A journal of turn-of-the-century theatre

Issue 6 - Summer 2013

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D. A. Hadfield and Jean Reynolds eds., Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off (Gainesville, FL: The University Press of Florida, 2013); 240 pp.; ISBN: 978-0813042437.

reviewed by Julie A. Sparks

In this age of “third-wave feminism,” when even relatively privileged, successful women in corporate America must be urged to “lean in” to pursue the still-elusive goal of equality with men, and when the term “feminism” itself has become another “f-word” for many, a book like Shaw and Feminisms: On Stage and Off clearly fills a need, offering some perspective from  one of the most complex and controversial thinkers to influence first-wave feminism, George Bernard Shaw.

By collecting a diverse array of new articles focused on explicating Shaw’s views on the woman question, examining his interactions with feminists of his time, and analyzing his relevant writings, editors Dorothy Hadfield and Jean Reynolds have revived and continued a conversation begun by Rodelle Weintraub’s Fabian Feminist (1977), which provided Shaw scholars and some controversial second-wave feminists with a forum for analysis and debate about Shaw’s role in the women’s movement. Shaw and Feminisms is a worthy successor to that book, as Weintraub herself affirms in her foreword to this volume.

Shaw and Feminisms offers new articles classified into three categories: 1) critical analyses of feminist dynamics in particular Shaw plays 2) historical insights into Shaw’s personal and professional relationships with some individual women of his time - including actresses, aspiring female playwrights, and the feminist anarchist revolutionary Emma Goldman - and 3) a section called “Shavian Feminism in the Larger World,” which, broadly speaking, investigates Shaw’s impact on women in the world today. This last section includes an interview with the Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival Director, Jackie Maxwell, who says that Shaw’s “really progressive and interesting and thorny plays [and] still ask questions and shed light on things that are really worth looking at” (208). This book confirms her statement.

The articles are diverse, both in their scholarly approaches and in their assessment of Shaw’s virtues as a force for progress in the feminist cause. In the first section, two writers focus their attention on one play each, offering interesting new analyses that complicate the usual reading of these plays: Ann Wilson’s “Shutting Out Mother: Vivie Warren as the New Woman” and Brad Kent’s “The Politics of Shaw’s Irish Women in John Bull’s Other Island.” Some of the articles explore a particular aspect of the beneficial, liberating effect  of Shaw’s feminist works, including Tracy J. R. Collins’ “Shaw’s Athletic-Minded Women,” Kay Li’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession and the Development of Transnational Chinese Feminism,” and D. A. Hadfield’s “The Energy behind the Anomaly: In Conversation with Jackie Maxwell.” Others reveal occasions when Shaw’s actions did not live up to his feminist ideals, including Lawrence Switzky’s “Shaw and Cruelty,” D. A. Hadfield’s “Writing Women: Shaw and Feminism Behind the Scenes,” Margaret D. Stetz’s “Feminist Politics and the Two Irish ‘Georges’: Egerton versus Shaw,” and Virginia Costello’s “The Passionate Anarchist and Her Idea Man.”
Some of the articles here don’t directly evaluate Shaw’s feminist credentials but simply offer new information about Shaw’s interactions with women of his time. For instance, in his article “Bernard Shaw and the Archbishop’s Daughter,” Leonard Conolly provides an interesting historical narrative of Shaw’s correspondence with Mary Hamilton, a Canadian-born actress whose career Shaw tried to promote. The seven Shaw letters published here, some for the first time, contain some very quotable remarks on acting, writing, marriage, and the Life Force, including this: “Acting and playwriting would be the most senseless of tomfooleries if they were ends in themselves. But as attempts to make sense out of life they are among the most important of human activities” (96, 105).

In the third section, John McInerney’s article “Shaw’s Women in the World” takes an unorthodox approach, producing a sort of double analysis of fictional and real women. His well-developed and wide-ranging article examines a diverse array of Shaw’s female characters—many who have not hitherto received the critical attention they deserve from feminists--and uses literary analysis to provide insights into contemporary politics and sociology, particularly the persistence of a “double bind” (a term McInerney attributes to Kathleen Hall Jamieson) facing women who try to “assume a role or take on a task heretofore reserved for men” (178). More specifically, McInerney analyses Begonia Brown to help us understand the careers of Margaret Thatcher and Sarah Palin; uses Aloysia Brollikins and Mrs. George to help explain Sherry Lansing, (the former head of Paramount Studio); and discusses Saint Joan’s predicament to help us recognize some of Hilary Clinton’s strategies, strengths, and liabilities.

The volume concludes with an updated bibliography of works related to Shaw and women, including both secondary sources by scholars and over 100 works by Shaw on the subjects of women and feminism. Some of the latter are fairly well known to Shaw scholars (e.g. the wonderful “Womanly Woman” chapter in The Quintessence of Ibsenism), but others are probably available only to those with access to specialized archives. Examples of some provocative titles include “The Menace of the Leisured Woman” (Time and Tide 1927), “G. Bernard Shaw talks about Love, Sex, Charles Chaplin, and Why Old Men Don’t Matter!” (Sunday Express 1931), and “Bernard Shaw Extols Divorce” (Globe and Commercial Advertiser 1905). This bibliography points toward another project that would be valuable to Shavians and feminist scholars alike: a volume of these pieces, perhaps simply titled Shaw on Women, as we have, for instance, Shaw on Religion and Shaw on Shakespeare.

Overall, Shaw and Feminisms is a timely and valuable book for scholars in many fields. Although some of these articles might be painful reading for those who want to see Shaw as an unflagging champion of women’s rights, they offer valuable insights into the complex predicament of social reformers who must try to release themselves from the thought-traps of their own societies even as they try to explain the traps to others.  Collectively, these articles help us appreciate Shaw’s continual struggles to deal with the conflict between the personal weaknesses that were exposed in his relations with women and his sincere efforts to improve their conditions.