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Ideological Conversions: Three Women Activists in the 1930s

Maureen Mulligan

Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain

Volume 8, Number 1, 2016 I Full Text PDF


Abstract

What would lead three upper middle class women to question the ideology of their peers and challenge the accepted world view to the extent that they cross the line between acceptance of the status quo and political activism? This paper looks at the life and work of three women – two British and one American – who, in the 1930s, experienced a dramatic change in the way they interpreted the world, which led them to a conversion to a different political viewpoint that had an almost evangelical quality to the way it would affect their subsequent life. Margot Heinemann, Rebecca West and Martha Gellhorn: three impressive writers and activists whom we remember now for their fervent defence of political causes – the struggle of the working class for autonomy, the alternative philosophy and quality of life that existed in the divided Balkans, and La Causa, the doomed Republican fight for democracy, respectively. Apart from their intrinsically interesting individual conversions to the faith of a new cause which we can trace in each of these women, their experiences reflect a wider movement in the twentieth century. Heinemann and Gellhorn represent a tendency which has dominated the century – the struggle between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the oppressed; fascism and dictatorship versus socialism and democracy. West represents a new respect for a culture that is not a dominant, first world power; she is one of a few writers of her time who looked around the world and discovered values that were not merely material in another way of life. This is a global shift in the appreciation of another culture which has led in the direction of recent political movements based around “thinking globally and acting locally”. Finally, all three writers implicitly echo what has been possibly the biggest social “crossing” of the twentieth century: the struggle for women to find their voice and exercise power: to cross over from second class citizen to equal member of society.

Keywords: Women, politics, 1930s, activism, class, Spain, Balkans, feminism.

  1. Introduction

This paper looks at the life and work of three women – two British and one American – who, in the 1930s, experienced a dramatic change in the way they interpreted the world, which led them to a conversion to a different political viewpoint that had an almost evangelical quality to the way it would affect their subsequent life. Margot Heinemann, Rebecca West and Martha Gellhorn: three impressive writers and activists whom we remember now for their fervent defence of political causes – the struggle of the working class for autonomy, the alternative philosophy and quality of life that existed in the divided Balkans, and La Causa, the doomed Republican fight for democracy, respectively.

Their experiences reflect a wider movement in the twentieth century. Heinemann and Gellhorn represent a tendency which has dominated the century – the struggle between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the oppressed; fascism and dictatorship versus socialism and democracy. West represents a new respect for a culture that is not a dominant, first world power; she is one of a few writers of her time who looked around the world and discovered values that were not merely material in another way of life. This is a global shift in the appreciation of another culture which has led in the direction of recent political movements based around “thinking globally and acting locally”. Finally, all three writers implicitly echo what has been possibly the biggest social “crossing” of the twentieth century: the struggle for women to find their voice and exercise power: to cross over from second class citizen to equal member of society.

  1. Margot Heinemann

Margot Claire Heinemann (1913-1992) enjoyed a privileged early life, being the daughter of a banker; her parents were left-wing German Jews. Margot Heinemann was educated at one of the most expensive independent girls’ schools in Britain, Roedean in Sussex, which prided itself on preparing girls to enter the women’s colleges at Oxbridge. She went on to win a scholarship to read English at Newnham College, Cambridge University, in 1931, later graduating with a Double First Class honours degree and was awarded a one year’s research scholarship. Her studies at Cambridge coincided with very hard times outside this centre of academic privilege, as Britain and the rest of Europe experienced the suffering of the Depression, and the rise of Hitler and Fascism in Germany. Margot Heinemann also became very active in politics, espousing a radical ideology that would sustain her throughout her long life, and became a member first of the Cambridge Socialist Society and then of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934; she remained a member despite all that would happen in the twentieth century until the Party was dissolved in 1991, a year before her death. A group of Hunger Marchers passed through Cambridge in February 1934, and this contact with an organized and articulate working class struggle had a huge effect on her. Heinemann later recalled that her political views were changed by attending a meeting: “I remember there was a demonstration to go out to greet the contingent of hunger marchers from the north-east coast who were passing through Cambridge. And we marched out to meet them at Girton and marched back with them… And there was a meeting in the town in the evening which was addressed by the leader of the contingent, Wilf Jobling… And I remember that as a landmark because it was the first time it had ever occurred to me that the working class could have a leading role, or a central role in politics.” Commenting on her decision to join the Communist party, she said: “We are all, as it were, the natural allies of the working class, it wasn’t a question of crossing over from your middle-class background to find yourself a niche in the working-class movement, but of trying to unite all these kinds of people on the basis of a conscious desire to combat fascism and war.” After leaving university she taught 14-year old girls, factory workers at Cadbury’s Continuation School for day release at the Bournville factory in Birmingham, thus putting into practice her desire to improve the life of the working class in a practical way, despite the fact this meant giving up a comfortable academic life and future in Cambridge. As Graham Stevenson argues, “Conscious of those few privileges she had enjoyed, Margot would fight all her life for privileges to those who did not have them, never once expecting special treatment for herself.”…Full Text PDF

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