Camila Bassi reviews Liz Millward’s Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937 (2008, McGill-Queen's University Press).
The period of 1922 to 1937 represented significant inter-war development of gendered airspace within the British Empire.
From 1922, when the International Commission on Air Navigation debated the place of women in commercial airspace, to 1937, the year in which the female pilot Jean Batten completed her last long-distance record-breaking flight, the British Empire was at its peak, ruling about one-quarter of the world’s territory. Millward notes:
“The interwar period was a window of possibility for many young white women in the British Empire. The First World War had undermined powerful old certainties. Women who were determined to learn the lessons of the past turned to internationalism, pacifism, nationalism, and fascism as they looked for ways to control the future.”
Millward’s concern is with the contestations of female pilots in producing, defining, and accessing civilian airspace during this time. What’s more, she is interested in how such struggles were bound up with different kinds of airspace: the private, the commercial, the imperial, the national, and the body; that in turn had their own relations of gender, class, race, sexuality, nationalism, and imperialism.
Like many geographers seeking a radical understanding of space, Millward draws on the work of Henri Lefebvre, who wrote that “a revolution which does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses”.
Millward concludes that post-war airspace had the potential to be what Lefebvre coined, capitalist “abstract space” par excellence, specifically, in its commodification, bureaucratisation, and decorporealisation.
In one sense it is a curious application of Lefebvre, given Lefebvre’s focus on the city. Lefebvre denounces capitalist urbanity for its drive to repress play and prioritise productivity and rationality. He also recognises potential within the centrality of the urban, meaning that a whole range of social interactions converge.
For Lefebvre, all people have the right to space, i.e. to access and participate fully in urban life, thus the constraints placed on this possibility by capitalism must be critiqued (Lefebvre, 1991; Shields, 1988). Lefebvre’s interest lies in working out the spatial strategies for social change and, as such, his ideas resonate with the French Situationists (with their slogan of May 1968 “beneath the pavement, the beach”) and Britain’s “Reclaim the Streets” movement of the 1990s.
Millward concludes that notable female pilots modelled achievement and “beat the men”, so, in effect, supported wider feminist struggles and proved that women were part of airspace.
Nonetheless, civilian airspace was naturalised as masculine and had the potential to become abstract space. She ends: “‘To change life,’ writes Lefebvre, ‘we must first change space’. Women pilots tried to do just that.”
Reflecting on the book as a whole, I wonder: what does Millward gain from a poststructuralist feminist approach? Such an approach emphasises the discursive and contingent nature of all identities with particular focus on the construction of gendered subjectivities. This intersectional analysis combines the cultural and economic features of gender, race, sexuality, nationality, and class.
“Capitalism”, “imperialism’”and “class” are given wider definitional scope: capitalism and imperialism as social, cultural, political, and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). So, rather than asking what is gained, perhaps the real question is — what is lost? Actually, rather a lot I think.
In the context of all that is solid melting into air, I cannot help but sense that the book would have been a richer account had the dialectics of the struggles been fully explored. Three aspects of dialectical materialist thinking would have strengthened the study: firstly, looking for the interrelationship between phenomena to other phenomena (past and present, and including apparent opposites); secondly, seeing conditions (and relations) of existence in continual movement; and lastly, comprehending societal processes moving through contradictory tensions.
Moreover, the book missed (or rather, seemed to bypass) the centrality of class and imperialism and its intersection with gender, race, sexuality, and nationalism. I’ll end, before any retort accuses me of crude economic determinism and class reductionism, with the words of Engels (1890):
“If somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase.
“We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions…history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life.
“Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.”
Engels, F (1890) “Engels to J. Bloch”, Marxists Internet Archive
Lefebvre, H (1991) The Production of Space (Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith), Oxford: Blackwell.
Millward, L (2008) Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Shields, R (1988) “An English Précis of Henri Lefebvre’s La Production De L’Espace”, Working Paper, Department of Urban and Regional Studies, University of Sussex