Okay folks, I’m sorry to say it, but it’s gratitude time. Perhaps it’s true that women, and not men, are asked to choose between their families and their careers. Perhaps gender inequality is everywhere — in the courts, in the home, at work, in the media. We can shake our fists at that glass ceiling, we can rail at violence against women, we can bemoan the increasing sexulisation of teenage girls. But on Election Day, we ladies can walk into the polling booth, and then out of it, in peace. We can do this and no one will call us unnatural, sick or grotesque. Debates over abortion and birth control may rage on and sexual assault laws may be improperly enforced, but no one — no one that anyone would ever take seriously — is talking about taking away a woman’s right to vote. No one even talks about it. It’s a given. Isn’t that nice?
One hundred years ago, suffragettes were regarded as freaks by most. Some of the most active were trailed by the secret police. If the detail in this novel is correct, serious politicians seriously recommended giving men the right to flog them in the streets at will, and it is absolutely true that sufragettes imprisoned in Britain, when they went on hunger strikes, were force-fed — a violent and dangerous treatment. The question of universal suffrage was long seen as ludicrous by many, and yet it one day became a reality. I don’t think I appreciated, until I read this book, how difficult that was.
Half of the Human Race is about suffragism, and also about cricket. It documents the fumbling, start-stopping, seemingly hopeless romance between Constance Callaway, a cricket fan, disappointed medical student and crusader for the vote, and Will Maitland, a professional cricketer. The first time they meet, Constance criticizes Will’s cricket game. This nearly stops their acquaintance before it starts, as Will cannot accept a woman as his intellectual equal, especially not on the subject of sport. Constance will not be dominated, and eventually this trait proves as much of an obstacle to their romance as Will’s prejudices, as she comes to believe he will never be happy with a strong and intelligent woman like her.
The story unfolds before, during and after the First World War. Its ending is ambiguous and completely realistic. This charming book has it all: love and death, war and peace, family and exile, secrets, broken promises, old friends. I was utterly engrossed. And I don’t even like cricket.