Letter of reply from Naomi Mitchison, March 1, 1937

Naomi Mitchison to Laura Riding, March 1, 1937, in a letter of response for a request for The World And Ourselves (1938) from National Library of Scotland MSS Acc.9186, folder 1.

Transcribed, from photocopies, by Alan J Clark (5NB, RG8 7PW), 2012-03-10

* March 1 [TLS carbon, 5 sides, double-spaced. Passages in italic below are omitted from The World and Ourselves, 1938 (pp.73-5)]

River Court/ Hammersmith Mall /London.W.6 / 1st March 1937

Dear Laura Riding

I don’t think I’m one of the sort of women you like or approve; in fact I’m sure I’m not. I disagree with several statements in your letter and much of its feeling. Yet I believe that any of us who have good will should co-operate in all possible ways (not merely in our own favourite way) to help one another and the world. So I will try to answer you.

To begin with, I don’t think we can separate life up into “inside” and “outside” as you do. Women are not merely occupied with personal relationships and the conservation of the means of life. That is an archaistic view. It ceased to be valid at about the time when it became cheaper to buy jam than to make it oneself. We have kept away from the “outside” things very largely because we were forcibly kept out of them by our economic position. Our groping attempts towards some feeling of worth-whileness for ourselves, made us say, either that we really ran the outside things from the inside (the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world) or that the outside things weren’t really important, which is what your letter says.

In the capitalist countries, very few of us have attained anything approaching economic equality with men; we have not really been able to move out of the home. We are shy about it, after all these indoor ages. Those of us who have got out are gauche and blinking in the light. That must be what you mean when you say that women politicians become “commonplace and blank”. You say the same thing happens to poets, which reads oddly to me; but I suppose we like different kinds of poetry! I don’t know what I look like to you; I suppose as a woman politician, I must have lost my “peculiar inside virtue”, although I have borne six children. I’m not aware of this loss myself (but then one never is, is one?), but I know I am sexually unattractive to some sorts of men and probably irritate a number of people. Certainly, politics gives me less time to write, but it gives me more to write about, and I don’t think I can see the bird on the bough or the corn in the field any less vividly, and – if I may use the word – poetically than I did.

When you say that “political employments... are intrinsically common-place and blank” I just feel that you don’t begin to know about them. After all, politics is dealing with people and groups of people in relation to one another and their material environment, and what is wrong with that as a living occupation? The moral basis of politics goes down to our deepest roots; politics means danger and beauty, conversion and re-birth. It also means lots of small ordinary things – more dust-bins and bath-rooms for people who haven’t got them, more leisure and more education for people who need them desperately and at the same time it means dealing with old so-and-so’s pension and young what’s-his-name’s affiliation order. I wonder if you haven’t got it all a bit muddled, because old-fashioned American politics – Democrats and Republicans – was unreal, “common-place and blank”. But things have changed even there; I saw something of the local socialists in your own town (aren’t I right?) of Knoxville: they were real.

But isn’t your difficulty that you are looking at the world as though politics were a matter of the emotional behaviour of various people, as though Italian fascism had been caused by the megalomania of Mussolini and his friends, and German Nazi-ism by Hitler’s and Goering’s complexes. Goodness knows I’m not an orthodox Marxist, but there is such a thing as economics! The Mussolinis and the Hitlers and Francos with all their fairy tales and mythologies and cruelties that trail after them, only crop up in a world where breaking down capitalism has to use them in its last horrible struggle to keep things as-they-are.

However, I don’t want to start an “outside” political argument with you and I don’t want you to think that I am necessarily anti-you. You ask me what can be done “from the inside”, so it is no use saying to you that, immediately, we must work within and without political parties to save the world from the day-to-day inroads of fascism and that, ultimately, we must work for international socialism. I believe that the main inside thing to do is to work out of an ethic of love and apply it to all our private actions.

Such of our unhappiness as is not directly political comes from the break-down of the anthropomorphic Christianity of our grandparents. It was bound to break down; the physical sciences were seeing to that. And psychology has found us nothing to put in its place; instead it has tailed off after physics and chemistry, and has developed some peculiar social biasses of its own. But we have got to find some kind of satisfactory social glue to stick ourselves together with. My idea is that this social glue is treating other people as though they were ends and not as though they were means: that is, by love, but not by the binding, blinding kind of love that wants to own other people and make them serve its ends.

You will find something of this kind in Gerald Heard’s The Third Morality, but I think there is an element of defeatism in that which is not necessary; we must re-state it so that it is a fit doctrine for mothers of children. And re-stating intellectually isn’t any good; we have to live differently. This all sounds horribly priggish, I know, but the only “inside” thing we can do is to be centres of a new kind of living (and I think that can be combined with politics!) We are judged not by what we say, but by what we do and are.

Again, there are various practical experiments which the inside person might do – psychological experiments under exact conditions on various methods of perception, for instance. “Inside” people are often sensitive in special ways, and would be splendid subjects for experiment. This may sound trivial, but it needs doing, and only people who are not entangled in outside things can do this kind of work, which may take months or years.

Probably all this is no good to you, but to answer at greater length would mean writing a whole book – I’m trying to write a book on morals now, as a matter of fact. I wish you’d ask one or two other women who’ve had both the inside and the outside life, Storm Jameson for instance (Winifred Holtby would have been the one, but she is dead – leading both kinds of life isn’t very good for one’s body), and see what they say.

In the mean time, my two youngest children are in quarantine for measles, and if they get it my political activities will be somewhat curbed! So now I must go out and canvass St. Peter’s Square (you remember Hammersmith, I expect?) for the L.C.C. elections.