were deemed to fall under the aegis of “necessaries”. This could be done unilaterally without the husband’s knowledge, though he would still be responsible for honouring the debt. This was, of course, a practical necessity since it was primarily wives who did the household spending. But what constituted “necessaries” was highly class and status dependent. Thus, for a woman of high social status such items as a carriage, expensive lace clothing and the hire of servants would be deemed “necessaries” because they were expected of a woman in her position. The law of “necessaries” effectively gave married women great powers of consumption without legal responsibility for the consequences. Which is why so many men ended up in debtors prisons. (This account based on Refs.[14, 15, 16]).
Margot Finn has described coverture in every day practice as “existing in a state of suspended animation” because women did, in reality, exercise considerable influence, both legally and financially. The time that coverture truly was called into play was in deciding who went to prison.
But the beneficial aspects of coverture for wives did not stop there. The law of “necessaries” extended even to separated, and possibly to divorced, wives – and in some cases also to common law wives. An estranged wife could continue to run up debts with which to burden her estranged husband. This was commonly used as a tactic to force the husband to agree divorce terms favourable to the wife. Such estranged wives could, and did, push the strategy as far as having the husband imprisoned by burdening him deliberately with impossible debts until he gave them the divorce settlement that they wanted.
There are recorded cases such as this: a man returned home from a business trip to discover that his wife had sold everything he possessed and set herself up in alternative accommodation with the proceeds. He was now destitute but there was nothing he could do. He could bring no case against his wife because she and he were deemed to be legally identified, and one cannot sue oneself.
This is not quite the picture of coverture as oppression of women that is normally presented.
Even after the 1869 Act for the Abolition of Imprisonment for Debt, imprisonment was still retained for certain cases of debt, including the financial provision for wives – hence the law of “necessaries” continued even after this act. And this is despite the fact that other aspects of coverture started to be demolished from 1870, with a succession of Married Women’s Property Acts which allowed married women to own property and capital in their own right. There is evidence that they had, in practice, always done so anyway. It is noteworthy that the last part of coverture to go, the final overturning of the law of “necessaries”, did not happen until just 9 years ago. This was done by the 2010 Equality Act which contained the simple line, ‘The rule of common law that a husband must maintain his wife is abolished’. Thus, from the beginnings of the demolition of coverture, it took another 140 years before this obligation upon husbands was finally overturned.
Whilst coverture formally limited women’s freedoms, its purpose and its practice were to tie men into obligations of resource provision to their wives and families.
The law of coverture effectively placed a legal obligation upon husbands to ensure their wives obeyed the law. In fact, coverture had its origins in common law and hence in ancient custom and practice which had also obliged husbands to make sure their wives behaved themselves. A particularly egregious example of this is the Skimmington Ride (Ref.). It is still the case today that society has a hard time accepting that some men may be the victims of partner abuse, rather than the perpetrator. In historical times things were no better, in fact, worse. A man who allowed himself to be abused by his wife would be punished for it by his community. A husband was expected to control his wife – this was implicit in coverture. If she beat him, then this was regarded as a failing on his part. The punishment was the Skimmington Ride, in which the man was obliged to ride a donkey through the town facing backwards, and thus looking ridiculous, whilst the populace would bang pots and pans and jeer and mock him by calling out insults. This was control by public shaming.
And that brings me to the end of my rather hurried look at education, suffrage and coverture.
Perhaps some of you were already well aware of the issues I have raised. For those who may not have been, I hope I have dented your preconceptions about gender in history at least a little.
- OECD (2015), The ABC of Gender Equality in Education: Aptitude, Behaviour, Confidence, PISA, OECD Publishing. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264229945-en
- Paul Bolton, Education: Historical Statistics, House of Commons Library, Social & General Statistics, Standard Note: SN/SG/4252, 27 November 2012. http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN04252/SN04252.pdf
- Richard Brown, University Education 1800-1870, February 2011, http://richardjohnbr.blogspot.com/2011/02/university-education-1800-1870.html
- Not used.
- UK Government, Foreign Secretary Launches Platform for Girls’ Education, 20 April 2018, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/foreign-secretary-launches-platform-for-girls-education
- Alex Jackson, William Hague hails Malala Yousafzai after hospital visit, The Guardian, 29 October 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/29/hague-visit-yousafzai-hospita
- Bono, #GirlsCount Fight Girls’ Education Crisis, https://www.borgenmagazine.com/fight-girls-education-crisis/
- Michelle Obama, The First Lady Marks Mother’s Day and Speaks Out on the Tragic Kidnapping in Nigeria, 10 May 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAncJ3nuczI
- UN Data, Literacy rates (%) for young people in age range 15 to 24 from http://data.un.org/Data.aspx?d=UNESCO&f=series%3aLR_AG15T24
- http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Education/School-life-expectancy/Primary-to-tertiary/Male# , ditto for #female
- William Collins, Oxford Men’s Group talk on the Untold History of Universal Suffrage in the UK, https://www.bitchute.com/video/FWkyyx3odhsU/
- Margot Finn, Women, consumption and coverture in England, c. 1760–1860, The Historical Journal, 39, pp 703-722 doi:10.1017/S0018246X0002450X, http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1398776/1/S0018246X0002450Xa.pdf
- Joanne Bailey, Favoured or oppressed? Married women, property and ‘coverture’ in England, 1660–1800, Continuity and Change 17 (3), 2002, 351–372. Cambridge University Press DOI: 10.1017/S0268416002004253. Available here.
- Stephen J. Ware, A 20th Century Debate About Imprisonment for Debt, available here
- , “Feminism and Democracy: Women’s Suffrage and Reform Politics in Britain, 1900 – 1918”, by Sandra Stanley Holton, Cambridge University Press, 1986