Writing Against History

From the Introduction: “Unruly Women in the Intwerar Years: Surplus Women and Trafficked Women”

In 1921, the United Kingdom conducted its first census since the Great War, and its results were scrutinized for the generational impact the war had on a nation. The number of deaths and missing persons attributed to the 1914-1918 war in Europe range from eight to over ten million, with Great Britain recording around one million military deaths. In addition to military casualties, the period also saw an additional five million deaths across Europe attributable either to conditions related to the war, or to other civil wars and unrest (Gerwarth 1-2). The vast majority of these deaths were of men, so one of the key details of the 1921 census that newspaper editors scrutinized was the large gap between the number of females and males counted in the British population. The 1921 census reported nearly two million more women than men in the population of Great Britain following the war, and the phrase “Surplus Women” appeared repeatedly in British newspaper columns and letters to the editor in August and September of that year, and continued to appear in newspapers in Europe and abroad for the next several years.

This was not a new phrase; “Surplus Women” already had traction as a popular social label for a growing class of women in modern British and American societies. The term “surplus women” had emerged in the social debates of the previous century after the 1851 British census reported for the first time not only basic population numbers but finer details about “the age, sex, and ‘conjugal condition’ of the population,” finding that there were “approximately 400,000 women” who would, demographically, never gain marital status because of the gap between females and males in the British population (Worsnop 22). This demographical gap became associated with the economic and emigration practices of the British Empire as well as capitalist globalization of the period, as European white men moved across the globe to expand financial and sovereign control.

The 1851 census report contributed to this theory by comparing the ratio of men to women in the British population to populations in the colonies and in the United States, where the ratio of males to females was reversed. The subsequent census in 1861 saw a similar gap between sexes, and the report explicitly concluded that “the excess of the emigration of males over females accounts for the present difference in the proportion of the sexes” (qtd. in Warsnop 23). Significantly, the term “surplus women” did not refer to working-class women; the 1851 census also reported employment data, and while those employed in textile industries or in domestic service might have included unmarried women, popular rhetoric assigned the term “surplus” to those women who were not only unmarried but unemployed. Thus, “surplus women” came to label unmarried, middle-class British women.[1] The term was used by both conservatives and progressive activists around women’s issues in the following decades of the nineteenth century. On one hand, women cited the census statistics and used the negatively charged label to advocate for increased rights and access for middle-class women to education and professional positions. Others, such as the businessman and social theorist William Rathbone Greg, who played on the economics of the term, advocated for increased emigration of middle-class women to colonies and dominions, particularly Canada.

The unprecedented death toll of World War One had significantly increased the demographical gap between the sexes by the end of the second decade of the twentieth century, however, and popular and political concern surged again in 1921, this time intensified by both a significant increase in the demographic imbalance and the devastating nature of its context: war, and war-related health and economic factors. Something must be done about the Surplus Women Problem, many letters to editors argued, including this anonymous letter to the London Times on August 25, 1921:

Look at it how one will, there must remain for more than a generation a far larger surplus of women than could have well existed in the natural course of events. Time must indeed largely redress the balance; but in the immediate future every consideration of woman’s position in the nation’s life will be profoundly affected.

The question of “woman’s position in the nation’s life” as a result of her new status of being somehow in excess of her natural and civic roles loomed large in the popular imagination of this era.

The census report and economic language of “surplus” offered those who had anxieties about changing power dynamics—domestically and internationally, intimately and publicly—something to grasp onto. We see it referenced in Virginia Woolf’s post-WWI novel, Mrs. Dalloway, when the conservative Lady Bruton asks Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread over to lunch to help her compose a letter to the editor of the London Times about “superfluous youth” who, she argues, should be sent to Canada (107). This is no doubt a sly reference to the many “surplus women” editorials in the Times following the 1921 census, like the one excerpted above. Bruton’s letter and all the other “surplus women” letters incorporate multiple contemporary anxieties about destabilizing trends regarding the classes, global empire, and political and economic control.

What these evolving debates about “Surplus Women” announce is a kind of racial panic. Especially in the contexts of war, economic transformations, social agitations, and political clashes, the census data and economic language about demographics are indicators of mortality. This dissertation traces that panic through narrative representation of and resistance to coercions of intimacies that would force a certain kind of future.[2] This study argues that baroque aesthetics, recuperated and reculturated at the turn of the twentieth-century, aestheticize a tension between incommensurable forces, including life and death, pleasure and pain, love and fear. Focusing on four novels by modernist women from English, Anglo-Irish, American-Expatriate, and British-Creole contexts and set primarily in Europe in the decades following the Great War, I define a feminist baroque aesthetic potential in modernist narratives that do not simply resist but renegotiate the limiting terms of white, middle-class womanhood. These texts’ investments in and critiques of the constructions of white womanhood are entangled with the interwar psyche of survival and paranoia.[3]

Already in 1919, however, perhaps in early recognition of the war’s impact on the population—or to capitalize on the crisis of war—the Society for the Overseas Settlement of British Women (SOSBW) was established and remained active through 1962. The emigration strategy addressed not only the “surplus women” issue at home but the changing dynamics of empire following the war: women would be needed abroad to help shore up Great Britain’s global empire. As Jean Smith has recently argued, the SOSBW played an important role in social engineering the imperial project, and its work from the interwar period to its cessation after the Second World War demonstrated “the ways in which travel to the Empire could provide both new freedoms for women and new restrictions when they were charged as the guardians of racial purity” (521). So-called Surplus Women were thus fashioned in popular imagination to be both the cause and the cure for the destabilization of a global colonial-patriarchal order, threatening reproductive decline and social agitation on one hand, or symbolizing the expansion of the white race across the globe as a “civilizing” force for Empire, on the other.

At the same time that single middle-class women were designated as surplus and being targeted for export, however, another social issue captured the attention of women’s groups in the decade after the Great War: the trafficking of women and minors as prostitutes. While narratives of the “White Slave Trade” had circulated as a cautionary tale for women since the nineteenth century, new attention to sex trafficking and prostitution in the first decades of the twentieth century was driven by multiple factors in Europe and North America.  These factors included the increased freedoms and mobility for middle-class women, as well as changes in the populations and visibility of not only women but also immigrants, displaced persons from the Great War and other conflicts, and, in the United States, African Americans moving from southern agricultural regions to northern, more populous, industrial regions during the Great Migration. In the US in particular, the term “white slavery” not only distinguished the sex trade from the African slave trade but also helped to shape narratives that performed social constructions such as “whiteness, sexual morality, class, and citizenship” (Donavan 56, see also Bromfield 130). The social imaginary power of “trafficked women” flips the coin on the “surplus women” image: on one side is the pristine, colonial-patriarchal potential of white womanhood, on the other is the damaged remains of colonial-patriarchal disorder, which might also include racial ambiguity due to ambiguous national identities and miscegenation. Both images serve to establish economic and national parameters for women’s patriotic sexuality and legitimate mobility.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the salaciousness of the White Slave Trade consolidated social anxieties about the increasing presence of middle-class women in public spaces, as well as the visibility of colonial or racialized “others” in metropolitan centers. In the same year as the first post-war census, the newly established League of Nations convened conferences on the issue of international sex trade and commissioned an international investigation. In 1927, the landmark study by the League published a report on “the allied problems of prostitution and transport of women and girls from one country to another” (Harris ix). Focusing on the trafficking between Europe, North Africa, South America, and North America, the study identified “state-regulated prostitution” as a target for reform (Piley 90-91). The study was the first ever to systematically document prostitution as the exploitation of particular populations at an international level, extending to twenty-eight nations. Importantly, the study identified the systemic economic and legal conditions which coerce and sustain prostitution, rather than individual moral failings.

Like the Surplus Women debates, however, the international issue of women trafficking provided opportunities for shoring up rhetoric and policies that served not only women’s civil rights interests but also imperial interests, especially those imperial interests which were harmed by the devastating example of the “masculine ethos of empire” that culminated in the Great War (Gorman 193). While the women’s groups’ attention to sex trafficking resulted in new awareness and legislation around the systematic exploitation of women, their work could also be criticized for perpetuating the noblesse oblige mentality that enables hierarchical dominance over colonized people and territories. Paul Knepper argues that the League’s commission to address prostitution at the international scale set a precedent to establish international “sociological jurisprudence” (72). Daniel Gorman argues that the new “humanitarian imperialism” facilitated through the League, supported by international women’s groups and championed by individuals like Leonard Woolf during the interwar years, was “an evolution of, not an alternative to, empire” (216). 

While the executive summary of the report expresses sympathy for trafficked women of any nationality who find themselves displaced and facing barriers of language or culture in their new surroundings, Philippa Levine has argued that contemporary rhetoric around the global trafficking of prostitutes contributed to racialization of the colonial structure. Foreignness, agency, and criminality are flexible concepts that find sedimentation through racialized and gendered considerations of trafficked women. Even in ostensibly objective statistics and official documentation of prostitution and sex trafficking, European women working as prostitutes outside of Europe maintained their whiteness through language in police reports that presumed their choice of criminality, an assumption that incorporates a racial-patriarchal worldview and therefore imagines a downward mobility in these women’s apparent abandonment of their womanhood. On the other hand, trafficked Asian women, for example, maintained racial otherness in official reports through sympathetic language that projected Orientalist sexism into assumptions of these women’s agentless victimhood as well as their static role as sex object (137-38). Within this matrix of nationality and agency forged through race and gender and further described in terms of sexuality and criminality, the colonial-patriarchal concept of miscegenation, not directly addressed in the 1927 report, also undoubtedly loomed. In the public rhetoric and official policies regarding Surplus Women and Trafficked Women, racial survival and racial purity were always implied and thus authorized the various forms of sexual control of women.

My introduction of these two specific economic and political issues regarding women in the transatlantic imaginary during the interwar period serve as organizing images for this dissertation. “Surplus Women” and “Trafficked Women” are two powerful examples of the various ways that women were manipulated and exploited for social engineering and profiteering purposes during the interwar years. These designations construct boundaries for “legitimate” womanhood via race, reproductivity, sexuality, and class. And these figures show up in the modernist literature of women and men of this era to signal social anxieties about gender roles and national identities. Surplus and trafficked—or, what I will refer to alternatively as transient—women also represent, directly or indirectly, the machinations of empire conducted through women’s intimate relationships. Such machinations serve a colonial-patriarchal global order, and the two historical examples provided here demonstrate fluctuating concerns regarding (re)productivity or sexuality, citizenship or national identity, and mobility. Again, these images and these anxieties mark out the limits—the hopes and fears, the safety and constraints—of white, middle-class womanhood for a transatlantic imaginary. These figures contrast domestic scenes where the integration and fortification of national and racial identities is secured through white, middle-class womanhood on one hand, with the transience and mobility of threatening or transformative sexuality and racial ambiguity on the other.

But rather than a broad exploration of modernist texts of this era, the aim of this dissertation is to undertake a feminist analysis of four interwar narratives that emphasize the limits—the inside and outside—of white, middle-class womanhood. I examine novels by four Atlantic modernists whose diverse national, colonial, sexual, and class identities, as well as their ambivalent affiliations with other modernists and the modernist “canon,” provide a sufficiently varied spectrum from which to outline a particular modernist strain—or capability—that, at the same time, can contribute to recent critical reorientations of modernist studies more generally. I argue that interwar novels by Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys engage with these “surplus” and “trafficked” images of women during this period, and they particularize and contest them through narratives about women caught in colonial-patriarchal plots. From domestic or transient settings, the fictional women and narrative forms discussed in this dissertation nevertheless resist or disrupt, and therefore call attention to, imperialist, nationalistic, militaristic, and otherwise oppressive coercions of intimacy that benefit colonial-patriarchal agendas.

What I will define as a feminist baroque narrative aesthetic organizes a complex tension of resistance and engagement played out in form and content. My consideration of these particular texts within this framework adds to our thinking about modernism in terms of aesthetics and gender. This project also offers a feminist engagement with the historical significance of surplus and trafficked women—which shapes a false choice for any woman caught in colonial-patriarchal plots. Importantly, these two figures outline limit cases—in sexuality, (re)productivity, and racial affiliation—for the general idea of womanhood. This study reads these figures as gendered manifestations of historically-specific crises of social identities and affiliations. The claim that this dissertation makes is that, in contrast to other representations of Surplus and Trafficked Women during this period—visions of inevitable or total subsumption of women and women’s sexuality into history—these feminist baroque narratives remain open and ambiguous. In this way, they point to an ongoing individual and collective responsibility to recognize the narrative and social forms that demand or force certain visions of a future contingent on sexual, racial, and economic exploitation. Ultimately, feminist baroque aesthetics facilitate negotiated, rather than coerced, intimacies.

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From the Conclusion: “Negotiating Love”

Since at least Simone De Beauvoir’s consideration of how a “woman” is constructed as Other in the Hegelian master/slave dialectic, the feminist argument could be considered a pursuit of a particular kind of recognition, a recognition which affords women and other subjugated individuals or populations the right to choose, a right to negotiate (and refuse) the intimacy which is otherwise expected of or forced on them, including sex, marriage, and reproduction. What men, women, and governments recognized in the staggering number of war casualties, the growing gap between the sexes in census data, and the increasing threats of economic collapse and political revolutions in the decades after the Great War, however, was death. In such a crisis, the Other becomes a means to a future or the threat of extinction; the Other is, in short, the reminder of mortality.

In the rhetoric and policies regarding Surplus Women and Trafficked Women emerging in the 1920s, we see the panic of threatened survival as well as the desire to control the means for a future: “Man’s design is not to repeat himself in time: it is to take control of the instant and mold the future” (De Beauvoir, Second Sex 65). Walter Benjamin and other cultural critics of the interwar period recognized the resonances between the Baroque of the Counter-Reformation and the modernist aesthetics of the early twentieth century as aestheticizing this push and pull between recognition of death and a desire to coerce a future. The Catalonian art historian Eugenio D’Ors described this crisis dynamic in terms of cycling political and ideological clashes between the classicism of “Eternity” and the baroque vitalism of “Life” (84). This dissertation argues that the manifestation of this crisis in the false choice presented in the rhetoric and practices of Surplus or Trafficked Women is traced by the feminist baroque narratives considered in this study, whose texts confront—push up against—the limits of white, middle-class womanhood. The feminist baroque is both an aesthetic and a reading practice that facilitates critical engagement with experiences of “excess” and “exclusion,” as well as recognition of the turbulent forces of “expansion” and “retraction” which configure not only baroque forms, but a baroque perspective of history.

The baroque rendering of pain, love, desire, and revelation in forms that suspend time and space as well as oppositional ideological forces is perhaps exemplified in Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa (1647-1652), which is worth remembering in order to consider how a feminist baroque aesthetic potential might facilitate a particular kind of engagement and recognition for the spectator (see Figure 7 and Figure 8).  In this sculpture by the Italian Baroque artist, we can see how the play of light and shadows, folds, perspective, and juxtaposed materials position the spectator for a complex emotional response relying on eroticism, vulnerability, faith, and fear.

The marble statue depicts the saint in the moment just before (or between, and thus producing an expanded temporal dimension to the experience) she is repeatedly pierced by the angel-Cupid’s arrow. The statue is situated in the Cornaro Chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, in such a way as to challenge notions of space itself: is the building a finite space, or is it infinite and connected to heaven?  The billowing folds of fabric seem soft and pliable, and yet the spectator knows that they are made of stone, which disturbs the expectations that sensory experience should reinforce, rather than undermine, presumptions about reality. Teresa’s slightly opened mouth, which literally and figuratively opens the figure to vulnerability and penetration by the spectator, suggests orgasm, a mixing of pain and bliss.

Howard Hibbard’s influential study of Bernini emphasized the “breaking down of traditional and familiar boundaries” between different material techniques, delineations of space (and time), and even a transgression of boundaries between the spectator and the object in the complex composition of space and forms in The Ecstasy (135). In this way, Bernini’s baroque aesthetics also function as modernist expression, representing ruptures of tradition and refiguration of the experience of space and time through form. Importantly, Bernini’s goal in this sculpture is not to merely depict but to move the spectator, even to generate an “hallucinatory revelation” like the one the saint described herself (Hibbard 134).  Bernini’s time-space disturbance, however, concentrates on vertical relationships of power rather than global ones. The seventeenth century Baroque in Rome might have moved a spectator to believe in (and therefore submit to or seek to resist) the power of the Church or the State via recognition of the intimate demands of God’s love. The feminist baroque aesthetics described in this dissertation envelop and disturb a reader such that she recognizes the reach of racial-patriarchal and imperial demands across vertical, global, and temporal dimensions. In particular, a reader is moved to see her own and others’ experiences as the result of relational politics that concentrate in intimate relationships while being manipulated by state, economic, and imperial forces. She re-sees history in terms of an aesthetically-induced personal disturbance. A revelation of history, of its abusive relationality, its coercions of intimacies.

The texts considered in this study ultimately reconfigure the passive roles of “minor” historical actors in the overwhelming circumstances of war, fascism, pogroms, racism and sexism as events of not just resistance, but also as opportunities for renegotiating intimacies. This renegotiation can only occur after recognition, recognition of intersubjectivity and responsibility. Feminist baroque aesthetics not only haunt but interrupt the transfer of history through patterns of coerced intimacy like marriage and reproduction, as well as through linear, authoritative, and single-voiced narrative structures. Thus, these feminist baroque narratives transform aesthetic engagement into opportunities to recognize the risks of encounter, to question allegiances, and to encourage difficult choices about participation in projects which demand erasure of some perspective or some voice. Crucially, feminist baroque literary devices like mise en abyme, elliptical narratives and typography, and narrative uncertainty invite both participation and suspicion.

[1] See Kathrin Levitan’s 2008 article, “Redundancy, the ‘Surplus Woman’ Problem, and the British Census, 1851-1861.” As Levitan and Worsnop both discuss, the census reports contributed statistical data to confirm conservative arguments already in circulation about the need to define and control the role of women in a rapidly changing society.

[2] Lisa Lowe uses the term “intimacies” to refer to “the global processes and colonial connections that are the conditions of its production” and to “emphasize a constellation of asymmetrical and unevenly legible ‘intimacies’ . . . in relation to a global geography that one more often conceives in terms of vast spatial distances” (18). This study considers this global-colonial production and coercion of economic intimacies as being reinforced in, and often emanating from, the biopolitics of gender control and argues that feminist baroque aesthetics suspend and aestheticize the vastness and the intimacies of this “constellation” in both embodied and textual forms.

[3] Paul Saint-Amour’s theory of the “interwar” period as a psychically defined space is influential for my study. He argues that, in the decades after the Great War, “the memory of one world war was already joined to the specter of a second, future one, framing the period in real time as an interwar whose terminus in global conflict seemed . . . foreordained” (Tense Future 7)