Tuesday 19 July 2022

Hotbed: Bohemian New York and the Secret Club That Sparked Modern Feminism, Joanna Scutts

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This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thank you to Duckworth Books and Random Things Tours for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In the early 1900s a group of women began meeting weekly to discuss feminism and its intersection with political and social issues of the day. The women were largely well educated and financially comfortable, and the group became known as Heterodoxy. They were aware of the narrowness of their diversity but this didn’t always mean they avoided falling in to common prejudices. There was, at times, a disconnect between understanding that what they saw as rebellion and independence wasn’t viable or desirable for women in other situations. For example, some rejected marriage, but for many in less privileged positions marriage was essential for being seen as respectable or to move away from unpleasant stereotypes. Nonetheless, they endeavoured to help in situations far removed from their own, and although sometimes there were clashes, it was clear that they had a certain amount of protection from the law that working class women and women of colour did not have, and that this could be used to the advantage of all.

Hotbed discusses the huge range of topics that Heterodoxy were interested in, from same sex relationships to workers’ rights, psychoanalysis, theatre, and the right to birth control. Many of the issues will seem uncomfortably familiar to many a modern reader. This is particularly evident in the uneven opportunities afforded to different groups, and to the difficult balance of motherhood and a fulfilling work life. The Feminist Alliance proposed a dedicated apartment complex for families where cooking, cleaning, and childcare were organised communally and undertaken by professionals. The idea was appealing to many but it soon became clear that the costs of such an endeavour were well beyond the reach of the average family. There was also pushback from external parties who believed entrusting the raising of children to professionals showed a lack of concern for the wellbeing of the child. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was adamant that many parents were not good at raising their children and that women did not have an inherent knowledge of what was best. She believed that society was failing children by leaving their upbringing to the chance of birth. The apartment complex idea was eventually scrapped due to internal disagreements, spiralling costs, and the outbreak of War in Europe. Members continued to work hard to support mothers who wished to, or indeed needed to, keep working, and eventually made some progress whereby women were to take two years (unpaid) leave. It was far from ideal, but the presence of a policy indicated that mothers belonged in the workplace, a novel idea.

The group supported the movement that grew around the Triangle Fire tragedy, whereby 146 factory workers died in a fire, the doors to escape routes locked, and internal conditions a perfect storm for the quick spread of fire. It was a horrifying tragedy that shook the population of New York. Sadly, the new factory that they moved in to afterward showed no more concern for employees’ wellbeing. At times efforts to highlight poor conditions could be thought to be in poor taste with pageants recreating the appalling positions many found themselves in, turning it into a spectacle. There was some resentment between the workers and the glamorous, wealthy activists who took up all the limelight, but they did help to mobilise and publicise issues.

Hotbed portrays a creative, intelligent group, determined to bring about change and experiment with different ways of living. Scutts doesn’t shy away from the in-fighting and contradictions however. We see how open relationships caused great strain on many members, how the sheer volume of interests involved could sometimes hamper progress, and the dismissal and condescension shown to those from different backgrounds. For women who were apparently so enlightened it can be hard to reconcile such blindness to other issues. This is a fascinating read that sheds light on many aspects of early twentieth century life and demonstrates how inequality permeated all aspects of society. 

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