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Review Essay: The Power Principle: Some Recent Books on British Women's Movements Maeve E. Doggett. Marriage, Wife-beating and the Law in Victorian England. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. χ + 210 pp. ISBN 0-8724-9967-7 (cl). Harold L. Smith, ed. British Feminism in the Twentieth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. χ + 214 pp. ISBN 0-8702-37055 (cl). Jo Vellacott. From Liberal to Labour with Women's Suffrage: The Story of Catherine Marshall. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1993. xx + 518 pp. ISBN 0-7735-0958-5 (cl). Pam Graves British feminists, like their American sisters, have a long tradition of faith in the law as the most effective means of ending discrimination against women. In both the nineteenth and twentieth-century waves of the women's movement, liberal feminists argued that a legal foundation for gender equaUty would make patriarchal attitudes so incongruous that they would eventually fade away. Even if they did not, they would lose the power to disadvantage women. From the perspective of the mid-1990s such confidence seems sadly misplaced. After more than a century of equality-promoting legislation, from the Married Women's Property Ads of the 1870s through equal suffrage in 1928 to equal pay in the 1970s, British women have yet to adiieve gender equality in political representation , in the job market, or in the home. The undoubted gains m areas such as reproductive health and sodal welfare provision, including family allowances and abortion rights, have been under attack since the mid1980s . Patriarchy may be weaker than a century ago but it has yet to fade away, and feminism in Britain, as in the U.S., is Hi retreat. Recent work in the history of British feminism reflects the present mood of frustration and disappointment. The three books under review are réévaluations of the struggle for women's rights in Britain over the last century and a half. The theme that they share is not so much the faüure of feminism as the resilience of patriarchy—the abüity of male eHtes tp adapt to changing sodal and economic conditions without giving up their control over women. The writers acknowledge organized women's success in finding spaces within the male power structure in which to insert their © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 1996 Review Essay Pam Graves 153 claims, but they argue that after every shift toward greater gender equality male eHtes moved to subvert or override feminist gains. They point out that the very achievements that Hberal feminists expected to serve thefr cause actuaUy strengthened patriarciiy by stimulating a backlash. When feminists whittled away the prindple of coverture to give Vidorian wives independent legal status, male elites reasserted their control through the concept of separate spheres. Women's advance towards greater economic independence during the two world wars so unnerved male elites that, as soon as war ended, they used their authority to return women to the home. Even the right to vote, for which women fought so long and hard, was turned to male advantage. The inclusion of women Hi the party poHtical system aUowed male leaders to divide feminists along dass Unes and limit their access to policy-making power. Maeve Doggett, who teaches law at the University of Nottingham, invents the term "power principle" to refer to the historically enduring concept that women are lesser beings who ought to be under male control. In her book, Marriage, Wife-beating and the Law in Victorian England, Doggett argues that the power principle was the cause and essence of the law of coverture which made husband and wife one person in law and that person the husband. Doggett traces the origin of the law to the seventeenth -century political revolution which marked the triumph of individual rights and the social contrad over a status-based hierarchy and divine right monarchy. To avoid the logical extension of individual and contract rights to women, jurists adopted the Christian view of marriage as a unity of the flesh to create a legal fiction of marital unity which subsumed women's contract rights under those of their husbands. Since...


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